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10 Valuable Gains You Will Get from Exploring Balinese Culture

Culture (/ˈkʌltʃər/) is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.

Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization (including practices of political organization and social institutions), mythology, philosophy, literature (both written and oral), and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

In the humanities, one sense of culture as an attribute of the individual has been the degree to which they have cultivated a particular level of sophistication in the arts, sciences, education, or manners. The level of cultural sophistication has also sometimes been used to distinguish civilizations from less complex societies. Such hierarchical perspectives on culture are also found in class-based distinctions between a high culture of the social elite and a low culture, popular culture, or folk culture of the lower classes, distinguished by the stratified access to cultural capital. In common parlance, culture is often used to refer specifically to the symbolic markers used by ethnic groups to distinguish themselves visibly from each other such as body modification, clothing or jewelry.

When used as a count noun, a “culture” is the set of customs, traditions, and values of a society or community, such as an ethnic group or nation. Culture is the set of knowledge acquired over time. The Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”

As a cultured society, it sort of becomes a custom to learn about local culturalism in places we travel to. From the people to the traditions, learning about culture has never been a bad decision, especially for a foreigner. Same condition applies to any of you who is currently at, or is planning to come to, Bali. This tiny paradise has long been in many people’s bucket list, although not many realize how much the island has changed since its glorious days many, many years ago.

Yes, Bali has mostly changed into modern cottages and ultra chic beach-clubs that is entirely different from what it was decades ago. Foreigners have been coming to the island rather disappointed to find it worlds away from what they have always imagined it to be. However, if only they had done a better research, they would have find some places that still offer the experiences they had been dreaming of. Afterall, this is still the same island with its thick tradition and cultural heritage. If there’s anything you can take from Bali, we really think it should be their wisdom and way of life. Here’s why you should learn about their culture:

  1. You’ll get to know more about the people (and their name).

The Balinese people (Indonesian: Suku Bali) are an Austronesian ethnic group and nation native to the Indonesian island of Bali. The Balinese population of 4.2 million (1.7% of Indonesia’s population) live mostly on the island of Bali, making up 89% of the island’s population. There are also significant populations on the island of Lombok and in the easternmost regions of Java (e.g. the regency of Banyuwangi).

The Balinese originated from three periods of migration. The first waves of immigrants came from Java and Kalimantan in prehistoric times and were of proto-Malay stock. The second wave of Balinese came slowly over the years from Java during the Hindu period. The third and final wave came from Java, between the 15th and 16th centuries, about the same time as the conversion to Islam in Java, causing aristocrats and peasants to flee to Bali after the collapse of the Javanese Hindu Majapahit Empire in order to escape Mataram’s Islamic conversion.

This in turn reshaped the Balinese culture into a syncretic form of classical Javanese culture mixed with many Balinese elements. A DNA study in 2005 by Karafet et al., found that 12% of Balinese Y-chromosomes are of likely Indian origin, while 84% are of likely Austronesian origin, and 2% of likely Melanesian origin. In the Balinese naming system, a person’s rank of birth or caste is reflected in the name.

  1. You’ll know where their traditions came from.

Balinese culture is a mix of Balinese Hindu-Buddhist religion and Balinese customs. It is perhaps most known for its dance, drama and sculpture. The island is also known for its Wayang kulit or Shadow play theatre. Even in rural and neglected villages, beautiful temples are a common sight; and so are skillful gamelan players and talented actors.

Even layered pieces of palm leaf and neat fruit arrangements made as offerings by Balinese women have an artistic side to them. According to Mexican art historian José Miguel Covarrubias, works of art made by amateur Balinese artists are regarded as a form of spiritual offering, and therefore these artists do not care about recognition of their works. Balinese artists are also skilled in duplicating art works such as carvings that resemble Chinese deities or decorating vehicles based on what is seen in foreign magazines.

  1. You’ll be able to enjoy the music more.

The culture is noted for its use of the gamelan in music and in various traditional events of Balinese society. Each type of music is designated for a specific type of event. For example, music for a piodalan (birthday celebration) is different from music used for a metatah (teeth grinding) ceremony, just as it is for weddings, Ngaben (cremation of the dead ceremony), Melasti (purification ritual) and so forth. The diverse types of gamelan are also specified according to the different types of dance in Bali. According to Walter Spies, the art of dancing is an integral part of Balinese life as well as an endless critical element in a series of ceremonies or for personal interests.

  1. You won’t be too surprised when you see topless female senior citizens.

Traditionally, displaying female breasts is not considered immodest. Balinese women can often be seen with bared chests; however, a display of the thigh is considered immodest. In modern Bali these customs are normally not strictly observed, but visitors to Balinese temples are advised to cover their legs.

  1. You’ll know what Galungan is all about.

Galungan is a Balinese holiday celebrating the victory of dharma over adharma. It marks the time when the ancestral spirits visit the Earth. The last day of the celebration is Kuningan, when they return. The date is calculated according to the 210-day Balinese calendar. It is related to Diwali, celebrated by Hindus in other parts of the world, which also celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma. Diwali, however, is held at the end of the year.

Galungan marks the beginning of the most important recurring religious ceremonies. The spirits of deceased relatives who have died and been cremated return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings. The most obvious sign of the celebrations are the penjor – bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end. These are installed by the side of roads.

A number of days around the Kuningan day have special names, and are marked by the organization of particular activities. Galungan begins on the Wednesday (Buda) of Dunggulan, the 11th week of the 210-day pawukon calendar. This means that there are often two celebrations per solar year.

  1. …and why we can’t turn on the lights on Hari Raya Nyepi.

Nyepi is a Balinese “Day of Silence” that is commemorated every Isakawarsa (Saka new year) according to the Balinese calendar (in 2019, it falls on March 7). It is a Hindu celebration mainly celebrated in Bali, Indonesia. Nyepi, a public holiday in Indonesia, is a day of silence, fasting and meditation for the Balinese. The day following Nyepi is also celebrated as New Year’s Day. On this day, the youth of Bali in the village of Sesetan in South Bali practice the ceremony of Omed-omedan or ‘The Kissing Ritual’ to celebrate the new year.

The same day celebrated in India as Ugadi. Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents and tourists are not exempt from the restrictions. Although they are free to do as they wish inside their hotels, no one is allowed onto the beaches or streets, and the only airport in Bali remains closed for the entire day. The only exceptions granted are for emergency vehicles responding to life-threatening conditions and women about to give birth. On the day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni (Relighting the Fire), social activity picks up again quickly, as families and friends gather to ask forgiveness from one another, and to perform certain religious rituals together. Fires and electricity are allowed again, and cooking of food resumes.

  1. You’ll know why everybody is scared of Pecalang.

Security is provided by the usual hansip, while the pecalang are redirected into security roles from their usual mundane tasks like traffic coordination to beef up the local security. These two security forces report to local village heads, in 2017 its reported islandwide that some 22,000 pecalang are taking part for Nyepi. National police also take part, but naturally ultimately report to Jakarta rather than the village or regency level.

  1. You’ll be prepared when you see people wearing whites on the street, heaving up a heavily decorated cart.

Ngaben, also known as Pitra Yadyna, Pelebon or cremation ceremony, is the Hindu funeral ritual of Bali, Indonesia. A Ngaben is performed to release the soul of a dead person so that it can enter the upper realm where it can wait for it to be reborn or become liberated from the cycles of rebirths.

The Balinese Hindu theology holds that there is a competition between evil residents of the lower realm to capture this soul, and a proper cremation enhances the chance that it may reach the upper realm. A quick Ngaben is preferred, but usually too expensive. In Balinese culture, people go through an interim state where they bury the dead for a while usually near Pura Prajapati, pool funds and cremate many recently dead on the same day in an elaborate community-based Ngaben ceremony. Once the families are financially ready, they select an auspicious day, make bade (coffins) to carry the deads, and announce the event in the village.

The families also make a patulangan to cremate the body in, which is either a lembu (bull or mythical animal-shaped bamboo-wood-paper coffin) to burn with the dead, or a wooden wadah (temple-like structure). Once the corpse is ready for the cremation ground, it is washed, dressed in Balinese attire, family and friends pay their last goodbye with prayers and the mourners take it for cremation. They carry the corpses with rites, dressed in traditional attire, accompanied with gamelan music and singing, to the kuburan (cremation grounds). If the path passes through major road crossings, the coffin is rotated three times to confuse the evil residents of the lower realm.

  1. You’ll understand what they are saying (if you would learn).

Balinese or simply Bali, is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by 3.3 million people (as of 2000) on the Indonesian island of Bali as well as Northern Nusa Penida, Western Lombok and Eastern Java. In 2011, the Bali Cultural Agency estimated that the number of people still using the Balinese language in their daily lives on the Bali Island does not exceed 1 million, as in urban areas their parents only introduce the Indonesian language or even English, while daily conversations in the institutions and the mass media have disappeared.

The written form of the Balinese language is increasingly unfamiliar and most Balinese people use the Balinese language only as a means of oral communication, often mixing it with Indonesian in their daily speech. But in the transmigration areas outside Bali Island, the Balinese language is extensively used and believed to play an important role in the survival of the language. The higher registers of the language borrow extensively from Javanese: an old form of classical Javanese, Kawi, is used in Bali as a religious and ceremonial language.

  1. And finally, you’ll know that they use a different calendar (which you can buy in traditional markets, if you want one).

The Balinese saka calendar is one of two calendars used on the Indonesian island of Bali. Unlike the 210-day pawukon calendar, it is based on the phases of the Moon, and is approximately the same length as the Gregorian year. Based on a lunar calendar, the saka year comprises twelve months, or sasih, of 30 days each.

However, because the lunar cycle is slightly shorter than 30 days, and the lunar year has a length of 354 or 355 days, the calendar is adjusted to prevent it losing synchronization with the lunar or solar cycles. The months are adjusted by allocating two lunar days to one solar day every 9 weeks. This day is called ngunalatri, Sanskrit for “minus one night”.

To stop the Saka from lagging behind the Gregorian calendar – as happens with the Islamic calendar, an extra month, known as an intercalary month, is added after the 11th month (when it is known as Mala Jiyestha), or after the 12th month (Mala Sadha). The length of these months is calculated according to the normal 63-day cycle.

An intercalary month is added whenever necessary to prevent the final day of the 7th month, known as Tilem Kapitu, from falling in the Gregorian month of December. The names the twelve months are taken from a mixture of Old Balinese and Sanskrit words for 1 to 12, and are as follows: Kasa, Karo, Katiga, Kapat, Kalima, Kanem, Kapitu, Kawalu, Kasanga, Kadasa, Jyestha, and Sadha. Each month begins the day after a new moon and has 15 days of waxing moon until the full moon (Purnama), then 15 days of waning, ending on the new moon (Tilem).

Both sets of days are numbered 1 to 15. The first day of the year is usually the day after the first new moon in March. Note, however, that Nyepi falls on the first day of Kadasa, and that the years of the Saka era are counted from that date.

Now that you learn some Balinese culture in-depth, would you share with your friends? We hope you do. See you in Bali!