Though Balinese faith is not guided by any particular creed, dogma, or scripture, it literally and figuratively colors every aspect of Balinese life. Religion encapsulates both faith and nationality; life is religion and religion is life. The religion, practiced by all but 5% of the island's population, is a variant of India's Hinduism called Hindu-Dharmaism, that teaches that every living organism has both good and evil spirits. But what the Balinese seek most of all is to be Balinese, and to develop harmony with their family, community, ancestors, gods, and demons in the belief that this conduct will ensure their reincarnation as a happier, nobler being.


The temple is the single most important institution on the island. Bali is commonly called the island of a thousand temples, although this is an understatement as every house, village, many crossroads, and irrigation points have a temple. Most pura ("temple" in Sanskrit) share a common architecture, being larger or smaller versions of the previous one you saw. The temples' structure, layout, and days of celebration (and how to celebrate), have been ordained for centuries. All temples are laid out on the kaja-kelod line: They are oriented from the mountain (holy), or kaja, seaward (profane), or kelod. There are temples for the harvest, for the rain, for life, for death, and for just about every aspect of daily life you can think of. To see the temples in their true light, you must see them during their ceremony time when they are adorned in bright colors and ceremonial garb, offerings are made, and the gamelan sings.

Major Temples -- Bali has nine major temples, known as the directional temples or kahyangan jagat, that protect the island from evil spirits. The directional temples occupy auspicious locations, whether the side of a mountain, a cave, or cliff top. The nine temples are Pura Besakih on the western slopes of Gunung Agung, Pura Sambu on the southern slopes of Gunung Agung, Pura Goa Lawah, and Pura Lempuyang on the slopes of Gunung Lempuyang; in the central mountains, Pura Luhur Batu Karu on the southern slopes of Gunung Batukaru, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan at Bedugul, and Pura Ulun Danu Batur at Kintamani; on the Bukit, Pura Luhur Uluwatu; and in the south, Pura Masceti near Sanur.

The next group of important temples are the sea temples, built in the 16th century by the legendary Hindu monk from Java, Nirartha. These sea temples are on the western coast of Bali and run counterclockwise from Nirartha's supposed point of arrival. They start at Pura Gede Perancak just to the south of Negara, and lead down to Pura Rambut Siwi to the east of Negara. The sea temples continue to Pura Tanah Lot, on south to Pura Luhur Uluwatu at the southwestern extremity of the Bukit Peninsula, round to Pura Mas Suka at the southern tip, then to Pura Sakenan at Pulau Serengan, an island between Benoa and Sanur, and finally to Pura Pulaki, just northeast of Gilimanuk.

Village & Family Temples -- Every village has at least three temples. The three distinct types of village temple are the Pura Puseh, the temple of the village founders, the Pura Desa, the village temple, and the Pura Dalem, the temple of the dead, which will normally be just outside the village.

Family temples are small shrines in each home where daily prayers and handmade offerings are given. Many Balinese believe that the spirits of their ancestors remain in their family temple.


Prescribed ceremonies last anywhere from 3 to 42 days, depending on the importance of the occasion. Shrines are dressed with cloth and painted brocade or salang (carved wood painted with gold), and sometimes Chinese coins, are hung in the four corners of the shrines.

The ritual ceremonies and festivals in Hindu Balinese can be classified into five types: Dewa Yadnya, rites related to the worship of gods such as a temple anniversary or odalan; Rsi Yadnya, in reverence to prophets or priesthood, including the ancestors before they have been deified; Pitra Yadnya, rites related to death; Manusa Yadnya, rites of passage (from conception to just before death); and Buta Yadnya, sacrifices to placate the negative or demonic forces that bring misfortune to man.

Temple Celebrations -- The timing of celebrations are based on one of two calendars in use in Bali, although predominately it is the wuku or the pawukon, which is a year of 210 days, rather than the saka calendar brought by the Majapahit, which follows the series of 12 lunar months. Annual temple festivals occur with both. Auspicious dates for such things as launching a new fishing boat or getting married are determined by these calendars. As neither follow the Western calendar, festival dates change from month to month and year to year.

Bizarrely, and slightly out of character, cockfights are an integral part of religious ceremony. Villagers are obliged to keep fighting cocks and to donate them to the cockfights that follow the ceremonies. The men take great care of their fighting cocks, fawning over them and massaging them and occasionally even letting them fight each other. Cockfighting has its origins in blood sacrifices, although the more skeptical might suggest that the gambling surrounding the cockfights nowadays is more the reason for keeping this tradition alive. In 1981 the government made all forms of gambling illegal. Cockfighting now takes place in more remote locations than in the past and can be easily dismantled in a moment's notice. Betting can go up to 1 to 2 months wages in a single fight.

The dedication or inauguration day of a temple is considered its birthday (odalan) and the celebration takes place every 210 days; this is the most important regular ceremony for a temple. The ceremonies continue into the evening with either pendet or rejang dances, led by the priests and by elderly women who act as assistants to the priests. Many spend the whole night in the temple. The two most important ceremonies are the purification ceremony, Panca Wali Krama, which takes place once every 10 years, and the Eka Dasa Rudra, the greatest ceremony of all taking place only every 100 years.

Common to all temples are galungan (10 days) and kuningan (the final day of galungan), which take place every 210 days and celebrate the triumph of light over evil and the creation of the universe. As these are common to all temples, this is also a public holiday -- although not for quite the full 10 days.

Life Cycle Rites -- The other ceremonies at the temples are ritual life cycle rites, starting at birth and ending at death and cremation. Until the 42nd day of a child's life, the mother and child are both still considered impure and cannot enter temples. One curious custom is that the Balinese do not let a baby touch the ground until the 105th day ceremony.

Another ceremony partly unique to the Balinese is tooth filing for adolescents: It is believed that it is tooth shape that distinguishes gods and humans from birds and animals. The purpose of this matatah is to remove impurity by eliminating or reducing the Sad Ripu, or the six weaknesses or deadly sins: lust, greed, anger, drunkenness, confusion, and jealousy. The Sad Ripu are symbolically eliminated by flattening the two upper canines, teeth that most resemble an animal's, and the four incisors. The lower teeth are left alone, as they represent desire and passion, which should not be killed completely. Every Balinese will have his teeth filed and it can even happen after death.

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