The island of Bali is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Indonesia. It boasts a rich culture strongly influenced by India and Hinduism.
In fact, Bali is home to most of the country's Hindu population. For the best vacation experience, we recommend getting to know and immerse yourself in the vibrant local Balinese culture.
When it's time to head home, you can leave with not only great photos, but also memories of this beautiful island.
Here's everything you need to know about Bali culture.
Religions in Bali - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism
Almost 93% of the islands are made up of Balinese Hindus. Hinduism is the most dominant religion and represents the culture of the island. Islam makes up about (13%) of the population, Christianity about 2.5%, and Buddhism less than 0.5% of the Balinese population.
Contrary to these statistics, Islam and Buddhism are two of the most dominant religions in other parts of Indonesia.
Balinese Hinduism is the main religion of Bali
Called Agama Tirtha or "The Science of Holy Water," Balinese Hinduism incorporates interpretations of Chinese, Indian, and Javanese beliefs.
There is a belief in Bali that the region belongs to the god Sanhyan Vidhi. People are deeply religious, making great efforts to appease the gods through processions, offerings, ceremonies, and the like.
The culture of Bali favors group worship. You will find more than 20,000 temples on the island. In each village at least 3 are expected: one for its founder, one for the spirit protecting the village, and one for the dead.
On feast days the temples become quite crowded, and grand offerings of flowers and food are made in the pyramids. Smaller offerings are left at the crossroads of villages, where evil spirits are believed to live.
On other days it is still customary to make some kind of offering, usually portions of rice on banana leaves, which are placed in the house and on the ground. Before important life events, cleansing ceremonies are held to make room for the demons.
Mount Agung is the home of the gods in Bali culture. Meanwhile, it is believed that the spirits (evil and benevolent) live in the sea.
Islam in Bali
It is said that Islam came to Bali and then to the kingdom of Gelgel when Muslims arrived here and built a mosque. Today it is the oldest Muslim place of worship on the island.
In addition, there are several mosques on the island. For a long time there were very few Muslims in the region. After independence, they increasingly came from neighboring areas such as Java, Madura, and Lombok in search of work.
Islam remains a minority religion on the island. Many Muslims add Balinese names to their children's Muslim names, such as Ketut Muhammad or Wayan Abdullah.
There are several Muslim-majority villages on the island, such as Palasari, Ye Sumbul, and Nyuling, which make up the culture of Bali.
Christianity in Bali
Bali's first contact with Christianity is said to have come from a letter. It is believed that King Klungkung of Bali sent a letter (written on palm leaves) to the Vatican in the early 17th century, inviting priests to his kingdom. The missionaries did arrive, but their sermons failed to gather supporters.
Today, evangelism continues to survive in Balinese culture through efforts such as the Balinese Gospel Festival held in Denpasar, where prayers are held through sermons and Christian songs.
Bali Dances - Vali, Bebali, Balih Balihan
In 2015, UNESCO recognized three genres of Balinese dance: sacred ("wali"), semi-sacral ("bebali"), and entertainment ("balih balihan").
Most Balinese dancers are trained from a young age and are highly respected in local communities. Their dances are accompanied by an orchestra of bamboo and wooden instruments called gamelan.
Dances emphasize the island's culture and include intricate hand movements called mudras. Balinese dances usually convey stories from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavad-gita.
The Sacred Dance (Vali)
These dances are performed at religious events in Balinese culture as a way to welcome and entertain the gods. Since the 8th century, sacred dances have only been allowed in Balinese temples. During the performance, the dancers are believed to be possessed by the gods.
Semi-sacral dance (Bebali)
Although these dances may be used for rituals, they are also performed for entertainment. Most of these cultural Balinese dances have a story line and character, making the performance rich in symbolism. The dance dates back to the 14th century. Some semi-sacral dances include topeng and gambukh.
Entertainment Dance (Balih Balihan)
Bali Bailhan dances are most often seen by Bali tourists. They are often organized by hotels or tour companies several times a week, sometimes more often during peak season, and as a result dancers find these forms profitable. The dances embody the culture of the island, showing its traditions in full splendor.
The barong is performed by two men in costume to represent the king of spirits from Balinese mythology. They are joined by other dancers portraying other animals and people.
The main moment of this dance is when the dancers strike with an asymmetrical Balinese dagger, called keris, while remaining unharmed.
Legong is performed by women. Because of his complex movements and facial expressions, he requires training from a young age. His origins can be traced to the entertainment of royal courts.
Kechak is believed to be a newer form of art, created in the 1930s. It is an adaptation of the Ramayana. The dance features over 100 dancers performing shirtless, often accompanied by fire. Instead of using the traditional gamelan, kechak dancers play their own music.
Theater in Bali
Because of their narrative nature, the dances are closely related to the theatrical traditions of the region. They are called "dance dramas. There is often overlap between classifications of certain traditions as simply dance or theater, such as barong, gambuch, and topeng.
Drama in Bali is performed as part of the culture at most social events, from birthdays and weddings, to religious rituals and cremations. They mostly tell stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
In 1960, the Villibrodus Rendra Theater Company came to the island and showed adaptations of works by Shakespeare, Beckett, and Brecht, among others.
Wayang Kulit - Puppet Theater
Derived from the word "waiang," meaning "puppet," waiang kulit is a form of puppet theater that brings the Mahabharata to life. It originated in Java but has become very popular in Balinese culture.
The puppets are projected onto a screen of linen, and a shadow artist (called a dalang or storyteller) manipulates them between the screen and the light. These plays usually last several hours and are contextualized Mahabharata stories related to contemporary issues facing society, the nation, or the globe.
In 2003, Vayang Kulit was recognized by UNESCO as one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Bali Music - Gamelan
The traditional music of Bali is an ensemble called gamelan. It gets its name from the Javanese word "gamel," meaning a hammer used to strike instruments.
Although it is mostly percussion instruments, the gamelan includes other instruments such as metalophones, xylophones, bamboo flutes, gongs, and drums called kenhan. Men and women usually perform in separate groups.
According to local history, the gamelan was created by Gang Sang Hiang, the Javanese god who ruled the Indonesian kingdom. It is believed that he created the gong as a kind of signal to summon the gods, and after creating two other smaller gongs in accompaniment, the gamelan was formed.
There are many types of gamelan in Indonesia, which can be distinguished by the instruments used, the style, the settings, and the voice.
The Balinese gamelan differs from the slow meditative Javanese in its fast rhythms and tempo. It is performed as an accompaniment to Balinese dances, vayanga puppet shows, and religious ceremonies.
The tools are stored in an open space called a "bale". They are made of bronze and bamboo. Bali has its own varieties of gamelan, such as gamelan jegog, gamelan sulending, gamelan gambang, and gamelan kebjar.
The art of Bali is of Hindu-Javanese origin. It is highly developed and integrates artistic expression into objects of everyday use, rather than applying them as mere decorations.
From the 16th to the 20th century, the village of Kamasan in the east of the island was the center of art in the region. With the arrival of Dutch colonization and other Western influences, Balinese art began to absorb other artistic ideologies.
Today, Ubud and Batuan are famous for their Balinese paintings and Mas for its wood carvings. Cheluk surprises with its metalwork, and Batubulan with its excellent stone carvings.
Until the 1920s the paintings that appeared in Bali were rather two-dimensional, painted on cloth or bark paper with natural dyes. When Western artists began to arrive on the island, painting experiments began.
Ubud was an art center, and artists from neighboring villages such as Tebasaya and Peliatan came here. Their paintings depict both religious stories and everyday life.
Artists here received the patronage of royal houses and temples. South of Ubud, the village of Batuan flourished without any Western influences.
As a result, their paintings are quite dark using gradations of black and white ink, telling stories of nocturnal coitus. In recent years their scale has increased.
Woodcarving in Bali
Wood carving was an important tradition in Balinese art and culture, and it underwent change in the 1930s after colonization. Traditionally woods such as jackfruit, teak, and baliwood were used, but in recent years wood has been important to Java because of resource scarcity and availability.
While some wood carvings may be partial, done by individual artists, most carvings are a group effort, created by several people who sit together and work on their own sections.
After the carving and sanding is complete, paint and varnish are applied. Bali wood carvings have been exhibited at the Nusantara Museum in the Netherlands.
Stone carving in Bali
This art form is found all over Bali, from Batubulan in Ubud, to Kepal. Stone carvings are usually reserved for the gates of temples and palaces. In fact, almost all places in Bali, from offices, to restaurants, to homes have a sculpture on stone as a "guard".
It is also believed that this stone carving will warn guests against misbehaving while visiting someone's home. The sandstone used for the carving, called paras, is considered as light as pumice stone.
Typically, black volcanic stone is used for temple and statues, while lighter stone such as limestone is carved for other purposes. Because of Bali's humid weather conditions, carvings wear out easily and require frequent replacement.
Food in Bali
Being Indonesian with Chinese and Indian influences, the food in Bali has a unique identity, as rice is a staple food in much of Southeast Asia. With the island's complex irrigation systems, this is understandable. It is accompanied by vegetables, meat, and seafood.
Although chicken, pork, seafood, and lamb are consumed in Bali, beef is rarely or never consumed according to Hindu beliefs. Dishes are cooked in rich spices such as ginger, lime, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, and shallots.
Some of the most common dishes in Bali are babi guling (roast pork), nasi kampur (mixed rice), gazar (meat, vegetables, and rice), sambal (hot sauce made with chili, shrimp paste, and vinegar), raw smoked babi (braised pork), bebek betutu (crispy duck), and saur urub (mixed salad).
As for drinks, you can try cincau (black jelly and ice), kelapa muda (coconut water), sari temulawak (ginger soda), and kopi bali (coffee). Of alcoholic beverages, you can find tuk (palm toddy), brem (red rice wine), arak (white rice wine).
Traditional dresses in Bali
A traditional Balinese woman's dress basically consists of 4 things: kamen (a type of sarong), kebaya (blouse), sabuk (belt), and selendang (decorative stripe).
The kamen is a long cloth wrapped around the waist, additionally secured with a sabuk wrapped around the torso between the thighs and the solar plexus. The torso is then covered with a loose kebaya. Finally, the outfit ends with a decorative Selendang ribbon.
Interestingly, Balinese women have not traditionally worn the kebaya. It is said that it was brought to the region by Dutch colonizers, who forced women to cover their arms and shoulders. It was immodest to show their hips.
The decorative selendang belt is similar to a corset. It gives the desired slender appearance by smoothing and binding a woman's body.
Meanwhile, men follow a similar outfit. They wear floor-length or knee-length sarongs called kain, usually in dark colors such as black or brown. A belt is then tied around their waist, often holding a special ceremonial Bali dagger, Keris.
Men complete their attire with a shirt, usually simple in color and without patterns. Some are known to wear a traditional cloth headdress called an udeng.
Literature in Bali
Bali has historically had a rich oral and written literary culture. Their literature is usually divided into the purwa (traditional) and anar (modern) periods. Over the years, efforts have been made to preserve and promote Balinese literature.
In 1967, the Office of Culture held a short story writing contest. Bali's first modern poems were published in 1968. In 1992, the government passed Local Resolution 3/1992.
Among other things, this resolution led to the creation of the Council for the Development of Balinese Language and Literature. Since then, consistent efforts have been made in the field of Balinese literature. Despite this, it continues to lag behind Indonesia's national literature and Javanese literature.
Of course, all of this is just a glimpse into Bali's rich culture! Once you make a plan to visit this beautiful island, you will have the opportunity to interact with the locals and see traditions come alive in front of you.
Don't forget: Travel is never a bad investment, and understanding other cultures only enriches your own understanding of the world.