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History of Babi Guling & Why Balinese Eat Pork in the World's Largest Muslim Country

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, so why do Balinese in Indonesia eat pork? 

The most common reply is: "Because Balinese are Hindus".

But, though Hinduism does not prohibit eating pork, Hindus generally don't prefer it and Hindu owned restaurants very rarely have pork on their menu (personally, I've not come across any).

Part of the reason is Varaha (Sanskrit for boar) is the third of 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism. So, out of respect, many Hindus abstain from pork.

So, then why do Hindu Balinese relish eating pork to the extent that babi guling (roast pig) is Bali's most famous food icon?

To answer the question, we need to go back in time 4,000 years.

Babi guling means “turning pig” in Bahasa Indonesia language. The pig stuffed with spices, herbs and brushed with coconut water is roasted in a pit over open fire of burning wood or coconut husk.

Eating babi guling in Bali used to be reserved for special events and ceremonies like weddings and funerals. Now, casual open air restaurants / stalls scattered throughout the island and even hotels serve roast pig dishes. 

The roast pig is chopped up and portions are enjoyed with rice, sambal (spicy relish), sides of jackfruit curry, sausage, offal, etc. The most prized part is the crispy, crackly golden brown skin. It is my favourite part too. Eating babi guling has become a quintessential Bali experience for bucket list tourists.

The Prehistoric Roots of Babi Guling

DNA studies found that 
Balinese are 84% Austronesian, 12% Indian and 2% Melanesian.

Austronesians originate from south China and migrated to Taiwan 4,000 - 5,000 years ago. Austronesian
 sea farers island hopped from Taiwan through the Philippines islands to the Malay archipelago (today's Indonesia).

Seafaring Austronesians spread throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, furthest west to Madagascar, east to Easter Island and south to New Zealand. Austronesians form the majority population of today's Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world).

Austronesians from Taiwan brought their food culture to the Philippines and Malay archipelago. This included rice cultivation and roasting boars and pigs.

Today, roast pig (a legacy of Austronesians from Taiwan) is one of the most famous dishes of the Philippines. It is known in Tagalog as "inihaw na baboy" but most people know it by its Spanish loan word name "lechón".

Lechon is often credited to Spanish rule but roast pig culture came to the Philippines from Taiwan, at least 3,000 years before the Spaniards arrived. (The Spaniards ruled the Philippines from 1571 until they were defeated by Americans in 1898 who then ruled the colony till 1946.)

From the Philippines, Austronesians brought their food culture to the Malay archipelago. By 2,500 years before present, rice cultivation was already established in Bali and Java. Roast pig also came to Bali with the Austronesians.

Influenced by Hindu Indian traders and religious gurus, Balinese embraced Hinduism since the 7th century AD. Hinduism in Bali further strengthened when princess Mahendradatta (961 - 1011) of Javanese Medang (Mataram) kingdom married king Udayana of Bali in 1000 AD. With this marriage, many Javanese Hindus immigrated to Bali.

In 1284, king Kertanagara, of Hindu-Buddhist Singhasari kingdom in Java, conquered Bali. More Javanese Hindus came to Bali during king Kertanagara's rule.

Majapahit style Hindu temple entrance in Bali

After a brief period of independence following Kertanagara's death in 1292, Bali fell under Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire rule in 1343 (which it remained till the empire was overthrown by Muslim kingdoms in 1478). During the nadir of the Majapahit empire, many more Javanese Hindus escaped to Bali as the last bastion and centre of Hinduism in the Malay archipelago.

When the Dutch arrived in Bali in 1597, the island was occupied by a melee of several warring Muslim and Hindu kingdoms, but none was able to control the whole island. Starting with northern Balinese kingdoms of Buleleng and Jembrana in 1882, the Dutch subdued the whole island by 1906.

Today, more than 85% of Bali's population practice a syncretic Balinese form of Hinduism which combines local beliefs (Austronesian animism) with Hindu influences from India. Hence, the resilience of pork culture among Balinese Hindus even though eating pork is not prevalent among Hindus elsewhere.

(The remaining 15% of Bali population are Muslim, Christian and Buddhist.)

National emblem of Indonesia Garuda Pancasila.svg


Another reason for the resilience of pork eating culture in Bali may be attributed to the spirit of religious tolerance enshrined in Indonesia's national motto Bhinekka Tunggal Ika or Unity in Diversity.

The phrase Bhinekka Tunggal Ika came from a 14th century Javanese poem about an epic battle between man-eating king Purusada and Buddha's reincarnation Lord Sutasoma. Priests intervened in the battle and beseeched the antagonists to make peace as "Although [they are] in pieces, yet [are] One" Bhinekka Tunggal Ika.

This philosophy of religious tolerance / acceptance between Hindus and Buddhists was espoused since the Majapahit's heyday in the 1300s. It is the motto of today's Republic of Indonesia to unite the diverse (more than 1,300) ethnic groups across the vast archipelago.

Hence, it is possible for prehistoric Austronesian animism to co-exist with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other religions in Bali.

Written by Tony Boey on 21 Jan 2022

Image of Varaha courtesy of Flickr. Image of babi guling courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of babi guling dish courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Balinese dancer courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Balinese courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Balinese temple courtesy of Flickr. Image of Balinese temple deity courtesy of Flickr.

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