Flowers and Gods: A Lesson in Canang Sari

Our teacher sits on a bamboo mat as her head is bowed in thoughtful concentration. She’s surrounded by bunches of hydrangeas and frangipanis, and streams of coconut leaves and stems. She wields an ancient knife; its jagged blade cuts out seamless, intricate patterns from the coconut leaves that will be later folded and woven into little baskets.

Balinese Hindus pray multiple times a day at shrines either at home or their local pura or temple. These shrines are adorned with canang sari, offerings, filled with flowers and topped with either food or money as a sign of gratitude. Ancestral and local spirits, both good and bad, are worshipped to maintain harmony and balance both in this life and beyond. All objects in daily life are said to house spirits, and it’s not uncommon to see these offerings placed on the ground where evil spirits may linger.

She hands me the leaves with a modest smile, and motions me to fold them. She then passes over thin sticks and instructs me to thread the sticks through the leaves like needles. She snaps the sticks into little pins. I thread the pins clumsily through the leaves yet they snap under my untrained and heavy-handed force. I thread another and the same thing happens – snap! Luckily for me, my teacher inspects my handicraft – or rather, my lack of – and makes adjustments only she knows are needed.

She fills my wonky basket with some of the flowers sitting beside her. As she adds each flower, she calls out the name of three gods; a trilogy of Hindu gods that are manifestations of the supreme spirit Sanghyang Widhi. She sweetly recites the names with her head bent to the side with admiration, kindness and compassion – Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu.

In a painstaking hour, I manage to help my teacher prepare three offerings yet I’m told that she makes up to 30 a day. In broken English, she tells me that she prays three times a day – morning, noon and night. She prays for good life and for her family among other things. She decorates my offerings with smaller blooms and smears a fragrant oily jelly across the stems, announcing the conclusion of her instruction.

My canang sari is destined for a pura a few hours’ drive away tomorrow. Whether mine can stand alongside the polished ones expertly prepared by local women is yet to be determined. Though I’m sure my offering, in all its rough readiness, will be accepted with appreciation by the gods above.

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