Names, Titles and Castes

Names, Titles and Castes


In Bali you can describe a person in at least six ways:

Personal names.
Birth order names.
Status or caste names.
Public occupation titles.

Personal names

All Balinese have personal names. Traditionally the Balinese did not attach much importance to them. Children are the ones most likely to be called by their personal names, given to them on the first anniversary of their birth. (See the article entitled Balinese Ceremonies.) The name, which does not change during a person’s life, is often totally made-up name – not taken from a stock of names. Also the name, once given, would not be used by anyone else in the same village community (banjar).

This does not seem to apply so much any more. Personal names do not convey the amount of information the other more commonly used names do.

Birth order names

Birth order names enable a person’s position in the family to be immediately identified. It is automatically taken at birth; even a stillborn child is so named.

1st born: Wayan, Gede or Putu.
2nd born: Made, Nengah or Kadek.
3rd born: Nyoman or Komang.
4th born: Ketut.

Then the names are repeated, so the fifth and ninth child is called Wayan, etc. The system resembles the endless cycles of rebirth, the repetitious days of the week and the music of the gamelan. There is no difference in birth order names for males and females.

To find someone called Wayan in Bali is like trying to find Paddy in Dublin. In Bali you meet many Wayans. Because of the obvious potential confusion, another identifier is needed, like Wayan Restoran or Made Tabanan (Tabanan being a large town in West Bali) or Nyoman Duduk (Nyoman the Sitter).

Once a child is born, the parent’s birth order name ceases to be used. The teknonym appears. So, birth order names are reserved in the Balinese mind for children. This reinforces the point that having children is a desirable, adult thing to do. It is expected. A man without children does not carry much weight in village affairs.

Western surnames

Western surnames are a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in the 16th century that Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England required every person to take or be given a surname. This was deemed necessary because of an increase in the population and also because of increased mobility of the population.

Many famous people of the time are still known by their first names: Rafael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dante. If confusion was likely, a place name would be added: Rafael da Urbino, Leonardo da Vinci.


Kinship in Bali has two aspects:

Private kinship.
Public kinship.

Private kinship

Kinship within the family compound is quite a simple system – it is called the “Hawaiian” or “Generational” system. A person classifies his relatives according to their generation – siblings, half-siblings and cousins; mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts; children of brothers, sisters, cousins; grandparents; grandchildren, etc.

The Balinese refer to the third generation above the person and three generations below the person by the same name. So, great-grandparent and great-grandchild are both called kumpi. They are therefore culturally identified.

To be the eldest and part of four generations is regarded as the ideal, like living for three score years and ten.

A consequence of this identity of generations reveals itself in prayers to the dead. The three generations below pray to the dead person in the graveyard, but the fourth generation, the great-grandchildren, the kumpi, do not. They are regarded as being part of the same generation and not junior to the deceased. Prayers are only offered to gods and seniors. So, also, the deceased’s contemporaries do not pray to him either.

The next generation, the great-great grandchild is regarded, as senior to the deceased and so he also would not pray to him. So, once again, a circular system emerges.

Public kinship

Public kinship is an unusual, perhaps unique, kinship system. The basic unit is called a dadia, that is to say a unit composed of all those individuals who have a common ancestor. A dadia is a kin group. It can be of any size. Each dadia is a self-contained entity, which, by definition, cannot break into segments. According to tradition, in the case of the gentry, the triwangsa, an illustrious Majapahit immigrant would be the common ancestor.

The dadias compete for power and a number of characteristic practices operate to enhance that power.

One such practice is the search for the most preferred marriage partner. Dadia groups are not exogamous. By preference they are endogamous (that is, marriage within one’s own circle of close kin). The ideal partner is a patriparallel cousin, which, for a male, would be his father’s brother’s daughter, that is, his first cousin on his father’s side. This ensures that the resources of the bride stay within the dadia and enhance it. It therefore prevents fragmentation of land and other property. A personal benefit is that the bride does not have to leave her family. Her children belong to the same descent group.

Marrying within the family

Marriage within the family in the Middle East, Africa and Asia is not uncommon and has been so for centuries. In parts of Saudi Arabia, 39 per cent. of marriages are between first cousins. Buddha married his cousin. The Ancient Egyptians preferred to marry their own flesh and blood. Rameses II, 3,500 years ago, had many wives. Nefertari, his principal wife, died when he was 48 years old. He then married his eldest daughter and she was promoted to principal wife. Later he married another daughter. 10 of the 15 Ptolemy rulers married their sisters. The censuses of Egypt about the time of Christ reveal that perhaps one in six marriages in Greek Macedonian families were between brother and sister.

In many parts of Europe, 1,500 years ago, men and women married within their own extended families until the Christian church banned marriages between cousins in the 4th century. It seems that the aim of banning marriages between cousins was to make their loyalty to Christ higher than loyalty to their own family. The Roman Catholic Church still bans it, but gives dispensation to couples considered worthy. There is not Biblical support for it. The patriarch Jacob married two of his first cousins, Rachel and Leah; Isaac and Rebekah were first cousins once removed.

Marriage between first cousins is still illegal in 24 American states; five others allow it only if the couple are unable to bear children.

Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma and had 10 children, including four brilliant scientists. Albert Einstein’s second wife Elsa was his first cousin. Queen Victoria married her cousin Albert.

Research published in the Journal of Genetic Counseling 2002 indicates, however, that marriage between first and second cousins is not as dangerous as many experts had previously believed. Unrelated couples have a 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. risk of having a child with a birth defect, significant mental retardation or serious genetic disease. For close cousins the risk jumps only slightly higher by 1.7 per cent. to 2.8 per cent. above the average 3 per cent. to 4 per cent.

Kinship Dadias and Sinking Status

Clifford Geertz in Kinship in Bali explains the sinking status pattern that applies within royal and noble dadias. It determines relative status.

The head of the dadia is the eldest son of the eldest son, stretching back to the common ancestor, which, in the case of the gentry, would be to a Majapahit founder of the family.

The other sons of the head of the family will found their own families, which will be continued by the same primogenitural succession rules. The status of these sub-dadias diminishes as time goes by and as they become more distant from the current head of the family, who is in the direct core-line.

So, each royal or noble house has its own authority, which is ranked according to the sinking status pattern, but all houses within the same dadia are related to one another and are an inseparable whole. Dadias are power blocks.

Royal lineage can be viewed as a set of concentric circles. The most powerful, the Puri Gede, is in the centre.


This is how the Balinese – or at least the Sudras – refer to each other most of the time. As soon as a person’s first child is born (even if the child dies) they are called “Mother of X” or “Father of X”. This name continues until their first grandchild is born, when they will be called “Grandmother of Y” or “Grandfather of Y”. If and when their first grandchild is born, they will be called “Grandmother of Z” or “Grandfather of Z”. “X”, “Y” and “Z” do not change as more children of the same generation come into existence.

This identifies the parents through their common children. It stresses the importance of having children in Balinese society. It advertises the couple’s current role in society.

There is a sharp contrast with the Western position, where a wife loses her name to her husband’s. Further, the system defines a person by reference to his descendants and not his ancestors. In the West, people tend look to important ancestors.

Status titles

Every person in Bali inherits a status title. It is a personal attribute and is not dependent on any other group the person may belong to or job that he may perform. It places that person in a particular rung on the ladder and appropriate politeness is paid.

Common titles are Ida Bagus, Gusti, Pasek, and Dauh. There are numerous titles. It is not known exactly how many titles there are or how many people belong to them. No census has ever been done.

A person’s title reflects his paternal line. One’s standing derives from ancestral origin. That position determines social behaviour throughout the whole gamut of daily life. A code of etiquette determines the style of speech, posture, dress, eating, marriage, burial ground, mode of cremation and even house construction. The precise codes are described in the relevant chapters.

Title has a religious basis. All titles come from the gods. Some titles are closer to the gods than others. The code of etiquette respects the religious basis of title, not necessarily the person himself. It does not say anything about the particular person’s moral worth, wealth or power.

Caste system

In some villages, such as Ponggang, everyone in the village is of the same Sudra caste. Indeed about 93 per cent. of Bali’s whole population is Sudra. Elsewhere, however, for instance, in Ubud there are people of all four castes. In descending order they are:


The caste system in Bali derives from the caste system in India and was imposed on the title system. It gave the untidy title system a simple shape. The first three castes are referred to as the triwangsa, gentry, or aristocrats. The caste system is a classification of a whole bunch of aristocratic titles rather than people. The fine nuances of title are what matters to the Balinese. Adoption of the Indian caste system linked the old Balinese title system to Hinduism, which was desirable, especially from the gentry’s point of view.

The word “caste” comes from the Portuguese word “casta” which itself comes from the Latin word “castus” meaning pure.

Members of the gentry are referred to and called by their titles, Ida Bagus, Gusti, etc., whereas members of the Sudra caste are called by their teknonyms.

Indian caste system

The Rig-Veda, the oldest religious text in the world, 1,028 sacred hymns in archaic Sanskrit, probably composed between 1500 and 900 BC, tell the story of how a primeval man, Prajapati, the Lord of Beings, who existed even before the founding of the universe, was sacrificed. How he came into being, why or to whom he was sacrificed, is not clear. The gods themselves appear to be his children. He was cut apart to make all things in the universe. The Hymn of the Primeval Man tells us how the Brahmans came out of his mouth, the Satria out of his arms, the Wesyas out of his thighs and the Sudras out of his feet:

When they divided the Man
Into how many parts did they divide him?
What was his mouth, what were his arms?
What were his thighs and his feet called?

The Brahman was his mouth,
Of his arms was made the warrior,
His thighs became the Vaisya,
Of his feet the Sudra was born.

The moon arose from his mind,
From his eye was born the sun,
From his mouth Indra and Agni,
From his breath the wind was born.

From his navel came the air,
From his head there came the sky,
From his feet the earth, the four quarters from his ear,
Thus they fashioned the worlds.

With Sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice
These were the first of the sacred laws.
These mighty beings reached the sky,
Where are the eternal spirits, the gods.

(translated by A.L. Basham)

This indicates a certain classification of people and the particular parts of the body would appear to be significant. The caste system in India was not closed at that time. There was mobility between classes.

In India the caste system divided society into four major endogamous groups or Varna: The class of person depended on his job. The Brahmans were the priests; the Satrias the rulers, the Wesyas the merchants and the Sudras were there to help the others. They were the farmers, craftsmen and ordinary people.

At the bottom of the ladder were the Untouchables or the outcastes, the people without caste. They were the pre-Aryan native Indian tribes or those who had done something so awful that they could not be admitted to society and had no status whatsoever.

There was no concept that anyone was better than anyone else. They all had their jobs to do and they had the freedom to choose their jobs. The first two, however, enjoyed certain privileges. Over time it became more rigid and by 200 BC it had evolved into a hereditary system, which was not dependent on the job chosen, but on birth.

Balinese caste system

It seems likely that caste came to Bali with the Hindu-Javanese invasions. It was not a wholesale adoption of the Indian caste system.

The three upper castes, the Brahmans, Satrias and Wesias are called the triwangsa, which means “three peoples”. Legend had it that the three upper classes came from God and had divine superiority – a story, of course, not disputed by the gentry themselves. The rest, the 90 per cent. of the population, are called Sudras.

All castes in Bali are further stratified, for example, there are five Brahman strata, all of equal importance. All Brahmans are said to be descended from Nirartha, the Javanese priest who came with the Majapahits and influenced Balinese Hinduism. For more on Nirartha, see the article entitled Balinese History – Pre-history to the Europeans. Everyone knows his stratum.

The gentry are also referred to as wong jero, which means insiders and the Sudras are referred to as wong jaba or outsiders, because the Sudras lived outside the palace or puri. The others lived in or near the puri.

There are no Untouchables in Bali and intermarriage is allowed (unlike India). There always was a certain amount of mobility. The king of Klungkung changed from being a Brahman to a Satria when he became ruler. Brahmans are debarred from ruling in Bali (unlike India). Deserving subjects could be raised by the ruler and call themselves Gusti. The Dutch made the caste system rigid.

Mixed marriages, however, still result in a change of status. The rules concerning mixed marriages are complex. A high caste man may marry a lower caste wife, although if this continues for three generations, the high caste may be lost. The children automatically receive their father’s status. His wife remains a Sudra, but enjoys a higher position and changes her name and receives the title Jero. A high caste wife, however, should not marry a lower caste man.

The Dutch forbade discrimination on account of caste. This was adopted by the Republic of Indonesia, which holds that everyone is equal. Nevertheless, caste still exists and is respected by many people. It manifests itself by politeness and good manners, which are important to the Balinese. So, a waiter or a bellboy, who is a Brahman, would normally be spoken to in High Balinese as a mark of respect for his caste.

When a Sudra meets a nobleman, he bows his head. Pavilions in palaces and houses are tiered to allow people to sit in accordance with their status. High castes sit high. A round about way to ascertain a person’s caste is to ask where they sit. At meals, the highest-ranking person eats first. No one leaves until he declares the meal over.

When Balinese meet they speak in Middle Balinese. As soon as it becomes apparent that a person is a Brahman, he will be spoken to in High Balinese, no matter what his job may be, and a lower posture will be adopted.

In India caste is an outcome of one’s own actions in previous incarnations. In Bali, however, one’s title indicates how far one’s family has sunk from its divine origin or to be more precise how far one’s paternal line has sunk.


There is another classification. People are divided into clans or Warga, which is a separate category from caste. There are about 22 clans and they have each enjoyed a golden age in ancient Bali. They all claim to be direct descendants of influential religious or political figures, for example, the Bujangga Waisnawa clan claim descent from Rsi Markandya. Some cut across caste boundaries. The biggest and most important is the Pasek clan, to which about 60 per cent. of the population belongs. Within the Sudras, the title groups of Pandes, Paseks, Bandesas and others, are attributed higher status than ordinary commoners.


The Pasek clan has many responsibilities, the most important of which is to maintain four very sacred and important temples in Besakih, Gelgel, Padang Bai and Amlapura. The Paseks trace their origins to a Brahman Sage called Empu Geni Jaya, who was one of four Brahmans invited to come from Java to deal with disputes caused by the Bali Aga, the native people of Bali. His seven children, all Empu or Sages, are the founders of the Paseks.


Another well-known and respected clan is the Pandes, a clan, who started as smiths and specialised in forging metals and krises. The kris originated in Indonesia. It is a long asymmetrical dagger with distinctive blade patterns, achieved through alternating laminations of iron and pamor (nickelous iron). It is in two parts, the blade, the wilah, and the scabbard, the warangka. Scabbards may be decorated with gold and jewels, but the real value is in the blade. The blades and scabbards may be made by different artists. Unlike the other arts, there is no Indian influence.

The Pandes are a hereditary clan, as are the Paseks. The Pandes consider themselves set apart from the caste system. They command respect because of the importance of their job. In the old days, even Brahmans spoke to those working as smiths in High Balinese. They are also permitted to have 11 tiers on their cremation towers, an honour only permitted to persons of very high caste. They also have their own priests and consecrate their own holy water.

Blacksmiths in other cultures were miracle makers. In the eyes of Homer metallurgy was probably the king of crafts. In The Iliad, the stars were the handiwork of the god Hephaestus, who worked with the anvil and bellows.


Although classified as a weapon, the kris has a ceremonial function. The oldest krises come from the Buddha age, between the 6th and 7th centuries. There are approximately 20 periods, named according to the kingdoms that commissioned them, up to the present day. Each has their own distinctive markings. At the end of the 15th century the Majapahit kingdom was responsible for the spread of the kris to Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Even today a real kris is regarded as sacred and believed to possess sakti and have magical power called tuah. They are heirlooms. A man is not considered a real man unless he has a kris. A kris can increase bravery, help avoid illnesses and protect the owner from black magic and misfortune. They can be worth as much as US$100,000.


Early iron did not come from rocks, where it was