What Is A Balinese Village?

By: Diana Darling

1990. It is impossible to talk about Bali without sometimes sounding like a tour guide, because Bali is quite unlike any other place on earth, and very specifically so. It is also impossible to write about it in a fully factual way. The facts are too many, too contradictory, and finally too elusive. This, of course, makes it a rich terrain for anthropologists — and a much cushier one than, say, Chad. The study of Balinese society and culture is not exactly an industry, but it occupies hundreds of scholars all over the world; indeed Bali has been a subject of research and pontification for over a century. I am not a scholar — although at times something of an anthropological groupie — but I know that even scholars have trouble defining exactly what a Balinese village is.

It’s many things at once. It’s a cluster of houses and lands. It’s a group of people that belong together. It’s a social unit comprised of many other social units that sometimes over-lap. It’s a local way of doing things. Some people say that a village is defined by the three main village temples: the pura puseh (“temple of origins”); the pura desa, or “village temple” since desa means “village”; and the pura dalem, which foreigners are fond of calling the “death temple.”

What is certain is that a Balinese village, especially one as remote and isolated as Abian Suci, governs nearly every aspect of daily life.

The core of a village’s identity is the desa adat, or customary village. This defines not only its lands but also its customs and village rules. Adat is a nice word from the Arabic that means traditional or customary law.

Adat varies from village to village, and is administered by village authorities. The laws of a particular village are called awig-awig. Its concerns are both religious and social. Adat determines the scheduling and ritual procedures of religious ceremonies, the use of common agricultural property, conventions of inheritance, and social customs pertaining to birth, marriage, and death. It is the crux of village reality.

A Balinese village is a tightly-knit group of mutual support. When someone dies, for instance, the whole community shows up to help wash the body and prepare the elaborate funerary rites; the entire village shares the bereavement through the imposition on everyone of a state of ritual uncleanliness (sebel). Nuclear families live in the family compounds of their parents, normally that of the husband. In old-fashioned villages like Abian Suci, privacy is almost unheard of. If someone is ill or having a violent argument, it’s the duty of friends, relations, and all the immediate neighbors to crowd into the house and be on hand in case somebody freaks out. One morning not long ago, I was awakened at dawn by the sound of a crowd of people in my yard. I found about forty people there standing outside the kitchen shed, while inside there were about seven or eight more people, as many as could physically fit in there. People apologized to me for the commotion and explained that Rani (a young relative of Madri’s whom I know slightly) had run away from her husband the night before and taken refuge in my kitchen. She wouldn’t speak and seemed not to be able to hear. Some of the people there dropped by only for a moment, as if to just make an appearance. Eventually the girl’s family persuaded her to come along home with them, and only then did the crowd disperse.

Another important group in Balinese life is the seka. Seka means simply an association of people, and there are numerous seka in a village. There is the seka truna-truni, which is all the young people of the village who have come of age but aren’t yet married. Membership is compulsory, but nobody would not want to join. The truna-truni have precisely defined responsibilities in temple ceremonies and other communal work. Most villages have a seka gong, the group that plays the gamelan orchestra, and if some of them decide to start a flute orchestra, they will form seka suling. Recently the taxi drivers in Ubud formed a seka. They used to be all over each other hustling prospective customers. This was unpleasant for the tourists, and unfair for those drivers who were less skilled (or less charming) than others. The new seka worked out a system for taking turns.

Every seka has an elected leader and a treasurer. Infringements of their by-laws, such as failing to attend a meeting, are punished by fines. The Balinese abhor chaos — to them it’s the equivalent of evil — and they go to great lengths to make sure that everything is orderly and well-regulated. This applies not only to social matters but to affairs of the invisible realm as well, and they make virtually no distinction between the two.

The desa adat is governed by a council of the male householders of the village, and led by an elected headman, the bendesa. He has an assistant (wakil) and a scribe (penyarikan) who, in Abian Suci anyway, is something of a Hindu-animistic curate.

The banjar is a civic entity grafted onto the desa adat and made up of the same members. (In Abian Suci, the desa adat is made up of the family compounds, and the banjar is made up of all the married couples; so the banjar is more numerous, since many couples may live in one compound.) In Bali, the banjar is the smallest administrative unit of the vast bureaucracy of the Republic of Indonesia. The banjar is an official, secular unit — the cell of the national organism. The klian banjar (klian being the head person of any group) is a civil servant, with lots of work and red-tape to cope with, on the provocatively small salary of about $15 a month.

The Indonesian government has made astute use of the banjar system in coordinating national policy. It has been especially useful in carrying out such projects as the national family planning program. Some years ago, every banjar was asked to select a couple of people to attend a regional training seminar, and then explain to their fellow villagers the principles of birth control. Thus when the health workers swept through with their pills and the clinics got their IUD’s, the population was already informed and eager to cooperate. In Bali, the family planning program was a particular success; the Balinese are by tradition good citizens.

The Indonesian government is a huge network that reaches down from the upper chambers of national policy through many layers of civilian and military processing stations to the capillaries that conclude in the banjar. This enormous textile of government has accomplished remarkable social and economic progress. One must remember that the Republic of Indonesia, which is not even fifty years old yet, is spread over a vast archipelago of 13,000 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited by over three hundred different ethnic groups. The administration of all this requires roads, schools, hospitals, national television, administrative centers, flags, and other accoutrements of nationhood. Many public work projects like road building are carried out by the army.

That this nation exists and thrives at all is astonishing. It is remarkable, too, that many people have never heard of it. It is the fifth most populous country on earth. It is an oil- producing and -exporting nation. It is here that Java Man originated, and it has some of the world’s largest primeval rainforests.

The five-point national philosophy, Pancasila, is admirably noble and vague, and deserves quoting: “ … a belief in One, Supreme God; a just and civilized Humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy which [they describe, somewhat awkwardly] is guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberation amongst representatives … creating a condition of social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia.”

The national slogan “Unity in Diversity” is also appropriate and stirring, although it somewhat obscures the fact that two-thirds of the population live on Java and that the nation’s political and intellectual leadership is from Central Java which itself is the seat of one of the oldest, most refined cultures on the earth.

Throughout the archipelago, adat has been the primary shaping force of society here for thousands of years. The Republic of Indonesia has not attempted to replace it — in this country, a separation of religion and state is generations away. The government’s policy is to respect the authority of village adat, as long as it does not contradict national law. When the government has intervened in matters of adat in Bali, the effect has generally been liberalizing. Beginning with the colonial Dutch government early in the 20th century, a number of extreme practices in Hindu Bali — such as slavery and the sacrificial suicide of royal women — have been abolished. Until the 1960s, the birth of male–female twins could render an entire village ritually unclean for forty-two days. The offending couple would be obliged to move to a makeshift hut outside the village during that period. Because of this severe disruption to the daily life and spiritual balance of the village, one of the infants often died at birth. This practice is now illegal. And a law passed in 1974 requiring all marriages and divorces to be registered in the civil bureaucracy is intended not only to feed the archives but also to provide a legal context for the rights of women and heirs.

Although Indonesia has a modern legal system with courts of appeal, many kinds of civil issues are settled at the local level by the banjar, with the higher levels of the bureaucracy acting as a kind of coordinating registrar. The banjar has its own building, the balé banjar, near the center of the village. Strictly speaking, this is a civic building, not a temple, but things are not so sharply separated up here in the mountains: when the temple gods of Abian Suci go out in procession, they are preceded by the red and white flag of the Republic of Indonesia. This is not typical, and at first I was disconcerted to see this incongruous juxtaposition of traditional culture and nationalism. But then I realized that this flag has nothing to do with worshipping the army; it is a symbol of the banjar in its current amphibious form. Village law is still holy, as I was soon to be reminded.