Thursday, August 4, 2011

Balinese Names: An Introduction

Bali was the last country to be added to my Watson proposal and the first one that I’m visiting. A former Theater Professor, friend and mentor studied mask work in Ubud and after hearing about my project and helping me with my Watson application he suggested I add Bali to the list of places I wanted to visit. I am so glad he did.

Not only is it proving to be an incredibly interesting place to spend eight weeks, but the naming system in Bali is fascinating. I’m going to write a brief overview of how Balinese names traditionally work (based on what I’ve found here and also online research). As I come across more names and hear their stories over the next few weeks, I think it will be helpful to have these basic traditions for naming spelled out as a point of comparison. I’m already finding that the basic rules below are much more complicated than I thought but this post can act as a starting place.

I am finding that part of what makes Balinese names so interesting is that they are both remarkably rigid and remarkably fluid. Because of a system of naming in which most of the population shares the same formal name, the nicknames that distinguish people from each other become very important. Last names are not used, but each person’s full name is usually composed of four separate (what we would consider) first names. Interestingly enough, most names are gender neutral.

THE FORMAL NAME (Second out of the Four Names):

Here is the traditional, standard formula for naming children:

First-Born: Wayan or Putu or Gede or Luh Gede

Second-Born: Made or Nengah or Kadek

Third-Born: Nyoman or Komang or Koming

Fourth-Born: Ketut

What happens if you have a fifth child? The pattern starts over. This means that a large family could have several children who have the same name.

THE CREATIVE NAMES (Third and Fourth of the Four Names):

As you might guess, having the same four formal names for all of the population can get confusing. Formal names are then followed by two more given names that parents can be more creative with. These names often reflect a hope for their child, or something having to do with the timing of the child’s birth. Some names also relate to the child’s appearance (often skin color or beauty).

THE CASTE NAME: (First out of the Four Names):

So, essentially everyone has a Wayan/Made/Nyoman/Ketut followed by two more creative names that often depend on these factors. THEN, to make matters more complicated, caste also plays a role. In the Sudra (lowest) caste, which about 95% of the Balinese population is in, names are preceded by “I” for a boy or “Ni” for a girl. Here are the prefixes for other castes:

Brahmana (Priestly Caste): Ida Bagus (males), Ida Ayu (females)

Ksatria (Warrior/Ruling Caste): Tjokorde (males), Tjokorde Istri (females)

Wesia (Tradesperson Caste): Gusti or Dewa (males), Desak (females)

Sudra (95% of the Population): I (males), Ni (females)


A full name is formed by combining the caste prefix, formal/birth order name and two creative names that follow. An example from my guidebook is: I Nyoman Darma Putra. From this name, we know that this is a male in the Sudra caste who is supposed to be “dutiful or good” (dharma).

Apparently Dutch colonists in Bali were so confused by the fact that people had multiple names they insisted each person only have one. As a result, most people in Bali introduce themselves to strangers by their single formal name (i.e. Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut) but they go by their other names with friends and family.

I tried to figure out what my own name would be had I been born in Bali. It is hard for me to know what caste to place myself in, but for now I’ll go with the tradesperson caste. Because I’m a woman, my name would start with Desak. The second name out of the four would be “Made” (or the slightly more unusual Nengah or Kadek) because I am the second born in my family. Then the third and forth names would reflect some creativity on my parents’ part. The name “Nell” is a derivative of Eleanor or Helen and mean shining light, which apparently can be roughly translated to “bersinar cahaya.” Put together, my name might be something along the lines of “Desak Made Bersinar Cahaya.”

When I’ve mentioned to locals so far that I’m in Bali to study names they often laugh. “There is not much to study here” they say, “Names are all the same.” And yet in some ways, names are so much more individual. There are no last names that function as they do in the United States, so a woman has her full name her whole life (regardless of marriage). Kids do not take their father or mother’s name but it is one created independently just for them. You can tell so much more from someone’s name here than you can from a name in the United States. A Balinese name places the person within a socioeconomic framework, a family structure and often a time in which they were born. In a culture full of people that seem to begin all conversations by asking where you are from and where you are going (and, in my case, where my husband is), this seems appropriate. As I meet more people, I’m excited to add to this repertoire and begin to figure out the rationale and consistency (or lack there of) behind these patterns.


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