Stars Over Bali by Bill Dalton

From time immemorial humans have been transfixed by the heavens. The oldest map of the night sky, found in Germany in 1979, is of the Orion constellation carved on a Mammoth tusk over 32,000 years ago. If you’re from non-tropical Asia, Europe or North America, you will see a whole new night sky over Bali. To be sure, all of your old familiar astral friends will still be there parading from east to west across the Southern Hemisphere each night, but the constellations will be in totally different positions.

Under the immensity of Bali’s sparkling night sky, you’ll also be able to view a larger portion of the skies in the Southern Hemisphere than can be viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, though the southern sky is not as populated with as many bright stars as in the north.

You can start stargazing in the early evening in the tropics, as the twilight is very short in the late afternoon and early evening. As its path through the sky at the equator deviates very little throughout the year, the sun lingers only briefly and then drops below the horizon almost immediately after sunset and rises quickly above the horizon at daybreak, respectively at 6 pm and around 6:30 am (depending on the season).

An unusual tropical phenomenon which occurs year round, not visible in the northerly latitudes, is a strange faint glow – a reflection of meteoric dust – called the Zodiacal Light which hovers over the horizon when the sun rises or sets. Stargazing in the countryside of Bali is also unique because of relatively little light pollution, so the background is quite dark. Even in the lower latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, city lights or clouds on the horizon usually obscure many lovely constellations that can be clearly viewed on Bali. The air transparency is remarkably clear in almost any locale outside the Denpasar area.

Since the cloud buildup during Bali’s rainy season (usually November-May) obscures the night firmament, pick a clear moonless evening in the dry season (June-October) when you are more likely be able to view a cloudless night sky. Because the rainy season has lasted unseasonably long this year (2013), the night sky has been obscured, though it has now at last started to clear up (August).

The Stars of the Southern Hemisphere

The brightest star in the Southern Hemisphere is Scorpius. The long, curving tail of this enormous awe-inspiring constellation reaches its fullest height on the meridian in Bali at 8 or 9 pm in July. Just east of Scorpius is the broad spangled band of the Milky Way (called Danu or “lake” in Balinese), stretching across the center of the sky from north to south, packed with scores of brilliant stars.

The prominent North Star of the Northern Hemisphere is conspicuous by its absence over Bali, and there is no equivalent “South Star” to take its place as a distinct marker of the heavens. The North Pole Star is useful for Northern Hemisphere observers as a helpful tool for finding other stars, but here in the Southern Hemisphere the South Pole Star is not visible to the naked eye, though it’s still important because all the southern stars will circle it as the night progresses.

The Big Dipper (called Perahu or “boat” in Balinese) is usually only visible, low and to the north, after 8 or 9 pm from February to June. Orion doesn’t appear until mid-November. Called Tenggala (“the plow”) in Balinese, it lies on its side and more resembles a plow than it does when viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris is out of sight below Bali’s horizon.

Aries, the Ram (called Bengkongor or “the curve” in Balinese) doesn’t make its appearance in Bali until late September. Magnificent Pheiades, the Seven Sisters, does not rise until early October, and Taurus, the Bull, until late October. Taurus is unmistakable because of the fiery red color of its main star Aldeberan, called Suda Malung or “eye of the pig” in Balinese.

What comes as a surprise to people from northern climes, the most striking feature of the southern skies is not The Southern Cross. Known as Crux by astronomers, the Cross can be made out in different positions and at different times in the course of the evening depending on the month of the year. The constellation does not appear very big on Bali as it is dwarfed by Centaurus, the half-man, half-horse Centaur creature of Greek mythology, a huge and sweeping star group.

But The Southern Cross is still quite distinguishable in the southern skies. Consisting of five medium bright stars, the constellation can easily be seen over Bali around 8 or 9 pm between December and August. It will be at its highest, 30 degrees above the horizon, in May at 8 or 9 pm, but will drop below the horizon during August, appearing again in the east in December. In its highest vertical position, the Crux will cover four fingers held at arm’s length.

Once identified, The Southern Cross will remain a constant point of reference around which all stars in the Southern Hemisphere are displayed. If you look west of the Southern Cross, you’ll see two principal constellations – the large rambling Vela, the “sail” on Jason’s mythical ship, and directly below and to the south is Carina, the keel of the seafarer’s ship.

Partial Eclipse of the Sun

During the early morning hours of Friday, 10 May 2013, a “ring of fire” partial eclipse of the sun occurred over much of central and eastern Indonesia, affecting 33 cities and the island of Bali. This strange and wonderful celestial event only occurs during the new moon, when the sun and the moon are in conjunction, i.e. the moon passes between the earth and the sun.

The eclipse was observable from a mere one minute in Pekanbaru to as long as 2 hours and 44 minutes in Jayapura. Visible at dawn, the sun appeared as a dazzling ring against a blood-red sky on Bali for 1 hour and 10 minutes between 6:25 a.m. and 7:35 a.m. local time, obscuring 36% of the sun.

Because solar eclipses have a very narrow path, and Bali is a very small island, total and partial (or “annular”) solar eclipses observable from Bali are extremely rare. Based on astronomical calculations by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), Bali will have to wait until March 20, 2053 to observe a 98% annular solar eclipse.

Animals often react with confusion during an eerie eclipse of the sun and the strange 200-kilometer-wide shadow it casts, with its change in light and slight drop in temperature. There have been reports of Christian missionaries working in Indonesia’s far eastern province of Papua using their foreknowledge of a total eclipse of the sun to achieve spectacular mass conversions among native Papuans. It’s very possible that ancient Balinese considered a solar eclipse a sign of impending doom.

The Balinese Calendar

Indigenous Balinese calendars usually start the year with the vernal equinox (March on the Gregorian calendar). Temple birthdays (odalan)
, a commonplace event throughout Bali, occur frequently at regular, scheduled intervals, but major festivals not only change from year to year, but from month to month within a specific year if viewed through the Gregorian calendar.

The main problem with trying to keep up with Balinese holidays and festivals is that there are three different yet parallel calendrical systems in use. Tacked up side by side on the wall, each calendar is referred to simultaneously to keep track of festivals in progress and plan for upcoming events.

One system is based on the Indian saka year, which determines the dates of festivals in the non-Javanized parts of the island. Several major Hindu temples still celebrate their anniversaries according to this Sanskrit-based calendar. Calculated from new moon to new moon, the saka calendar is divided into 12 months (sasih) of 29-30 days each. This system most closely follows the Gregorian year in terms of length.
Another system is the pawukon calendar cycle, imposed on Bali by the Majapahit conquerors and based on the so-called Javano-Balinese wuku year that has 30 weeks of seven days, the year totaling 210 days. In the 16th century, the saka calendar of Hindu Java and 30-week Balinese pawukon calendar were combined into the intricate schedule of religious ceremonies that exists today.

Based on the movements of the seven visible planets and the occurrence of the island’s three-day markets, each frame of the calendar depict activities that are auspicious to carry out on that particular day. Especially powerful days occur when the dates from Bali’s two indigenous calendars intersect. Also significant are those days which precede the night of the full moon (purnama) or at the end a month with no moon (tilem).

Balinese Astrology

Some of the earliest traditional paintings produced by the Balinese were astrological calendars (pelelintangan), examples of which exist in the island’s museums. Ancient palm-leaf manuscripts (lontar) recorded astronomical events such as accounts of lunar and solar eclipses. Though there are no astronomy clubs on Bali, much less an observatory, the movement of the sun (Surya), moon (Candra) and stars (Bintang) play a weighty role in the Balinese religion.

Balinese astrology is based on the Balinese calendar, each day represented by a symbol in the form of a deity, tree, bird or animal. It’s considered auspicious to worship the deity appropriate to the day on which you were born. For example, keeping a cat is particularly lucky for people born on a Thursday.

Balinese calendars are used to read horoscopes, widely consulted by priests in making decisions and planning ritual events, fixing the most propitious days for planting, getting married, holding a cremation, opening a restaurant, constructing a house and organizing a gathering for some celebration or social function.

On the back of I. B. Suparta Ardhana’s Balinese calendar, a whole three pages are devoted to astrological readings determining a person’s character (watak) according to date of his or her birth. One page shows the Western signs of the Zodiac. Details of the Chinese, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic calendars are also included so that this pawukon calendar is truly international.

Heroes named after stars are found in the Hindu Mahabarata epic, the names of prominent stars are recited in the mantras of pedanda (priests), lamak cut out in the shape of stars are used in offerings. A comet (Bintang Kuskus) is said to have appeared at the death of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president who was half-Balinese. As a symbol of Yama, the God of Death, comets were sighted before the mass killings of communists on Bali and also before the puputan massacres in Karangasem and Klungkung by the Dutch.

Some old farmers continue to garden by taking note of Moon cycles and consult the Tika, an ancient mathematical calendrical system, to decide the most auspicious days for planting and harvesting rice. If the Kite Star (Herdsman) constellation is still visible, it means it’s almost daybreak. Some agrarian ceremonies – such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga – take place once every 10 years after proper astronomical calculations. Balinese fishermen use different stars at night throughout the year to navigate and anticipate tidal patterns. The Pleiades constellation (Bintang Muwung) determines the north-south direction, and when Canopus (lomba-lomba or “porpoise”) is rising it means that the winds will blow strongly from the southeast.

Though only a tiny island out of 17,000 other islands in a remote archipelago on a small planet in orbit around a minor star on the edge of an insignificant galaxy, the readings of the stars still play a significant role in Balinese daily life.

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