Everything comes in 3s


The Balinese conceive of everything as having a tri-partite structure. They are not alone in attributing three as a special number. Christianity does: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Freud attributes everything to the father, mother and child. The ancient Egyptians were very interested in the number three (and the number seven).

The Balinese divide everything into:

A high or sacred part (swah).
A middle or everyday part (bwah).
A low or unclean part (bhur).

An understanding of Balinese spatial symbolism explains many features of Balinese life.

The Outer and Inner Worlds 

The Balinese also see things as belonging to:

the Outer World or Bhuana Agung,or
the Inner World or Bhuana Alit.

They are connected. Something amiss in the Outer World can cause problems in the Inner World.

Outer World tripartite divisions

Some examples of the tripartite division as it appears in the Outer World are:

The universe or cosmos

The universe is constructed on three levels:

Heaven, where man’s spirit will return after cremation.
The middle world of man.
The underworld, where man’s spirit may be punished according to his karma.


Bali has:

High, sacred mountains, where the gods reside.
The middle ground where men live and work.
The low, impure sea.

Strictly it is the direction, not the place that is considered pure or impure. Mountainwards is called kaja, seawards is called kelod. Kaja comes from two words – ke (towards) and aja (in the direction of the interior). Kelod consists of ke and lod (lod meaning sea).

The Balinese use these words to indicate directions and so directions are stated according to the speaker’s position relative to the mountains or the sea. So Northern Balinese mean south when they refer to kaja, the mountains, and Southern Balinese mean north. This system of orientation is also found among some Dayak clans in Kalimantan and may pre-date Hinduism in Bali.

It would not be right to conclude that the Balinese think that upstream or kaja is good and downstream or kelod is bad. Both are needed. They are seen as complementary opposites.


Every village is laid out in three sections, each section having its own appropriate temple:

The most sacred is towards the mountains with the temple, Pura Puseh, dedicated to Wisnu, the god of water, where the village worships its deified ancestors.
In the centre is the village temple, Pura Desa, dedicated to Brahma, the creator.
The most profane towards the sea and away from the mountains, is the cemetery and the temple, Pura Dalem, dedicated to Siwa, the god of destruction and rebirth, or his wife, Durga, where the deceased who are not yet fully purified, through cremation, are remembered.


Temples are usually laid out in three sections:

The inner sanctum, called the jeroan, higher than the rest, where the holy relics are kept, located at the far kaja end.
The middle section, called jaba tengah, is the transitional section, where the storerooms and kitchen are to be found and pavilions for storing offerings before they are taken into the inner sanctum.
The lowest part, called jaba, is the most secular part, where blood sacrifices to the demons are made and cockfights held and where people eat, chat and play cards.

Temple walls

Images on the temple walls follow the same pattern:

At the top of the walls are symbols of the gods and the upper world.
In the centre are scenes from the human world.
At the bottom are pictures of serpents. Serpents coil around the foundations of the world in Balinese mythology.

Inner World tripartite divisions

This is the world of the self, of the microcosm. Examples of the tripartite division are:

Family house compound

The family compound is walled with a single gate in the southwest, kelod-kauh, corner Every house compound, and the buildings in it, is laid out similarly according to the kaja-kelod axis:

The family temple with its shrines to the gods and ancestors must be in the northeast, kaja-kangin corner, and separated by a wall.
The living areas are in the middle.
The kitchen, animal pens and garbage pits are at the southerly kelod end. The kitchen will be placed further kelod than the rice-barn, because rice is sacred, whilst eating is animalistic. Walls give protection against evil spirits.

Each building has three parts:

A roof.


The bale, the tower, which carries the body of an aristocrat to cremation, is in three parts.

The lowest is characterised by a serpent or turtle.

The middle part displays a mountain, indicating the earth.

The top part is a pavilion representing the atmosphere.

Pillars are divided into three sections.

Padmasana, described in the article entitled Balinese Symbolism, are seats for Sanghyang Widi Wasa, the Supreme God, and are divided into three:

The base is carved with Bedawang Nala, the turtle, which supports the world with two snakes.
The centre represents the world of man, where his daily activities are sometimes carved.
Various aspects of God are displayed at the top.

Offerings are constructed so that there is:

A base.
A place for food.
At the top some symbolic representation of the gods.

Balinese language is divided into three separate languages:

High Balinese, derived from Sanskrit, used when speaking to priests or referring to sacred objects.
Medium Balinese, a mixture of High and Low Balinese, used when speaking to strangers or persons of a higher caste.
Low Balinese, derived from Malayo-Polynesian dialects, is the language of friends and family. High castes speak Low Balinese to Sudras.

Each person

The Balinese view their own selves as the cosmos in miniature.

A head, the seat of the soul, the most sacred part.
A body or middle part.
Profane feet and lower parts.

Life comprises:


This code, a mix of altitude and orientation, leads to a code of etiquette and manners, which it is important to observe. The difficulty for foreigners, new to all this, is that the Balinese are unlikely to put them right. It would be exceedingly impolite to tell someone that they were being impolite!

Balinese Etiquette 

The following matters of etiquette, which arise out of this view of the world, should be observed:

Take off your shoes before entering a house.
Don’t pat anyone on the head.
Don’t let a baby touch the ground for the first six months.
Don’t point with your foot.
Don’t put clothes on a temple wall.
Don’t walk under a clothes line, which may contain underwear, which would then be above your head.
Put underwear on a low rung on a clothes line.
Sit lower than sacred objects and honoured guests, especially higher castes and priests.
Don’t step in front of someone, but if you can’t avoid it, adopt a submissive posture and ask forgiveness.
Carry offerings and holy water on your head.
Don’t step over an offering or a sacred object, such as a shadow play puppet, mask or gamelan.
Don’t sit on a pillow.
Sleep so that your head points north or east, which is kaja, to the mountains.

East and West

There is a second axis, arising from sunrise in the east, kangin, to sunset in the west, kauh, and therefore running at right angles to the mountain-sea axis. As the sun rises, it brings day and life, which are uranian forces associated with the mountains. As it sets, in the west, towards the sea, it enters a chthonian sphere and sinks into the underworld. The lines of these two axes provide a system of co-ordinates and varying force fields. These determine ritual behaviour and the position of buildings.