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The Balinese are small, handsome people with round, delicate features, long sweeping eyelashes, and heart-shaped lips. Their cults, customs, and worship of god and nature are animist, their music warm-blooded, their art as extravagant as their nature. Culturally, the Javanese lean more toward refinement and modesty, keeping themselves in check in life and art, while the Balinese prefer the headier, flashier sensations--laughs, terror, spicier and sweeter foods. They're more lavish and baroque in their colors and decorations; they like explosive music and fast, jerky dancing.



Today there's still a distinction between the majapahit, descendants of 16th-century migrants of East Java's fallen Majapahit Empire, and the Bali Aga, the original inhabitants of the island who retreated into the mountains where they're found to this day, indifferent to outsiders. Among the Hinduized Balinese, the three classical Hindu castes are indicated by surnames: the Brahmans with the title Ida Bagus; the Satria with the titles Anak Agung and Cokorda; and the Vaishyas with the title Gusti. Nearly every village has a puri, the elaborate residence of a Satria, and a geria, the residence of a Brahman. The Bali Aga are Sudra, or casteless, though no Balinese is considered untouchable.

Ninety percent of Bali's population practice Bali-Hinduism. There's also a sprinkling of Muslims in the coastal towns, Buddhists in the mountains, and Christians everywhere. Several thousand Arabs and Indians, many hoteliers and textile dealers, live in Denpasar. Some 25,000 Chinese live in the main trading centers of Denpasar, Singaraja, and Amlapura, running the majority of the small retail businesses and restaurants.

Women and Family Life

Women often have independent incomes and are in charge of raising pigs and cultivating the fields. They also prepare for all the milestones in family life considered important or magical: birth, the first cutting of a child's nails and hair, filing of teeth, piercing of earlobes, marriage, and death. Women carry loads weighing up to 30 kg and standing 1.5 meters tall on their heads, while men take up the rear cradling just their parang. A young Balinese girl can train herself to carry up to 40 coconuts, stacks of fruit, or great water jars on her head while riding a bicycle down a bumpy country road. Women delouse each other and their children as a social pastime and an affirmation of familial love. Balinese women wear bras like Western women wear bikini tops. Unmarried girls often sport a loose lock of hair hanging down the back over one shoulder with a gonjer (flower) dangling in it.


As in many Indonesian societies, menstruating women are sent out of their homes to board in a special house or compound. A Balinese man believes if menstrual blood ever touches his scalp he will be impotent for the rest of his life and follow his wife around like a dog. The birth of boy and girl twins is a calamity, an evil omen. It's thought the twins have committed incest in the womb, and rigorous purification ceremonies are required. If such twins are born in a house, the house must be destroyed; a woman who knows she's carrying twins gives birth in a hospital or outdoors to save her house.

The Balinese believe each part of the house corresponds to a part of the human anatomy: the arms are the bedrooms and the parlor, the navel is the courtyard, the sexual organs are the gates, the anus is the backyard garbage pit, the legs and feet are the kitchen and granary, and the head is the family shrine.

The Banjar

Each Balinese village is like a little republic, self-contained and independently run by the banjar, a sort of town council. More than any other factor, this village organization kept intact the Balinese way of life after the decline of the local adat princes and chieftains. Each family pays a subscription fee and when a man marries, membership is compulsory; otherwise he's looked upon as morally and spiritually dead. Attendance of all heads of household is required at regular meetings; absentees are fined.


The banjar runs its own communal bank from which villagers may borrow to buy farm equipment, cattle, or other necessities. The banjar supports and maintains village temples, roads, and ditches; owns a gamelan; handles taxation, cockfighting, divorces, and duck herding; and helps to arrange and finance weddings, family celebrations, temple festivals, cremations, and community feasts. The banjar advises villagers on matters of religion, marriage, and morals, all regulated carefully by its elected members. Each banjar has its own meeting house where members gather in the evenings to sip tuak, talk, and gamble. The leader of the banjar is elected by its members and approved by the gods through a medium. No other political system has yet broken through the patriarchal shield of the banjar, though increasingly its cohesiveness is weakened by consumerism, modern lifestyles, and the travel industry. Many members now send a monetary contribution in lieu of their presence.