If you’re a frequent visitor to Bali, or know somebody living here, you have probably heard of the ‘banjar’, and wondered who exactly this is. The word ‘banjar’ when translated to English, quite simply means ‘row’, and refers to a row of houses, or neighbourhood. And that describes the banjar perfectly, as they are a neighbourhood group and village council who come together to look after their communities, keeping their neighbourhoods peaceful and running smoothly.
Working closely with the government and police, the banjar are a village council who oversee everything from religious ceremonies and customs, making sure laws aren’t being broken, keeping track of village administration such as registering births, deaths and marriages, and maintaining important places like temples and village buildings.
Divided into two branches, the banjar adat oversees cultural and religious matters, and anything relating to Balinese law, while the banjar dinas is in charge of the social and governmental aspects of village life, like birth, death and wedding certificates, and other related administrative duties. They are both overseen by a head, known as the kelian adat and kelian dinas, who have final authority and say, and whose job it is to liaise with government bodies. Leaders are elected by the other members of the banjar, and don’t receive any payment for their role, however they might be given extra gifts by their community.
The pecalang are another very important part of the banjar. A traditional Balinese police group, easily spotted in their distinctive black and white checked sarongs, they are responsible for keeping watch over the neighbourhood. They are the first place that most people turn when a crime has been committed in their community, as the pecalang work closely with the local police to keep Balinese villages safe and crime-free.
Married Balinese men are automatically considered members of their village banjar. They act as representatives for their family, and are expected to fully participate in the activities of the banjar, while their spouses provide support to them. Each family must take part and contribute to the banjar and their activities, such as helping to organise religious ceremonies, or lending a hand to other families in need. If a member of the banjar passes away, other banjar families will help by donating food and money to the deceased’s family, and helping to organise the funeral and any ceremonies. Banjars all have their own gamelan orchestra and dancing groups, who perform at traditional festivals and ceremonies. Banjar life is such an important, organising factor in Balinese villages, and families who don’t contribute, can be fined or ostracised from their community. But those who do participate and support their banjar, in turn receive help and support, making it an extremely positive and collective village council.
Participation in the banjar was once limited to Balinese locals only, however as many Balinese villages are changing and becoming more multi-cultural, with expats and foreigners living amongst locals, sometimes non-Balinese people are able to join as well. If they opt out, they can pay a monthly fee to the banjar, in compensation and as a contribution to village upkeep. Sometimes local Balinese also choose this option if they’re living or studying abroad, or if for any other reason they can’t contribute to their village banjar.
The banjar gather at their village hall, known as the bale banjar. A large, open-sided pavilion, it is the heart of the village, and where all banjar meetings and activities take place. Members of the banjar meet there at least once a month, representing their families and forming a village council to discuss upcoming events, ceremonies, and any other important issues that may have come up. And while banjar meetings are for men only, women in the community can attend the women’s organisation, PKK. Meetings of the PKK are a day for the women of the village to share tea and food, stories about village life, learn traditional ways of cooking and other customs, make offerings and sew together, and are a valuable day of connecting with other women. And the children and teenagers of the village have their own group too, known as the sekaa teruna, who gather for significant cultural days like Nyepi and Galungan to organise fundraising and help to build things such as the ogoh-ogoh for Nyepi.
The banjar are an extremely important part of village life in Bali. They coordinate and organise life so that it is peaceful and fair for everyone, making sure that all members of the village are safe and looked after, and more importantly, connected to one another.
Written by Suzanne Srdarov and the Travellist Team for The Voice of Sanur.