When I fell in love with Bali and moved here, I thought it wouldn’t be long before I was fluent in all the customs and traditions of my new home, after all, I was well travelled and had been to Bali many times before. How wrong I was! I pretty quickly realised that it would take me a lifetime or more to even attempt to fully understand the complexities and rules of the culture, the Hindu practices, and the delicate balance between traditional Bali and modern Bali.
But I wasn’t going to give up, and thought the best place to start was by making the effort to understand the names of the people I was becoming friends with, recognising what their names mean, and the importance of them. Our names are our identity, who we are, where we belong in the world, the tribe we’re from, and for the Balinese, their names also tell their story in very particular ways.
Traditionally first names were used to denote which order a child was born in, with subsequent names either denoting their place in society or having a special Hindu meaning. While family models are changing in Bali, families are welcoming in new cultures or moving away from traditional village lifestyles for work, and ideas about societal rankings are being challenged, this naming practice still remains important to many Balinese people.
The first born children, whether male or female, are called Wayan, Putu or Gede. Luh is also a common name but only for females. Second born children are Made or Kadek, third born children are Nyoman or Komang, while the fourth born child is called Ketut. Then if more children are born, it starts all over again but with another word attached to show Wayan is actually Wayan number 2, Wayan number 5, and so on.
Names such as Gusti, Dewa or Desak can denote families with aristocratic heritage. Ngurah and Agung are typical names of those with families whose heritage links to warriors or kings. The highest caste, or place in society, is that of the priest or higher religious status, with names such as Ida Bagus (male) and Ida Ayu (female).
Some parents then give their children another more personal name for example, Rai, or a name that means ‘strong’ or ‘good’ in the Hindu culture. For example Seti (short for Setiawan) means faithful and Dewi is a goddess. To help with establishing whether a name is male or female (if the personal name doesn’t help), an I gets added to the beginning of the male name and Ni is added to the female name.
Before when I had travelled to Bali, I had never thought much about the name of the airport - I Gusti Ngurah Rai. Now I can ‘decode’ it and understand it means, ‘I’ or male, Gusti meaning from a wealthy trader/land owner family, Ngurah meaning from kings or warriors, and Rai is the personal name. After you’ve read this, Google the actual person who the airport was named after – it’s a harrowing read about the Indonesian Revolution but explains a lot about the history and culture of Bali.
And I can now ‘translate’ the names of all the amazing friends that I have made here, and when I look at their names now, I see they match them perfectly!
Ni Made Setiasih is a dear friend on Lembongan who helped me get settled, introduced me to lots of people on the island and introduced me to the deliciousness of deep-fried jackfruit! Ni meaning female, Made meaning she number two child and Setiasih meaning of good faith.
Wayan is my Balinese angel. She takes care of me, and my four crazy hounds, plus any friends or family that come stay. She is kind, has a big heart and is a truly good person loved by everyone who meets her. Her name Ni Wayan Suyani means female, first born and names with Su at the beginning mean good. Her parents picked a perfect name for her.
Knowing what I know now about the complex Hindu naming system and the richness it gives to people’s names, it makes me wish my own name had a hidden, built-in meaning. I wonder if it’s too late to add on an extra name or two that means ‘lady with lots of dogs’!
By Clare - The Travellist.