I recently had the pleasure of having a more formal interview with Dewa, a man who works at a hotel outside Ubud in the village of Keliki. I had been receiving so much information from different people about various naming traditions and customs in Bali and Dewa was able to help me put it all together. I also discovered my earlier research needed some revisions and clarification. Some points of interest:
RELIGIOUS TRADITION: Dewa told me that before Hinduism came to Bali (which happened in the 11th century) animism was widely practiced. In this tradition, names were not differentiated by caste but by profession. As in many European traditions, people were called by their occupation and it wasn’t until a caste system was put in place here (with the advent of Hinduism) that names stopped being this way. For the first time, names (at least part of people’s names) because something that was inherited.
BIRTH ORDER NAMES & CASTE: As four castes developed, it became widely known which families were Brahmana, Kesatria and Weisa (the first three castes) and family names became important as a way of showing status. Not only did names begin to involve caste indicators (for example I/Ni, Ida Bagus/Ida Ayhu) but also those in the top three castes began to use a family name to differentiate themselves. These family names were inserted before the birth order names, whereas everyone in the Sudra caste (today 95% of the population) used birth order names alone. Some examples to explain the difference:
I Dewa Nyoman Sudiasa : “I” indicates he is a male in a lower caste but because he has a family name “Dewa” it is clear that he has relatives who were in a higher caste and is therefore not Sudra. “Nyoman” means he is the third in his family, and “Sudiasa” is the name I’ve termed the “creative name” and Dewa himself calls the “real name.”
If Dewa was not from a higher caste, he wouldn’t have a family name, and would just go by “Nyoman”; his full name would be “I Nyoman Sudiasa.” It is very interesting to me that if you’re of a higher caste, you’re identified by what family you’re from (Dewa, Gusti, Pande, etc…) but if you’re in a lower caste, you’re called by your birth order name WITHIN that family (Wayan, Kadek, Komang, Ketut). This differentiation explains a lot. I also learned that if someone goes by one of these birth order names, it means they’re of the Sudra caste. If they go by a name like “Dewa” or “Gusti” or “Pande” it means they’re of a higher caste, and in politeness, they should be called by this family name rather than their birth order name.
It also turns out that the birth order names which vary slightly (as I’ve discussed before), also depend on caste. High castes use Putu (meaning “highest”) for their first born, and then Made, Nyoman and Ketut follow. The lower caste uses Wayan (meaning “oldest”) for their first born and then Kadek, Komang and Ketut.
[Side note: I also learned that the reason there are 4 birth order names is because when Hinduism came to Bali in the 11th century, the King said that 4 children was the ideal family size. Today, most Balinese parents are told to use family planning for two children only and, similar to the United States, most families only have two or three kids.]
THE CREATIVE NAME: Dewa referred to what I’ve been dubbing the “creative name” as “the real name” although,h as he explained, and I had noticed, people don’t use that part of their name except if it is in a formal ,written context (governmental paper, in an office, etc….) Dewa also told me these “real names” are also the ones used when children are in school. As he explains it, this is because “at school there is no caste. We are all Indonesian.” He confirmed that this name is indeed chosen at the three month ceremony. I was incorrect, however, in saying that this is when who the baby is reincarnated as is revealed. This actually takes place earlier once the umbilical chord falls off.
At the three month ceremony, however, (at least in Keliki) guests come with ideas for a name (often having to do with the time of the birth, who the baby is a reincarnation of, etc…) These names are then each written under a stick of incense, and, as I’ve written about before, the name that burns the longest is chosen. In some villages, the name that burns out fastest and the name that holds out the longest are both used.
Dewa thinks that doing things this way makes them very democratic. He said it shouldn’t be up to him what his children’s names are. He is only their father. It’s thought that the spirit who the baby is the reincarnation of is the one who makes the sticks of incense burn; essentially, it is a way of letting this spirit choose the name. In a way, if the baby is thought to be the reincarnation of the spirit who is doing this, it is an indirect way of letting the baby choose her own name.
To make this a little more concrete, Dewa explained that his son is named I Dewa Made Leo Artawa.
I (male, lower caste)
Dewa (his family name which indicates he has relatives of a higher caste)
Leo (because of his astrological sign)
Artawa (Meaning “rich man”).
Leo and Artawa were both names that were suggested by Dewa’s neighbors and were chosen with the incense because they burned out at exactly the same time.
THE UNNAMED: I asked Dewa what people call a baby for the first three months of the baby’s life before they are named. He told me all babies are called “I Barak” which means “blood.” While that seems a rather dark name to call your newborn, Dewa explained that this name is given because for the first three months of her life, the baby is still owned by the spirit they are a reincarnation of. The three month ceremony is the first time the baby’s feet touch the ground and this is an indication that now she belongs to this world, and subsequently, belongs to her family. She has gone from being just “blood” to being human. Dewa explained to me that in Bali, if a baby dies before three months people are “sad but not very sad” because she did not belong to this world yet.
My friend and fellow Watson fellow, Sara, is training as a midwife in an amazing clinic in Nyuh Kuning here and told me a story that relates to my project. On one of her first days at the clinic, once a mom delivered, she asked her what the baby’s name was. The mother just laughed and said “Belum! Belum!” In Bahasa Indonesia, “belum” means “not yet”, because, of course, the baby would be “I Barak” until the three month ceremony. Sara, not knowing this tradition or any Bahasa Indonesia yet, responded, “Belum! Indah!” As in, “Belum! That’s a beautiful name.”
I am slowly putting the pieces together from my informal interviews and am realizing how much farther I have to go. Just as I start to think I understand something, it seems the rules and traditions are constantly changing and are also anything but arbitrary. I’m looking forward to spending the next three weeks getting more solidity and clarity, and, most of all, listening to more stories.
p.s. Many thanks to Dewa for giving me permission to share our conversation with you.