LOCATION: Indonesia

POPULATION: 3 million

LANGUAGE: Balinese

RELIGION: Native version of Hinduism


Much of the outside world's image of Indonesia is based on Bali, which is a prime tourist destination. However, Balinese culture is very different from the national mainstream, especially in its unique Hindu-animist religion. Inscriptions from the ninth and tenth centuries AD record the emergence of Balinese kingdoms that would later fall under Javanese domination. In the sixteenth century, King Batu Renggong of Gelgel unified Bali. The social and religious order that was established at that time continues to the present day.

Tourist money has made Bali one of Indonesia's wealthiest regions, both promoting and distorting traditional culture.


The island of Bali covers 2,243 square miles (5,808 square kilometers), an area slightly larger than the state of Delaware. Its population of three million is, however, three times as high as that of Delaware. The island has an unbroken east–west chain of volcanoes and a narrow plain along the north coast. A series of valleys stretches south to the Indian Ocean.


The Balinese speak an Austronesian language whose closest relative is Sasak, the language of Lombok. Although now they increasingly use Latin letters, their traditional script was a distinct version of the Javanese alphabet.

The Balinese language has a system of politeness levels. The High (tinggi) language is spoken only to Brahmana priests. The Middle (madia) or Refined (halus) level is used when addressing people of high social status, older people, or one's parents. The Low (rendah) or Ordinary (biasa) level serves for talking to those one considers of equal or inferior status.

One common way of referring to adults is by a name that identifies them in relation to a child or grandchild, such as "Father (Pan) of," "Mother (Men) of," or "Grandfather (Kak) of." The Balinese also have a custom of assigning names according to birth order. For example, in Sudra families, the firstborn child will receive the name "Wayan"; the second, "Made"; the third, "Nyoman"; the fourth, "Ketut"; and the fifth, "Putu."


Leyak are witches who are ordinary people by day but who are believed to leave their bodies at night. They take many different shapes (a monkey, a bird, a disembodied head, a ghostly light). They can cause disease or crop failure, or poison food. Amulets (charms) or mantra (incantations) acquired from a priest or shaman can combat them.


Unlike the vast majority of Indonesians, the Balinese are not Muslim but Hindu (except for tiny Christian and Buddhist minorities). Their Hinduism combines the Indian model with elements of native religion. The object of their religious practices is to maintain a balance between good and evil forces. Thus, Balinese make offerings to both gods and demons. They recognize a wide range of supernatural beings, including demons, ancestral spirits, and divinities such as the sun god Surya and the rice goddess Dewi Sri.


Each of the thousands of temples on Bali celebrates its own odalan or festival, usually lasting three days.

Galungan is a ten-day festival celebrated throughout the island. The gods and deified ancestors are invited to descend from heaven. Penjor— tall, decorated bamboo poles—are raised in front of each house and temple to represent fertility.

Eka Dasa Rudra is a holiday that occurs only once every 100 years. (The last time was in 1979.) It entails several weeks of ceremonies at Bali's supreme temple, Besakih, on the slopes of Gunung Agung. The aim is to purify the entire universe by exorcising a chaotic element called Rudra .


Depending on a family's social status, as many as thirteen life-cycle rituals (manusa yadnya) may be performed. Events that are marked include the sixth month of pregnancy; birth; the falling off of the umbilical cord; the twelfth, forty-second, and one-hundred-fifth days after birth; the two-hundred-tenth day after birth, marking the child's first "touching of the earth"; the emergence of the first adult tooth; the loss of the last baby tooth; the onset of puberty (first menstruation for girls); tooth-filing; marriage; and purification for study.

When they are ready to become adults, tooth-filing is performed on teenagers. It is believed to purge them of their "animal nature," which is symbolized by the fang-like upper canine teeth.

Full adulthood, in the sense of full social responsibility, begins only with marriage. Weddings involve roughly three stages: (1) a ceremony in which the boy's family asks the girl's family for the hand of the girl; (2) the wedding ceremony itself; and (3) a formal visit by the new couple and the groom's family to the bride's family so that the bride may "ask leave" of her own ancestors.

Cremation is performed after death. However, a proper ceremony is extremely expensive. The family may take months or even years to accumulate the necessary funds. In the meantime they find a temporary storage or burial spot for the body. For the ceremony itself, the body is carried to the cremation field in a portable tower. The tower is rotated at each crossroads so that the deceased's spirit cannot find its way back home to haunt the living. The dead cannot become deified ancestors until they have been properly cremated.


Balinese society is divided into four castes, or social classes: Brahmana, Satria, Wesia, and Sudra. When starting a conversation with a person of high social status, one bows. With children and people lower on the social ladder, one simply nods. One takes advice, instruction, or criticism by saying nggih (a respectful "yes") or with silence. Referring humbly to one's own person, property, or achievements is essential to polite conversation.

Between adolescents of opposite sexes, only chatting at food stalls in the presence of others is acceptable interaction.


The Balinese family lives in a walled compound (uma) inhabited by a group of brothers and their respective families. Within it, grouped around a central courtyard, are separate buildings for cooking, storing rice, keeping pigs, and sleeping. Each compound has a shrine (sanggah). A thatched pavilion (bale) serves for meetings and ceremonies. A walled-in pavilion (bale daja) stores family heirlooms. Rivers serve for toilet and bathing functions.


Marriage between members of different castes is now common. Most newlywed couples remain in the groom's compound. Households include married sons and their families until they are able to establish their own households. At least one son must stay behind to care for the parents in their old age.

Although menstruating women are considered ritually impure and may not enter temples, discrimination against women is not pronounced. However, within the family there is a clear division of labor. Women buy and sell in the markets, cook, wash, care for the pigs, and prepare offerings. Men work for the banjar (community organization), prepare spices and meat for feasts, play in orchestras, attend cockfights, and drink together in the early evenings. Women join the caste of their husbands.


In work outside the home, especially for office and store jobs, Balinese wear Western-style clothes. Around the house, men wear shorts and a tank top, or a sarong (a skirtlike garment). Men's traditional clothing includes a kamben sarung (a type of sarong) of endek (a locally made cloth) or batik cloth.

Women wear a kamben lembaran sarong, usually of mass-produced batik cloth. It is often worn with a sash (selempot) when outside the house. For temple ceremonies, women wear a sabuk belt wrapped around the body up to the armpits, with a kebaya jacket over it. Most women now wear their hair too short for traditional hairstyles, so they wear wigs to go with ritual dress.

12 • FOOD

The Balinese eat their meals individually, quickly, and at no fixed times, snacking very frequently. Everyday food consists of rice and vegetable side dishes, sometimes with a bit of chicken, fish, tofu (bean curd), or tempeh (fermented bean curd), and seasoned with chili sauce (sambel) made fresh daily. Many dishes require basa genep, a standard spice mixture composed of sea salt, pepper, chili, garlic, shrimp paste, ginger, and other ingredients.

For ceremonial feasts, men prepare ebat, chopped pig or turtle meat mixed with spices, grated coconut, and slices of turtle cartilage or unripe mango. Other Balinese specialties are babi guling (stuffed pig turned over a fire), and bebek betutu (stuffed duck wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in ashes).


See the article on "Indonesians" in this chapter.


The traditional performing arts of the Balinese are an essential part of religious ceremonies, as well as entertainment. The numerous types of Balinese musical ensembles are variants of the gamelan orchestra, for which Indonesia is famous. It consists of drums, flutes, and bronze instruments (or substitutes of iron or bamboo). A vast array of dances are performed. The most famous include the Baris dance, depicting warriors; the Legong dance, depicting dueling princesses; and the Barong, in which a mythical lion, symbol of the good, combats an evil witch.

Several types of drama are practiced. These include the wayang kulit shadow play, and various forms of masked and unmasked theater (topeng, wayang wong , and gambuh) .

Balinese literature has been preserved in lontar, palm-leaf books. It includes epics of gods and heroes, and tales of the old Balinese kingdoms.


Some 70 percent of the Balinese earn a living from agriculture. Wet-rice cultivation is practiced in areas where there is enough water. Elsewhere, nonirrigated crops such as dry rice, corn, cassava, and beans are raised. Sharecropping (working someone else's land in return for a share of the crop) has become common in the most densely populated areas.

Many Balinese are employed in cottage (small) and medium-scale industries. Since the 1970s, the garment industry has grown dramatically. There are also factories for printing, canning, and coffee and cigarette processing. Tourism provides work in hotels, travel bureaus, guide and taxi services, and craft shops.


Although officially banned in 1981 due to gambling, cockfights are still permitted as a necessary part of temple rituals. Cricket fighting continues as a milder substitute.


See the article on "Indonesians" in this chapter.


The most popular crafts are painting, stone-carving, woodcarving, puppetmaking, weaving, and gold-and silverworking. The most popular locally made cloth is endek.


See the article on "Indonesians" in this chapter.


Cribb, R. B. Historical Dictionary of Indonesia. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Lubis, Mochtar. Indonesia: Land under the Rainbow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Oey, Eric, ed. Bali: Island of the Gods. Berkeley: Periplus, 1990.


Indonesian Embassy in Canada. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Indonesia. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Balinese from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

wow, this helped alot thanks! especially the part about adolescence and only speaking at food stalls. i'll have to tell friends about that when we go. since i am a kid though, do i have to bow to everyone? or do i just nod my head to some? thanks alot though i really liked this!
This helped me a lot thanks so much I needed this for my report
chris hall
I have lived and worked in bali since 1994 very accurate and informative

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