Balinese Symbolism

Balinese Symbolism

A symbol is something that represents something else. Balinese culture is very rich in symbolism. It seems that everything is symbolic and that even the symbols are symbolic. There are numerous examples.


These tend to represent different names for God. The most famous is OM, which represents Brahma or Sanghyang Widi Wasa or God. You will often hear priests intone this sound. The sound is made up of the letters which symbolized the Trinity, which is Brahma, the Creator, who is symbolised by the letter A, Wisnu, the Preserver of Life, who is symbolized by the letter U and Siwa the Destroyer, who is symbolized by the letter M. This spells AUM or OM. OM is the most important sound in Bail and starts every stanza of every mantra and prayer. 


Writing can be just as sacred as the message it conveys. One story says that
 Saraswati the goddess of poetry, brought humans into existence by the use of writing. Written symbols represent different aspects of God and are often joined together. Powerful symbolic writing on pieces of white cloth, Ulap-ulap, hang above doorways in Balinese homes. 

Written symbols are written on the teeth of a person about to have his or her teeth filed. Written symbols are also placed on offerings and on the shroud of a deceased person.

The anthropologist Lansing has made the point that letters are used to create poetry. Poetry is a vehicle for the imagination. This allows us to see beyond the surface appearance of things. 

The mandala

The Balinese universe is organized according to fundamental principles of classification. It includes directions, colors and numbers. There are 11 directions. These are the eight compass points, plus the centre and up and down.

Each direction has a sound, a colors, a written symbol and a weapon. They are linked to the nine gods, their consorts and organs of the body. lswara is white and east; Brahma red and south; Mahadewa yellow and west; 
Wisnu black and north. Brahma's consort or wife is Saraswati, Wishnu's is Laksmi and Siwa's is Durga. The goddesses are regarded as their husbands' sakti (spiritual power). All the gods merge into Siwa, who constitutes a higher unity, at the centre, with mixed colours.

They are also linked to days of the five day week and numbers. East with Umanis and number 5. South with Paing and number 9. West with Pon and number 7. North  with Wage and number 4. The centre with Kliwon and number 8. 

The enormous Eka Dasa Rudra sacrifice
 was structured on the 11 directions. The animals were assigned to particular directions. However the animals of the central group were further sub-divided into an 11-fold structure. The animals of the outer circle included white cow, goose, duck (east), goat (southeast), cow (south), dog (southwest), buffalo (west), deer (northwest), black monkey and garuda (north), and horse (northeast). The bulk of the animals fell into the inner circle and were divided according to their nature. For example, birds other than fowls were placed in the northeast, footed reptiles in the west, fishes in the north, creatures that crawled (centipede and snake) in the nadir, beetles in the zenith, flies and hornets in the centre. 

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