This blog excerpted from Indonesia Survival kit to help anyone who wants to know a little about Indonesia


History of Bali

An old manuscript, the Catur Yoga, tells of the formation of the world and places Bali in the centre of the universe, as an island resting on the back of a turtle floating in an ocean, beneath a canopy of “perfumed sky, beautiful and full of rare flowers”. Another story tells of a great Javanese priest drawing his finger across the isthmus which joined Bali to Java and cutting the island free. At one time Bali was indeed connected to Java-the strait separating the two islands is just 3 km wide ad no more than 60 metres deep.

The earliest written records found in Bali are stone inscriptions, dating from around the 9th century AD, by which time the foundations of the Balinese society of today had already been laid. Rice was grown with the help of a complex irrigation system probably very like the one in use now; metalwork and stone and woodcarving were developing; and a political system of regional princedoms had arisen, later presided over by a king when the first Balinese dynasties evolved-a few stone tools are the only traces of the earliest in habitants, though certainly by the onset of the metal age around 300 BC the island was well-populated and an orderly village life had developed. It was during the first half of the 11th century that Hindu Java began to spread its influence into Bali and from then much of Balinese history is inseparable from event on Java.

It was during the 11th century that the first royal link between Java and Bali was established-during the reign of the east Javanese King Airlangga who ruled somewhere to the south of Surabaya around 1019 to 1042. At the age of 16 Airlangga had fled into the forests of Java when his uncle lost his throne. He gradually built up a following, won back the kingdom ruled by his uncle and became one of Java’s great kings. Airlangga’s mother had moved to Bali shortly after his birth and had remarried a Balinese prince, so when Airlangga ascended the throne of Java there was an immediate link between the Javanese and Balinese royal families. It was during Airlangga’s reign that the courtly Javanese language known as Kawi came into use amongst the royalty of Bali and the rock-out memorials at Gunung Kawi, near Tampaksiring, are a clear architectural link between Bali and 11th century Java.

After Airlangga’s death Bali was ruled by the descendants of his mother and retained a semi-independent status for two centuries until Kertanagara became king of Java’s Singasari dynasty. The last and most powerful prince of that dynasty, he conquered Bali in 1284, but was murdered 8 years later. Although his kingdom broke up his son later founded the powerful Majapahit dynasty in Java and Kertanagara’s conquest of the island began a turbulent period in Balines history – for the next 200 years the indigenous rulers of Bali were in constant conflict with the Javanese for control of the island.

With Java in turmoil after the collapse of the Singasari dynasty however, Bali was able to regain its independence for a while and the Pejeng Dynasty, centred near modern-day Ubud rose to power. The last king of the dynasty, the legendary Dalem Bedulu-said to have had the head of a pig and the powers of a magician-refused to recognize Majapahit supremacy. Consequently the Javanese armies, under the command of the Majapahit prime minister and military leader Gajah Mada, invaded in 1343 and brought Bali back under Javanse control. Gajah Mada appointed a Javanese Brahmin as king of Bali, and along with a number of Majapahit nobles came to Bali and established his palace at Samprangan. Sometime towards the end of the 14th century the capital was moved to Gelgel, near modern day Klungkung, and for the next two centuries Gelgel remained the seat of the Balinese kings.

Ironically the significant changes on Bali were wrought not by the Majapahit conquest but by the dynasty’s demise. Gajah Mada had been the real power behind the dynasty, and within 25 years of his death, in 1364, the Majapahit kingdom was on the decline. As Islam spread into Java, luring converts amongst the newly independent princes, the kingdom fell apart and many of its intelligentsia, artisans, dancers, musicians, scholars and priests retreated to Bali. Among them was the priest Nirartha who is credited with developing many of the complexities of Balinese religion. The final great exodus to Bali took place in 1478. As the Majapahit kingdom collapse into disputing sultanates the Gelgel dynasty in Bali, under Dalem Batur Enggong, gained strength and extended its power eastwards to Lombok and even crossed the strait to the western end of Java.

So the curious mixture of position and events accounted not only for Bali’s relative isolation from the rest of Indonesia history and religion but also for the amazing vitality of its culture. The island’s extraordinary fertility had already encouraged the development of a highly active arts and culture and the injection of creative energy from Java sparked off a level of activity which has hardly faltered to his this day.

The first Europeans to set foot on Bali were Dutch seaman led by Cornelius Houtman in 1597. At that time the Balinese aristocracy was enjoying unprecedented prosperity and the Balinese king, who befriended Houtman, is said to have had 200 wives, a chariot pulled by two white buffaloes, and a retinue of 50 dwarves whose bodies had been bent to resemble kris handles! Setting a tradition which has prevailed to the present day some of his crew fell in love with the island and refused to leave when Houtman set sail. Despite Houtman’s other blunders around the archipelago this first meeting with the Balinese seems to have gone gloriously well. Although the Dutch returned to Bali they were primarily interested in profit not culture and since Bali offered little of the former it escaped the attentions of the Dutch East Indies Company which decided to plunder Java and the spice islands of Maluku instead. But, as with so many other places, the seeds of eventual conquest were sown through that first “innocent” contact with Europeans.

In 1710 the Balinese king shifted from Gelgel to Klungkung, thereby becoming the rajah of Klungkung, considered by the Balinese ruling class to be the highest position of authority. But many of the local rulers – descendents of Majapahit nobles who had been given land to rule as dependencies of Gelgel – were gradually breaking away from Gelgel authority and the Dutch, now interested in control, used the local discontent to divide and conquer.

The first military confrontation with the Dutch was in 1846 when the Dutch used Balinese salvage claims over shipwrecks as a pretext to land military forces in north Bali. In 1882 the northern states of Buleleng and Jembrana were placed under the direct administration of the Netherlands East Indies government. With northern Bali under Dutch control, the south of Bali was not going to last long. Once again it was disputes ver the ransacking of wrecked ships that gave the Dutch the excuse they needed to move in. A Chinese ship was wrecked and “looted” off Sanur in 1904 – the owners held the Dutch government responsible and the Dutch government demanded that the rajah of Badung (Denpasar) pay damages and punish the culprits. Those demands were rejected and two years later the Dutch used the incident as an excuse to land a force of several thousand soldiers at Sanur. The first battles were fought on the beach and along the road to Denpasar, and within four days the Dutch had reached the outskirts of the town.

On 20 September 1906 the Dutch mounted a naval bombardment on Denpasar and then commenced their final assault. The three princes of Badung realized that they were outnumbered and outgunned and that defeat was inevitable. Surrender and exile was, however, an even worse alternative and they decided to take the honorable path of puputan or the suicidal fight to the death. First the palaces were burnt then, dressed in their finest jewellery and waving golden krises, the rajah led the royalty and priests out to face the Dutch.

The Dutch begged the Balinese to surrender rather than make their hopeless stand but their pleas went unheard and wave after wave of the Balinese nobility marched forward to be gunned down by the Dutch. In all, 4000 Balinese were massacred in a single day outside the Denpasar and Pemecutan palaces. Some days later the Dutch marched to Tabanan, west of Badung, taking the the rajah of Tabanan prisoner but he too committed suicide rather than face the disgrace of exile. The kingdoms of Karangasem and Gianyar had already capitulated to the Dutch, and the rajah of Klungkung obliged the Dutch by carrying out his own bloody puputan. With this last obstacle disposed of all of Bali came under Dutch control.

In just a few days the Dutch had wiped out the power of the island’s aristocracy but little changed for the ordinary people in the villages. There were different faces to pay the taxes to but traditional Balinese culture and society remained almost entirely intact and surprisingly for the next three decades the island underwent a cultural renaissance. While the remaining princes were deprived of their political powers they retained much of their importance as patrons of the arts. On top of that some far-sighted Dutch officials encouraged  Balinese artistic aspirations and together with a new found international interest sparked off an artistic revival. By the 1930s western artists like Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet had started painting in Bali and their influence gave Balinese art a short in the arm. For the elite circle of world travelers and minor celebrities who lived in Ubud and Sanur in the 1920s and ‘30s Bali became the isle at the end of the rainbow.

Sadly, the second half of the 20th century has been much less kind and the islands has undergone three great convulsions in the past 25 years. The huge eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963 killed thousands, devastated vast areas of the island and forced many Balinese to accept transmigration to other parts of Indonesia. Only two years later, in the wake of the attempted communist coup, Bali became the scene of some of the bloodiest anti-Communist killings in Indonesia, perhaps inflamed by some mystical desire to purge the land of evil. On the other hand the killings were probably no more brutal than elsewhere in Indonesia, but simply conflicted with the stereotyped image of the gentle Balinese.

While the Balinese may have survived Dutch control, the anti-Communist bloodbath and intermittent lava flows it’s debatable whether they’ll survive the tourist boom of the 1970s and 1980s. This is potentially more tragic that any of the other convulsions since it threatens the survival of a remarkable culture, the very feature which makes the island so interesting. While you can hardly expect the Balinese to set themselves up as a living museum you can’t help but wonder in what direction their island is heading.

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