Did you know that to a Balinese person, north will almost always be in the direction of the sacred volcano Mount Agung? This means that if you ask a local person for directions when you are north of Mount Agung, say in Lovina, they are very likely to tell you that north is south and south is north. Confused yet?
In Balinese culture, orientation is an important part of day to day life, a fundamental element in religion and an integral part of who you are and where you belong in the world. It determines how you build your house, which direction you pray and even how you sleep at night. Although the Balinese believe that there are eight cardinal directions, each of which represents a different god, the most important directions are kaja and kelod.
Kaja means up, north or towards the mountain. Balinese Hindus believe that the gods reside above us, in heaven and on Mount Agung, so anything that is kaja has positive connotations. On the other hand, kelod means below, south or towards the sea. This direction is considered rather negative, as the Balinese believe that evil spirits live in the underworld and in the sea. Thus, Balinese people consider kaja to be in the direction of the sacred Mount Agung, while kelod is considered towards the sea.
Kaja and Kelod play a huge role in spatial planning, from humble family homes to entire villages. In nearly every family compound in Bali, the family temple and ancestral shrine are found in the northeast corner of the property. The sleeping quarters for the head of the family will also be kaja, or in the north. Dirty areas like the kitchen, bathroom, waste area or pigsty will always be kelod. This extends to the village, where the Pura Puseh (temple of origin) will be in the north, while the Pura Dalem (temple of the dead or impure) will always be south.
Even when sleeping, the Balinese are very particular about directions. They believe that your head is the highest and purest point of your body, and as such, it should be pointing north or east when at rest. Your feet are the lowest point of the body and considered dirty, so it is only fitting that they should point south or west while sleeping. In fact, many Balinese believe that if you sleep with your feet pointing in the wrong direction, you will incur the wrath of the gods and bring bad luck upon yourself.
Kaja and kelod are just two ways to orient yourself in Bali. The Balinese also have many other beliefs when it comes to directions, spatial orientation and their exact position in the community, on earth and in the cosmos as a whole. This sense of direction is what grounds people here, and without it, many feel lost, disoriented or out of sync with their environment. If you begin to feel the same, just look for the family temples and shrines, as they will always be facing kaja, or towards the mountain.