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Balinese Architecture

Architectural design is part of Bali's spiritual heritage and it rules the look of traditional homes, temples and even modern buildings. Bali style is timeless, whether it is centuries old or embodied in a new hip villa. And it's not static, as Bali is the site of world-renowned architecture made with renewable materials like bamboo.

Architecture brings together the living and the dead, pays homage to the gods and wards off evil spirits, not to mention the torrential rain. As spiritual as it is functional, as mystical as it is beautiful, Balinese architecture is a life force of its own. On an island bound by deep-rooted religious and cultural rituals, the priority of any design is appeasing the ancestral and village gods. This means reserving the holiest (northeast) location in every land space for the village temple, the same corner in every home for the family temple, and providing a comfortable, pleasing atmosphere to entice the gods back to Bali for ceremonies. So while it exudes beauty, balance, age-old wisdom and functionality, a Balinese home is not a commodity designed with capital appreciation in mind; even while an increasing number of rice farmers sell their ancestral land to foreigners for villa developments, they're keeping the parcel on which their home stands.

The basic element of Balinese architecture is the bale, a rectangular open-sided pavilion with a steeply pitched roof of thatch. Both a family compound and a temple will comprise of a number of separate bale for specific functions, all surrounded by a high wall. The size and proportions of the bale, the number of columns and the position within the compound are all determined according to tradition and the owner's caste status. The Balinese house looks inward - the outside is simply a high wall. Inside there is a garden and a separate small building ora bale for each activity: one for cooking, one for washing and the toilet, and separate buildings for each "bedroom". In Bali's mild tropical climate people live outside, so the "living room" and "dining room" will be open veranda areas looking out into the garden. The whole complex is oriented on the kaja-kelod (towards the mountains and towards the sea) axis. Just like the human body, a compound has a head (the family temple with its ancestral shrine), arms (the sleeping and living areas), legs and feet (the kitchen and rice storage building), and even an anus (the garbage pit or pigsty). There may be an area outside the house compound where fruit trees are grown or a pig is kept. There are several variations on the typical family compound. For example, the entrance is commonly on the kuah (sunset side), rather than the kelod (away from the mountains and towards the sea) side, but never on the kangin (sunrise) or kaja (in the direction of the mountains) side.

A village, a temple, a family compound, and every individual structure must all conform to the Balinese concept of cosmic order. In consist of three parts that represent the three worlds of the cosmos: swah (the world of gods), bhwah (world of humans) and bhur (world of demons). The concept also represents a three-part division of a person: utama (the head), madia (the body) and nista (the legs). The units of measurement used in traditional buildings are directly based on the anatomical dimensions of the head of the household, ensuring harmony between the dwelling and those who live in it. The design is traditionally done by an undagi (an architect-priest), and it must maintain harmony between god, man and nature according to the concepts of Tri Hita Karana. If it's not quite right, the universe may fall off balance and no end of misfortune and ill health will visit the community involved.

Every village in Bali has several temples, and every home has at least a simple house-temple. The Balinese word for temple is pura, from a Sanskrit word literally meaning "a space surrounded by a wall". Similar to a traditional Balinese home, a temple is walled in - so the shrines you see in rice fields or at "magical" spots such as old trees are not real temples. Simple shrines or thrones often overlook crossroads, to protect passers-by. All temples are built on a mountains-sea orientation, not north-south. The direction towards the mountains, kaja, is the end of the temple, where the holiest shrines are found. The temple's entrance is at the kelod. Kangin is more holy than the kuah, so many secondary shrines are on the kangin side. Kaja may be towards a particular mountain, Pura Besakih (the Mother Temple) in east Bali is pointed directly towards Gunung Agung or towards the mountains in general, which run east-west along the length of Bali.