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Bali Information: Balinese Culture

Balinese Building Style



The pekarangan (compound) of the "kuren", the Balinese home, is made up of five basic elements: the doorway, with its screen and split arch, the main sleeping area, with its open verandah, a raised barn for storing rice, a kitchen and a bathing area. There may also be a workshop and a family temple.
Theoretically, but rarely in practice, the courtyard is divided up into nine equal parts. If kaja, the Mountainside direction, is taken as north, the family temple is always placed in the north-east corner of the courtyard. The adjacent south-west corner is considered to be the abode of evil and is always left empty.
The lumbung (granary) and the paon (kitchen) are placed in the south-east corner, to the right of some one entering the courtyard. To the incomer's left, situated around the "natah", the centre of the courtyard which is left open to provide a work and recreational area for the family, are three distinct sleeping quarters. Clockwise from an incomer's left are the bale dauh (guests' room) parallel to the west wall, the "meten / bale daja" (the room for parents, grandparents and unmarried girls) parallel to the north wall, and the "bale dangin" (the adults' quarters) parallel to the east wall. An additional bale, the bale delod, may be constructed on the kelod ('south') side if required. The bale dangin is used to celebrate such important rites of passage as weddings and tooth-filing. Children sleep in the bale dauh or in a special 'lion built for them in the north-west corner of the compound.
The word bale means 'pavilion', and the structure of the bale is at least partially open (the even, humid climate means that a roof to provide shelter from the rain is the only real necessity). They will have one or two walls, but the pavilion where the head of the compound resides (with all the family treasures) will be enclosed on all four sides. The pavilions are distinguished from one another by the number of pillars (saka) each has. A six-pillar bale is known as a bale saka-enam, A eight-pillar bale is known as a bale saka-ulu and the largest bale, with twelve pillars, is known as a bale gede. These buildings are constructed with posts set into a masonry base supporting a roof of radiating beamwork. Some have walls of brick or ruff masonry, a feature that probably derived from the temple architecture of medieval east Java. The roof is always crowned with a terracotta finial.

Some roofs are still made of alang-alang grass, sewn onto the ribs of coconutpalm leaves, which are set closely together and tied onto the bamboo or coconutwood roof frame with hard-wearing sugar-palm fibre. Layers of grass thatch are combed with a special rake, then trimmed, and extra layers of grass are added at the four corners. This type of thatch, often 45 centimetres (18 in.) thick, can last for up to fifty years. Nowadays a ceramic tiled roof is more usual (although bamboo is an alternative in the mountains). The beams that support the roof are fitted together and held in place with pegs made from the heartwood of coconut trees. Wooden or stone carvings of protective spirits can commonly be seen over doorways.
Rice barns are the only Balinese buildings that are raised on piles. These piles are topped with large wooden discs just below the main body of the granary to prevent rats from getting in. The barns are thatched with rice straw or alang-alang grass.
All traditional-style Balinese construction follows the prescribed methods laid down in various treatises on building, some of which date back to the fifteenth century. Anyone wishing to build will first commission a master builder, an udangi. After discussing the specifics of the commission, the udangi will first take the client's measurements, and then transfer them onto his bamboo measuring stick. From these are derived the units of measure that determine the dimensions of the compound and the saka.
Firstly there is the depa, which is the distance between the middle fingers when each arm is fully extended to the side. The distance from the tip of the outstretched middle finger to the elbow, known as the hasta (equivalent to the Western cubit) is also added to the measuring stick. The depa and the hasta together are equal to the basic wall measurement unit, which is also added to the stick. According to the old treatises, however, a small adjustment must be made to increase each unit of measurement slightly. This is known as the urip, and is thought necessary to bring the building alive upon completion. In the case of the depa, the urip is the width of the fist with the thumb extended. The three units of measurement added together make the depa asti musti, which is the unit for laying out the compound walls. The corners of the compound are then staked out to the dimensions appropriate both to the client's caste and to the location. The next important job is the cutting and then the setting up of the saka.
Before construction begins, certain ceremonies must be performed. For sacred buildings, the panca datu, five metals (gold, silver, bronze, iron and copper), are buried in the foundations, along with a coconut wrapped around with five differently coloured threads. For secular buildings, the ceremony simply consists of burying bricks wrapped in white cloth. The day of the ceremony and the day on which construction starts must be astrologically auspicious. There are other ceremonies that are conducted at various stages of the building, but the most important is the melaspas, the purificatory rite of completion, which brings the previously 'dead' materials alive as a living house. The house now has feet, body and a head - the foundations, the pillars and the roof.
Of all the Indonesian islands, with perhaps the exception of Java, Bali has been most changed by outside influence, yet, paradoxically, it retains more of its old customs than anywhere else in the archipelago. No doubt this is in part to counteract the ever-increasing numbers of foreign tourists that flood into Denpasar airport every day; but it should not be forgotten that the Balinese have a shrewd business sense, and their attachment to cultural traditions may also be in recognition of the fact that this is what attracts the tourist.
Consequently, although the layout of a Balinese village may not have changed, the houses themselves may be built in a variety of styles, and modern materials will in some cases have replaced traditional ones. Foundations are often now of concrete, and the floors tiled. Walls may be of concrete blocks rather than brick or limestone, and concrete pillars are used instead of teak. In the hotels and restaurants of Kuta and Sanur, however, among the most popular tourist resorts of the island, traditional Balinese building styles, materials and techniques are much in evidence.
The Balinese people's reverence for their culture and their religion runs extremely deep. They will ignore the requirements of business if a religious or social festivity is to be observed. Balinese traditional architecture is changing, but its future seems unclear on an island so flooded with tourists. All the old techniques of building are still keenly practised in the rural areas as well as in the tourist centres. Perhaps the future of vernacular architecture in Bali lies in a blend of the modern and the traditional; the only certainty is that the architectural future will be imbued with the natural Balinese sense of taste, style and fine craftsmanship. It will certainly be prosperous.


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