Love

In Bali, Love Is Not Easy if You Fall for Someone From a Different Caste

The Hindu caste system still plays a huge role in Bali, where some couples are now fighting for their love.
JP
translated by Jade Poa
February 28, 2020, 8:42am
bali marriage outside caste
Balinese wedding via PHXERE/Public domain

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.

At the age of 16, Balinese Ayu Tribuana Tungga Dewi had to decide if she wanted to stay a part of her family or be with the man of her dreams. She couldn’t have both. Because her family adhered to the strict Hindu caste system, they would never let her marry a man from another class.

“My father, my aunts, and my own siblings said that if anything happens after I marry him, they won’t welcome me back home,” the now mother of two told VICE. Despite her family’s threats, she married her non-Balinese husband, losing the status her elite Ksatria caste afforded her.

Ayu’s decision is referred to as “nyerod” in the Balinese language, which means to move down in the caste system. By doing this, a woman loses access to her family’s temple, among other privileges.

The caste system in Bali started out as an indicator of one’s profession. The Brahmana caste consisted of religious figures, while the Ksatria caste worked in government. Those who belonged to the Waisya caste were merchants, while farmers and laborers fell under the Sudra caste. Non-Balinese people, like Ayu’s husband, are casteless. As time went by, the caste system on the “Island of the Gods” evolved into a complex hierarchy.

Another indicator of class is one’s first name. Ida Bagus and Ida Ayu are common names among Brahmanas.

Ayu is a native Balinese, but the caste system just isn’t for her. “Marriage is a matter of the heart. I don’t want to wait around for a suitor from my own caste,” she said. “Your caste won’t determine your happiness.”

Luckily, Ayu’s family didn’t keep their word. She still has a good relationship with them, and they’ve slowly come to accept her husband.

Because of the restrictive caste system, it’s common for Balinese couples to elope. In this case, couples usually leave Bali and return married. Some don’t return for decades.

Like Ayu, Teddy Wijaya Kusuma is a Ksatria who strongly opposes the caste system. As the son of a Ksatria father and a Sudra mother, he witnessed firsthand how the system justified discrimination.

As a child, Teddy was forbidden from praying at the temple at his mother’s family’s home. When his uncle passed away, he was not allowed to bathe the body in accordance with Balinese tradition. “When a Balinese person dies, it’s customary to bathe the body. They didn’t let me, even though I was close to him,” Teddy told VICE.

Teddy went on to marry a casteless, ethnically Chinese woman named Maesy. Unlike Ayu, Teddy did not have to renounce his caste. Instead, his wife joined his caste.

Women who marry into a higher caste must change their first name to “Jero,” just as Teddy’s mother had done. But Teddy didn’t want that for his wife. “I told my family ‘no, her name will stay Maesy.’”

Maesy also remained a Catholic, choosing not to convert to her husband’s religion, Hinduism, as is common among inter-religious couples in Indonesia. “But Maesy still prays with me at my temple, as a form of respect to my ancestors.”

Teddy and Maesy married in 2013. Instead of being married by a Hindu or Catholic priest, they chose to have their marriage officiated by a Muslim ustad from the Happy Indonesia Foundation, an institution dedicated to marrying couples without requiring either of them to convert. The Indonesian government is notorious for putting interreligious couples through a labyrinth of bureaucracy.

“At the time, they asked us who we wanted to officiate our ceremony. I said I liked the man behind this foundation, 'let him do it!'” They exchanged their vows in Jakarta, then returned to Bali for a ceremony at the temple.