James Bennett explores the significance of the Balinese Star calendar
An aspiration shared by people the world over is the ability to predict the future, and the recently acquired Star calendar (plintangan), gifted by Max Carter, AO, is a unique Balinese perspective on divining the future. Star calendar predicts the likely temperament of a person born on a particular day, but it is also consulted to determine the correct religious offerings required to alleviate any sickness or misfortune a person might experience. This particular style of almanac, known as Pawukon, is just one of several complex calendrical systems still used on the island of Bali for reckoning a variety of important matters, such as auspicious dates for Hindu festivals and ceremonies.
Star calendar is based on a combination of the Balinese five- and seven-day week. Hence, it is divided into thirty- five squares, with the various characters and scenes in each square depicting the thirty-five constellations that are said to influence a person’s birth. Nevertheless, the actual location of each star (lintang) in the sky is not identified in Balinese cosmology, in contrast to European astrological calculations. For the Balinese, ‘reading the stars’ is not based on calculating the relationship of celestial bodies to the houses of the Zodiac as in Western and Islamic astrology; rather, it is based on cross-referencing an individual’s birth date with the Pawukon two-week cycles depicted on Star calendar. Along the top, left and bottom borders of the painting is the god or goddess, shadow puppet character, tree, bird or animal and demonic spirit that suggest the qualities associated with a person’s birth on any one of the thirty-five days.
The painting is a remarkable visual encyclopaedia of Balinese life and folklore in the period immediately prior to the Dutch invasion of the island. Although the symbols for each day are determined by the calendrical system, the artist has imbued the square vignettes with a unique personal interpretation. The human figures are all depicted as sudra lower-caste persons, this artistic licence enabling the introduction of humour and satire to an extent that would not have been possible with depictions of gods or aristocrats and priestly persons. Foreigners also appear, as in the symbol for the star sign, ‘Full Boat’. In this example, a ship overloaded with Chinese, whose commercial presence on the island was expanding at the time the painting was created, threatens to sink under the weight of the human cargo. The abandonment of the sea journey suggests that a person born on this day readily becomes ill and hence is often unable to proceed with their plans.
Nevertheless, the complex nature of the imagery of Star calendar means that it cannot always be literally interpreted. Only a highly erudite Hindu priest possesses the ability to fully divine the significance of the symbols for each particular birth date for an enquiring client. The painting, which is a rare surviving example of the ancient use of bark cloth in Balinese painting, is in a rectangular form known as tabing. The dimensions of the tabing indicate that this work of art was intended for ceremonial display in a temple pavilion during religious festivals rather than for the purposes of practical astrological consultation on a daily basis. Star calendar’s presence in such an august setting would have been intended to connect the devotee to the unseen world of the Balinese cosmos and the forces that some believe play such an important role in determining our daily lives.
James is Curator of Asian Art at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 37.