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  • Balinese House Compounds: a Microcosm of the Universe

    Indonesian demon statue
    A carving of a demon-woman, designed to frighten away evil spirits.
    Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali. Picture credit: Kashgar

    A visitor to the smaller towns and villages of Bali would be forgiven for thinking that temples adorn every street corner and all of the spaces in between. High walls with the smallest of doorways allow only the briefest of views by passers-by, while above the walls there are tantalising glimpses of exquisitely carved shrines, some no larger than birdcages. However these are all in fact private residences, more properly called compounds or karangs, which may house several generations of Balinese families at one time.

    A Balinese home is the result of a complex interweaving of various elements – a kind of feng shui (the interaction of the physical world with the spirit one), economic wealth, caste, kinship ties and practical social requirements.  To begin with, Balinese compounds are surrounded by high walls and have only a single small entrance, called the angkul-angku, at the side bordering the street. Entrance-ways define the threshold between inside and outside and are viewed ambivalently by Balinese: on one hand they admit welcome visitors, while on the other hand they can allow malign spirits to enter. Thus it important that the entranceway be small, and that immediately inside one faces another smaller wall called the aling-aling,placed specifically to baffle uninvited spirits who are normally only capable of traveling in straight lines.  As a further safeguard a small shrine is often built just in front of the house facing the road. Offering of flowers and coconut leaves are placed in it to make spirits pause and reconsider any intention of entering.

    indonesian house compound entrance
    An entrance to a private house compound in Ubud, Bali. Photo credit: Kashgar

    Within the compound, on the northern boundary wall, one is immediately faced with the family temple, actually a collection of at least five small shrines, usually placed on high pedestals. These are dedicated to ancestor worship, specific Hindu gods (largely dependant on family caste) and other, more ancient spirits or nats. A small pavilion near the eastern side of the temple complex, called the bale dangin, is traditionally used for ceremonial purposes.  Further within the compound there is a number of small houses or open sided pavilions, usually around a main house (bale dauh) built on the western side: this is occupied by the current head of the family and his immediate family, while the smaller dwellings house visiting relatives and children.  Towards the south, the pawon or kitchen sits, consisting of 2 rooms, one open sided for cooking, the other closed to store cooking materials. Behind the kitchen is typically a granary, livestock pens, vegetable garden, fruit trees, well and sanitation facilities.

    Within these compounds, the architecture is normally quite plain and lacking in significant decorative ornamentation; the size of the pavilions and the number of pillars holding up the ceiling are often enough to indicate status. However, much effort and expense goes towards the decoration of doors and gateways. Doors are typically paneled and are carved from jack fruit wood, teak or other rain tree woods. They are usually painted, but may also be gilded with gold leaf in the case of high caste families. Gateways are also often highly ornamented, often with the Bhoma head, similar to the Tibeto-Chinese Chepu, killer and eater of demons. 

    A very ornate gate entrance complete with demon-frightening motifs
    Royal Palace, Ubud. Source: Kashgar

    A beautifully carved, painted and gilded doorway. Royal Palace, Ubud. Source: Kashgar

    Needless to say, karangs are becoming rarer in rural areas as more and more land is converted towards the building of high-end resorts and guest houses.  Traditional compounds are still being built, however, by those able to afford the land. These days, modern touches are incorporated into the design, and pavilions are more likely to have four walls and air conditioning installed than an open platform design.

    Vistors to rural Bali can still visit traditional house compounds. One particuarly nice example is the Karang Sikut Satak situated in Sumampan, a Pekraman Village in Sukawati, Bali. A family residence for generations, it has since been converted into a workshop, studio and gallery for the traditional carvers of Sumampan and its surrounding areas.

    Karang Sikut Satak situated in Sumampan, a Pekraman Village in Sukawati, Bali.
    Source: Bali Budaya


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