My 5 discoveries of the Balinese Culture

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, Indonesia | 105

Besides its enchanting nature and beaches, Bali has always been known to enthrall people with its unique culture and aesthetic traditions. The first time I visited Bali was in 2010 and at that point too, I was quite taken in by this aspect of Bali. I just returned from my 2nd visit to Bali , a trip organized by Skyscanner and again, I was completely mesmerized by the simple rituals and traditions of the Balinese Culture. I took a plunge into discovering more about these traditions while I was there. What struck me amazing was that most of their culture was so much similar to Indian customs and traditions.

Uluwatu Temple by the sea, Bali - one of the examples of the Balinese culture
Uluwatu Temple by the sea, Bali – one of the examples of the Balinese culture

Let me start my series on Indonesia with this my first post that takes you through 5 examples of the Balinese Culture that are just evident as you walk down their streets.  Beginning with a quick introduction to Bali –

Background of Bali

Bali is actually a province or a small island of Indonesia. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, it is primarily occupied by the Hindus. The Balinese Hindus are said to possibly, have come from India – where some South Indians reached the coast and settled here. Some say that people gradually converted to Hinduism after their royalty welcomed the religion and embraced it. Either ways this explains the similarity that I seemed to find across Bali. Here are 5 of my experiences of the Balinese Culture that made Bali so endearing to me.

Galungan and Kuningan Festival

Penjor decorating the streets of Bali, a representation of the Balinese culture and festival
Penjor decorating the streets of Bali, a representation of the Balinese culture and festival

The first thing I noticed was these huge bamboo poles that were erected on every corner, every gate and every building across Bali.  They are known as Penjor and are put up on occasion of their big festival called Galungan, which apparently had just got over. The fascinating thing that came up was this was a 9 day festival that celebrated the victory of good over evil. For those of you who are familiar with the Indian festival, you might be able to spot a similarity immediately.  For those who are not, this festival was akin to the Dussehra festival that is celebrated in India over 9 days, with the same purpose – celebration of good over evil.

Interestingly the two festivals fall around the same time of the year. Galungan had just got over in early September while in India, we are now celebrating Dussehra . Quite like the tale of Lord Ram getting his victory over the demon Ravana, Galungan festival is celebrated as Lord Indra gained victory over the evil king Mayadenawa.

The end of Galungan Festival is celebrated as Kuningan. It is believed by the Balinese that during Galungan, the spirits of their ancestors visit their abode and hence, they must be entertained and kept happy during those 9 days that they visit. At the end of 9 days, when they are ready to return, yellow rice known as Kuning is prepared and hence, this day is referred to as Kuningan Festival. This entire celebration repeats itself after 210 days and hence, twice a year, you can experience these in Bali.

Penjor - a decoration from the Galungan-Kuningan fetsival of the Balinese culture
Penjor – a decoration from the Galungan-Kuningan festival of the Balinese culture

The Penjor added to the festive look of Bali and were a sign of the enthusiasm and vigor with which this festival is celebrated. The Bamboo poles are creatively decorated and usually have the harvest that the Balinese produced, tied at their top end. Penjor are kept in the town till they dry and fall off themselves. After which, a truck goes into every street collecting the remains and cleans them away. Since, I visited Bali just a few days after this festival had concluded, I was treated to the sights of these Penjors, merrily swaying in the winds, whispering their tales of the culture of Bali to me.

Another decorated Penjor
Another decorated Penjor

Canang Sari – A daily ritual in the Balinese culture

Canang Sari - an important ritual of the Balinese culture
Canang Sari – an important ritual of the Balinese culture

Everywhere you go, you are bound to find this lovely arrangement kept at the entrances of shops and corners of streets and even, beaches. This is called the Canang Sari (pronounced as Cha-nang). This is a daily ritual followed by the people in Bali. The Canang Sari is an offering of flowers, food and a few other things that is offered to the Gods and ancestors every day It is a way of Thanking them for the blessings that they have in their life. The Gods to whom these are dedicated to including the famed Indian Trimurti – Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma.

As for the ancestors, food , money and sometimes cigarettes are kept in the Canang. 😉

Canang Sari
Canang Sari

The manner in which these are arranged has a particular meaning. Each color of the flower signifies a particular deity and the position of the same is fixed in the Canang.

Another similarity that struck me was the dedication to the ancestors. While in India, we do not do it every day but there are some occasions in every region of India that are meant for a similar purpose. Interesting isn’t it?

Shrines and Temples

 Pelinggih - a small shrine that is dedicated to the Gods in the Balinese Culture
Pelinggih – a small shrine that is dedicated to the Gods in the Balinese Culture

Walking along the streets of Bali, I came across these small shrines. Further on, there were a few houses that seem to have a full-fledged temple. Curious to know more, I was put in touch with a local Balinese lady – Risya by my Skyscanner team. Special thanks to her for her patience in explaining more about these to me.

Pelinggih in Bali
Pelinggih in Bali

The smaller shrines as you can see in the picture above are a part of Balinese architecture. They are called as Pelinggih and are shrines dedicated to the Gods and their ancestors. The Balinese worship three main deities – all of whom are known as Trimurti – both in India and Bali. These deities are Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Quite like the Hindus of India, the Balinese also, dedicate some of their shrines and temples to other Gods like the Sun God or Lord Surya. The Pelinggih are used for their daily prayers and generally, face the North East direction. The people in Bali worship these Pelinggih every day and offer Canang during the same here.

A compound temple with many Pelinggih in a Balinese Home
A compound temple with many Pelinggih in a Balinese Home

Similar to India, Bali Hindu system is also, divided into castes. The Pelinggih belonging to the lower caste families is called as Sanggah and the ones in the higher caste families are called Meranjan. As I understood from Risya, some homes have multiple Pelinggihs in their fold and these form a compound temple.

A Balinese home with tigers guarding the home and the compound temple within
A Balinese home with tigers guarding the home and the compound temple within

Interestingly, after she explained to me, I shared a picture of a home that I had found during my walk with two tigers guarding its gates. Turns out, that was the home of her uncle and the pictures that I had taken were of his compound temple. What can I say – the world is a small place alright!!!!

Tiger guarding the gates of a Balinese Home

The presence of my favorite God – Ganesha

Ganesha - an important God of the Balinese culture
Ganesha at the far end – an important God of the Balinese culture

Lord Ganesha – or for those who are not familiar with him, he is the God with a head of an elephant. Extremely popular in India, he has a whole festival dedicated to himself and marks the tidings of a Good beginning.  He is one of my favorites – for his tales of mischief and fascinating mythological stories. Finding him in Bali was quite exciting. He is a part of every Hindu home here as he is considered to be the Lord of knowledge and wisdom.

You will find a lot of his idols carved and sold as Balinese memorabilia. Fancy one?

The Balinese Dances

Right in the beginning I mentioned that the Balinese are known for their sense of art and creativity. Dance and music are an essential part of their culture. No celebration here is complete without it. I had the fortune of witnessing three interesting dance forms – the Pendet Dance, the Barong Dance and the Kechak Dance. Take a glimpse of the first two through this short video.

Each of them was unique in their own way but the one thing that was common among them all was the art of storytelling. The Pendet Dance was more of a welcoming dance while the Barong Dance told a story of a demon. The Kecak dance was dedicated to the mythological tales of Ramayana and performed certain incidents from the mythological tale. Quite like the Indian classical dance forms, the Balinese dances were characterized by standard hand movements (mudras we call in India), footwork and facial expressions. The use of their traditional musical instruments is quite predominant in these forms. You can catch this at various cultural centers and temples like the Uluwatu Temple. Take a look at the live coverage of the same here. (Note: Please excuse the quality of the video – I was attempting Facebook Live for the first time :-))

Kecak Dance at #WonderfulIndonesia.#SkyscannerIndonesia

Posted by Thrilling Travel on Monday, 10 October 2016

Kecak Dance as shared live on Facebook.

The Barong dance with the demon like mask reminded me of the Kathakali dance that is typical of Kerala in India. Except that over here, he has a mask while in India, the face is painted to create a character.

Barong Dance - one of the dances of the Balinese Culture
Barong Dance – one of the dances of the Balinese Culture

The strange similarity between the Indian and Balinese cultures really had me intrigued and made my heart fonder. So much that I embraced a piece of their culture for a few moments. Needless to say, that I was quite comfortable with it. So much – that I blended right into it 😉

Me blending into the Balinese Culture. Picture courtesy : Rutavi Mehta
Me blending into the Balinese Culture.                                                                                Picture courtesy: Rutavi Mehta

Let me know if you are equally fascinated with my discoveries of the Balinese culture. Do you also, find yourself getting immersed in cultures and comparing them to your own? Does that increase your fascination for a place? Have you ever been to Bali yourself and noticed these customs? If not,  maybe you should head to Bali yourself and try spotting all that I have talked about in this post.


Getting to Bali:

  • Denpasar is the official international airport in Bali. There are several flights to Bali from across the world. Singapore and Malaysia are the two places that have the highest frequency of direct flights. Skyscanner can help you with various options of for your flights.
  • For most countries, you can get a Visa on Arrival at the Denpasar airport. All you need is your return ticket. You can check your eligibility for this on this website. The same is not charged for.

Travel Tips for Bali:

  • Bali is good throughout the year. Just remember that being in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed.
  • Once in Bali, you can choose to stay at Kuta, Seminyak or Nusa Dua. Seminyak is slightly more expensive than Kuta but a little more quieter.
  • You can get several of these cultural experiences as you walk down the streets of Kuta and Semiyak.
  • Please respect the culture of Bali – do not tread or step over the Canang. Do not attempt to touch the temples or the shrines.
  • Read this for some general travel tips to Bali.

P.S: I was a part of the Bloggers’ trip organized by Skyscanner

 Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small   commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.


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105 Responses

    • Ami

      Thanks David. They fascinated me alright. Witnessed quite a few fresh ones being put out. It is quite a ritual

  1. shwetadave09

    Lovely am sure you enjoyed the trip 🙂 the pictures say it all plus the information shared makes it so much interesting to visit Bali 🙂

  2. Me Otherwise

    It sure looks like a great trip Ami. The dance does remind me of Kathakali.. Fascinating indeed that we are two countries so apart yet their culture has a distinct similarity too

    • Ami

      I agree, that is what had me really curious and amused too. It was fun discovering and delving into it.

    • Ami

      Thanks a ton guys. I missed the festival by a few days but the remnants of it were quite nice to catch.

  3. Renato Sladovic

    I liked Bali a lot. I just had great feeling anywhere I went. Temples and shrines everywhere. Especially liked how they celebrate their New Year in total silence. Also funny naming conventions. Would like to get back as soon as I can. Liked your article too, by the way… 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you Renato. Glad you enjoyed the article. I heard about the new year that was celebrated in silence too, quite fascinating!

  4. star lengas

    I always find some similarity to other cultures and customs when I travel. For example, I noticed that the Punjabi dress suit that women wear, is not uncommon in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia, and even some countries in Africa. I think it’s amazing how culture has been shared, beyond the scope of European expansion. Really, great post. I enjoyed the read. 🙂

    • Ami

      Thank you. Glad you liked the post . Bali is a lot more similar to India than what people realise. It was amazing uncovering that.

  5. Daphne from Girlswanderlust

    Hey! I was so surprised when I opened this post. I expected some words about the beautiful beaches, delicious food etc. of Bali, but rather you write about the cultural aspects. I have lived in Bali for 7 months and I am happy you write about the special ceremonies like Galugang and Kuningan and explain about the temples and local dances. This is maybe the most beautiful part of Bali. Great post!

  6. Alessandra

    Very fascinating culture! You seem like a very curious person who is interested in discovering the reason and history behind the cultural differences you see. Loved that you posted videos as well!
    Alessandra <3

    • Ami

      Thank you Alessandra. The similarity in the cultures had me really curious. Also, love discovering heritage and culture … 😀 Glad you liked the post.

  7. Cori Carl

    This is great! It’s one thing to enjoy the beauty of a place, it’s another to really learn the stories behind what you’re seeing.

    • Ami

      Thanks Cori. Glad you enjoyed discovering the same through this post. I had fun figuring it out too.

    • Ami

      Thanks Thuymi. Canang do add to the serenity and the color of the place. Possibly another reason for me to know more about them.

  8. saumynagayach

    Lovely pictures and write up, Ami! Always a great stop (your blog) to see the world from your eyes. 🙂

  9. mappingmegan

    I would love the chance to experience and witness Balinese culture first hand. I’ve been going back and forth about whether or not Bali would have much authentic culture left since it’s a huge tourist magnet now, but it sounds like there are still some genuine spots 🙂

    • Ami

      Thanks Megan. These rituals are so a part of Balinese culture that it is not too hard to spot them.

  10. Rutavi Mehta

    Hi Ami,

    I loved the new perspective you gave to Balinese culture. Having hearing about so many Hindus leaving here but never knew the story attached to it. So glad to know the story behind the decoration on the roads we say. Nicely narrated story.

  11. Indrani

    Wow! Amazing detailed post. Loved you in that attire. 🙂
    The ancestors part is indeed similar to our culture.

  12. Chaitali Patel

    Great post Ami! Love all the research and attention to detail that you’ve paid! I hardly knew anything about Bali or its customs, so this was a nice introduction. You look lovely in the traditional costume. 🙂

  13. Teesh Osita

    This was very educational Ami! I have no background on both Bali and India, and I think the recurring theme all throughout Asia is our affinity for festivals celebrating good over evil. 🙂

  14. Suma Jain

    Ami you look stunning in the traditional costume :). This is such an eye opener in terms of Balinese culture and tradition. Great article, thanks for the share.

  15. wanderingwagarschristina

    What an amazing opportunity to have visited Bali not once but twice. It is one of my dream destinations. When I visit, I hope to see all the sights but also to experience the culture and learn more about the like you have.

  16. Chris

    There are some nice aspects, however Bali simply has too many tourists these days!

    I’m glad you still had a good time though

    • Ami

      Thanks Carmy. I did not notice any specific dress code but am sure there must be given their deep rooted culture. Will definitely be finding out more.

  17. Tom

    Good for you to have a post on the culture of Bali, instead of just “what to do” or see. People don’t realize that it’s far more than just a beach destination and that the culture is fairly complex. You must have spent some time there.

    • Ami

      Thanks Tom. It was not a long stretch of time but I did dig in deeper with the help of the Skyscanner team and Risya. All thanks to them for helping me understand their culture.

  18. Joanna

    It is fascinating that you found so many similarities between the traditions of Bali and the ones in India. I have actually noticed during my trip to South East Asia those small offerings and how important they are. I’ve noticed how the first thing people do in the morning when they open their shops is to light an incense stick and put fresh flowers into the bowls.

    • Ami

      Thanks Joanna. It was fun discovering this similarity and quite intriguing too. The morning rituals are indeed so refreshing.

  19. polly674

    Bainese dances are really fascinating. And you in balinese costume look really very pretty, congratulations!

  20. Rashmi and Chalukya

    Knowing about new cultures and traditions around the world is one of the reason we love to travel, so this post we find very interesting. It was great to know that Balinese also celebrate festivals which are similar to Dusshera in India. And the concept and architecture of Pelinggih sounds fascinating. We would love to visit Indonesia soon 🙂

  21. Tae

    Such interesting observations. I loved hearing about Balinese religious traditions through your Indian lens. Cangang Sari is a beautiful act — I think it makes a huge impact on your mentality if you take the time to give thanks and create something beautiful everyday.

  22. sensubhadrika

    What caught my attention the most was the bamboo poles. they are so beautifully decorated and almost looks like beautiful and vibrantly coloured and decorated palm trees.

  23. verushka

    After watching Eat, Pray Love I fell in love with how beautiful Bali is. The other bonus is South Africans do not need a visa to visit. And now you have give me 5 more reasons thanks for the tips.