The author lives in a quiet seaside community in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Balinese architecture reflects the centuries-old religion, custom and culture of the people who live on the beautiful island of Bali, Indonesia. A Balinese home is traditionally built as a compound, surrounded by a thick stone wall punctuated with one or more gates. Enclosed within the wall are garden, pond, and open-air pavilions which serve as living quarters.
The photos in this article were taken by the author throughout Bali, including in Sanur, Ubud, and Nusa Lembongan.
Gates are considered to be sacred in Balinese culture. They act as portals that connect the physical world and the spiritual realm (gods and spirits); the living and the dead (ancestors). There are two common types of gates:
- Candi bentar: split-gate traditionally built as a formal entrance to a pura (temple) or puri (palace).
- Paduraksa: intricately carved gate (with a tiled or thatched roof) which serves as entryway to a family compound.
Historically, Balinese gates are built for protection – from wild animals (tigers were once abundant in Bali), intruders, and most importantly, from evil spirits. Balinese Hinduism (a unique combination of Hindu, Buddhist, Animist beliefs) is widely practiced and applied to every aspects of life on the island, including architecture. Religious characters and symbols are incorporated into the intricate carvings appear on the gate’s façade. Traditionally, gates are also regarded as a “status symbol” indicating a family’s wealth or social rank (noble or common) judging on their sizes, building materials, and the complexity of the carvings.
Statues of dragons and other Balinese mythological creatures are often part of the gate structure. They are placed on either side of the gate or carved directly into the stone above the doorway. It is believed that these statues act as “security guards” for the compound – to welcome visitors who come with good intentions and scare away those who come with bad intentions.
The doors themselves are masterpieces of art! Often made with teak wood (because of its legendary endurance), Balinese doors are endowed with fanciful wood carvings depicting landscapes, mystical beasts, flora and fauna, gods and goddesses. Gilded gold and crimson red are lavishly painted on the door frames and over the doorway, enhancing the grandeur and splendid look of the entire gate structure.
Today in Bali, many contemporary-style gates are built for private homes, hotels, and resorts, using a creative blend of modern architectural designs and traditional religious-influenced ornamentation. These gates are much smaller in size but still look magnificent, thanks to the incredible artistic details and excellent craftsmanship.
In contrast to the massive gates, Balinese gardens are quite small. They are planted around the courtyard and along the walkway between the pavilions. Balinese gardens usually have plenty of shade (shielding the pavilions from the hot tropical sun) provided by lush bamboos, tall palms, and flowering trees. Lotus ponds and fountains are common in larger Balinese gardens.
Balinese gardens are designed to be in harmony with nature. They often blend perfectly into the surroundings. Balinese people are practical gardeners. Within the compound wall, any available open space is planted with useful and edible trees and shrubs. Banana, coconut, jackfruit, mango, papaya are some of the fruit trees grown in a typical Balinese garden. Fragrant and colorful tropical flowers such as frangipani, jasmine, marigold, bougainvillea and hibiscus are very popular: they make the garden look and smell wonderful and provide plenty of beautiful blossoms for making religious offerings.
Just as with the gates, Balinese Hinduism has a strong influence in the garden’s architectural elements. Stone statues of Ganesha or Buddha of all sizes and shapes can be seen anywhere in a Balinese garden. Also, a Balinese garden must have at least two or more kemulan (shrines) dedicated to the family’s ancestors. The shrines are built of cut stones or terra cotta bricks, and usually have thatched roofs. They are generally high off the ground and decorated with ceremonial umbrellas tedung or wrapped in sacred poleng cloth (black and white checkered pattern sash).
Ancestors are very important in Balinese culture. They are benevolent spirits who keep a constant watch on the family, ensuring peace, happiness and prosperity. Canang sari (offerings on woven palm-leaf tray) of flower petals, rice, and incense are placed daily on the ancestors’ shrines in the garden. Balinese also put offerings in other places – at the base of an old waringin (banyan) tree, on a large rock, or in the middle of the courtyard – to appease any other spirits who might live in the garden.
Ponds and fountains are obligatory features in a traditional Balinese garden. These water features add exciting sight and sound to the tranquil life within the compound wall. They can be a large formally laid out lotus pond or sometimes just a simple moss covered concrete pot filled with water and a single water lily. The idea is to bring the beauty of nature into enclosed living spaces. In Balinese Hinduism beliefs, water represents cleansing and purity, therefore it is considered to be auspicious to have a water garden inside a family compound.
Today, many resorts, hotels and villas in Bali incorporate water features into their landscape design, albeit sometimes in the form of swimming pools.
Balé are special pavilions often found in Balinese gardens. Traditionally, a bale is a simple mud hut built on the rice terraces where farmers take breaks from their hard work. Modern bale are constructed on raised platforms of brick and stone, with coconut wood posts and beams, and often built without the use of nails or screws. A bale usually has a thatched roof made of dried bamboo fibers or palm fronds, but tiled roofs (ceramic or wood tiles) are also common. Bale are open on all sides – to catch the cool breezes (much needed in Bali’s warm and humid climate!) and enable the Balinese to enjoy an out-of-door living space all year round. Family members gather in their bale to socialize, lounge, eat and sleep, in the peaceful surroundings of the garden.
Stone and Wood Carvings
The Balinese are highly artistic people. Their love for beauty and skillful artistry is reflected in the exquisite paras stone and wood carvings that adorn gates and doors. Influenced by Animistic beliefs and a constant desire to be in harmony with nature, Balinese carpenters and stonemasons sculpt their work mimicking real life that exists around them: plants, flowers, animals, mountains, streams, etc.
About This Article
The author spent a month in Bali in 2014. He’s completely taken by the profound beauty of the landscape, the culture, the architecture, and especially the people of this exotic island.
Special thanks to Ibu Putu and her gracious family at Amanda House in Ubud.
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera.
All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2015 Viet Doan (punacoast)
“Balinese architecture.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 May 2015. Web. 6 June 2015.
“Balinese Hinduism.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.
Eiseman, Fred B. Bali Sekala & Niskala. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 1990. Print.
Helmi, Rio, and Barbara Walker. Bali Style. New York: The Vendome Press, 1995. Print.
© 2015 Viet Doan
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on July 20, 2019:
Thanks Luis for sharing your comment. Yes, what an amazing and awe-inspiring culture! The island of Bali and its beautiful people have a long lasting impression on me. Glad you enjoy the article!
Luis Villegas on July 19, 2019:
Thanks for the fantastic article. I share your feelings towards Balinese culture a100%. I wish I had spent more time at such fantastic place and look forward to going back again.