Behind The Scenes (Of a Balinese Marriage)

Once in awhile, Ubud catches me off guard. Even after 6+ years of island living, I feel like I’m immersed in a lifestyle that harkens back to the lives of my forefathers and mothers. Shtetl life Redux. Fiddler on the Roof, the Bali edition. Marriage is one such instance.

Over the years, I’ve attended a handful of weddings. Either by invitation or by happenstance, I would accompany a Balinese friend to their sister’s / cousin’s / neighbor’s / colleague’s aunt’s daughter’s ceremony. I’d enter through the elaborate decorations framing the front split gates, join the crowd of locals attired in bright traditional dress, stand in line for a buffet meal, watch the tooth-filing ceremony (on occasion) and marvel at the sounds of gamelan.

Which is why I was surprised to learn, a few days ago, of a wedding that I would have – under normal circumstances – attended. But, as I learned, there were extenuating reasons…it was a flash wedding.

A few weeks ago, I saw W sitting on the front stoop of the warung where he has worked for as many years as I’ve been eating there. He looked mopey, staring into his phone, one of his ears sporting a sample of his colorful earrings. His 21-year-old head of hair had recently been clipped short. He looked up when I called to him. We chatted for awhile. He’d sold his motorbike, but hadn’t yet bought another. No, still no girlfriend…that mopey look resurfaced.

Then the festival of Galungan happened. One morning, last week, I went for an early-morning swim. Walking up the road, I passed the warung and the entryway to W’s family compound next door. It was ornately adorned with floral arrangements, atop a matching curlicue concoction framing the doorway. I stopped in my tracks: Tell-tale signs of a wedding. It was too early, none of the relatives were up and about.

My landlord’s wife was cleaning my house the next day when I asked her who tied the knot. “Was it W?” I asked in bahasa Indonesia. She smiled and said yes. My jaw dropped.

“But.. but.. ” I mumbled, “I saw him a few weeks ago and he said he didn’t have a girlfriend.”

“That’s right,” she answered, smiling towards the edges of her face, realizing that I was not yet trained in this particular cultural idiosyncrasy. “No girlfriend. They just decided to get married.”

“Where is she from? Is she local?” I asked.

“Not from here,” said Metri, “she’s from Kintamani.”

“Was she pregnant?” I asked, knowing that this would have been grounds to wed – at any age.

“No,” she said.

“But I don’t understand,” I continued. “How did this happen?”

“She came to Ubud, to work at the warung 5 months ago,” said Metri. “S wanted to get married, so they talked about it and decided to get married.”

At which point, though gob-smacked, I decided to end the interview so she could resume sweeping the cobwebs off the ceiling.

A few days later, after a swim, I dropped into the warung for breakfast. A fresh-faced, 19-year-old woman named S greeted me. She handed me a menu, but I declined since I know well – and tend to stick to – my favorites. Then I asked her if she had just married W.

“Yes!” she answered, her eyes opening, glistening. A sneaky smile spread across her face. Then W walked in, his hands filthy from working out back. He smiled the widest smile of all, knowing that I’d be both shocked and thrilled for him.

“Saya kaget!” I called out. I’m surprised! Which was quickly followed by congratulations and wishes for a wonderful life together. They both looked as surprised as I felt.

When W left the warung, the owners – Nyoman and Sri – popped their heads in from the kitchen. Laughing – always laughing.

“Sorry, so sorry!” said Sri. “We didn’t have a chance to invite you or other friends. The wedding was planned so quickly!”

Turns out they had decided right before Galungan. Picked a date in consultation with the priest. Followed by a mad and frantic rush to prepare all the offerings and decorations, on top of the busy-ness of preparing for Galungan. The initial ceremony – of cutting ties to her birth family – was at S’s Kintamani compound on the 5th. Followed by the wedding ceremony in Ubud on the 6th.

No courting. No romance. No matchmaking. Barely even friends. Arranged by spoken agreement. As if a contract. Hard to fathom.

No honeymoon either. The newlyweds took a spin on W’s (new?) bike. Then they went back to work. And a uniquely Balinese kind of married life.




  1. When I read this the last stanzas of a Billy Joel song – And So It Goes – came to mind:
    So I would choose to be with you
    That’s if the choice were mine to make
    But you can make decisions too
    And you can have this heart to break

    And so it goes, and so it goes
    And you’re the only one who knows

    I love that song – and really enjoyed your story!

  2. Fascinating story! I felt “gob smacked” just reading about how quickly they decided to get married. I hope you will have happy stories from them to share in the future! πŸ™‚

  3. Amit, this certainly sounds unusual to my western ears as well. But, in a world of arranged marriages, at least the decision was theirs to make. And I’m sure that having made the decision themselves, they’re more likely to want to make the marriage work. If nothing else, it will make a good tale when someone asks: “How did you two meet?” ~James

    1. I agree. Even if it had nothing of the romance and long courtship that many relationships have, I hope a married life will plant seeds of love and that it will grow over time. I can’t wait to see what comes of their union πŸ˜‰

  4. Amit, we are still confused…. Was the haste of the marriage driven by the earliest possible propicious date per the Buddhist calendar? Or, did the family think perhaps she would change her mind? Hard to know… Thanks for this intriguing vignette of life in Ubud, Bali and we are still laughing at the shtettle, fiddler on the roof part of the story… ahahah

    Peta & Ben

    1. Hi Peta & Ben! Partly yes, weddings and other important ceremonies are indeed planned in consultation with a priest, who determines the most auspicious date. But in this particular case, I’ve known for years how much Wayan wanted to get married and when the ‘right’ girl showed up, and she wanted the same, it was (is?) that quick and simple. No flirting, courting etc. Refreshing? Unusual? Who knows.. but it worked for them and by the looks of it.. they are πŸ˜‰

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