Bali Culture: What Makes The Island And The Balinese People So Unique?

They call Bali the Island of the Gods but what is it about this place and its people that makes it so attractive to the Gods?

We’ve got all you need to know about Bali culture and traditions from the religious ceremonies to Indonesian royalty in our short and sweet guide to Balinese culture.

The Basics Of Balinese Culture

Hinduism And Its Influence

balinese monk on traditional spiritual ceremony wi 2023 11 27 05 01 21 utc

It’s fair to say that Hinduism underpins nearly every aspect of the island’s culture but how did Hinduism reach Bali in the first place?

Well, there are two major theories for this that compete with each other and it’s unlikely any debate will be settled soon as there is a lack of written records for historians to be able to refer to:

  1. South Indian Sea Traders brought the faith with them and slowly won over the people of Bali (and Java back then, though Java is now Islamic)

  2. Indonesian Royals embraced the faith to impress the Indian nation and their subjects followed their lead

Oddly, while Bali is part of an independent Indonesia, there are still several royal families on the island, but they play no formal role in governing Bali and are purely ceremonial in function.

The Hindu influences are combined with the original ancestor worship practices on the island to create their own customs separate from Indian Hinduism.

Balinese Dance

Ethnic girls dancing traditional dance

If you love a good dance performance then Bali’s traditions of dance should keep you very happy, indeed.

The performances tend to blend comedy (in a slapstick style) and Hindu epic drama and the audience revels in the tales of good and evil cheering on the heroes and cringing at the evil spirits.

Balinese dancers are trained early and start at the age of 7. Popular dances include the sacred dances (wali dances) which are performed in the inner courtyards of the temples.

There are also Bebali dances that blend the sacred and the secular and take place in the middle courtyards.

The Balih-Balihan dances are for pure entertainment (the name means “to watch”) and they tend to be performed in front of the temples and sometimes even outside the grounds.


Pencak Silat (Balinese Martial Arts)

Pencak Silat is actually a group of martial arts.

If you’ve seen the movie The Raid: Redemption (IMDB) then you will know that these Indonesian martial arts are no joke – they can be used with lethal intent.

(By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie and are over 18, it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time).

It’s a brutal fighting form where every part of the body can be used to attack and be attacked in turn.

In Bali, they practice the Bakti Negar form of Pencak Silat.

The Language (Bahasa Bali)

nyepi experiencing bali s day of silence

The official language of Bali is Bahasa Bali (Bahasa just means “language”) but it’s dying out on the island to a great extent and many Balinese speak Bahasa Indonesia (the uniting language of the archipelago) in preference to Bahasa Bali.

You can find some traditional villages where Bahasa Bali is still spoken and it’s quite fascinating how different it is from Bahasa Indonesia.

Wayang Kulit (Balinese Shadow Plays)

balinese wayang kulit shadow puppet play 2d the puppets behind a screen puppets are black shadows 475813516

This aspect of Balinese culture is a UNESCO award winner.

The shadow puppet performances that fall under the umbrella of “wayang” are considered to be so unique that they are of benefit to the cultural heritage of the entire world.

They tell stories of the Balinese spirit world and the Hindu Epics. Thus, they explain much of the myth that underpins the culture and traditions of this part of Southeast Asia.

Balinese Offerings

Balinese offering on the beach

These offerings are called “canang sari” and they can be found on the streets when visiting temples, stores, and other other parts of the island.

The island’s population displays its gratitude to the Gods through these offerings and they are part of many rituals in daily life.

Balinese Painting And Wood Carving

An elderly painter at The Royal Family Temple in Bali painting a Buddha Indonesia

Two of the most popular traditional art forms here are painting and wood carving.

There are several schools of modern Balinese painting and you can find great examples of these art forms in Sukawati and Ubud Art Markets.

The most famous wood carvings are the ornate wooden masks but Balinese carpenters and crafters can create almost anything out of wood.

Some Tips For Fitting Into Balinese Culture

Let’s start with things to do that will help you enjoy being in Bali:

  • Smile! Balinese people are super friendly and everyone smiles at each other in greeting. When you wear an open, friendly smile on your face, it will be both appreciated and returned in kind.

  • Take your shoes off! This isn’t just true in Bali, mind you, but it’s polite all across Asia. Trampling dirt into people’s homes is just not nice.

  • Be aware of the dress code. You don’t need to wear a burka on the beach but you should dress modestly when you’re in temples and attending religious ceremonies.

And now a few don’ts that will help too:

  • Never point with your feet – feet are the lowest point on the body and are always in touch with the floor, so they are thought of as dirty and it’s very insulting to point them at someone.

  • Never use your left hand – there’s no delicate way to put this, the left hand is used to clean someone after they have used the toilet, and it’s very disrespectful to offer something with the left hand

  • Never lose your temper – this is a face culture and that means everyone avoids confrontation and anger. Failing to rein in your anger can lead to a violent response.


What Is The Culture Like In Bali?

Balinese culture is deep and stems from Balinese Hinduism. It is expressed in myriad ways from traditional dances to offerings (canang sari) in everyday life to festivals at Balinese temples.

People in Bali are said to live on the island of the gods and daily life in the Balinese way is meant to bring obligations to the gods, your parents and your teachers into balance and harmony.

The average Balinese person is friendly and welcoming and keen to ensure that they lead a good life.

What Is Bali Famous For?

Bali is famous for many things, the more touristy areas are often seen in beautiful pictures of tropical beaches and island bliss.

The heart of the country is famous for its temples, rice fields and culture and traditions.

The whole island is famous for Bali Hinduism.

What Is The Most Famous Cultural Tradition in Bali?

We’re not sure that we can pick a single tradition but all of these elements of Bali culture are well-known:

  • Canang Sari – these offering baskets can be found all over the island, every single day. They are filled with colourful offerings to the Hindu Gods and their animist counterparts.

  • Festivals and ceremonies – the temples of the island are a huge feature in Balinese culture and there are rituals and ceremonies on a near daily basis.

  • Gamelan Music – the Gamelan orchestra is the sonic backdrop of island life and plays a huge part in Balinese culture.

  • Balinese dance – Bali places a lot of emphasis on storytelling through the medium of dance and many of the epics of traditional Balinese life are related through dance

  • Agama Hindu Dharma – Balinese Hinduism is unique when compared to Indian Hinduism and that’s because in the world’s largest Muslim nation, a faith must have a single supreme being, and Hinduism developed just that to ensure its survival on the island

Is Bali Rich In Culture?

Yes, though it’s probably fair to say that nearly every country and place is “rich in culture.” What makes Bali different is that there’s a special energy in this part of Indonesia that isn’t found elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago.

Balinese culture stems from Balinese Hinduism and the Balinese people are somewhat unique thanks to their traditional beliefs.

How To Book A Holiday In Bali?

We always recommend that you book a holiday in Bali through the awesome people at the Bali Res Centre.

They’re our favourite travel service in Bali because they are locally owned and managed and specialize in Balinese travel.

That means you always get competitive prices from the Bali Res Centre and the money that you spend with them stays in the local economy.

Final Thoughts On Balinese Traditions And Balinese Culture

The culture and traditions of the Balinese people are varied and exciting and it’s impossible to condense all Balinese culture into a short piece on Bali culture.

However, we hope that we’ve given you a solid introduction to Bali culture and that you will be able to build on that introduction when you visit Bali.

We also hope that we’ll see you here at FINNS, the world’s best beach club, and one of the latest cultural traditions on this vibrant and fascinating island.