Bali Through the Looking Glass

By John Cooke

 "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

    Humpty Dumpty

It always saddens me to realize that Lewis Carroll never knew about the island of Bali. Had he done so, he could not have failed to notice striking parallels between Balinese society and the realm of the Red Queen and White Knight. Surely it would have delighted him. When Alice stepped through the Looking Glass on that dank November afternoon she was immediately subject to a relentless, volatile logic - the very antithesis of her ordered and dependable Victorian Oxford society. Likewise, the visitor to Bali enters a frenetic, whimsical world overflowing with wholly logical, and quite delightful, improbabilities. Given, for example, that demons can only travel in straight lines, it makes perfect sense that entry to a Balinese temple should require negotiating two 90 degree turns to keep evil spirits at bay. Such malign influences can also kept from an area by ringing it with a fishnet. The Balinese know that the presence of many openings causes confusion because the demons cannot decide which one to use.

 Lewis Carroll wrote in the eighteen sixties, when Bali was still a remote outpost on the fringes of the Dutch colonial empire, where it was tainted with a reputation for cultivated savagery. Today, Bali is a favorite destination for world travelers and has acquired well-deserved acclaim as the ultimate island paradise. Sadly, most visitors, lured by pristine beaches and luxury hotels, seldom glimpse Bali's vibrant culture. Here awaits another, quite magical, contemporary Looking Glass world.

 Through the Looking Glass, Alice found the stifling conventions and supreme self-confidence of Victorian society undermined and called into question. Similarly, Balinese society helps us develop a healthy skepticism towards many of the basic assumptions that we in the West have inherited as part of our own cultural baggage. In Bali I personally find that, like the White Queen, "sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."


"What's the use of names if they don't answer to them?"


 The way names are used in Bali differs significantly from their role in the West. For us, names are like license plates on cars or jackets on books. They are a highly visible, permanent public pronouncement of our identity and, quite often, our ancestry. In Bali, however, names serve quite a different purpose. Highly charged with magic, names are mystical, private, and often ephemeral.

 The name by which a Balinese is generally known to the world simply reflects birth order. The first born is called Wayan, the second Made, followed by Nyoman and Ketut. But here the list ends. When families were large, the same names might be repeated several times. Consequently, most Balinese one meets are likely to be called either Wayan or Made, which may appear confusing, but is also very helpful to people like myself who have a problem remembering names.

 One might assume that in a society where ancestor worship is a dominant element of the religion, the identity of preceding generations would be carefully preserved for posterity. Surprisingly, in Bali this is not so. In a sense, ancestors are taken almost for granted and are worshipped not as individuals but collectively and anonymously. The Balinese are far more concerned with reincarnation and the future than with events in the past. This is reflected in the way an individual's names may change with the passage of time.

 At birth a baby is simply identified with its parents and is referred to as "the child of so-and-so...." Only after one hundred and five days, at the three-month ceremony or telubulan, does the child acquire its own identity and receive a personal name. However, as the child secures a name, so the parents lose theirs! In the reverse of Western convention, the parents now take the name of the child and become known as "the mother or father of such-and-such...." As the family grows, so the names of the parents continue to change periodically.

 As in Western society, the name bestowed on a Balinese child may exert a powerful influence over its life. However, the name may prove to be only temporary. If illness or other persistent misfortune besets the child, the name itself may be held responsible and have to be formally changed - a complicated ritual. In any case, this initial name will not be used after childhood. Adults too sometimes feel it necessary to have their names formally changed in order to acquire a wholly new persona when the fates have been cruel.

 For the first 210 days - a year in Balinese reckoning - the baby is considered a god and carried everywhere by parents, siblings and extended family. Then, in an important rite of passage, the oton, its feet are ritually placed on the ground for the first time and its earthly existence officially begins. At this time another name is bestowed. However, this name is so personal, so private, that it remains completely secret. Nobody ever knows it except the officiating priest and the father, and out of courtesy to the infant they make a point of soon forgetting.

Additionally, instead of their formal names, many Balinese are actually known among friends by nicknames. These are often acquired in childhood and can persist throughout life. I know of one such name that recalls the make of car in which its owner was unexpectedly born.


"Of course, you agree to have a battle."

"Let's fight 'till six and then have dinner."


 The Balinese have, of necessity, always been fierce fighters, but with typical ingenuity they evolved a ritualized form of warfare that satisfied honor without causing dire economic ruin. After reaching a cultural and political high point under the great ruler Dalem Baturenggong in the 1540s, Balinese society was already in decline when the first Europeans arrived. Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish reached Bali early in 1580, to be followed in 1597 by the more widely publicized Dutch trading expedition of Cornelis de Houtemann.

 For the next 300 years Bali lapsed into chaos as petty princes fragmented the island in a succession of violent dynastic squabbles. These were fueled by concupiscent royal families polygamously producing countless heirs in order to offset increasingly frequent sibling murders. Coupled with universal belief in reincarnation and a warrior caste that sought salvation through noble death in battle, this would appear an awesome recipe for disaster.

 The Balinese are, however, above all a very practical people. Most soldiers conscripted into the princely armies were also rice farmers, the backbone of society and primary creators of wealth for the hugely profligate royal courts. Unnecessary bloodshed would undermine economic stability and curtail the ability to wage war, and so Balinese rulers evolved a form of warfare that caused relatively few deaths among the troops - certainly compared to European battles of the time.

 The solution was not unlike the encounters between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and also very reminiscent of the ritualized conflicts between contending males observed in many animal species. Amid martial magnificence and ostentation, the opposing forces formally marched to face each other, as on a chessboard. From each side the most ferocious, most distinguished, warrior would step forward, volunteering to fight to the death in single combat like a King's Champion at the lists in medieval England. In preparation for this noble conflict, each would work himself up into a state of demonic frenzy known as amok. It was, incidentally, from this that the English expression "to run amok" originated.

 Sometimes only one such encounter between crazed protagonists would be needed before honor was satisfied. Only occasionally did the conflict escalate into a pitched battle with heavy loss of life. Usually the winning side would be content simply to capture, like pawns, a few marketable slaves from the opposing side.


"In our country you'd generally get to somewhere else - if you ran very fast for a long time."


 "A slow sort of country! Now here it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place."

Red Queen

 The Balinese possess a highly developed sense of direction and place. Moreover, it is absolute rather than relative. For example, a sequence of dance steps will be taught not in terms of turning to right or left, but as compass directions - turn to northeast or southwest. There is nothing particularly strange in this, although the Balinese are not content simply with the eight cardinal points of the western compass. With characteristic logic and precision they recognize a ninth one called puseh - the central position of the observer.

 Today science provides us with a clear picture of Earth as a rotating planet within the solar system. This enhances and clarifies our concept of compass directions, but in times past North and South were not so self-evident. We in the West are fortunate that our prehistoric ancestors in Europe were skilled astronomers and selected appropriate celestial objects, such as the Pole Star, as markers. Other societies had to rely on conspicuous landmarks or the direction of flow in local rivers to indicate North. Some even depended on the orientation of a suspended piece of magnetic lodestone!

 The Balinese relate East and West to the rising and setting of the sun, just as we do. However, our traditional indicators of North and South - the position of the Pole Star and the direction of the sun at midday - are only valid in northern latitudes. Bali lies just south of the equator and so here North and South must be defined differently.

 The heart of Bali has always been the immensely fertile rice terraces cascading down the southern slopes of the island's mountainous spine. Nearby lies the ancient capital, Gelgel, medieval center of learning and culture. Dominating everything in the region is the great dormant volcano Gunung Agung, navel of the world and throne of the gods. For those living in its shadow, what other landmark could have such physical and religious stature? For the Balinese, North is clearly towards the summit of Gunung Agung while South lies away from it, in the direction of the counterbalancing nether world inhabited by demons and evil spirits in the ocean depths. Hence the direction of North varies from place to place on Bali. When traveling to distant parts of the island, a Balinese can become very disoriented, and should the mountains be concealed by clouds - a frequent occurrence - discomfort will be profound.


"In our country there's only one day at a time."


"That's a poor, thin way of doing things. Now here we mostly have days and nights two or three at a time."

Red Queen

 Finally, nothing about this remarkable island would have so enchanted Lewis Carroll, mathematician and logician, as the Balinese calendar. All calendars are complex because the days, months and years used to denote passage of time depend on quite unrelated, independent astronomical cycles. Our Western calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, only appears straightforward because we are used to it. After all, months are of differing lengths and no longer bear any relation to the phases of the moon (from which the name "month" derives). We also have to compensate for the fact that the earth completes its circuit of the sun in 365.2422 days by adding an extra day to February every 4 years (except at the end of certain centuries!). That said, the Balinese system is even more convoluted.

 To communicate with the rest of the world, the Balinese make use of the Gregorian calendar. This is also used nationally to identify important civil festivals such as Indonesian Independence Day (August 17th). In addition, they also use a lunar calendar.

Traditionally a month is the time taken for the completion of a full lunar cycle from new moon to new moon - about 29˝ days - which results in a year of only 354 days. Because the lunar year is fully eleven days shorter than the solar year, it is seldom used today. Bali is an exception. Here the lunar Hindu Saka calendar is employed to determine certain important dates. The Saka year consists of twelve 30-day months, theoretically giving a year of 360 days. To keep in phase with the solar calendar, however, an extra day is inserted every 9 weeks to give the Saka year 365 days like the Gregorian year. Even so, the Saka year still lags 78 years behind, 2003 being Saka year 1925.

 The timing of many events in Bali is based upon the Saka calendar. For example, the first day of the 10th Saka month is called Nyepi and is the very sacred Balinese New Year's Day. Usually occurring in March, Nyepi is a day when all is quiet in Bali. Nobody goes outside, no fires are lit, and no music is heard. The silence, it is said, is designed to trick evil spirits into believing the island is deserted.

The most important calendar in Balinese life, however, is the Pawukon, introduced from the courts of ancient Java in the 14th Century. With six months of 35 days each, the Pawukon year contains just 210 days, and hence is perpetually out of synchrony with the Gregorian calendar. Fortunately, the Pawukon calendar is essentially a repetitive cycle, so each year does not have to be individually identified and recorded. With the divisions of the Pawukon year things really start to become complicated!

 Whereas days, months and years are units of time based on observed celestial cycles, the week is an arbitrary division. Quite commonly a week is defined by the established interval between market days or rest days, and hence varies in length between different countries and cultures.

 In theWest we have adopted a single, rather dull, repetitive week of just seven days, but the Balinese Pawukon calendar includes 10 different weeks. These range in length from 1 day to 10 days, all occurring simultaneously. This gives Balinese schoolchildren 55 days of the week to memorize - in addition to the names of the 30 different 7-day weeks that make up a complete Pawukon cycle. Thus any one day may be identified by nine or ten separate week names - and of course, there are plenty of anomalies in the system to provide variety and keep one guessing. The days of the 2-day week do not succeed one another in regular, alternating fashion as might be supposed, but follow a complex, highly idiosyncratic pattern. Even stranger, some days mysteriously fail to appear at all in the 1-day week cycle.

 Why, you may wonder, do the Balinese persist in keeping track of time in so complicated a fashion? Very simply, it forms the foundation for virtually all ritual and religious observance in Bali, and so lies at the very heart of the culture. Correlation between the different weekly cycles not only determines dates for temple ceremonies, but also generate a minefield of auspicious and inauspicious days for doing - or not doing - virtually any kind of activity. The important task of understanding and interpreting this falls to highborn priests or pedandas. No enterprise of any significance can be undertaken in Bali without priestly consultation - when to start a foundation, build a roof, start a business or cremate a relative - and such services are not provided free of charge.

 The Balinese have always been quick to assimilate new ideas, incorporating those features they like and discarding others. Even the calendrical system, despite its ancient origins, is adaptable to changing needs. Tumpek Landep, a coincidence between the 5-day and 7-day weeks occurring once every 210 days, was traditionally a festival upon which weapons of war were honored and blessed. Later on, motorcycles, trucks and cars, also being made of metal (and similarly life threatening), came to be included among the honorees. Indeed, motor vehicles in Bali are now regarded by most young men as so indispensable to courtship that they are now washed and decorated with elaborate offerings throughout the year.

 Ever adaptable in a changing world, the Balinese today add computers to the list of metallic objects to be honored on Tumpek Landep - and rightly so. Some time ago in Bali my wife's laptop, carelessly neglected in this regard, suffered terminal hard-drive cramps, motherboard hysteria and chronic RAM dementia. Appropriate costly offerings to a technician ultimately restored it to health, but I continued to harbor lingering doubts about its future. I need not have worried. Since its last blessing the laptop has computed faultlessly and today Tumpek Landep is clearly marked on the calendar. Never again, I feel sure, will our computer, like the White King's pencil, "write all manner of things that I don't intend--". 

Who can doubt that Lewis Carroll would have felt completely at home among the Balinese?


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Last Update: 20/09/05
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