What does ‘Niskala’ mean?

Most Balinese believe in two worlds: sekala and niskala, translated roughly as the worlds of ‘the seen’ and ‘the unseen’.

Referred to as simply ‘nis’ by many locals, niskala is taken into consideration in pretty much every aspect of a Balinese person’s life. It is more than just mythically creatures that we would view somewhat cynically as ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’, it is the unseen realm that Balinese believe cohabits and constantly influences our lives. It is literally another dimension that most of us cannot interact with. As sci-fi as it seems, most  Balinese really believe it exists and constantly must be appeased. This is what “all those offerings on the ground” are for.

Bad karma (karmaphala) is served by the hand of nis in the form of sickness, poor family economy and other types of suffering. Niskala is not always bad of course as it is also (primarily perhaps) the realm of gods and goddesses.

I most commonly hear of people referring to nis when talking about sickness. In terms of treating sickness, many locals investigate both the seen and unseen, but I see that, at least in the cities, there is a tendency towards heading down the medical path first (albeit somewhat distrustingly), then to alternative therapies, and finally – perhaps more in desperation than anything else – looking at possible nis causes. In the villages, nis may be the first consideration but this depends  on access to medical facilities and levels of education.

Ceremonies which focus specifically on negative aspects of niskala are called buta yadnya. These types of ceremonies must use loud gamelan music and often invoke trance. Within human ceremonies (manusa yadnya) a mabayuh ceremony may be necessary for somebody with health or personal problems attributed to nis. At this ceremony, specific offerings to the underworld as well as holy water and arak brem are made and the family will pray together.

From birth until death and so on into cycles of reincarnation until achieving nirwana, nis is that unseen factor that all Balinese constantly have on their minds.

By Vaughan Hatch

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