Balinese Society and Culture

Balinese Society and Culture are strongly influenced and guided by its religion, Hindu Bali. This is a blend of Hinduism from old Java and the animistic beliefs that existed before the Majapahit Dynasty of East Java fled to Bali in the 15th century.

Nowadays, the most noticeable part of Balinese religion are the thousands of temples, called ‘pura’, that are found all over the island. On hills, on the coast, at fishing spots, at water points and in the rice fields; a temple is there to appease the protecting spirits and ward off evil ones, and keep happy the souls of deceased villagers.

The Visual Arts of dance and the accompanying ‘gamelan’ orchestra (a type of xylophone) are also a product of and played for the Hindu Bali religion.


There are four castes in Balinese society, namely:

  1. Brahmana or priest/ scholar. This is the highest caste but members are often poor because of lack of experience in business.
  2. Ksatrya or warrior/king/nobility.  Formerly had more power than Brahmans because nobles had power over life and death. Obtained wealth through taxes.
  3. Weisya or merchant. Often materially better off than both Brahman and Ksatrya because of the shift from a subsistence to a cash economy.
  4. Sudra or farmer/ labourer. Many are descendants of the original Balinese society. They are often wealthy as they own riceland.

While inter-marriage between the castes is more common nowadays, daughters are usually prohibited from marrying boys of a lower caste. However, romances often blossom at school or university, and the couple run away and elope, the girl leaving a note for her mother. When they return from their time away together a quick marriage is arranged because such a dalliance would make her unmarriagable to anyone of her caste in any case. In this way, education is having a very direct effect on the old ways.



Land within the perimeter of the village between the main temples (mrajin) has belonged to the village since time immemorial and cannot be sold. This land is usually divided into walled family compounds for protection, and belongs to the village and the temple. It can. however, be surrendered to someone else as long as that person continues to pray and make offerings at the various temples that are his responsibility.

Ricefields outside of this area can be bought and sold, and houses on such land can be sold. Each household is limited to 3.7 hectares (10 acres). Before land reform in the early 1960s some families owned up to 20 hectares, and many were landless. The very large tracts of land belonged to the temples. The rice from this land belonged to the temples. The rice from this land was sold and financed large ceremonies twice a year. Some temples owned up to 100 hectares, but after land reform this was reduced to 1 hectare, so large ceremonies are rare nowadays.


All farmers belong to the local ‘subak’ (irrigation committee) and water is allocated and diverted to all terraces. Interfering with irrigation ditches can lead to severe punishment.  The Subak is under extreme pressure in the 21st Century because farmland that is sold off for tourist villas often interferes with the subak system, and affects farmers further down the irrigation system.

Polite Behaviour in Indonesia

Body Language is very important in Bali and Java. The Balinese tourist industry is growing fast, and services are often taxed to the limit, so you should be patient. Getting upset will only make you hot and bothered and probably cause more problems. Things that are considered polite behaviour in Indonesia may be different to what you are used to at home.

Take your sense of humour with you. The Balinese laugh at each other and will laugh at you too, but don’t take it to heart.

Social interaction in Indonesia follows a pattern in which respect is due to age and position. Men are generally addressed by the term ‘Pak’, women by the term ‘Bu’ and children and teenagers by’Dik’, or’Abang’.

When you are invited into someone’s home, ask whether you should remove your shoes at the door. Don’t put your feet on the coffee table. Walking in the street, people will ask “where are you going?”

They don’t really want a definite answer. It is more like “how are you?” It is considered quite rude to ignore people who ask you.

Balinese Society and Culture


Always carry a sash when you go out sight-seeing because everyone who enters a temple must wear a sash around the waist. If you enter the sacred inner courtyard you should be wearing a sarong and sash with a blouse or shirt. No shorts allowed.

According to ancient law, women should not enter temples during menstruation. This is based on a general sanction against blood on holy soil and not on sexist principles.

Do not climb on anything to take photos or get a better view, and do not stand between people who are praying or making offerings at the altar. One should always stoop a little when walking past people who are praying. Never stand higher than the priest conducting the ceremony, and do not raise your voice.


Typical signs of aggression that should be avoided are standing with your hands on your hips, raising your voice and pointing with your finger. When pointing – do so with your thumb.


Once you start bargaining, it is often hard to stop without a tense situation arising. This is especially so if each of you have given two prices and the seller accepts. It is too late to decide “no thanks, it’s still too expensive anyway”. It is okay to ask the price, but if you aren’t really serious about buying something, don’t bargain.


In the West, we beckon with out index finger pointed upwards and towards us. To Indonesians this is very offensive. They beckon with their whole hand pointing downwards, as in waving goodbye limply.


In Asia, the right hand is the clean hand, the left dirty. This is especially so when eating. The main reason for this is that the left hand is used with water to cleanse oneself after defecating. This may be squatting over a 5cm hole in the bathroom floor, or in a fast flowing stream beside the rice fields.

Along the same lines, the head is clean, and shouldn’t be touched, even on young children. Your feet are a source of impurity, so don’t push bags around with your feet!


When visiting someone’s home you will invariably be offered hot coffee without milk. Most of the fine ground coffee settles to the bottom. The floating bits get stuck in your teeth. Wait for your host to say “mari minum” before you begin drinking.

Leave some coffee in the bottom of the cup. If you are offered a meal, leave enough room for a second helping. Dessert is not usually served after an Indonesian meal.


To the dismay of Balinese and visitors alike, street hawkers have become quite persistent, and sometimes down-right rude. To make you feel better, you are under no social obligation to answer when you are asked whether you want to buy something that is thrust in front of you.

In fact you are better off not saying anything. The most effective response is a quick shake of your head and avert your eyes from theirs. The same applies when offered transportation, or when someone approaches you in a restaurant or at your hotel.

Effect of Tourism on Balinese Culture

The effect of tourism on Balinese culture and society has been mixed.  The increasing tourist flow is helping to rejuvenate local arts and crafts, such as dance and wood carving. Also, money is being spent on up-market cottages that are constructed according to the traditional architectural specifications, though with modern bathroom facilities.

Such bungalows are the Oka Kartini and Puri Saren Bungalows at Ubud, with intricately carved reliefs, doors and roof supports, and beautiful gardens with peacocks and fountains. Of the larger hotels, the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel is outstanding, the front section reminding one of a great temple. Buildings such as these ensure that the traditional skills are not lost.

Many towns in Bali are reknowned as being the centre of a particular art or craft; e.g. Ubud for painting, Peliatan for dance and gamelan, Mas for woodcarving, Gianyar for weaving and Celuk for silver. Craftsmen from the surrounding villages work at home and bring their finished products to Kuta or Sanur to sell.

In a way, the desire of visitors to watch dance and gamelan and buy souvenirs has led to a resurgence of local interest and pride in the traditional Balinese Arts’ and Crafts, though in a modified form.

On the negative side, the sale of agricultural land for development has interfered with the local Subak communal irrigation system. The usual vices accompany tourism in Bali as they do in other countries, but this is mostly limited to the southern beaches area. The Balinese have shown themselves to be resilient in the face of these pressures.

A large number of formerly poor subsistence farmers are now able to afford education for their children. Jobs are plentiful in the tourism sector, and there is a growing market for the local produce that they grow.