In Bali (as also in Muslim societies), the left hand is considered unclean, and one may not use it in handing objects to or receiving them from others. However, the left hand is not (and could not be) barred from other practical actions. Rather, it appears that it becomes specialized for tactile, sensory functions—the fingertips are used for light surface contact and active touch, whereas the right hand is used for grasping and handling tools.

Bateson and Mead have made the same observations, and they describe the kinesthetic learning process in which the child (no matter whether right- or left-handed) is trained to refrain from taking and giving things with the left hand.

  The Balinese mother or nurse carries a child, either in or out of a sling, on her left hip, thus leaving her own right hand free. In this position, the baby's left arm is free, while the right is frequently pinioned in against the breast, or at best extended behind the mother's back. Naturally, when a baby is offered a flower or a bit of cake, it reaches for it with the free left hand, and the mother or the child nurse invariably pulls the left hand back, extricates the baby's right hand - usually limp and motiveless under this interference with the free gesture - and extends the right hand to receive the gift. This training is begun long before the child is able to learn the distinction, begun in fact as soon as the child is able to grasp at a proffered object, and discontinued usually when the child is off the hip. A three-year-old may often err and receive a casual present in his left hand, with no more punishment than to have some older child or nearby adult shout "Noenas!" ("Ask!") which means "Cup the right hand in the left," but the baby of four months is permitted no such leeway. Over and over again, the first spontaneous gesture is clipped off, and a passive, plastic gesture is substituted.  

When the left hand is used to support the right, for example by stabilizing the object that the right is working on, this support is often carried out in a characteristically “sensitive” manner, i.e. the left hand touches the object with the fingertips, almost as if caressing it. Bateson and Mead write:

  The emphasis on the separateness of the fingers and on the sensory function of their tips is very evident in the hand postures of artists at work. Remarkably, where Occidental artists accentuate the sensory function in the right or active hand, it appears from the photographs that the Balinese artist accentuates this in the left hand (Bateson & Mead, 1942: 100).  

A Balinese artist at work; notice the position of the fingers of the left hand (photographs by Gregory Bateson)


Handedness in food preparation (shredding coconut meat): the right holds the knife, the left cradles the pile.

A man feels the neck muscles
of his fighting cock

Caressing a love object