I guess that everyone envisions Bali as a highly sacred and culturally rich place, adorned with unique temples, statues, rice fields, and locals dressed in traditional outfits. And they wouldn’t be wrong; the Balinese culture and Hinduism deeply influence nearly every aspect of the island. Bali’s culture permeates throughout, from museums and hotel lobbies to sacred temples and shops. It is a common sight to see people donning their ceremonial attire.
During my stay in Bali, I made an effort to immerse myself in the local experience. I visited several temples, explored a local cemetery with a Balinese friend, and had the opportunity to visit local families and traditional houses featuring private temples. And when I arrived to meet my final Couchsurfing host in Bali, Rina, she graciously invited me to attend her best friend’s wedding! Despite my limited time, I couldn’t pass up the chance to witness the traditional wedding ceremony—a truly rare and invaluable experience.
Kate from Hawaii and I were invited a day prior to the wedding to observe the family’s preparations, such as cooking and arranging the venue. When we arrived in the evening, we noticed that they hadn’t begun preparing anything yet! My main concern was the food since there were supposed to be 400 guests arriving the next morning. It seemed like the family was in for a sleepless night, trying to accomplish everything in time.
The highlight of the evening was the pig slaughter, and everyone was eagerly anticipating it. They enthusiastically invited us to participate in the process and took pride in it. Although we initially declined the invitations, we decided it would be respectful to briefly attend and show our support to the family, as we could see how much it meant to them.
Interestingly, in the wedding preparations, it was the men who took charge of preparing the food, while the women focused on dressing up and looking beautiful for the occasion. It’s not a bad idea, and perhaps it could be implemented in other cultures as well. I witnessed uncles, cousins, and friends gathered around, slicing chillies, onions, and meat, while the ladies took care of washing dishes and decorating the tables. The groom’s uncle, who served as the head chef, coordinated all the work and cooked the meat.
The bride kindly provided us with sarungs, the traditional outfits, and invited us to join the ceremony the following day, which was scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m. I was taken aback by the early start time, but I eagerly anticipated the event and didn’t want to miss any aspect of the Balinese wedding, including the costumes, rituals, and the overall spirit.
In the morning, we were warmly welcomed by the bride and groom near the entrance of their house. I couldn’t help but admire their attire—it was absolutely mesmerizing. The bride wore a form-fitting dress, and she later mentioned how difficult it was to even breathe while wearing it. She also adorned a massive diadem, weighing a few kilograms, and had a thick layer of makeup. The groom, too, was dressed in a traditional costume, comprising multiple layers: pants, two sarongs, a thick and ornate jacket, earrings, a ceremonial knife at his side, a turban, and, of course, elaborate makeup. It appeared that dressing the groom required considerable time and effort compared to the bride. Nevertheless, they both looked absolutely stunning.
While I anticipated that the food might not be ready yet, I was surprised to see the tables being nailed together while the couple greeted the guests. However, I came to understand that it was a normal practice in this context. As we observed, the women were busy preparing for the ceremony inside the house. They brought small baskets containing various items needed for the prayers and offerings to the gods, such as eggs, rice, deceased chickens, water, and old, corroded coins. As someone who was unfamiliar with the significance behind these items, it appeared to be a chaotic assortment to me, resembling a large pile of garbage.
In the distance, you could spot a private “in-house” temple. These types of temples are constructed by the family that owns the house, serving as a place of worship for the entire family and future generations. An interesting aspect is that a house with a temple cannot be sold; it can only be maintained and managed by the same family members who built it or their relatives.
Each “in-house” temple features a collection of statues representing various gods. The specific deities chosen depend on the family’s priorities and the aspects of life they value, such as health, knowledge, wealth, and more. It is a personal decision for each family to determine which gods are most important to them and deserving of their worship.
The men of the family were still engrossed in their cooking duties, as we found them in the same position as when we left them the day before, diligently cutting ingredients and preparing the food. Meanwhile, inside the house, the women were occupied with dressing up and applying makeup, getting ready for the upcoming ceremony.
We found ourselves being treated like celebrities at the ceremony, with everyone enthusiastically offering us food, drinks, chairs, and even fans. It seemed that our every wish was catered to with just a simple gesture.
The ceremony began without any formal introduction, catching me off guard as I hadn’t realized it had already started. Only a few individuals actively participated in the prayers, while the rest continued with their own tasks. It appeared that Kate and I were the only ones truly engrossed in understanding and observing the proceedings. The father led the prayers, while the couple performed the necessary rituals in front of the symbolic “garbage pile.” A few elderly women closely watched their actions, instructing them on when to bend, stand up, and perform various movements. Some of the rituals seemed rather peculiar, especially when the women tightly bound the couple together and guided them to walk around the pile while gently striking them with branches. Some of the relatives seated nearby, who could communicate in English, attempted to explain the significance of the rituals to us. However, even they admitted that they were uncertain about the precise meanings and reasons behind some of the practices.
As the couple continued with the rituals, sweat dripped down their faces while they repeatedly bent over, burdened by the weight of their elaborate clothing and accessories. It was disheartening to witness their physical strain. Seeking a distraction, I decided to explore what others were doing and happened upon another ceremony taking place at the end of the garden. An elderly man sat on a small stage, reciting prayers accompanied by the ringing of bells and wafting incense smoke towards the wedding guests and, surprisingly, towards the same pig we had observed being slaughtered the day before.
After a while, the couple joined the old man for the prayers, receiving blessings and being sprinkled with water. Just as I thought the wedding ceremony, which had already lasted for four hours, was coming to an end, the couple invited us to participate in another round of prayers at the temple outside the house. Although we followed them, we couldn’t stay for long, feeling that the amount of prayers and worshiping was overwhelming, especially for our first experience of such a ceremony.
Despite being in the middle of the wedding, the venue still appeared unfinished, with plastic garbage strewn about on the ground. However, I considered that perhaps their standards and perceptions of cleanliness were different, and what I perceived as untidy might not be viewed in the same way by the locals. In Southeast Asia, unfortunately, it has become commonplace to see garbage scattered everywhere, and it seems that the locals have become desensitized to its presence.
Food was undoubtedly one of the main highlights of the wedding. We were continuously invited to indulge in the delicious offerings. It felt like as soon as we finished a plate, someone else would approach us, motioning towards the overflowing table. There was a whole roasted pig prepared overnight near the entrance, along with an assortment of colorful sweets and cakes. If I wanted to try everything, I would have needed a second stomach. Nevertheless, I packed some snacks in my handbag, intending to enjoy them during my ten-hour bus ride after the wedding.
After a grueling five hours of rituals, the couple returned and could finally relax and fully enjoy their wedding. They changed into more comfortable outfits and enthusiastically engaged in conversations with the guests. As the only foreigners in attendance, we became quite popular, with numerous people approaching us to take pictures together. Those who had a basic grasp of English were eager to chat and hear our thoughts on the wedding. One uncle approached us and kindly remarked, “We truly appreciate that you are wearing our national sarongs, even though they are tightened incorrectly. But please, leave them as they are; everyone understands.”
In conclusion, experiencing a Balinese wedding is truly a remarkable journey that immerses you in the rich cultural tapestry of Bali. From the vibrant processions to the intricate rituals, every aspect of this sacred union is a testament to the deep-rooted traditions and values cherished by the Balinese people. The fusion of spirituality, artistry, and community creates an atmosphere that is both awe-inspiring and heartwarming. As we witness the celebration of love, we are reminded of the power and beauty of cultural heritage. A Balinese wedding is not just an event; it is an enchanting encounter that leaves a lasting impression on all who are fortunate enough to partake in its magic.