Balinese caste structure

upacaraBali is truly unique, in that it is the only Hindu island in Indonesia, a country dominated by Islam. Hinduism is a religion that developed out of the way of life of the people living on the banks of the Indus river in India and Hinduism came to Indonesia many centuries ago. The earliest written records in Bali, metal inscriptions called prasasti (Prasasti Blanjong is an example), speak of Buddhist and Hindu influences and date back to the 9th century AD. The caves, statues and bronzes of Goa Gajah and Gunung Kawi indicate this too.

As far as Bali is concerned the 3 big events that pushed Hinduism to the fore were the marriage of the Balinese king Udayana to Princess Mahendra from East Java, at the end of the 10th century thus bringing the 2 areas together. This was followed in 1343 by the conquest of Bali by the Majapahit empire of Gajah Mada, prime minister of that kingdom in East Java. Finally in 1515 the Majapahit empire in Java fell to the increasingly powerful Muslim Mataram empire. This created an exodus of priests, crafts people and noblemen and helped to make Bali the unique center of art that it is.

As many people will tell you the version of Hinduism (Agama Hindu ) that is practiced in Bali differs from that practiced in India. One of the most obvious differences is the quantity of offerings given in Bali, which is usually to either ward off evil spirits or to satisfy the Gods, a relic of the Balinese animist beliefs to which Hinduism has been melded.

The 4 main castes in Bali are Brahmana, Ksatria, Wesia and Sudra. Here is a list of Balinese names according to caste.

Brahmana (priest) caste

Ida Bagus or Bagus (good one) for a male

Ida Ayu or Dayu (beautiful one) for a female.

Ksatria (rulers, warriors) caste

Anak Agung, Agung, Dewa for a male.
Anak Agung, Agung, Dewi, Dewayu for a female

Cokorda, Dewa Agung for members of the kingdom ruling clan.

Ksatria caste often have the following middle names.

Raka – older sister / brother
Oka – child

Rai – younger sister / brother
Anom – young woman
Ngurah – an indication of authority

Wesia (merchants and officials ) caste

Gusti – (lord) for men and women

Dewa for a man
Desak for a woman

Sudra (rice growers ) caste

Wayan, Putu, Gede for 1st born male child

Wayan, Putu, Iluh for 1st born female child

Made, Kadek for 2nd born male child
Made, Kadek, Nengah for 2nd born female child.

Nyoman, Komang for 3rd born male and female children

Ketut for 4th born male or female children.

The 5th born reverts back to the list for 1st born children. Last names are also given names.

There are a tremendous amount of Wayans and Mades in Bali. If someone tells you their name is Nengah Susantini, you know they are Balinese female from the lowest caste, who has at least one older brother or sister. Many Balinese will use a middle name to differentiate from other with the same name. Others will change their name slightly (Yumi for Yuni, Koming for Komang) or use their last name for a form of address.

Long before the caste system came to Bali the local people already had their own form of hierarchy and adapted the caste system to fit over this, just like the Hindu religion blended with their animist beliefs. In the Bali Aga villages of Tenganen and Trunyan up in the mountains the new Hindu religion did not penetrate and the locals practice religion in their own ways today.

Nowadays the language the Balinese pedandas (high priests) use during temple ceremonies is Kawi, old Javanese which is largely composed of Sanskrit. Bahasa Bali (the Balinese language ) has different levels and caste comes into play when speaking. I have asked many young people what languages they speak at work and they say Indonesian, even if the whole staff is Balinese. Back in the village it will all be Bahasa Bali.

Bahasa Bali used to have multiple levels but in the last century it seems to have thinned down to 3 (common Balinese, middle Balinese and high Balinese). Village life is more traditional of course than the free-style living in Kuta and people will be watched more closely as people know who they are. Paying attention to the levels of respect are more important here and super important involving religious activities.

When a Balinese person meets a stranger in the village he will start by using the Middle language and might ask “Antuh lingge?” meaning Where is your place?, as far as caste. The stranger will tell his caste and that will dictate what level of Balinese is used. If one man is high caste and the other low the high caste man will talk in the common language to the other and the man of low caste will reply using high Balinese. Its all about respect.

Using the words (tjai, nyai, nani) which all mean You, are too familiar and impolite, so the word jero is used. Jero is the name given by some Balinese to a child of a nobleman and a commoner and maybe this is a way of saying, I can see you carrying wood in the village but I give you the credit that you came from a nobleman.

Covarrubias writes is 1937 that he finds the levels of Bahasa Bali totally unrelated, not just different dialects or variations of the same language. Common Balinese originates from Malayo-Polynesian dialects of the aboriginal population of the region. Middle Balinese is an adaptation to fill the void when caste becomes an issue and High Balinese is from Sanskrit-Javanese.

In older times the caste system had more power than is does today. It is somewhat taboo for a Balinese woman of high caste to marry a man of lower caste. In such a case she drops to his level. The reverse is true if it were a man.

Interesting cross-overs from the Indian caste-system to the Balinese. The Sanskrit word for color, varna is almost the same as the Indonesian word, warna. I think the Balinese people have a natural easy going mentality and still for the most part live close to the village. Maybe this is why the hardcore caste discrimination did not take hold here.