Banjar: the glue that holds the Balinese community together

Have you ever wondered why there are so many banjar in Bali? In a single village, there can be over ten banjar! The Balinese banjar is the local community group, almost like a neighbourhood council and the centre of Balinese social life. Everything related to customs, policies, rules, and even administration is done through the banjar, making it a fundamental part of Balinese life.

banjar is often represented by a group of families living within a designated area who decided to form a small neighbourhood. Usually, a banjar consists of at least five families and can be as large as 200 families. The banjar administration works together with the official government.

Since 1979, the banjar has been recognized by the Indonesian government as the lowest administrative structure in national governance. As such, the banjar serves both customary (adat) and administrative purposes.

The administration of a banjar is divided into two aspects: adat and administrative, with their respective heads known as kelian. A kelian adat (head of customs) is responsible for overseeing all affairs related to traditional Balinese law and religion. In contrast, the kelian dinas (head of administration) is an appointed government official responsible for carrying out administrative duties such as approving birth and death certificates and keeping tabs on the people. These roles are usually fulfilled by two people, but there are occasions where one person fulfils both functions.

Becoming a member of a banjar is quite simple. A married Balinese man is automatically considered a member of the banjar, along with their spouse. Being a patriarchal society, Balinese men are considered the representatives of their families. As such, men are expected to partake in many roles in the banjar, while the women act as support. As a member, a family is subjected to all obligations of the banjar and is entitled to banjar rights. This means the family must partake in all banjar activities, especially religious ceremonies, and help one another when needed. For example, if a banjar member passes away, other families in the banjar are expected to donate their money and volunteer to hold a funeral. Failure to meet these duties can result in hefty fines or excommunication.

Membership of a banjar is almost always limited to Balinese; however, as Balinese society becomes more heterogeneous, non-Balinese are also expected to join the banjar if they live within the area. Non-Balinese can opt out, though they would be subjected to a monthly fee as compensation to the banjar. The monthly payment is also sometimes subjected to Balinese who live far away from the banjar, for instance, those who are studying or living abroad, as compensation for not being able to participate in banjar duties.

As the heart of the community, a banjar has a hall known as the “bale banjar”. It’s usually a large, open structure that anyone in the banjar can use. The bale banjar is where all banjar activities take place. Every month, members of the banjar (just the men, though) have a meeting to discuss events and anything else necessary.

The banjar also has programs for young children and women. The Sekaa Teruna (ST) is a unique youth organization at every banjar that provides young children with a forum to unite. By “young”, we mean teenagers, as the word teruna refers to children that have reached adolescence. The Sekaa Teruna is usually active before Nyepi or Galungan, as they arrange fundraising events to prepare for ceremonies and build the ogoh-ogoh for Nyepi.

For women, there is the Women’s Organization or PKK. It’s like a woman’s version of the men’s monthly meeting. At PKK meetings, women meet to have tea together or arrange classes like cooking, making offerings, and sewing.

Another part of the banjar is the pecalang or traditional cops. These men keep the peace around the banjar, the local neighbourhood watch. Easily identifiable by their checkered sarongs and headbands, these guys work with police to help keep the people of the banjar safe.

Though times may have changed, the banjar remains one of the most important element of the Balinese community. It is the social glue that keeps the community well-connected. Without it, the Balinese community would not be as strong as they are today.