Fruits For The Goddess: A Balinese Ode To Saraswati
Image Credit: Banten Gebogan is offered to the Dewi | Instagram -

Indians aren't the only ones who have a thriving tradition of Saraswati Puja. Hindu communities in Indonesia, especially the populace of Bali, observe very similar customs and rituals. In Bali, Hari Raya Saraswati is observed every 210 days (as per the Balinese calendar). Much like in Indian depictions of the goddess, Balinese religious art portrays Dewi Saraswati as a beautiful four-armed  woman, seated on a swan. In her hands, she holds a stringed instrument, prayer beads, a lotus flower, and a lontar — the traditional Indonesian palm manuscript.

For students, Hari Raya Saraswati takes on tremendous significance because she is after all, the goddess of knowledge and learning. Boys and girls go to school wearing traditional clothes; they sing and dance; pray; and make offerings to the Dewi. The older girls wear elaborate ornamental headdresses as they lead troupes in dance. Sacred water is sprinkled over the assembled students and in various parts of the school premises. It is customary for students to place their books and other materials, including ceremonial lontar, before Dewi Saraswati for her blessings. The books are only taken back at the end of the day. 

While a variety of offerings are presented to the Dewi on this day, the most impressive sight is possibly the "Banten Gebogan". These are tall, elaborately arranged towers of fresh fruits and flowers. The Banten Gebogan could be as many as seven or eight layers high, with each tapering "storey" comprising fruits of varying sizes stacked one on top of the other: large green mangoes and yellow bananas as the base, followed by deep red apples, oranges and compact papayas, and then clusters of sweet purple grapes. The very top of the tower is crowned with bunches of flowers. A richly embellished container — rather like a giant's goblet in appearance — is what the fruit and flower tower rests on. The whole construction is delicate yet sturdy (the prescribed height is anywhere between 50 to 100 cm), and makes for a very aesthetically pleasing scene as women balance these atop their heads on their way to the temple or worship ceremony. 

Not everyone is able to make an offering as large as the Banten Gebogan. Thus, they may prefer the smaller and simpler Banten Sodaan — a dakshina that contains only a few fruits and "Canang Sari" — brightly coloured flowers placed within folded leaves of the coconut palm.

Dodols are eaten during the festivities | Instagram - @_xitt_kodi_

With its tropical climate, Bali is known for its range of fresh fruit, so these don't just make it into ceremonial offerings like the Banten Sodaan or Banten Gebogan but are also consumed in copious quantities by tourists and locals alike. Other Balinese sweets that make an appearance on festive occasions like Hari Raya Saraswati are kue kukus (sweet sticky rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk, served with fresh grated coconut and black sugar), bubur (black rice pudding made with coconut milk and palm sugar), and dodols (rice flour mixed with melted palm sugar and fruit, steamed then wrapped in the dried outer leaves of a corncob, similar to a tamale).

At the end of the day, once the festivities are complete, students read a little from the books they had placed at the altar. They seek blessings from their elders, partake of the delicious festive spread, and eagerly await the next major celebration.