Friday, August 12, 2011

Name Post: Siapa Nama Anda?

Just as I begin to find some patterns in Balinese naming, I’m also beginning to notice how quickly these patterns are broken. Although giving a caste name and birth order name seems a practice that is consistent throughout Bali, the “creative names” (as I termed them in my Introduction to Balinese Names post) are unpredictable. I have encountered thus far a Ni Kadek Suriati (meaning she’s in the Sudra Caste, second born in her family, and has a “good heart”) as well as an I Kadek Robert (meaning he’s in the Sudra Caste, second born in his family, and has parents who wanted to give him an American name). I am beginning to realize that the process for choosing these creative names varies across villages and as a result, it is hard to draw any overarching conclusions.

There are several naming conversations I’ve had over the last few days that I want to share. The first was with from two brothers who are mask makers in the town of Mas (See "Masks in Mas):

Ida Bagus Nyoman Anom Suryawan

-IDA BAGUS: Indicates a male in the Brahmana Caste

-NYOMAN: Indicates he is the third born in his family.

-ANOM SURYAWAN: According to Anom this means something like “young son” or, as he ages, “forevery young” (This explanation caused both Anom and me to break into the chorus of the Youth Group song by the same name).


Ida Bagus Made Oka Suriya

-IDA BAGUS: Indicates a male in the Brahmana Caste

-MADE: Indicates he is the second born in his family.

-OKA SURIYA: According to Oka, this means “sun” although there isn’t a direct literal translation.

As we took a break from sanding masks one day, Oka and Anom told me about how traditionally in Bali the last two parts of a person’s name would be determined by the Balinese calendar as well as various traditions that changed from village to village. However, today it is becoming more and more a question of personal taste (like the family that wanted to give their child the American name of “Robert”).

Oka and Anom think that the naming traditions of Mas have remained fairly consistent and are commonly practiced in other villages as well. Naming in Mas takes place at the baby’s three month ceremony. (As a side note, although there are many ceremonies that happen in Bali when a person is x months old, a month by the Balinese calendar is 35 days, so at a baby’s three month ceremony in Bali, under an American calendar, the baby is actually about 3 ½ months old).

In most places in Bali, the three month ceremony is when the baby’s feet touch the ground for the very first time. In some villages it is also the time when female babies get their ears pierced. And in some villages, like Mas, it is when they give the baby a full name. At the beginning of the ceremony, families write out the alphabet on a piece of paper and set a small candle burning on top of each letter. In the end, whatever letter burns the longest is traditionally the first letter of the baby’s name. Other candles that last a while may also be included in the baby’s name. However, there are exceptions. As Anom told me, if an “L” and an “R” and an “A” were left burning, the baby probably wouldn’t be named “Lara” because in Indonesian this name is associated with homelessness. As Anom explained it, the family could choose something similar, like “Lana”, even if it doesn’t match the candles exactly.

Another tradition I recently learned about seems to vary not by village but by caste. A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gusti’s wife, Tika. While Gusti led a drum circle we chatted in the Ubud football field and she gave me lots of useful information about Balinese names and her own multiple names.

Kartika Utami

Tika told me names are immensely important in Bali. She herself has a Sanskrit name (meaning star) but all of her younger siblings have Balinese names. She said that all of her siblings fell ill as children and a Priest told her parents it was because the Balinese names were not right for their family; they should have been given Sanskirt names as well.

Tika has multiple names that change depending on the context. Her husband Gusti is of a higher caste than her and his family lives outside of Ubud in small village. She says when she visits Gusti’s family in the village, everything is more formal and traditional. She says that she doesn’t wear jeans there and she has to try to speak a more formal version of Balinese. She also goes by a different name. Because she was born into a lower caste, it would be rude to refer to Tika, now Gusti’s wife, by the same name that she was born with. When she married Gusti, she underwent a naming process that was similar to what would happen at a ceremony for the three month old baby. Using the alphabet and candles, Gusti’s family decided on calling her “Jro Puspa” which she translated to mean “House Flower.” Everytime she sees her in-laws she says, “Don’t worry, please just call me Tika” but if they actually did, it would be very rude. At their house, as a form of respect, she is Jro.

Tika spoke very kindly of her in-laws. She says she is extremely grateful to them. She told me, within two minutes of meeting her, about her uterine cancer and the fact that she probably won’t be able to have children. She told me that most Balinese in-laws would have told their son to divorce her by now. She seems constantly surprised and grateful that Gusti has stayed with her for eight years without children.

I’ve found that in Bali, children are everything. Within minutes of meeting you, people will ask how many children you have. If you don’t have any, they immediately say, “Why not?” If a couple is dealing with infertility it is expected they will adopt. My Bahasa Indonesian teacher explained that this is because in Bali children are said to be the ones who will pull you to another life when you die. Because your children will still be on earth, they act as your connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. If you don’t have children, it will be snakes who pull you to another life.

For Tika, the name “Jro Puspa” and the fact that her in-laws insist on using that name of respect for her is increasingly significant because she feels that she has, in some ways, failed as a wife to their son. The name “Jro” becomes more meaningful to her as she searches for their approval and because of this, she is happy to give up the name “Tika” when she is at their house.

I am becoming familiar with the idea here that a person is destined to a name—that the gods will control what candle is burning longest, that in marriage, a new name has been waiting for you. If someone only has two children, it is thought that the other two children necessary to complete the birth order cycle (Koming/Nyomen and Ketut) are lost somewhere in the universe.

The spelling of names is not particularly important (several times I’ve been given different spellings of someone’s own name by them) and sometimes they are not quite sure of the meaning of the name. What seems to matter more is how the name has chosen, who it has come to stand for, and the relationship and context it is rooted in. A name does not exist without a person.

All things considered, I could not help but smile this week in my Bahasa Indoensian class when we learned how to ask someone their name. “Siapa nama anda?” does not literally mean “What is your name?” but “Who is your name?”

An altogether more appropriate question.



  1. Such interesting stuff! I love the literal translation of 'siapa nama anda'. The different attitudes to names and what they signify -- whether they are a parental gift, or a destiny, is fascinating. It's something I discuss briefly in the intro to my book, but I wish I could explore it in more depth. The method of burning letters to guide a parent to the right name is beautiful.

  2. Thanks so much! What is your book? I'd love to read it once I get back to the U.S.! I really appreciate your input here and I'm flattered you're reading.

  3. You're welcome, Nell! I'm finding it truly absorbing reading. The practice of naming and how it varies across cultures and different periods of history is such an intruguing area of anthropology.

    My book is called Llewellyn's Complete Book of Names, and all being well will be out in December (I have just received the proofs - got a lot of work to do!).