Marking Time
by Diana Darling

It's (yet another) new year-but only according to one of a number calendar systems consulted by Indonesians. The nation's Muslims and ethnic Chinese also have calendar systems of their own, and the Javanese and Balinese have several. No doubt there are others, too, in this vast archipelago which have not yet been ensnared by Google. 

Time. We live in swarms of it. We go to our wits' end to make sense of it.

We think of a life in terms of it, as in the 'get born - get to live - have to die' notion of individual existence. Between those modes, we experience time subjectively. When we ourselves have to give birth or face death, suddenly existence seems immediate and unique. Being in love also plays havoc with time: an hour can be as endless as an empty highway or as quick as a gasp. Clocks and calendars provide objective standards for societies to organize the practical matters of life, such as when to plant rice or when to start wondering if you're pregnant or when to catch a plane. Some calendar systems will also advise you when to start dancing lessons or make a fishing net or cut grass for the roof of your house.

Unattainably heavenly
Almost all systems of measuring time originate in observable rhythms in the natural world-the movements of the earth, the sun and the moon. Most calendar systems-of which there are some forty in use today-can be divided into whether they use the sun or the moon as their guiding light.

This is because these two (apparent) rhythms are unrelated. A purely solar calendar (such as the familiar Gregorian one) is based on the cycle of seasons during the year that it takes for the earth to go around the sun, and has no relation to the cycles of the moon. A purely lunar calendar (such as the Muslim calendar) is based on the cycle of the moon's rotation around the earth, and is not tied to the seasonal cycle. 

A tropical year is measured from one fixed point in the solar cycle-such as an equinox or a solstice-to the next, currently 365.242190 days (although these days are getting incrementally shorter over the centuries). A synodic month is the time from one new moon to the next. This is currently 29.5305889 days, but getting incrementally longer.

Some calendar systems (such as the Chinese calendar and the Hebrew calendar) are based on astronomical calculations that attempt to account for both rhythms. Others (such as the Javanese and Balinese Pawukon calendars) are entirely rule based, with no relation to either the sun or the moon. 

Indonesia uses the Gregorian calendar, of course, to order its everyday affairs in accordance with most of the rest of the world; but it also maintains other more culturally specific calendars to keep track of metaphysical matters. Indonesians remain affectionately, even passionately, attached to their holy days. There are many. Here is how they keep track of them.

The Islamic (Hijri) calendar
This is surely the most broadly based alternative calendar system in this country where the great majority of people consider themselves Muslim. This purely lunar calendar has twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days, which begin on the sighting of the first crescent moon. 

Although the astronomical new moon can be calculated, the Islamic calendar requires that the new month begin when the crescent moon is sighted by an actual person at a given locale. Natural factors such as cloudy weather can influence the exact moment that a month begins. Thus the Islamic calendar cannot be precisely forecast. 

The Hijri calendar dates from the year 638 of the Common Era (CE), and takes its name from the Hijrah, a crucial event in the history of Islam, when the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. The twelve months of the Hijri calendar, with important holy days are as follows: 

Twelve lunar months of twenty-nine to thirty days make a lunar year with an average of 355 days. The following formulas are used to convert between the Hijri year and the Gregorian year:

Hijri Calendar
Month Important holy days
1 Muharram ul Haram 1st: Islamic New Year
2 Safar  
3 Rabi-ul-Awwal  
4 Rab-ul-Akhir  
5 Jamadi-ul-Awwal  
6 Jamadi-ul-Akhir  
7 Rajab 27th: Isra & Mirah
8 Sha'aban  
9 Ramadhan 1st: First day of fasting
17rh: Nuzul Al-qur'an
Last ten days, which include Laylatu al-Qadar
10 Shawwal 1st: Idul Fitri
11 Dhul Qadah  
12 Dhul Hijja 10th: Idul Adha
12th: Dhul Hijjab-10: the Hajj to Mecca

G = H ( (3 x H) / 100 ) + 622
H = G ( (G - 622) / 32 ) - 622

Thus, (most of) the year 2004 CE is 1425 H.

The Chinese calendar 
This is a soli-lunar calendar (yin-yang li), which tries to account for both the tropical year and the synodic month, with the year beginning with the new moon near the winter solstice. 

A year in the Chinese calendar has twelve months, with a leap year of thirteen months. If there are thirteen new moons from the beginning of month containing the winter solstice to the same point in the following year, then a leap year must be inserted. Thus a twelve-month year has 353, 354, or 355 days; a leap year has 383, 384, or 385 days. 

The solar year is plotted in accordance with the sun's longitude at specific stages of its cycle. In the West, four such points are commonly observed, indicating spring, summer, autumn and winter:

But the Chinese solar year takes account of all points in which the sun's longitude is a multiple of 30:

Years are counted in 60-year cycles. Each year has a name that is composed of terms from two smaller cycles of differing length. The first cycle, called the Celestial Stem, has ten terms:

The sun's longitude at fixed points
in the tropical year
At the vernal equinox 0
At the summer solstice: 90
At the autumnal equinox: 180
At the winter solstice: 270


The sun's longitude at the Principal Terms
in the Chinese Year*
Principal Term 1 330
Principal Term 2 0
Principal Term 3 30
Principal Term 11 270
Principal Term 12 330
*Calculated from the 120th meridian east of Greenwich  

The second is the familiar twelve-year zodiacal cycle:
According to, where these charts are borrowed from, "each of the two components is used sequentially." 

1 jia 6 ji
2 yi 7 geng
3 bing 8 xing
4 ding 9 ren
5 wu 10 gui


1 zi (rat) 7 wu (horse)
2 chou (ox) 8 wei (sheep)
3 yin (tiger) 9 shen (monkey)
4 mao (hare, rabbit) 10 you (rooster)
5 chen (dragon) 11 xu (dog)
6 si (snake) 12 hai (pig)

Thus, the 1st year of the 60-year cycle becomes jia-zi, the 2nd year is yi-chou, the 3rd year is bing-yin, etc. When we reach the end of a component, we start from the beginning: The 10th year is gui-you, the 11th year is jia-xu (restarting the Celestial Stem), the 12th year is yi-hai, and the 13th year is bing-zi (restarting the Terrestrial Branch). Finally, the 60th year becomes gui-ha.

Oracle bones dating from the Shang Dynasty (c.1800 - 1200 BCE) show that Chinese astronomers were already able at this early date to calculate a solar year of 365 days and a lunar month of 29 days. 

The Javanese calendars
In the centers of the old Hindu kingdoms throughout Java, one still finds traces of pre-Islamic calendars: the Saka calendar of twelve months; and the rule-based cycles referred to as Pawukon. These are especially important to those who still practice the old Kejawen beliefs.

Although the Saka calendar is far more commonly used in Bali than in Java, we reproduce here a Javanese version (published on because of its poetic description of the seasons. The dates given were for an earlier year and should be read as approximate.

The five-day Pasaran cycle is based on the old system of holding farmers' markets in a rotating network once every five days. The day's are: Legi, Paing, Pon, Wage, Kliwon-names that are reflected in present-day permanent markets in Central Java, such as Pasar Kliwon.

The Javanese Seasonal Cycle 
Starts Season Days Literary Description
Jun 23 1 Kaso 41 The dry season; leaves are falling from the trees; the ground is withered
and arid, bereft of water "like a jewel that has come free of its setting."
Aug 3 2 Karo 23 The dry season; parched earth lies in hard clumps; the mango
and cotton trees begin to bloom.
Aug 26 3 Katelu 23 The dry season; spice roots are harvested;
the gadung tree begins to bear fruit.
Sep 19 4 Kapat 25 Rain begins to fall, as "tears well up in the soul", marking the end
of the dry season; birds are singing and busily constructing nests.
The Labuh Season is at hand.
Oct 14 5 Kalima 27 The rainy season, sometimes with fierce winds and flooding; mangoes are
ripe; snakes are driven from their nests; "a fountain of gold falls
across the earth".
Nov 11 6 Kanem 43 The rainy season, sometimes with fierce winds and flooding; mangoes are
ripe; snakes are driven from their nests; "a fountain of g old falls
across the earth".
Dec 23 7 Kapitu 43 The rainy season is at its peak; birds are hard pressed to find food,
and in many areas there is severe flooding.
Feb 4/5 8 Kawolu 27 The rainy season; rice fields are growing and the cat is looking for
his mate; grubs and larvae abound.
Mar 2 9 Kasanga 25 The rainy season; rice fields are turning yellow; "happy news is spreading";
water is stored within the earth, the wind blows in one direction,
and many fruits are ripe.
Mar 27 10 Kasadasa 24 Rain yet falls, but is diminishing; the wind rustles and blows hard; the air
is still chilly. The Mareng Season is at hand.
Apr 20 11 Desta 23 The dry season has begun; farmers are har vesting the rice fields;
birds tend their young with affection, as if they were "jewels of the hear t".
May 13 12. Saddha 21 The dry season; water begins to recede, "vanishing from its many places".

The Pasaran cycle coincides with the seven-day week: Senin, Selasa, Rebo, Kemis, Jumat, and Setu. This creates two-termed days, beginning with Senin Legi, giving a cycle that takes thirty-five days (7 x 5 = 35) to complete. These double-barreled days are called weton. The weton on which one is born is thought to influence one's personal traits, and it is customary for Javanese to celebrate their weton with a slametan ceremony once every thirty-five days. There are also mystical values associated with the days of the wetonan cycle, with certain days being favorable for particular activities. The eve of Jumat Kliwon, for example, is considered especially auspicious for magical or spiritual matters, such as paying homage at the tombs of wise men. 

The Javanese also use a lunar calendar. The Wulan ('moon') calendar is similar to the Hijra calendar, with twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days. 
1 Sura
2 Sapar
3 Mulud
4 Bakdamulud
5 Jumadilawal
6 Jumadilakir
7 Rejeb
8 Ruwah
9 Pasa
10 Sawal
11 Sela
12 Besar

The first day of Sura, the start of the Javanese New Year, is a day for purifying the self and cleansing sacred heirloom objects (pusaka). On the eve of 1 Sura, many Javanese bathe in holy springs and spend the entire night in meditation.

The Javanese calendar is also unique in for its Windu cycle of eight years: 

Windu Year Days
1 Alip 354
2 Ehe 355
3 Jimawal 354
4 Je 355
5 Dal 354
6 Be 354
7 Wawu 354
8 Jimakir 355
Total 2835

Ehe, Je, and Jimakir are leap years. In these years, an extra day is added to the twelfth month, Besar. This contrasts with the Hijri calendar, which adds one day to the twelfth month in eleven of every thirty years.

In an article entitled 'Javanese Calendar and its Significance to Mystical Life' by Suryo S. Negoro published on, we find the following elucidation:

1. Purwana/Alip means: ada-ada (starting a wish/initiative) 
2. Karyana/Ehe means: tumandang (make) 
3. Anama/Jemawal means: gawe (work) 
4. Lalana/Je means: lelakon (process, fate) 
5. Ngawanga/Dal means: urip (life) 
6. Pawaka/Be means: bola-bali (always return) 
7. Wasana/Wawu means: marang (to the direction) 
8. Swasana/Jimakir means: suwung (void) 

"The 8 years compose a sentence: ada-ada tumandang gawe lelakon urip bola-bali marang suwung means: 'It starts by making activities for the process of life, it always returns to void.' The word year in Javanese Tahun means seed (wiji in Javanese). The 8 years explain the process of wiji, always return to void (suwung) i.e., born - died. Born - died, always rotating." 

The Balinese calendars
Hindu Bali has often been promoted as a 'living museum' of classical Javanese culture. The idea is no longer fashionable; but if one looks at the infamously complicated Balinese calendar system, it is clear that it owes much to the Javanese. 

Like Java, Bali uses both the Saka calendar and a Pawukon calendar. The Balinese Saka months are almost identical to those of the Javanese Saka calendar, with some slight variations of spelling. It does not count years in Windu, but in accord with the Gregorian calendar, minus 78. In this sense it is a solar calendar. 

The months (sasih) are lunar, however. They have 30 days, counted 1 - 15 penanggal from the new moon to the full moon (called purnama), and then 1 - 15 panglong from the day after the full moon to the dark of the moon (called tilem). But because the lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, every three years another month is added at the end of the sixth or seventh month, so that the new year-which begins on the new moon of the ninth month-always falls around the spring equinox. Thus the Balinese Saka calendar is lunisolar, following the seasons. 

Nyepi, first day of the Saka year, is a most conspicuous holiday in Bali, and unique to the island. (It is widely described in the tourist literature, so we won't talk about it here.) Other points in the Saka year are also significant for religious holidays. The full moon is an auspicious time for the temple anniversary festivals called odalan, when a temple's particular deities are invited to descend and receive homage through offerings. The full moons Purnama Kedasa and Purnama Kapat are especially exalted-perhaps because they form the parentheses of the most benign season in Bali, between April and October, when the weather is cool and clear-and this is when many of the island's most important temples hold their odalan

At the opposite side of the year, purification ceremonies (melasti) are held in the sixth month, around December or January. And on the longest, darkest night of the year, on the dark of the moon before the seventh month is Siwalatri, the 'night of Shiva'.

For more mundane matters, the Balinese make frequent use of a cyclical calendar that seems also to be of Javanese origin. But there are differences in current practice. 

In Bali, the market cycle is three days, rather than five. So the Balinese refer not only to the five- and seven-day cycles referred to above, but also to a three-day cycle: Pasah, Gunung Tegeh, and Kajeng. As in the Javanese Pasaran system, all three different cycles are turning simultaneously, forming particular conjunctions. In fact, in the Balinese system there are not three cycles (or wara), but ten. They comprise one to ten days, and each day has a name. (This is the small print that fills up the individual dates on a Balinese print calendar.) 

All these wara complete a cycle of 210 days, in 30 seven-day weeks, or wuku, from which comes the term Pawukon. These wuku also have names, and they derived from a lively myth about incest, Watugunung. While Javanese observe their weton once every thirty-five days, Balinese observe their oton, which occurs once every 210 days-the day of their birth in terms of the five-day and the seven-day conjunction in particular wuku; for example, Soma Pon Kelawu. 

This conjunction of the five- and seven-day wara in a wuku generate many important nodes which require special offerings, or which are particularly lucky (or unlucky) for specific activities. To keep track of these, the Balinese devised the ingenious chart called the tika, pictured here. As an artifact, the tika is a supreme example of a rule-based calendar. Having no relation at all to celestial movements, it never needs adjusting and remains forever stable. One has only to carve it into a piece of wood, and it is permanently useful.

Although tika vary in their codes and even in the particular wara they illustrate, several important conjunctions are almost always included: Kajeng Kliwon (a three- and five-day conjunction) and Saniscara Kliwon, which is called a tumpek. There are six tumpek in the 30 week / 210 day cycle, falling in the weeks Landep, Wariga, Kuningan, Krulut, Uye, and Wayang, and these are special days for giving offerings to particular classes of things of value. For example, Tumpek Landep is for honoring metal objects; Tumpek Uye, for livestock; Tumpek Wayang for musical instruments. 

Given the animistic underpinnings of Balinese Hinduism with its emphasis on ritual-and the fact that until recently it was almost entirely an agricultural society-it is not surprising that the alternative calendars remain important to daily life in Bali. Indeed, the old strain of rice grown in Bali has a growth cycle of 210 days; and-until the Green Revolution of the 1970s- the Pawukon calendar used to be a reference tool for coordinating planting cycles among the subak water-sharing associations. 

Still, as it was pointed out by the people at www.babadbali (to whom we are grateful for much of the information here), there is an indisputably archaic ring to the sort of divinatory advice being handed out, year after year, in Bali's printed calendar:

It's a pity that the Balinese calendar goes only this far. There is nothing of interest here for young people in Bali. There ought to be an update. It tells us things like: a good day to pierce the nose of your water buffalo; a good day to put rice in the rice barn, and so forth. Even though these things have almost nothing to do with life today, they keep appearing in the calendar, just like in the old lontar books.

What we need is informed divinatory advice about a good date to reformat your hard disk, start a mailing list, tune your carburetor, change the filter on your air-conditioner or your car-or a good day to start exporting a new product; things like that. Isn't this the kind of 'ajeg Bali [Bali upright] that will create a buzz?

They have a point.

Diana Darling is the Editor of Latitudes.

The image of the Balinese tika is reproduced from Un Autre Temps: les calendriers tika de Bali by Georges Breguet and Jean Couteau, Somogy Editions d’Art, Paris (2002).


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