Behind the House Gates

Much of Balinese life takes place behind the walls of family compounds. Our first two lodgings, in Denpasar and Ubud, were located in the backs of such compounds, and conversations with the (English-speaking) inhabitants helped us understand how Bali’s domestic architecture reflects the island’s traditional culture.

Melissa’s sketch of the layout of the compound where we stayed in Ubud, as described to her by a family member, Ibu Putu

From the street, the main thing you see of a Balinese house is a high brick or concrete wall punctuated by a rectangular brick archway with a pair of narrow wooden doors. In all but the poorest compounds, the doorways are artistically carved and flanked by guardian statues, with the amount and quality of the carving reflecting the wealth or status of the family. During the day, the doors often stand open.

Orange and beige stone doorway in Denpasar
An especially fancy doorway in Denpasar

A few feet behind the door, a narrow wall, generally with a statue or fountain in front, prevents passersby from seeing into the compound. The wall (called aling-aling) also serves to stop demons, who apparently don’t like to turn corners. From what we can tell, the character of the guardian statues next to the gate and of the statue just inside the door says something about the family’s profession, interests, or favorite Hindu deities or mythological figures.

Statue of Ganesha in Ubud
Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god who is the remover of obstacles, is popular in Ubud

Within the walls, several buildings provide the living space for an extended family of at least three generations. Each building has a large covered veranda, and family life occurs mostly on these verandas or in the courtyards between the buildings.

To those of us from colder climates, it’s strange to see a house where the couches, chairs, dining tables, refrigerators, and televisions are on what we consider the porch. Family photos and artwork are even hung on the verandas, to be viewed when sitting or walking outside. One of our hosts told us that indoor areas are mainly used for sleeping, bathing, and cooking.

The fancy house used by the oldest generation in the family we stayed with in Ubud (Ibu Putu’s father- and mother-in-law). The statues show Balinese people in traditional temple dress.

Although size and shape vary a bit, most of the compounds we’ve seen have been laid out in a similar manner. One of our guesthouse owners, Ibu Putu of Batik Sekar Bali in Ubud, was kind enough to describe her compound’s layout to Melissa.

Behind the gate and the wall, near the front of the compound, is an elaborately decorated pavilion, complete with open-air bed. That’s where women of the family give birth, where various rituals for children take place, and where the dead are laid out before burial or cremation.

The pavilion near the front of the compound used for family ceremonies, including childbirth and death rites.

Compounds are oriented according to Bali’s particular geography. The largest volcanic peak on the island, Gunung Agung near the eastern end, is the most sacred place on Bali. All important things face it. Thus, family compounds—and indeed villages—are laid out on a kaja-kelod axis, with kaja meaning “facing the mountain” and kelod meaning “facing the ocean.”

The main family shrine (near the front of the compound, facing holy Mount Agung)

A family temple, holding several shrines, occupies the corner of the compound closest to the mountain. The living quarters for the eldest members of the household are also located along the wall closest to the mountain. In accord with the respect given to elders, those quarters are the largest and best decorated building, with the biggest veranda, even if they house fewer people than the other buildings do.

Batik workshop space

The “children” of the family—often adult children with their own families—live in a separate building nearby. Other structures include workshops (if the family are artisans or mechanics), a shop opening to the street (if they are merchants or run a restaurant), a kitchen, perhaps a garage for a car or motorbikes, and quarters for servants or workers.

The position of each structure is mandated by the compass points; for example, the kitchen is always in the opposite corner from the family temple. In addition, each corner of the compound has a small shrine—which could be anything from a shelf on the wall to a small bamboo platform to a carved stone pillar with a small throne on top—where offerings are left daily.

Shrine in the corner of a family compound in Denpasar
A family shrine next to our room in Denpasar

Traditionally, the back of a compound held a garden with coconut palms, numerous fruit trees, and flowering plants. The garden provided the family with green space, food, and the raw materials for offerings (palm leaves and flowers). These days, in tourist areas, back gardens are being replaced with guest rooms, although compounds are still crammed with colorful, fragrant flowers.

Animals live in family compounds as well, even in towns. There are always a few fighting cocks in cages and some chickens. Many people keep songbirds in cages that hang from the edges of verandas, like wind chimes. Some houses have a guard dog who lolls around the gate barking at the other gates’ dogs. Cats and small lizards scamper in the shadows. Our compound in Ubud also had a tank with a turtle and two ponds with goldfish (which somehow survive the cats).

The small front garden (with a chicken)

Compounds remain in families for as long as possible. Sons and unmarried daughters live in their parents’ compound (unless the search for work takes them elsewhere). Married daughters move into their in-laws’ compound.

Ibu Putu in Ubud isn’t sure how old her in-laws’ compound is. She guesses at least 150 years old, based on the generations she knows about. She’s proud that her son will someday inherit such an old and beautiful house. (It’s not clear to us whether daughters can inherit compounds or whether, like Downtown Abbey, they need to go to a man.)

As the place where you were born, where the spirits of your ancestors are invoked daily in the family shrine, and where you hope to die, the family compound is a powerful part of a Balinese person’s identity, wherever you may be at any particular time. It is the ground in which, like an ancient banyan tee, you are rooted.

The matriarch of the family we stayed with in Ubud was a dancer in her youth (she once danced for former Indonesian President Sukarno). Now, besides running a batik business and a guesthouse, she teaches her granddaughter (foreground) and other neighborhood girls the traditional legong dance.

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