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Identification. The Balinese live on the island of Bali, in the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Both their language, Balinese, and religion, Balinese Hinduism, reflect a Malayo-Polynesian culture influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism.

Location. Bali is located between 8° and 8°50 S and 114° 20 and 115°40 E. The area is 5,580 square kilometers. The climate is tropical with two seasons, rainy between October and March and dry between April and September.

Demography. In 1989 the population of Bali was about 2,782,038, of which perhaps 5 percent were Chinese, Muslim, and other minorities. The annual population increase was 1.75 percent. Denpasar, the capital, had a population of 261,263.

Linguistic Affiliation. Balinese is an Austronesian language of the Malayo-Javanic Subgroup. Despite phonological similarity with the languages of eastern Indonesia, Java has been a stronger linguistic and literary influence. Balinese was influenced by Indian languages both directly and through contact with Javanese. The earliest (eighth century a.d.) inscriptions found in Bali are in both Sanskrit and Old Balinese. Balinese has levels of speech that require speakers to adjust vocabulary to their relative caste position and reflect feelings about both the person spoken to and the subject matter spoken about. These levels are most elaborate when discussing the human body and its functions, with nine levels of vocabulary for some lexical items. Balinese script was derived from the Pallava writing systems of southern India.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological remains, inscriptions, and literary and oral historical accounts indicate that an indigenous population in Bali came into increasing contact with travelers from Java after the fifth century a.d. These outsiders brought Hindu and Buddhist ideas of religion, language, and political organization. It is not known whether the travelers were themselves from the subcontinent, Indianized inhabitants of Java, or both. In the eleventh century a.d., Airlangga, son of a Balinese king and a Javanese queen, became the first ruler to unite Bali with an eastern Javanese kingdom. For the following three centuries the Balinese were intermittently ruled from the east Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, which fell to Islamic forces in 1515. Court officials then fled to Balinese kingdoms where they strengthened the Indianized literary and statecraft traditions that endured in Bali, which was not influenced by Islam. For the next three centuries Bali had small kingdoms, several of which periodically dominated one or more of the others. The Dutch colonial government largely ignored Bali, which had no good harbor on the northern trade route, until the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1855 the first resident Dutch official arrived in north Bali and colonial control over the island increased thereafter until absolute direct governance was imposed by defeating the southern kingdoms militarily in 1906 and 1908. Direct Dutch colonial rule lasted until the Japanese occupied the island from 1942 to 1945. After World War II there was fighting in Bali between those who supported Indonesian independence and forces attempting to reestablish Dutch colonial rule.


The Balinese define a village as the people who worship at a common village temple, not as a territorial unit. In fact, inhabitants almost always live in a contiguous area and both colonial and national governments have sought to redefine the village as a territorially based administrative unit. Settlements are centered on the village temple and public buildings, which are usually situated at the intersection of a major and minor road. Both the village and the house yards within it are ideally laid out, with the most sacred buildings in the area nearest Mount Agung, the abode of the gods, and the profane structures nearest the sea, the region of more ambivalent spiritual beings. Families live in house yards that are open, walled areas containing buildings, including a family temple facing the direction of Mount Agung, one or more pavilions for sleeping and sitting, a kitchen, and a refuse area where pigs are kept. Wealthy families have large yards with brick, tile-roofed buildings decorated with fine carvings in stone and wood. Poor families have smaller yards with buildings and walls being made of mud and wattle.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For centuries the Balinese have been wet-rice farmers whose irrigation system regulates planting on mountain slopes and seaside plains. Yearly double-cropping is common and the national government supports the introduction of several strains that permit three annual crops in certain areas. Small mechanized plows can be used only in level areas. More commonly, water buffalo pull plows in small family fields, often steep terraces on the mountainsides. Although the volcanic soil is naturally rich, multiple-crop schemes require chemical fertilization. The government protects the rice price and buys all excess harvest for redistribution. In the west of the island there is a profitable coffee-growing region and in the north oranges are a cash crop. The local Balinese economy is based almost entirely on agriculture and government employment in offices and schools. Although Bali has a large tourist trade, most local households do not participate in this kind of economic activity.

Industrial Arts. There is no heavy industry in Bali and little light manufacturing. In tourist areas, carvers and painters produce objects for sale to visitors, often on consignment from art shops.

Trade. In towns, goldsmiths, tailors, and other merchants provide consumer goods. Each town has a market for vegetables, fruit, packaged and other foodstuffs, and animals such as pigs and chickens. Such markets are also held on a rotating basis in some villages. Villagers, often women, bring agricultural items to sell and return home with manufactured goods to peddle either door-to-door or in small shops. Alternatively, merchants may go to the village to buy agricultural goods or to sell such items as cloth, patent medicines, or soap. Men sell cattle in a central market.

Division of Labor. In agricultural activities men plow and prepare the fields. Men and women plant and harvest manually in large groups, while weeding is done by family members. Women keep the gardens, care for the pigs, and keep small snack stalls; they often control the income they gain from these activities. Men care for the cattle that are kept in garden areas. Women care for the children, assisted by the husband or other family members. Although men and women replace each other in domestic and agricultural chores when necessary, there is a stricter distinction between men's and women's ritual work. Men are the priests and women make the elaborate offerings used in rituals.

Land Tenure. Legally, rice and garden land are owned and registered in the name of an individual man, although his sons may be working his holdings. Villagers consider land to belong to a patrilineal descent group with the current owner inheriting the right to use, or dispose of, the land. Royal families formerly had large holdings.


Kin Groups and Descent. Balinese distinguish different types of kinship relationships. Each type, from the smallest to the most inclusive, is described as a group of men, related through a common ancestor, who worship with their families at a common ancestor temple. The group is organized around the performance of rituals twice a year at these temples. The household has a temple in the house yard. The men (and their families) who divide an inheritance have a larger local ancestor temple. These inheritance groups can be joined into larger putative kin groups, which assert, but cannot trace, descent from a common ancestor. A family may be active only in a small, local ancestor group or they may see themselves as part of a series of nested groups with alliances in other parts of the island. Larger kin groups are likely to form and be strong in factionalized areas and times. Kin-group membership is reckoned patrilaterally but matrilateral kinship is also remembered.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are Hawaiian or generational with all men of father's generation bilaterally referred to as "father," and so on with mother, cousins, grandparents, and children. Individuals have a teknonym that indicates their gender, caste, and birth order. Children are called by this teknonym and adults are called "father of .. . " or "mother of... " after the birth of their first child. Old people are known as "grandfather or grandmother of.... "

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Residence after marriage is patrilocal. Although men may have more than one wife, most marriages are monogamous. Ideally women should not marry men of lower caste or kinship group; a family acknowledges inferiority toward their daughter's husband's group. To avoid such an admission in areas where kin groups are strong and opposed, there is a preference for ancestor-temple group endogamy. In other areas most marriages are village-endogamous with wealth and personal attraction playing an important part in marriage choice. Divorce rules vary but generally a woman married less than three years returns to her father's home with nothing. If she has been married more than three years, and is not adulterous, she receives a percentage of what the couple has earned after the marriage, but none of her husband's inheritance. Children of a marriage remain with their father. When a woman has been chosen by her father as his heir, the divorce rules are applied in reverse.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit consists of people who eat from the same kitchen. The household includes the husband, wife, children, patrilateral grandparents, and unmarried siblings.

Inheritance. The Balinese inherit patrilineally. A man without sons may choose a daughter to inherit or allow his brothers to divide his property. The family house yard is inherited by the oldest or the youngest son, who is then responsible for any old people or siblings still living there. Socialization. Children are cared for by their parents, grandparents, and older siblings. They are treated with great affection. Boys are taught to be lively and capable, while girls are encouraged to be responsible and attractive.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Balinese individuals and kin groups identify themselves as being members of one of four hereditary caste groups. These groups are said to have in the past corresponded to occupational categories, although this is no longer the case. Ninety percent of the population is Sudra, the group said to have been farmers and considered to be of lower caste. Certain ritual activities are reserved to priests of the Brahman caste and the former rulers who were of the Ksaytria and Wesia castes, but other members of these groups are, and were, farmers and merchants. Families belonging to the three higher castes are more likely to be part of supravil1age ancestor-temple groups.

Political Organization. Bali is one of the twenty-eight provinces of the nation of Indonesia. The province is divided into seven regions (kabupaten ), each of which is subdivided into districts (kecamatan ). Districts are divided into villages (desa ), which are composed of subunits (banjar ). The units above the village level carry out regional and national policy. The village-level officials are elected by the village council, which is made up of male heads of household. These leaders execute governmental policies such as registration of land sales, births and deaths, and also organize local projects including the repair of facilities and the holding of local elections.

Social Control. Above the village level there is a police force. In the village there is a system of fines for residents who do not attend meetings or group work projects. However, informal control mechanisms such as gossip and group pressure are used more frequently.

Conflict. The Balinese avoid the open expression of conflict. Villagers who have protracted quarrels such as legal disputes over inheritance usually try to avoid each other. Supravillage conflict formerly led to warfare.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Balinese Hinduism mixes Hinduism with animistic traditions. Each temple congregation holds periodic rituals to placate and please the supernaturals and thereby protect the group's peace and prosperity. The Balinese make offerings to their ancestors, spirits connected to places, and other supernaturals, some with Indic names.

Religious Practitioners. The larger ceremonies are conducted by Brahman priests. Lower-caste priests care for temples and perform local ceremonies.

Ceremonies. Rituals are performed on several cycles, the most important being the six-month cycle. Every six months there are islandwide ceremonies, and each temple has an anniversary ritual every six months. There are also life-cycle rituals arranged by families, the most important being the cremation.

Arts. Rituals, whether family or village, may include music, dance, drama, and shadow-play performances. In ritual context artistic performance has a sacred association. Stone and wood carving in home or temple indicates high prestige for the owner or congregation. Royal and wealthy people have supported artistic performances and productions, in part as a display of their prestige. Tourist art includes paintings, carvings, and shortened secular performances.

Medicine. Government medical care is widely available and used. Indigenous medicine holds that illness or other misfortunes can be caused by angry spirits or ancestors, witchcraft, or imbalance in the bodily humors.

Death and Afterlife. A person's caste, wealth, and prestige are reflected in the size and elaborateness of his or her funeral. Living descendants must perform rituals that move the deceased souls through the afterlife to rebirth in a younger member of the family. Neglect of these rituals may cause the dead ancestor to make family members ill.


Belo, Jane (1949). Bali: Rangda and Barong. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, 16. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Belo, Jane (1960). Trance in Bali, New York: Columbia University Press.

Geertz, Clifford (1980). Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Geertz, Hildred, and Clifford Geertz (1975). Kinship in Bali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swellengrebel, J. L., et al. (1960). Bali: Life, Thought, and Ritual The Hague: W. van Hoeve.

Swellengrebel, J. L., et al. (1969). Bali: Further Studies in Life, Thought, and Ritual The Hague: W. van Hoeve.


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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 eastwest 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 polesare 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.


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.

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Ba·li·nese / ˌbäləˈnēz; ˌbal-; -ˈnēs/ • adj. of or relating to Bali or its people or language. • n. (pl. same) 1. a native of Bali. 2. the Indonesian language of Bali.

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