The banjar is the village council-the community extension of
the house and family. Each Balinese village is divided into one or more
banjar, a cooperative association of neighbors who assist each other
in the preparation and financing of costly events. Each banjar swears
separate allegiances to certain temples, palaces, and holidays.
More than any other factor, the banjar has kept intact the Balinese way of life through the decline of the local adat princes and chieftains. banjar captured most of the administrative power the desa lost to the princes after the Dutch invasion, when land was divided among the people. Its importance persists even in the modern Indonesian state. The banjar today is the basic governmental unit of the village and is of immense help to the government in disseminating information and policy. Problems with family planning and development programs have occurred because civil officials from government agencies have sometimes miscalculated the social, ritual, and administrative power of the banjar.
Under the fast-paced veneer of Kuta and Legian, the network of banjar-based village life remains intact and inviolate. Westerners have yet to stir by the time all the banjar-prescribed sajen-sajen (offerings) have been made. Even the bustling metropolis of Denpasar is rigidly divided into its many constituent banjar.
Every adult belongs both to a desa and a banjar. Each household pays a subscription fee to its banjar. When a man marries, membership is compulsory; otherwise he's considered a moral and spiritual outcast, denied even the right to burial in the village cemetery. Some banjar obligations may be considered even more important than family ties. Each member exists less as an individual than as one thread in the social fabric of the banjar.
The banjar serves simultaneously as town council, tribunal, department of public works and welfare, and department of environment and sanitation. It's a cross between a masonic lodge, a town planning committee, and a church congregation. It galvanizes the community to prepare for and participate in major feasts, rites, and dance performances; it votes in a democratic manner on road and temple construction; lays you beneath the ground.
A man usually marries within his banjar and only takes on full status in the banjar when he has sired a child. Summoned by the beating of the kulkul drum, attendance of all household heads is required at regular evening meetings; absentees are fined. Since all decisions must be unanimous, new ideas take a long time to gain acceptance; in the meantime discussions proceed peacefully.
The banjar is a community of equals; before the banjar all castes are equal. The leader of the banjar, the klian, is elected by its members and approved through a medium by the gods. The klian is unpaid but for small gifts like extra rice, a small percentage of collected fines, or an interest in a banjar commercial venture. He may also be rewarded with rice fields close to an irrigation source.
It's common for the banjar to sponsor youth groups (sekehe teruna) with their own pavilions in the village common. Ceremonies and regular meetings every fortnight prepare young people for the responsibilities of full banjar membership.
The local youth may initiate programs of their own, meeting, say, every Sunday morning to clean the streets and temples. Young teen Balinese surfboard carriers on the Bukit Peninsula have created a banjar-style organization to fix prices and network among themselves.
Banjar Property and Duties
The banjar often owns its own rice fields, which are worked communally to provide food for banquets and to bring in cash revenues for the communal treasury. The family house is built upon banjar land. The banjar also maintains its own temple (pemaksan), spiritually its most important piece of property. The banjar's meeting hall or clubhouse (bale banjar) is an open pavilion with a large porch. Men often gather here during the evenings to fondle their fighting cocks, drink tuak, chat, gamble, and play cards. Each member takes a turn as cook or waiter. At night the bamboo platforms become long beds where villagers sleep, sardine-like, safe in the company of their fellows. Male villagers may spend more time in the banjar pavilion than at home.
With its own orchestra and dance troupe, banjar members practice gamelan or watch play rehearsals. The banjar's dancing properties-headdresses, masks, luxurious costumes-are stored in a nearby fireproof building called the gedong. The bale is provided with a kitchen fully stocked with pots, pans, knives, axes, and chopping blocks all available on loan to members who require them.
The banjar runs its own communal bank from which the villagers may borrow to buy farm equipment, cattle, or other necessities. All members are required to help one another with materials and labor. All labor is shared and work usually performed in pairs or groups. If members don't sign up for work assignments, a fine is imposed. The banjar supports and maintains village temples, ditches, markets, roads, and bathing places; handles taxation, cockfighting, divorces, and duck-herding; and helps to arrange and finance weddings, family celebrations, temple festivals, cremations, and community feasts. The banjar advises villagers on matters of religion, marriage, and morals, all regulated carefully by elected members. It's also responsible for the village graveyard, guaranteeing that the correct funerary rites are carried out, that corpses are disposed of properly.
The banjar can function as a vigilante committee to forcibly expel undesirables from a village. Its role as village police force accounts for Bali's extremely low crime rate; the island averages only one armed robbery per year. The banjar operates its own school for the arts, training new generations in a line that extends back through the centuries.
No other political system has yet broken through the patriarchal shield of the banjar, though increasingly its cohesiveness is weakened by consumerism, modern lifestyles, and the tourist industry. Many members now send a monetary contribution in lieu of their presence.