Crossing borders: stories of intercaste marriages in Bali

Once punishable by death, intercaste marriages leave a complex legacy for modern Balinese.

Raka Ibrahim

Raka Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post


Community: A Balinese marriage is not simply a union of two individuals – but a community affair. Hence, any disruption to cultural norms is not always taken well. (JP/Anggara Mahendra) (JP/Anggara Mahendra)

May 27, 2022

JAKARTA – Once punishable by death, intercaste marriages leave a complex legacy for modern Balinese. Faced with stigma, cultural erasure and economic precarity, the brave few who marry beyond their station have a myriad of stories to tell.

“I married my husband for love,” declared Nengah, a 47-year-old civil servant who refused to reveal her real name. “And in spite of everything, I knew we were in the right. He was my karma. Our meeting was meant to be.”

Sixteen years of marriage and two teenage daughters later, Nengah could reflect on a path well-taken. But flashback a couple of decades and a completely different picture emerges. Her marriage was violently opposed by her extended family, was almost made impossible by centuries of tradition and necessitated her making big changes to her life.

Her only crime? Coming from a different caste to her husband.

Nengah is one of many Balinese women who went against the grain to perform a nyerod marriage –a deep-rooted and almost derogatory term for a union between two people of different castes. Once forbidden on pain of death and governed by rules that are violently imposed, nyerod marriages are still an uncommon and uncomfortable phenomenon on the island.

As the only place in Indonesia with a Hindu majority, the caste system and its opposition to intermixing is still widely practiced in Bali – though its minutiae are notably different from its Indian counterpart. They no longer face capital punishment, but modern perpetrators of nyerod still find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

In the best-case scenario, they face awkward family dinners and alienation from their roots. In the worst-case scenario, they must contend with persistent stigma and economic displacement.

A history of separation

“The Balinese caste system adopts the Indian system,” explained I Nyoman Yoga Segara, an anthropologist and author of Perkawinan Nyerod, one of the definitive books on nyerod marriages. “The three castes at the top are the brahmana, or the priests; the ksatria, or the warrior class and the waisya, or the merchants.”

Collectively, people born into these castes are known as the triwangsa, while the rest of the populace is called the jaba, (outsiders). “Historically, the jaba were people who lived outside of the immediate governance of the kingdoms or outside the palace grounds,” Segara explained. True to their name, the jaba are mostly relegated to the margins of society and are constantly reminded of their place on the sidelines.

Like most Balinese, Agha Praditya – a jaba man – had an early introduction to the pains of finding love within the confines of this caste system. “My first serious girlfriend was a triwangsa, and her parents vehemently opposed our relationship,” the 26-year-old musician explained. “One time, her much older brother came to me and physically assaulted me. It was intense!”

Solemn: A traditional Balinese wedding in Denpasar. Suffused in centuries-old tradition and uniting communities, it is bound by complex rules, such as the taboo against intercaste marriages. (JP/Anggara Mahendra). (JP/Anggara Mahendra)

That foiled first affair scarred him, leading him to believe that relationships with a woman of caste “will never lead anywhere.” Much to his surprise, his lowborn mother harbored similar trauma. “Before she met my father, she was in a serious relationship with a man of [high] caste,” he recalled. “They had started a business together and wanted to get married, but it ended at the last hurdle because his family didn’t approve.”

Beyond his family’s personal foibles, there are deeper cultural reasons behind Agha’s recurring romantic failures. For centuries, Balinese people who committed nyerod marriage were punished by drowning at sea. Things have obviously changed, but even today, the stigma against dating outside of your station still rankles many.

“Marrying inside the triwangsa was considered a way to keep your bloodline pure,” Segara said. “If you married a jaba, your blood was considered dirty.”

Beyond questions of purity, marrying within your caste was also a good way to retain and develop power. As Bali is a patrilineal society, it is taboo for a woman of caste to marry a non-caste man as she would lose the family name, her vaunted social status and consequently her family’s grip on power and dominance.

“By outlawing marriages between triwangsa women and jaba men, economic and political power stays within the palaces and its royal families,” Segara continued. “There’s even a common saying that a woman of caste marrying a jaba man is akin to her carrying a dog on a throne, while the jaba man is likened to someone who stepped over the head of a holy person.”

The elephant in the room, of course, is when a triwangsa man marries a jaba woman, a union is considered merely inappropriate rather than forbidden. Instead of being thrown to the sea, ceremonies can simply be performed to elevate the woman to a higher caste to signify her joining the family. This means that not only was there a legacy of class (or rather, caste) struggles for Balinese youths to contend with, women in particular face extra pressure to find the right partner.

It was a problem that vexed Tisha Sara, a 29-year-old woman from the ksatria caste, as she contemplated adulthood. Her father, a respected architect, is indifferent about their high standing, and encouraged her to find her identity beyond her caste. But for her conservative mother and extended family, caste was “a serious matter.” Growing up, she said, her grandmother even forbade her from eating from the same plate as jaba kids.

“In my mother’s head, if I ended up marrying a non-caste person, I would be excluded from the family,” Tisha said. “I won’t be able to perform ceremonies with the family, I won’t be able to eat certain foods that are forbidden for non-castes. It’s scary for her.”

So, imagine the shock and horror when she announced that her husband-to-be was none other than non-caste Agha himself.

Nengah laughs when she remembers her own complicated courtship with her now-husband. “He is from Singaraja [a region in North Bali], and people from there are famously egalitarian, so he didn’t really mind the caste difference,” she recalled. “Out of everyone who liked me, he was the only one who dared to come to my house and directly tell my mother that he intended to marry me.”

Nengah’s old-school family was initially put off by her husband-to-be’s forthrightness, which nearly bordered on insolence. “My older brother was particularly angry at him,” Nengah said. “He kicked him out of the house because he thought he was too daring. But my husband-to-be didn’t give up. In fact, he said he would bring his family from Singaraja to ask for my hand in marriage.”

What sealed the deal, though, was a heart-to-heart conversation with her mother. “She asked me if this was serious, and I said yes,” Nengah said. “I know I loved him. I know I was right. I know I had to pick a path for my life. And I thought, I had to be brave enough to accept him.”

Her mother simply reminded her that the path home was always open, and the two were married within the year.

Growing pains

Over the 20th century, a series of reforms by the colonial and national government rolled back the status of nyerod marriages as an absolute taboo. Initially, the punishment was downgraded to lifetime banishment – often to the neighboring island of Lombok. Then, in 1974, the central government introduced a Marriage Law that sealed the fate of nyerod’s previous legal limbo.

“It’s no longer forbidden, and gradually it no longer became taboo either,” Segara concluded. “It’s simply an inconvenience.”

Unfortunately for some, it is an inconvenience many have not learned to live with. When Tisha and Agha got married five years ago, they knew nobody would openly oppose their union, as Tisha’s father was respected within his community. “But we know they all talk behind our backs,” Tisha sighed.

Gradually, the couple realized their strange alienation. “One day we were out shopping, and we accidentally ran into a relative of Tisha’s who is, culturally, a Queen in a Denpasar kingdom,” Agha recalled. “She asked Tisha who her husband was, Tisha said it was me, and she just gazed at me up and down with disgust.”

Tisha laughed. “Her lips were quivering!” she said. “It’s just like in the soap operas.”

There is also the small matter of her name. Like all Balinese, Tisha has an honorific name that denotes her caste. In her case it was Anak Agung, often shortened to Gung. Even in the most egalitarian environments, people are encouraged to refer to their social superiors by their honorifics. And as Tisha had renounced her caste by marrying a jaba, she (and all her future offspring) lost her honorific title.

Grandeur: The triwangsa (three top castes of Balinese society) are vaunted in Balinese society and oft-associated with lavish ceremonies–such as the funeral of King Ida Cokorda Pemecutan XI of Bali, in January. (AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka) (AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka)

“In several regions, women who renounce their title by marrying a jaba must undergo the patiwangi, a ceremony to symbolically “murder” the fragrance of high caste,” Segara explained. “But because it’s often conducted in squares in full view of the entire village, it’s subtly used as a way of humiliating the woman, too.”

Tisha, however, found cultural inertia rather than humiliation. “During a dinner where my triwangsa extended family gathered, nobody called out to me,” Tisha said. “They don’t know what to call me anymore because they can’t call me ‘Gung’ again. So they stuck to small talk. I thought, does it run that deep? I wasn’t part of their caste anymore, and suddenly for them I was nameless.”

“Being a triwangsa was all they knew. It was their entire identity,” she continued. “So seeing me, who renounced all that, was strange for them. They felt a sense of pity for me because they didn’t know any better. Most of them live very sheltered lives. They keep to themselves and they keep to their kind.”

This sea change affected Agha as well. His family is at constant loggerheads with Tisha’s family, as Tisha’s family insists on the couple performing ceremonies and providing offerings befitting of a triwangsa family–instead of the simpler, more compact offerings known to jaba families. Then there’s the not-so-small matter of their current economic and living situation.

Financial precarity is a topic that is rarely broached in conversations about inter-caste marriages, but it is often the dealbreaker. “Women who took the plunge and married a jaba are often already economically independent,” Segara said.

The reason is simple: safety nets. When a jaba woman is divorced or widowed, she can return to her family without question. When a triwangsa woman who has renounced her caste is divorced or widowed, she cannot return to her family.

“Her blood has mixed with the lower caste, so she’s no longer pure,” Segara explained. “It’s impossible for her family to take her back.” Though they are loath to consider such grim possibilities, financial health is a subject that weighs heavy on Tisha and Agha. As both work in the creative industry, employment is uncertain and fleeting.

At times, the realities created by this caused tension within their families. “We decided to live in a house owned by Tisha’s family, and my family protested because they said the woman should follow the man to his house instead,” Agha lamented. “But we just agreed it’s a better way to save money.”

Even work has become an issue for both their families. “There are times when Agha is more involved in the household and I’m the breadwinner,” Tisha said. “It’s a problem for his family, especially for his mother. But neither me nor Agha actually mind. We’re just trying to raise a family.” Painfully aware of their families’ complicated legacy, Agha and Tisha made the fateful decision of not awarding a Balinese name to their daughter. “We just want less confusion on her part about all this,” Tisha said. “If one day she wants to change her name, she can. We just think it’s better to be done with it.”

Despite these trials and tribulations, there is a belief that with time, even a supposedly misfit marriage can work out. Just ask Nengah. “I think people who marry outside their caste give themselves a hard time,” she concluded. “But things are less black and white now. If we’re happy in our marriage, that means more than our judgment to ourselves.” (*)

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