Just about any object is available in wood-carved form in Bali, from the sacred to the phallic.

A wide range of local woods is used in their production, most notably jackfruit, crocodile wood and hibiscus, as well as more expensive imported woods such as sandalwood from East Timor and teak from Java. Ebony and mahogany are still used, but are costly and hard to find.

History of Wood Carving

Wood-carving evolved in Bali as a form of spiritual devotion and until the 20th century, carvings were exclusively used in temples and palaces. Decorative panels, ornate doors, figures of the deities and masks were created for ceremonial use and often had the function of warding off malevolent spirits.

The European artists who came to Ubud in the 1920s and 30s had a profound effect on the practice of wood-carving, as they did on painting techniques (see ‘Painting’). For the first time, the Balinese started to create carvings for artistic or commercial purposes rather than religious ones.

Shopping for Wood Carvings

Much of what’s currently on sale is mass-produced, but you will find high-quality carvings in between, in the shops in Ubud. Keep an eye out for fake sandalwood masquerading as the real thing; it may only be doused with the scent.

The village of Mas, a few minutes’ drive from Ubud, specialises in wood carving. In Mas you’ll also come across carvings made from ancient banyan tree roots. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the shops, you can always take a detailed drawing or photograph, or better, a pre-existing sample, to a wood-carver and have your desired object made to order. The Balinese are incredibly skilled at producing crafts, particularly when provided with a precise model to follow.