The Significance of Ghosts in Bali

I’ve told a few people about a ghost experience I’ve had on Lembongan. I’m not sure how I feel about ghosts honestly, I never believed before but something about Bali and the strong spiritual connection the people here feel, has made me re-consider.

I was staying at a friend’s house, having a snooze, and I had the sensation of someone standing next to my bed. I figured one of my friends or the American was just checking on me. Then it happened another two times throughout the night. I opened my eyes but no one was there so I assumed they had left the room. I mentioned it to the American in the morning….it wasn’t him or anyone else. They had left me sleeping and gone out for the night!

I told some of my Balinese friends about the experience and they said it was just a nice spirit checking on me, making sure I was sleeping ok. The following night I think I ‘saw’ the spirit. I’m well aware to the non-believers I sound a little crazy right now (well, more than my usual level of crazy anyway), but I ‘saw’ an old man standing in the doorway. He was actually hovering about a metre off the ground. He nodded and seemed to walk off into nothing.

Plenty of people I’ve met in Bali have had ‘ghost’ experiences; there are villas and resorts shut down due to ghost inhabitation. Ghosts in Bali are spiritually important and not something to laugh off or ignore. The scientific part of my brain tells me perhaps I’d had one too many wines that night, the more ‘open’ and spiritual side of my brain tells me anything is possible and as Bali is known as the Island of the Gods, surely ghosts somehow fit into this as well.

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This probably lends more towards what Western society coins as paranormal but the owners of my house, and Wayan who works with me, believe my Bali dog Zoey has some kind of connection to the land and one of the temples at my house; that perhaps Zoey sees things or spirits that we aren’t aware of. Every time before I feed him, I pick up his bowl and he races to the temple at the back of my house. That temple is known as the temple of Ratu Gede which is about protection and Zoey stands in it for about two minutes, staring into space, then races back for food. He has never missed his ‘prayer’ time once. He is a Kintamani dog so who knows…other than the fact he is absolutely insane and barks at nothing (* at least I’ve always assumed it’s nothing!!), perhaps he does have an old spirit and was sent to protect me and the house.

A dear friend of mine here in Bali tells me that ghosts in your house can be powerful, protecting you from bad spirits, but only if you believe in them and allow them free access to your house without being scared. Some friends on Lembongan said if the ghosts you see are children, leave lollies out at night for them to let them know you are not afraid and they can play. Wayan says she has seen a female ghost with very long hair, wearing a green dress, surrounded by children ghosts in my house. Being that I have long hair, don’t mind wearing green and am constantly surrounded by lost souls (street dogs) and my own fur children, it’s not a stretch to believe I have an invisible guardian at the house.

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Many Balinese believe in having an invisible guardian, perhaps the Western version of guardian angels. A spirit or ghost that protects you from evil or bad luck. Niskala is the word used that describes the world of unseen white and black magic. The Hindu faith believes in Niskala and the magic that is used to explain many situations that cannot otherwise be explained. Nyepi is steeped in this belief, dharma versus adharma (good vs evil) and many ceremonies involving magic or the protection from black magic are performed. It’s not uncommon for people to go into a trance-like state during these ceremonies, the belief is that these spirits, ghosts or magic enter their body and take over for a short time.

There are well known ghosts in Balinese culture as well that all present a ‘learning’, a lesson to those who do not heed their warning or believe in the ghost. Kuntilanak is the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth and is said to now haunt women during labour. It’s common practice in Bali that babies do not touch the ground or lose physical contact with another person for the first three months of their life, to protect them from ghosts stealing them or entering their bodies. There are arguments to state that this ghost is a warning to seek proper health care for mother and child as well.

Sundel Bolong is another female ghost who died during childbirth, the child a product of rape. She is said to haunt men walking alone at night and serves as a reminder for women to be safe, to not walk alone, and for men to be respectful and not violent. It’s common practice for Balinese people to travel in pairs and certainly at night, never be alone.

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Nyai Roro Kidul is the ruler of the south sea of Java and a ghost or spirit. She is said to have been a beautiful woman who was damned in love so her spirit lives in the ocean and she becomes the ‘wife’ of every king of Mataram, in a spiritual sense. In a similar way, the islands of Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida and Nusa Ceningan, celebrate Nyepi Laut every year. It basically means silent ocean. No person, boat, surf board or paddle board is allowed in the water on that day as they offer a day of rest and respect to the gods and spirits of the ocean and thank them for keeping the people safe from harm on the seas.

Cemeteries in Bali are often quite rudimentary in design as they are not the permanent resting ground for the deceased. While there may be a headstone, it’s not permanent and is actually just more of a marker as to where the person is lying. Umbrellas are placed over each burial spot, partly for protection during prayer and partly because the belief is that they have not yet left the earth and are still united with their bodies, so they need protection as well. It’s common to honk your car or motorbike horn as you pass a cemetery, a sign of respect and asking for permission to pass.

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Throughout various times of the year penjor can be seen lining the streets and out the front of every home. Traditionally these penjor were created in the shape of the mountains, hence the curve, with a candle at the very end, lighting the way for spirits or ghosts to follow, to go over the mountain to enter the new world and leave their bodily presence. I love the concept that we are leading the spirits or ghosts of our ancestors to reach the ‘other side’ and that they and their families can find peace in this.

The other thing I will say about ghosts in Bali, it is very sacred conversation and you need to be respectful when you ask. These ghosts are the spirits of Balinese people who for whatever reason have not passed over or choose to stay on the earth; protecting, warning, or haunting for a purpose or learning. I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, but Bali has different ghost stories, more magical in a way and sometimes I think it might just be a good idea to believe, accept and acknowledge there are things we just don’t understand. And get a Kintamani dog…. just to be on the safe side….

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