Bali Culture 101: the Basis of the Island's Temples & Rhythm

Balinese girl in formal dress, Ubud, Bali

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Foreign conquerors and visitors may come and go, but Bali’s culture remains. For almost a thousand years, the native Balinese have followed a unique form of Hinduism, now known as Agama Hindu Dharma: a direct descendant of the religion brought to Bali by visiting Hindu gurus.

The rhythms of the Balinese religious calendar dictate island-wide days of obligation, temple-specific feast days, and daily personal rituals that connect every native Balinese to their families, communities, ancestors and gods. The religious needs of the populace ensures the preservation and continued popularity of thousands of temples and altars all around the island, ranging in size from simple family shrines to the “Mother Temple”, the Pura Besakih on Gunung Agung. And you’ll find their myths re-enacted in Balinese dances all over the island.

The strong link between the Balinese and their religion ensures that Bali retains a unique identity among Southeast Asia’s island destinations. Thanks in no small part to its unique culture, Bali has successfully resisted (to some degree) the commercialization and homogenization suffered by islands like Boracay in the Philippines or Phuket in Thailand. Balinese temples, dances, and ceremonies define the Bali tourist experience as much as its beaches or its surfing.

Editor’s Note: This overview of Balinese culture is best seen as a summary, not an in-depth look (Balinese culture is far too involved and complex to be covered in a single article!).

For further reading on Balinese culture, I recommend a very well-written series of articles for beginners, hosted by Murni’s in Ubud. Do read them if you want to go beyond the barest outline that I’ve just presented here.

01 of 11

Balinese Religion: Hinduism with an Animistic Twist

Balinese women carrying offerings to a cremation ceremony.
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Balinese culture is founded on the main tenets of Hinduism; Balinese belief corresponds in many ways to Hinduism as practiced in the Indian subcontinent.

The Balinese, like their Indian Hindu co-religionists, believe in the trimurti of Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu) and Siwa (Shiva), as well as other minor deities and spirits in the Hindu pantheon. (The Balinese believe the gods simply represent individual aspects of one God, whom they call Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa.) The great Hindu epics - the Mahabharata and the Ramayana - are equally revered in Bali.

Distinctively, the Agama Hindu Dharma adopts the animism and ancestor worship common throughout Southeast Asia. For the Balinese, the walls separating the gods, people, and spirits are very porous; after all, what are we but reincarnated spirits who have lived before, and will live again?

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02 of 11

The Balinese and Their Relationship With the Universe

Boy in ceremonial dress praying, Pura Maksan Temple at Tejakula, Bali.
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The individual, in the Balinese universe, is just one part of a greater whole. Individuals form a “microcosm” (bhuwana alit), a part of the greater “macrocosm” (bhuwana agung), which is encompassed by the Supreme God (Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa). To live as a Balinese is to strive to keep these three in equilibrium.

This seeking after balance, explains Luh Ketut Suryani, is the central concept that influences and motivates Balinese culture and daily life: Suryani calls this “Tri Hita Karana.”

“According to the Tri Hita Karana concept, the Balinese believe that one's soul is involved in illness and that they will become vulnerable to illness if these three factors are not in equilibrium,” explains Suryani in his book The Balinese people: a Reinvestigation of Character, coauthored with Gordon D. Jensen. “Tri Hita Karana is a way of life for the Balinese people and it makes an equilibrium in their daily-lives. Therefore, in order to understand and improve Balinese culture, one should refer to this concept.”

It’s an equilibrium that seeks to balance one’s obligations with others, with the ancestors, and with the gods. After all, no Balinese is an island: he is bound by ties of obligation to a multitude of social groups, beginning with his family and continuing to his community, his temple, his rice growing group (subak), and even the spirits of his departed ancestors!

This means that the Balinese has a wide and flexible network of support that he can draw from in times of need, and that will count on whatever help he can offer in return. In contrast, banishment is the worst punishment one can deliver to a Balinese.

This is part of the reason why Christian missionaries found it so difficult to gain headway in Bali in the early 20th century: Christian converts were declared dead to their village, and for many Balinese, that was worse than death itself. (source)

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03 of 11

The Geography of the Balinese Spirit World

Balinese arriving at Pura Besakih, Bali.
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Balinese gods and spirits do not exist in some ambiguous vacuum - the Balinese believe that they occupy the top rung in a three-tiered universe, as proposed by the ancient Hindu/Buddhist concept of trailokya (Wikipedia entry on trailokya). In Balinese triloka (as the concept is known on the island):

  • Spirits and gods live in swah, the upper world.
  • Flesh-and-blood people live in bwah, the middle world.
  • Demons live in bhur, the lower world.

The holiest religious sites are built in places corresponding to swah, like mountains or hills. It's no coincidence that the holiest temple on the island, Pura Besakih, is located on the slopes of Bali's highest peak, and indeed the direction of Gunung Agung serves as a geographical marker for holiness in Balinese culture. (Read more about Bali's temples.)

Villages tend to have three temples, which follow the placement of swah, bwah, and bhur - for instance, the cemetery is placed next to the pura dalem, the temple of death, which is located at the lowest point of the village, corresponding to bhur.

Balinese carry over this up-down spiritual geography to their attitudes toward the human body. The head corresponds to swah, which is why it's considered extremely bad manners to touch anybody's head in Bali. The feet, similarly, correspond to bhur, which is why it's just as offensive to touch people with your feet in Bali. (More information here: Etiquette Tips for Travelers in Bali, Indonesia.)

North and east are similarly associated with swah; Balinese orient their beds so their heads point in those directions.

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04 of 11

Paying a Spiritual Debt in Balinese Culture

Woman praying at temple bath, Bali.
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The Balinese believe that people are born with three kinds of debt, or Tri Rna, which they must pay down throughout their lives:

  • They owe their lives to God - a debt known as Dewa Rna
  • They owe love and acts of devotion to their living elders and the spirits of their departed ancestors - a debt known as Pitra Rna
  • They owe a debt of knowledge to the priestly class - a debt known as Rsi Rna

The ceremonies performed by the Balinese throughout their lives are means of payment. By undergoing rites of passage (Manusa Yadnya), observing temple anniversaries (sacrifice to the gods, also called Dewa Yadnya), and paying respect to elders both living and dead (Pitra Yadnya), the average Balinese person pays down their spiritual debt, in the hopes that they will be honored by the gods and their descendants after they pass on to the next life.

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05 of 11

Balinese Weddings: a Community Affair

Balinese preparing for a traditional wedding ceremony.
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Consider the Manusa Yadnya: these neverending series of ceremonials begin when one is in the womb, and continue throughout life until one’s death. For prosperous Balinese, the achievement of some of these rites of passage calls for major spectacle.

Balinese weddings (nganten) call for the whole community to get involved. Elaborate courtship rituals must be conducted between both families, and the village heads will get their own word in. A whole sequence of rituals must be performed at the family shrines of both households and the village temple before a couple may be considered man and wife; it's no surprise that the whole sequence may take years to complete!

(Less patient Balinese couples can - and often do - resort to elopement, speeding up the whole process. The result, however, is the same.)

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06 of 11

Balinese Cremation: Passing On to the Next Life

A Balinese Hindu cremation ceremony
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Because the Balinese believe that death frees the soul for reincarnation, an elaborate cremation ceremony – the ngaben – helps free the soul to inhabit the upper world. Another ceremony – the mamukur – allows the ancestor to reincarnate as one of its descendants. Death, for the Balinese, is only another step in a cycle that returns the soul back to earth as a human being… but only if the rituals are performed just right.

During ngaben, the body is placed in a bull-shaped sarcophagus, then put atop a cremation tower and burned, accompanied by barong dances and elaborate sacrifices to the gods. The pomp involved in a typical ngaben makes it one of the most expensive rituals in the Balinese playbook, so many poorer Balinese are forced to make group ngaben arrangements.

Most Balinese don’t even bother with the absolute last ceremony, the seaside ritual called mamukur: performed correctly, mamukur releases the spirit with finality, freeing it to reincarnate in the body of a newborn descendant.

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07 of 11

Balinese Calendars: Nyepi and the Saka Calendar

An ogoh-ogoh effigy is borne through a street in Bali on Nyepi eve.
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To schedule all these rites of passage and other obligations, the Balinese simultaneously follow two separate and different calendars: Saka, a lunar calendar broken down into 12 months of 30 days each, and Pawukon, a calendar with only 30 weeks.

Saka was borrowed from ancient India, and takes its year zero (and its name) from the defeat of the Saka by the Indian Satavahana king Gautamiputra Satakarni in 78 A.D. Thus 2012 in our Gregorian calendar is actually 1934 according to the Saka calendar. Because the ordinary Saka year is only 360 days long, an additional leap-month is added every 30 months to keep Saka synchronized with the solar year.

The Balinese holiday Nyepi is the new year in the Saka calendar. Throughout the year, celebrations and offerings are scheduled according to the full moon and the new moon. For example, temple anniversaries (odalan) are always celebrated on a full moon.

The Saka calendar also lays out auspicious months for particular activities like weddings (schedule yours on the fourth or the tenth month of the Saka calendar – to do otherwise is to court disaster!).

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08 of 11

Balinese Calendars: Galungan and the Pawukon Calendar

Galungan preparations in Bali.
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The Pawukon calendar is local in origin, believed have come from Java about 700 years ago. There are only 210 days in a Pawukon year, divided into six months of 35 days each. Unlike the Saka and Gregorian calendars, Pawukon years are not numbered, and thus are not used for historical reckoning.

Pawukon is subdivided into 3-, 5-, and 7-day cycles; the cycle’s conjunctions determine the year’s holy days. Wednesday, known locally as buda, is an especially auspicious day; days of obligation like buda cemeng (dedicated to the gods of wealth and fertility) and Galungan all begin on a Wednesday.

The Pawukon cycles are used by numerologists to determine auspicious days for plowing fields or building houses. Birthdays (otonan) and temple anniversaries (odalan) are all determined by the Pawukon calendar; in Bali, your birthday happens twice a year!

Aside from the Pawukon and the Saka calendars, the 365-day Gregorian calendar is also used widely in Bali for government and business purposes. So the average Balinese – who settles his spiritual accounts in his village temple and family shrine but goes to work in one of Bali’s many hotels and resorts – actually follows three different calendars in his day-to-day life.

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09 of 11

The Balinese Temple

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan temple, Bali.
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The most conspicuous manifestation of Bali’s rich culture can be found all over the island – Bali's many temples. Some sources put the number of temples on the island at 20,000; this does not include the small shrines in every family compound, or the shrines put at crossroads all around Bali (the Balinese believe that demons congregate at crossroads, and must be appeased).

Every village in Bali has not just one, but three temples:

  • Pura Puseh, dedicated to Lord Brahma who created the world: set on the highest spot of the village (swah), facing the mountains. The village founders are venerated at the local pura puseh.
  • Pura Desa, dedicated to Lord Wisnu, who maintains the world: set at the village center, the pura desa helps regulate the village's activities. As a sign of its importance in village-wide matters, the pura desa traditionally also holds the bale agung, a pavilion where villagers can meet and decide matters as a community.
  • Pura Dalem, dedicated to Lord Siwa, the destroyer: the temple of death, the pura dalem is set at the lowest part of the village, often facing the sea, where demons reside (bhur). As the area of the village closest to bhur, the dead are often buried here as well.

Note how the temples are arranged in the three-tiered universe of swah, bwah and bhur prescribed by Agama Hindu Dharma. The Mother Temple of Pura Besakih is superior to them all, located on one of Bali's highest elevations. During important feast days, hikers climbing Gunung Agung are not permitted to ascend higher than Besakih, as nobody's head must be above the temple.

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10 of 11

Odalan: Balinese Temple Celebrations

Temple offerings being prepared for an odalan in Bali.
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Every Balinese temple holds an odalan once every pawukon cycle. As the otonan represents the human birthday, the odalan is the temple’s: a commemoration to mark the day of the temple’s completion and the gods’ taking up residence.

Every odalan is a spectacular affair, and the longer the odalan the more spectacular the celebrations. Some odalan last one day (odalan alit); others last four days (odalan madudus agung). One odalan, the eka dasa rudra, is celebrated only at the mother temple at Pura Besakih every 100 years; the last celebration was in 1979.

With over 20,000 temples on the island alone, there’s bound to be an odalan going on at any given day except Nyepi. Odalan are opportunities for whole communities to come together in celebration. Finely dressed women take soaring heaps of offerings to the temple, where they are blessed by the priests (pemangku) to the tune of finely chiming silver bells.

Once the sacrifices are out of the way, the carnival takes over: vendors selling snacks and finery, wayang kulit and barong dancers enlivening the proceedings (more on these two in the next page), and villagers socializing amidst the festivities.

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Balinese Dances & Performances

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Propagating the intricate cosmology of Balinese culture takes some serious artistry, and the Balinese pull it off through their own forms of music and dance, not to mention the famous wayang kulit (shadow theater).

The resounding gamelan orchestra accompanies most Balinese cultural presentations, and forms the foundation of Balinese music. Balinese gamelan uses tuned gongs, metallophones, xylophones, drums, flutes, and uniquely for gamelan, cymbals; the music repeats in a cycle until the leader signals an end to the music.

  • Read this introduction to gamelan music.

A barong dance is performed by dance troupes for particularly auspicious events, and depicts the triumph of good over evil. The forces of good are represented by the Barong, and evil is embodied in the witch called Rangda.

A legong dance is performed by young Balinese girls in fine dancing clothes; this is the dance you most often encounter in resort cultural presentations and in places like Ubud Palace.

Finally, the Balinese wayang kulit shadow puppet theater serves both entertainment and spiritual purposes: while the shadow puppets entertain spectators, they also bring the blessings of ancestral spirits who are equally diverted by the spectacle. The wayang kulit is an integral part of major ceremonies like odalan and cremation ceremonies.

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