Bali is home to about 3.2 million people. About 95 percent are Balinese. The other five percent are Chinese, Muslims and other minorities. About 80 percent of the island's population live in the southern part of the Bali. Much of the western part of Bali is uninhabited jungle, where tigers lived until the 1940s.

There is probably no group in Indonesia more conscious of its own ethnic identity than the Balinese. Inhabitants of the islands of Bali and Lombok and the western half of Sumbawa, Balinese are often portrayed as a graceful, poised, and aesthetically inclined people. Although such descriptions date back six centuries or more and are at least partially based on legend, this characterization is also partly based on the realities in contemporary Indonesia. Virtually no part of Bali has escaped the gaze of tourists, who come in increasing numbers each year to enjoy the island’s beautiful beaches and stately temples and to seek out an “authentic” experience of its “traditional” culture. The market for “traditional” carvings, dance performances, and paintings has boomed, and many Balinese successfully reinvest their earnings in further development of these highly profitable art forms. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Balinese have a long history of contrasting themselves profitably with outsiders. The contemporary distinctive Hindu religious practices of the Balinese date back at least to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Javanese princes from Majapahit fled the advances of Islam and sought refuge in Bali, where they were absorbed into the local culture. Since that time, Balinese, with the exception of a minority of Muslims in the north, have maintained great pride in their own distinctiveness from the surrounding Muslim cultures. Since the terrorist bombing of two nightclubs in the Balinese beach town of Kuta in 2002 by Muslim extremists, tensions between Balinese and non-Balinese Muslims have increased. *

Books: “Island of Bali” by Miguel Covarrubias (1937) is regarded as the classic from the period when Bali was discovered by the rich and famous. There are multitude of other books, many of them dealing with Balinese arts and culture. Margaret Mead spent some time in Bali in the 1930s. She learned the language, listened to folk tales and myths and wrote a book called “Balinese Character” with her husband Gregory Bateson.

Balinese Language

The Balinese language is similar to Javanese and has been influenced by the Indian languages that influenced Javanese. Balinese script is derived from the Palava writing system of southern India. The earliest inscriptions found in Bali, dating back to he A.D. 8th century are in both Sanskrit and Old Balinese.

Balinese has a different set of vocabularies and levels of speech depending on the caste of the people being spoken to. Traditionally, there were five forms of the language but today generally only three are used: 1) Low Balinese used by equals or when talking to inferiors; 2) Middle Balinese used for addressing or speaking about superiors or strangers; and 3) High Balinese when talking to superiors, especially in situations in which religion is addressed. The levels are most complicated when speaking about the body. There are nine different vocabulary lexicons. The Balinese spoken in Balinese theater is even more complicated, including old Balinese and Sanskrit. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Libraries, Harper and Row]

Balinese people are often tongued tied until they know the position of the person they are speaking to. The traditional Balinese greeting is "Where do you sit?" which is another way of asking what a person's social position is. A person of low cast speaking to someone in a higher caste speaks in higher Balinese. The higher caste person speaks to the lower caste person in Low Balinese. Equals speak Middle Balinese to each other.

All Balinese have one of four special names that refers to whether they are the oldest son or daughter, the second oldest, third oldest and forth. The fifth oldest has the same name as the first oldest and so on.

Balinese Character and Customs

The Balinese are known for their positive disposition. When the write Jamie James gave his condolences to a friend whose four-month-pregnant sister had just died, the man said, "It was God's will. Good-bye, sir. Please gave a happy life.” One person with a lot of experience in Bali said the “Balinese are very friendly, but when there is pressure the will fight back.”

The Balinese generally go out of their way to avoid conflict. If two individuals are involved in a quarrel or feud they try to avoid each their. “Ramé” is an important Balinese concept. It connotes abundance, fun and excitement in a busy, crowded way.

Individuals Balinese are not regularly addressed by their personal name but rather by the name that denotes their birth order. The oldest is referred to Wayan and the second oldest is Njoman. The prefix "Ni" means girl, thus making the oldest girl "Niwayan. The children's parent and grandparents are referred to as "Mother of Wayan" or "Grandfather of Ninjoman" instead of by their personal names.

Unlike foreign tourist who like to take photographs of natural sights such as a waterfall, the Balinese like to make an offering of fruit and flowers to the waterfall and then photograph their friends playing in the water.

Balinese Weddings and Marriages

Although men are allowed to have more than one wife, marriages are generally monogamous. In the wedding ceremony the groom carries a sword. In the old day the bride and the groom lay on a table with their heads hanging over the edge while a priest filed their teeth. Most couples live with the groom’s parents for some period before establishing a household of their own.

Mick Jagger married Jerry Hall in a Hindu ceremony in Bali. Ideally women should not marry below their caste or kinship group. It is okay for men to do so. In some places there is strong preference for marriages with ancestor-temple groups In other places love matches are the norm as long as they are within certain caste and wealth limits.

Divorce rules vary somewhat but generally a woman who has been married less than three years returns to her father’s home with nothing. If she has been married more than three years and is not adulterous she receives a percentage of what the couple has earned during the period of the marriage. Children of a marriage stay with the father. If a women is chosen by her father as his heir the divorce rules are applied in reverse.

Balinese Families, Men and Women

Extended families are more the rule than nuclear ones. A typical family a husband, wife, children, patrilineal grandparents and unmarried siblings. All members of this family pay a role in child rearing.

Different kinship relationship are described as group of men related through a common ancestor, who worship with other families at a common ancestor temple. The group is organized around performing rituals at the temple. Family members are often referred to by their relative age. All male relatives the same age as one’s father may also be addressed as “father.” Children are often referred by a name associated with their birth order and adults are called “father of...”

Inheritance is along patrilineal lines. A man without sons may pass on his property to a daughter or have it divided among his brothers. The family house is usually passed on to the sibling that takes care of the parents in old age, often the oldest or the youngest.

The division of labor between men and women is pretty sharply defined. Men have traditionally plowed and prepared the fields and took care of animals while women kept gardens and cared for pigs and ran small shops and snack stores. Women generally take care of raising the children. Men and women together do the planting and harvesting in large groups. Men serve as priests while women make offerings used in rituals. Menstruating women are not supposed to enter temples.

Balinese families bath together in irrigation canals and no one is embarrassed by their nakedness. Balinese women have traditionally not used perfumes. They are very clean and soap is how they perfume. They like woody, floral fragrances. This discovery was made by an employee of the International Flavors and Fragrance who trying to understand why European soap wasn't selling very well in Indonesia. [Source: Boyd Givens, National Geographic, September 1986]

It is not unusual to see a Balinese man with a very long pinky fingernail, that is filed, and sometimes seven or eight centimeters long. The fingernail shows the world that the man doesn't perform manual labor. The reasoning goes, if he did the nail would break. It shows the man is a member of an upper caste and only works for the gods. [Source: Donna Grosvenor, National Geographic, November 1969]

Balinese Children

Children are treated with great affection. "A baby is the holiest object on earth," wrote John Reader, “an object of sublime innocence, blemished only by the means of its passage into the world. The afterbirth is buried under a stone in the compound (to the right of the entrance if it’s a boy, to the left if it’s a girl), where its becomes a symbol of the four ethereal brother or sisters, one guarding each cardinal direction." [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Libraries, Harper and Row]

The Balinese believe that the very young and very old are close to the gods. Infants are not allowed to touch the earth for the first three months of their lives because they are thought to be angels. After 105 days they allowed to touch the ground in a special ceremony in which bracelets and anklets are fastened to their bodies to prevent them from floating upwards again. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

Balinese are not given their personal name until 105 days after their birth. After seven days bracelets of black string, symbolic of the human duties, are place on them. At 42 days they are given an amulet with a piece of their umbilical chord inside and their ears are pierced. At a 105 days the child is "planted into the earth." Before that time they considered to be more god-like than human.

Boys are encouraged to energetic and skilled. Girls are taught to be responsible and attractive. The first haircut, first tooth are all celebrated with special rites. Of particular importance is a puberty rite in which an adolescent's evil canine teeth are filed down in preparation for marriage and parenthood.

Balinese Homes and Villages

Balinese villages are defined by a group of people who worship at a common temple. Settlement can be centered around the temple or scattered over a wide area. Most temples are located near the intersection of a major and minor road. Both villages and house yards are ideally laid out with the most sacreds building situated nearest Mount Agung and the least sacred ones nearest the sea. Many villages are filled with barking dogs.

Balinese houses are enveloped by palms, hibiscus, and night-blooming jasmines. House yards are open. Walled areas contain buildings, including a family temple face Mt. Agung. There are one or more pavilions for sleeping and sitting, a kitchen and a refuge where pigs are kept. Wealthy families have large yards with brick, tile-roofed buildings decorated with elaborate carvings on stone and wood. Poor families have smaller yards with buildings and walls made of mud and wattle.

Traditional Balinese houses resemble luxurious thatch roof treehouses. They are supported by bamboo beams and coconut tree-trunk stilts, which are placed upside-down so that water absorbed from the roof is drawn to the ground. There are no doors, windows, or walls, and the elephant grass roof is erected by the whole community in few hours in return for a festival with palm wine that everyone can drink. During a violent storm reed blinds can be drawn from the floor to keep rain from coming in the sides of the house. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York ?]

Homes and family compounds are often surrounded by a high wall and have a entrance way backed by a small wall called an “aling aling”. The purpose of this set up is to create a sense of privacy and keep evil spirits out. Spirits are believed to travel mainly in straight lines and have difficult getting around corners. The main purpose of the “aling aling” is to make it difficult for these spirits to take an easy direct route. For the same reason family members often live in buildings that not in a direct line from the entrance.

Some houses are set up so that a stream goes underneath the toilet and another flows near the kitchen where dishes are cleaned by placing them in a rattan basket in the running water. The temperature is always between 75 and 85̊F and no attempts are made to get rid of creepy crawly creatures and insects . In fact it is considered taboo to move into a house before the spiders and geckos have moved in. ?

See Architecture

Balinese Versus Outsiders and Backpackers

Sara Webb of Reuters wrote: “The proportion of Hindus in Bali fell to 87 percent in 2000, from 93 percent in 1995, Suryani said, as Indonesians from densely populated and mainly Muslim Java flocked to Bali in search of work following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. In Bali's capital Denpasar, the proportion of Hindus may be closer to 60 percent and in certain districts it is only one in six, she said. The issue of Balinese versus outsiders is likely to be a hot topic in next year's election for governor. "Balinese only have one or two kids because family planning here is very strong" due to pressures from the local banjar, or neighbourhood associations, she said. "But imagine, if Balinese have only one or two kids but people from outside have four, five or six, in a few years the composition will change." [Source: Sara Webb, Reuters, December 12, 2007 ^*^]

“Besieged by outsiders, some Balinese are becoming more aware of the need to preserve their identity. Instead of using Indonesia's unifying language bahasa Indonesia, which is similar to Malay, some Balinese want the Balinese language, steeped in Sanskrit and Javanese with a feudal emphasis on the caste of the person being addressed, to be used more widely.

Once famous for its warring princes and slave-trading, Bali's potential as a tropical tourist destination was exploited by the Dutch colonial rulers and, post-independence, by the Indonesian government. It became part of the hippie and backpacker trail, and attracted more tourists than any other part of Indonesia.

When Islamic militants blew up two bars in Kuta, a popular tourist strip, in 2002 killing more than 200 people, it dealt a severe blow to Bali's tourist industry and put Bali's open welcome and tolerance to the test. "After the bombs, Balinese became aware that it's very dangerous to receive people from outside and we don't know who they are," said Suryani.

But even before 2002, some Balinese had mixed feelings about tourism and development. Some complain that developers destroy local shrines or do not treat temples with sufficient respect. The big, foreign-owned hotels and restaurants often prefer to hire other Indonesians because Balinese, who are bound by their community ties, are obliged to attend important ceremonies and events in their villages and so have to take more time off work.

And some of those who sold their land feel they were forced to give it up, or cheated of a good price. Without their land, many have given up their farming existence and have become dependent on tourism which sometimes turn locals and their unique culture into curios."To compete in the tourism business is about selling themselves, their image, their creativity, they have to sell themselves as tourist objects," said Ida Ayu Agung Mas. As a senator, she frequently hears complaints from Balinese about the consequences of development, ranging from pollution and higher living costs to a shortage of natural building materials as more people move to the island. "Everyone is using the image of Bali, but they must pay back to the community. The Europeans, Chinese, Javanese, they don't give back," she said.

Foreign Female Tourists Seek Kuta Cowboys

Reporting from Bali, John M. Glionna wrote in in the Los Angeles Times, “Amit Virmani was vacationing at Bali's famous Kuta Beach when he met a 12-year-old boy who told him of his unlikely goal: to grow up fast, so he could be a gigolo. The boy said his heroes were the young bronzed Indonesian surfers who provided erotic services to Japanese women and other female tourists who flock to the island for discreet sex vacations. The young men's apparent sexual prowess and serial romances have earned them the nickname "Kuta cowboys." [Source:John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2010 |=|]

“For two years, working alone, Virmani wandered Kuta Beach shooting video for his documentary "Cowboys in Paradise." Surfers detailed their techniques, pick-up lines and strategies to meet and seduce mostly older foreign women. The film, he said, captures the subtle dance between the smiling, mostly longhaired working-class men and often-wealthy female tourists without placing blame. "These cowboys are not prostitutes," but a vital part of the local economy, he said. "They're men with day jobs who meet foreign women and find inventive ways to collect." |=|

“Virmani said the film was not intended as an expose, because the Kuta cowboys had long been tolerated at the beach, a female tourist sex destination for decades. "The cowboys have blurred the lines of seduction, offering the illusion they're in love and not carrying on some cheap sexual affair," he said. "And some women will pay a lot to keep that illusion going." Some cowboys are single and carefree, and admit having unprotected sex. Others are married and have a hard time providing for their families. |=|

“In the film, nearly a dozen men speak candidly about their charm offensive, offering a variety of pickup lines as the camera shows surfers flirting with women, getting backrubs on the beach, couples running in the sand holding hands. One cowboy removes the sunglasses of a woman, singing, "When you take off your sunglasses, I can look into yours eyes," making her laugh. Another man says: "First and foremost, I sell love," adding that he looks for older women with higher salaries. |=|

“Virmani also interviewed some of the tourists, one of whom defends the men. "I don't think they're gigolos. They just like women. There's nothing wrong with that," she said. Approaching the women on the beach, the cowboys arrange dates at dance clubs. They refer to their romantic pursuit as "fishing" and text-messaging lovers as "work." One surfer says women must shower him with gifts for him to stick around, but insists that cowboys never ask for compensation. Some cowboys become emotionally attached to the women and will even marry them, he says. "I am not a gigolo," says one in the documentary. "The gigolos don't speak from the heart. They speak from the mind. But I speak from the heart." |=|

Fall Out of the Film on Kuta Cowboys

Reporting from Bali, John M. Glionna wrote in in the Los Angeles Times, “Amit Virmani was vacationing at Bali's famous Kuta Beach when he met a 12-year-old boy who told him of his unlikely goal: to grow up fast, so he could be a gigolo. The boy said his heroes were the young bronzed Indonesian surfers who provided erotic services to Japanese women and other female tourists who flock to the island for discreet sex vacations. The young men's apparent sexual prowess and serial romances have earned them the nickname "Kuta cowboys." [Source:John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2010 |=|]

“Nowadays, just the mention of the phrase "Kuta cowboy" can make the easygoing men in their 20s and 30s who rent surf and boogie boards along the tree-lined beach bristle with anger. "It's a big lie; these guys don't exist," said I. Made Subali, a deeply tanned man with skull tattoos who rents surfboards near a sign that encourages clients to "Make New Friends with the Local Boys." He alleged that Virmani misrepresented himself to the surfing community. He said the men didn't know Virmani was making a film and told him tall tales. Now those featured in the documentary are seen as troublemakers in local bars, he said, and several have left the island. |=|

The 83-minute film, with a trailer that has drawn hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube, has put officials on the defensive. "It portrays Kuta Beach as a sex playground," said Gusti Tresna, who heads the beach security force. "We can't deny it happens. But if women come for a holiday and they hook up with a local guy, fall in love and decide to buy him a motorcycle or even a house — and I've seen it happen — what can the government do?" Virmani said he was surprised by Bali's harsh response. "They shouldn't go arresting people because they're tanned and muscular," he said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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