Balinese Architecture

Balinese Architecture


As has been mentioned in many articles, Indian influence has been great on all aspects of Balinese culture. That includes architecture. It is evident in the mandala-like groupings of houses in the villages. The Chinese were a major influence on Indonesian culture, but not on architecture, and neither were the Dutch.

The family compound (kuren) is a centre of religious life for the family and is constructed according to traditional rules. It undergoes periodic cleansing rituals. The materials used have to cope with equatorial conditions, which are hot and humid, and heavy monsoon rains. There are wooden or bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Java and Bali do not build their houses on stilts.

Traditional Balinese houses, temples, rice barns and other structures are built according to traditional Balinese rules, called Asta Kosala Kosali, written down in lontar palm books and interpreted by traditional architects called Undagi. Balinese architects do not design buildings; they merely interpret the traditional rules.

The roles of architect, builder and client are a phenomenon of an industrialized society. Such classification is unknown in Bali.


Housing consists of a series of small constructions. They mostly consist of wooden pillars raised on a masonry base, which support a roof of radiating beam work, covered by thatch, tiles or bamboo. Roofs are crowned by a terracotta finial (ornament).

The buildings are assembled with very few nails. Tools are simple hammers, chisels, saws, axes and a plane. Walls are generally of brick, tuff or other masonry. Posts and beams carry the load of the roof.

Some roofs are still made of alang-alang grass. This thatch, often 45 cm (18 in) thick used to last for up to 50 years. But nowadays it is almost impossible to get good quality alang-alang and ceramic tiled roofs are more common. They are also less of a fire risk.


The Balinese have a highly refined sense of place and orientation. Buildings are laid out in certain positions according to their function. This is described in the article entitled Everything comes in 3s. Cardinal points and geographical features determine the layout.

A Balinese compound is made up of five basic elements, the door with its split arch and screen, the main sleeping area, with its open verandah, a raised barn for storing rice, a kitchen and a bathing area. There may be a workshop and a family temple. The family temple is in the northeast. Ideally the entrance would face southwest. The kitchen and rice barn are normally placed in the southerly kelod direction.

The Bale Dangin, the pavilion used to celebrate important rites of passage, like weddings and tooth-filings, is placed in the east. It normally has six wooden pillars, a thatched or tiled roof, and a raised wooden palette which serves as a bed and an altar on which to place offerings and where the priest sits. The back area is walled in on two sides. The word Dangin comes from kangin, meaning east.

The Rules

The traditional methods of construction and rules of proportion are laid down in the palm leaf lontars, some of which date back to the 15th century. Anyone wishing to build will contact an Udangi who will measure the owner. He will transfer the measurements on to his bamboo measuring stick. The point is to construct buildings and courtyards scaled to the size of the head of the family.

A basic wall measurement is the length of the middle finger to the elbow plus the distance between the middle fingers when each arm is fully extended to the side. A little extra, the urip, is added to make the building alive. The urip is the width of the fist with the thumb extended.

From the floor to the horizontal beams supporting the roof should be one depa agung or from tiptoe to the highest one can reach. Measurements like these govern every measurement of the walls, gates, buildings, roofs, shrines and temples.

The client’s wealth, caste and location are also factors to take into account in configuring the buildings. There are three levels of cost: expensive, moderate and cheap. The rules in the Asta Kosala Kosali forbid the building of a house that is greater, that is inappropriate, for one’s caste. Sickness and even death can result.

The lontars also specify what kind of wood is needed for the various structures. Pillars of a shrine or temple must be cut from a tree growing locally. Pillars must also be erected so that the root end is nearest the ground, so that is they will end up the way they were when they were living. If they get mixed up, this can be determined by weighing them, as the root end is heavier.

Palace: Puri 

In classical 19th century Bali the king was divine. His residence was the puri. During state ceremonies, the palace was seen as a temple.

The palace was a replica of the cosmos, a sacred symbol. Always square, walled, and courts within courts.

Typically there would be a number of functional areas:

Family temple and sacred areas which the gods were invited to visit during ceremonies.
Public areas for the public.
Royal chambers where the king would meet his nobles.
Living quarters for the king, his father, brothers and male cousins.
Bedrooms of his commoner wives.
An impure area for menstruating women, animals, bathrooms and rubbish.

Taking each block itself and each block in relation to any other block, a consistent pattern emerges. Parts that are more sacred are to the north and east or rather towards the mountains, more profane or unclean parts are towards the south and west or rather towards the sea, less prestigious areas are outside areas that are more prestigious, and public areas are outside private ones. Public areas are towards the front and private ones towards the back.

Entrance gate: Lawang

Balinese entrance gates, Lawang, have niches on either side for offerings to welcome those who come with good intentions and keep out those who don’t.

Rice Barns: Lumbung

We have two ancient Balinese rice barns, one on either side of the driveway as you enter the property. Rice barns have very steeply sloping thatched roofs and are always built high off the ground to prevent rodents getting in and eating the rice stored there. They are the only Balinese buildings raised on piles. The piles are topped with large wooden discs just below the main part of the granary, another measure to prevent rats from getting in. The rice is stored in the room at the top, reached by a long bamboo ladder. The horizontal area between the posts is a good place to sit and rest.

Initial building ceremony

Before construction begins, certain ceremonies have to be performed.

Sacred buildings

five metals, gold, silver, bronze, iron and copper, are buried in the foundations, along with a coconut wrapped around with five differently coloured threads.

Secular buildings

a brick wrapped in a white cloth is buried. The day of the ceremony must be auspicious, as must the day that building starts.

Melaspas: Bringing buildings to life

All buildings must be brought to life and ceremonially purified before they can be occupied in a ceremony called Melaspas. The wood, stone and thatch, cut down and killed for the construction, are, as it were, re-incarnated. All parts are symbolically unified.

Many offerings are made; there are small animal sacrifices, including a small puppy of certain special colours. The ceremony is nearly identical to the ritual used to bring a sacred wooden mask to life.