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Understanding Symbols in Balinese Architecture Ornaments

Balinese culture is very rich in symbolism and it is represented in their architecture which is famous around the world due to the uniqueness of its ornaments.

Symbol is something that represents something else. It is also an embodiment of Balinese philosophy and culture that is influenced by elements of Hinduism, as the beliefs of its people. Being one of the most popular Asian tropical architectural styles, with a distinct flair for being harmony with nature.

Design is part of Bali’s spiritual heritage and this heritage contributes the look of traditional homes, temples and even modern buildings such as the myriad resorts. It is timeless, whether it is centuries old or be part of hip new villas.

In Bali, architecture brings together the living and the dead, pays homage to the gods and wards off evil spirits, not to mention the torrential rain. As spiritual as it functional, as mystical as it is beautiful, Balinese architecture has a life force of its own.

On this amazing Island bond by deep-rooted religious and cultural rituals, the priority of any design is appeasing the ancestral and village gods, this means reserving the holiest (northeast) location in every land space for the village temple. The same corner in every home for family temple, and providing a comfortable, pleasing atmosphere to entice the gods back to Bali for ceremonies.

So while it exudes balance, beauty, age-old wisdom and functionality, a Balinese home is not a commodity designed with capital appreciation in mind.

A village, a temple, a family compound, an individual structure – and even every single part of the structure – must all conform to the Balinese concept of cosmic order. It consists of three parts that represents the three worlds of the cosmos. Swah (world of gods), Bhwah (world of humans) and Bhur (world of demons).

The concept also represents a three part division of a person – Utama (the head), Madya (the body) and Nista (the legs). The unit of measurements used in traditional buildings are directly based on the anatical dimensions of the head of the household, ensuring harmony between the dwelling and the living on it. The design is usually done by an undagi (a combination of architect-priest).

Despite the visible marriage of tradition and modernity in architecture in Bali homes and villas, designers and builders still place the distinct philosophies of Balinese architecture as the top priority. The philosophies of these architectural design revolve around Hinduism, special organization and communal based social relationship. A Balinese home or villa is built around these 7 philosophies :

  1. Tri Hata Karana – creating harmony and balance between the three elements of life – the atma (human), the angga (nature) and khaya (gods).
  2. Tri Mandala – rule of space division and zoning.
  3. Sanga Mandala – also a set of rules of space division and zoning based on directions.
  4. Tri Angga – concept or hierarchy among different realms.
  5. Tri Loka – similar with Tri Angga but with different realms.
  6. Asta Kosala Kosali – 8 guidelines of architectural regarding symbols, shrines, stages and measurement units.
  7. Arga Segara – sacred axis between mountain and sea.

Using these philosophies, Balinese architecture focuses on 4 strength aspects which are

  1. A good ventilation system – with Balinese homes and luxury villas, big windows are used to give full attention to air circulation. A large free space between the roof and wall were also created.
  2. A Strong Foundation – based on the Tri Loka Philosophy, the human body is similar to a house, with a strong foundation such as the feet for human, a house will have a tremendous strength.
  3. A Massive Yard – based on the concept of being harmony with nature, a typical Balinese house or villa must have a yard for which to commune with natural surroundings.
  4. A Guarding Wall – a high wall protects the ho e from public view, providing privacy and protection from other people as well as ward off black magic and evil spirits from entering the property.

However, the basic element of Balinese architecture is the Bale, a rectangular, open sided pavilion with a steeply pitched roof of thatch. Both a family compound and temple will comprise a number of separate Bale for specific functions, all surrounded by high wall. The size and proportion of the Bale, the number of columns and the position within the compound all are determined according tradition and the owner’s caste status.

Traditional Balinese homes are found in every region of the Island of Bali. The Balinese house looks inward, the outside is simply a high wall. Inside there is a garden and a separate small building or Bale for each activity. The whole complex inside the homes is oriented on the kaja-kelod (towards the mountains, towards the sea) axis.

Balinese people themselves are well known for their artistry. They have developed a sophisticated sculpting tradition that manifest in architecture rich with ornamentation and interior decoration. Balinese temples and palaces are beautifully decorated with rich ornamentation, both wooden and stone sculpting which usually depict floral patterns. Balinese sculpture also often served as gate guardians as twin dvarapalas flanking entrance.

Analogous to the human body, compounds have a head (the family temple with its ancestral shrine), arms (the sleeping and living area), legs and feet (the kirchen and rice storage building) and even an anus (the garbage pit or pigsty). There may be an area outside the house where fruit trees are grown or pigs are kept.

There are various typical family compounds. For example the entrance is commonly on the kuah (sunset side) rather than the kelod (away from the mountains and towards the sea) side, but never on the kangin (sunrise) side or kaja (in the direction of the mountains) side.

The following are commonly found in family compounds :

  1. Sanggah or Merajan family temple, which is always on the kaja-kangin (sunrise in the direction of the mountains) side corner of the courtyard. There will be shrines to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Visnu and Shiva and to Taksu the divine intermediary.
  2. Umah Meten, the sleeping pavilion for the family head.
  3. Tugu, shrine to the god of evil spirits on the compound but at the far kaja-kuah (sunset to the direction of the mountains) corner, by employing the chief spirit as a guard, others may stay away.
  4. Pengijeng, small shrine amid the compound’s open space, dedicated to the spirit who is the guardian of the property.
  5. Bale Tiang Sanga, pavilion for guests, also known as the Bale Duah. Literally the family room, it is used as gathering place, offering workplace or temporary quarters of lesser sons and their familiesbefore they establish their own home.
  6. Natah, courtyard with frangipani or hibiscus shade trees, with always a chicken pecking about plus a fighting cock one or two in a basket.
  7. Vegetable garden, small, usually for a few spices such as lemongrass not grown on larger plots.
  8. Bale Sakepat, sleeping pavilion for children, highly optional.
  9. Paon, kitchen, always in the south, as it is the direction associated with Brahma, god of fire.
  10. Fruit Trees & Coconut PalmsServe both practical and decorative purposes. Fruit trees are often mixed with flowering trees such as hibiscus, and caged songbirds hang from the branches.
  11. Lumbung, rice barn. Domain of both the precious grain and Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice.
  12. Rice Treshing area, important for farmers to prepare rice for cooking or storage.
  13. Aling-Aling, screen wall requiring visitors to turn a sharp left or right.
  14. Candi Kurung, gate with a foof, resembling a mountain or tower split in half.
  15. Apit Lawang/Pelinggah, gate shrines. It continually receive offerings to recharge the gate’s ability to repel evil’s spirit.
  16. Pigsty or garbage pit, always in the kangin-kelod (sunrise in the direction away of the mountains) corner, the compound’s waste ends up here.

Every village in Bali has several temples, and every home has at least one simple house temple. The Balinese word for temple is Pura, from a Sanskrit word literally meaning’ a space surrounded by wall’. Similar to a traditional Balinese home, a temple is walled in, so the shrines you see in rice fields or at magical spots such as old trees are not real temples. These simple shrines or thrones often overlook crossroads, to protect passers-by.

There are three basic temple types found in most villages and the pura puseh (temple of origin) is the most important one which is dedicated to the village founders, at the kaja end of the village. In the middle of the village is the pura desa, for the many spirits that protect the village community in daily life. And at the kelod end of the village is the pura dalem (temple of the dead).

Through their family temple, Balinese have an intense spiritual connection to their home. As many as five generation share a Balinese home, in-laws and all.

With all the hustle and bustle of daily life, Balinese architecture provides a calm and relaxing atmosphere that force you to reflect and to be at one with the earth. With design elements of plants, flowers, natural construction materials and large open spaces, staying in a Balinese home or villa is the perfect way to unwind, contemplate and truly enjoy mother nature.