A symbol is something that represents something else. Balinese
culture is very rich in symbolism. It seems that everything is
symbolic and that even the symbols are symbolic. There are numerous
These tend to represent different names for God. The most famous
is OM, which represents Brahma or Sanghyang Widi Wasa or God.
You will often hear priests intone this sound. The sound is made
up of the letters which symbolise the Trinity, which is Brahma,
the Creator, who is symbolised by the letter A, Wisnu, the Preserver
of Life, who is symbolised by the letter U and Siwa the Destroyer,
who is symbolised by the letter M. This spells AUM or OM. OM is
the most important sound in Bail and starts every stanza of every
mantra and prayer.
Writing can be just as sacred as the message it conveys. One story
says that Saraswati,
the goddess of poetry, brought humans into existence by the use
of writing. Written symbols represent different aspects of God
and are often joined together. Powerful symbolic writing on pieces
of white cloth, Ulap-ulap, hang above doorways in Balinese homes.
Written symbols are written on the teeth of a person about to
have his or her teeth filed. Written symbols are also placed on
offerings and on the shroud of a deceased person.
The anthropologist Lansing has made the point that letters are
used to create poetry. Poetry is a vehicle for the imagination.
This allows us to see beyond the surface appearance of things.
The Balinese universe is organised according to fundamental principles
of classification. It includes directions, colours and numbers.
There are 11 directions. These are the eight compass points, plus
the centre and up and down.
Each direction has a sound, a colour, a written symbol and a weapon.
They are linked to the nine gods, their consorts and organs of
the body. lswara is white and east; Brahma red and south; Mahadewa
yellow and west; Wisnu
black and north. Brahma's consort or wife is Laksmi, Wishnu's
is Saraswati and Siwa's is Durga. The goddesses are regarded as
their husbands' sakti (spiritual power). All the gods merge into
Siwa, who constitutes a higher unity, at the centre, with mixed
They are also linked to days of the five day week and numbers.
East with Umaris and number 5. South with Paing and number 9.
West with Pon and number 7. North with Wage and number 4. The
centre with Klion and number 8.
The enormous Eka Dasa Rudra sacrifice (see the article
entitled Balinese Ceremonies) was structured on the 11 directions.
The animals were assigned to particular directions. However the
animals of the central group were further sub-divided into an
11-fold structure. The animals of the outer circle included white
cow, goose, duck (east), goat (southeast), cow (south), dog (southwest),
buffalo (west), deer (northwest), black monkey and garuda (north),
and horse (northeast). The bulk of the animals fell into the inner
circle and were divided according to their nature. For example,
birds other than fowls were placed in the northeast, footed reptiles
in the west, fishes in the north, creatures that crawled (centipede
and snake) in the nadir, beetles in the zenith, flies and hornets
in the centre.
Goris has suggested that, in the context of colour, the Balinese
mandala is pre-Hindu.
the Balinese Mandala
To the mountains
Purity, sacredness, prosperity
Head of household lives
Purity, sacred, prosperity
Purity (but less than white)
To the sea
Impurity, strife, coarseness, lack of self-control
Pigs and rubbish
There are many non-representational symbols. The gods have their
own weapons, such as the Cakra, the magical discus of Wisnu, a
circle with eight radii, with powerful energy. Iswara's weapon
is Badjira, Brahma's weapon is Gada. Mahadewa's weapon is Naga,
the snake and Siwa's weapon is Padma.
Similarly the swastika represents the energy of the universe in
the form of rotation. The four ends of the swastika plus the centre
represent the nine manifestations of God, as symbolised in the
compass. The Nazi swastika rotates counter-clockwise, whilst the
Hindu swastika rotates clockwise.
are also many representational symbols. The Cili, in the shape
of Dewi Sri,
with an hourglass figure, formed by two triangles, represents
the Rice goddess. The rice farmers make a Cili out of rice stalks
just before harvesting.
god is male and female, so there are the male and female aspects
of Dewi Sri. For the story of Dewi Sri's birth, see the article
entitled Balinese Rice. The same goes for Siwa and Durga,
who are a single force having two opposite forces. Cili are often
used for decoration. She is symbolic of food and, of course, rice
is food The Cili symbol is frequently woven into long palm leaf
offerings called lamaks. They hang from shrines and traditionally
temporary shrines, erected outside homes in the street at Galungan
and other ceremonies. They are placed next to another symbolic
offering called a penjor.
Mountains symbolise the dwelling places of the gods. They also
climb towards the sky.
Temples, in their three divisions, symbolise the underworld of
evil spirits, man and God, each courtyard being reached by a flight
of steps and higher than the previous one.
Many animals are symbolic.
The goose is the only animal in Bali that can live in the sea,
on the land and in the air. As a result it represents the three
levels of the universe. If one is killed, a purification ceremony
Ducks and chickens are frequently used in ceremonies. A girl may
have to kiss a live chicken or duck at her first menstruation
ceremony to symbolise her identification and oneness with nature.
The turtle, surrounded by two snakes, looking like dragons, supports
the earth on its back. They are often carved supporting the empty
seat shrines, Padmasana.
have never lived in Bali, but appear as the popular God, Ganesha,
who can get things done. The curved dagger, called a kris, sometimes
has an elephant to symbolise the strength and magic power of the
Dogs, especially those that have a reddish skin with black spots
on their mouths and tips of their tails, are believed to be able
to cleanse the universe. They are used in mecaru purification
ceremonies. There are two kinds of dogs in Bali, village or peanut
dogs, and Kintamani dogs. The peanut dogs, the anjing kacang,
are so called because their bodies are small and tiny. The Kintamani
dogs come from Kintamani, a village in Tabanan regency.
The gods have their animals that carry them. These animals have
become symbols of the gods who ride them. The eagle-like bird,
Garuda, is Wisnu's carrier and Siwa rides a bull, called Nandi.
There are several Garudas
above the doors of Murni's Villas.
It happens that the eagle has 17 flight feathers on each wing,
8 tail feathers and 45 neck feathers. The Indonesian Declaration
of Independence was proclaimed on 17 August 1945. The Garuda is
on the Indonesian coat of arms and is the name of the national
is a habit these days mostly of the older generation. The chew
consists of three ingredients, the green betel leaf, the betel
or areca nut and white lime. The colours are symbolic. Green is
Wisnu's colour. Red saliva caused by the chewing is Brahma's colour
and white is Siwa's colour. These three gods comprise the Trinity.
Nearly all offerings have these three colours. As mentioned in
the article entitled Balinese Offerings, the gods actually sit
on their colours while they enjoy the offering.
Rice is symbolic of life. After praying in the temple, the priest
gives the worshippers some grains of wet rice to press against
their foreheads, temples and throats and to eat.
Flowers carry prayers and make them effective. The banyan tree,
with its aerial roots, is a very sacred symbol. The leaves are
used in some ceremonies. Coconut
trees are also important.
As mentioned, certain colours symbolise certain gods. Colours
also symbolise characters in plays; for example, Rama always has
a green mask, because he is an avatar of Wisnu, whose colour is
green (or black). A white mask symbolises a refined person, red
or black a coarse, rough person. This colour symbolism is carried
into the faces of shadow
puppets for the Wayang performances. It also appears in the
early Kamasan paintings. It is carried into facial make-up in
The Balinese feast, Ebat has dishes placed in the direction of
the colour of the food, so that green dishes are in Wisnu's north
direction, red, bloody lawar is placed in Brahma's south direction,
yellow turmeric is in Mahadewa's west direction and white coconut
is in Iswara's east direction. To continue, saffron is in Maheswara's
southeast, green in Sangkara's northwest, pink in Rudra's southwest
and blue in Cambu's northeast. In the centre is Siwa with a mixture
of white, red, yellow and black.
flags and fabrics used in ceremonies have a similar correspondence
with the names of deities and directions of the compass.
cleans symbolically. Holy
water is sprinkled on everything. It purifies. Holy water
is used so extensively that Bali-Hinduism is called the holy water
religion. Water has always been significant in Hindu culture.
The king's association with water and rainfall is a manifestation
of both his power and his purity. The worst drought in living
memory in Bali broke out the day that Sukarno flew in for a visit.
Penjors are long bamboo poles placed outside temples or houses
having a ceremony and especially at Galungan. (For details on
Galungan, see the article
entitled Balinese Ceremonies). A long string is attached,
at the end of which is the offering. The arched peak represents
Mount Agung, the body symbolises the earth and the dangling head
represents man's earthly needs.
Babies wear a necklace containing the dried umbilical cord to
ward off evil. The cord symbolises their four invisible brothers
and sisters, the Kanda Empat, who accompany them throughout life.
For details about the Kanda Empat, see the article
entitled Balinese Religion.
Pedandas, Brahman high priests, and pemangkus, ordinary temple
priests, use elaborate hand movements called mudras, during ceremonies,
which have symbolic meanings. Zoete and Spies said that a dancer's
hand movements were faint relics of a sign language. Wayang puppets
have similar hand gestures.
Elaborate hand movements accompany even everyday offerings.
Some ceremonies are themselves symbolic, such as a tooth-filing,
which eliminates animal-like behaviour, such as lust, greed, anger,
drunkenness, arrogance and jealousy.
The cremation ceremony uses fire as a symbol of purification and
cleansing, so that the deceased's spirit can be released and join
the spirit of God.
For details of the ceremonies, see the article
entitled Balinese Ceremonies.
3,5,7,9 and 11 are extremely important in determining activities.
Each god has his (or her) own numbers.