Aspects of Balinese Culture

Seen as a beautiful and abundant vacation destination by most of the tourists, Bali is much more than that. Throughout the history, the island has been a home to a people who manage to maintain their values and traditions in spite of the influence of a rapidly globalizing world. Renowned for its rich history, Balinese culture is distinctive and presents unique opportunities for research, because it has managed to combine and preserve elements of several cultures, which are still present in modern-day rituals and traditions of the island.

From its early history, Bali was one of the trading centers for the rest of Southeast Asia. The Java culture, which was based on Hinduism, had a major influence on Balinese Society. Majapahit Empire, founded in Eastern Java, had conquered Bali in 1284. The colony was established, and by the late 1300s most of Bali’s population became Hindu. However, Balinese Hinduism was different from its predecessors: rooted in original Indian beliefs, it created its own path, incorporating Buddhism and Chinese traditions.

Later, with Sumatra and Java falling to Islam at the beginning of the 16th century, many priests and Hindu followers moved to Bali, which added to the rich spiritual background of the region (Pringle 38). The island still remains predominantly Hindu, and Muslims remain one of distinct minorities, consisting mostly of immigrants from other islands, such as Java or Lombok.

Bali is a well-studied and documented region, which managed to maintain its distinct traditions despite the heavy impact of tourism and other aspects of globalization. Because of its rich history and significant culture, Bali has been and still remains of great interest to anthropologists. There are several stages of the development of scholarship on Bali, which draw upon a range of anthropological research studies (Bates and Fratkin 31).

Both the scholarship on the island and the tourist industry started to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century. As Shavit notes, at the time the world was still struggling with the consequences of the WWI, so the image of Bali as a tropical paradise attracted Europeans and Americans. Several writers presented research on Balinese culture, which was mostly based on first hand observations, as they were also the first European travellers to the island (Sumerta 14).

Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were among the first anthropologists who visited Bali in the first half of 20th century. During their visits, they made a short documentary called “Trance and Dance in Bali”, which is still considered “highly influential for its time” (“Bathing Babies in Three Cultures | Visual Anthropology”). The findings of these scholars greatly affected Bali’s tourism industry and contributed to further research, attracting future anthropologists to study the island and its culture.

The second group of scholars conducted research after WWII, as well as during and after the Indonesians’ struggle for independence from the Dutch Empire. The most prominent anthropologists of that period included Clifford and Hildred Geertz, who spent 10 months in Bali. Having left the island in 1958, they provided some of the most significant works which were then included in a number of anthropological textbooks (Pringle 42). J. Stephen Lansing was another American anthropologist to do fieldwork in Bali. He started his research in 1971 and used Geertz’s findings and assistance. These scholars presented a view of the island that was different from previous studies, since Bali, as well as the rest of Indonesia, was now independent. J. Stephen Lansing published several works on Bali, which include books “Evil in the Morning of the World”, “The Three Worlds of Bali, The Balinese”, and a 1987 article “Balinese ‘Water Temples’ and the Management of Irrigation”.

Finally, the third group of researchers includes scholars who published works on Bali in the period from the end of 1980s to the present day. Researchers like Adrian Vickers, Unni Wikan, Michel Picard and Megan Jennaway have presented a wide range of works on Balinese culture and the influence that tourism, as well as globalization, had on it (Shavit). This section of anthropological research is different from the previous ones, because the Balinese themselves have also begun to contribute to the academic discussion. The engagement of Balinese scholars into the discourse made it possible to look at the culture from a different angle.

Among Balinese scholars who published their works over the last decade are Luh Ketut Suryani, I Gde Pitana and others (Sumerta 54). Although the writings of these authors have not been discussed in the anthropological canon yet, they are nonetheless significant, because they provide a specific perspective of Balinese people on their culture.

Through the works of all the scholars mentioned above, more people can now learn about the real essence of Balinese culture, which is best seen in its people’s traditions. Numerous festivals and celebrations are held regularly and attract tourists from all over the world. One of the most common traditions on the island is a cremation ceremony called “ngaben” (Suamba and Mudana 33). Since Balinese people believe that fire can cleanse the soul of the deceased, they see this occasion as a joyful event when families help their loved ones reach enlightenment, or nirvana. Another event that is highly important for Balinese Hindus is Galungan, a holiday that usually lasts for 10 days and celebrates the victory of Good (dharma) over Evil (adharma).

During this time, people create different kinds of exquisite culinary offerings and decorations as a sign of their appreciation to the gods, wear traditional clothes, meet with relatives, and visit the temples. Mepandes, or the ‘teeth-cutting’ ceremony, is another ritual commonly held across the island. It is usually conducted when a Balinese comes of age, and is meant to eliminate such vices as greed, lust, and anger.

Yet, the event that fully shows the diversity of Balinese customs and rituals is a traditional Balinese wedding. Wedding ceremonies in Bali are different from other cultures’ ceremonies and traditions, because they represent a unique combination of animistic, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Spirituality is an integral part of the daily life of the island, and royal families’ weddings are best to look at to see how different traditions mix together to create a distinctive way in which Balinese wedding ceremonies are held. Although marriage traditions may differ from one village to another, there are many similar elements. The “good days” for the ceremonies are commonly selected in accordance with the Hindu calendar, and the offerings are carefully prepared in Buddhist traditions for the gods and ancestors’ spirits to appreciate their beauty. Villagers work hard for days and weeks to make special gifts and invitations for the bride and groom’s families.

The way the Balinese prepare wedding invitations is another example of Hindu and Buddhist elements interacting: the invitations are made from food, which is common for both cultures. In case of rain, there are rain stoppers: these Balinese mystics, believed to see the unseen, are specific to Hinduism. In the wedding attire, Hindu decorations prevail over simple Buddhist elements: the bride and groom’s garments are full of colors and various ornaments to symbolize celebration and happiness in marriage.

The ancestor worship shows incorporation of animistic elements: the Balinese spend a large part of wedding ceremonies performing different rituals to show their appreciation to the gods and ancestors. It is extremely important for people in Bali to ensure gods’ permission and blessing. Many age-old spiritual animistic, Hindu and Buddhist customs are intertwined to create special ceremonies that are not only enjoyable and festive, but meaningful and culturally rich.

Thus, being currently one of the most popular tourist destinations, Bali deserves all the attention it gets. From the beginning of the previous century and until present days, many prominent anthropologists have taken an interest in the region. They visited the island and studied the culture of its people, sharing their findings in the forms of documented, photographic and video records. Over the last two decades, Balinese scholars have also started to take part in the academic discourse on Bali and its culture, but their findings have not yet been fully introduced within an anthropological framework. The ritual activities and spirituality are essential for all the Balinese.

Although Bali is the most Hindu populated island in Indonesia, throughout the history its culture has also incorporated various elements of Buddhism and animistic beliefs. Most of the rituals are based on strong connection with gods, ancestors and diseased family members. Weddings in Bali combine a wide range of ceremonies and customs of Hindu, Buddhism and animistic beliefs, and are therefore great for exploring the rich and diverse culture of the island.

Works Cited

Bates, Daniel G., and Elliot M. Fratkin. Cultural Anthropology: Instructor’s Manual and Test Bank. 1998.

“Bathing Babies in Three Cultures | Visual Anthropology.” ScholarBlogs | Emory’s Own WordPress Instance for Teaching and Research. Web.

Pringle, Robert. A Short History of Bali: Indonesia’s Hindu Realm. Allen & Unwin, 2004.

Royal Wedding: Bali Style (Royalty Documentary) | Real Stories.” YouTube. 2017. Web.

Shavit, David. Bali and the Tourist Industry: A History, 1906-1942. McFarland, 2019.

Suamba, I. B., and I. G. Mudana. “Time in rituals of Javanese-Saivism as preserved in Bali.” Journal of Physics: Conference Series, vol. 953, 2018, p. 31-38.

Sumerta, Julie A. Interpreting Balinese Culture: Representation and Identity. 2011. U of Waterloo, PhD dissertation. Web.

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