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Bali Culture & Visitor Etiquette

Bali is known as the Island of the Gods or, according to India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, The Morning of The World. Although Indonesia’s main religion is Islam, the Balinese are predominantly Hindu but there are also elements from the Indian Shivaite and Buddhist traditions with older beliefs and practices introduced from other parts of the archipelago. One of the oldest names for the Balinese religion translates as “religion of the holy waters” which signifies not only the use of water as a tool of purification within the ceremonies, but also the role of irrigation in the overall socio-ecological system.

Generations of Balinese farmers have changed the island’s landscape, clearing forests, digging irrigation channels, and terracing hillsides so that they could grow their rice.

In the eyes of the Hindu-Balinese, existence is a continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth, until one attains moka, when the body becomes one with the macrocosm. Rituals at various stages of life on earth ensure that the individual progresses toward this desired state. Balinese traditional medicine is grounded in the cosmology of magic but utilise the island’s flora extensively. Many Balinese will consult a traditional healer before, or as well as, the much more recently introduced health clinics offering Western medications.

Offerings made of palm leaf, flowers and foodstuffs are an art form associated with every ritual occasion in Bali. The Balinese belief in the forces of the invisible world dictates that offerings be created with a spirit of thankfulness and loving attention to detail. You will see daily offerings placed outside homes, offices and shops every morning and evening. They are also placed at accident black spots, on road vehicles and often on boats when we go diving.

Bali is an island that has evolved and exists separately from the rest of the archipelago. Daily life as well as economical and political life is conducted very differently from other parts of the country.

Music and artistry play a big part in Balinese life. From shadow puppet theatre, to the village gamelan set, every Balinese grows up with dance and drama in their lives. Sculptures in wood and -

stone are seen everywhere as are basketry and painting. Bamboo, which grows so readily on the island, is used in architecture and furniture and to make domestic tools, musical instruments and many ritual objects.

The Balinese calendar system is a mystical mathematical labyrinth based on a saka year of twelve lunar months and a pawukon year of 210 days. ‘Annual’ temple festivals occur according to either ‘year’. Using these calendars, people determine the correct dates for a busy schedule of temple anniversaries, as well as the best day and time to make a fishing net, get married, cremate a family member, and other events large and small in the Balinese community. The system is not parallel to the Western Gregorian calendar, so major festival dates will change from month to month and year to year in this calendar. Simultaneously layered with the pawukon year are ten cyclical ‘weeks’ or wara. The first wara has one day, the second has two days and so on up to ten. The most important of these are the three, five and seven-day ‘weeks’. The pawukon is also made up of thirty seven-day weeks, each with a different name. For important ceremonies, not surprisingly, the Balinese consult a priest to determine the dates. The saka calendar year is based on cycles of the moon, each month beginning after a new moon. There are twelve months of twenty-nine to thirty days each. A thirteenth month is added every thirty months to keep it synchronized with the solar year.

The significance of the above is that you will often encounter ceremonies while you are here in Bali - and if today is a good day to get married, you’ll see a lot of wedding ceremonies!

Try to use only your right hand, especially when handling food. Pointing and summonsing someone with your index finger is considered impolite. Also try not to point your feet at anyone. The Balinese are, however, very understanding about the fact that you come from a different culture and will forgive you for most faux pas. You must wear a sarong and waist-sash (to tie off appetites of the lower body) upon entry to a temple. Flash photography and physical intrusions into ceremonies are unwelcome. The Balinese are very welcoming and hospitable and will do their best to help you to understand ceremonies - please try to remember that you are a visitor and that what you are watching is not a show put on for your entertainment, it is a part of their lives.

Don’t be surprise if almost every week you will find ceremonies and festivals during your visit in Bali. Some of the important religious ceremonies are:

  • Galungan and Kuningan
    Balinese really pay high respect to the Gods .These ceremonies happen once every six months, and are to celebrate the winning of Dharma (the Goodness) against Adharma (the Evil) and also to say grace to the Gods for all the good things happen in life.
  • Nyepi
    Nyepi is the Balinese New Year, called Icaka and usually happens in March each year. There are no activities at all during this day and Bali looks to be a dead island. You are not allowed to go outside the house, use electricity, light a fire, or do other such activities. You have to stay and contemplate and evaluate on what you have done with your life for the past year.
  • Saraswati
    Saraswati is a holy day to celebrate the science as the light for the wisdom in life. This event usually occurs on a Saturday, and it is mostly celebrated at schools and other education centers.
  • Ngaben
    Ngaben is a sacred celebration to honor the ancestors as a symbol of the union of the five body elements by cremating the dead and also a symbol to transmit the spirit to the upper level.
  • Odalan
    Odalan is the birthday of the Pura (temple). At this ceremony, the Balinese ask their Gods for a better future and a prosperous life for the people and universe.


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