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By the Bronze era, around 300 B.C., a fairly evolved cul­ture al­ready ex­isted on Bali. The com­plex sys­tem of ir­ri­ga­tion and rice pro­duc­tion, still in use to­day, was es­tab­lished around this time.

IT AP­PEARS THAT THE MAIN RE­LI­GION AROUND 500 A.D. WAS PRE­DOM­I­NANTLY BUD­DHIST IN IN­FLU­ENCE. In 670 A.D., a Chi­nese scholar (Yi-Ts­ing), on a trip to In­dia, re­ported that he had vis­ited a Bud­dhist coun­try called Bali. It wasn’t un­til the 11th cen­tury that Bali re­ceived the first strong in­flux of Hindu and Ja­vanese cul­tures. With the death of his father around AD 1011, the Ba­li­nese Prince, Air­lang­gha, moved to East Java and set about unit­ing it un­der one prin­ci­pal­ity. Hav­ing suc­ceeded, he then ap­pointed his brother, Anak Wungsu, as ruler of Bali. Dur­ing the en­su­ing pe­riod there was a re­cip­ro­ca­tion of po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic ideas. The old Ja­vanese lan­guage, Kawi, be­came the lan­guage used by the aris­toc­racy, one of the many Ja­vanese traits and cus­toms adopted by the peo­ple.

With the death of Air­lang­gha, in the mid­dle of the 11th cen­tury, Bali en­joyed a pe­riod of au­ton­omy. How­ever, this proved to be short-lived, as in 1284 the East Ja­vanese King Ker­tane­gara, con­quered Bali and ruled over it from Java. In 1292, Ker­tane­gara was mur­dered and Bali took the op­por­tu­nity to lib­er­ate it­self once again. How­ever, in 1343, Bali was brought back un­der Ja­vanese con­trol by its de­feat at the hands of Ga­jah Mada, a gen­eral in the last of the great Hindu-Ja­vanese em­pires, the Ma­japahit. With the spread of Is­lam through­out Su­ma­tra and Java dur­ing the 16th cen­tury, the Ma­japahit em­pire be­gan to col­lapse and a large ex­o­dus of aris­toc­racy, priests, artists and ar­ti­sans to Bali en­sued. For a while Bali flour­ished and the fol­low­ing cen­turies were con­sid­ered the Golden Age of Bali’s cul­tural his­tory. The prin­ci­pal­ity of Gel­gel, near Klungkung, be­came a ma­jor cen­tre for the arts, and Bali be­came the ma­jor power of the re­gion, tak­ing con­trol of neigh­bour­ing Lom­bok and parts of East Java.


The first Dutch sea­men set foot on Bali in 1597, yet it wasn’t un­til the 1800’s that the Dutch showed an in­ter­est in colonis­ing the is­land. In 1846, hav­ing had large ar­eas of In­done­sia un­der their con­trol since the 1700’s, the Dutch govern­ment sent troops into north­ern Bali. In 1894, Dutch forces sided with the Sasak peo­ple of Lom­bok to de­feat their Ba­li­nese rulers. By 1911, all the Ba­li­nese prin­ci­pal­i­ties had ei­ther been de­feated in bat­tle, or had ca­pit­u­lated, leav­ing the whole is­land un­der Dutch con­trol. Dur­ing World War II, the Dutch were ex­pelled by the Ja­panese, who had oc­cu­pied In­done­sia from 1942 to 1945.

Af­ter the Ja­panese de­feat, the Dutch tried to re­gain con­trol over their for­mer colonies, but on Au­gust 17, 1945, In­done­sia was de­clared in­de­pen­dent by its first Pres­i­dent, Sukarno. Af­ter four years of fight­ing and strong crit­i­cism from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, the Dutch govern­ment fi­nally ceded and, in 1949, In­done­sia was rec­og­nized as an in­de­pen­dent coun­try.


Life in Bali is very com­mu­nal with the or­gan­i­sa­tion of vil­lages, farm­ing and even the cre­ative arts be­ing de­cided by the com­mu­nity. The lo­cal govern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for schools, clin­ics, hos­pi­tals and roads, but all other as­pects of life are placed in the hands of two tra­di­tional com­mit­tees, whose roots in Ba­li­nese cul­ture stretch back cen­turies. The first, Subak, con­cerns the pro­duc­tion of rice and or­gan­ises the com­plex ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem. Ev­ery­one who owns a sawah, or padi field, must join their lo­cal Subak, which en­sures that ev­ery mem­ber gets his fair share of ir­ri­ga­tion water. The other com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion is the Ban­jar, re­spon­si­ble for ar­rang­ing all vil­lage fes­ti­vals, mar­riage cer­e­monies and cre­ma­tions. Most vil­lages have at least one Ban­jar and all men have to join when they marry. Ban­jars, on av­er­age, give mem­ber­ship to 50 up to 100 fam­i­lies and all Ban­jars have their own meet­ing place called the Bale Ban­jar. As well as be­ing used for reg­u­lar meet­ings, the Bale (pav­il­ion) is where the lo­cal game­lan or­ches­tras and drama groups prac­tice.


Ba­li­nese peo­ple are Hindu, yet their re­li­gion is very dif­fer­ent from the In­dian va­ri­ety. The Ba­li­nese wor­ship the Hindu trin­ity Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, who are seen as manifestations of the Supreme God Sanghyang Widhi. Other In­dian gods like Gane­sha (the ele­phant-headed god) also ap­pear, but more com­monly. Shrines as­so­ci­ated with the many gods and spir­its, uniquely Ba­li­nese, are found all over the is­land. Ba­li­nese peo­ple strongly be­lieve in magic and the power of spir­its, bas­ing much of their re­li­gion on this. They be­lieve good spir­its dwell in the moun­tains and that the seven seas are home to demons and ogres. Most vil­lages have at least three main tem­ples, namely: (1) the Pura Puseh, or ‘tem­ple of ori­gin’, fac­ing the moun­tains; (2) the Pura Desa, or vil­lage tem­ple nor­mally found in the cen­tre; and (3) the Pura Dalem, aligned with the sea and ded­i­cated to the spir­its of the dead. Aside from these ‘vil­lage tem­ples’, al­most ev­ery house has its own shrine. Some tem­ples, for ex­am­ple Pura Be­sakih on the slopes of Mount Agung, are con­sid­er­ably more im­por­tant and peo­ple from all over Bali travel there to wor­ship.

Of­fer­ings play a sig­nif­i­cant role in Ba­li­nese life as they ap­pease the spir­its and thus bring pros­per­ity and good health to the fam­ily. Ev­ery day small of­fer­ing trays (canang sari), con­tain­ing sym­bolic food, flow­ers, cig­a­rettes and money, are re­spect­fully put on shrines, in tem­ples, in front of houses and shops, and at dan­ger­ous cross­roads.

Fes­ti­vals are another great oc­ca­sion for sooth­ing the gods. The women carry huge, beau­ti­fully ar­ranged pyra­mids of food, fruit and flow­ers on their heads while the men might con­duct a blood sac­ri­fice through a cock­fight. The gods are in­vited to de­scend and join the fes­tiv­i­ties with mu­sic and tra­di­tional dances to go with it. This kind of event is ex­tremely ex­cit­ing, mem­o­rable and well worth at­tend­ing.

Please re­fer to the back page (‘A Word of Ad­vice’) for Rules.

Photo Courtesy of So­nia

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