Balinese Religion

Balinese Religion


Bali’s wonderful volcanoes, rice terraces and temples, dramatic ceremonies, cremations and dances, processions, offerings, carvings, paintings, masks, puppets and gamelan music are spectacular and colourful but pretty much devoid of meaning without an appreciation of Balinese religion. The vital thing to appreciate is that there is hardly any division between the religious and the secular world. God is everywhere and in all things.


The Balinese had a religion before Hinduism arrived on her shores. Many aspects of the old religion are still practised today. The Balinese share a common ancestry with the Malayo-Polynesians, who settled the islands of the Pacific several thousands of years ago. They worshipped many nature gods and ancestors. Their temples were open rectangular spaces with shrines. The gods were invited to visit the shrines during ceremonies. Fruit offerings were presented to the gods. All these are common to the Balinese practice of religion and suggest its origin.

Binary opposites

The Balinese believe that the world is divided into opposites, ruwa-bineda. This philosophical principle is also found in Java: good and bad, day and night, mountain and sea, the Pandawas and the Korawas in the Mahabarata stories, right and left, young and old, male and female, sun and moon and so on.

The Balinese view of the world is somewhat reminiscent of Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, (c540-c480 BC), who taught that everything is in a state of flux, strife and turmoil. He also said that conflict between opposites constituted the universe. These opposites were somehow the same and were one.


Many influences have been involved in the Balinese religion, which is known as Bali Hindu Dharma. The cardinal belief is that the world lies between two opposing and antagonistic poles. Left to itself everything would fall into disorder. It takes an outside influence, namely man, by proper ritual behaviour, to bring order into the world and counter-act the natural tendency towards disorder.

The aim is to achieve a state where the two forces of good and evil are in balance. This is the purpose of ceremonies, prayers and offerings: to achieve equilibrium, not only for the person, but also for the village, Bali and the world. The equilibrium will be a temporary, however, so the ceremonies must be constantly repeated.


Hildred Geertz in Images of Power takes a more radical slant and says that conflict is the fundamental characteristic of life in the Balinese view of the world. Those that have spiritual power, sakti, possessed by humans and non-humans, royal and divine, are engaged in constant competitive combat with one another. The universe is thus comprised of fluctuating, flowing, shifting forces, which can sometimes be temporarily commanded by masters of sakti.

On this view, temple ceremonies are best understood as procedures for accessing sakti in order to persuade spiritual beings not to destroy the vitality and fertility of the congregation and its lands, to hold off those that cannot be persuaded and to bless the congregation with the strength to continue to oppose them.

The Soul

Soul comes from the word for blowing; it is the breath of life. There are three main beliefs about the soul:

Vedic and Balinese view

This is that the soul migrates through bodies by means of reincarnation, like a game of snakes and ladders. The soul slowly progresses on its journey. Even Buddha went through countless lives. According to this view, the soul is separate from the body.

Abrahamic view

The Abrahamic view of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that this life is where you are tested. If you pass the test, you go to Paradise or Heaven, but if you fail, you go to Hell. Originally Judaism did not have much of an idea about the afterlife.


The Chinese have all those views plus a view on immortality. Immorality depended on the body being made immortal. If it was not made immortal, the soul did not survive. To make it immortal it was necessary to drink mercury, gold and jade.


There is a strong belief in reincarnation. Man’s body is the receptacle for the spirit, Atman. Birth and death are merely the creation and destruction of the perishable body. Reincarnation, samsara, occurs when the spirit is reborn in a different body and to achieve this old body must be completely destroyed. This can only be achieved through cremation.

When someone dies their spirit or soul hovers around their body. Capable of bothering its old family, the family will want to treat it right. Ceremonies are required to detach it from the body. There are pre-cremation ceremonies, then the cremation ceremony, followed by another ceremony, called Nyekah, by which the released soul is returned to God. For the details, see the article entitled Balinese Ceremonies.

Before reincarnation, according to one view, there are periods in heaven and hell, the lengths of which depend on the person’s karma. A person can return as a higher or lower caste person or as an animal, even as a one-celled creature. All depends on the person’s karma.

When the spirit is eventually freed from all desire, it reaches moksa. The individual soul (atma) merges with the all-loving, all-forgiving universal soul of the Creator (Peramatma). Having fused with God, it loses its identity in Nirvana, the highest state of enlightenment. Those that attain moksa are said to be able to take their bodies with them when they die. It is possible to attain moksa during your life. That is called Jiwa Mukti. Even animals participate in reincarnation, until they eventually reach Nirvana.

One’s actions, karma, determine whether one will be rewarded or punished. Doing good works; making offerings, performing sacred dances and playing music all create good karma.

A central theme of Hinduism, which was brought to India by Indo-European migrants, is that God is everywhere at all times. God is part of all things. It follows that the essence of a person, his Atman, and God are one. If this were not so, reincarnation could not take place. Everything has a soul. A human being could be reborn as an insect or animal. These beliefs lead to respect for all things.

Reincarnation is seen today as essentially Indian, being a major part of Hinduism and Buddhism, but it is also found in the Western tradition. Pythagoras, who flourished around 532 BC, founded a religion, whose main tenet was the transmigration of souls. His followers, including Plato, believed in reincarnation. Pythagoras believed that after death souls could be reincarnated as plants or animals. He himself had “already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a leaping journeying fish”.

Plato believed, although he could not prove it, that the soul had three parts, one part was reason and two emotional parts, one domineering and the other dealing with lower desires and appetites. Only the part that reasons was immortal. It existed before birth and would continue to exist after death. What the good man can hope to enjoy after death is reunification, or at least, communion, with those incorporeal higher forms of existence that are conventionally called “the divine.”

Animals evolved out of humans. Animals were humans in a previous life who could not reason well. Also, plants have souls, but they can only feel, not reason.

Aristotle also believed that plants and flowers have souls, but not consciousness. Animals do not have rational souls. He thought that the soul was part of the biological body and died with the body. He did not believe in reincarnation.


The concept of the Trinity arose early in the history of Hinduism, namely Brahma, Siwa and Wisnu: Brahma, the Creator, Wisnu, the Preserver, and Siwa, the god of destruction and rebirth. Some say they are three manifestations of the one God and that the name for the one God is Sanghyang Widi Wasa. There are no statues of “Him”. “He” is defined as the essence common to all the gods. Sang and hyang indicate the divine, the more than human, while widi, from the Sanskrit widhi, means order. “He” is neither male nor female, but in “his” more earthly manifestations is portrayed as Lingayoni, a unity of masculine and feminine elements.

There are other manifestations. Dewi Sri, the Rice goddess, is very popular and her image is seen everywhere. Also popular is Saraswati, the goddess of learning, whose day is a public holiday.

The State

After Indonesian independence, there was a debate over whether Indonesia should become an Islamic or secular state. Domination by an Islamic majority had long been a concern in Bali. The debate continues, but, for the time being, has been settled. Indonesia is a secular state.

To placate Islam, it became politically important for the Balinese to be clearly monotheistic. In the early 1950s it looked like Bali-Hinduism might not gain official recognition as a “religion” from the central state because it did not easily meet the Government criteria: a “holy book”, a belief in one God and a prophet, and international recognition.

With the assistance of President Sukarno, Balinese leaders gained recognition and obtained a separate Bali-Hindu section in the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 1958. Bali-Hinduism was acknowledged as an official religion in 1962. Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia, created in 1986, is the religion’s central body.

There are five officially sanctioned religions in Indonesia and all Indonesians have to profess one of them. They are Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and the two Christian religions, Catholicism and Protestantism.

There is a recent move to establish major temples in old Hindu sites outside Bali. These include Java in 1992 (Pura Mandadagiri Semeru Agung), North Sulawesi in 1993 (Pura Agung Kayangan Jagat Uttara Segara) and Central Kalimantan in 1994 (Pura Pitamaha). The people of Ubud are foremost in their help and advice.

World religions

According to The Vatican Handbook 2000 and The World Christian Encyclopaedia there are 1.9 billion professed Christians around the world, 1.45 billion baptized Catholics and 1.2 billion Moslems. There are 811 million Hindus, 360 million Buddhists, 23 million Sikhs and 14 million Jews. There are 768 million non-religious people.

By contrast Bali-Hindus number 3 million.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, distinguishes traditional religions from rationalized religions and said that the world religions evolved from traditional ones, folk cults and folk mythologies. Traditional religions, of which Bali-Hinduism is one, are closer to the gods, more concerned with ritual and less concerned with philosophy. Rationalized religions, and the world religions are in this category, are more distant and compartmentalized.

Traditional religions infuse everyday life. The gods are present everywhere: rocks, trees, graveyards, road crossings and so on. The rationalized ones have a more distant concept of the divine, such as Yahweh. To get closer to the divine Weber identified two methods in the rationalized religions; obeying commands from holy books, the prophets, and indications miracles. The other way contact through mysticism.

Traditional religions deal with the problems of life in a piecemeal fashion – a ceremony will put the disaster right. Rationalized religions deal with abstract matters in a more or less coherent way.

Gods and Demons

Supernatural power in Bali is easily converted to good or bad.

The evil spirits, which live on the ground, and receive their offerings there, are called the Bhutas and Kalas. There are also witches, Leyaks. They study black magic, are usually married women initiated by a sorcerer, and get their power through secret rituals in the graveyard. They have the ability to change shapes. They can appear as monkeys, goats, pigs, snails, balls of fire and other shapes. Naturally most Balinese are scared of them. Sometimes they have a burning desire to eat foetuses, newborn babies and small children. This becomes the subject matter of paintings. Miscarriages and stillbirths are routinely blamed on them.

Anything, animate or inanimate, can be possessed by a spirit, good and/or bad, and is worthy of an offering to keep things in balance. So trees, rocks, practically anything may be presented with offerings. Invisible spirits or beings are very much alive and part and parcel of everyday life. Belief in the invisible is, of course, known in other religions. The Christian Creed begins “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible…”

Although in the English language, we describe Balinese spirits as gods or demons and thereby imply that they are either consistently benevolent or malevolent, this falsifies Balinese belief. Every Balinese god or demon is capable of being helpful and/or harmful. They are just opposite ends of the same stick.

God of Thieves

One of the more curious Balinese gods is the God of Thieves, Pelinggih Sang Hyang Maling. Two temples are dedicated to him: Besikalung Temple near the Hoo River and Petali Temple in Jatiluwih village. There are few visitors and no priests. Nobody knows how the god fits into the Bali Hindu religion or the reason the temples were built. According to Nengah Bawa Atmaja, a local scholar, the Balinese, along with many other societies, have the concept of a “social bandit”, a Robin Hood character, and the god may represent this idea.


The Bali Hindu belief in ancestors is different in nature from Indian Hinduism’s belief. Reincarnation takes place more quickly than in Indian Hinduism, occurring within a generation or two after cremation.

When someone dies, they are usually buried, and their spirit resides in Pura Dalem, the Temple of Death. It can, of course, move from there if it wishes. It is not until cremation, properly carried out, that the spirit goes to heaven. It is the most important duty of the deceased’s children to ensure that the cremation ceremony is indeed carried out and carried out properly.

In heaven the spirit will be rewarded or punished according to its karma, its actions on earth. Reincarnation can then take place and usually the spirit returns to the same family in the fourth generation. A female can come back as a male and vice versa. There are no constraints. Two people may even be reincarnated as one person.

After numerous reincarnations, when it has become pure, the spirit achieves moksa and fuses with the spirit of and becomes one with God and reincarnation ceases.

The deified family ancestors (leluhur) are part of God and can help the family if they are accorded due respect. The reverse is also true: they can cause trouble to the family if they are not treated properly. The Balinese therefore take care to invite them to ceremonies, make regular offerings to them and maintain their shrines. Ceremonies are conducted in the best and most pleasing ways possible to entertain the spirits.

Ancestors more than four generations back begin to lose their identities. That is because they may already have been reincarnated. Geertz calls this “genealogical amnesia”. Relations five generations apart call each other by the same kinship term, kumpi, and are classified as belonging to the same generation. Children that are five generations apart from their deceased great-grandparents do not pray to them in the family temple because they have the same generational rank.


Most people belong to half a dozen or more temples and will attend them when there is a ceremony. They pay homage to the gods that are relevant to them. If a person does not belong to a particular temple, he will have no real interest in entering.

There are no sermons – only a blessing with holy water and simple prayers and entertainment for the gods and ancestors.

The physical and the spiritual

Like the ancient Greeks, the Balinese do not draw a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual, so a deformed person is regarded as ritually unclean, mala. The inner life of a person is reflected in his appearance. Therefore, during important ceremonies, people who are badly handicapped, for example, by being blind, lame, or hare-lipped, are not allowed to enter the temple. Menstruating women are never allowed in temples.


Processions are a feature of many religions and a frequent occurrence in Bali. Sometimes gods or Barongs (Balinese mythical spirits that protect villages) visit other temples whereupon there will be a procession involving many people, umbrellas and a gamelan orchestra. These visits link temples and draw communities together.

Most temple anniversaries start their celebrations by taking the gods, their spirits residing in wooden images called Pratimas, to a holy river or the sea for symbolic cleaning and purification.

Holy Water

Bali-Hinduism is called the holy water religion, Agama Tirta, which indicates how important holy water is. It is used in every ceremony, in every ritual. It is poured over every offering, every sacrifice, every building, every rice paddy and every person. It blesses and purifies.

There are ornate holy water dispensers.

Each temple creates its own holy water. It signifies that temple, its god and congregation. It is sacred and the more upstream the spring from which it comes the more potent it is. The most sacred variety is so imbued with the essence of the god that it can represent the god at temples outside his own temple. So, holy water does not represent the sacred in general but a specific god or social unit.

Water from the spring is made holy by presenting offerings to the particular god, who is asked to sanctify it. High priests can also make holy water and as they do they are infused with and become Siwa.

Holy waters are often mingled, which symbolically tie communities together. For example, a water temple downstream may have its holy water augmented by holy water from a more important, upstream water temple. Or there may be a mingling of holy water between a local water temple and a village temple. This symbolically connects communities and demonstrates the hierarchy.

Holy water is collected from upstream temples and brought back, never the other way round – never does an upstream temple collect water from a downstream source. The further upstream the source, the more sacred the water, so major rituals would have local holy water augmented by distant upstream holy water.


Prayers are an act of homage to God and form part of every ceremony. There are no formal prayers. In the temple prayers are said sitting on the ground. Men sit cross-legged; women kneel, facing the gods and the offerings, which will have already been placed in front of the gods.

The priest sprinkles everyone with holy water three times. Each person has a little basket in which there are placed flowers and a stick of burning incense. The incense carries the prayers to God. Prayers are said privately by holding a flower between the fingers, pressing the palms together and raising them so that the thumbs touch the forehead. At the end of each prayer the flower is flicked forward to carry the prayer. This is repeated three times. This homage to God is called the act of muspa from puspa meaning flower.

At the end of prayers an attendant or priest sprinkles holy water on the hands of those who have prayed. This is sipped. This is done three times. The fourth pouring of holy water is rubbed on the face and hair. Then a few grains of sticky rice are handed to the people. A few grains are eaten and the rest are pressed to their Cakra points on the forehead, temples and chest. The rice serves as a magical protection.

People collect their offerings and take them home to eat. Their essence has already been taken by the gods and enjoyed.


Music, dance and shadow puppet performances, staged to entertain the gods, who have been invited to the ceremony, usually take place in the evening.

See the articles devoted to these subjects for details: Balinese Music, Balinese Dances, and Balinese Shadow Puppet Performances: Wayang Kulit.

The article entitled Balinese Dances explains that performances take place in different sections of the temple. The holiest, purely for the gods, take place in the inner sanctum. Performances for two audiences, the gods and humans, are performed in the middle section.

Programme of a typical temple ceremony

These vary from village to village, but the basic scheme is the same. Normally a temple anniversary, odalan, takes three days. The main purpose is to invite the gods to the temple. The programme is as follows:

2 or 3 days before

A woman and man go to the temple from each household, she prepares rice flour and containers, or fries offering cakes in oil and he cleans the temple grounds and builds offering stands, or guards the temple at night.

1 day before

The women cook glutinous rice, make it into pyramids or cylinders and pack it into woven palm-leaves, wrap the uprights of pavilions and the friezes with coloured cloth, hang flat, carved, hour-glass figures (salangs), made of punched Chinese coins on either side of altars and place woven palm lamaks in front of the altars.

Day 1

Early morning of the first day, the men slaughter a pig, whose meat will be used for offerings for the demons; the priest takes out the small Pratimas, figures, which he dresses like small dolls and adorns with flowers, which are temporary homes for the gods during the festival, and places them in the place where the gods assemble. The priest will purify the area with an offering for the demons, hold up an incense container, and invite the gods to come down along the ladder made by the incense smoke, whilst the kulkul drum beats to announce their arrival.

Day 2

During the day, women will bring tall offerings on their heads. The priest fans the essence of the offerings to the gods. The worshippers are purified with holy water from the priest and then they pray. The offerings are taken home and eaten.

Shortly before sunset, the gods are taken to the river to bathe. They are accompanied by processional music and singing. They are then taken back to the temple.

In the evening, ritual dances, music and entertainments follow.

Day 3

During the night of the third and last day, the gods are asked to return to Mount Agung. The cloths are taken away and the shrines and temple doors locked.

Everyone’s Four Invisible Brothers or Sisters: Kanda Empat

Males have four brothers; females have four sisters. They are conceived and born at the same time. At birth they take up positions inside the baby’s body.

They are the amniotic fluid, the uterine blood, the vernix caseosa (the yellowish waxy substance covering a baby) and the placenta. Immediately after birth the baby’s placenta and umbilical cord are placed in a coconut and buried outside the door of the baby’s home: as you stand at the door looking out, they are buried on the right for a boy and on the left for a girl, a large black rock placed on top and a thorny pandanus bush placed on top for protection. If the family moves house, the remains are dug up and reburied at the new house.

The four children stay with the child throughout his or her life, protect the child and adult, and accompany the spirit to heaven and testify to his or her good karma. But this is conditional on the Kanda Empat being treated with respect.

When the mother feeds the baby, a few drops of milk should be spilt on the placenta for the four children. The same ceremonies for a person should be carried out for the four children. If not, great harm can result. The Kanda Empat can do good or evil, so they need to be considered and treated well. The theory is that they represent man’s potential.


Adat is knowledge as to how to behave properly, imparted by the founders of the village, who have since become deified ancestors. It is from a word of Arabic origin meaning custom, but it means more than that. It is inextricably connected to religion. These customary rules are part of the divine order. They evolve and vary from village to village in minor ways. Every creature or thing, animal, plant and river, has its own adat.

Adat governs ceremonies of marriage, birth and death, etiquette, inheritance, methods of agriculture, styles of art, times to plant rice, build a house and many other things. In short, adat is order, an entire framework of social action.

Indian Hinduism

The foundations of Indian Hinduism and Balinese Hinduism are the same, but they have evolved and are practised in very different ways. For example:

Balinese temples are architecturally quite different, open with no roofs, so that the gods can descend and visit.
Balinese offerings are very different, often extremely elaborate.
Balinese reincarnation takes place more quickly, often within a generation or two of cremation.
The Balinese emphasise deification of ancestors.
There are four Balinese castes; in India there are 7,000 recognized castes and sub-castes.
The Balinese caste system operates differently: there are no Untouchables; employment is not restricted to particular castes with certain exceptions (high priests, the pedandas, must be Brahmans and blacksmiths must be members of the Pande title group).
Balinese Brahmans cannot be rulers.
In Bali there is no idol worship and there are no statues of gods in the temples.
In Bali the gods are present in the temples only during ceremonies.
The Balinese eat beef (except the high caste priests, the pedandas, who do not).
Balinese dead do not have to be cremated immediately (except for priests and members of the royal family).
Balinese cremations are totally different.

The variations do not mean that the Balinese religion is not Hindu, although it does incorporate a large amount of pre-Hindu animism. In India there are many, many Hindu sects, which practise Hinduism in different ways. One way of looking at it is that Bali-Hinduism is a Hindu sect.

There is very little contact nowadays with India and there has been no significant contact for more than a thousand years. There is a revival of interest amongst Indonesian Hindus living outside Bali, for example, in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan. There are numerous contacts between Bali and them. Bali provides them with a lot of help. Pura Mandara Giri Semeru Agung, the new Balinese Hindu temple honouring Mount Semeru in Java, was built at the foot of the mountain with much help from the Royal family and people of Ubud.

Chinese influence

The Chinese came to Bali as traders and plantation workers. They were Confucianists and their influence on Balinese culture remains profound. It is clearly seen in the use of Chinese coins, called kepengs, in Balinese offerings, the Barong dance, the Baris Cina dance and the traditional Balinese opera. Between the 12th and 16th centuries, the famous Lee family brought chow chow dogs to Bali, which bred with local dogs, which are probably responsible for the local Kintamani dogs.

There are a number of Chinese temples or klenteng scattered throughout the island. Chinese temples are found in Blabatuh near Gianyar, Denpasar, Kuta, Singaraja, Tabanan and Tanjung Benoa.


Kawi is Old Javanese, the language of the Hindu kingdoms of Java from the 8th to the 14th centuries. It became the language of the courts of Bali, but has not been spoken since the 16th century. Nearly half the vocabulary derives from Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu philosophy in India. Kawi is used for the epic stories, shadow puppet performances and poetry.

Sanskrit is regarded as the language of the gods, very powerful, and never translated. It is only studied by the pedandas, the high priests, and is the language of prayer.


Lontars are palm leaf manuscripts. Characters are inscribed on the leaf and rubbed with a mixture of lamp soot and oil. Religious writings are written on lontar books in Kawi. Few survive more than 100 years in Bali’s tropical climate. Many have been copied many times since writing started in the first millennium AD.

Not many people can read lontars. There are only about four lines of text on each leaf. The leaves are bound and held together by string. As they are holy they must be stored above head height.

At temple ceremonies passages from the lontars are read in Kawi, followed by a translation in Balinese, as not many people understand Kawi.

Traditional versus modern

There are currently two opposing camps struggling over the fundamental teachings of Bali Hinduism. The first camp comprises the traditional religious leaders, mostly pedanda high priests and traditional political figures from the Satrias caste. They tend to come from various royal houses. Prominent members of this camp are the nobility of the Ubud palace. The other camp comprises a loose coalition of various clan-based organisations and progressive Hindu scholars. They are heavily influenced by Indian Hinduism, especially Hare Krishna, and Ghandian philosophy. Prominent members were the late Gedong Bagoes Oka and the late Professor Dr I Gusti Ngurah Bagus.

In 2001 the modern camp, for the first time, succeeded in taking over the executive of The Parisadha Hindu Dharma Indonesia Pasat and appointing a layman as chairman, rather than a high priest. In a conges meeting a recommendation was made that there should be a religious decree putting an end to the caste system. The modern group also wants to end animal sacrifices in purification mecharu ceremonies. The traditional camp is very concerned that sacred fundamental teachings could be destroyed. They do not want the introduction of foreign texts.

Other issues are at stake: the struggle of sects, such as the Waisnawa or the Brahma, to reclaim the position they lost 500 years ago to the Siwa-Siddhanta sect and the relationship between the lower and upper castes.


Islam was a late arrival in Indonesia. One of the earliest surviving signs is a tombstone found in east Java and carved in about 1082.

Islam is believed to have entered Bali between the 15th and 16th centuries. Traders from Gujarat in India and the Middle East brought their religion. Some believe that there may even have been a special Islamic mission to Bali to spread the word.

It is also possible that Balinese kings invited Muslim communities to Bali. A.A.W. Wirawan, the author of The History of Islam in Bali says that King Dalem Ketut Ngulesir (1380-1460), who was king in Gelgel, visited the Majapahit kingdom in Java and brought back 40 Muslims, who established a Muslim village called Kampung Gelgel.

The Islamic kingdom of Demak in Central Java sent an envoy to Dalem Waturenggong (1460-1550) to teach Islam, but the king and his subjects refused to convert.

There was a further migration of Muslims in the 17th century. Bugis soldiers and traders from Makassar in South Sulawesi fled to Bali after having been defeated by the Dutch. They landed in Serangan in Badung regency and in Loloan in Jembrana in West Bali.

Other villages are predominately Muslim. They include Kepaon in Denpasar, Pagayaman in Buleleng regency in North Bali, and Nyuling and Kecicang in Karangasen in east Bali

The first Balinese Christian

In 1867 a Dutch Reformed Church missionary, Jacob de Vroom and his associate, Van Eck, appeared in Bali. The mission was not a great success. In 1875 Van Eck left because he became ill and on 8 June 1881 de Vroom was murdered. Over the 14-year period they succeeded in converting only one person: Gusti Wayan Karangasen. He was the first Christian convert and he murdered de Vroom.

Rather surprisingly Karangasen was accepted in his village despite his conversion to Christianity. However, he had problems at work and his wife was implicated in a financial crime. He went to Singaraja to find comfort from de Vroom. De Vroom lived in very comfortable quarters there and instead of providing comfort gave him a lecture on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Karangasen was deeply wounded and disillusioned. Then two of de Vroom’s Muslim servants angered him still further. He murdered de Vroom and was hanged.

The Dutch authorities excluded missionaries successfully for the next 70 years.

Tsang To Han

In 1929 the Dutch Governor General in Java allowed Tsang Ho Tan, who was a Chinese representative of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, to come to Bali to look after Chinese Christians. Many of them had married Balinese wives. He was not allowed to proselytise and if he did he would be expelled.

At first, it seemed that he had taken note, but he started preaching and began to attract followers. He was joined in June 1931 by another Christian missionary Dr J.A. Jaffray, an itinerant minister with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. They started baptising, first Chinese and half Balinese and then full blood Balinese. By the end of 1931 they had 47 converts and more were interested. Tsang insisted that the new Christians reject their old culture, which Dr Jaffray denounced as pagan.

In 1932 another public baptism took place and it caused a sensation in Bali. The Dutch Resident Officer insisted that they must stop carrying on aggressive missionary work. The warning went unheeded and they baptised another 75. They now had 266 converts. Tsang Ho was ordered to leave Bali in 1933

By rejecting their culture the Balinese converts were ostracised from their villages. They were denied burial places. Their water supply was cut off. They could not rent land. Their crops were destroyed. The Hindus believed that the gods were angry at the infiltration of the new religion. They wanted them to give it up.

In 1934 the Dutch Reformed Church in East Java sent Dr Hendrik Kraemer to Bali to assess matters and the following year they took care of the new Christians. In 1935 they sent two Javanese ministers and the Bali Church remained under the pastoral care of East Java until 1942.

There were now three groups of Christians in Bali: one group which remained loyal to the Christian and Missionary Alliance whose headquarters were in Makassar, another group centred on the two Javanese ministers and a third group, who became Roman Catholic, influenced by a Catholic priest, who had permission to work among Dutch Catholic soldiers and civil servants in Bali. The two Protestant groups united in 1938 and became the Union of Balinese Christians.

Protestant Numbers

The first Christian community was established in Blimbingsari in 1939 and the first ordained Balinese minister was Made Rungu in 1942. In that year 1942 there were 200 Christians, in 1950 there were 500 and in 1960 there were 2,000. In 1965 there were 6,500.

Christian Contextualisation

An important milestone was reached in 1972 when the Synod in Abianbase in March 1972 resolved to rid itself of the anti-cultural legacy of Tsang and accept, or as they put it, contextualise Balinese culture. This has led to the Bali Church using Balinese art forms in its architecture and services – paintings, gamelan music, dance, shadow puppets, and woodcarving. Balinese churches are entered through a traditional split gate, the candi bentar, and worshippers face the sacred direction, kaja. As in Balinese temples, there is an outer court and an inner sanctuary. There are also offerings.

Balinese Catholics

Catholicism has existed in Indonesia since the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, but it did not make headway in Bali until the 1930s. The first missionaries arrived in Bali on Easter Day 1936 and shortly thereafter converted a number of people in Tuka, a village, which is about 10 kilometers north of Denpasar.

A year later 72 people from Tuka and another 30 from Gumbrih, a village in Jembrana, West Bali, were baptized at the Tuka Catholic Church. The head of the Tuka Church, Father Simon Buis, requested from the Dutch administration and Bali’s Board of Kings and was granted a plot of land in the lush forest of Pangkung Sente in Jembrana for his congregation.

In September 1940 Father Buis and his followers moved to the forest and settled in a village, now known as Palasari. At that time nutmeg plants, locally called pala, surrounded it. Sari means “essence”. 120 kilometers from Denpasar, then it would be a week long journey, but now, about 3 hours by car.

The congregation grew rapidly. Father Buis requested and received another 200 hectares. First they built schools and a health clinic and then a permanent church, the Sacred Heart (Hati Kudus) Catholic Church. It was started in 1954 and finished on 13 December 1958. Sitting on 36,000 square meters it is a blend of gothic arches and Balinese styles, designed by Father Ignatius A.M. de Vriese, who was assisted by two Balinese architects, Ida Bagus Tugur from Denpasar and I Gusti Nyoman Rai from Dalung, Kuta.

Palasari has 10 banjars, three of which are Catholic, seven Hindu and one Moslem. At present there are about 1,400 Catholics in Palasari, the largest Catholic community in Bali. The figure would be even greater if a large number had not gone to Lampung province in Sumatra and Umaha in Sulawesi as part of the Government’s transmigration policy.

As with the Protestants, the Catholics have used Hindu paraphernalia, which has caused some resentment among the Hindu Balinese. They use penjors and other temple decorations and dress in Balinese formal costume during Christian festivals and mass.

Balinese Hindu Missionaries

Balinese Hinduism is not a missionary religion. In fact, there have been instances among the Balinese royal families of openness and tolerance. They have provided lands and helped build mosques for Moslem communities.

In Buleleng regency in North Bali King Ki Gusti Anglurah Panji Sakti gave the Moslem community a plot of land near Pagyaman village and even initiated the construction of a grand mosque in Kajanan village in Singaraja. In Karangasen in east Bali the nobility provided financial assistance to Moslems wanting to perform the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.


The traditional versus modern debate is an argument of the elite. The ordinary person is not much concerned with it. For them to cease to be a Balinese Hindu is to cease to be Balinese. Their lives are full of ceremonies. During a ceremony, the place of ritual activity is a stage. The believers are actors, the priests are directors, their helpers are assistant directors, and the gods and demons are the invisible but critical audience.

A pious Balinese leads a busy and crowded life full of rites and ceremonies, whose purpose is to cleanse the unclean, reconcile the irreconcilable, worship, appease, avert danger, obtain nourishment and secure a happy life after death and a good reincarnation. It is a full life and very difficult to maintain these days in cases where a business is being run at the same time.