Beliefs / Indonesia / Travel

It Takes a Village: Not a Cliché in Bali

Balinese father and baby

Bali’s traditions for newborn babies have been called “weird and astonishing” and “ a gorgeous birth culture,” but regardless of descriptions, these customs provide travelers with a fascinating look into a complex culture.

In all societies babies are special, but the deeply traditional Hindus on this tiny island believe that a newborn baby is … very special. Newborns are believed to be godlike – halfway between the spiritual and earthly world. And they’re a vessel for the spirit of an ancestor. So infants aren’t just a welcome addition to the family, they’re also an important spiritual link to the past.

It’s not hard to imagine the sort of care and attention a godlike child receives, but the most striking tradition is that the baby’s feet must not be allowed to touch the impure ground until it’s 105 days old. This means that for three months, the baby is constantly held in someone’s loving arms: the father, mother, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and even neighbors. Basically, everyone in the village helps to make sure the baby’s feet don’t touch the ground. Remember the phrase “It takes a village?” Nowhere I know proves this principle better than Bali.

“For millions of years a woman had much more than just her husband to help rear her young … This whole idea of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is exactly how we’re supposed to live.” –Helen Fisher – Biological Anthropologist

Ceremonial bathing of Balinese baby

“Ceremonial bathing of a baby by a Balinese priest. This ceremony is performed when the child is three months old. The child is being given new clothing and a name.” Courtesy of the Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikimedia Commons

After 105 days, a special ground-touching ceremony called the Nyabutan is held where the baby touches Mother Earth for the first time. At this elaborate ceremony the baby is officially welcomed to the family as a real human being, and its name, which was picked on day 42, is also announced.

What wonderful peace of mind it must be for parents knowing there’s always someone willing to hold and watch over their baby. And whether you believe the spiritual side of this tradition or not, there’s no denying the benefit this nurturing provides the child.

Every day we see religion used as a weapon. It warms my soul to see something different.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S. For a look inside an actual Nyabutan, this video will make you smile.

64 thoughts on “It Takes a Village: Not a Cliché in Bali

    • Also, I suspect that in the long term, all the extended family benefits from a tradition like this. This process must certainly vest everyone in the well-being of the child as well as bond the family. ~James

  1. This is just absolutely beautiful. My heart is warmed by the knowledge that there are traditions like these that exist in the world. Thank you so very much for sharing, Terry and James. (Somehow, I will get to Bali!) 🙂

    • Gilda, I don’t know how far back this tradition goes, but ultimately, I think that this is what villages are all about: a shared interest and bond. And if it starts with the children, then it should carry across generations. ~James

    • Thanks Danni. For us, one of the rewards of travel is learning. And when the knowledge gained is as heart-warming as this childcare tradition, it’s all that more special. ~James

  2. I wonder what the significance of 105 days is? It’s wonderful to see these rituals carried on through generations. Today it seems there is a shortcut for everything, religion included.

    • Laura, all these dates are tied to the Balinese calendar. On their calendar, a month is 5 weeks instead of 4. The ceremony takes place when the baby is 3 months old, so that equals 105 days. Children are important in Bali (and many other Eastern cultures) because they are expected to take care of the parents when they get old. Seems fair to me. ~James

    • Lexie, I’ve never heard of this tradition anywhere else, and it is fascinating. The Hindus on Bali have melded lots of beliefs into their religion, and while it may sound strange to Westerners, it sounds like an excellent and effective idea. ~James

  3. After five years, I still don’t quite tire of observing these ceremonies, each time learning more about, and going deeper into, their rituals and beliefs; it’s an endless peeling of the onion. Beautiful story and images, thanks T & J!

    • Thanks Amit. I’m envious of your ability to be a part of these special occasions. I’ve read a couple of blog posts by foreigners attending these ceremonies, and they look wonderful. As a traveler, it’s so endearing when a local takes you under their wing to experience a special part of their life. Very endearing indeed. ~James

  4. As new grandparents I find this post particularly beautiful. How fabulous for new parents to be constantly surrounded by such support and encouragement. I do have one question and that is by not touching the ground does that include not being put down in a bassinet to sleep?
    You know I am a big fan of your blog but this one left me a bit weepy. Such a special tradition I was not aware of.

    • Sue, with a new grand child I can believe that this post would tug at your heart strings, and I’m sure that it’s more meaningful to you and Dave because you’re an important part of a support network for your new grand daughter. As for the process, the big deal is that the earth is impure for a god, so it’s not allowed to touch the earth until it’s a human being (at 105 days). My understanding is that the baby can sleep as normal, but if it’s awake and moving about, it is being held by someone. It’s funny about this post. I’ve had it in mind for a long time, and basically, it’s one of those travel discoveries that was impossible NOT to write about. ~James

      • Well wonderful timing for us that’s for sure James. Glad to hear the baby gets to sleep as normal. It would be quite the task for the village to hold the child 24 hours a day! So special. All babies will want to be born in Bali. 🙂

  5. What a beautiful tradition, one that is filled with such love for new life. Thank you for sharing James & Terri, a lovely way to star the week!

    • Thanks Lynn. As I said to Sue Slaght, this was such an amazingly positive topic that we just felt a need to get the message out there. It’s such a hopeful and heartwarming tradition and it’s a clear message that we can be kind and supportive to each other – a message that everyone needs today. ~James

    • I’d never heard of this custom before visiting Bali, but the more I researched it, the more I liked it. One of the first things that struck me in Bali is how they live their faith everyday, and this is a touching example. There’s a huge lesson here for the rest of us. ~James

    • Thanks Amy. You’re not alone, because I had never of this wonderful tradition until we visited Bali. It’s heartening to know that customs like this still go on somewhere. ~James

  6. I probably had three stubbed toes by the time I was 105 days old, James. Or at least bruised knees. I like the god idea in that nobody seems to live in the moment, be as open to the world and be as nonjudgmental as a baby. –Curt

    • Curt, the Balinese live very close to the earth, and they have much to teach us about what’s important. Spiritual considerations aside, this tradition has so many positive aspects. I guess that a similar thing went on in the US with the large, extended family farms in the 19th and 20th Centuries. ~James

      • For sure, James. Having lived in a nuclear family forever, I’ve never experienced the large, extended family. But having lived in other cultures, I’ve seen it. Not sure I would adjust now. How about you? –Curt

      • Curt, my parents left to farm to come to town, and I grew up in the city. I left home to go to college, and have pretty much been on the road ever since. So no, I couldn’t make the adjustment either. ~James

  7. With quality of new lives held in such respect, would it be logical to also conclude that with the help of their beliefs, birth rates are kept at a “sustainable” level?

    • That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure how to answer. But, I can say that most people in Bali are of modest means, and I can’t imagine that they can support huge numbers of children. Also, children are more than just a way to carry on the family line because they are expected to take care of the parents in their old age. ~James

    • Thanks Ginette. There was a time in many places in the west, at least in the US, when extended families stayed together out of necessity, and shared responsibility was the norm. Not so much these days, but this tradition shows that there are obvious advantages to this way of life. ~James

  8. Thanks for sharing this tradition, James. It’s so foreign to many of us very mobile Americans who make cross-country (and in our case international moves) as the spirit moves us. I can’t help but reflect upon the tremendous sense of security a child would feel growing up surrounded by so many generations who love him as well as the love and care someone would receive during their last years. Lovely! Anita

    • Anita, Terri and I left our home towns and families to go away to college, and until our recent move back to KY, we’ve pretty much been out there on our own. We both have loving families that may not have totally related to our lifestyle, but were supportive nonetheless. Our lifestyle has caused us to miss some important family stuff, but luckily, travel and communications have gotten so much easier for travelers that visiting and staying in touch with family gets better every day. As expats, I’m sure that you can relate. But in the meantime, there are people out there, like the Balinese, that are taking care of it for us. ~James

  9. How wonderful. I find the Spanish people are so much more family oriented than the British and North Americans. Children don’t stay home with babysitters but rather attend everything the parents do. They are considered very important instead of a nuisance. It is so refreshing. We attended, by accident, a baby’s christening where the baby’s feet were placed in the icing of the cake. Since we had very limited Spanish we couldn’t ask much about it but we did understand it was a tradition. The family so graciously included us in the celebration.

    • Sylvia, this is one of those posts that just gives me a good feeling. Regardless of the religious aspects, this tradition makes sense for so many reasons. I’m sure that it will never happen, but I would love to see a sociological study done on how these kids turn out as adults. ~James

  10. What strikes me is how very much this custom evokes small town Iowa life was while I was still a child. Granted, no one was worrying about feet touching the floor. On the other hand, it was assumed that, if any adult in town noticed a child who was misbehaving, or who needed help, there was no need to call parents, police, or the school psychologist. (There weren’t any of those, now that I think of it.)

    When I wanted to go into my wading pool and the water was a little cool, it was a neighbor who would notice, heat water in a kettle, and bring it over to warm things up. It was a teacher who noticed my poor eyesight, and a teacher who went with me to the cemetery after my first “real” boyfriend drowned during our grade school years. And it was the school janitor who came upon six of us sharing a bottle of beer and marched every one of us, one by one, to our homes for discipline.

    So, yes. Some people say the 1950s were boring, stultifying, and narrow-minded, but I didn’t experience them that way. The sense of security was boundless. I’m sure that the children of this village grow up with the same sense.

    As for naming — I learned a saying in Liberia that hints at a different sort of reality: “Don’t name the child until the measles has passed.”

    • Linda, your comment has certainly taken me to a time and place in my own life. I also grew up in a small, 1950s town and it was much as you describe. Certain behaviors were just “expected” and everyone stepped forward to make sure that things stayed on track. One of my biggest memories was the emphasis on good manners. It was pounded into my head by my parents, and woe unto me if I slipped up and said No, instead of No Sir. It was just one of those times when I just did what I was told, without really appreciating what it meant. Good manners are old-fashioned these days, and I don’t expect to be Yes Sir. But I must admit, it makes me smile to be around a kid with good manners. ~James

  11. Pingback: Stress Less Babies Mean Productive Citizens Later | Baby and Toddler blog with information related to babies and toddlers.

    • Rusha, this is such an interesting tradition to be hard-wired into a culture. It’s beneficial to the entire family in so many ways. But, having said that, I can’t imagine the family devotion it takes to to pull it off. ~James

    • What a wonderful idea this is Rusha, and what a beneficial tradition. I can believe the incredible family benefits, but it must take a huge amount of devotion on everyone’s part to pull it off. ~James

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