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Community Life

February, 2003

The meeting hall.
1. Meeting hall
The bells.
2. The bells

1. The banjar —

The banjar is the smallest unit of government in Bali. It is an ancient organization made up of all the male heads of household in a village. As each young man marries, he becomes the head of a household and a member of the banjar. The banjar is a form of direct democracy; important decisions are made by the entire membership. If the village becomes too large for the banjar to remain effective, it will be divided. We lived for two weeks in the north Ubud banjar of Sambahan, one of the four original banjars in the city. As Ubud has grown, the number of banjars has increased; there are now 13 banjars here.

Each banjar has 6 elected officials, including the head of the banjar and his secretary, three other officials and another secretary. The head of the banjar has considerable power to settle civil disputes and to punish violations of law. He can even sentence offenders to prison. Most criminal cases are dealt with locally and are not referred to the National Police or the courts.

The bale banjar, or meeting hall (see photo #1 at the left), is used for a variety of community meetings and activities. At the time of our stay here, the young people were building a demonic effigy of a large, ugly, man-like creature called an ogoh-ogoh for the Balinese New Year in April. (The ogoh-ogoh are carried in the New Year's eve procession and then burned. Youth groups compete to make ogoh-ogoh that are as outrageous as possible.) The young men first had to submitt a list of expenses, obtain the permission of the banjar, and then solicit donations from local businesses. The names of the donors were posted near the meeting hall.

The banjar collects taxes, undertakes public works projects, and organizes the village ceremonies. It can also make loans to its members. Anyone who does not repay the loan will be subject to pressure from the head of the banjar, and from the other village members. As a final recourse, the entire village will be called out to enter the home of the debtor and remove sufficient property to repay the loan! Not surprisingly, because this extreme response is available it is seldom needed.

The head of the banjar can use the village bells (photo #2) to call out the people for a variety of public tasks. These include regular public meetings, cleaning the village streets, various religious ceremonies, and emergency responses to fire or crime. Each bell has a different tone, and can be struck with different rhythms to signify each purpose. They still "raise the shire" in response to thieves. We heard of a man (from another island) who was seen stealing from a village home. The villagers were called out by the bells, and the thief fell over a cliff while attempting to flee.

A village street.
3. Village street
A footpath or gang.
4. Footpath (gang)
Entrance to the family compound.
5. House gate

2. A traditional village —

Penglipuran village has remained largely unchanged in appearance for many generations. There are a few motorcycles showing up in the main street (see photo #3 at the left), and the village has electricity, but most people here still make their living from the land. It is not yet a major tourist destination (it's not even listed in any of our guidebooks). It was the best chance we had to see what Bali was like a century ago.

The streets and gangs (photo #4), were clean and well maintained. The roosters (cocks) were placed along the footpaths in their bamboo cages so that the passing traffic could keep them entertained. People were friendly and smiling. Although the people were certainly poor, their homes showed that they take a real pride in themselves and their village.

Each family compound has at least one (male) head of household. There may be many. Each family head has a plaque affixed to the house gate (photo #5) listing his name and the number of men, women, and invalids in his family. The compound pictured at left has four heads of household listed. (Some house gates we saw in Ubud were highly decorated, showing the financial status of the occupants.)

In the areas we visited, most Balinese families are still living in traditional family compounds, though they may have been modified some to deal with modern life. This is a typical view just inside the entrance of a family compound in north Ubud. The compound is laid out following strict religious rules. The kitchen is always on the south side of the compound; the family head lives on the north side; the temple compound (sanggah) is in the north-east, and the bale gede is in the center. The bale gede was traditionally the place for household work; today it may also house the television. Many of these buildings are open-sided pavilions that are cool and well ventilated in the hot, humid climate of Bali.

Traditional harvest scene.
6. The rice harvest
7. Statues

3. Changing lifestyles —

In much of the traditional art of Bali, the women are depicted "topless," uncovered from the waist up -- see the painting (photo #6) and statues (photo #7) at left. Guidebooks to Bali that were published in the 1930's show that the women rarely wore anything over their breasts. This was almost certainly an adaptation to the heat and humidity; it is much more comfortable without a shirt. (The men were typically undressed to the same extent.)

Today, no middle-aged (or younger) Balinese woman is ever seen in public with bare breasts. However, we saw a few bare-breasted older women working or walking along the streets in rural areas almost every day. This is so much a part of life here that the Balinese don't notice. We once watched as Ketut talked with a shop woman for over 5 minutes about ceremonial wooden trays; he was surprised later when we commented on her lack of clothing. He literally hadn't noticed.

It is obvious that this partial nudity is perfectly acceptable in Balinese society, but we got the feeling that it is considered very old-fashioned. It is a tradition that is dying with the old women who still practice it. When they are gone, the old tradition will be gone as well.

(Although we doubt that any Balinese would have noticed or minded, his western sense of modesty prevented Jim from taking pictures of the "topless" women of Bali. We have only the paintings and statues to show you.)

Bali Index
A Month in Bali | Working in Bali | Walls
Ketut's Place | Silver | Pejaten Ceramics
A Taste of Bali | Temples | — Photo Gallery
Community Life | Rice Culture |  

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Created 2/2003. All photos are © 2003 by Jim Richter.