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AJEG BALI or how to drive away evil spirits

Resy Canonica-Walangitang


Touring Bali’s beaches and villages, travelling the island’s roads, one realises that this part of the Indonesian archipelago is becoming more and more… Balinese.

Much has been written, and said, about kebalian or “being Balinese”. This concept encompasses aspects of religion (agama), culture (budaya) and ‘tradition’ (adat) which have been shaped over the centuries by various events and influences, of which four are especially relevant to understanding the current meaning of the term. The first major event is doubtless the Dutch colonisation of Bali. The Dutch legacy is recalled by locals mainly through the commemoration of a specific event dating to the early 1900s, when Dutch naval forces disembarked at Sanur and the nobility and religious leaders of Badung, given their inferior numbers and lack of arms, preferred to defend their honour through a puputan, or ritual mass suicide, rather than surrender to the foreign invaders. The next significant modern influence on the Balinese is the ‘Indonesisation’ of the island which took place under the Presidents of the Republic of Indonesia, Sukarno and Suharto, from 1945 to 1998. This period of virtual enslavement of Bali to the central government in Jakarta witnessed the imposition of Bahasa Indonesia (the national language of the Republic) on the local population, the dismemberment of traditional communities and the uncontrolled expansion of the tourist industry. The unrestrained growth of tourism has made Bali a paradise for vacationers from around the globe, who, in the land of Hinduism and in an archipelago with a Muslim majority, have allowed themselves perhaps too much liberty. The final influence, still in progress, may be defined as ‘Islamisation’; a gradual process propagated mainly by Javanese Muslim immigrants who come to Bali in search of work, naturally bringing along their beliefs and customs. And it is precisely in response to this last element that the term ajeg Bali was coined.

The birth of the phenomenon coincides with the explosions that shocked Bali on October 12, 2002 and October 1, 2005, acts of terrorism signed by Islamic fundamentalism. But let us proceed in order of events.

The Balinese have traditionally employed cultural and religious ‘weapons’ against external ‘evil influences’, but ajeg Bali represents the first time the population has been united behind a slogan in the defence of the idea of “being Balinese”. Before the bombings, spiritual and cultural devotion were expressed through the care of traditional religious sites and rites honouring the ancestors and their teachings, but in the wake of the explosions, and the intense media coverage that followed, these rituals are not enough. Today, the Balinese find themselves reflecting on their own behaviour. More than anything else, the attacks were interpreted as a wake-up call for those Balinese who had strayed from the straight and narrow. An atmosphere of desperation and uncertainty over the future descended upon the island such that only a return to the past could remedy: in order to restore the balance destroyed by the terrorist attacks, the Balinese must re-establish a lost harmony, between themselves and the rest of the universe.

I first heard the words ajeg Bali from Darma Putra, my guide to the sites of the bombings. When I asked what the term meant, Putra answered that it was difficult to translate, but that it might be defined as “making Bali strong, defending our traditions, customs and values.” This definition was at the same time simple, yet vague, and it became clearer only after I spent some days in his company, talking and observing.

The concept of ajeg Bali is connected to the renewed desire for regional autonomy that emerged after the fall of the dictatorial regime of Suharto in 1998. After the collapse of the so-called New Order (Orde Baru 1966-1998), the rigid control of the central government of Jakarta, along with the general policy of ‘Indonesisation’, were weakened. The state television TVRI was supplanted by Bali TV, a station owned by the regional newspaper Bali Post, which has played a significant role in promoting ajeg Bali. In 2003, the Bali Post sponsored a series of discussions which were published by the paper on August 16 of that year in a 40-page special edition (re-issued in January 2004 in the form of a book entitled, Ajeg Bali: sebuah cita-cita). In this way, the Bali Post confirmed its role as an instrument in the struggle of, and for, the Balinese community.

The effort is played out on various fronts (religious, economic, environmental) and serves to make the Balinese aware of the physical and spiritual exploitation suffered in recent years.

The list of evils is long and confused, and often blurs the connection between cause and effect. According to this version of the facts, tourism, consisting of sunning, surfing and discotheques, has destroyed the once harmonious equilibrium between humans and their environment, thereby causing the bombs which are they responsible for the economic crisis because the attacks have of course brought about the collapse of the tourist industry.

Given its ambiguous definition, ajeg Bali has been applied to all areas of life, giving rise to an ajeg religion, an ajeg economy, and so on. The term is used, almost indiscriminately, by various players and to various ends: from teachers who wish to convince their students to study subjects like Sanskrit, to police officers who keep the peace by defining cock-fighting, drug-use, robbery and prostitution as obstacles to attaining ajeg.

The campaign has also assumed political connotations with the slogan “Bali for the Balinese”. One consequence of this has been the distinction between Balinese and non-Hindu residents of Bali, made possible through a kind of resident permit for Indonesians (Kartu Identitas Penduduk Pendatang) which identifies them as internal immigrants and not native inhabitants of the island. In brief, these new arrivals are expected one day to leave. The ‘others’, therefore, are not only the tourists who arrived with globalization, but also fellow countrymen who have come to the island in search of work in this paradise of tourism. And because these immigrants are typically Javanese Muslims, the distinction of ‘otherness’ is immediately made and is evident even while simply walking the streets. Balinese restaurants display an enormous sign of a pig (babi), indicating that pork, a food prohibited by Islam, is served. Meanwhile, the non-Hindu restaurants display the word halal, which signifies that the food is prepared according to Islamic law. And the step from a regional pretext to a national one is short. The term ajeg, in fact, has undergone a process of nationalisation through the strategic use of the flag of the Republic of Indonesia, a bi-colour standard generally called simply merah putih (the red and white). In shows, celebrations and theatrical productions, the slogan Bali Merah Putih appears to represent the desire for national unity, but on an insular level. As soon as I noticed this evolution, I expressed my amazement to Darma Putra, who could not understand my perplexity. But then, mine is an ‘external’ point of view, formulated by an outsider, an ‘other’ who fears that one form of fundamentalism may simply supplant another.



"Ajeg Bali: Sebuah cita-cita", Bali Post: Denpasar, 2004

P. Allen and C. Palermo, "If ajeg is the answer, then what is the question?: New identity discourses in Bali", University of Tasmania, 2004

J. Couteau, "After the Kuta bombing: In search of the Balinese soul", Jurnal Antropologi XXVII (70), 2003

G.D. Jensen and L.K. Suryani, "The Balinese People: a reinvestigation of character", Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur, 1992.