Balinese Hinduism Explained

Lisa’s vivid Writing
Bali in a few words.
10 min readApr 8, 2020


Balinese spirituality is felt in ceremonies, rituals, and beliefs. Photo by Artem Beliaikin (Unsplash)

If you’ve ever been to Bali, you’ve probably noticed the beautifully decorated temples.

Maybe you’ve even tripped over a flower offering that was put outside of your accommodation.

Or a street might have been closed off because Suku Bali (= ‘Balinese people’) seemed to be celebrating something.

A lot of the cultural magnificence you see in Bali exists because of the island’s main religion: Balinese Hinduism. It’s shown and felt in ceremonies, rituals, and beliefs.

And it’s livelier than ever! Tourism has brought financial stability and has perhaps made the Balinese celebrate their religion and culture with even more pride.

So if you’d like to understand why the Balinese hold ceremonies and make statues of demons, keep reading!

And next time you’re in Bali, you can use some Indonesian translations when talking about their temples or ceremonies. Bahasa Indonesia (= ‘Indonesian’) is a beautiful and easy language to learn.

Agama and Dewa: Balinese Hindu History

Pura Tirta Empul, a famous Balinese Hindu water temple. Photo by Florian Giorgio (Unsplash)

More than 90% of Balinese are Hindu. It’s a rare religious enclave in Indonesia, where most of its 271 million inhabitants are Muslim.

Although the Balinese call themselves Hindus, there are many differences with Indian Hinduism.

Balinese Hinduism is a mix of years of contact with different cultures, most notably the Indian one. Traders introduced their faith to Bali between 1.000 and 1.500 years ago.

Apart from Hinduism, the Balinese have aspects of other beliefs in their religion.

Although the two different kinds of Hinduism share the belief in karma and reincarnation, Balinese Hinduism has no ‘untouchable caste’ nor child marriages. Arranged marriages can happen, but they’re rare.

Balinese Hindus worship a lot of gods and demons. The most important one is the trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.

Others are the dewa (= ‘ancestral gods’) or gods who are typical for the island. Earth, fire, water, mountains, as well as fertility, rice, and technology all have their own local god, for example.

The term Hinduism was mostly unknown in Bali until the Dutch colonizers arrived. Before that, Balinese would refer to their faith in different ways, using the Malay word for religion: agama.

  • Agama Diwa (= ‘Shiva religion’).
  • Agama Buda (= ‘Buddha Religion’).
  • Agama Bali (= ‘Balinese religion’).

Europeans started to use the term Hinduism for every single tradition practiced in India. When after its 1945 independence, Indonesia wanted to recognize the Balinese religion as one of its five official faiths, Balinese Hinduism came in use.

Only a small part of the Balinese population practices Islam. Most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of people from Sulawesi or Bali’s neighboring islands Java and Lombok.

Indonesian Islam is generally known to be less strict than in other countries.

  • There’s no segregation between men and women.
  • Head coverings for women are common but not compulsory.
  • Polygamy is rare.

Exceptions to the rule are the conservative island of Sumbawa and the province of Aceh that practices Shariah law.

Every Puri Has a Pura

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a popular Balinese Hindu temple. Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri (Unsplash)

The most apparent manifestation of any religion is often the place of worship. And in Bali, they’re hard to miss!

The island has over 10.000 temples and their story starts with the arrival of the god-king.

The concept comes from Indian Hinduism. Because politics and religion became entwined in Bali, a raja (= ‘king’) also exercised spiritual power (like the pharaohs in ancient Egypt).

The king ruled from his puri (= ‘palace’), which always contained at least one pura (= ‘temple). The raja used his temple for public and private ceremonies.

Nowadays, Balinese families live together in compounds, little communities. Every community has one or more home temples. For more significant village ceremonies, Balinese use one of the many public temples.

Because of the tropical climate and the little maintenance that’s done, most temples are meant to be remade every 20 years. And that means there’s plenty of work for the village sculptors, who enjoy a good reputation. Check out this video to see some magnificent stone carving in Ubud, Bali’s cultural center!

Ubud-based artists work on a temple by carving intricate designs from scratch. The conversations in this video are hilarious, and there’s a small fragment that shows a cockfight. Video by Mangala Media

The artists often work on the temple stone from scratch without any mechanical machinery. They create many intricate designs, taking inspiration from nature and Balinese mythology.

During the Dutch colonization, local architects even used the European occupiers as an inspiration for demonic guardian statues inside of the temples. It was a clear sign of how the occupation felt for the Balinese.

Don’t be alarmed if you see a swastika symbol near the entrance of a temple or compound. Despite the western Nazi connotation of the character, the Balinese view the ancient Hindu symbol in the way it was initially meant, representing prosperity and good luck.

Can You Pray?

Praying can be a national happening in Bali. Photo by Artem Beliaikin (Unsplash)

When you’re in Bali, you’ll want to visit some temples! And although it’s a good idea to ask a local guide or friend to see a small community temple, the touristy ones are impressive.

Pura Besakih is situated on the slopes of Mount Agung, an active volcano. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aside from the local and important temples, Bali has one main or mother temple: Pura Besakih. It’s situated on the slopes of Mount Agung, an active volcano. The temple’s foundations are at least 2000 years old, so they date back from before any Indian influence on the island.

Make sure you’re dressed appropriately when visiting a temple. Cinta Bahasa, an Ubud-based Indonesian language school, made a cultural crash-course for its students. In it, the eskola (= ‘school’) mentions that you’ll want to make sure that your shoulders, chest, and knees are covered.

You can use a selandang, a traditional scarf, for your shoulders and a sarong to wrap around your waist.

Sarong are made from the typical Indonesian fabric batik. The fabric is also used to make clothing for weddings and ceremonies. You can usually rent a sarong at a temple for a small fee, or you can find cheap cotton ones in little shops all over the island.

Women aren’t supposed to enter temples when they’re menstruating, pregnant, or have just given birth. Balinese Hinduism considers them to be sebel (ritually unclean). There’s often a sign outside of the temple to remind you of this sexist rule.

If someone wants to know if a woman is on her period, it’s considered normal to ask if she ‘can pray’.

Praying is part of most religions, and in Bali, it can be a national happening. On those occasions, every Balinese person prays with the same intention in mind. Recently, people have been praying for the end of the coronavirus.

Dancing Against Evil Forces

During ceremonies, Balinese Hindus ask the gods for protection against evil forces. Photo by Wisnu Widjojo (Unsplash)

Besides the temples, something you’ll most likely see if you’re in Bali is a ceremony. You might even get invited to one if you’re staying at a ‘homestay’, a family operated accommodation.

Not only does the island have big, national ceremonies, but many local ones bring villages together at different times throughout the year. Each service usually involves banquets, dance, drama, and music. During the celebrations, people ask the gods for protection against evil forces.

The most prominent national ceremonies are Nyepi and Galungan. Find a complete list of all upcoming 2020 ceremonies here.

Stay Home on Nyepi

If you’re visiting Bali on Nyepi, you should stay in your accommodation. Photo by Jared Rice (Unsplash)

Nyepi is a purification festival in March that brings the whole island to a stop. It’s part of the Balinese New Year. The complete rest lasts 24 hours, and some Balinese don’t even speak during that time.

Evil spirits are said to leave the island on Nyepi because the silence tricks them into thinking the Balinese have abandoned their island.

If you’re visiting Bali on Nyepi, you should stay in your accommodation. But you can go out the night before!

Contradictory to the silent day, the evening before is filled with festivities, dance, and music. The Ngrupuk parade is the highlight of the evening. Big statues of demons are carried around, with scary noises and evil laughter accompanying them.

The scary ogoh-ogoh of the Ngrupuk parade. Video by Peachy Productions

Those so-called ogoh-ogoh represent the spirits that will leave the island the next day.

Although you might think the ogoh-ogoh have old roots, they’re actually a schoolchildren’s invention from the 1980s. Kids used to base the statues on actual people from modern pop culture like Hollywood villains or even terrorists. But in recent years, religious authorities have made sure that the figures only take the form of demons from Balinese mythology.

This year, the evening before Nyepi was a bit of a bummer because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Since Nyepi of 2020 fell on March 25, the silent day resembled the social distancing policies that were already in place in Bali. And the night before, any ogoh-ogoh parades were banned.

Dharma Beats Adharma

During Galungan, Balinese Hindus ask the gods for forgiveness and their protection. Photo by Ruben Hutabarat (Unsplash)

Galungan is a 10-day lasting ceremony that celebrates the victory of dharma (= ‘good’) over adharma (= ‘evil’). Because the Balinese believe in karma, they hold themselves responsible when bad things happen to them. During Galungan, they ask the gods for forgiveness and their protection.

The ngulapin (= ‘cleansing’) that’s done during those days requires an animal sacrifice.

It also often involves a cockfight. Two roosters fight each other until one of them is bleeding. It serves as a blood sacrifice for the gods.

If you’d like to know more about Bali’s bloody side, check out this post.

From Birth to Ngaben

The black and white checkered cloths you see hanging around trees or statues represent the stability between good and evil. Photo by Ruben Hutabarat (Unsplash)

Apart from the big, national celebrations, smaller ceremonies are held across the island every day. Most of them celebrate changes in a community or family or are held to pay respect to Balinese ancestors.

Another important reason a ceremony is organized is to please the gods and demons. Balinese Hindus try to keep the balance between those two forces.

The ‘saput poleng’, black and white checkered cloths you see hanging around trees or statues represent the stability between good and evil.

One of the local celebrations is the temple anniversary. Other ceremonies celebrate weddings and different life stages of a member of the community, like newborns, girls’ who have their first menstruation, older teenagers, and deceased.

Balinese babies are blessed in a temple, a similar ritual to a Christian baptizing. Photo by Artem Beliaikin (Unsplash)

Babies under three months old are carried everywhere because they’re not allowed to touch the impure ground until their purification ceremony. They’re blessed in a temple, a similar ritual to a Christian baptizing.

Around the age of 17, a Balinese teenager goes through a passage to adulthood. And that involves a tooth-filing ceremony. Find out more about the fascinating ritual in this post.

A deceased person isn’t always cremated immediately. Because of the cost and the often long wait for a cremation date, the dead are sometimes buried, to be disinterred years later. Their cremation usually involves the entire community.

When important people or royalty die, thousands of people may attend. Their high society cremation is called ngaben. The word also strangely means ‘to light up a joint’.

Three times a day, Balinese women put out flower offerings for the gods. Photo by Guillaume Flandre (Unsplash)

After the ceremony, the deceased’s ashes are thrown into the sea. That’s the reason why Balinese fishers don’t use explosives to kill fish, unlike in many other places in Indonesia. The dead shouldn’t be disturbed.

A trick for knowing when a ceremony is going to take place is keeping an eye on the canang sari (= ‘flower offerings’ in Balinese) Balinese women put out for their gods three times a day. The little palm leaf baskets always contain bunga (= ‘flowers’) and can include food and money.

If the offering is more lavish than usual, it’s probably an important day, and there might be a ceremony happening in the street later.

Even if you might see a monkey, dog or chicken eat the offering, Cinta Bahasa tells its students: “Do not intentionally step on offerings on the ground. Nothing will happen if you accidentally do that, but it is disrespectful to the person’s effort.”

Wear Your Sarong in the Pura and Enjoy!

Pura Tanah Lot, Bali’s best-known sea temple. Photo by Harry Kessel (Unsplash)

Though tourism seems to be taking over the entire island, the practices and beliefs of Balinese Hinduism are booming!

It’s found in every aspect of daily life, like the flower offerings and temple ceremonies, to the most important life events, like a baby’s purification ceremony or a wedding.

Have you been to Bali? Can you think of any other Balinese rituals or spiritual terms?

Let me know, and I might add your contribution to one of my next posts!

If you’d like to learn more about Bali or practice your Indonesian, check out these posts.


The teachers and courses of Indonesian language school Cinta Bahasa in Ubud, Bali.

Barker, J., Practical Indonesian: a communication guide. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1987.

Maxwell, V. et. al., Lonely Planet Bali, Lombok & Nusa Tenggara. New York: Random House, 2019.

Torchia C. and Djuhari L., Indonesian Slang: Colloquial Indonesian at Work. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Whitten, A.J. and Soeriaatmadja, R.E., Ecology of Bali & Java. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2013.



Lisa’s vivid Writing
Bali in a few words.

Freelance writer from Belgium. Passionate about travel, nature, art, and history.