Globalization has profoundly changed Bali in recent decades. Balinese women have covered themselves while some lived topless until the 1980s. A law regulates cockfighting, which is now prohibited except on rare occasions. Cities have developed on the seaside, close to the demons that they were once far from…
These are, however, only slight adjustments, if we compare them to the thousand-year-old traditions that continue to permeate Balinese society.
Here is our selection of eight surprising Bali traditions:
1 – Giving the same first name to almost everyone:
In the Sudra caste, formerly the peasants, which represents 90% of the population in Bali, the first child of the family is given the name Wayan, Gede or Putu. Girl or boy, it doesn’t matter. No choice for the second one either, he is called Made, Kadek or Nengah. The third is Nyoman or Komang, and the fourth is Ketut. And if a fifth child is born… we start over with the first! The sixth child will be named the second and so on.
To complicate matters, the Balinese don’t have a last name. Instead, they have a name chosen by the parents, usually based on the character or physique of the child at birth.
2 – Dressing the trees
If you’ve ever come to Bali before you will surely have noticed that some of the trees were dressed in a cloth skirt. The same black and white checkered fabric that surrounds some statues in the temples of Bali.
We inquired about these trees more modest than the others. They are the ones that the Balinese think are inhabited by an invisible spirit. They are most often banians, a species considered sacred in the Hindu religion, but sometimes other trees, even large stones.
Concerning the banyan, this tree has a rather original technique to grow. Its branches let long roots hang down which grows towards the ground and as soon as a root reaches the ground, it consolidates to become a new trunk. It is not a new tree, just a new trunk for the same tree. To prevent banyan, even sacred ones, from becoming too invasive, the Balinese watch the roots and apply a small chisel stroke as they approach the ground.
3- Wobble abruptly and irregularly the body of a deceased in all directions
During a funeral ceremony in Bali, the coffin is placed in a bamboo tower and driven to the cremation site by numerous bearers, between ten and forty depending on the popularity of the deceased. But there is no time for meditation in the procession. On the contrary, the porters will do their utmost to shake and jolt the tower.
The aim is to distract and disorient the spirit of the deceased to prevent him from finding his way back and haunting his village and his home. The most effective technique seems to be to turn once or twice on the spot at each crossroads so that he no longer knows where the convoy is coming from!
4- Dropping off cigarettes and banknotes as an offering
As you walk through the streets during your holiday in Bali, you will have the opportunity to see many small offerings arranged everywhere. Made of leaves and filled with flowers, food, and incense, these small baskets are scattered all over the island and became a symbol of Bali.
On the island of the gods, the offerings are part of the daily life of the Balinese.
The Balinese deposit offerings every day either to thank the gods (the offerings are placed on top) or to appease the demons (in this case they are placed on the ground). We already found it strange that the Balinese put sweets in their plastic wrappings, but we were even more surprised the first time we saw a cigarette in the little basket. Either the Balinese do not know that smoking is harmful, or, more likely, the gods are immortal.
We also saw banknotes in offerings, especially in the temples. What do the gods buy with them? No idea, we are in search of an explanation!
5- Respecting the Nyepi: The Day of Silence
In Bali, Nyepi is the most important and unusual festival of the year! These festivities, unique in the world, celebrate the passage to the New Year, we are currently in 1941 of the Hindu Saka calendars.
Nyepi begins to make its approach about a month before the fateful date, the streets are then populated with monsters being made with paper-mâché they call them the Ogoh Ogoh. Once finished, they will be used to frighten and repel the evil spirits that try to invade the earth every new year.
A few days before Nyepi the religious ceremonies, already extremely numerous in Bali, are multiplying, on the beaches on the occasion of Melasti. The island begins to slow down.
The monsters are now almost all finished, and they haunt the streets of every Balinese village with their impressive presence.
The Ogoh Ogoh are then carried along the streets by men, making several turns on themselves at each crossing to lose the evil geniuses. Many torches are lit, and firecrackers explode more beautifully. After two or three intense hours, the Balinese will defeat their immaterial assailants who will then slowly ascend towards the sky.
This year the Nyepi will be celebrated on the 25th March, the Day of Silence. On this day, the demons make a big raid on the island. Never short of parades, the Balinese keep quiet at home for twenty-four hours and everything is done to make people think that the island is deserted, uninhabited, in short, of no interest to the demons.
It’s all the activity on the island of Bali that goes into a pause, the televisions and even the lights stay off. The airport is closed, and no flights are scheduled to enter or leave the territory. It is officially forbidden to go out in the streets, including for non-Hindus and tourists. Police patrols are on the lookout and they are not joking at all. The only exception to this rule is ambulances in urgent medical cases such as childbirth, seizures or heart attacks.
6- Omed-Omedan: The kissing ritual
The day after Nyepi in the Banjar Kaja in the village of Sesetan, Denpasar. There is a tradition of the omed-omedan which is a wet kissing ritual to celebrate the joy of the first day of the Balinese New Year. The people of this village believe that if this ceremony does not take place there will be a disaster.
This tradition has been going on for a hundred years and does not exist anywhere else than in Bali. Before it begins the participants of the omed-omedan go to pray at the Banjar temple. Once the prayer is done there is a small barong dance performance that takes place in the street. By this time hundreds of people have already gathered to attend the event. The ritual of omed-omedan starts around 2 pm. If you want to observe these festivities, you better come early to make sure you have a good place to watch and take pictures. By the way, a little advice: protect your camera because there will be water “flying”! Only members of the Banjar of this village and single people between 17 and 30 years old can take part in this ceremony. The single young people of the village meet in the street separated into 2 groups: girls on one side, boys on the other facing each other. At the signal of the priest and the music, they rush to the center and the boys try to catch the girls to steal a kiss from them while the members of the crowd spray them with water. Only the brave ones manage to get a kiss on the lips while the others get a kiss on the cheek. The water used during the ceremony is supposed to represent fertility. Be aware that Indonesians are modest so the participants, especially the women are a little embarrassed while the men will be rather playful. Some participants will even become couples as a result of this event, and many will get married.
7 – Tumpek Landep: Thanking your metal objects on the Metal Day
Less constraining than the Day of Silence, the metal festival is celebrated every year by the Balinese.
The tradition of this festival, born in a distant time when the Balinese owned only a few metal objects, is much more demonstrative than today. Everybody polishes and takes great care of their scooter, car, cooking and gardening utensils… before depositing a mess of offerings. The aim is to thank the objects for their help, in the hope that they will continue to bring luck to their owner and that they will not betray them for another year.
8 – Getting your teeth filed
Put your finger on your canines. Can you feel how they stick out compared to the other teeth? Well, the Balinese don’t have that problem. Every teenager, boy or girl, has to go through the coming of age ritual of having their canines filed. At a party organized for the occasion, a Brahmin gives a few strokes of the file on the protruding teeth… without anesthesia.
While this may be the secret of beautiful Balinese smiles, this ritual has a deeper meaning. The sharp teeth represent the beastly side of humanity. By removing them, the child becomes a wise and responsible adult, who will not be dominated by anger, jealousy or other vile instincts. Usually, the ceremony is done just before a wedding.
If you know other fun Balinese traditions don’t hesitate to share them with us!