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Wayan Sadha
Illustration by I Wayan Sadha

Here is a story of Ni Luh Koncreng, in which the way the Balinese see, feel and interpret time is illustrated. You can guess, of course, it is quite different to how Westerners view the very same aspect. 

We are in the compound of Ni Luh Koncreng, an old, wrinkled Balinese lady. She is cutting coconut leaves that she weaves into a small platter for offerings for an upcoming ritual. All her gestures are precise. She will soon have exactly 34 of them, and knows precisely where to put them- one at the head of the kemulan shrine, one near the fire, until all are in place, and each addressed to its god. Ni Luh Koncreng also knows exactly which day of the Balinese Calendar is coming up and what to do in relation to it: tomorrow is Kajeng Kliwon which occurs once every fifteen days, tomorrow is also 20 days before the next odalan festival at the Temple of the Dead. Yes, she knows everything.

The Balinese are indeed among the best organized and most precise people on earth – just look at how they organise their family homes!

But don’t ask Ni Luh Koncreng how many children she has. If you dare to do it, the first thing you will see, in her look, is puzzlement, as if it were the first time such a question has been asked of her. Then she will, in all probability, pause, and, one by one, count her children on the tips of her finger, by order of birth, in accordance with the Balinese system : Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut, Wayan Balik. Then, triumphantly, she will announce: “I have five, but only four are alive.”

Now, if you ask her when she married, she might answer in a strange coded way: “It was at the time of the Regency of Gianyar.” Translated: it was when the Balinese Kings were reigning as regents of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, i.e. before the Second World War.

Then if you inquire about the age of her first child when he died, her reply might be no less puzzling: “mara mepupuk cekuh, “when he still had some powder on the fontanel,” meaning that he was a new-born baby, who had only undergone the after birth ceremony.

All this points to a culture for which time is qualitative rather than quantitative.

It is worth noticing for example that the main Balinese calendar, the pawukon system of 210 days, which defines most of the Balinese rituals, is not numbered. As for the Saka, solar-lunar calendar, although numbered and starting in 78 AD., its Saka year is usually “hidden” in an esoteric system of correspondence between words and numbers – the Candrasengkala. Time thus, is not so much linear or “historical”. Rather it is “known” in the propitious (dewasaayu) and unpropitious (dewasa ala) qualities of its various “moments”, so that it can be “acted” upon ritually. Its knowledge is the privilege of a selected few, whose power it justifies and enhances – brahmins and medium-priests (balian). To all others, it remains a vague quantity organized around personal events.

Locating the actual “year” of a personal event is relatively simple.  You just have to relate it to a general period or to a datable, island-scale phenomenon: and then you calculate, approximately. If your grandfather was born in “bumi nu enteg” — when the world was still stable, or at the time of “zaman nu Bali”, which means that he was born before the Dutch take-over of Bali in 1906-1908.

Few people still talk of the arrival of the Dutch –”dugas puputan” (the fight to the death), but some very old people may tell you that they could already “gradag grudug” or “play around with friends”:  when the big “earthquake of Bali” happened (dugas Bali ngejor). Translated into “modern terminology, this means that the person was aged 8 or 9 in 1917, when a big earthquake destroyed most of the buildings of Bali. The next period, almost timeless, was the “daweg Regen“ — the time of the regents — quoted above. In Ubud, some painters will remember “Dugas Tuan Sepis” (the years of Walter Spies), after the name of the German artist who played such an important role in the development of modern art in the ‘30s.

“Jepang” or the arrival of the Japanese, was a big event. If a man tells you he was already visiting girls (“subanyumuninnganggur”) when they arrived, subtract 17 or 18 from 1941: he means that he was born around 1923 or 1924. The period was particularly eventful: after “zaman Jepang  “ came “zaman Nika,” the Dutch restoration (1949), also called the Revolusi (“dugas repolusi”).  “Mara merdeka” (just after independence) is also used to locate the period. For the next 15 years, nothing happened except the occasional landing of Sukarno’s helicopter. It is cute to say: “Yang maramasukdugas Bung karnomedaatngajakkopter“ (I had just entered school the year Sukarno’s helicopter landed), but here it is difficult to guess the date – and thus the age of the person. For more precision you have to wait for the two big shocks of “meletus Gunung Agung” or the eruption of Mount Agung (1963), and the so called Gestok, or the time of the anti-communist repression (1965). If someone tells you he already reached Subamenek truna dugas Gestok (youth) then, this means that he was old enough to have witnessed the whole thing. You can then easily guess his age and experience.

After Gestok, we get into the banality: this is when Bali is “bek misi turis”, or “full with tourists”. A period rich in money, but poor in events. Since then, people all go to school, and things have changed for the younger generations who have learned the Western calendar. However the Balinese calendar continues to be relevant.

Age is no less a problem than date. People will know which day falls the first “otonans” of their child – Balinese anniversaries according to the 210 day calendar. Beyond these though, they lose touch. Parents will know that it is time to send their child to school if it can touch its ear above the head with the opposite arm. This means that the child is around six. The next important “age” is menekbajang or truna, with its specific sexual signs. The youth can then become a member of the youth association, and go out nganggur after girls. When the person marries, he or she gets “old” (tua), a state of age which is going to stay indeterminate for some time, waiting for the children to grow. If you ask a middle-aged man his age, there are chances he will tell you “forty” just by chance. To be sure, ask him whether he was around at the time of Jepang. After forty, people seem to jump to sixty: they were at school at the time of Jepang. Next, if a man dies at an old age, when he has no more contemporaries, everyone will tell you he is at least 100, especially if he is a priest.

Don’t ask for distances either, or the size of Bali’s population. These are mathematics. The Balinese are not interested. Why should they? Numbers, dates, age, kilometers and data doesn’t give any more meaning to the world!

Jean Couteau

Jean Couteau

An observer of Bali for over 40 years, Jean Couteau is a graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and former lecturer at the Denpasar Institut Seni Indonesia. He is a reputed specialist on Balinese culture, having authored: Puri Lukisan (2000), Un Autre Temps: Les Calendriers Tika de Bali (2004) Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013, with Georges Breguet), and Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali (2018) – to name but a few. He is a multilingual writer, contributing for Indonesia’s national paper, Kompas, with his column “Udar Rasa” published in the Sunday cultural page (in Bahasa Indonesia). He also contributes a monthly cultural piece for NOW! Bali.