Religions in Southeast Asia – Dos and Don’ts

Religions in Southeast Asia – Dos and Don’ts

The first part of this series of articles was about Buddhism in Southeast Asia – the main religion in most countries in this region. We are writing these posts to enlighten you a little and above all to protect you from possible wrong behavior and embarrassing situations when travelling.

Hinduism in Bali/Southeast Asia: an overview and some rules of conduct

Today it is about Hinduism, which makes up a rather small percentage compared to the other religions. It is most common on the Indonesian island of Bali (more on this later in the article). It is therefore advisable, especially for a trip to Bali , to observe the rules of conduct.

General information on Hinduism in Southeast Asia

With around a billion followers, Hinduism is the third largest world religion and also one of the oldest. In contrast to most world religions, there is no official founder, because the religion has developed in this way over a long period of time. Hinduism is not the main religion in any of the Southeast Asian countries. Despite this, there are small Hindu minorities in almost every country in this region. These mainly include Singapore , Malaysia and Indonesia (Bali). But also in Thailand or Myanmar, albeit significantly less.

Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple on Penang Hill in Malaysia
Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple on Penang Hill in Malaysia

While Hinduism (as a mixed form with Mahayana Buddhism) was widespread in the Khmer Kingdom more than 1000 years ago , especially in what is now Cambodia, it hardly plays a role there today. World-famous temples such as Angkor Wat were once dedicated to Hindu temples or Hindu gods. Large parts of Indonesia were also influenced by Hinduism a long time ago. Even there you can still find the remains of this time with the Prambanan Temple . Prambanan is even one of the largest Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia.

Many Indians live in Singapore and Malaysia, who brought their traditions and also Hinduism to these countries. Accordingly, you will find Hindu temples in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and many other places in Malaysia. The best known are the Sri Mahamariamman in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Bangkok, for example, also has a beautiful temple for the Hindu minority in the Mariamman Temple (often called “Wat Khaek” among Thais).

Hindu figures and statues at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Prayer Hall in Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)
Prayer Hall in Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur

Hinduism in Bali

Hinduism is omnipresent in Bali and over 90% of the population are Hindus. You’ll see and smell it as soon as you set foot on Balinese soil, as even the airport buildings are full of incense sticks, offerings and Hindu statues.

Offerings at the Pura Puseh Temple in Batuan, Bali (Indonesia)
Offerings at the Pura Puseh Temple in Batuan, Bali

In Bali there is a special form of Hinduism that only exists there (and partly also in East Java/West Lombok ): the so-called Hindu Dharma religion. This is very complex and opaque. This is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism, with the Hindu elements naturally dominating. The Balinese believe in the existence of both gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the main gods) and demons. These live in the balance of good and evil and neither side is dominant because in Hindu Dharma belief there must be both opposites in the world. This order of the world and the universe is unshakable in Bali and is called “Dharma” and “Adharma”. Like Buddhism, Hinduism believes in karma/rebirth.

Ceremony at Pura Gunung Sari Temple on Lombok
Ceremony in the Pura Gunung Sari Temple on Lombok – the priest can be seen on the right

All over Bali you will find Hindu temples that are simply unique and even the smallest village has a “pura” (the Indonesian word for temple). Apparently there are about 20,000 temples in Bali ! There are also small shrines on every corner and even trees or rocks can be seen as the dwelling place of spirit beings. Here the animistic influences from the past become very clear. You can always recognize sacred objects by the yellow or checkered cloth, so you should not touch them.

Most families have a home temple, and the larger the temple, the wealthier the family. Well-known temples in Bali are, for example, Uluwatu (Pura Luhur Uluwatu) , Pura Tanah Lot , Pura Ulun Danu Bratan , Pura Tirta Empul or, one of the most important and holiest, Pura Besakih .

The Tanah Lot Water Temple in Bali (Pura Tanah Lot)
The Tanah Lot Water Temple in Bali

Each temple in Bali has a specific layout and is built strictly according to it. At the same time, the temples have towers/pagodas called “Meru”. The roofs of these Merus have a certain, odd number, depending on which being or god they are dedicated to. The main temples, with 11 Merus, are dedicated to the main gods of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu (Wisnu in Indonesian) and Shiva (Siwa). By the way, there is also a temple with 11 Merus on Lombok, the Pura Meru , because in the capital Mataram about 14% of the inhabitants are Hindus. This is particularly evident in the Cakranegara district .

The Pura Meru Temple on Lombok, Indonesia
The Pura Meru Temple in Lombok

If you have already been to Bali or at least seen photos of Bali, you must have immediately noticed the small bowls made of palm leaves. They are offerings and call themselves “Canang Sari” in Indonesian . The Balinese place them in front of houses, in temples and even on the side of the road every day to thank and appease both gods and demons for the balance in the world. It almost goes without saying that you shouldn’t step on them or touch them with your feet.

Canang Sari offerings in Bali, Indonesia
Found everywhere in Bali: Canang saris

Everyday life in Bali is shaped by religion, so Balinese holidays play an even more important role. The most famous holidays in Bali are Galungan and Nyepi . Nyepi is the Balinese New Year, which occurs around March. You can find more information about this in our blog article about Nyepi . On these days people go to the temple but also to the sea to pray and to appease the gods with offerings.

Dos and Don’ts in Hindu Temples

As in Buddhist temples, there are of course a few things to consider in Hindu temples. Always stick to it so you don’t put your foot in it.

Interior of the Pura Dalem Agung Temple in Bali
Pura Dalem Agung in Bali
  • There is a dress code in every Hindu temple in Bali : sarong or temple sash are always mandatory. For a small donation you can borrow a sarong or a sash. If you have your own sarong , you can use that as well.
  • Women are also required to wear a sarong. Of course it is a no-go to be dressed too provocatively in every temple, the shoulders should also be covered . You should never go to a temple or near a religious ceremony in a bikini .
  • In many Hindu temples, it is a policy to remove shoes or flip-flops , at least in the main prayer hall. This does not always apply to Balinese temples, as these are always open at the top/outdoors. Just pay attention to the signs or orientate yourself to the other visitors.
  • It is forbidden to take photos in some Hindu temples – please respect this if you do.
  • Also, do not photograph people praying or only with their consent.
  • Also, do not walk or stand in front of people who are praying.
  • If you are a woman on your period, never enter a Balinese temple! In general, any open wound on the body where blood can flow out is a prohibition on visiting the temple. Human blood in the temple grounds would lead to an elaborate religious cleansing process and possibly get you into a lot of trouble.
  • Certain areas may not be entered in Balinese temples , such as higher altars. In temples with many tourists this will probably also be signposted.
  • Never point your feet at people, images of gods or other sacred objects.
  • In Balinese temples there is always a priest (mangku) during a ceremony. It would be extremely rude if your head is not lower than the mangku’s. So always keep your head low and when you pass a priest, bow your head.
  • Don’t be loud, silly, or yell. Don’t do exaggerated (yoga) poses in front of Hindu statues of gods.
  • The swastika is not a swastika! It is a Hindu symbol of good luck that is quite common in Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist) temples.
  • Don’t tread on or touch the offerings.
  • Make a donation and don’t be stingy.
Swastika in a Balinese Hindu Temple on Lombok
Swastika in a temple
Hanuman statue on Langkawi, Malaysia
Hanuman statue on Langkawi, Malaysia

Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand (and partly other countries of the Southeast Asian mainland)

Also in Thai temples (e.g. in Wat Arun in Bangkok ) you can occasionally come across Hindu statues. This is often the friendly elephant god Ganesha , but images of Brahma are also common. A well-known Brahma statue in Bangkok is the Erawan Shrine . But why are there so many Hindu influences in a Buddhist country?

Basically, Buddhism and Hinduism are two different religions. But they do have some similarities and an overlapping cosmology, which is one reason. Roughly speaking, Buddhism arose out of Hinduism, as the founder , Siddhartha Gautama , now known as the Buddha himself, lived in northern India and first learned from Hindus. When he finally attained enlightenment, the Dharma came into being, the entire Buddhist law of existence and thus Buddhism. By the way: Buddha is also revered in Hinduism, because he is considered the ninth incarnation of Vishnu on earth.

Ganesha statue in a temple in Thailand
Ganesha Statue (Phra Phikanet) in Thailand

So why the statues? As mentioned at the beginning, the Khmer Empire was influenced by Hinduism. This empire had a great influence on early Thailand, so that Hinduism or belief in Hindu deities had partly manifested itself and still exists today. This is not a problem either, for there is no conflict between worship and the original teachings of the Buddha (Dharma). In addition, many Thais are simply very superstitious. For example, worshiping the god Ganesha (called Phra Phikanet in Thai) is said to bring luck and prosperity . The Hindu god Brahma is considered a deva (god) in Buddhism and is therefore also worshiped, along with a few others.

As you can see, the mutual influence of Hinduism and Buddhism is very strong and there is no “pure” form of Buddhism in many Southeast Asian countries. In addition, there is animism, which has also left its mark – both in the Hindu faith and in Buddhism.

Hindu shrine and Kuan Yin statue in Penang, Malaysia
When Hinduism meets Buddhism: Hindu Shrine and Kuan Yin Statue in Penang