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 examples.
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 colours.
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.
Nawa-sanga: 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.
There 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.
Every 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 is required.
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.
Elephants 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 weapon.
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 airline.
Betel chewing 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 dance-dramas.
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.
Umbrellas, flags and fabrics used in ceremonies have a similar correspondence with the names of deities and directions of the compass.
Water 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.