Balinese Organisations

Balinese Organisations


There are many examples of the communal nature of Balinese life. The Balinese like to do things together and many things are actually done better if done with others. Some absolutely require co-operation. Everything in Bali is inseparable from religion and is infused with religious meaning. Virtually every Balinese institution is deeply involved in religious matters.

The communal organisations intersect and overlap and bind the Balinese people together as a whole.

There are many organisations:

Banjars: hamlet groups.
Title groups.
Kinship groups.
Subaks: irrigation societies.
Temple congregations: pemaksan.
Voluntary associations like drinking or kite flying clubs.
Groups concentrated around Brahman priests.

Banjars: hamlet groups

The most important groups, amongst the Sudras, are the family kinship groups and then the banjars.


The overriding duty of the banjar is to maintain the ritual purity of the village, which is achieved by carrying out a number of activities, some major, some minor. It is a civic body.


Banjars comprise groups of adult men in villages. They have rights and duties and authority. The gentry do not belong. The men must be adults, married or at least have a female partner, who can be a sister, mother or daughter. This is necessary, as women are required to deal with offerings. In most hamlets, a man can become a member at marriage or after the birth of his first child (often these events take place in short order). Retirement often occurs on the death of a wife. Old and frail men can retire and be represented by their married sons.


The activities include most governmental issues:

Building, maintaining and improving the roads.
Constructing, maintaining and restoring the hamlet meeting house, the bale banjar, granaries, cockpits, market places and cemeteries.
Local security, including night watches, apprehension, judgment and punishment of thieves,
Settlement of civil disputes, such as inheritance conflicts, traditional rights and duties and contractual disputes.
Controlling access to village land.
Legitimising marriage and divorce.
Administering oaths.
Organizing communal village work.
Assisting with rituals, like tooth-filing.
Ensuring compliance with adat rules, such as observing silence on Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, and fining offenders.
Constructing sarcophagi and cremation towers, carrying and accompanying the deceased to the cremation ground, collecting the wood for the funeral pyre and setting it alight.

Matters concerning wet rice agriculture are excluded. These are the responsibility of the subaks.


Each banjar has its own temple.


Once every Balinese month of 35 days the banjar meets. Special meetings can be called for special reasons. Like the subaks, absentees have to pay a fine, as well as their normal subscriptions. They elect a headman, the klian banjar, for a period.


The banjar owns collective property. This includes streets and paths between houses, ditches, and public buildings like the wantilan or meeting house. The banjar also inherits property where a family dies without heirs. The banjar may own a gamelan orchestra.


The rules of village behaviour, awig-awig, are written on lontar palms and kept in the temple. All important decisions are decided consensually.

The sanctions for transgressing adat can be severe. The banjar can impose large fines, prohibit members from praying at village temples and even refuse use of the cemetery.

Desa dinas

The Dutch created villages, desa dinas, in order to administer the island, but their borders do not always overlap with the old Balinese villages, desa adat. They can encompass several desa adat and several banjars. The head of the village, the kepala desa, is responsible for ensuring that national and regional government decrees are implemented.


The banjar is responsible for maintaining market areas. Markets date back a long way in Bali. The first reference to markets and market weeks is in the 9th century. Some of these old inscriptions refer to markets that are still on schedule today.

The market week is on a three-day cycle. Markets start very early in the morning and are staffed almost entirely by women. Markets are usually situated outside the royal palace or a lord’s house. This is so in Ubud.


There was no local state currency in Bali or indeed the rest of Indonesia. The currency in Bali was Chinese kepengs until the 20th century, but most people did not use money. They bartered. Food and articles were exchanged in the markets.

Chinese kepengs, bronze coins threaded on a string through a hole in the centre, were privately purchased abroad, sold locally, and used as a currency. In 17th century, Indonesia was so great a drain on the currency that the Chinese Government tried to stop the export of coins, but they failed. There were different denominations of kepengs.

Kepengs are still used for ceremonial purposes. A string has nominally 200 kepengs, but this is unlucky, so they are sold in bunches of slightly under 200.

Subaks: irrigation societies 

Water rushes down from the mountains, where the gods are, from higher-level terraced rice paddies into the many lower-level terraced rice paddies. Neighbouring farmers, who are dependent on the same water supply, need to co-operate. To achieve this aim, they form subak associations to ensure that the water is fairly distributed during the long dry season, which stretches normally from April to October.

The subak associations were established over a thousand years ago and pre-date the Hindu Majapahits. According to legend, Rsi Markandeya, a great Hindu saint, the first person to set foot on Bali, is credited with founding them. The first reference to a subak by name was in 1022. As early as 896 tunnel builders were mentioned.

The engineering knowledge is sophisticated. The tunnels can be three kilometers long and 40 meters deep.


There are about 1,300 subaks in Bali and each has about 200 members, depending on the size of the plots involved. Everyone who owns land within a subak area must join and pay a joining fee. If a farmer owns land in two subak areas, he must join both. A head of the subak is voted and everyone must attend the meetings. It is obvious that the subak boundaries will not necessarily overlap with village boundaries, so a subak may include members from several villages.


The subak members, like banjar members, have equal rights, regardless of caste or title or indeed the size of their land holding. They meet every month, under their elected head, the klian subak, and decide all matters concerning rice cultivation: times for planting, harvesting, offerings, ceremonies, repairing dams, fertilizing, using insecticides. Subaks also give or withhold permission for new rice terrace construction. The klian subak is also responsible for ensuring compliance with government regulations.

The Dutch underestimated the subak system, as did the Indonesian Government until a few years ago. The careful coordination of rice planting times has a very important role in keeping down pests, a role well understood by the subaks. The effectiveness of burning or flooding a rice paddy after the harvest as a means of controlling pests depends on the co-operation of all the farmers in a given area. A sizeable block has to be burned or flooded to kill the pests, otherwise they just move to the neighbouring field.


There are subak temples.

Pura Ulun Swi, literally head of the rice fields temple, usually located towards the upper end of the fields, is at the spot where the water first enters the fields. It has a Balinese annual celebration, like all other temples. Shrines do not.

Downstream the canal will split in two and there will be another temple at that point.

Subaks also have an interest in the Pura Desa in the village and send offerings during their odalans. This ties the banjar and the subak together.

There are also small individual shrines near dams and weirs. These are called duguls and are places where the gods stop to rest on their journeys. Resting places are common in the Balinese temple system. Temples are themselves regarded as resting stations on the way to more important temples.

Ceremonies are held at each stage in the rice cycle. The waters ultimately come from the mountains, so the subaks make regular pilgrimages to the temples in the mountain lakes. The priests in the lake temples have considerable influence, especially the Temple of the Crater Lake at Mount Batur, which is about 13 kilometers from Murni’s Villas.

There is therefore a sacred aspect to the subak, so an infringement of the rules is a violation of the divine order and can result in negative consequences for the whole community, for example, bad harvests. This results in immense peer pressure to act properly. Disputes concerning boundaries, water rights and so on are normally settled informally. In serious cases the subak arbitrates and its decisions are binding. The sanction is expulsion from the subak and loss of water.

It works. The authorities now recognize that fact.

Temple Congregations: Pemaksan

The hamlet is the civil community, the subak is the economic community and the pemaksan is the moral community.

The pemaksan is responsible for following the desa adat, the customs laid down by the gods, and for worshipping the gods. The worshipping takes place in the three village temples, the Kahyangan Tiga, the Three Great Temples, which are described in the article entitled Balinese Temples and Holy Men.

Balinese Organisations