If you’re considering a holiday in Bali, you need to read up on these 5 Bali culture facts before you go.
Bali has an international reputation for hard partying and sun-drenched beaches, but this Indonesian island isn’t just neon-lit clubs and parties under the palms. It’s a unique experience that pairs Indonesian etiquette with historic culture. If you think a Balinese holiday is just scooters, street food and Sangria, think again.
Before you start exploring this Indonesian island, you need to read this article. We’ve compiled five fascinating Bali culture facts that you probably didn’t know about (unless you’re from Bali). Read on to discover more.
If you’re travelling to Bali, don’t expect to navigate the island by heading west or driving north. The Western notion of the cardinal points conforming to north, south, east and west doesn’t apply. Instead, the Balinese have their own, Bali-centric ideas of direction, known as kaja, kelod, kangin and kauh. Kaja and kelod aren’t fixed constants, either.
Kaja refers to the direction of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest mountain, and a deeply sacred site in Bali-Hinduism. It’s a relational concept, determined by your orientation to Agung – for a person to the south of the mountain, kaja may be north, while a person to the north might perceieve kaja as south.
Kelod is the opposite of kaja, and points away from Mount Agung, generally towards the low-lying coastal regions of Bali. The two directions have religious connotations: kaja is sacred and good, while kelod is mysterious and feared. In Balinese-Hinduism, the sky and the mountains – high places – are sacred, and home to gods and ancestors, while the sea and the low places of the world are filled with evil beings like demons and witches.
The other two directions, kangin and kauh, also have spiritual bearing. Kangin is sacred and good, and points east, the direction of the rising sun. Kauh is west, the direction of sunset, and the entry point for the night. For the Balinese, the day is full of warmth and sun-kissed energy, while the night is dark and dangerous, inhabited by hungry ghosts.
You can see the concepts of kaja and kelod present in daily Balinese life – for example, religious households might sleep with their heads pointing towards kelod, while traditionally constructed buildings have their pura dalem (death temples) at the kelod end of their village.
If you spend even a few nights in Bali, you’ll quickly become aware of religious offerings – food, banana leaves and flowers skewered with sticks of fragrant incense, washed in coils of drifting smoke. Known as generally banten, they’re placed in temples, homes or along streets, and can range from small daily offerings (canang) to the towering ngaben burned at royal cremation ceremonies. At Raya Nyepi, the Balinese ‘Day of Silence’, giant ogoh-ogoh demons are constructed and then burned as a way to ward off evil.
Banten take time and skill to create, and the making of them is considered a sort of sacrifice – time and effort, an offering of love given freely to the gods of Bali. They’re normally crafted by women, and each element of a banten represents a specific form of tribute to the different deities of Balinese-Hinduism. The incense you’ll see? That’s part of the sacrificial ceremony. The smoke is thought to carry the essence (sari) of the offerings into the sky, where the gods live. For that reason, it’s very rude to step on or knock over a banten while the incense is still burning.
We’ve already touched on it in with our two previous Bali culture facts, but understanding Balinese Hinduism is incredibly important to navigating the various threads of daily life in Bali. It’s a religion made unique by its geographical limitations – its birth and evolution on a small island means that it’s really only applicable in a Balinese setting. Animism (the idea that animals/objects/people all possess a spiritual essence), pitru paksha (ancestor worship) and homage to the Bodhisattva all combine under an umbrella of more traditional Hindu beliefs.
Essentially, there are three main gods, known as the Trimurti, which can be found in Indian Hinduism:
These are all considered manifestations of Acintya, the Divine Oneness who is the ultimate reality of the universe.
Other deities are also worshipped, like:
- Hyang (divine or ancestral spirits)
- Devata (gods which are the spiritual counterpoint to certain places or things)
Balinese people generally have a great respect for the spiritual world, and their daily activities will often incorporate acknowledgement of or homage to the gods.
It might seem strange if you’re from the West, but touching another person’s head is considered a big no-no in Bali. It’s a nod to the concepts of kaja and kelod, which can also be applied to the buana alit, the ‘small world’ of the human body. The head is the wellspring of everything pure and divine in a person, and touching it (without permission, anyway) is very rude. Conversely, a person’s feet are at the kelod end of their body, which is why pointing the sole of your feet at someone – either standing or sitting) is also very rude. It’s important to understand that these rules of etiquette also apply to children, so, even if you’re used to giving your kids an affectionate pat on the head, make sure that behaviour doesn’t translate to someone else’s offspring in Bali.
Another useful etiquette tip involves the use of your left hand. Because the left hand was traditionally used to clean one’s bottom, picking up food or shaking left-handed is considered disgusting. Try to avoid touching things with your left hand where possible.
Balinese are incredibly friendly, which, if you’re from the West, can seem strange and even a little unnerving. Tourists will often become a magnet for smiles, friendly greetings and even conversation – bizarre, if you’re used to the comparatively cold social climate of places like America and Australia. Smile back, make an attempt to assimilate, and you’ll be welcomed with more-or-less open arms (actually, that’s just a saying – Balinese are pretty conservative with public displays of affection).
Like these facts about Bali’s culture? Think you’re ready to experience the island for yourself? Check out our four Bali resorts for some holiday inspiration, but, for the ultimate dose of culture, visit Wyndham Garden Kuta Beach Bali. We can’t wait to see you over here!