gunung-agung-modifiedThe metropolitan area of Bali is the sum and total of what life means to the majority of Bali’s visitors and non-Balinese residents. Many people spend their time here exclusively, as the city offers everything needed to support a full and satisfying life. Many visitors and residents feel little need to travel any further.

But geographically speaking, urban Bali only constitutes a fraction of the total area of the island, about 5%. From the vantage point of the city, the most visible evidence of the actual size of the island is the row of mountains standing on the northern horizon. They aren’t always in sight, but occasional glimpses of them can be seen from time to time. The row of mountains appear a pale and atmospheric blue, startling in contrast to the fluorescent colors of the city. These mountains bear witness to the fact that there is much of the island that lies beyond the limits of the city.

Rock and Water, Kaja and Kelod

The mountains are Bali’s most predominate point of focus, sometimes hidden from sight, but rarely forgotten. They provide one pole in a 2 pole system of orientation that is central to Balinese thought and action. According to Balinese thinking, you are either moving toward the mountains or away from them (to the sea). It sounds simple enough but it is loaded with meaning.


It is important to realize from the start that kaja-kelod is not simply a directional relationship, it is a subjective system of orientation. The two opposing directions of kaja-kelod change direction depending where you are on the island. For a person in Denpasar kaja is to the north, to another person in Singaraja it is to the south. The central mountains remain the point of focus wherever you might be. This often causes confusion for a person born in the south moving to the north, he or she has to flip his or her direction for kaja-kelod, and this causes no end to confusion and misunderstanding.

There is a clear preference for kaja over kelod. Kaja is associated with the mountains, symbol of clarity and holiness. Conversely, kelod is associated with the ocean, the realm of confusion and all that is profane. But this doesn’t mean that the Balinese flock to the mountains and shun the sea. Kaja-kelod has less to do with geography and more with how the Balinese see themselves. To face kaja is to look into the island, the village and family clan, towards all that is stable and knowable. To face kelod on the other hand, is to look squarely at things unknown, to outside places and people, to face uncertainty and disorientation. Balinese culture discourages any view outside itself, it actively absorbs its members into the group as a whole. It is not surprising that kelod is seen as an unfavorable direction and way of life.