In the early 1980s I was sitting in the coffee shop of the Bali Beach
Hotel in Sanur, reflecting on the strange fact that Dutch troops had
come ashore nearby, less than 80 years previously, on their way to perpetrate one of the more extraordinary massacres in the history of
colonialism. I did not know that the Japanese had also landed in this
same area in 1942, or that the Dutch had returned here to Bali in 1946,
or that an important relic of Bali’s ancient history, the tenth-century
Sanur inscription, was only a few kilometres away. I did realise that it
was difficult for the average visitor to know about such details or indeed
to read anything about Bali’s obviously intriguing history. It occurred
to me that someone should do something about that. Today more books
on Bali are available, and many of them contain varying amounts of
history, often of high quality. But there has been nothing designed for
the general reader which covers the whole sweep of Bali’s past, including aspects about which we still have a great deal to learn.
In undertaking to write a short history of Bali I had a number of
subsidiary concerns. First there is the problem of context. All too often
Bali is perceived as an almost mythological realm, devoid of any national
character. I have tried to place Balinese history in its Indonesian context
because it cannot be understood any other way. Second, I have avoided
the clichés spawned by tourism, and such terms as ‘paradise’ or ‘Island
of the Gods’ do not occur in the pages that follow. But I have also
avoided implying that because Bali was never the idyll of the tourist
brochures, the entire tourist industry was built on false premises, the
product of manipulation by non-Balinese. Bali’s attractive force is
genuine, not created by outsiders, and the island loses none of its appeal
if one understands the truth about its often turbulent past, or the challenges and debates that abound today. One of the central, defining
characteristics of modern Bali is that it has limited physical resources
A Short History of Bali
but an exceptional wealth of cultural and aesthetic capital. The great
questions of Bali’s recent past and present revolve around the dilemma
of using this wealth in a sustainable way.
As I write this, many people, Balinese and non-Balinese alike,
are worried about the island’s future in the wake of the Kuta bombing
of October, 2002, and its severe impact on tourism, which now dominates the local economy. While there is certainly reason for concern,
Bali’s history is nothing if not testimony to the creativity and resilience
of the Balinese people. This historical record makes clear that these
qualities extend well beyond art and drama, and I think should give
everyone cause for optimism.
This book was written primarily for non-Balinese, including other
Indonesians. While I have tried to understand Balinese viewpoints—
not always easy, especially for the pre-colonial periods—I make no claim
to have written from a Balinese perspective, and I have hardly addressed
a number of issues which feature prominently in Balinese historiography. For example, I have said little about the detailed histories of most of the pre-colonial kingdoms, much less about their complex relation-ships with each other. On these subjects and others, many volumes
remain to be written by Balinese historians interpreting traditional Balinese sources, which exist in abundance. It is nonetheless my hope that
this book will prove useful to visitors and others who seek a starting
point for the historical study of this superb island and its people.
The boundaries indicated on this map are those of the eight pre-colonial kingdoms.They are more or less identical with the current districts (kabupaten) but not as exact.
A SNUG LITTLE AMPHITHEATRE: THE BALINESE SETTING
Visitors often come to Bali without going to other provinces of Indonesia. Some are mildly surprised when they are greeted at the airport
by ‘Indonesian’ and not ‘Balinese’ immigration officials. So it is worth
emphasising that Bali is indeed and profoundly part of Indonesia. Cultur-
ally, it is one bright flash in an archipelagic kaleidoscope. Geologically,
it is one link in a chain of volcanoes which created soils of exceptional
fertility. Historically, it has always been part of a broader island world.
No aspect of the history of Bali can be fully understood divorced from
its Indonesian context.
Born of fire and water
Bali is small—only 5633 square kilometres, less than one-third of one
per cent of Indonesia’s land area. Despite the narrow congested roads,
one can drive around the island in a day. It is shaped like a flattened
diamond, with the long dimension running east-west and a significant
bulge to the south.
A Short History of Bali
Bali is the first link in a chain of islands which stretches eastward
from Java. Although Java doesn’t look big on a map of Indonesia, it is
huge compared to Bali, 60 times larger in area, with more than 30 times
Bali’s population of 3.2 million. Seen from a Balinese perspective, Java
looms even larger politically than it does geographically, and this has
been true for over a thousand years.
To the north, Bali is bordered by the Java Sea, a passageway
between major islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Southwards, the
vast expanses of the Indian Ocean drop away unbroken toward Australia,
except for the eastern extremity of Java, which protrudes directly south
of western Bali. Like the island of Lombok, this eastern salient of Java
was ruled by Balinese in the past.
The two straits which border the island are radically different. On
the west, the Bali Strait is only 2.5 kilometres wide and very shallow.
It was dry more than once during the ice ages, most recently about
18 000 years ago. Even when flooded, it has never been a major barrier
to the passage of ideas or people.
To the east, the Lombok Strait is a different matter, more than
30 kilometres wide and 1300 metres deep. It is of interest to modern
navies because it is one of only two major passages between the South
China Sea and Australia, the other being the Sunda Strait between
Java and Sumatra, which modern submarines can navigate submerged.
The Lombok Strait did not go dry during the ice ages. For that reason
it marks a very approximate border, usually known as the Wallace Line,
between the fauna of southeast Asia to the west, and that of Australasia (including, for example, marsupials) to the east. It was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of evolution theory, and a nineteenth-century visitor to Bali.
Bali is surrounded by coral reefs which were once famous as a
hazard to navigation and the cause of numerous shipwrecks. In the nineteenth century, the Balinese rulers’ insistence that they were entitled to any cargo they could salvage from such wrecks became a pretext for Dutch intervention. Today the reefs are touted as a tourist attraction, A snug little amphitheatre
but the sad truth is that they have been badly damaged in most areas
by fishing with explosives, coral mining to make lime for cement and
other problems, including those associated with global warming. It will
take an intensive conservation effort to save or restore some of them.
The climate is tropical, with the northeast monsoon bringing
wetter weather from November to April, and the southwest monsoon
relatively dry and somewhat cooler weather from May to October. There
are a surprising number of microclimates on Bali, some of them of historical significance. The dryness of the east and west inhibited agriculture,
hence human settlement. Even in the lush south, where Balinese civilisation developed, variations in rainfall may have influenced the density
of the forest, so that some regions were cleared and settled more easily,
hence earlier, than others.
Most of the island was covered with tropical forest until at least
the mid-nineteenth century. Today there is virtually no undisturbed
old-growth forest left except for a few patches on the steepest slopes
and in the relatively arid west. Most of the wood consumed by Bali’s
booming handicraft and furniture industries is imported from other
provinces. There are very few large wild animals. Tigers were allegedly
seen on the island as recently as the 1930s, but there are none today.
Like Java, most of Bali is young geologically. There are exceptions,
including the uplifted coral of the Bukit Peninsula, south of the airport,
and the nearby island of Nusa Penida. But the Bali of song and story is
the product of ongoing volcanic activity along a grinding intersection
of tectonic plates, part of the longer volcanic chain which is the back-
bone of the Indonesian archipelago.
One volcano is rarely out of sight of the next. From the western
end of the island, the nearest volcano on Java dominates the horizon,
and if one didn’t know better one would assume it was on Bali. The
most famous and historically significant Balinese peaks are Batur (1717
metres above the lake of the same name) and Gunung Agung or ‘Great
Mountain’ (3142 metres), which dominates the eastern half of the
island. Both of them are dangerously active. Bali was also affected by
A Short History of Bali
the tremendous 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa, the
second island to the east, the most violent anywhere on earth in historic
These mountains have always figured prominently in the mythology and economics of the island. The Balinese regard Gunung Agung
as a replica of the sacred Mount Meru of Hindu mythology, the central
axis of the universe. According to one legend it originated as a fragment of Mount Meru which the first Hindus brought to Bali. The mother
temple, Besakih, is located on its slopes.
Bali’s volcanic uplands anchor one end of a sacred axis between
mountains and sea which is a central feature of Balinese belief and ritual.
The Balinese believe the crater lakes in two of the volcanoes are the
source of irrigation water for much of the island. (In fact, the water is
generated by heavier rainfall around the peaks.) Major religious observances which oversee the complex management of south Bali’s irrigation
systems take place at regional water temples on the shores of these lakes.
As is the case on Java, the ash and lava ejected by the Balinese
volcanoes weather into soil of great fertility. This is not true everywhere
in Indonesia. For example, the ejecta from Sumatran volcanoes are more
acidic, and therefore less fertile, which is the main reason Java and
Bali are so much more densely populated than Sumatra.
Bali remains one of the most crowded provinces in Indonesia,
although not quite as crowded as Central or East Java. The current
population of over 3 million is more than ten times what it was at the
time of first contact with Europeans in the late sixteenth century, and
three times what it was in 1930. But if the volcanoes are economically
essential over time, they are also dangerous in the short run. They are
one reason, along with warfare and epidemic disease, why life on Bali
has been fraught with uncertainty and mortal peril until recently.
Drive north from the provincial capital of Denpasar or the luxury
hotel complex at Nusa Dua on either of two roads across the centre of
the island. It will take you only about three hours to reach the north
coast, notwithstanding overloaded trucks, lumbering tour buses and
A snug little amphitheatre
hordes of motorcycles, all competing for space on roads little changed
since Dutch times.
You will drive up a long sloping plain covered on its lower and
middle portions with villages, ‘art shops’ and irrigated rice fields, until
the increasingly steep road crests a divide at around 1300 metres above
sea level. Either route will take you close to one of the two major
volcanic lakes, Bratan and Batur, with their important water temples.
Once you are on the north side, the roads drop much more suddenly,
there are no expanses of rice fields, and in less than an hour you will
arrive at the Java Sea coast. On a good day you can see it from the top
of the pass.
Such a journey dramatically illustrates the geopolitical implications of Balinese topography. The fertile, gently sloping rice fields of the well-watered south provided the economic basis for the full flowering of Balinese culture. But areas of cultivation are divided by streams
which have cut precipitous north-south valleys through the rich volcanic
debris. You will understand why, even today, most of the roads in south
Bali run north-south, not east-west, except along the coast.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote of this densely settled area:
‘If ever there was a forcing house for the growth of a singular civilization, this snug little amphitheater was it; and if what was produced
turned out to be a rather special orchid, perhaps we should not be
altogether surprised.’1 Yet, as Geertz also emphasised, the south Bali
amphitheatre had some real limitations. The difficulty of east-west
travel was conducive to political fragmentation. Equally significant was
the fact that, from a trade perspective, the amphitheatre was on the
wrong side of the island. South Bali was isolated from the major trade
routes between Java and the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, not to
mention India and China. These sea lanes were and still are on Bali’s
northern side. There are no harbours truly suitable for modern shipping
on either side.
It is interesting to speculate how Bali might have fared historically
had the rich rice amphitheatre been on the same side of the island as
A Short History of Bali
the favoured trading coast.2 Surely Bali would have been a more important political force in pre-colonial Indonesia, and surely the Dutch would
not have refrained from direct intervention for as long as they did.
What is ‘Bali’?
‘Bali’ can be understood in at least three ways. One way, perhaps the
most common, is to equate it with the south-central, rice-growing
amphitheatre described above, where the orchid of Balinese culture
has bloomed most profusely. Here, as we shall see, the states of pre-
colonial Bali flourished in all their intricacy, and here the tourists are
A second Bali is geographic, coincident with the entire island.
But to understand the history of Bali it is critical to recognise important regional variations, rooted in geography, among south, north, east and west.
The north, as we have already seen, is crowded against the Java
Sea by the central mountain mass, a narrow coastal plain bordered by
a sudden escarpment, with the even higher volcanoes behind. With
agricultural land in short supply and important sea lanes close at hand,
commerce has been a far more important influence here than elsewhere.
The port city of Singaraja is a polyglot mix of Chinese, Arabs, Javanese,
Buginese, Balinese and others, resembling in spirit the old and equally
diverse trading ports of north Java, with which it has been directly
related for centuries. Although the north is predominantly Hindu-
Balinese, there has been more cultural cross-fertilisation among
Hindu, Chinese and Islamic traditions, there is a strong element of Bali Aga (see below), and even the Hindu temples are quite different from those in the south.
The history of north Bali contrasts in important ways with that
of the south. In late bronze–iron age and early Hindu times, Bali’s centre
of political gravity may have been initially in the north, based on trade.
A snug little amphitheatre Puri Beji at Sangsit, not far from Singaraja, is typical of the ‘baroque’ style of the little-visited north Bali temples, which are also famous for their humorous reliefs.
Pura Beji is an irrigation society (subak) temple. (Source: Robert Pringle)
If so, the circumstances under which it shifted to the agricultural south
remain unknown. Much later, resistance to the Dutch was bitter and
protracted in the north. There was more fighting, but only one example
of the ritual suicide episodes which helped make the south famous. The
colonial experience, beginning in 1849, was more than twice as long,
and the Dutch administrative presence in Singaraja brought greater
exposure to modernising influences than in the south.
In eastern Bali, the kingdom of Karangasem was of major importance by the seventeenth century, thanks to its key role in the Balinese
expansion onto the island of Lombok and its intense political inter-
action with both north and south Bali. But economic development of
the east was limited by lack of rainfall and mountainous terrain, much
of its land area being occupied by the great mass of Gunung Agung. As
early as 1905 a perceptive Dutch visitor noted that Karangasem appeared
to be overpopulated.
A Short History of Bali
The western province of Jembrana was mostly empty until the
twentieth century. Relatively dry forest and scrub, it is today the site of
the only national park on the island. Things began to change when the
Dutch encouraged migration to Jembrana from elsewhere in Bali. Most
of the few foreign-owned plantations which the Dutch allowed were
also located there. But until the road connecting Bali to Java via the
ferry at Gilimanuk was completed in the 1930s, Jembrana was a back-
water, and to some extent it still is.
A third Bali is cultural. Here the main standards are language
and Balinese religion. Cultural Bali includes the 3.2 million inhabitants
of geographic Bali, roughly 100 000 Balinese on the island of Lombok, and those Balinese who live and work elsewhere in Indonesia.
Beginning early in the twentieth century, over 200 000 Balinese ‘transmigrants’ moved, with government encouragement, to other less populated islands. The objectives of this programme were to ease
population pressure on Bali itself and to spread advanced irrigation technology to new areas. The majority of these people have retained their
Balinese culture (see Chapter 9).
In general, there is no argument about who is Balinese in a cultural
sense, for although the Balinese love nothing better than debating major
aspects of their own civilisation, they are in agreement about who is a
member, broadly speaking, of the family.
The native language of Bali is Balinese. Most Balinese learn the
national language, Indonesian, a modernised version of nineteenth-
century Malay, only in school. Most of Indonesia’s languages, including
Balinese, belong to the great Austronesian family, formerly known as
Malayo-Polynesian, which stretches from Taiwan and the highlands of
Indochina to Madagascar.
Somewhat surprisingly, Balinese is closer in syntax to Sasak, a
language spoken on Lombok, its neighbour to the east, than it is to
Javanese, despite the historic ties between Java and Bali. However, over
time Balinese has picked up an extensive vocabulary from Javanese, much
as English, syntax-wise a Germanic language, has over time picked up
A snug little amphitheatre
vocabulary from Greek and Latin (often via French). Like Javanese,
Balinese has alternative vocabularies, the use of which depends on
whether the person addressed is equal, inferior or superior in social status
to the speaker.
Who is Balinese and who might not be?
Using the cultural definition of Bali, more than 87 per cent of the island’s
present population is Balinese, categorised as Hindu in the 2000 census
figures. There are minorities of Muslims (9.7 per cent), Protestants (1 per
cent), Catholics (0.8 per cent), and Buddhists (0.5 per cent) concentrated in the urban centres of Denpasar and Singaraja, and in the west.
The majority of Buddhists and some of the Christians are probably
ethnic Chinese who, under Indonesian law, have been pressured to
choose a recognised state religion.
Today a newly prosperous Bali is attracting migrants from other
parts of Indonesia and beyond, drawn primarily by employment opportunities. Javanese migrant labour is harvesting rice in south Bali, Roman
Catholics from Flores are driving taxis in Denpasar, and Indonesians of
all kinds have found work in the tourist industry. In addition, despite
the questionable legality of such practice, upscale expatriates are ‘buying’
land and houses in Ubud and elsewhere.
Muslims first came to Bali centuries ago as traders and as military
mercenaries in the service of Balinese rulers. They were of diverse origins.
There were Arabs from the Hadramaut in modern Yemen, often claim-
ing descent from the Prophet with the title ‘Sheik’ or ‘Sayid’, who
circulated throughout the archipelago trading and getting into politics.
There were Buginese from Makasar who were both merchants and soldiers
for hire. A few were Javanese who, like the father of Indonesia’s first
president, Sukarno, were employed as clerks and teachers by the colo-
nial administration. Muslims often formed their own communities,
especially in trading centres and around the rulers’ courts. One of the
A Short History of Bali
oldest such communities is at Gelgel, the site of an important sixteenth-
century Balinese kingdom, a few minutes’ drive south of Klungkung.
Chinese were trading with Bali from an early period, although
Ma-Li gets only passing mention in early Chinese sources. Recent
archaeological discoveries suggest that India rather than China was the
first and most important trading partner with pre-Hindu Bali. But well
before the Dutch conquest the Chinese had established themselves as
resident merchants, typically in the service of Balinese rulers or under
their protection. They flourished under the Dutch and dominated local
trade, but many were driven out of business or forced to operate with
Balinese partners during the early independence period.
Strings of Chinese copper coins known as kepeng were the standard of Balinese currency until Dutch times. Today Chinese coins dating
to the Tang dynasty and even earlier are readily obtained on Bali, and
they remain important for certain kinds of offerings. Chinese influence on Balinese art is obvious, especially in some of the design features
of temples and religious regalia, not least the lion-like Barong which
manifests the forces of ‘good’ in opposition to the ‘evil’ sorceress, Rangda.
Well before the Kuta bombing in October 2002, the Balinese were
nervous about the growing influx of ‘foreigners’ from other parts of
Indonesia. But they remained proud of their traditional tolerance of the
Chinese and Muslim minorities which have been with them for hundreds
of years. Especially in the north, the degree of cultural mingling at the
local level between Muslims and Hindus has been substantial and there
has been considerable intermarriage. The Balinese relationship with the
resident Chinese has been helped by the entrepreneurial aptitude of the
Balinese themselves. By and large, and despite the sometimes harsh role
of Chinese money lenders during the colonial period, the Balinese have
never felt economically marginalised by the Chinese minority.
Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, are a third important
and growing minority on Bali. Some are non-Balinese who have moved
to the island, while others are Balinese converts whose numbers have
increased modestly since the relaxation of Dutch restrictions on
A snug little amphitheatre
missionary activity. Christianity undoubtedly appeals to some Balinese
who are offended by caste distinctions, but the cost of conversion, in
terms of isolation from family and community ties, can be high.
The fact that many Christians are converts from Hinduism, not
historically discrete ‘foreigners’, has no doubt been the main cause of
some Hindu-Christian tension evident recently. But it is less significant
than the ongoing debate over caste and priestly authority within the
Hindu community itself, which is discussed in a later chapter.
There is a fourth important and often misunderstood social cate-
gory, the Bali Aga or Mountain Balinese. Aga derives from a word
meaning ‘mountain’ in the Old Javanese language. The Bali Aga are
distinguished by their mountain environment and, in some cases,
distinctive village style. They live mainly around the volcanic uplands,
but also in the village of Tenganan, a popular tourist destination located
near the seaside resort town of Candidasa in eastern Bali and famous
for its unique double–ikat textiles.
Too often tourist guides and others depict the Bali Aga as an earlier,
older substratum of the population who were conquered by a later wave
of orthodox Hindus from the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit and their
Balinese followers. In fact, there is no evidence that the ancestors of
the Bali Aga arrived on the island earlier than other Balinese. However,
there are important religious and kinship distinctions between them
and other Balinese, above all the absence of caste.
In the 1930s, anthropologist Margaret Mead chose a Bali Aga
village for her field work (Bayunggede, near Lake Batur) because she
felt it represented a more essential version of Balinese culture than the
wealthier, ceremonial-encrusted communities of south Bali. But in
modern times some Bali Aga have come to feel that they are treated as
less then wholly Balinese.
How did the distinction between Bali Aga and other Balinese orig-
inate? We do not know, but it probably occurred because the ancestors
of the Bali Aga were closely associated with the kingdoms which existed
before the Majapahit conquest and were never fully subjugated by the
A Short History of Bali
new Majapahit rulers and their Balinese heirs. Today the Bali Aga
comprise between 2 and 3 per cent of the total population.
Intricate and formal delights: The appeal of
This is a book about Balinese history, not Balinese culture, using ‘culture’
in its anthropological sense to cover the totality of social structure and
behaviour. Hundreds of books, many of them excellent, describe the
art, art history, architecture, cosmology, ethnography, literature, dance,
drama, music, religion and social structure of Bali. Here I will do no
more than outline a few characteristics which have greatly influenced
the history and politics of the island. Among the most important of
these is Bali’s aesthetic appeal, initially to Westerners but more recently
to others, including other Indonesians. This attractive force became
obvious soon after the Dutch conquered south Bali, when reports from
dazzled visitors made the island famous in less than three decades.
Then as now, Bali’s appeal had many facets. As the sole survivor
of a great Indonesian Hindu civilisation, long isolated from the outside
world, Bali seemed ineffably romantic. Bali’s music, art and dance were
prolific, ranging in form from refined to earthy, the product of partici-
pation by all social classes, often humorous and always changing. It was,
unlike much of the high art of Asia, easy for outsiders to enjoy. The
Balinese welcomed foreign observers and were quick to recognise them
as a source of income. They seemed contented and harmonious. Few
foreign visitors were sensitive to evidence of poverty and social stress,
or stayed long enough to encounter it. In any case, Balinese poverty
was less extreme than in most other parts of Asia.
Bali’s people were beautiful, although the lure of bare breasts, long
since covered except for a few expatriates on Kuta Beach, has been
exaggerated. Bali appealed above all because it was something very rare,
a high civilisation in a rural setting of unsurpassed beauty. It combined
the fascinations of a South Sea idyll with those of the Timeless East.
A snug little amphitheatre
Margaret Mead caught it when she said of Balinese villagers, ‘Their lives
were packed with intricate and formal delights’.3
Bali’s cultural appeal was of critical importance because it led in
time to the development of tourism, which has today overshadowed
agriculture as the island’s most important economic activity. Tourism
made Bali one of the wealthiest Indonesian provinces, and in time
generated a new set of problems, from water shortages to terrorism,
which could hardly have been imagined 50 years ago.
Recent writing often suggests that the growth of Bali’s tourist indus-
try was primarily the result of clever marketing, first by the Dutch, later
by the Indonesian national government, and that many if not most Bali-
nese were exploited in the process. There is some truth in this approach,
but it tends to discount unduly the more important reality that no such
effort could have succeeded had Balinese culture not generated admi-
ration on its own merits.
In my final chapter I discuss the results of tourism development
as they appear today. For the moment it is sufficient to be aware that
all the fuss has not been about nothing. That Balinese culture has also
generated half a century of pop clichés and commercial fluff, from Bali
H’ai to Bali bras, does not make its legitimate appeal any less genuine.
But there are other, more specific features of Balinese culture which
need to be comprehended in order to understand Balinese history and
politics. These features can be divided into two broad categories, one
illustrating the often playful intricacy of Balinese social and artistic
culture, the other helping to explain the competitiveness between
elements in Balinese society. This competitive streak has been an impor-
tant although far from exclusive cause of the faction-riddled, often
violent character of the island’s history.
Intricacy is inherent to Bali’s appeal, as Margaret Mead noted.
Balinese social order is rarely chaotic. At any level there is a design
which befuddled foreigners can sometimes appreciate, whether or not
they ever master its details—and if they do, they will discover that, in
another village down the road, things are done differently.
A Short History of Bali
The intricate patterns of Bali’s culture have been a gold mine for
students of human behaviour. A good example is the classic essay by
anthropologist Clifford Geertz on the Balinese way of keeping time.
The Balinese system has two calendar years, one more or less like our
own 365-day solar calendar and one of 210 days arranged in 30 seven-
day weeks, plus a variety of additional week cycles of differing lengths,
all of which run simultaneously. The intersection of the cycles tells the
expert interpreter whether any given day is auspicious or inauspicious,
or somewhere in between, for performing various activities, ritual and
otherwise. Thus it is that the unfortunate tourist who arrives in Bali at
the most inauspicious of times may find the island devoid of activity,
and consider demanding a refund.
The cycles and supercycles are endless, unanchored, and
uncountable and, as their internal order has no signifi-
cance, without climax. They do not accumulate, they do
not build, and they are not consumed. They don’t tell you
what time it is, they tell you what kind of time it is.4 (empha-
Geertz goes on to explain that the Balinese find this kind of complexity, which is reflected in almost all aspects of their art and social
behaviour, pleasing and beautiful both to themselves and to the gods.
Manipulating the intricate forms is amusing to humans and at the same
time a form of worship.
To cite another example, it should come as no surprise that the
Balinese system of personal naming, while not quite as complex as the
calendar system, is rather more elaborate and informative than most.
Thus, to cover just the main points, Balinese names typically consist
of three elements. The first tells you the bearer’s birth order from first
through fourth, after which the cycle begins again. In numerical order
these names are Wayan (or Putu), Made, Nyoman and Ketut; they are
A snug little amphitheatre
the same for both sexes, but are not always used by the nobility. The
second element is a title, which indicates caste. Ida Bagus (male) or Ida
Ayu (female) identifies a member of the highest, brahmana or priestly,
caste. Dewa (male) or Desak (female) denotes the warrior or kingly
(satria) caste. Cokorde is a royal satria title. Gede (or Gde) is another
satria title indicating that the person is important within his clan, while
Anak Agung is a title that was bestowed by the Dutch on those who
held official positions under them. I Gusti denotes wesia status, the
lowest order of nobility, while I (male) and Ni (female) are indicators
of commoner or sudra status.
The third element in Balinese naming is a personal or given name
or names; there may be two. But there are no family names, so you won’t
learn who the bearer’s father or mother is. And the full-blown system
becomes much more complicated when the widespread use of
tekonyms—terms derived from family status used in place of a name,
for example, ‘mother of so-and-so’—is taken into account. In the broader
Indonesian context, Balinese are instantly identifiable as such by their
names. Warning: there are regional variations in Balinese naming, as
in almost everything else.
Temple organisation is another example of the Balinese propen-
sity for intricate social structure. Each village has at minimum a trilogy
of important temples—a village-origin temple concerned primarily with
ancestor worship, a death temple concerned with the correct handling
of malevolent forces and death, and a third temple concerned prima-
rily with the spiritual oversight of irrigated rice land.
Most village-origin temples have a written charter which spells
out the rules and obligations which their membership is supposed to
follow. This document, written on lontar (palm leaf material), is itself
an object of worship and can be read only under proper ritual circum-
stances. It defines numerous aspects of social life, some of which go well
beyond the purely religious, such as the rules for membership in various
local councils. It also specifies fines for breaking any of the rules. The
regulations themselves have sacred character, and to transgress them
A Short History of Bali
puts the entire community at risk of supernatural punishment. These
temple charters vary considerably in content from one village to another,
generating well-honed awareness of the difference between ‘us’ and
Every Balinese temple, regardless of its size or function, has a spec-
ified membership responsible for its ritual observances. The term for
such a congregation, pemaksan, is drawn from the word paksa, meaning
‘obligatory work’, which is revealing. Even if you are Balinese, you can’t
just wander into a temple and worship; you must be a member, although
you may be a non-resident member.
But this is only the beginning of the temple story. There are state
temples for each of the major traditional kingdoms, usually at the three
points of the sacred axis between sea, royal centre and mountain. There
are national temples, of which the most important is the mother temple,
Besakih, high on the slopes of Gunung Agung. At this complex of more
than 20 shrines, some dating to pre-Hindu times, all Balinese can
worship regardless of their social status.
The major water temples mentioned earlier, Pura Ulun Danu Batur
and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, each serve the entire region covered by
their respective outflow systems. Downstream from them, each irriga-
tion association (subak) has its own temple in addition to the village
agricultural temple mentioned above.
Since Balinese gods are constantly on the move there are, quite
considerately, temples where they can come down to rest in mid-passage.
There are temples at bridges, at dangerous intersections, at sharp turns
in roads, under huge dark banyan trees, and anywhere else where malev-
olent forces are probably lurking. There are temples in offices and of
course in homes. The preparation and presentation of offerings, largely
the business of women, is constantly and visibly under way everywhere,
from hotels and office buildings to the most remote villages, a constant
reminder of the pervasive importance of Balinese religion.
There were 53 temples in the village of Sukawati, not counting
household temples, when anthropologist Stephen Lansing studied there
A snug little amphitheatre
Temples in Sukawati, a south Balinese town. In this case there is a ‘state temple’ because
Sukawati was once the capital of a small kingdom and is the ancestral home of the present royal family of Ubud. (Source: J. Stephen Lansing, The Three Worlds of Bali, Praeger)
A Short History of Bali
a few years ago (see map). No one knows how many temples of all kinds
there are on Bali, but if household temples are included the number
would certainly run into hundreds of thousands.
One could cite many more examples of Bali’s rich array of social
organisation. If it seems hard to comprehend, think back to an earlier
period in almost everyone’s pre-industrial past. For illustration I will
take a late nineteenth-century small town in the American Midwest.
One would have found that organisations of all kinds were very impor-
tant. There would have been first and foremost a church, or more likely
several of them. There might have been an annual town meeting to
vote on issues of local government. There would have been a farmers’
association, part of the Grange movement, and in addition there might
have been a farmers’ cooperative. There would have been a Civil War
veterans’ association and a variety of civic, business and social organi-
sations (Freemasons, Elks, Knights of Columbus, and so on). Depending
on the period and the location, there would have been railroad and
other labour unions.
There would have been school boards and local branches of
political parties (perhaps only one depending on location). Finally, there
would have been ad hoc committees to arrange such important rituals
as the Fourth of July celebration. There might also have been organi-
sations based on kinship, like the Daughters of the American
Revolution, its members perforce descended from those who fought the
struggle for independence, or in areas of heavy Scottish ancestry a clan
association or two. Life in such a setting was very different from the
kind of atomised existence that many Americans, now overwhelmingly
urban, experience today.
There is not that much to distinguish Balinese civic and political
culture from this kind of pattern, except the intricacy of detail and the
intensity and persistence of such organisational behaviour up to the
present day. As in our Midwestern American example, Balinese social
organisation includes a variety of categories: professional, religious, civic;
some based on place of residence, others on kinship or ancestry. But the
A snug little amphitheatre
kinship-based organisations are far more important in Bali, relatively
speaking, than they ever were in Averageville, Indiana.
Civic and professional organisation
The banjar, translated as ‘hamlet’ or ‘ward’, is the smallest and in many
ways most important of Balinese civic entities. The term ‘neighbour-
hood’ would perhaps convey its essence better, except for the vagueness
which that word implies to most of us. There are several banjar in a
village, or desa, the next larger unit in the system. Balinese villages are
notoriously difficult to define, thanks in part to extensive tinkering by
the Dutch and by successive Indonesian regimes. Suffice it to say that
the ‘customary law village’ in a given area, which includes the afore-
mentioned trilogy of temples, does not always correspond to the
‘administrative village’ based on government convenience and/or fiat.
The Balinese banjar, unlike a Western neighbourhood, is precise,
structured and invariably important. It often owns property, such as a
meeting hall, market shed and gamelan orchestra. It may decide who
can reside where, it has other rule-making authority, and it is to be taken
seriously; if you don’t attend your banjar meeting, you will be fined. In
general, the Balinese seem mildly addicted to organisational rules and
fines. Everyone who lives in the banjar is a member, including the nobil-
ity and even expatriates.
Banjar councils perform many important community functions,
such as road upkeep, participation in major funerals and the organisa-
tion of quasi-police structures. The ‘banjar system’ is credited for much
of the Balinese success in implementing government programmes such
as family planning and transmigration because it provides an effective
mechanism for community discussion and decision making.
Temples and banjar are only part of the story, albeit important
ones. The Balinese appear at times to verge on compulsive-obsessive
when it comes to organisation. If something needs doing they form a
club, so to speak, to do it. In 1975 Hildred and Clifford Geertz observed:
A Short History of Bali
A Balinese village in 1915, showing pottery, bare breasts and mud brick walls
protected by thatch, all of which have disappeared from the Balinese scene.
(Source: Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam)
It should be clear by now that the overriding principle in
Balinese social structure as a whole is one of functional
specificity for every group. That is to say, the premise ‘an
independent group for every purpose, and only one purpose
per group’ is pursued in Bali almost to the limit of its poten-
tialities. Various social functions, which in many traditional
societies are performed by a single coherent set of insti-
tutions, are, in Bali, each provided with a separate
autonomous social apparatus.5
Among the most important of Balinese organisations is the subak,
or irrigation association, which is both civic and professional. No one
who visits south Bali should fail to walk out in the rice fields and experi-
ence the beauty and dazzling physical complexity of the canals, ditches,
tunnels and terraces which organise the flow of water to farmers. Due to
A snug little amphitheatre
steep intervening ravines, water must be tapped high on the mountain
slopes to reach lower elevations. The subak manages the downstream
end of this system, coordinating not only the use of the water, but the
planting and harvesting cycles which are extremely important to ensure
that each farmer gets water when he needs it and that the agricultural
cycle is timed to minimise pest infestations.
The membership of a subak is made up of those who own the rice
fields within its boundaries; they are co-proprietors, not necessarily, as in
the case of the banjar, co-residents. The subak is religious as well as agri-
cultural in nature; each has its own temple dedicated to the goddess of
rice, Dewi Sri, which also serves as a meeting place for members.
A subak is relatively small, with one or two hundred members, so
it typically depends on one major water source. This requires a hierar-
chy of irrigation authority above the subak level, accomplished partly
through temples and temple ceremonies and, for much of south Bali,
originating in the two major water temples on the big volcanic lakes.
With urbanisation progressing rapidly in south Bali, subak have willy-
nilly become increasingly involved in broader water-use issues, as tourism
and industry compete for what is becoming a scarce resource.
A good place to see a modern quasi-urban subak is Ubud, where
several of them are bounded by the main street of town, now densely
lined with hotels, restaurants and boutiques. In places irrigation water
is running under the tourist-laden sidewalks.
The Dutch, who knew a thing or two about water control, were
suitably impressed by the hydraulic virtuosity of the Balinese, one small
reason why the island came to occupy a special niche in their colonial
It is worth mentioning two additional things about Balinese civic
culture. First, the Dutch colonial regime significantly altered a number
of key institutions, in a partially successful effort to make administra-
tion cheaper and more convenient (see Chapter 6). However, the banjar,
‘the fundamental civil community in Bali’,6 has remained more or less
as it was.
A Short History of Bali
Second, for reasons which are anything but clear, the structured
and rule-shrouded character of the Balinese community, including the
existence of caste, is without counterpart on previously Hindu Java,
despite the close historic ties between Bali and its big neighbour. This
raises the interesting question, to be discussed later, of whether there
is a historical explanation for this contrast.
Virtually all Balinese belong to kinship-based organisations, some of
them local, others island-wide. The most famous are the high-caste
groups and royal lineages whose members trace their descent back to
Javanese nobles who arrived in the fourteenth century and their Bali-
nese associates. Caste status is of course hereditary, as are the titles
that go along with it.
Caste continued to matter in the colonial period because the
Dutch exempted the three high castes from community service, less
euphemistically described as corvée labour. It still matters, as witness
the lopsided proportion of Balinese in senior government positions
whose names indicate high-caste origin. Polygamy, concubinage and
widespread variations in the written record have always encouraged
disputes and claims to higher caste status, which could and still can be
litigated. The Gedong Kertya in Singaraja, north Bali, is a library estab-
lished by the Dutch for the preservation of traditional texts. It is now
patronised mainly by Balinese doing genealogical research not out of
purely academic interest.
Go back to our Midwestern village with its Daughters of the Amer-
ican Revolution and imagine that membership in this august association
determined not just attendance at tea parties, but real political power.
Passion to prove that one really did have an ancestor who fought the
war for independence might well have reached white heat. Motivation
of this kind has long driven Balinese attention to ancestry.
A snug little amphitheatre
On Bali most genealogical records were copied and recopied on
palm-leaf manuscripts which rapidly decayed in the hot, humid climate,
and as most of the scribes worked for, or under the influence of, some
powerful and not disinterested patron, there is some lively variety in
the historical record. The Balinese have been writing history for
centuries, in the form of chronicles or babad, and it should not be a
matter for surprise that accounts written to bolster the prestigious ances-
try of individual rulers tend to present multiple and often contradictory
versions of key events.
Illustrious ancestry was by no means the sole determinant of polit-
ical power on Bali, but it mattered a great deal. In the early eighteenth
century, one of the first things that the founder of the new Kingdom of
Mengwi did was to establish his legitimacy by unveiling, with the help
of a priestly advisor, a distinguished family tree (Chapter 4). Indeed,
the history of the island has been characterised by constant competi-
tion for power legitimised by descent.
Competition among descent groups goes a long way to explain
Balinese preoccupation with rank and status, something that has trou-
bled sympathetic Western observers who have difficulty reconciling it
with the apparent democracy of local institutions like the subak and
banjar. Such competition has encouraged and envenomed political
factionalism throughout Balinese history. It was one factor behind the
terrible bloodletting of 1965–66 on the island following the failed
communist coup in Jakarta. The spirit of competition on Bali does not
stop with kinship-based organisations, and it can have very real posi-
tive aspects, as when communities compete for excellence in the arts.
As this book is written, a debate within the Balinese Hindu estab-
lishment over the role of high-caste brahmana priests resonates because
it reflects on the status of important elements in Balinese society.
Many Balinese belong to ancient clans, one of the best known being
the island-wide metalworker or smith (pandé) clan, which have no high
caste status but are nonetheless powerful and important. Some of the
most significant of these groups are associated with the Bali Aga and
A Short History of Bali
Balinese Hinduism includes Buddhist elements, as illustrated by this ‘Buddhist’ priest
photographed in 1915. (Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
date back to the time before the Majapahit conquest. Today these non-
caste descent groups are sometimes referred to collectively as pasek.
Their ceremonial importance has long been recognised. For example,
the leader of the major water temple at Lake Batur is a non-caste pasek
priest. Yet some high-caste Hindus argue that such priests should be
subordinate to those with high-caste, Majapahit-derived credentials.
Caste and Hinduism on Bali
According to virtually all writing on the subject, there are three high
castes on Bali. The highest, brahmana, is the priestly caste, but not all
brahmana are priests. The satria or warrior caste was the caste of most
rulers. Note that priests theoretically outranked kings, just as they did
A snug little amphitheatre
in India or mediaeval Europe; in the pre-colonial period, this had about
the same limited degree of real-world meaning. Today many satria are
in business as well as government. The wesia, third in status, were
merchants in the Indian system, but on Bali they have tended to be
minor officials. Together these three groups comprise a kind of gentry
known as the triwangsa, which now amounts to less than 10 per cent
of the population. Since Dutch times, all other Balinese have been
lumped together as sudra or ‘commoners’, including members of
otherwise prestigious descent groups mentioned above, such as the
metalworking or smith clan.
However, Balinese caste differs from the better-known Indian
model in fundamental ways. The work-related aspects of caste are much
less strict than in the mainstream Indian model, there are fewer ritual
restrictions on social contact between people of differing castes and
there is nothing resembling the Indian concept of untouchability. These
differences are profound, to the point where the term ‘caste’ is mislead-
ing and arguably not appropriate for what are really no more than status
distinctions, important to be sure, but similar to those found on Java
and elsewhere. I have used the term ‘caste’ only because it is embed-
ded in the literature about Bali and, despite its Dutch-manufactured
aspects, largely accepted by the Balinese themselves.
As early as the twelfth century, inscriptions mention what appear
to be caste distinctions, but we know nothing about actual practice at
that time. The Balinese themselves believe that caste in its present form
was imported from Java by a talented Hindu priest only at the time of
the Majapahit conquest in 1343, discussed in Chapter 3.
The Dutch systematically reinforced and rigidified the system of
caste, part of a broader effort to bring order out of apparent chaos by
reinventing the norms of a centralised Balinese state which, in fact as
opposed to legend, may never have existed. But caste certainly was
important before the colonial era. For a woman to marry a man of
lower caste was a serious offence theoretically punishable by death.
For a man to marry a lower-caste woman was, on the other hand, quite
A Short History of Bali
acceptable. Semen, like water, the Balinese believed, should flow down-
hill.7 As we shall see, caste was beginning to become more formal and
rigid even before Dutch rule.
As in the case of caste, the Balinese version of Hinduism differs
in many ways from Indian Hinduism, which of course itself has many
local variations in India. Fusion with ancestor worship is particularly
prominent on Bali, yet the practice of deifying monarchs as god-kings,
customary on Java and elsewhere in Indianised Southeast Asia, seems
to have existed only in the Old Bali period, before the fourteenth
Much of the physical and aesthetic character of Balinese Hinduism
is gloriously unique. Balinese gods include such familiar Hindu deities
as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, as well as a whole universe of localised
gods and spirits, such as the water goddesses who dwell in the big
volcanic lakes. This spirit world, the world of the unseen, including
ancestral spirits, is far more important in daily life than the Indian-
origin pantheon. That is why you will see women putting out offerings
at various points around your hotel, and just about everywhere else.
A Balinese temple is a place where the highly mobile gods descend
on important festive days. There are no dominating images of particu-
lar deities, much less of god-kings. A walled courtyard encloses a number
of shrines as well as sheds and other structures necessary for the pre-
paration of offerings. Apart from their distinctive and sometimes
monumental gates, most Balinese temples are modest and visibly
community oriented, unlike the more massive structures of India,
ancient Java or Cambodia.
Buddhist elements are integrated into Balinese Hinduism to the
point where the term ‘Hinduism’ itself is less than wholly satisfactory.
One of the prevailing myths about Bali is that it became a repository
for Javanese Hinduism after an exodus of refugees from Hindu Java
following the Islamic conquest of Majapahit in the early sixteenth
century. Assuredly Bali remained Hindu, and many ancient texts and
traditions were preserved there and in the Balinese communities on
A snug little amphitheatre
Lombok, but there may have been little in the way of a physical exodus
from Java. The great Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, are
extremely important in Balinese culture, although hardly more so than
they still are on nominally Muslim Java.
The features of modern Balinese culture thus include those which
arrived with Indian civilisation, beginning roughly twelve centuries ago,
and those which, like ancestor worship, originated thousands of years
before that. The next chapter examines briefly what little we know
about Bali’s prehistoric period.
MOONSET AT PEJENG: GLIMPSES OF BALINESE PREHISTORY
My wife and I were trying to photograph Bali’s most notable prehistoric
relic, the ‘moon’ of Pejeng, but we seemed to be too early. This ‘moon’,
the world’s biggest bronze kettledrum, remains where it has been for
no one knows how long, resting on its side in a brick, wood and thatch
tower at the Pura Penataran Sasih, a village temple near Pejeng, only
a few minutes’ drive from Ubud in south Bali.
We hoped that the late evening sun might illuminate the west-
ward-facing tympanum of the drum, with its star-shaped central design,
but the light as the sun set was too harsh, and the drum was more
obscured than usual by gold and white cloth decorations. It turned out
that in less than a week the real moon would be full, and there would
be a big temple and cockfighting festival here. It would draw thousands of hopeful Balinese and their prize birds, not to mention hordes
of tourists, and preparations were well underway.
A chatty temple worker showed us around while we waited in vain
for the light to improve. The edges of the temple courtyard are lined
with eroded fragments of ancient carvings, statues of Hindu gods and
Moonset at Pejeng
other religious relics somewhat haphazardly gathered together. This
region was the centre of ancient Bali, where irrigated rice agriculture
probably first flourished and where the civilisation we know as Balinese
probably began. Our guide, proud of his rudimentary English, pointed
out the artefacts, complained that he was not paid for his temple labours,
asked if we would like to buy some land, and cadged a tip for his serv-
ices. The Pejeng moon remained defiantly unphotographable.
This remarkable metal moon was first reported to the western world
by G.E. Rumphius in his book The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, published
in 1705. Rumphius, German by birth, was a gifted amateur scholar who
served the Dutch East India Company for 40 years on the island of
Ambon in the spice-producing region of Indonesia’s far east. Although
he was blind, Rumphius recorded everything he knew about the natural
history of the island world, including prehistoric relics. He never set foot
on Bali, but heard about the moon and its legend from a Dutch ship
captain who was among the first European visitors to the island.
According to Balinese legend, the Pejeng moon was a wheel of
the chariot that pulled the real moon through the night sky. Once upon
a time, as it was passing over Pejeng, it became detached and fell into
a tree, glowing almost as brightly as the moon itself. The light disturbed
a thief at his labours. Annoyed, he climbed the tree and urinated on
the drum, paying with his life for this sacrilege. The wheel eventually
cooled down, lost its glow, and has been preserved to this day by the
The inhabitants of ancient Pejeng zealously guarded the sacred
object in its pavilion, and it was not easily approached. Indeed it was
not systematically described until 1906 when the itinerant Dutch artist
W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp—the same person depicted in a north Balinese
temple mural in Balinese dress, riding a bicycle—managed to climb into
the pavilion to measure and draw it.
It turned out to be a gigantic bronze kettledrum, over 1.8 metres
in height. It is similar in shape to much smaller metal drums made in
eastern Indonesia until relatively recently, and to others still being made
A Short History of Bali
in New Guinea from perishable materials. Despite its unusual elongated
form—the majority of the drums found on Java and elsewhere are squat-
ter in conformation—the Pejeng instrument is clearly in the tradition
of the great bronze drums of Southeast Asia which are the hallmark of
its bronze–iron age and have been found from southern China to eastern
It could have been used as a musical instrument by hanging it hori-
zontally from one of the big lugs on its side and striking the tympanum.
But it was almost certainly more important as a ritual object and, as it
still is, a source of magical power to the owners. Recent archaeological
discoveries in north Bali, together with the study of hundreds of drums
from other areas of Indonesia, suggest that it could be as much as 2000
years old. Although similar but smaller drums were made on Bali, experts
tend to believe that, because of its extremely large size, the Pejeng moon
was imported, possibly from mainland Asia.
Earliest arrivals: Did Java Man make it to Bali?
Balinese prehistory does not begin with the Pejeng moon; indeed, it is
safe to say that the moon arrived very late in the story of human pres-
ence on the island, which could stretch back hundreds of thousands of
years. Unfortunately, the earliest prehistoric evidence from Bali consists
of scattered and therefore undatable finds of artefacts, supplemented
by conjecture based on discoveries elsewhere in the region, especially
Java. Only relatively recently does the picture begin to clarify some-
what, thanks to linguistic evidence and some systematic excavation of
stratified archaeological sites, including finds which are amenable to
Traces of Homo erectus, an early hominid precursor of modern man,
Homo sapiens, have been found elsewhere in Indonesia. The most famous
example is Java Man. Dutch palaeontologists found his or her skull frag-
ments near Solo in Central Java; they are now estimated to be as much
Moonset at Pejeng
as 1.5 million years old. These remains are associated with hand axes
and other roughly shaped stone tools. While similar Palaeolithic (old
stone age) tools have been found on Bali, they have not been excavated
from stratified sites and could date from a more recent period. We simply
don’t know whether Java Man made it to Bali or not.
What we do know is that Homo sapiens did not arrive in Indo-
nesia until a much later period. The shallow seas of the Sunda Shelf
between Indonesia and the Asian mainland were dry during periods of
intense ice-age glaciation, most recently about 18 000 years ago, when
the sea was 100 metres or more lower than at present. The resulting
expansion of land area presumably facilitated new migrations south-
ward from the Asian mainland, but it was a slow process. While most
details remain obscure, prehistorians now believe that by about 40 000
years ago the Homo sapiens ancestors of the present-day inhabitants of
New Guinea and Australia were already in place.
As part of the same broad process, people related to the Australia
and New Guinea-bound migrants settled in Southeast Asia, including
Bali. They were eventually absorbed by later arrivals, except for small
Negrito and other fragmented populations which have survived in
Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
These early humans—Melanesians, native Australians and Negri-
tos—were for the most part hunters and gatherers, not farmers, although
on New Guinea they developed some of the earliest forms of agricul-
ture known anywhere. Their modern descendants speak a diverse
collection of languages very different from the Austronesians who
The Austronesian revolution: Bronze, iron and
the development of agriculture
The prehistoric situation clarifies somewhat only at a much more recent
date. About 6000 years ago, people speaking Austronesian languages
A Short History of Bali
began moving from the Chinese mainland onto Taiwan. Two thou-
sand or so years later this dispersal was continuing southwards through
the Philippines and into the Indonesian Archipelago. ‘Austronesian’
is the currently accepted term for what used to be called ‘Malayo-
Polynesian’. This great language family is spoken from Vietnam (by the
Rhadai and Jarai in the mountains and the Chams in the lowlands) to
Taiwan (by the ‘aborigines’ there), Hawaii, New Zealand and Mada-
gascar. It includes the languages of the vast majority of people in
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines today.
Unlike the New Guinea-Australian-Negrito languages, Austrone-
sian languages are remarkably similar to each other. This linguistic
similarity is strong evidence of rapid geographic dispersal, attesting to
the high seafaring skills and consequent mobility of the Austronesians.
But the details of their migrations are a great mystery. For example, no
one has a clear idea how, or from where, they got to Madagascar, only
about 2000 years ago. And the late Thor Heyerdahl had no trouble, by
means of his daring Kon-Tiki sea voyage, persuading millions of readers,
in the face of compelling linguistic evidence to the contrary, that the
Pacific Islanders, or at least some them, had come from Peru.
The Austronesians were cultural revolutionaries, associated with
new artistic styles, the development of metalworking and agriculture.
The Pejeng moon was probably imported by Austronesian speakers whose
language was closely related to modern Balinese, at least as closely as
modern English is related to Old English. Drums are not the only ancient
bronze artefacts found on Bali. There are also ceremonial axes, although
none as gorgeous as the specimens from the Lesser Sunda islands to the
east, and anklets and other ornaments. Similar artefacts, featuring spiral
patterns, ship motifs, and friezes of humans and animals, are widespread
from the Asian mainland to eastern Indonesia. This style seems to have
originated between 2500 and 2300 years ago and is known as Dong
Son, after a site in northern Vietnam where many of these items were
produced and presumably traded into the Indonesian Archipelago.
In addition to metal implements, stone sarcophagi and jars used
Moonset at Pejeng
for burials dating from the same period have been found in large numbers
on Bali. There is an excellent, well-displayed collection of them in the
antiquities museum in Bedulu, not far from the Pejeng moon. Most have
been haphazard finds with the human remains they once contained long
vanished, but enough have now been systematically excavated to prove
the existence of a highly stratified society with emphasis on burial rites,
possibly including human sacrifice, and ancestor worship. The overall
pattern is consistent with what we know of similar societies elsewhere
in Indonesia, where some bronze–iron age cultures remained largely
untouched until the colonial era, most notably in Toraja land (Sulawesi),
in the Batak highlands (Sumatra), on Nias off the west coast of Sumatra
and in portions of eastern Indonesia.
The introduction of metal tools was among the most important
aspects of the Austronesian revolution. Iron and bronze implements,
including weapons, appear at the same time, which is why scholars of
the region do not refer to a discrete ‘bronze age’ but rather to a
‘bronze–iron’ age. This chronology is significant because iron tools would
have been necessary—or at least extremely useful—not only for making
the most lethal weapons, but also for clearing the forest and for digging
irrigation tunnels through volcanic rock. These two activities were
essential to the full development of the wet rice agriculture upon which
Balinese civilisation would depend. It is not hard to understand why
metalworkers and their descent groups were accorded privileged status
in early Bali.
We do not know when the Balinese began developing irrigated
rice agriculture, leading to the complex irrigation and terracing which
exist today. Rice itself has been around for a long time. Archaeologists
have found evidence of rice culture on Bali dating to about 2000 years
ago, but there is no way to tell whether it was irrigated or not. Efforts
to date the older portions of the terraces themselves have not yielded
conclusive results thus far.
The question is important, because without the increased produc-
tion made possible by irrigation, the economic surpluses required to
A Short History of Bali
Bali’s magnificently terraced rice fields probably developed gradually, beginning before the
arrival of Indian religion. (Source: Robert Pringle)
finance the artistic and ceremonial aspects of Balinese culture would not
have been possible. Before irrigated rice, there was of course non-irri-
gated or dry rice cultivation, still practised throughout the tropics in hilly
areas, or where water is not available. But it is not nearly as productive.
Except in swampy areas, non-irrigated cultivation requires the
farmer to ‘slash and burn’ the forest cover. The ash from the burning is
an essential source of nutrients, because in most tropical areas without
the benefit of recent volcanic fertilisation, soils are notoriously poor,
due to leaching by the constant warm rains which prevents organic
material from accumulating. As a result, a typical dry rice field can be
used once only or twice before the farmer must abandon it and move
to a new area, or return to an old one covered with secondary growth
and repeat the slash-and-burn process. Irrigation makes possible major
increases in productivity and population, because a watery environment
around the rice plants creates a nutrient-rich stew which sustains growth,
Moonset at Pejeng
even without fertilisation. Because of this, an irrigated field can be
farmed permanently without depleting the soil.
There were two major challenges to be overcome before highly
developed irrigated rice cultivation was possible on Bali: clearing the
forest and mastering the engineering and social-political management
required to channel and distribute water equitably through irrigation
systems stretching for many kilometres. Clearing big trees in old-growth
forest and above all creating complex waterworks, especially tunnels
through rock, required the iron and bronze tools that were both present
by 2000 years ago.
References to wet rice agriculture and specifically to irrigation
tunnel-building occur in some of the earliest inscriptions found on Bali,
dating to the ninth century AD. These inscriptions, written in Indian
script, were part of a broader cultural transfer discussed in the next chapter.
But there is no reason to believe that irrigation itself depended on tech-
nology associated with the adoption of Indian religion and writing. There
is equally little reason to assume that today’s complex agriculture
was created overnight. The Balinese are likely to have initiated it in a
rudimentary way in the more easily irrigated areas, with the water tunnels
and complex canal systems which now exist evolving only gradually. The
Petanu-Pakrisan valleys near the modern Ubud area, the same region
where the moon of Pejeng resides, may have been particularly well suited
for this evolution because the rainfall is relatively low, and the forest
cover for that reason was easier for the Balinese pioneers to clear.1
Were there political preconditions for irrigation? None other than
Karl Marx concluded that the labour mobilisation required for large-
scale water management must have required ‘despotic’ control by
powerful kings. This idea was an important element in his theory of
historical evolution, and it led to the concept of ‘oriental’ or ‘hydraulic’
despotism. From his cold damp seat in the British Museum, Marx even
surmised in 1853 that the Hinduism then being practised on Bali must
be similar to that which had supported such ‘despotism’ in India before
This area between the Petanu and Pakrisan Rivers and the modern towns of Ubud and
Gianyar is the heartland of south Bali. The great bronze drum of Pejeng is located here, it
is likely that complex irrigated rice culture evolved here, and it was probably the location of
the principal royal courts of Old Bali from the ninth to the mid-fourteenth centuries,
although scholarly debate continues on the last two points.
Moonset at Pejeng
More recently, social scientists observing the subak cooperatives
have gone to the other extreme and stressed the egalitarian commu-
nity-based nature of Balinese irrigation management. As we shall see,
however, the historical record indicates that there was indeed a role
for strong kings in the expansion of wet rice agriculture as late as the
eighteenth century, even though they were far from being the oriental
despots of political theory.
The importance of early trade
Recent archaeology on Bali has underlined the importance of trade as
well as agriculture from an early period. Excavations near Gilimanuk
in northwest Bali, where the modern ferry arrives from Java, and at an
ancient port zone around the villages of Julah, Pacung and Sembiran
on the north coast have revealed the existence of trading communities
associated with bronze and iron implements and, in the case of Gili-
manuk, with stone sarcophagi.
Sembiran, a few kilometres east of Singaraja, is particularly impor-
tant. There archaeologists working in the early 1990s found fragments
of a stone stamp used to decorate moulds for the production of bronze
drums. Unlike a similar find from Manuaba in south Bali, this one could
be dated and proved to be about 2000 years old. The drums being manu-
factured in both cases were similar in style to the Pejeng moon, although
much smaller; the stamp fragments from south Bali even bear the same
human face motif (see page 38), now among the best-known icons of
early Southeast Asian art.
From these mould fragments we know that bronze drums were
manufactured locally using the lost wax process. Such casting would
have required a considerable degree of metallurgical and mechanical
skill. Moreover, neither copper nor tin, the components of bronze, is
found in quantity on Bali. Hence the raw materials would necessarily
have been imported, evidence of long-distance trade with the island
by roughly 2000 years ago.
A Short History of Bali
The decorations on the side of the great Pejeng drum, including this famous face motif,
are similar to those found on fragments of stone stamps used to decorate bronze drum
moulds, which prove that similar but smaller drums were locally made. This drawing
was made in 1906 by Dutch artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, the first European to record the
drum. (Source: From Van Heekeren, The Bronze-Iron Age of Indonesia, courtesy of
Equally significant, the Sembiran dig also produced quantities of
rouletted ware pottery, named for its incised design pattern, which was
definitely manufactured in India. This find is fascinating and unusual;
it is not typical of other early sites in island Southeast Asia, where
evidence of trade with China tends to predominate, mainly in the form
of ceramics. We have no idea whether the pottery was brought by Indian
traders, or by Indonesian or other middlemen, but direct contact
between Bali and India is certainly a possibility.
It should not be assumed that such contact, if it took place, had
anything to do with the introduction of Indian religion to Bali. The
Moonset at Pejeng
timing is wrong: it would have predated by several hundred years the
first evidence of Hinduism or Buddhism anywhere in Indonesia. More
than a thousand years later Islamicisation provides a parallel: Muslims
were visiting and trading in Indonesia centuries before widespread
conversion to Islam took place.
Bali on the eve of Indianisation
What does all this tell us about the end of prehistory on Bali? It seems
clear that by about 1500 years ago, two important types of develop-
ment were underway: commercial and agricultural. There were trading
centres in the west and especially on the north coast, at Gilimanuk,
Sembiran and elsewhere. Although the majority of the island remained
forested, irrigated agriculture was most likely already in existence in
the Petanu-Pakrisan valleys and quite possibly elsewhere. A high and
increasingly affluent culture existed which would have looked familiar
to a modern inhabitant of Nias, Tanah Toraja, Flores, Roti or any other
region in Indonesia where bronze–iron era heritage has remained strong
to this day.
There was trade between the Pakrisan-Petanu area in the south
and the ports in the north. These ports may have existed initially to
conduct beach-based trade in rare woods, rattans, exotic birds, and the
forest products used in early medicine. But they would have been increas-
ingly oriented to serve the developing agriculture-based southern
settlements, requiring trans-Bali transport routes across the uplands and
eventually motivating the southern rulers to exert control over them.
Of course, there might have been trade through small ports in south
Bali as well, although as yet we have no evidence of it.
We know nothing about the politics of Bali in the immediate
pre-Indian period or the names of any of the rulers, who did not possess
writing and thus could not leave records. It is unlikely that any of them
aspired to rule beyond a limited area, if only because the concept of
A Short History of Bali
kingship, of monarchy divinely ordained to rule beyond the limits of
extended family, probably arrived only with Indian civilisation. For that
reason, the bronze–iron age rulers are best thought of as chiefs, not
But we can assume that by the eighth century at the latest, the
high chiefs of the Pakrisan-Petanu area, no doubt including the lord of
the Pejeng moon, were increasingly in contact with the commercial
north and through it with the outside world. By this time relatively
powerful Indianised states existed in central Java. They left great monu-
ments, including the splendid Borobodur temple, with its murals
depicting sophisticated ships, testimony to an already well-developed
seafaring tradition. The Balinese chiefs would have learned more about
conditions beyond Bali as their interest in trade developed. They would
have been poised to move beyond ancestor and volcano worship, and
to take advantage of the social and technological assets, especially access
to literacy, offered by a powerful world religion already being practised
elsewhere in Indonesia. In other words, the political foundation for
Indianisation was in place.
FROM INDIANISATION TO THE MAJAPAHIT EMPIRE (NINTH TO SIXTEENTH CENTURIES)
The three most important features of Balinese history, it could be argued,
were the development of irrigated rice agriculture, the adoption of Indian
religion and civilisation, and the growth of tourism. But of these three,
it is the Hindu religion in its distinctive local variation which famously
defines Bali today. How and why did Indian civilisation reach this island,
so distant from the Indian subcontinent?
The Indianisation of Bali was far from an isolated process. From
approximately the fifth century onwards, major Indianised states devel-
oped throughout what we now call Southeast Asia, a term not invented
until World War II. Before that, the region was known as ‘Further India’,
and the great island chain of which Bali is part was the ‘Indian Archi-
pelago’. Indeed, until modern times ‘India’ remained more a cultural
than a political concept. Some of the greatest Indian art of all time
was created on Java, the most famous example being the Borobodur, a
Buddhist monument. Indeed, the term ‘Hinduisation’, although often
A Short History of Bali
used, is somewhat misleading in this context. In fact the religions which
took root in Indonesia were variants of both Hinduism and Buddhism,
often coexisting or intermingled.
During the nineteenth century, Western ethnologists coined the
term ‘Indonesia’. Later, in the 1920s, the leaders of the new national-
ist movement adopted it to name the country they hoped to establish.
Like ‘the Indies’, ‘Indonesia’ evoked an ancient Indian political heritage.
This was compatible with nationalist aspirations because the greatest
pre-colonial state, Majapahit, was also the last and most potent of the
Indianised states in the archipelago, laying admittedly dubious claim to
an area roughly congruous with modern Indonesia. Majapahit’s Hindu-
Buddhist heritage was moreover useful for a generation of nation-builders
struggling to unify a culturally diverse nation and involved in a passion-
ate debate, which continues today, over the role of a more recently
arrived religion, Islam.
The summoning of the Brahmans
For years scholars struggled to decide how and why Indian religion spread
across Southeast Asia. Early Western visitors, intrigued by the grand
monuments they found and unwilling to accept that local populations
had been capable of constructing them, assumed that Indian conquest
or colonisation must have taken place. Others thought that Indian
traders were the most likely vehicle since, as we have seen, they had
been in commercial contact with Southeast Asia well before Indianised
states developed there.
Today it is generally accepted that the transfer of Indian religion,
like most great religious conversions, was primarily a political process.
The key agents of change were local rulers who sought not merely a
new form of worship, but access to a new social, political and techno-
logical world order. Christianity appealed in much the same way to the
pagan leaders of Europe in the waning days of the Roman Empire.
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
Indianisation brought a revolutionary change in political perspec-
tive. As noted in the last chapter, bronze–iron age chieftains, no matter
how powerful personally, typically had no concept of rule beyond the
limits of extended kinship (clan or tribe). But a central feature of the
Indian system was the concept of the universal monarch, or cakravartin,
whose divinely ordained authority extended indefinitely. Indian civil-
isation conveyed technology of all sorts, from law codes to architectural
manuals. It meant access to literacy and to a great tradition full of useful
concepts, both secular and divine. Indian religion did not drive out
earlier belief patterns such as ancestor worship, but integrated and built
around them, much as Christianity has assimilated many pagan beliefs,
feast days and stylistic components, from Halloween to Christmas trees.
The key agent in this process was the brahman, who in the ancient
Indian system was a priest, but also and more importantly a presti-
gious advisor to kings. Thus historians speak of the ‘summoning of the
brahmans’ to denote that crucial if hypothetical moment when local
rulers decided that they would avail themselves of this powerful new
At first, such conversions may have been motivated by desire to
gain advantage over more backward neighbours. Later, for the laggards,
it was no doubt a need to catch up with the latest political fashion.
Yet, as we have already seen, the process of Indianisation, like the later
process of Islamicisation, was slow and never complete, and some peoples
of Indonesia retained their prehistoric religions and political systems
until modern times.
We do not know the details of how or why Bali became Indianised.
The broader theory of Indianisation does not necessarily apply, for the
simple reason that Bali, then as now, was a minor political element in
a Java-dominated context. Contacts with Java may have been well
developed in prehistoric times, and dynastic interrelationships with
already Indianised Javanese courts may have played a dominant role in
the introduction of the new order, rather than independent decisions
by local rulers to summon a brahman or two.
A Short History of Bali
The Dutch, when they completed the conquest of the island in
the early twentieth century, were already well embarked on the study
of the great Indianised kingdoms of Java. Recognising Bali’s importance
as a repository of Hindu-Indonesian culture, and entranced by what
they found, they began looking in earnest for evidence to reconstruct
early Balinese history. This activity picked up pace between the two
world wars, when Dutch scholars investigated artefacts, linked them
with local traditions, and began training a first generation of Balinese
The oldest physical evidence of Indianisation on Bali is a collec-
tion of small sun-dried clay stupas and seals, the latter impressed with
Buddhist images and fragments of religious texts (mantras). Many of
them were manufactured locally. They are dated to the eighth or ninth
centuries and were revealed by a landslide in 1924 near Pejeng, the
site of the great bronze drum discussed in Chapter 2. They are signi-
ficant for three reasons. First, the mantras on them, written in an old
north Indian script, are in the tantric tradition, with its strong empha-
sis on magic. It is a tradition which runs through the subsequent history
of Balinese culture, including most famously the phenomenon of trance
and the emphasis on witchcraft.
Second, the stupas and seals indicate the existence of links between
Bali and the Sailendra empire of Sumatra and Central Java, and with
a widespread international religious establishment which led to the
movement of clerics and scholars between India and China via Indone-
sia. Numerous small stupas identical in style have been found in the
vicinity of the Borobudur in Central Java.2 This great monument was
probably completed in about 824.
The Borobudur was the product of an already highly developed
state, located only a few hundred kilometres from Bali, on an island
where Indian religions had been established for more than three
centuries. We have seen that trade routes along the north coast, linking
Bali with India, existed by approximately 2000 years ago. Thus it is
probable that the Balinese were in contact with the Indianised realms
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
on Java and possibly elsewhere well before the first physical evidence
of local Indianisation. Indeed, conversion may have started even before
the ninth century.
One authority speculates that the absence of royal inscriptions
dating to before the late ninth century signifies only that Bali may have
been under the control of a Javanese ruler who would not have issued
such edicts locally.3 That ruler would have been the lord of old
Mataram, a Hindu kingdom which ruled in Central Java just before the
Buddhist Sailendras who constructed the Borobodur. (Old Mataram
should not be confused with the much later Muslim Sultanate of
Third, the Pejeng stupas and seals are Mahayana Buddhist, not
Hindu. But it is important not to overemphasise this distinction, for
there is often no clear division between these two great world religions
in early Southeast Asia. Buddhism in this setting was one of many essen-
tially similar Indian-derived cults. Royalty could and did emphasise
different cults at different times.
When rulers were personified as deities and worshipped in god-
king cults they sometimes fused Hinduism and Buddhism, producing
funerary images of themselves as ‘Shiva-Buddha’, as did the Javanese
king, Kertenagara, who invaded Bali in 1284. Hinduism and Buddhism
still coexist on Bali where, although the primary emphasis is now on
Shiva, certain priests are still associated with Buddha. As we shall see,
the court religion of the Majapahit empire, remembered in Balinese
tradition as the major source of modern Balinese Hindu culture, was
History as opposed to prehistory begins on Bali with the advent of
inscriptions written in Indian scripts on stone and on copper plates. For
the first time we learn the names of kings and something of their social
A Short History of Bali
and political concerns. The very earliest inscription dates to 896, but
does not mention the name of the reigning monarch. I have used the
term ‘Old Balinese’ to describe the period from this time up to the
conquest of Bali by the Majapahit empire in 1343.
By the tenth century, a clearly Balinese dynasty named Varmadeva
was ruling the inhabited area of south Bali, perhaps filling a vacuum
left by waning Javanese power. The first ruler of this line erected an
inscribed pillar found at Sanur on the south coast, a location which was
to figure prominently in later Balinese history. Dated 914, the Sanur
pillar is reminiscent of those created by the famous Indian king, Asoka.
It is the first inscription to name a ruler, Adhipatih (King) Sri Kesari
Varma. It was written in a combination of Old Balinese and Sanskrit
languages using two scripts, one of them the north Indian script used
for the Pejeng seals, and the other Old Javanese (Kawi). This complex
mingling of languages and scripts indicates that the ruler was not prima-
rily interested in communicating with his people. Rather, the inscription
served to emphasise his status and supernatural authority.
The Sanur pillar commemorates a successful expedition to conquer
settlements which may have been located either on Nusa Penida, visible
only a few miles offshore, or, more impressively, in the distant islands
of Maluku in eastern Indonesia. The same king left two other inscrip-
tions, at inland locations, which indicate that he was also at war with
enemies in the mountainous interior of Bali. Revered locally, the Sanur
pillar remains where it was found, in the now urbanised village of Belan-
jong, just off a busy street serving the modern hotels on Sanur Beach.
Writing of the Sanur inscription and two earlier ones, Georges
Coedès, the great French historian of early Southeast Asia, noted, ‘These
inscriptions reveal a Hindu-Balinese society, independent of Java,
making use of a dialect particular to the island and practising Buddhism
and Sivaism at the same time’.4
Indianisation brought with it a penchant for jaw-breaking names.
Thus in 962 a king of the Varmadeva Dynasty named Chandra-
bhayasimha Varmadeva constructed a reservoir at the holiest spring on
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
the island, located near Tampaksiring. Known as Tirta Mpul, the ancient
bathing place is today frequently visited by foreigners and is still a holy
place for Balinese. A commemoration stone kept in a nearby village
marks its foundation.
The villagers who preserved this stone could not decipher the
ancient lettering on it, but they knew it was important, kept it wrapped
in white cloth to protect it from evil spirits, and provided it with regular
offerings. In addition they took it to the Tirta Mpul spring in the fourth
month of every year at full moon to bathe it in the holy waters. When
a Dutch archaeologist deciphered the inscription, it revealed that the
founding had indeed taken place in the fourth month at full moon in
962. ‘Thus,’ he commented, ‘the people have kept alive the connec-
tion between stone and watering place for almost one thousand years,
and have always celebrated its anniversary ceremony on the correct day;
but of the true meaning of this connection every recollection was lost.’5
No one familiar with the intense and enduring Balinese fascination
with calendars and everything pertaining to the reckoning of time can
be surprised by this engaging story.
A few years later the first truly memorable Balinese monarchs
appear. This time they are a royal couple, with the queen in the lead
role and the husband acting like a prince consort. Her name was Mahen-
dradatta, or Gunapriyadharmapatni (‘spouse of virtue’s friend’), and she
was the granddaughter of Sindok, a powerful Javanese king. Her consort,
Udayana, was a Balinese of the reigning Varmadeva Dynasty and clearly
a strong figure in his own right. He is known from a portrait statue
with another, later wife, kept at the mist-shrouded Tegeh Koripan temple
on the rim of Lake Batur, Bali’s highest mountain shrine. Udayana
University in Denpasar is named after him, as is the regional military
command. But Mahendradatta is always mentioned before Udayana in
their joint decrees, and she is credited with a significant increase of
Javanese influence at the Balinese court. From this point on, all royal
decrees on Bali were written in Old Javanese rather than Old Balinese.
Mahendradatta’s marriage to Udayana came to a bad end, with
A Short History of Bali
King Airlangga was son of a Balinese king and
a Javanese queen who may have been the
prototype of the demonic witch Rangda.
He became king of Java early in the eleventh
century after which his youngest brother
ruled Bali. This statue, now in an East
Javanese museum, shows him as Vishnu
mounted on the supernatural bird Garuda.
(Source: Robert Pringle)
consequences which continue to reverberate in Balinese legend (see
below), but not before the birth of a famous son, Airlangga, in 991. Repre-
sented as the six-armed Hindu goddess Durga, this memorable queen may
be portrayed by a statue in a temple at Kutri, not far from Ubud.
The half-Balinese Airlangga returned to his mother’s homeland
and came of age in the Javanese capital, where he was probably assigned
to administer a province. Catastrophe struck in 1016, when an unknown
adversary, perhaps the rival state of Srivijaya, based on Sumatra, killed
the reigning Javanese king and sacked the royal palace. In the best
Indian tradition foreshadowing future greatness, Prince Airlangga took
refuge with holy men in a remote mountain area. But high-ranking
brahmans sought him out and begged him to accept the throne. He
did so and was crowned king of a much diminished Javanese realm in
1019, with the title (take a deep breath) of Sri Maharaja Rakai Halu
Sri Lokesvara Darmavamsa Airlangga Anantavikramottungadeva.
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
It took Airlangga almost two decades to restore and then expand
his kingdom. He may never have lived on Bali, and probably left its
affairs to be managed by a sibling. Before his death in 1049 he somewhat
inexplicably divided his Javanese realm in two, perhaps because he had
no legitimate offspring and wanted to arrange matters so as to avoid
squabbling among the offspring of his concubines. His reign was a period
which saw a flowering of culture and international trade in Indonesia
generally and apparent peace between hitherto antagonistic Javanese
and Sumatran kingdoms, with evidence of extensive international trade.
Airlangga was memorialised in East Java at Candi Belahan. A
candi is a royal funerary monument, maintained as a temple where a
deceased monarch is worshipped by later generations. The site was
marked by one of the greatest masterpieces of early Indonesian art (later
relocated to a nearby museum), a statue of Airlangga as the god Vishnu
mounted on the giant mythical bird Garuda, one of modern Indonesia’s
national symbols. Airlangga was the only native son besides President
Sukarno, who was also half-Balinese, ever to rule both Java and Bali,
and he is still celebrated in local traditions.
Airlangga was eventually succeeded on Bali by his youngest
brother, referred to in inscriptions as Anak Wungsu, which indeed means
‘youngest brother’, who was nonetheless a powerful king. The same
dynasty continued to hold sway over Bali throughout the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries, gradually trailing off into obscurity. It is these kings
and queens who are memorialised in the tourist-circuit royal monu-
ments at Gunung Kawi. Scholars have found it difficult to determine
exactly which monarch goes with which monument because their
posthumous names often differed from the names they used while living.
There was one more memorable Old Balinese ruler, a bureaucratic whirl-
wind named Jayapangus, who issued no fewer than 30 inscriptions on
a single day in 1181, one of them quoted later in this chapter, but about
whom little more is known.
Bali continued to be influenced by the rhythm of politics on Java.
Relative independence was typical of times when Java was weak. But
A Short History of Bali
in the mid-thirteenth century Airlangga’s realm was reunited under
a powerful monarch, Kertanegara of Singasari in East Java. Profiting
from the decline of the Sumatra-based empire of Srivijaya, he embarked
on an aggressive course, expanding his realm to West Java and parts
of the Malayan peninsula. In 1284 he invaded Bali, returning to Java
with its king as prisoner. But this first Javanese conquest did not
Kertanegara is otherwise famous for addiction to tantric Buddhism,
characterised by a mysticism sometimes expressed through erotic and
macabre rites. His palace art, often superb, is memorable for garlands
of skulls around demonic figures. He had the appealing audacity to
insult and possibly mutilate an envoy sent to Java by the Mongol
emperor Kublai Khan, an affront which led to a brief and unsuccess-
ful Mongol invasion of Java in 1293. By the time the Mongols arrived
Kertanegara was already dead, and a time of turmoil ensued on Java.
Eventually the new kingdom of Majapahit was founded. One can
imagine why Bali was probably left to its own devices during these
With the exception of Udayana and Airlangga, almost nothing is
known about the personal histories or characters of the various Old
Balinese kings. But we do know that they were able to accumulate
enough wealth to support a complex religious establishment, thanks to
the development of irrigated agriculture. And because they left a remark-
able variety of inscriptions we know something about their relationship
with their people, and even their economic interests.
Many Old Balinese inscriptions, some on stone but most engraved
on copper plates, were zealously preserved by villagers in the localities
concerned, where they often remain, and new ones are still being discov-
ered. In September 2002, sixteen of them were found under a tree in
north Bali, leading to a well-publicised dispute between two villages
over which would get to keep them. Written initially in the Old Bali-
nese language, later in Old Javanese, they record important royal
decisions, often contractual in nature, which were frequently the product
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
This copper plate inscription recording a royal decree is typical of many dating from the
ninth to thirteenth centuries recording decisions by Old Balinese monarchs. Many of them
have been preserved in Balinese villages, and new ones are still being discovered.
(Source: Robert Pringle)
of negotiation between the king and village communities. They were
inscribed on copper to give them permanence, in contrast to the easily
decayed palm-leaf manuscripts which were the standard of written
communication. They sometimes conclude with hair-raising impreca-
tions aimed at anyone who should attempt to violate the decisions which
How far did royal writ extend? The inscriptions confirm that some
if not all of the Old Bali monarchs aspired to rule the entire island,
whether or not they actually did so. These texts have been unearthed
in both north and south Bali, and many of the earliest are from the
highland territory of the Bali Aga in the centre of the island. If nothing
else, this suggests that the rulers wanted to exert control over both the
agricultural south and the commercial north, as well as the trade route
A Short History of Bali
between them. Much later, any full-fledged Balinese realm needed a
foothold on the seacoast as well as in the uplands for religious and
symbolic reasons, in addition to a court located in the symbolic centre
of the kingdom.
The leading Balinese scholar and analyst of these texts, I Wayan
Ardika, believes that the Old Balinese monarchy was resident primarily
in south Bali, in the Pejeng-Bedulu area, although the exact site of the
royal court or courts is not known. The location of the Gunung Kawi
royal monuments appears to reinforce this theory. In any case, judging
from later practice, it is likely that monarchs had to travel constantly
to keep their ill-defined realms together.
The inscriptions reveal lively dialogues between Old Balinese rulers
and their people. One, dated 1025, records that villagers living on the
edge of Lake Batur have successfully petitioned the monarch to be
allowed to purchase a tract of land which had hitherto been part of the
royal hunting preserve, explaining that the land they had was too dry
to support their growing flocks.
A series of six inscriptions dating from 922 to 1181 concerns the
port community of Julah in north Bali, near one of the excavation
sites dating to prehistoric times mentioned in Chapter 2. By the eleventh
century, Julah had a population of 300 families, perhaps 1500 individ-
uals. However small, it was a cosmopolitan trading community probably
quite similar to contemporary port towns on the neighbouring north
In one of the earlier inscriptions the king spells out regulations
and obligations for the inhabitants following an attack by unidentified
enemies, perhaps pirates, who had killed or driven away most of the
inhabitants. The ruler urges those who fled the town to return and help
rebuild it, and grants them relief from taxes. Other edicts mention the
special status accorded foreign merchants, who lived in a separate
community with their own headman. Some describe salvage regulations
similar to those that centuries later were to embroil Balinese rulers in
controversy with the Dutch. Proceeds from salvaged cargo were to be
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
devoted to welfare, while any timbers recovered from a shipwreck were
to be used to maintain the stockade around the community.
The citizens had many duties, including the defence of the port
against attackers, and they were subject to some rather intrusive regu-
lations. They were not allowed to pick certain kinds of fruits or tubers,
or to abuse certain domestic animals, or to bring wild animals into their
houses. Certain kinds of trees with religious or economic significance
were protected, such as the spirit-shrouded, shade-giving banyan tree
and another used for making red dye, and there was an official in charge
of forestry. It is less clear what citizens received from the king in return
for their services.
Taxes were a major preoccupation. In the final edict of the series,
issued by King Jayapangus in 1181, we learn that the king’s tax collec-
tors are tired of complaints and litigation. Royal annoyance, etched in
copper, echoes down through the centuries, giving this pronouncement
a surprisingly modern flavour. Note the emphasis on the importance of
the king’s wives (descendants of the moon). The term ‘Haji’ as used
here was an Old Javanese title meaning ‘lord’ and apparently had no
connection with the more familiar Islamic usage. Note also the refer-
ence to ‘balidwipamandala’, translated here as ‘the state of Bali’; the literal
meaning would be ‘Bali-land-network’. The term mandala, or network,
was drawn from ancient Indian texts on governance. It described a circu-
lar pattern of alliances or ‘circle of kings’,6 usually unstable and with at
best vaguely defined borders, and a ruler claiming sovereignty, in this
case Jayapangus, at the centre.
The Saka year 1103 [1181 AD], the month of July-August,
the ninth day of the fifth week, . . . the week of Wayang-
At that time the order of Paduka Haji Sri Maharaja
Jayapangus (the descendant of the sun) [the king]
And his two wives, Paduka Bhatari Sri Parmeswari
(descendant of the moon)
A Short History of Bali
And Paduka Sri Mahadewi (descendant of the moon)
is given to all senapatis [state officials]
The order of Paduka Haji [the king] is brought to
the assembly particularly to the priests of Shiva and Buddha
and the great brahmans.
The reason for the order of Paduka Sri Maharaja to
them is that he heard about the villagers of Julah who were
worrying about their problems without being able to solve
These problems are boring to discuss.
They have had additional taxes imposed on them by
the tax collectors. The villages of Julah and Kaduran orig-
inally were ruled by Julah itself. This village now has
become part of the state of Bali [balidwipamandala].
Paduka Sri Maharaja knows correct procedures and
has heard the essence of the book of Manawa Kamandhaka
[a legendary Indian law code, The Laws of Manu]. He is
striving after virtue and the welfare of the state which he
takes care of, as well as the stability of the state.
It is the nature of the supreme ruler/king with his
wives to create the stability of the state. Therefore, Paduka
Sri Maharaja [Jayapangus] gives an explanation . . .
The king goes on to spell out a resolution of the dispute in great detail.7
Indeed, there would seem to have been cause for popular resent-
ment of taxes: there were taxes in money or kind on buildings, ships,
making lime or charcoal, on cattle, cockfighting, construction activity
and even breeding animals. In one of the later inscriptions the king
grants relief from some of the taxes after another attack on the port.
There were also many requirements for community services in addi-
tion to defence against raiders, including maintenance of monasteries,
shrines, bathing places, fish ponds, roads, graves, the harbour stockade,
and the supply of provisions for ceremonies.
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
Statues of Old Balinese royalty are revered in a sanctuary at Mt Penulisan, the highest
point on the rim of the volcanic caldera around Lake Batur. This and other evidence
suggests that the Bali Aga people who live in this upland area enjoyed a special relationship
with the Old Balinese monarchs. (Source: Robert Pringle)
The Old Balinese kings were equally concerned about people, espe-
cially skilled workers, no doubt recognising that royal revenue and royal
power depended on them. The inscriptions mention more than 20 profes-
sions, including metalworkers, lime and charcoal makers, cloth and mat
weavers, cloth dyers (including specialists in both red and blue dyeing),
specialists in resist dyeing (ikat), stonemasons, boat makers, rice millers,
musicians (including both singers and gamelan players), dancers and
irrigation tunnel diggers. There are references to what were probably
village officials and to varieties of weights, measures and coinage.
Smiths or metalworkers were in a separate category. A special offi-
cial, the supervisor of smiths (juru pandé), was responsible for overseeing
A Short History of Bali
them, and they were required to live in one place. That they got such
close attention from the state is hardly surprising, given that metal-
working was associated with magical power and that metal products had
strategic as well as economic value. A royal permit was required for the
manufacture of wavy-bladed krisses (daggers) and for the crowbars which
were used for agriculture as well as, most importantly, for the construc-
tion of irrigation tunnels. It is not clear whether the monarch attempted
to monopolise trade in such metal items, but it seems likely.
We may assume that warfare was endemic, as it continued to be
down to the colonial period, but we know little about the nature of Old
Balinese warfare. As the Dutch were to learn, the Balinese were truly
a martial people who fought tenaciously and with dangerous guile. Given
the terrain, especially in the south, one may imagine a warfare of raids
and ambushes. Weapons included bows and arrows, long lances, krisses
and blowpipes similar to those still used in forested areas elsewhere in
the archipelago. Krisses were often beautifully crafted, imbued with
sacred and magical properties, and seen as repositories of power. Javanese
literature from the fourteenth century contains what may be a refer-
ence to ritual taking of heads, and the custom may have existed on
Bali as late as the nineteenth century.8
Old Bali did not lack for international contact. Trade with India,
China and, of course, with Java undoubtedly continued. As we have
seen, the clay seals and stupas of Pejeng bear witness to cosmopolitan
religious influences from the beginning of Balinese history. The pace
and content of Indianisation, an ongoing process, was influenced
by such factors as pilgrims travelling to the holy places of India and by
dynastic contacts with Java and beyond.
Old Balinese monarchs were apparently sufficiently prestigious
to intermarry with the royal families of major foreign powers elsewhere
in Southeast Asia. A Cambodian inscription of the early eleventh
century suggests that a Balinese prince named Narapativiravarman was
ruling the Angkorian Empire in 1002. It is possible that this prince
was none other than the brother of King Udayana, the father of
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
Airlangga, and that Udayana himself may have held the Angkorian
throne for a time under the title of Udayadityavarman I.9
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Java, kings were typically
associated with specific deities and posthumously worshipped as gods.
This most famous aspect of early Southeast Asian statecraft permeates
Old Balinese as well as Javanese art. Royal cults facilitated the inte-
gration of traditional ancestor worship into the new religious order.
Local deities identified with the ancestors were adorned with new
Indian-style titles, sometimes with names that sounded like Sanskrit
but were actually Sanskritised Balinese names.
There were Hindu and Buddhist priests, no doubt, but there were
also folk priests, the successors of village shamans. Indeed, the prehis-
toric distinction between political/military leaders and religious leaders,
which survived in nearby eastern Indonesia, and probably existed on
pre-Hindu Bali as well, synchronised neatly with the Indian distinction
between brahmana priests and satria warrior-kings. In general, on Bali
as on Java, the earliest Indian art is the closest to classic Indian models,
while later art shows a gradual reappearance of ancestor worship and
prehistoric style mingled with Indian-derived content. Javanese influ-
ence ebbed and flowed, but on balance the degree of interaction and
influence from the larger island increased over time.
Today the tone and character of Javanese and Balinese culture
often seem far apart, most obviously in the arts, with the Javanese famous
for refinement, muted tones in art and music, and languorous under-
statement, while the Balinese accent falls on bright colour, emphatic
rhythm and bold drama. Bali’s modern stylistic distinctiveness vis-à-vis
Java extends to other realms, from the Balinese penchant for highly
structured social organisation to the pervasive competition between
multiple descent groups.
Some scholars believe that this cultural contrast may be a rela-
tively recent phenomenon resulting from later history: Java’s conversion
to Islam and its much longer exposure to a brand of Dutch rule which
was both harsher and more transforming in its impact. In that case,
A Short History of Bali
Demonic Rangda has descended the temple steps and is now engaged with kris-wielding
dancers in a classic contest between the cosmic forces of left and right, or good and evil.
Later benevolent Barong will make his entrance, but neither side ever ‘wins’. No dance did
more to make Bali famous. (Source: Robert Pringle)
the contrast between Old Java and Old Bali may have been less marked
than what we see today.
It is also likely that more of what characterises modern Balinese
culture dates back to Old Bali, and less to later influence from Majapahit,
than is generally believed by the Balinese themselves. In the period just
before the Majapahit invasion, Balinese art was already moving away
from classical Indian models towards a style which foreshadowed that
of modern Bali. Willem Stutterheim saw the trend in a fourteenth-
century waterspout found at Pejeng, ‘superabundant in form, baroque,
One element of Balinese culture present almost from the begin-
ning derived from the tantric system of esoteric practices which occurs
in variants of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Tantric Buddhist influ-
ence is evident in the inscriptions on the Pejeng stupas and seals, the
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
oldest of all Indian-era relics. It is also visible in the story of Airlangga’s
mother, Queen Mahendradatta, the Javanese princess who married King
Udayana late in the tenth century.
According to legend, the high-born Mahendradatta was a prac-
titioner of occult arts. She is said to have turned against her husband
when he broke his pledge not to take another wife. Spurned and
then banished, she fled to the forest. There she became the proto-
type of the demonic, blood-dripping Rangda, meaning ‘widow’ or
‘witch.’ In the Calon Arang story and the Barong dance sequence,
Rangda still frightens thousands of children and their parents, includ-
ing tourists, every year. One version of the legend, in which the
enraged Rangda visits pestilence on Bali, may be a folk memory of
the bubonic plague which was beginning to spread in Asia during
The Majapahit conquest
In 1343 the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit invaded Bali, unseated
the reigning monarch and established some degree of control. Most of
what we know about this event is based on a court chronicle in epic
poem form, the Desawarnana. A Dutch philologist found a copy of it
in a Balinese temple on the island of Lombok when he accompanied
the military expedition of 1894, described in the next chapter. Much
later, Queen Wilhemina returned it to President Soeharto during a visit
The Desawarnana is justifiably famous, portraying as it does the
Majapahit Empire, a major precursor of the modern Indonesian state,
at the height of its power. It was written by the court poet Rakawi
Prapanca in 1365, during the reign of King Rajasanagara, better
known as Hayam Wuruk. The king was assisted by a powerful prime
minister, Gadjah Mada, renowned as the architect of Majapahit
A Short History of Bali
There are two sections in the Desawarnana that refer to events in
Bali, both of them interesting. Canto 49 describes the conquest in
Further in the Saka year ‘arrows-season-eyes-navel’ (1265,
The King of Bali was evil and base—
He was attacked by an army, broken and completely crushed;
Every kind of evildoer was fearful and made off quickly.12
The second major reference, concerning royal authority and the organ-
isation of the Buddhist clergy on Bali, comes in Canto 79:
Among the outer islands Bali conforms with all the customs
The status of sanctuaries, hermitages and kuwu has been
checked and put in order:
The Buddhist Superintendent in Badahulu, Badaha and
Lwa Gajah is not careless,
He supervises all the Buddhist foundations and is sent out
by the King to watch over them.13
The poem suggests an ongoing special relationship between Majapahit
and Bali, not surprising in view of an already long if uneven history of
close relations between rulers of the two islands. It also underscores
the importance of Buddhism at the court of Majapahit, suggesting that
there might have been friction with a predominately Shivaite and possi-
bly disloyal Balinese religious establishment.
The Majapahit rulers sent Buddhist priests to Bali and the other
eastern islands to look after their dharmas (domains), which ‘were meant
to be strongholds of Javanese cultural and dynastic loyalty . . . They
seem to have left no clear traces in the country. Perhaps this fact is
another indication of the ephemeral existence of Majapahit Court
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
A demonic figure (once thought to represent an elephant) guards the entrance to Goa
Gajah, a cave where Buddhist holy men may have meditated. This site in the Old Bali
heartland near Bedulu is mentioned in the Javanese poem Desawarnana written in 1365.
An extensive bathing place associated with the sanctuary was not excavated until the
1950s. (Source: Robert Pringle)
Buddhism in Bali’.14 The third stanza of Canto 79 clearly refers to
Bedulu, in the Old Balinese heartland, and to Lwa Gajah, probably
today’s Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave, as ‘principal places’, and the
next canto goes on to name nine additional Buddhist domains in Bali.
The long list of Majapahit’s far-flung possessions claimed in the
Desawarnana should not be taken literally. The court poet was striving
to enhance the reputation of his royal patron, not to write history in
the modern sense. But no one doubts that Majapahit invaded nearby
Bali, or that it remained under Majapahit rule for some period of time.
While the poem indicates that the Majapahit rulers were keenly inter-
ested in the patronage of religious establishments, including those on
A Short History of Bali
Bali, the kingdom probably possessed only rudimentary administrative
capacity. Like other Indian-style states, Majapahit relied primarily on
a combination of alliances, personal charisma, the projection of magical
power and occasional displays of military force.
For some period of time, Balinese resistance to the invasion contin-
ued in the Bedulu-Pejeng area, the epicentre of Old Balinese strength.
According to the Balinese royal chronicle Babad Dalem, Gadjah Mada
appointed the son of his teacher, a Javanese prince named Kresna Kapak-
isan, to bring the situation under control. But it was difficult, and before
he could finish the job Kapakisan had to appeal to Gajah Mada for help.
The minister responded by sending his most powerful regalia, includ-
ing a kris named Ki Lobar. At the mere sight of this magical weapon,
the remaining Balinese rebels fled and peace was restored.
Then, in 1352, Kapakisan established what was to become the
Gelgel kingdom, with its capital initially at Samprangan in modern
Gianyar. Kapakisan brought with him a number of Javanese nobles who,
according to the Babad Dalem and other Balinese chronicles, became
the progenitors of many prominent Balinese families. Gelgel may have
been less than independent at first. A Balinese inscription of 1384,
one of the few extant from this period, refers to a King Kudamtra from
Wengker in East Java who apparently held vice-regal power on behalf
of Majapahit. However, following the death of Hayam Wuruk and his
great minister, there were divisions in the Majapahit royal family, and
the Javanese state began to weaken.
The fifteenth century was a period of decline for all the great
Indianised realms of Southeast Asia, and Islam was waiting in the wings.
By this time Malacca, in modern Malaysia, had supplanted Srivijaya,
on Sumatra, as the commercial hub of western Indonesia and the domi-
nant power on the Malacca Straits, a major trade route then as now.
The founder of Malacca was a Hindu-Buddhist king, who late in his
reign, perhaps early in the fifteenth century, converted to Islam. Muslim
merchants had been present in the Indian Archipelago for centuries,
but only now did Islam gradually become a useful instrument of state-
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
craft for ambitious rulers, an evolution similar to that of Hinduism a
thousand years earlier.
The new religion gained increasing strength in reaction to the
growing European presence, which commenced early in the sixteenth
century. The benchmark event in this process was the fall of by-now
Muslim Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511, which threatened the
commercial and political interests of Southeast Asian rulers elsewhere,
but especially on the north coast of Java. Far from suppressing Islam,
the fall of Malacca only served to stimulate its spread.
As Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit declined in the fifteenth century,
new Muslim-ruled states formed around the north Java trading centres.
Majapahit did not fall beneath the hammer blows of an Islamic rival
in some dramatic clash of civilisations, but rather trailed off into obscu-
rity. The final demise of the old regime appears to have occurred between
1513 and 1528; the exact date is not known. A major new player,
Muslim Mataram, gradually established hegemony over Central and
East Java in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Its
primary antagonist was to be the Dutch East India Company, which
had beaten out Portuguese and English rivals for control of the eastern
Indonesian Spice Islands and established its headquarters at Batavia,
now Jakarta, in 1619.
Gelgel and the Golden Age
The two centuries following the Majapahit Conquest are a period which
the Balinese regard as politically and culturally formative. For later
generations of Balinese, ‘Majapahit’ became a code word for the source
of all civilisation. Local tradition has it, for example, that Gunung
Agung, which is equated with Mount Meru, pivot of the Hindu cosmos,
was brought to Bali from Majapahit Java at this time. To this day, Lord
Majapahit is venerated in certain Balinese temples in the guise of a
deer’s head, as a kind of exemplar of civilisation. Majapahit came to
A Short History of Bali
encapsulate an entire cultural legacy and to reinforce the status of those
who could assert ties to it.
Certainly many modern assumptions about Majapahit fall in the
realm of mythology. As we shall see, the Dutch nurtured their own myth
about the Majapahit conquest, namely that an alien, invading Javanese
aristocracy had imposed itself over independent Balinese ‘village republics’
which the colonial rulers liberated and restored. On the other hand, not
all Majapahit influence was mythological. The physical resemblance
between modern Balinese temples and Majapahit monuments, for example,
is striking. The Majapahit state temple, Panataran in East Java, resembles
‘an old and gorgeous version of contemporary Balinese temple art’.15
It is widely believed that as the Islamic scourge swept through Java
there was a physical exodus of refugee Hindu-Buddhist priests and aristo-
crats from the Majapahit court to Bali. In fact, there may have been a
more subtle process of cultural conservation carried out in Balinese courts,
temples and hermitages. Certainly, Balinese consciousness of the Majapahit
heritage remained strong. In the early eighteenth century, according to
contemporary Dutch records, the Balinese on at least three occasions
planned and eventually carried out armed expeditions to Java, much in
the spirit of the mediaeval European crusades, to capture the sacred site
of the old capital, which they believed their ancestors had ruled.
However, the Balinese do not believe that their forebears simply
accepted Majapahit institutions and culture as a whole. This would
hardly accord with the fact that the state religion of Majapahit was
Mahayana Buddhism, which left very few traces on Bali. Rather, the
mainstream Balinese version of events accentuates the importance of
a golden age under the kingdom, mentioned earlier, established by
Kresna Kapakisan in 1352.
This new state got off to a slow start, faltering badly under weak
leadership, until it was deemed necessary to move its capital from
Samprangan to Gelgel, south of modern Klungkung. The move prob-
ably occurred early in the fifteenth century. The next hundred years are
largely a blank in Balinese history. Only in the mid-sixteenth century,
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
almost two centuries after the Majapahit conquest, did the Gelgel
kingdom suddenly reach its apogee under a great ruler named Batu Reng-
gong. During his reign a Hindu brahmana priest and poet, Nirartha,
arrived from Java to be his counsellor.
According to the most widely accepted account, Nirartha is cred-
ited with refashioning Balinese religion into the form known today,
including the caste system. He was the founder of the modern Shivaite
priesthood which now dominates Balinese Hinduism and the ancestor
of all subsequent Shivaite priests. According to this version of events,
it was only through Nirartha’s reforms that the heritage of Majapahit
civilisation could truly flower on Bali.
The Gelgel rulers transformed a prestigious prehistoric terraced
sanctuary in the Besakih complex into their own ancestral temple,
reinforcing their legitimacy and making Besakih Bali’s primary offi-
cial temple. At its peak the Gelgel kingdom supposedly ruled over
a united Bali which included Blambangan and Pasuruhan in East
Java, portions of Lombok and perhaps a foothold on Sumbawa, the
island east of Lombok. The golden age faded fast, but Gelgel lingered
until the end of the seventeenth century, a life span of more than
There is reason to be sceptical about a Gelgelian golden age despite
the continuing acceptance of this version of past events, especially
among the Balinese upper-caste elite. The story is drawn in large part
from the Babad Dalem, only one of several major and numerous minor
pre-colonial Balinese histories, which rarely agree with each other and
which were all written 200 years after the establishment of Gelgel. Inde-
pendent evidence that might confirm or challenge this establishment
narrative is scarce. The post-Majapahit rulers were not in the habit of
leaving numerous edicts on copper plates, as their Old Balinese prede-
cessors had been.
Certainly Gelgel, whether or not it controlled the whole island,
was not just a myth. The first Dutch visitors arrived on Bali in 1597 and
were favourably impressed both by the king, probably Batu Renggong’s
A Short History of Bali
son, and by what they were told about his state. At Kuta they witnessed
an assemblage of troops being sent off to help the king of Blambangan
on the nearby eastern salient of Java. As this suggests, the Balinese were
beginning to flex a considerable amount of expansionist muscle at this
time, intervening on Lombok as well as East Java. Their involvement on
Java was to last almost two centuries and to end only because of Dutch
intervention. Their presence on Lombok was to prove permanent.
By establishing a foothold in Blambangan, the ruler of Gelgel
became an implacable enemy of the rising Muslim sultanate of Mataram,
so much so that in 1633 the Dutch East India Company considered
forming an alliance with Bali against a state which was still vigorously
challenging Dutch control of Java. A few years later Mataram invaded
Balinese Blambangan, and this time it was the Balinese who sought
Dutch help, but in vain. The increasingly powerful sultanate had driven
the Balinese out of Blambangan by 1640, but only temporarily.
The main phases of Balinese expansion to Lombok did not take
place until after the fall of Gelgel. When it began is not clear, but by
the mid-seventeenth century Balinese were struggling for control of
Lombok with Makasarese operating from Sumbawa, the next island to
the east. The Balinese won a decisive victory in 1678, and over the next
century and a half established themselves throughout the entire island,
expelling the Makasarese, subjugating the native Sasak people, who
were and remain Muslim, and even gaining a temporary toehold on
Sumbawa, east of Lombok. They retained this position until the Sasak
rebellion of 1891 which expelled them from east Lombok (see Chap-
ter 6). The Balinese have remained in west Lombok to this day.
This evidence of an ability to project military power is not
however, proof positive that Gelgel united Bali. Indeed, it is not clear
whether it was Gelgel that accomplished the initial expansions
mentioned above. It could have been the other strong Balinese states
that were emerging in this period, either separately or in temporary
alliances. It was the newer states of Mengwi and Buleleng that regained
footholds on Java in the late seventeenth century. The Balinese were
Bali’s imperial phase occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To the east, Balinese lords and their followers
conquered neighbouring Lombok. To the west, they controlled portions of East Java (Blambangan and Pasaruhan). Eventually the
Dutch drove the Balinese out of Java entirely, but they remain in west Lombok to this day.
A Short History of Bali
not finally expelled, this time by the Dutch, until 1771. And it was
Karangasem, in eastern Bali, which completed the conquest of Lombok.
In the absence of better information, the degree of Gelgelian control
over its subordinate rulers, even under Batu Renggong, is impossible to
judge, but from what we know about later Balinese statecraft it would
likely have been sporadic.
Nirartha, the great brahman, may indeed have been a powerful
and creative personage. Probably the most important of his reforms as
described in the Babad Dalem was the creation of what, after further
reinforcement by the Dutch, became the modern Balinese caste system.
But the idea that Balinese civilisation in its entirety sprang from
Majapahit borrowings as modified by Nirartha is, like the Gelgelian
golden age, open to question. Such an interpretation neglects four
preceding centuries of Hindu-Buddhist religion and often intense polit-
ical relationships between Bali and earlier Javanese realms. Why is
this view of history so widely accepted by the Balinese?
To understand, it is important to appreciate the political circum-
stances surrounding the fall of Gelgel. In 1656 Dutch records reported
a ‘new king’ on Bali.16 The last of the Gelgel rulers had been overthrown
by one of his own ministers, Gusti Agung, whose offspring later founded
the powerful Kingdom of Mengwi, discussed in the next chapter. By
1696 members of the Gelgel royal family had reclaimed the throne
and reestablished themselves at nearby Klungkung, not hitherto the
seat of any state.
From this time onwards Klungkung, as the heir of Gelgel and hence
of Majapahit, was to retain a theoretical seniority among the Balinese
kingdoms, its ruler distinguished from the others by a unique and pres-
tigious title, Dewa Agung or ‘great king’. There would be times when
this seniority made a difference, notably in the first stages of the strug-
gle against the Dutch.
But in reality Bali became fragmented into ‘an acrobat’s pyramid
of “kingdoms” of varying degrees of substantial autonomy and effect-
ive power’.17 The most serious players were Karangasem in the east,
From Indianisation to the Majapahit Empire
Buleleng in the north and, in the south, Klungkung, Badung, Tabanan
and Mengwi. Bangli, Gianyar and Jembrana completed the pre-colonial
constellation of states. Today eight of them remain as districts of the
modern province of Bali, the exception being Mengwi, dismembered
by its neighbours in 1891, but leaving as a parting gift one of the most
beautiful state temples on the island.
Given the conditions of acute division which prevailed after the
fall of Gelgel, it was useful, perhaps vital, for aspiring rulers to accen-
tuate the ideal of unity, inspired by the political and cultural model of
Majapahit, as modified on Balinese soil by Nirartha. As Clifford Geertz
put it, ‘Like the myth of The Founding Fathers in the United States,
or of The Revolution in Russia, the myth of The Majapahit Conquest
became the origin tale by means of which actual relations of command
and obedience were explained and justified’.18 Old Bali was almost
forgotten, in part because it seems to have faded from collective memory
by the time most of the Balinese chronicles were written, none of them
before the mid-sixteenth century.
However, the broader reason for the Balinese downgrading of Old
Bali was surely political. While the Majapahit occupation may have been
superficial and short-lived, it resulted in the replacement of some Old
Balinese elites with new ones, although others, rather like the Saxon
gentry of post-Norman Conquest England, were assimilated in the new
order. The post-Majapahit Balinese rulers sought legitimacy by identify-
ing themselves with culture-bearing Javanese nobility, and they—the
winners—were the ones who wrote the Babad Dalem and other histories.
But the ‘losers’—those who had lost power or status with the
demise of Old Bali—did not go away. Although few of them were inte-
grated into the new high-caste nobility, they and their descendants,
some of them associated with the Bali Aga, as well as with the smiths
and other non-caste clans, have continued to exert their own claims
for seniority and equal status.
A Short History of Bali
Why Bali remained Hindu
Why, after the fall of Majapahit, did Bali remain aloof from the archi-
pelagic trend and fail to embrace Islam? Geography is certainly not a
sufficient answer: as noted earlier, the narrow, shallow Bali Strait, which
separates the island from Java, has never been a serious obstacle to
change. Of course there were cultural barriers to Islamic penetration—
fondness for pork is the one most frequently cited—but the same barriers
existed on Java, where conversion to Islam was virtually, if often nomi-
nally, universal. The Balinese had never been markedly anti-Islamic.
Muslim communities continued to exist around the post-Majapahit
Balinese courts, and the Balinese rulers continued to welcome Muslims
as traders and to hire them as soldiers.
Timing gave Hindu Bali political breathing room. There was no
strong Islamic state on Java until the rise of Mataram, which began in
the late sixteenth century, almost a hundred years after the fall of
Majapahit. While Mataram was able to expel the Balinese temporarily
from Blambangan, Gelgel and its successor states remained vigorous
enough to make an invasion of Bali difficult, with or without support
from the Dutch. In any case, Mataram, preoccupied first with rivals on
Java and later with the Dutch, was apparently not tempted by notions
of proselytising with fire and sword among the innumerable pockets of
unbelievers along the island chain east of Java.
Later, Dutch expansion threw Mataram on the defensive. As the
power of the Dutch grew, eventually enabling them to overwhelm their
last serious Indonesian rival, any political advantage which the Bali-
nese rulers might have gained through conversion to Islam diminished
and finally vanished altogether.
THE BALINESE STATE TO THE EVE OF DUTCH CONTROL (SEVENTEENTH
TO NINETEENTH CENTURIES)
Following the fall of Gelgel, nine independent states emerged on Bali.
In time, each of these mini-kingdoms would have its own chronicle
recording its royal genealogies and much more. Each could easily be the
subject of a book, and several have been. These states were to interact
with each other and with Dutch colonial rulers with momentous conse-
quences for the people of Bali. We will be looking at that process in a
later chapter, but in order to do so it is necessary to understand the
nature of these realms.
The mass of factual material available pertinent to all nine
kingdoms is daunting. Fortunately, however, historian Henk Schulte
Nordholt has written a superb account of one of them, the Kingdom of
A Short History of Bali
Mengwi, which was broadly typical of the entire constellation. Drawing
on both Dutch and Balinese sources, Nordholdt tells the story of Mengwi
from its beginnings around 1690 to its demise in 1891. I have attempted
here to summarise the main points of his book, The Spell of Power: A
History of Balinese Politics, and to review, with only minor additions, the
conclusions he draws about Balinese statecraft generally.
There was no such thing as a precise or static ‘pre-colonial’ Balinese
political model. In addition to the differences among the nine states,
each of them was deeply affected by indirect European influences for
two and a half centuries before Dutch conquest, which itself occurred
in fits and starts over a 60-year period, from 1849 to 1908.
Mengwi is located in the west of south Bali, north and a little
west of Denpasar. According to one of its chronicles, the founder of the
state, Agung Anom (lived approximately 1690–1722), was descended
from Gusti Agung, the minister of Gelgel who had overthrown its last
king in the mid-seventeenth century. In his youth, Agung Anom
endured defeat and exile, following which he fought his way to regional
prominence. Then he married a princess of the already powerful north-
ern Balinese kingdom of Buleleng, daughter of a famous ruler named
Panji Sakti (literally, Prince of Supernatural Power).
Agung Anom used this alliance in combination with his own mili-
tary skill to make his new state one of the strongest on Bali, extending
Balinese rule once again to Blambangan, the nearby extremity of eastern
Java. As soon as his political base was established, according to the
Mengwi chronicle, he asked his senior brahmana priest to determine
and narrate his genealogy, in order to tie his lineage to one of the nobles
who had accompanied the first king of Gelgel from Java as prime minis-
ter, and whose descendants had served in this same capacity for later
kings of Gelgel.
With their prestigious ancestry thus firmly grounded, this king and
his successor nonetheless had to struggle constantly to maintain control
over Mengwi’s satellites (‘possessions’ is too strong a word), notably
The Balinese state to the eve of Dutch control
The Kingdom of Mengwi was gobbled up in 1891 by its neighbours, leaving a rich history
as well as its state temple, the wonderful Pura Taman Ayun, originally built in the mid-
eighteenth century. (Source: Robert Pringle)
Buleleng and Blambangan. The Buleleng connection allowed Mengwi
to profit from the ancient international trade route which skirted the
north coast. Even so, by the late eighteenth century both these realms
had broken away—in the case of Blambangan, thanks largely to Dutch
intervention—and Mengwi was reduced to a narrow wedge of territory
stretching about 50 kilometres from the volcanic heights of Bali to its
south coast, with a population of about 85 000 in the late nineteenth
century, the earliest period for which an estimate is available.
Partly due to this loss of territory and prestige, Mengwi declined
into a state of weakness and was almost totally dismembered by its neigh-
bours in 1823. But the kingdom bounced back and enjoyed a second
apogee in the mid-nineteenth century before its final decline and extinc-
tion in 1891.
A Short History of Bali
Mengwi had much in common not only with the other little Bali-
nese states, but with small-scale Indianised realms throughout Southeast
Asia. As noted earlier, the post-Majapahit Balinese kings, unlike their
Old Balinese forebears, were not regarded as gods while living, although
they might have been seen to have supernatural attributes. They were,
however, responsible for the suitable conduct of royal ancestor worship,
and this was one of several vital religious functions upon which a ruler’s
reputation, and hence power, depended.
It was up to the king, for example, to make sure that a ritual axis
between the royal centre, the mountain temple and the sea temple was
maintained, and securing the territory to make this possible sometimes
required the use of armed force. A king could not be a king without a
prestigious brahmana priest in his service, and the brahmana was of higher
caste than his satria (warrior caste) monarch. Palace (puri) was always
in theory subordinate to temple (pura). Brahmans were not always
priests. They could also form warrior bands, reminiscent of the battling
clerical orders of the European Middle Ages.
The Balinese lord ruled above all by attracting and holding follow-
ers. He did so through personal authority established by valour in battle,
a commanding presence, high reputation and the ability to control both
natural and supernatural forces. The realm was composed of shifting
concentric circles of lesser rulers, each a lord in his own right, around
the royal centre.
Geographic borders were equally fluid, unlike today’s fixed district
borders approximating those of the old kingdoms. The king had
constantly to reinforce his personal alliances, both within his own realm
and beyond it with other realms. He did this partly through marriages
and adoptions, but primarily by demonstrating ability to protect and
reward subordinates. A strong king would attract both fugitives and
upwardly mobile opportunists from other kingdoms.
Written treaties between realms were common but, as the Dutch
discovered, the Balinese felt they meant nothing unless reinforced by
constant personal contact. Throughout this period, Klungkung under
The Balinese state to the eve of Dutch control
its Dewa Agung remained theoretical overlord of the island. Its actual
power fluctuated considerably, but was never extinguished until it fell to the Dutch in 1908.
Bali in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a dangerous
place, constantly at risk from wars, plagues, famines and volcanic erup-
tions, most of which the Balinese believed to be the result of supernatural
forces. For example, there were smallpox epidemics in south Bali in
1850, 1861, 1863–64, 1871–73, 1883 and 1885. The 1871 outbreak
alone killed from 15 000 to 18 000 people. To combat omnipresent
danger, a ruler needed to be able to rally followers, to wage war, and
also to organise and deploy ritual.
The Mengwi rulers did have functionaries—one category (mekel)
to mobilise manpower to service the palace; another (sedahan) to manage
irrigation systems and collect taxes on irrigated land. But in general
there was nothing like a regularised bureaucracy, and the king’s officers
had limited powers beyond his own immediate territory. Like other
Indian-model states, the Balinese kingdoms lacked the well-defined
pattern of reciprocal obligations between king and vassal which typi-
fied, at least in theory, the mediaeval European model.
Striking personalities and real leaders abounded among Balinese
royalty. The first and second kings of Mengwi both attempted armed
pilgrimages to Java, rather like crusades, to find the site of Majapahit.
According to Dutch records as well as Balinese accounts, the second
king succeeded in reaching Mount Semeru, the highest peak on Java
and by legend a fragment of the cosmic central mountain of Hindu
mythology imported by Java’s first Hindus. He held a royal wedding on
its slopes, attended by the Dewa Agung of Klungkung among others,
and obtained a sacred kris from the resident Hindu priest.
There were palpable villains as well as heroes scattered through
Mengwi’s history. In the early nineteenth century a weak king met his
demise after becoming infatuated with a group of gandrung (bisexual
dancers). That was not so bad, but then he made one of them his crown
prince, which was definitely beyond acceptable. In following chapters
A Short History of Bali
we will meet a number of memorable Balinese rulers, including Gusti
Ketut Jelantik, prime minister of Buleleng, whose fiery defiance led to
war with the Dutch in 1846.
Twice Mengwi was ruled by queens, in both cases widowed senior
wives (padmi). Senior wives were often powerful personalities with impor-
tant regional followings. Usually partners in dynastic alliances, they often
brought their own property and followers and retained control over them.
While senior widow succession was permissible, it was not possible for
a royal daughter, no matter how high born, to accede to the throne in
her own right. The first and most famous of the two royal widows, Ayu
Oka, ruled Mengwi from the 1770s until 1807 and seems to have done
a good job. But then she fell in love with the ruler of Gianyar, gave him
valuable dynastic heirlooms, and failed to respond when he attacked two
of Mengwi’s satellites, with unfortunate consequences.
War was serious business. Nordholt observes that ‘. . . a warring
nobility did not leave the people untouched. War was no knightly sport,
it was a scourge that deeply scarred local life’.1 Real battles caused
hundreds of casualties and widespread property destruction. In the eigh-
teenth century, a warrior prince born of Mengwi’s dynastic alliance with
Buleleng died in pitched battle with rebel forces. Even after the end of
the Mengwi kingdom, a war in 1898 between would-be successor factions
left trenches which are still visible today. Always aware of the strate-
gic importance of water, Balinese rulers did not hesitate to dam streams
and then release destructive floods on the fields of downstream enemies.
The king could reward warriors of low status by giving them titles
and high caste status, especially in the early days. At one time the
Mengwi king was served by an extended family of shock troops, or
‘raiders’, who were allocated special quarters near the palace. ‘. . .
violence mastered by the leader lay at the root of the hierarchical system
on Bali,’ Nordholt observes.2
Surrounded by potentially predatory neighbours, the state was
inherently unstable. Weakness at the centre would result in immediate
challenges from the stronger satellite realms, while lesser satellites would
The Balinese state to the eve of Dutch control
Strong rulers could emerge rapidly in nineteenth century Bali. Cokorde Gde Sukawati of
Ubud, shown here in 1915, was a classic example. He led his family to political
dominance in the kingdom of Gianyar and persuaded its ruler, his nominal overlord, to
accept Dutch ‘protection’ in 1900. But rivalry persisted between the Ubud and Gianyar
ruling families and they quarrelled during the Indonesian Revolution, with tragic
consequences. (Source: Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam)
seek new protectors and defect when they found them. Ambitious young
rulers were always ready to advance their own fortunes at the expense
of failing superiors. ‘On Bali, intrigue is a transcendental art,’ observed
a perceptive Dutch agent stationed at Kuta to buy slaves for service in
the colonial army in 1828.3 Frequently, as in the case of nineteenth-
century Badung, established lineages were in more or less routine
competition for control of the state. Charismatic new leaders could
quickly gain recognition and power within old states, as happened on
the eve of Dutch control when the founder of the modern Sukawati
family first put Ubud on the political map within the kingdom of Gianyar.
A Short History of Bali
In theory, succession passed to the eldest son of the chief queen.
In fact, this does not seem to have happened even once in the entire
history of Mengwi. Of the nine recorded successions from 1700 to 1891,
only the second was uncontested. Polygamy and constant intermarriage
among the nobility produced royal kinship patterns of unbelievable
complexity and virtually guaranteed the existence of rival lineages
competing for royal succession. No wonder that the manipulation of
genealogies to reinforce claims to status and power is a constant theme
of Balinese history.
The character of the Mengwi state changed significantly over its
200 year history. In the early years of the eighteenth century, Mengwi
was aggressively expansive, with the king always on the move to keep
his restive and far-flung subordinates in line, but there were to be no
more adventures on Java or in north Bali after the middle of the century.
Instead, the second and third rulers were heavily involved in bringing
new irrigated rice lands into cultivation in the vicinity of Mengwi itself.
There was still much forested or otherwise uncultivated land on
Bali, and it took royal leadership of the highest order to initiate the
building of main dams, canals and irrigation tunnels. Not until the water
supply had been secured was it possible for the subak irrigation soci-
eties to operate in the cooperative autonomous manner which is today
accepted as ‘traditional’. Indeed, one of the king’s more important means
of attracting followers was his ability to give them newly created, or
sometimes newly conquered, irrigated rice land. (Of course, he had the
option to keep the best land for himself.) But this pioneer aspect of the
Mengwi state had ended by the mid-nineteenth century, primarily due
to the exhaustion of suitable land.
Rulers were always concerned to secure economic power beyond
irrigated rice agriculture, but the way they did so altered over time. The
king made money from the sale of slaves, and slave trade revenue became
increasingly important under the indirect stimulus of colonial markets
in Batavia and elsewhere. The slave trade encouraged warfare because
prisoners could be sold into slavery. It encouraged royal patronage of
The Balinese state to the eve of Dutch control
gambling and harsh judgments in the royal courts, because debtors and
convicts faced the same fate.
Yet the Balinese monarchs were not hidden from their subjects.
Princes mingled with those of lesser rank in the crowded marketplaces
outside the palace gate. It was apparently quite acceptable, if somewhat
hazardous, to gamble or chat with the king, as long as you did not insult
him, for example by using the wrong level of language. The flavour of
such intercourse is captured by a Balinese poem of advice to rulers:
Let your discourse be enlightening,
do not hide your meaning;
consult with your underlings,
and you will touch their hearts . . .
Permit no insolence among your subjects,
they would hold you in low esteem.
Be alert to equality and difference;
let their speech be seemly,
their words sincere, courteous, clear and friendly.
All this will prompt them to behave properly,
instill obedience, and they spring no surprises on you.4
Still, such familiarity, however guarded, was quite a contrast to the
extremes of royal isolation common in larger Asian courts.
Just as the regional European presence stimulated the slave trade,
so its gradual abolition in the early nineteenth century, initially by the
British, changed the economic base of Mengwi and the other Balinese
states. A new trade pattern developed, centred on Singapore, and the
Balinese kings turned to cash crops, especially coffee. Again the royal
family of Mengwi was involved, this time in opening lands for coffee
cultivation in hitherto marginal upland areas. In some cases the Bali-
nese nobility, especially women, actively engaged in trade, but more
royal revenue derived from protecting Chinese traders, granting them
monopolies, and levying tolls and fees on them.
A Short History of Bali
Rulers granted Chinese and other foreigners exclusive rights to
collect harbour taxes, in return for a share of the profits. The same
system was applied to opium, which became increasingly important up
to the end of Balinese independence and thereafter. Opium was not
produced on Bali; it was imported from India, primarily through Singa-
pore. The rulers smoked it in gold-encrusted pipes, but it was also used
by the common people for its medicinal (or pain-deadening) value, and
soldiers employed it as a courage-raising stimulant before going into
battle. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Chinese merchants
on Bali were a major source of the opium being smuggled into Java, and
Dutch desire to control and profit from the trade themselves was one
reason for their final intervention in 1906 to end what was left of Bali-
European technology was spreading long before the Dutch
achieved direct control over all Bali. During a contest with neighbouring
Badung in the early nineteenth century, Mengwi purchased arms from
Batavia. Mengwi’s army, in turn, was later almost extinguished by a
Badung force spearheaded by Buginese riflemen, Muslim natives of
Sulawesi who had been recruited by the Badung monarch primarily to
conduct trade but also to be employed as mercenaries.
The political character of Mengwi changed as well. As the state
became less expansive, its rulers moved around less and became more
formal. Fewer commoners were ennobled in return for services rendered.
‘Gone were the times,’ Nordholt writes, ‘when in the heat of a battle a
leader would shout “If you fight with me I will make you a Gusti”.’5 Bali’s
nobility had proliferated to the point where there was less need to recruit
commoners. Rules on dress, house decoration and marriage were more
strictly enforced, and in general the line between noble and commoner
was more tightly adhered to. This trend would continue under the Dutch,
with their encouragement. By the mid-nineteenth century Balinese power
was already severely, if indirectly, circumscribed by British and especially
Dutch expansion in the region. The waning power of the rulers may
have contributed to the increasing formalism of their courts.
The Balinese state to the eve of Dutch control
From study focused primarily on late nineteenth-century Bali,
anthropologist Clifford Geertz concluded that the Balinese realm was
less a government than a ‘theatre state’ where the primary objective of
government was ritual display. Geertz based this conclusion partly on
the consideration that, despite endemic warfare, a Balinese king had
rather little governing to do, since most important functions were carried
out by non-state actors, from irrigation associations to Chinese traders.
Beginning his analysis at an earler period than Geertz, Nordholt
presents a very different and more persuasive picture of kings recruit-
ing followers, initiating irrigation systems and, above all, engaging in a
constant struggle to maintain political primacy by every means possi-
ble under conditions of constant instability. Ritual was important as a
manifestation of powerful kingship, but to succeed a Balinese king had
to be a warrior, a commanding personality, and above all a successful
patron, politician and protector.
Such was the situation on Bali prior to the establishment of colo-
nial rule. It was a complex setting, replete with regional variations,
charismatic individuals and constant political change. Pre-colonial Bali
bore little resemblance to the idyllic vision of later European visitors.
Warfare, disease and natural disaster were all commonplace. Slavery
and drug addiction were among the less savoury customary practices.
The Dutch were to be initially shocked by the force of Balinese resist-
ance, then charmed by the positive aspects of Balinese civilisation. Their
stay was to be short, but their impact profound.
THE DUTCH ARRIVE: FROM FIRST CONTACT TO FINAL CONQUEST (1597–1908)
The Dutch first visited Bali in 1597. They did not control the whole
island until 1908, more than three centuries later. During those 300
years Bali was increasingly affected by European influences on all sides
but, unlike Java, remained largely untouched by the most intrusive
aspects of colonial rule. In that respect the Balinese were lucky.
In 1597 three ships under the command of Cornelis de Houtman
arrived off Bali. It was not the first Western visit. Magellan’s expedi-
tion may have sighted Bali almost 70 years previously. It is possible but
not confirmed that the Portuguese explorer Mendez de Pinto visited in
about 1546. British freebooter Sir Francis Drake called briefly in 1580,
and Thomas Cavendish in 1585, but apparently neither recorded his
impressions. In 1585 a Portuguese ship from Malacca attempting to
open a trading post foundered off the coast and five survivors made it
to shore. The king of Gelgel treated them kindly but would not let them
return to Malacca, and at least one of them was still there to meet de
Houtman twelve years later.
The Dutch arrive
Two of de Houtman’s sailors jumped ship and remained on the
island, leading to the pretty hypothesis, convenient for tourism pro-
motion in later years, that Dutch contact had begun ‘not with a shot,
but a seduction’.1 It is not totally clear whether the young Dutch
sailors were seduced or abducted, although both remained and took
However, in general the visit went well. De Houtman’s expedi-
tion produced the first detailed Western report on the island, which
was complimentary about the ruler, the son of Batu Renggong, the
powerful monarch who had brought Gelgel to its apogee. The Dutch
were impressed by his lavish court, which included a troupe of malformed
dwarfs, by his abundance of wives and concubines, and by his regalia,
which included a magnificent kris. The king’s emissary claimed that
he ruled the entire island, and the Dutch believed him. They saw
Gelgelian troops on their way to Blambangan to aid Bali’s ally there
against the Muslim sultanate of Mataram.
De Houtman took due note of Bali’s substantial population of
300 000 and its lively commerce. He even decided to name the island
‘Young Holland’. But there were also, not surprisingly, undercurrents
of tension: both sides took hostages for the duration of the visit, there
was bickering over gift exchange, and the mission did not accomplish
anything in the way of trade. Bali, of course, had no spices comparable
to the cloves and nutmeg grown further east, which had already initi-
ated a century of conflict among Portuguese, Dutch and English.
It was this absence of major commercial prospects which allowed
Bali to escape serious Dutch attention for the next two and a half
centuries. At first the Dutch had no interest in acquiring territory,
beyond the strong points needed to control trade. Initially they estab-
lished fortified outposts in the spice-producing islands of eastern
Indonesia. In 1619 they founded Batavia (today Jakarta) as a strong-
hold on Java and eventual capital. In 1652 they built the twin of
Batavia’s fort in Cape Town to anchor and provision the long sea route
A Short History of Bali
They ruled through a quasi-state trading organisation, the Dutch
East India Company, for almost two centuries, initially with the sole
aim of making money. In the early years the Company had its hands
full subduing or co-opting potential Indonesian rivals for control of
Java. It did not get a firm grasp on all Java until early in the nine-
teenth century, and the more remote or commercially valueless areas
of the Outer Islands beyond Java remained independent even after
that. The Company’s territories became known as the Dutch East
The Company may have tried to open a trading post on Bali
around 1620, but if so it didn’t last. Bali developed a reputation as a
distant curiosity, populated by fierce and intractable kings, of interest
mainly as a source of slaves and, since the Balinese rulers were more
than happy to sell slaves to the Dutch, hardly worth the trouble of occu-
pying. As we have seen, both the Dutch and the king of Gelgel toyed
with the idea of enlisting each other’s assistance against a common
Javanese enemy, Muslim Mataram, without results. But after that,
chronic political instability helped to dissuade Dutch or other Euro-
pean interest in Bali.
Slavery and merchant adventure
Sad to say, slavery was for many years the most important factor in
Dutch-Balinese relations. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards,
slaves were Bali’s ‘most lucrative cash crop’.2 Balinese slaves came from
several sources. Rulers were obligated by custom to enslave anyone who
was indigent or otherwise became a charge on public welfare. Crimi-
nals, the wives and children of executed felons, and illegitimate children
could be enslaved. The justice system was skewed to produce slaves
because it inflicted higher fines for the same crime on offenders of low
caste than on those of high caste, and when offenders couldn’t pay they
could be sold into slavery.
The Dutch arrive
These slaves, one of them a Papuan, belonged to the Raja of Buleleng, North Bali, where they were photographed in 1865. Most slaves on Bali were Balinese and the Papuan was probably considered an exotic rarity. (Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
Prisoners of war were enslaved, and the slave trade undoubtedly provided a new economic motivation for endemic warfare. The chief minister of Karangasem remarked in 1808: ‘We wage war upon the others when we, lords, lack money; at such times we swoop down on the weakest of our neighbors, and all prisoners and their entire families are sold for slaves so that we . . . have money to buy opium.’3
There was also debt slavery, common in Southeast Asia at the
time. Individuals often pawned themselves to powerful patrons to obtain
money and protection, which meant they could then be sold by the
owner for any offence, however trivial. The rulers, who of course were
the major slave owners, encouraged debt slavery by organising large-
scale cockfights and obliging their subjects to participate. Those who
gambled on the outcome and lost could become slaves if they could not
pay their debts. Since slavery was hereditary, the children of slaves added to the pool.
A Short History of Bali
Bali exported an estimated total of 150 000 slaves of both sexes
between 1650 and 1830, generating an estimated 4.5 million silver
dollars.4 The Balinese rulers controlled the trade, utilising Chinese,
Buginese and Europeans as intermediaries. They used the proceeds to
buy opium, luxury goods and arms to give them a competitive edge over
their Balinese rivals.
The Dutch East India Company was the primary market for slaves,
relying on them for labour of all sorts. By the mid-seventeenth century
Batavia had a total population of around 30 000, of whom about half
were slaves; of these, from 8 000 to 10 000 may have been Balinese.
Including freed slaves, Balinese may have been the largest ethnic com-
ponent in the population.5 They were numerous enough to leave a
permanent Balinese imprint on the dialect of Malay (Indonesian) spoken
in the future national capital of Indonesia. There is to this day a commu-
nity in Jakarta known as the ‘Depok Dutch’, descended in part from
In this commerce, young Balinese women were much in demand
for their beauty. They were also popular with Chinese buyers because,
not being Muslim, they did not object to cooking pork. But Balinese
men, often recent prisoners of war and not inclined to be submissive,
had a reputation for being hard to control.
Selling slaves was discouraged in Batavia itself, so they were often
freed upon the deaths of their masters. Many of the resulting popu-
lation of free Balinese found employment in the Company’s army.
Some ex-slaves prospered, becoming large landowners around Batavia,
and some Balinese may even have gone to Batavia voluntarily to
advance themselves. Other slaves escaped and formed bands of
rebels in the nearby Priangan hills. Thereby hangs the extraordinary
tale of Surapati, among the most renowned Balinese in Indonesian
According to Javanese accounts, Surapati was the son of a Javanese
prince who had lived on Bali, although evidence from Company records
affirms he was Balinese. After many adventures he was sold into slavery
The Dutch arrive
in Batavia and served initially as a soldier for the Company. Later,
offended by the Dutch, he deserted and took up with a band of brig-
ands. In 1684 he joined Javanese forces opposing the Dutch. He rapidly
emerged as a leader and military genius and became ‘the most hated of
all the Company’s Indonesian enemies’.6
As the struggle continued, Surapati fled to East Java and estab-
lished a domain which he and his descendants were to rule for almost
a century. It was at this period that he allied with Balinese elements
who were still operating in the Blambangan salient, and with whom
he fought furious battles against the Dutch. Surapati was killed in 1706,
but his descendants and followers remained at large until the Company
successfully ended local resistance in 1771–72. When the dust settled,
the Dutch required those native Blambangan leaders who were still
Hindu to convert to Islam, which the Dutch feared greatly elsewhere.
They did so to lessen the prospects for further mischief-making, as they
saw it, by the Hindu Balinese. Surapati is remembered as a heroic proto-
nationalist, and a park in Jakarta is named after him.
The nature of the Balinese slave trade shifted over time. Many
Balinese slaves were sent to the Company’s maritime way station at
Cape Town, to work in its fort and ship-provisioning facilities. There
the Balinese, along with other Indonesians, gradually merged into the
polygot, Dutch-speaking population which is today known as Coloured
or, in the case of a minority who are Muslim, Cape Malay. Later Bali-
nese slaves were shipped to the sugar plantations of Reunion and
Mauritius. The British outlawed the slave trade in 1807 throughout
their empire and tried to end it in the Dutch East Indies in 1810, at
the beginning of their Napoleonic-era occupation, but it persisted for
The Balinese did not take kindly to being exported from Bali, all
the more so because of their belief that the gods lived only there. Fear
of slave rebellions, of which at least two were recorded in the early nine-
teenth century, led slavers to make liberal use of chains and of informers
planted among their human cargo. A shocking vignette of the trade
A Short History of Bali
was left by an Arab emissary in the service of the Dutch who visited
Bali in 1824:
On the 17th [of August 1824] we sailed along the coast of
Bali and at three in the afternoon we saw a two-masted
schooner lying anchored in the roads of Buleleng . . . It was
the schooner Victorie commanded by Captain Moesie
[Monsieur?] James Diviled, equipped with six iron eight-
pounders and with a crew of twenty-five Frenchmen . . .
The schooner had no merchandise aboard, only Spanish
dollars to buy slaves with . . . One day the Raja of Buleleng
sold the French Captain a woman and her two children.
The woman was old, about 40 years of age, while her
children, a girl and a boy, were about nine and six respec-
tively . . . The Captain did not want to take the woman on
account of her age—he only wanted the children. When
the three slaves arrived at the beach, the Captain ordered
the children to be led away. But the children did not want
to be separated from their mother and held her around
the neck. The mother too did not want to let go of her
children and they embraced each other, crying loudly . . .
The Captain became very angry and ordered two European
sailors to lead the children away from their mother—one
sailor held the mother and the other the children and they
violently separated them. The two sailors dragged the chil-
dren in the boat and rowed to the schooner. The mother
fell down on the beach and lay as if dead for over an hour.
When night came she cried and screamed for her chil-
dren . . . She remained in this condition for several days . . .
but the hearts of those who had brought her into this state
were harder than iron.7
The Dutch arrive
Napoleon, Raffles and Singapore put Bali on the map
The slave trade aside, Bali continued to experience ‘the priceless bene-
fits of European neglect’8 until the mid-nineteenth century. The island
was spared the tumultuous strife between the Company and local rulers
which was endemic on Java, as well as the forced production of cash
crops, coffee and later sugar, which after 1830 developed into the highly
profitable but socially disastrous Culture System, a tax in kind on the
relentlessly ground-down peasantry.
Oddly enough it was the Napoleonic Wars which began the end
of Bali’s isolation. When Bonaparte made his brother King of Holland
in 1806, the East Indies became part of his empire. Determined that these
valuable islands should not fall into the hands of the British, the French
ruler sent a vigorous military governor to fortify Java as a base against
them. In response the British, who had kept a fleet off Batavia since 1795,
conquered it and appointed Thomas Stamford Raffles Lieutenant Gover-
nor of Java and, by extension, the rest of the Dutch East Indies.
Raffles fell madly in love with the Indies and dreamed of retain-
ing them in the British Empire. In addition to being an energetic,
reforming governor, he wrote a remarkable two-volume History of Java
largely to promote this ambition, to no avail. Holland was a traditional
British ally and London was uninterested in acquiring more Asian terri-
tory, feeling that India was more than enough. In 1816 the British
restored the territories of the Dutch East India Company, by now
defunct, to the direct control of the Dutch government.
Deeply disappointed, Raffles languished for a brief time in
Bengkulu, a marginal British outpost on the wrong side of Sumatra, far
from the vital Malacca Straits. Then in 1819 he achieved enduring fame
by founding Singapore, at that time no more than a village but ideally
located to become a major international port, which, under British rule,
it did with amazing speed.
A Short History of Bali
During his tour as Lieutenant Governor of Java, nearby Bali
predictably attracted Raffles’ wide-ranging interest, but his other duties
left him time for only one short visit. It took place in 1815 by accident
when his ship, bound for a destination in East Java, was blown off course.
His subordinate and intellectual rival, John Crawfurd, had visited a
short time before. Both men were fascinated by Bali’s Hindu culture,
and both published accounts exaggerating similarities with Hinduism
Raffles was among the first to conclude that ‘the present state of
Bali may be considered . . . as a kind of commentary on the ancient
conditions of the natives of Java’,9 a theme later to be much empha-
sised by the Dutch. Oversimplifying greatly, he observed the prevalence
of private landholding on Bali, in contrast to Java. He pronounced the
Balinese to be ‘active and enterprising, and free from that listlessness
and indolence which are observable in the inhabitants of Java’.10 Raffles’
comments were often inaccurate, hardly surprising given the brevity of
his visit, but they helped to flag the island as a place worthy of further
It might have been expected that Britain’s decision to return the
Indies to Dutch rule in 1816 would diminish traditional Dutch anxiety
about British encroachment—but it did nothing of the kind. Instead,
the rapid commercial growth of Singapore resulted in a proliferation of
new players in the region—British, Asians and others—which aggra-
vated Dutch concern. In 1824 the Dutch and British signed a treaty
intended to prevent the British from trading in Dutch territory and vice
versa. It did not work, if only because Dutch control over the Outer
Islands around Java was as yet spotty and ill defined.
The Lombok Straits, bounded on both sides by squabbling Bali-
nese states, developed new strategic importance as a way station and
provisioning point between Singapore and Australia. The Dutch began
to fear that the British would attempt to establish a new Singapore on
Bali or Lombok. More importantly, perhaps, the entire nature of inter-
national colonialism was changing. European overlords, no longer solely
The Dutch arrive
concerned with trade, were becoming more interested in other forms
of economic exploitation and in the orderly administration of territory
and the sea lanes. Marginal realms left in the hands of ‘barbaric’ native
rulers were beginning to seem anachronistic as well as dangerously attrac-
tive to European competitors.
No sooner had the British formally relinquished control of Java
in 1816 than the new post-Company regime in Batavia sent a Dutch
envoy to Bali to urge its rulers to accept ‘contracts’, or treaties, which
in effect would surrender independence to the Governor General in
Batavia. It soon became clear that Dutch and Balinese understanding
of what treaties were about differed almost as profoundly as their
The Balinese rulers were not illiterate savages; they knew about
written treaties. They habitually concluded treaties among themselves
to cover many aspects of interstate relations. But for the Balinese, treaties
were primarily ceremonial in nature, and they lost significance if not
constantly reinforced by personal contact. For the Dutch, on the other
hand, treaties were supposed to be valid indefinitely or until revoked
by mutual consent.
The Dutch were rebuffed in their first attempt to peddle treaties.
The Balinese rulers were looking for military aid against each other,
while the Dutch wanted submission, not useless political alliances.
Wandering Arabs were common in the archipelago at this time, and in
1824 the Dutch enlisted one of them, Pangeran (Prince) Said Hasan
al Habashi, as an envoy. Al Habashi, the same individual quoted earlier
about slavery, was no more successful than his Dutch predecessor at
the treaty game, although he did pick up valuable intelligence about
pirates using Balinese ports, enabling the Dutch to send warships to
evict them. In 1826 another Dutch envoy opened a trading post at Kuta,
then the port of Badung, in time to become the gaudiest of tourist enclaves. But the post didn’t prosper and in 1831 it closed down,
temporarily as things turned out.
A Short History of Bali
Enter the convivial Dane
The tale of Mads Lange encapsulates everything about this proto-
colonial era that was beginning to seem outrageously messy to a new
generation of proconsuls in Batavia. Lange, ‘more . . . the bold Viking
than prudent trader’,11 was an independent Danish operator who in
1834 installed himself with his brothers at Ampenan, a large harbour
in western Lombok, under the protection of its Balinese ruler. He built
a thriving trade exporting local rice from Lombok to China and import-
ing Chinese copper coins with square holes, strings of which served as
currency on Bali. He also imported textiles, opium and weapons.
Lange was a generous and gregarious character, who soon became
known as the ‘White Raja of Ampenan’. This happy state of affairs didn’t
last long. The ruler of Karangasem died, leaving a large progeny quar-
relling over his domains: one state on Bali and a divided state on
Lombok. The result was civil war, with Lange eventually backing one
ruler on Lombok and an English trader, George Pocock King, backing
the other. Unfortunately Lange picked the loser, who fled and later
committed ritual suicide, or puputan, a phenomenon which would assume
major importance in the final stages of the Dutch conquest of Bali.
Lange survived this debacle, but lost most of his trading fleet except
for the Venus, a little schooner on which he fled to Bali. He went into
business at Kuta in 1839 at about the same time that the Dutch tried
to reestablish themselves there. Once again they failed and closed the
post. In 1844 the Dutch tried a different tack and appointed Lange to
be their agent at Kuta. But his real patron was the most powerful of
several would-be rulers of Badung at the time, Gusti Ngurah Gede
Kesiman, based in nearby Denpasar, for whom Lange became harbour-
master and trade agent.
Near modern Kuta Beach, Lange established a large compound for
a warehouse, marketplace and dwelling. Here he lived with his broth-
ers, his Chinese and Balinese wives, his children (one of whom later
married the Sultan of Johore in Malaya), a large and multinational crew
of servants, and his dalmatians, whose descendants still roam the back
streets of the town.
Here he entertained a succession of Dutch officials, scholars and
adventurers, especially after he became the official Dutch representa-
tive. After dinner he and his brothers would entertain their guests with
piano and violin recitals and Danish folk music. The convivial Dane
henceforth played three roles: commercial broker between the Balinese,
the Dutch and international traders; information conduit and source of
intelligence for both sides, and agent of political reconciliation between
colonial officials and local rulers.
Lange’s arrival in Kuta coincided with significant changes in Bali-
nese trade patterns. Raffles had initiated a gradual halt to the slave
trade. This had destroyed a major source of revenue for the rulers, so
they had begun to produce rice, pigs, cattle hides, coconuts, coffee and
tobacco for sale and export, demonstrating no small measure of entre-
preneurial appetite and skill.
At this time Bali was recovering from the massive 1815 eruption
of the Tambora volcano on Sumbawa, east of Lombok. The Tambora
blow-out, more violent by far than the better-known 1883 eruption of
Krakatoa in West Java, had a global impact on climate. It laid down
ash deposits on Bali which initially ruined crops, but over time enhanced
soil fertility and agricultural production. Due to this coincidence of
geologic and economic circumstances, some of the rulers now passed
beyond rustic affluence and became downright rich.
Lange organised an inter-island trade system centered on Kuta to
gather produce. He bought from Chinese merchants and Balinese noble-
women, ladies of status who were aggressive and competitive traders.
Always wary of provoking friction with his Balinese patron, he did not
allow Europeans to participate in the inland portion of the trade. Ever
the diplomat, he would sometimes buy more than he needed rather than
disappoint an eager and possibly influential Balinese vendor.
Dutch interest in Bali continued to increase. Late in 1838 Batavia
A Short History of Bali
sent an envoy who promised a rhinoceros to the Dewa Agung of
Klungkung, supposedly lord of all Bali, which he wanted for a very
special state ceremony. The rhinoceros has not in historic times been
native to Bali, although it is found on Java and Sumatra, and it was
the rarest thing the ambitious ruler could imagine. The hapless beast
was eventually delivered by the officer who reopened the Dutch post
at Kuta in 1839 and sacrificed at Klungkung with enormous pomp. The
ritual was sufficiently memorable to become the subject of a Balinese
epic poem. It describes how thousands of celebrants high on opium
attended, and how pickpockets worked the unruly crowd. Men and
women groped each other ‘accidentally’, leading to profanity. The poet
did not approve.
The followers (of kings) came in scores flowing from the north, flowing from the east, filling the streets to watch, like a swarm of wasps; there were probably more than 100 000 people in Klungkung crowding and jostling each other.
Not knowing who was noble and who was not they jostled each other
Uncertain of the way . . .
Everyone went out of their way to follow whatever pleased them . . . they forgot about how such wrong actions made slaves of them as they daily dared to take a ball of opium.
So they didn’t know what was right or wrong and it made them confused because they thought only of the moment.12
In 1840 the Dutch sent another official, H.J. Huskus Koopman, to push the Balinese to accept ‘contracts’. He succeeded on Lombok, where the
The Dutch arrive
Balinese raja who had won the 1839 civil war signed up. Irony of ironies,
Koopman appointed this ruler’s hired hand, George Pocock King, once
considered to personify the British menace, as Dutch agent. The Lombok
state was to be a critical source of support for the Dutch in their coming
campaign against the recalcitrant rulers of north Bali.
In south Bali a new factor came into play, the problem of ‘reef
rights’. According to Balinese tradition, ships which ran aground on
Bali’s numerous fringing coral reefs were gifts from the sea god, and
rulers had the right to plunder them. To the Dutch this quaint custom
fell into the same category of barbarous Balinese habits as ‘widow
burning’, also known as suttee (from the Sanskrit sati), the ritual sacri-
fice of women on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. As
commerce flourished, both ‘reef rights’ and ‘widow burning’ became
increasingly important sources of friction.
In 1840, coinciding with the beginning of Koopman’s treaty-
seeking mission, the Dutch frigate Overijssel ran aground off Kuta,
spilling its heavy iron cargo, a complete sugar mill destined for Java,
onto the reef. The Balinese pillaged the wreck while the crew was enter-
tained by Mads Lange on shore, one result being the arrival of the first
European child born on Bali. Koopman demanded compensation and
used the affair to pressure Lange’s patron, Raja Kesiman of Badung, to
accept a treaty. Thanks to mediation by the Dane, he finally did. Soon
afterwards the rulers of Klungkung, Buleleng and Karangasem also signed
treaties with the Dutch, followed in the next two years by Tabanan
and Lombok. Koopman had already returned to Batavia.
At the very least the Balinese rulers did not understand what
they were signing, and they were probably deliberately deceived. As
the Dutch were aware, the Balinese knew enough about Dutch rule
on Java to be particularly wary of insistence that they yield sovereignty.
So to make the treaties acceptable, Koopman presented a more palat-
able text in Malay than in Dutch, which of course the Balinese could
not read. The Dutch soon attempted to enforce these dubious agree-
ments by military force. The campaign which followed nearly taught
A Short History of Bali
them ‘no end of a lesson’, as Kipling said about the British and the
Conquest: The first stage
Hostilities began after another ship-plundering episode near Buleleng
in 1845. The Dutch had no agent resident there, so they named a senior
official in nearby East Java ‘Commissioner for Bali’, and sent him to
protest. Arriving on a big warship with an impressive entourage, he
got a brusque reception. The Raja and his prime minister, Gusti Ktut
Jelantik, denied the existence of a treaty, probably assuming it had lapsed
when Koopman left Bali after 1843. The best they would offer was
Jelantik, a firebrand and natural leader who was to emerge as the
Balinese hero of the coming war, had already insulted the honour of
the Netherlands by spitting betel juice on a Dutch passport. His angry
words to the visiting Dutch Commissioner were prophetic:
Never while I live shall the state recognize the sovereignty
of the Netherlands in the sense which you interpret it.
After my death the Radja may do as he chooses. Not by a
mere scrap of paper shall any man become the master of
another’s lands. Rather let the kris decide.13
The Balinese further shocked the emissary by their brazenly impudent
behaviour, such a contrast to the polite, subservient Javanese nobility
to whom the Dutch were by now accustomed:
From time to time the Gusti [Ketut Jelantik] turned to one
of his followers close to him in rank, a fat man whose face
shone with oil and whose features expressed stupidity . . .
[The Gusti] would say something, the words impossible for
The Dutch arrive
us to catch, with a scornful twitch of the mouth and a
contemptuous glance in our direction, whereupon the fat
one would lead the others in a round of guffaws and loud,
It would be interesting to know what the hot-tempered prince was saying
to his followers. It may not have been political in nature. We know that
while the Balinese were impressed by the ornate uniforms worn by nine-
teenth-century Dutch envoys, they also noticed their foul breath.15
By now the Dutch were convinced that this challenge to their
honour and authority could only be resolved by force. The result was
three punitive expeditions against Buleleng. Several things about the
political context need to be kept in mind. The Balinese states of Bule-
leng and Karangasem were ruled by brothers, making them natural allies
against the Dutch. But the ruler of Lombok, now advised by George
Pocock King, had been a bitter opponent of the ruler of Karangasem
in the 1839 civil war, so was now a natural (and as it turned out deci-
sive) ally of the Dutch. Finally Klungkung, the spiritual heir of Gelgel,
continued to exercise an ill-defined but sometimes critical influence
as theoretical overlord of all Bali. The three expeditions may be
summarised as follows:
The first Dutch invasion fleet arrives off Buleleng in late June, 1846:
two frigates, four steamships, twelve schooners, 40 smaller craft, an army
of 1700 including 400 Europeans, and 230 artillery pieces. Jelantik and
his men have prepared heavily fortified defences around the port, which
the Dutch frigates bombard. The Dutch land and destroy the royal palace
at Singaraja, taking few casualties. The defenders retreat to heavily forti-
fied positions at Jagaraga, eight kilometres inland from Singaraja. Then
George Pocock King appears on the scene and negotiates an apparent
settlement in which the Balinese agree to abide by the treaties, pay the
costs of the expedition, and accept a garrison. The Dutch jubilantly
return to Java, leaving behind only a small force. But the Balinese fail
A Short History of Bali
to pay anything, while Jelantik travels around Bali stirring up opposi-
tion to the Dutch.
In 1848 the Dutch send a more powerful expedition under one of
their most distinguished colonial soldiers. The land force consists of
2400 men, of whom about one-third are European, the rest mainly
Javanese and Madurese. There is also a company of Africans, probably
recruited at one of the Dutch trading stations in what is now Ghana.
On 7 May the Dutch force lands without heavy opposition. As in 1846,
the Balinese withdraw to their fortified positions at Jagaraga. In a classic
display of colonial arrogance, the Dutch frontally attack a vastly supe-
rior force of 16 000 Balinese, about 1500 of them with firearms, in
tropical midday heat. The Balinese counter-attack and rout the Dutch,
who lose about 200 dead and wounded and retreat to their ships. More
than 2000 Balinese die in the fighting.
After this humiliating rebuff the Dutch send a third and even
bigger expedition. It appears off Buleleng in April 1849, this time with
5000 troops of whom the majority are Dutch. After inconclusive nego-
tiations with the ruler and his prime minister, the invaders besiege and
capture Jagaraga, this time avoiding a frontal assault. They lose 34 dead,
the Balinese thousands, including the wife of Jelantik and other high-
born ladies who commit ritual suicide (puputan) by advancing into the
Dutch lines. However, Jelantik himself and the ruler of Buleleng escape
to allied Karangasem. The Dutch, wary of following the Balinese over-
land, decide to shift their campaign to the south.
The Dutch re-embark on their ships and land in south Bali near
Padang Bai. At first they are not sure whether to pursue arch-rebel Jelan-
tik at Karangasem, or to attack Klungkung, the theoretical overlord,
which has emerged as an important source of support for Jelantik. The
issue is decided after the Balinese ruler of Lombok enters the war on
the Dutch side and sends troops, transported by the Dutch, to attack
his old enemy and relative in Karangasem. Both Jelantik and his patron,
the ruler of Buleleng, are killed in this campaign, while the ruler of
Karangasem commits ritual suicide. The exact circumstances of Gusti
The Dutch arrive
Ketut Jelantik’s death are not known. After independence, he will be
designated an Indonesian National Hero, one of only two Balinese ever
to be so honoured.
With Jelantik out of the way the Dutch advance westward along
the coast into Klungkung, capturing the ancient holy site at Goa Lawah
(better known to modern tourists as the Bat Cave) against heated resist-
ance, and then occupying the port town of Kusamba. Already weakened
by fighting in the north, the colonial troops are now smitten by an
epidemic of dysentery. Before they can recover, the sister of the old
and frail Dewa Agung of Klungkung and her ally the ruler of Gianyar
stage a surprise night-time raid on the Dutch camp, mortally wound-
ing the elderly Dutch commander, Major General Michiels. According
to Balinese accounts this is accomplished with a gun possessing magical
power, whose bullets can look for the enemy, a Balinese equivalent of
today’s ‘smart bombs’.
General Michiels’ deputy orders the force to retreat to its ships
and await the arrival of a new commander. At this point the situation
is extremely tense, with over 33 000 Balinese troops from Badung,
Gianyar, Tabanan and Klungkung in a position to attack the Dutch.
But the intervention of Mads Lange and his powerful patron, Raja
Kesiman of Badung, saves the day. Lange’s business is being ruined by
the war and he desperately wants peace, while Kesiman is hoping to
advance his political ambitions in south Bali with Dutch support. Lange
persuades the Dutch to stop advancing, and Kesiman persuades
Klungkung to eschew further resistance. The war is over.
The subsequent peace talks were held with great ceremony in July 1849
at Mads Lange’s compound in Kuta, where Raja Kesiman took centre
stage as official host while Lange covered the costs of entertaining at
least 30 000 Balinese guests. The Dutch brought in a German duke who
happened to be in command of their colonial army, Duke Hertog
Bernard von Saksen Weimar Eisenach, so the rulers would feel they
were dealing with someone of sufficiently exalted rank. On 15 July, the
A Short History of Bali
Balinese once again signed treaties more or less identical to the old ones.
The Dutch obtained the right to station representatives in Bali, but
promised not to interfere in the states’ internal affairs.
The two sides left Kuta nursing parallel illusions. The Balinese
thought, or hoped, that the Dutch would once again go away, and things
would get back to normal. The Dutch thought, or hoped, that the Bali-
nese would now honour the treaties, and that the unruly states of south
Bali could be left to their own devices. They rewarded the ruler of
Lombok, Gusti Ngurah Ketut Karangasem, for his decisive assistance
by installing him as ruler of Karangasem in place of the ruler of Bule-
leng’s deceased brother. They punished Buleleng, whose ruler had also
been killed in the war, by splitting it in two. One part, Jembrana, was
set up as an independent state, while the other was given to Bangli, an
arrangement which did not last.
One consequence of the 1846–49 war was the end of Mads Lange’s
little empire in Kuta and the ruin of the southern economy. The fight-
ing had badly disrupted trade, and with the return of peace it gravitated
away from Kuta to Dutch-controlled Buleleng in the north. Bigger ships
were coming into service and the reef-fringed anchorage at Kuta was
no longer adequate. As modern colonialism spread, the day of freelance
merchant-adventurer-diplomats like Mads Lange and Rajah James
Brooke of Sarawak was coming to an end.
Lange died in 1856 at age 49, allegedly poisoned by a Balinese
rival of his patron, Raja Kesiman. He and several of his relatives were
buried in Kuta, where his grave, refurbished by his relatives in Denmark,
may be seen on a back street not far from today’s tourist strip. He turned
what was left of the business over to his son and nephew, but it did not
long survive his death. Deprived of its economic base, Badung never
achieved the dominance in southern Balinese politics which in 1849
had seemed likely. Instead the region degenerated into half a century
of normalcy, or anarchy, depending on one’s point of view.
In the north, the victorious Dutch soon felt it necessary to assert
greater control, placing the first resident expatriate official there in
The Dutch arrive
1854. Following the pattern established on Java, a member of the Bule-
leng ruling family was appointed as regent, paralleled by an aptly-named
Dutch controleur, similar to a district officer in British practice. Things
did not go smoothly at first, mainly because the Balinese did not take
kindly to the Dutch-dictated selection of district chiefs. In 1858 and
again in 1868 Batavia had to send military expeditions to put down
local uprisings. The second expedition led to the Banjar War, named
after the district where it took place, and resulted in about 20 Dutch
soldiers killed. In 1872 a troublesome regent had to be exiled to Sumatra.
In 1882 Batavia finally imposed direct rule on north Bali, installing a
The crisis which precipitated the final stage of Dutch conquest began in 1891 as a result of continuing unrest in south Bali. The specific
cause was an effort by the ruler of Lombok to help his relative, the
ruler of Karangasem, in a war against Klungkung. Simplifying more than
somewhat, the story runs as follows:
Lombok’s Balinese overlords sent an expeditionary force to Bali consist-
ing mainly of Sasaks, Muslim natives of Lombok who were habitually
exploited by their Hindu Balinese rulers. This caused a Sasak rebellion
Both sides in the ensuing struggle appealed to the Dutch for help,
without success. Lombok’s Balinese ruler, no longer the same prince
who had supported the Dutch in 1849, had employed a wealthy Singa-
porean Armenian as his harbourmaster, the same job once held by
George Pocock King. Through this man he now sought British assis-
tance, which greatly upset the Dutch, while the Sasaks continued to
bombard Batavia with complaints about what today would be termed
human rights violations perpetrated by their Balinese lord.
Throughout this period the Dutch were preoccupied with a
decades-long struggle to subjugate Aceh, the northernmost state of
Sumatra. In 1894 they thought the Aceh War was winding down, incor-
rectly as things turned out, and therefore felt free to intervene in
A Short History of Bali
I Gusti Gde Jelantik was installed by the Dutch as ruler of Karangasem with the title of
stedehouder after the Lombok War. On his left is his nephew, I Gusti Bagus Jelantik, who
succeeded him in 1908, reading a palm-leaf (lontar) text. I Gusti Bagus Jelantik was the
father of Dr. A.A.M. Djelantik, medical doctor, public servant and author of a lively
memoir of his eventful career. (Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
Lombok. They sent its ruler an ultimatum, followed by a punitive expe-
dition manned by tough veterans of the Aceh campaign. The expedition
began well, with the Balinese ruler of Lombok paying some of the indem-
nity which the Dutch demanded. Then on 25 August the Balinese
launched a surprise attack and expelled the Dutch from Lombok with
heavy casualties. Once again the Dutch commanding general was among
Outraged by what they saw as treachery, the Dutch returned with
a much heavier force which shelled and razed the capital, Mataram (not
to be confused with the Javanese kingdoms of the same name). From
its treasury they took a variety of plunder including 1000 pounds of gold
The Dutch arrive
and 6000 pounds of silver, more than sufficient to cover the expenses
of the Lombok War. It was impressive testimony to the wealth of the
Balinese ruling classes.
Following their victory the Dutch exiled the raja and immediately
established direct rule over Lombok. They appointed the least culp-
able prince of the Karangasem-Lombok royal house, I Gusti Gede
Jelantik, as governor (stedehouder) of Karangasem in southeastern Bali,
a title implying more autonomy than ‘regent’. His subsequent perform-
ance was entirely satisfactory to Batavia.
The Lombok War left the southern Balinese states of Bangli, Badung,
Gianyar, Klungkung and Tabanan as the only ones more or less outside
Dutch control, but not for long. Klungkung’s theoretical suzerainty
was by now truly meaningless, while the once ascendant Badung
remained impoverished. Mengwi had been snuffed out of existence in
1891, and Gianyar narrowly avoided a similar fate.
In 1899 Gianyar’s relatively weak ruler, Dewa Gede Raka,
embroiled in warfare with his Balinese neighbours, sought Dutch pro-
tection. He was encouraged to do so by his much more powerful
subordinate, Cokorde Gede Sukawati, the ruler of Ubud. The Dutch
finally agreed the next year, giving Raka the same title (stedehouder)
held by the ruler of Karangasem. At about the same time they appointed
a capable official, H.J.E.F. Schwartz, as their envoy to south Bali. The
Dutch presence in the south had started in earnest. Coincidentally
the stage was set for bitter rivalry between the palaces of Gianyar and
Ubud in later years, most notably during the Indonesian Revolution.
By 1904 the Aceh War was finally smouldering to a conclusion,
and the Dutch were ready to end the anomalous situation in southern
Bali. In May 1904 they got their chance when the Sri Kumala, a Borneo-
based Chinese trading vessel, ran aground on the massive fringing coral
reef off Sanur and was plundered. The Dutch sent a bill to the ruler of
Badung who, backed by Klungkung and Tabanan, refused to pay. The
Dutch then blockaded the coast and on 14 September landed troops,
including cavalry and artillery, at Sanur. They advanced slowly toward
Denpasar, the capital of Badung, where on 20 September they found
the palace in flames, accompanied by a wild beating of drums. To quote
As they drew closer, they observed a strange, silent proces-
sion emerging from the main gate of the puri. It was led by
the Radja himself, seated in his state palanquin carried by
four bearers, dressed in white cremation garments but splen-
didly bejeweled and armed with a magnificent kris. The
Radja was followed by the officials of his court, the armed
guards, the priests, his wives, his children and his retainers,
likewise dressed in white, flowers in their hair . . . One
hundred paces from the startled Dutch, the Radja halted his
bearers, stepped from his palanquin, gave the signal, and the
ghastly ceremony began. A priest plunged his dagger into
the Radja’s breast, and others of the company began turning
their daggers upon themselves or upon one another. The
Dutch troops, startled into action by a stray gunshot and
reacting to attack by lance and spear, directed rifle and even
artillery fire into the surging crowd. Some of the women
mockingly threw jewels and gold coins to the soldiers, and
as more and more people kept emerging from the palace
gate, the mounds of corpses rose higher and higher. Soon
to the scene of carnage was added the spectacle of looting
as the soldiers stripped the valuables from the corpses and
then set themselves to sacking the palace ruins.16
A similar encounter took place that evening in nearby Pemecutan, part
In the neighbouring state of Tabanan the rulers were not only
implicated in the recent ship plunder, they had also allowed two aged
widows of a deceased ruler to sacrifice themselves on his funeral pyre,
in spite of warnings from the Dutch not to do so. Their disobedience
had personally offended the governor-general of the Indies, who even
offered to resign over his failure to prevent this barbarity. The Tabanan
raja and his senior son now sought terms from the Dutch, but were
threatened with exile and jailed in Denpasar. They promptly commit-
ted suicide in prison.
Klungkung was the final act. Its rulers initially accepted a Dutch
ultimatum, but friction soon erupted in nearby Gelgel, the seat of the
illustrious sixteenth-century state of the same name. It happened because
the Dutch, already worrying about revenue, were determined to open
branches of their official opium monopoly even before they had achieved
political control. But first they had to abolish the Balinese ruler’s opium
monopoly, exercised through a Chinese merchant. Under the old system
the drug was eventually sold freely on the market, but now (as the
Balinese were aware) consumers would have to buy it from official outlets
staffed by Javanese. The result was anti-Dutch riots which soon got
out of hand.
A by now familiar sequence of events ensued. The Dutch
bombarded both Klungkung and Gelgel, and sent in troops and artillery.
On 28 April 1908, the Klungkung royalty staged another dramatic self-
sacrifice. About 400 Balinese were killed and there were few survivors,
although some of the Klungkung aristocrats were exiled to Lombok.
The palace was destroyed, leaving only a magnificent gate still stand-
ing near the Hall of Justice with its painted ceiling, familiar to modern
Of this last episode Clifford Geertz wrote, ‘. . . the king and court
again paraded, half entranced, half dazed with opium, out of the palace
into the reluctant fire of the by now thoroughly bewildered Dutch troops.
It was quite literally the death of the old order. It expired as it had lived:
absorbed in a pageant’.17
The meaning of puputan
A total of about 1100 Balinese died in the 1906–08 ritual suicides, or
puputan.18 What were these extraordinary spectacles, almost without
parallel in the history of warfare? Were they just lethal pageantry, or
was something more political or even strategic going on?
The Balinese term puputan comes from the root puput, meaning
‘finishing’ or ‘ending’. Western accounts frequently suggest that the
puputan were stimulated by opium use and/or by a cultural affinity for
spontaneous violence, the tradition of amok (an Indonesian word) found
throughout the Malay world, from which the English expression ‘running
amuck’ is derived.
But not all puputan were the same. They were not all staged against
colonial armies. There are several recorded instances of Balinese forces
resorting to them against other Balinese, as in the case of the Lombok
civil war of 1839. Nor were all puputan suicidal. The original meaning
seems to have been a last desperate attack against a numerically supe-
rior enemy. In at least one conflict between Balinese antagonists, a
puputan succeeded, resulting in victory for those who launched it.19
Of course times had changed by 1906. The military advantage of
the Dutch had grown overwhelming and obvious, and many Balinese
realised that physical resistance would be futile. Some rulers may well
have been seeking death, fearing that colonial conquest would deprive
them of everything it meant to be a lord, a humiliation too profound
to be borne.
For them perhaps, the puputan was indeed more symbolic than
strategic, the last act of a tragic dance-drama, natural for a people whose
genius for theatre is unsurpassed. In most cases the participants, unlike
Japanese kamikaze pilots or Palestinian suicide bombers, were appar-
ently not even trying to defeat a military adversary. If they had been,
they surely would have retreated to the interior and carried on the war,
as Patih Jelantik had done in 1846.
This monument in Denpasar’s central square commemorates suicidal Balinese resistance
to heavily armed Dutch troops which took place nearby on 20 September 1906.
(Source: Robert Pringle)
But there is another dimension to the story. The best analysis of
a puputan suggests that the Klungkung event may have been intended
as an ultimate act of sacrifice whereby the king, powerless to avoid a
hopeless situation on earth, could in death join forces with the super-
natural to help his people.20 Seen from this Balinese perspective, the
puputan was an effort to mobilise immediate support from magical power
(sakti) against superior force. Thus, on 28 April 1908, the doomed ruler
of Klungkung sank his sacred kris in the ground, hoping that it would
open and swallow up the advancing Dutch force. Magical weaponry had
been credited with the dramatic death of a Dutch general, also in
Klungkung, in 1849. There are other instances from around the world
where traditional societies faced with overwhelming colonial firepower
have appealed to the supernatural in final desperate efforts to avoid
subjugation. One thinks of the Mahdi in Sudan, or of the Sioux at
Today the puputan are remembered by Balinese and other Indone-
sians as part of a national heritage of fierce anti-colonial resistance. In
this spirit, the near-annihilation of a Balinese guerrilla unit by the Dutch
in November 1946 is remembered as a puputan, a heroic last stand, even
though it was surely not intended to be suicidal in nature. The Balinese
recall this episode and those of 1906–08 with pride, and commemorate
them with museums, monuments and periodic celebrations.
Whatever their motivation, the political impact of the puputan
on the evolving colonial order was significant. They were a huge embar-
rassment to the Dutch, who were hard put to explain why European
troops armed with artillery and other modern weapons were justified
in inflicting such slaughter on people engaged in suicide, not serious
resistance. The Dutch were supposedly imposing their rule to do away
with barbarities such as slavery and widow burning, and now they had
been caught up in a pattern of massacre.
There was a considerable uproar in Holland, followed by acute
twinges of guilt. This reaction to events on Bali played into the devel-
opment of a new ‘Ethical Policy’, which sought to emphasise a more
socially responsible approach to governing the Indies. It referred to a
‘debt of honour’ to the people of the Indies who, through their labour,
had made Holland rich. Seen from this perspective, those who went
through a ‘finishing’ did not die in vain. Their heroic sacrifice not
only inspired later nationalists, it also helped to produce immediate
improvements in the motivation and quality of Dutch rule, both on
Bali and throughout what was to become Indonesia.
PAX AND POVERTY NEERLANDICA (1908–1942)
Now began 34 years of Dutch peace, relatively speaking. There were
to be no more major political changes on Bali until 1942, when the
Japanese arrived. In considering the impact of Dutch rule on Bali, it is
important to remember that this rule was quite brief, considerably shorter
than the period that has elapsed since Indonesian independence in
1949. The Dutch saw themselves as still engaged in a work in progress
when Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity so rudely intervened.
The results of colonialism were mixed. The Dutch brought peace
to Bali, introduced a modicum of education and health care, and built
harbours, roads and eventually an airport. By resorting to indirect rule
through the old aristocracy, they reinforced its position in Balinese
society. They increased and regularised land taxes, contributing to
growing landlessness. They subjected peasants to an onerous forced
labour (corvée) service. They strengthened and stiffened the caste
system. For a mixture of economic and political motives, they began
the modern tourism industry. They tried quite successfully to save Bali
from the full impact of capitalism and cultural disruption of the kind
The ‘barbaric’ Balinese custom of ‘suttee’ or ‘widow burning’ was one of several pretexts
for Dutch intervention in south Bali. This depiction, from a Balinese version of the Indian
epic Mahabharata, is among those commissioned by the Dutch–Chinese lexicographer
Hermann Neubronner van der Tuuk in the 1870s to help him compile the first dictionary
of the Balinese language. (Source: University of Leiden Oriental Collection)
they had visited on Java. But their policies also aggravated social tensions
which simmered under the surface, to re-emerge with lethal force after
World War II.
Bali’s new rulers were driven by complex and contradictory
motives. On the one hand they were committed to the idealistic stan-
dards of the new Ethical Policy, with its emphasis on popular welfare.
On the other hand, they still felt compelled to meet a fundamental
requirement for any colonial administration anywhere—to show a
surplus of revenue over expenditure wherever possible. Like British,
French and American colonialists, the Dutch saw themselves as running
a branch of government in the interests of their state, not a foreign aid
Pax and poverty Neerlandica
programme. Despite the new focus on welfare, they enforced strict limits
on social services and maintained high taxes even when the result
impeded development and increased poverty. When motives conflicted,
administrative convenience and the imperative of revenue usually
At first the Dutch concentrated on the maintenance of peace and
order, the elimination of ‘barbaric’ practices, such as widow burning,
and the integration of Bali into an Indies-wide system and philosophy
of administration. True to this priority, they ended the endemic warfare
which had plagued Bali in the past. Some Dutch administrators were
fond of talking about a Pax Neerlandica, or Dutch peace, a play on the
Pax Romana of the Roman Empire. Although there were episodes of
localised political unrest in the early years, they had run their course
by the 1920s and surprisingly did not recur even during the Great
Depression, when Bali was increasingly and severely distressed by poverty
The Dutch knew that uncritical reliance on the Balinese rulers
could lead to abuse and scandal, as had been notoriously the case
on Java. But in order to avoid losing money on an island with few
productive resources, they needed to minimise an expensive Dutch
presence, which as a result never exceeded more than a few dozen officers
and technicians. They also brought to Bali a few Javanese and other
Indonesian clerks and teachers, one of whom married a Balinese and
in 1901 became the father of Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno.
The obvious solution to the administrative cost versus ethics
problem was to govern through the existing ruling class, but to mingle
this indirect rule with reform. Soon the Dutch conceived a ‘macro-
legend’ to justify such an approach.1 It asserted, quite without basis in
fact, that the Majapahit invasion of 1343 had destroyed a pre-existing
system of independent ‘village republics’ by superimposing a layer of ‘alien’
Javanese despotism. The trick was to strip away the allegedly despotic
elements and retain the best in Balinese culture without at the same time
abandoning a virtually cost-free instrument of local government.
An official reception in Denpasar in about 1925. The photo shows a mingling of Dutch
and Balinese notables, including the Raja of Karangasem, his wife and children; Balinese
district officials (on the left) and priests (on the right); and, in the middle, V.E. Korn, the
Dutch scholar-bureaucrat who codified Balinese customary law (adat) for administrative
use. (Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
Based on the legend, a strategy of maintaining a sanitised ‘living
museum’ of Hindu-Balinese culture emerged. The germ of the idea was
in place as early as 1902, when Henri Hubert van Kol, a reform-minded
member of the Dutch parliament, visited Gianyar and observed the very
first Dutch administrator in the south at work.
In a book entitled From Our Colonies he wrote:
We grant the radja self-rule and we permit the people to
observe their ancient laws and customs. We remove abuses
and those which remain, will yet disappear. The rule of the
radja replaces that of the punggawa [district rulers] who
Pax and poverty Neerlandica
are concerned only with their private satisfactions. The
position of the once powerful punggawa is now reduced, as
it should be, to that of the servant of the radja, under our
watchful supervision . . . We have brought law and order.2
The concept was aesthetically, ethically and administratively appeal-
ing. However, the colonial administration soon found itself trapped in
a contradiction which led to heated internal debate. If the idea was to
eliminate the ‘alien’ despots and restore pristine village democracy, how
could increasing reliance on these same despotic rulers be justified? One
explanation was to assume that the Balinese rulers had indeed been
rapidly reformed to meet Dutch standards. Another, no more credible,
was to assert that the rajas had never had much power at the village
In truth, despite all the talk about village-level democracy, the
Dutch administrators were sorely vexed by the absence of island-wide
institutions of strong central rule. While the bolstering of ‘tradition’
was appealing, real Balinese tradition was fluid, inconsistent from one
region to another, and indeed verged on what looked like anarchy. Bali’s
‘great failing’, one administrator admitted, was ‘the lack of a powerful
government over the whole realm’.3 To deal with this problem, the
Dutch were forced to reform ‘tradition’, and even to create new tradi-
In the early years the Dutch differentiated between directly and
indirectly ruled principalities. The five states which had been least coop-
erative in the process of conquest (Badung, Buleleng, Jembrana,
Klungkung and Tabanan) were directly ruled by Dutch officials. The
royal houses were not formally recognised, and backsliding or recalci-
trant leaders were frequently exiled. In the three states which were
indirectly ruled, Bangli, Karangasem and Gianyar, the ruler assumed a
dual status. As a stedehouder or a regent in the Dutch system, he was
responsible to the local controleur, to the resident in Singaraja and his
deputy in Denpasar, and eventually to the governor general in Batavia.
In 1938 the Dutch held a great ceremony at the Besakih mother temple to inaugurate the
rajas of Badung, Bangli, Buleleng, Karangasem, Gianyar, Jembrana, Klungkung and
Tabanan, all shown here, as theoretically autonomous rulers under the Dutch queen. It
was the climax of a broader effort to reinforce, or in some cases to reinvent, Balinese
‘tradition’. (Source: KILTV Archives, Leiden)
As raja he was solely responsible only for such seemingly innocuous
duties as the maintenance of temples and the proper execution of state
Once the few troublemakers had been dealt with, the Dutch
realised that the Balinese aristocrats were natural allies, all the more
valuable as nationalism and communism began to emerge elsewhere in
the Indies. Beginning in the late 1920s, Batavia began a more formal
policy of support for the traditional rulers. This eventually resulted in
the official restoration of indirect rule everywhere on Bali and the recog-
nition of eight royal houses in a grand ceremony held at the Besakih
mother temple in 1938. It was a colourful display of Balinese tradition
brought up to date, Dutch style: ‘The robes of state were half-
Balinese/half Western, the oath of loyalty [to the Dutch queen] was in
Balinese, but the speeches in Malay [Indonesian]; Western were the
official photographs, to say nothing of the champagne.’4
Economic and social impact
Dutch colonialism was least admirable in its economic and social aspects.
Opium was the most glaring example of revenue trumping ethics. We
have already seen that Dutch eagerness to replace the ruler’s traditional
monopoly in Klungkung with their own led directly to perhaps avoid-
able slaughter in 1908. The drug remained a money-maker, producing
a substantial proportion of administrative revenue on Bali.
The Dutch tried to put a reform-oriented face on their opium
policy. As early as 1870 they persuaded the Raja of Klungkung to kick
his habit. Pronouncing himself cured, the dean of Balinese royalty sent
his silver opium pipe to the Dutch governor general, receiving in return
a fine damascene sword. The Indies-wide Dutch opium monopoly subse-
quently imposed on all Bali was supposed to control mass consumption.
But opium became increasingly popular among the Balinese people,
encouraged by the official sale of smaller doses affordable to the average
person. In a peculiar twist, adult users who failed to make their habit-
ual purchase from the Dutch monopoly were fined for presumably buying
opium on the black market, a tacit acknowledgment that the state was
in fact supporting addiction.
Opium revenue was, however, far from sufficient to meet the needs
of the state, and over time the colonial administration introduced a
bewildering host of new taxes, from levies on cockfights to road tolls.
Between 1917 and 1930 total government revenues from Bali more than
doubled and the authorities collected 37 million guilders more than
they spent on the island. At least until the Great Depression, Bali did
not lose money for Batavia.
Most importantly, the Dutch regularised land registration and
eventually more than doubled the land tax, to the point where it was
among the heaviest in the Netherlands Indies. In most cases—the
impact varied from place to place—the burden of the land tax fell on
increasingly impoverished tenant farmers. By 1923 tenants were allowed
to keep only as little as one-third of their crop, and things were to get
worse. The Great Depression hammered Bali hard. Prices for Balinese
cash crops plummeted, yet farmers were by this time required to pay the
land tax in Dutch currency, in effect at an increasingly unfavourable
rate of exchange. Economic depression coincided with growing popu-
lation, resulting in a surge of landlessness and increasing concentration
of land in the hands of the rulers, their families and other aristocrats.
A few of the more perceptive Dutch administrators realised what
was going on. One of them wrote in 1932: ‘Whoever gets to know the
situation of the common man in Bali from close only then discovers
what a drab, poverty stricken mass of people inhabit this beautiful island.
And the poverty is on the increase . . .’ 5 Another noted that ‘a great
many people consider themselves lucky if they manage to eat one decent
meal a day’.6
Forced labour for the state was another element of Balinese tradi-
tion which the new rulers found useful. Lower caste Balinese (sudra),
over 90 per cent of the population, had traditionally owed service to
the ruler, mainly for temple upkeep, irrigation system repair and other
services of immediate benefit to the local community. The Dutch regu-
larised the practice and called it ‘feudal service’ (herrendienst). They
used it to build roads, harbours and bridges, and put it under the super-
vision of local Balinese functionaries. When there was work to be done,
the controleur would get the raja to ‘call up the farmers’.7 The result
was admirable progress on public works and an added burden on the
When the Dutch introduced corvée it led to some episodes of local
unrest, at least in part because villagers no longer perceived any benefit
to themselves from the new kinds of work being performed. In 1917
Villagers are shown at work on a road in about 1920. The Dutch converted the traditional
practice of community service owed to Balinese rulers into a system of compulsory labour
for the colonial state. (Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
peasants in Gianyar refused to perform the service as urged by their raja.
At the climax of the episode the rebellious leaders appeared dressed in
white and armed with krisses, an ominous evocation of the ritual suicides
of a decade earlier. Armed police fired on the crowd, killing five and
seriously wounding eleven. Popular resentment in this and other cases
was directed against the raja, not against the Dutch, proving the effec-
tiveness of their indirect rule strategy.
Dutch restructuring of village administration, allegedly to restore
the traditional order, was designed in part to achieve units which could
supply 200 men each for corvée service. The exemption of high-caste
Balinese from such service resulted in many low-caste Balinese litigat-
ing to establish their aristocratic credentials, and a rash of so-called
‘paper satria’, satria being the rulers’ caste.
There was modest progress on health. The Dutch introduced vacci-
nation in North Bali as early as 1881 and established a few clinics. The
system gradually expanded, and real progress was made against common
diseases. The flu epidemic of 1918 nonetheless killed more than 22 000
Balinese. A 1935 government report noted a generally poor state of
health, with high levels of malnutrition, tuberculosis and venereal
A similar pattern of minimal progress held true for education. A
few local schools were built, and children of the senior rulers were
encouraged to attend Dutch schools. Javanese teachers arrived on Bali,
and some Balinese aristocrats continued their education on Java. One
unintended consequence was that a small group learned about and began
to sympathise with the nascent Indonesian nationalist movement.
By the 1890s schools on Bali were enrolling around 600 pupils. It
was not a major effort, and a greater number were probably still becom-
ing literate through informally learning Old Javanese from temple
priests. In 1910, when the Dutch made over 1 million guilders from
the opium monopoly on Bali, they spent less than 20 000 guilders on
education, a discrepancy which greatly distressed Henri van Kol, the
parliamentarian who had been so enthusiastic about the prospects for
Dutch rule on his first visit in 1902. He urged an immediate expansion
of the education programme, which did occur, but slowly and not always
under colonial sponsorship.8 In the 1930s a network of private, nation-
alist-oriented schools, part of the Indonesia-wide Taman Siswa system,
was established on Bali. However, by 1940 only six Balinese had
The colonial rulers rapidly became fascinated with Balinese culture
and over time applied substantial scholarly resources to its study. They
knew that successful administration under the banner of reform required
knowledge of local customs. Scholarship was also a useful counter to
critics of colonialism. As tourism developed, scholarship became
economically relevant as well. The effort began as early as 1873 when
the Dutch hired a part-Malay linguist, Herman Neubronner van der
Tuuk, who compiled a Balinese dictionary.
The Dutch set up a library for traditional manuscripts in Singaraja
in 1928, named after van der Tuuk and still in existence. To the dismay
of private merchants, they established the Bali Museum in 1932 to
encourage excellence in Balinese art through both sales and collection.
The colonial archaeological service excavated and deciphered inscrip-
tions that began to reveal an almost forgotten Balinese past. A number
of Dutch administrators assiduously studied traditional law and govern-
ment, to extract from it whatever might be useful. Preservation of the
best in Balinese culture, whatever that might be, became a central objec-
tive of Dutch rule.
This effort was related to a remarkable and unique aspect of Dutch
policy. Throughout the Indies the Dutch recognised customary law,
invented a name for it (adat, taken from Arabic) and established a pres-
tigious department at the University of Leiden to study and help
administer it. The colony was divided into nineteen adat law regions,
and for each a scholarly ‘guide’ to adat was compiled, the one for Bali
(Het adatrecht van Bali, by V.E. Korn) being published in 1924. Dutch
scholars were well aware that customary law was at heart oral and that
it changed over time, hence could not be codified in writing without
distortion, but a compulsion to be orderly drove them to write it down
One of the more amusing examples of the Dutch effort to impose
order on chaos came in the management of currency. The traditional
Balinese system of coinage was unwieldy strings or ‘loops’ of Chinese
copper coins (kepeng), but the type of coins used varied from kingdom
to kingdom, and even from village to village. At first the Balinese refused
to use paper money and were dubious about silver coins, a wide variety
of which were in circulation, from Singapore dollars to Portuguese
pieces-of-eight. They particularly did not like the silver coin bearing
the image of King William II which the Dutch proudly attempted to
promote. They called it ‘the dollar of the king with a long neck’, and
would not accept it at its full value in silver. For the Balinese, coinage
irregularities were just another excuse for amusing litigation, but they
drove systematic bureaucrats nearly distracted. In the end, of course,
colonial pressure for standardisation prevailed.10
In fact, the Dutch were in a real dilemma on the matter of ‘tradition’,
and nothing illustrates it better than their approach to village admin-
istration. They claimed to be basing their policy on a restoration of
traditional village-level democracy, but they also felt it essential to have
consistent standards of administration, which, of course, had never
existed on Bali. The key player on this issue was F.A. Liefrinck, who
served as controleur and later resident in north Bali in the 1880s. He
was a keen student of land tenure and village administration, and a
founding father of adat law studies.
Liefrinck’s detailed research in the north later served as the basis
for Dutch administration in the south, although previous practice there
had been neither uniform nor similar to that in the north. The result
was to regularise what had been a highly fragmented and regionally
varied political order and to increase the power of the aristocracy at the
This served the need for administrative convenience but had nega-
tive aspects as well. Previously, for example, farmers had utilised complex
networks of lords and their followers as multiple intermediaries between
court and village. Now there could be only one government-appointed
Balinese official (perbekel) in each village. Villagers became more
dependent on their rulers, backed by the Dutch, than they had ever
been in the violent past, when they could always move to the protec-
tion of a competing lord.
The problem extended to the very top of the system, where the
eight officially recognised rajas, many of them big landowners, had much
more real power over their subjects than the Dutch system envisioned.
Increasingly desk-bound by paperwork, the handful of controleurs were
sometimes aware that they didn’t know everything that was going on
in their districts. But, having just restored the monarchs to royal status,
the Dutch were reluctant to punish them for abuse of power. ‘Well,
now,’ sighed one officer, ‘. . . you had to keep up a working relationship
[with the local raja]. If you were to go and investigate some such rumor
about extortion, then you had no idea of what else might come to
The most serious criticism of indirect rule goes well beyond indi-
vidual royal peccadilloes. It argues that by hiding behind a façade of
princes, the Dutch were able to escape accountability for the inequities
of their flawed stewardship, especially the growth of landlessness and
the strengthened caste system. Instead of blaming the Dutch, the Bali-
nese blamed each other, and the resulting tensions in Balinese society
aggravated post-war unrest up to and including the killings of 1965–66
(see Chapter 8). But it is not a foregone conclusion that direct rule by
Dutch officials would have had a happier ending, certainly not without
much greater expenditures on education and social welfare plus a forth-
right Indies-wide policy of preparation for independence. In the context
of the times, that would have been too much to expect.
In time the preservationist ‘living museum’ philosophy got out of
hand. By the 1920s it had resulted in an official policy of ‘Bali-isation’
(Baliseering) which tried to mandate the use of traditional dress, tradi-
tional architecture and the Balinese language. Use of Malay (or
Indonesian), which the Dutch had initially promoted everywhere in the
Indies, was eventually made a punishable offence on Bali. While this
was done in the name of preservation, it really happened because Malay
had become the lingua franca of the feared nationalist movement.
‘Traditional’ architecture was protected, despite the fact that Bali-
nese buildings, often built from soft volcanic stone, are by nature
impermanent, and the real tradition was one of constant decay and
renovation. But now the colonial government required a permit to
change anything that appeared more than 50 years old. After the great
earthquake of 1917 the Dutch supervised the restoration of destroyed
temples, enforcing adherence to ‘pure’ Balinese style. Funny statues of
big-nosed Europeans were no longer permitted as temple guardians.12
Fortunately, quite a few earlier ones have survived.
Dutch colonial policy increasingly
emphasised the preservation of Balinese
‘tradition’, interpreted with un-Balinese
rigidity. The restoration of temples
required official architectural review and
the practice of using statues of big-nosed
Europeans as guardian figures (such as
this one in Klungklung) was no longer
allowed. (Source: Robert Pringle)
The Dutch established courts of customary law whose members
had to be ‘ordained’ Hindu priests and were supposed to rely on ancient
Balinese texts, usually written in Old Javanese, which even they could
not always understand. In order to fix this problem, administrators
authorised translations into Balinese and Malay. Historian Geoffrey
Robinson notes, ‘There is perhaps no more striking example of the way
in which Balinese “tradition” was manufactured by the Dutch colonial
Dubious reworking of ‘tradition’ was most significant in the matter
of caste. Once the Dutch had lost their fear of the old ruling class, and
come to depend on it as an essential element in the political system,
they put caste high on their list of desirable traditions. In 1910 they
made an official decision to uphold the system, defining it as the three
high castes (triwangsa) plus one low caste (sudra) for the remaining nine-
tenths of the population. As with the preservationist policy in general,
Pax and poverty Neerlandica
Dutch objectives were unabashedly political. ‘We shall, before all else,
have to uphold the caste system,’ wrote one official in 1921, ‘otherwise
the [Balinese Hindu] religion is done for, and there is a chance for the
Typically, the reworked system went well beyond the flexibility
and imprecision of previous practice. Most seriously, there was no place
in it for the various important non-caste groups such as the smiths
(pandé), who were simply demoted to the new, uniform low-caste cate-
gory. Since the three higher castes were exempt from corvée, and since
sudra were not eligible for government jobs, the change generated
tension and litigation which was fought out in the similarly retradi-
tionalised customary law courts.
The new caste policy annoyed the man who wrote the book on
Balinese customary law, V.E. Korn, who noted that the old system was
more supple, sometimes for good reason. For example, rulers could autho-
rise cross-caste marriages, which the Dutch now forbade, and often did
so to encourage bonding across social lines. The new formalisation of
caste was especially offensive to educated Balinese of lower caste, result-
ing in a heated debate in the local press in the 1920s on the merits or
lack thereof of ‘retraditionalisation’. This controversy has never really
stopped, and 80 years later it is still fuelling a schism in Bali’s Hindu
establishment over caste qualifications for the priesthood.
Despite significant failings and contradictions, the colonial empha-
sis on preservation was on balance good policy. It bolstered those who
wanted to save Bali from the kind of foreign economic domination
and massive development of commercial agriculture so prevalent on
Java. Most ‘foreign’ economic activity remained in the hands of local
Chinese, usually with Balinese wives, who specialised in shop-keeping,
money lending, real estate, local produce, and import-export activi-
ties. In time Shell Oil and the state-run Dutch shipping firm KPM
opened offices in Singaraja. That was about it.
A similar dynamic prevailed in the case of Christian missionary
activity, which the Dutch also succeeded in minimising. It had got off
to a bad start in 1866 in north Bali, when the first serious evangelist,
Reverend R. van Eck of the Utrecht Missionary Society, succeeded in
converting only his own servant, who he claimed was a prince. In 1881
the convert, who had been threatened with Balinese damnation by
his unconverted people, murdered one of van Eck’s successors. Dutch
officials seized on this fiasco to support their own anti-missionary senti-
ments. Protestant missionaries, together with evangelists from Java,
were nonetheless able to return and make a few converts. Roman
Catholics also gained a foothold following the arrival of the first Euro-
pean priest in 1935.
There ensued a lively argument over whether Christianity should
be encouraged as a safeguard against the possible encroachment of Islam
and/or nationalism. Bali’s foremost official culture maven, Roelof Goris
of the Antiquities Bureau, reacted with alarm. He argued that Chris-
tianity would destroy Balinese civilisation, and that ‘Calvinism is an
enemy of art’.15 Goris got strong support from expatriate artists-
in-residence like Miguel Covarrubias, who included ten pages of
anti-missionary argument in his 1937 bestseller, Island of Bali. In
response, pro-missionary forces jeered at efforts to preserve the ‘Bali
Reservation’.16 In the end, preservationist sentiment prevailed. It had
been nicely summarised in 1924 by the Resident of Bali and Lombok,
H.T. Damste, in an article on the missionary issue:
Let the Balinese live their own beautiful native life as undis-
turbed as possible! Their agriculture, their village life, their
own form of worship, their religious art, their own litera-
ture—all bear witness to an autonomous native civilization
of rare versatility and richness. No railroads on Bali, no
Western coffee plantations; and especially no sugar facto-
ries! But also no proselytizing, neither Mohammedan (by
zealous natives from other parts of the Indies) nor Protes-
tant nor Roman Catholic. Let the colonial administration,
with the strong backing of the Netherlands government,
treat the island of Bali as a rare jewel that we must protect
and whose virginity must remain intact.17
The year before Damste penned this purple passage, the Dutch steamship
company began passenger service to Singaraja. The age of commercial
tourism on Bali was about to begin.
THE WORLD DISCOVERS BALI (1902–1942)
Then it starts suddenly, like a storm, stronger and stronger,
more and more terrible, bolts of lightning, thunderclaps—
all the iron bodies of the gamelans are seized by a powerful
trembling, until everything suddenly breaks off in a cry
of anguish—breathtaking silence! and taking up again
fortissimo with chaotic gestures, hissing, splashing! . . .
– Walter Spies, letter from Ubud describing
a new form of gamelan, September 1927.1
Today almost everybody has heard of Bali.
– Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, 1937.2
The 1930s saw the beginning of tourism on Bali, if only on a very modest
scale compared to what has happened since 1966. As Bali became better
known it attracted an extraordinary collection of artists, social scientists
and what might be termed pre-jetsetters. The presence of this varie-
gated foreign community coincided with the intrusion of other external
The world discovers Bali
influences, including foreign goods and Western-style media, which today
would be lumped together under the rubric of ‘globalisation’.
All this plus the demands of a new cash economy and colonial
taxation stimulated talented Balinese to develop new forms of music,
painting and sculpture which today still define much of Bali’s culture
to the outside world. The foreigners did not unilaterally transplant new
standards and techniques to the Balinese; innovation was always a two-
way street. Nor was it simply a question of poor Balinese seeking new
income through selling carvings and paintings to tourists, although
money was certainly a factor.
Especially at first, the Dutch authorities were ambivalent about
the growth of tourism. On the positive side, it generated revenue and
put a smiling face on colonialism. It justified an emphasis on cultural
preservation which, they hoped, would help counter such disparate
threats as radical Islam, communism and Indonesian nationalism. On
the other hand they—and just about everyone else—were concerned
almost from the beginning that too much tourism would kill the goose
that laid the golden eggs of Balinese culture. Thus began an apparently
endless policy debate.
The first tourists
A tourist is someone who travels for pleasure, however he or she may
define pleasure—aesthetic, intellectual, culinary, carnal or whatever—
not for religion, business or conquest. In the West, tourism existed at
least as early as Roman times. In Bali it was a by-product of Dutch
control after 1908, the end of chronic warfare, and the integration of
Bali into the colonial transport and communications network.
This is not to say that earlier visitors to the island did not enjoy
themselves. The two Dutch sailors who jumped ship in 1597 must have
been attracted by something, unless they were simply repelled by the
daunting prospect of a long voyage back to chilly, wind-swept Holland.
However that may be, it would be an exaggeration to say they were
Bali’s first Western tourists. Of course we have no idea how many
Chinese, Arabs or other Indonesians had visited for trade or pilgrim-
age during previous centuries of external contact.
On Bali the first whiff of something like tourism came with Mads
Lange, the personable Danish trader, sometime diplomat, cultural broker
and proto-hotelier who went into business at Kuta in 1839. Lange
received a stream of visiting officials and globetrotting scholars and
scientists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, co-formulator (with Darwin)
of evolution theory; R.H.Th. Friederich, a German scholar of Sanskrit
who wrote the earliest detailed account of Balinese Hinduism, and many
others. Although Lange was hardly in the tourist business as we know
it, his guests began a process of publicising Bali which would in time
reverse its reputation as a dangerous and barbaric place.
The laurel of ‘first tourist’ should probably go to Dutch parlia-
mentarian H. van Kol, despite the fact that he was also a professional
politician and critic of colonial policy.3 Van Kol first visited Bali in
1902, before the Dutch had completely subjugated the south. At his
first stop he got an amazing reception from the Raja of Karangasem,
I Gusti Gede Jelantik, installed by the Dutch as stedehouder in 1896 for
his helpful role during the Lombok War. Van Kol was lodged in quar-
ters splendidly furnished with gifts from the Dutch queen in return for
the 20 000 guilder birthday gift Jelantik had sent her. Along with the
splendid furnishings came muddy drinking water and no toilet facili-
ties at all—at least none recognisable to van Kol.
Indeed, life for the early tourist was a far cry from what it later
became. A laisser-passer was required from the nearest Dutch controleur.
Since roads were non-existent, the traveller needed a full panoply of
servants, horses, pack animals, food, bedding and whatever other
Western amenities were deemed essential:
Roads, trails and pathways were certain to be either rocky
and dusty or muddy and slippery; ascents and descents were
frequent and treacherous; bridges were likely to give way
and apparently shallow fords to prove bottomless. Lodg-
ings were almost always stifling, filthy, vermin-ridden, and
stained with betel nut spittle . . . Visits to radjas and other
dignitaries had to be timed to correspond to the brief inter-
vals between their sorties to patronize cockfights and their
seclusion to smoke opium.4
Despite all this, as van Kol discovered, the experience was enthralling,
and he visited every Balinese kingdom except dry and still largely unpop-
ulated Jembrana in the west. Van Kol was a serious observer, the first
European to notice a problem which would get much worse in the years
ahead. Karangasem, he wrote in From Our Colonies, was seriously over-
populated and could not grow enough rice to support its population,
which was already beginning to migrate elsewhere.
With the consolidation of Dutch control in 1908, a trickle of visi-
tors began to arrive as passengers on the freighters which now served
the new colonial headquarters at Singaraja, where they took on cargoes
of coffee, cattle and especially pigs, which non-Muslim Bali produced
in abundance. A few more visitors arrived on Dutch warships at Padang
Bai, the small port in southeastern Bali which is still frequented by
colourful fishing canoes, inter-island trade craft and the occasional cruise
ship. The Dutch soon established a string of rest houses, primarily for
official travellers but also available to tourists.
Within a decade Batavia was gearing up for an Indies-wide tourist
business which was significant for the times, if microscopic by today’s
standards. In 1914 the first tourist brochure to include images of Bali
appeared. In 1923 Dutch passenger ships began serving Singaraja, and
in 1928 the government guest house in Denpasar was upgraded and
reopened as the Bali Hotel, the island’s first and for many years its only
real hotel. Newly restored, it is still in business.
Soon there were five-day excursions with large American touring
cars, usually Packards, serving as the standard conveyance. Amenities
European tourists being robbed, from a north Balinese temple relief as recorded by
Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias about seventy years ago. The relief itself was pure
whimsy, or maybe wishful thinking, since there is no evidence that any plundering of
tourists ever took place on Balinese roads. (Source: Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali,
Alfred A. Knopf)
remained simple—while on the road, the sanitary protocol was still ‘the
rice paddies for the ladies, the coconut trees for the gentlemen’,5 and
of course there was nothing like air conditioning.
Artists and writers began to discover Bali, and two of the earliest
deserve mention even in this abbreviated account. Wijnand Otto Jan
Nieuwenkamp was a freelance journalist and artist who witnessed the
puputan of 1906 at Denpasar. He was shocked but prudently confined
his criticism to family letters. He later travelled widely around Bali
drawing local scenes, wrote several books, and gave us the first detailed
drawings of the Pejeng ‘moon’.
Nieuwenkamp is supposed to be the subject of a well-known temple
relief at Meduwe Karang in north Bali, showing a European in Balinese
dress riding a bicycle with flowers for wheels. A member of the Kar-
angasem royal family who attended medical school in Holland on the
eve of World War II recounts in his memoirs how he learned about his
own homeland from reading books by Nieuwenkamp which he found
in a second-hand book store in Amsterdam.6
Gregor Krause was a German doctor, photographer and author
who came to Bali as a medical officer in the Dutch army before World
War I and lived in Indonesia for many years. His work on Bali, first
Three young Balinese women pose informally for an unknown foreign photographer,
possibly a visiting Dutch official, in the 1920s. Within a decade, more carefully posed and
costumed Balinese maidens enhanced a growing volume of tourist brochures.
(Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
published in 1920, included serious discussion of the island’s culture.
But it was his photographs which attracted the most attention, in part
because they were among the first to focus on Balinese feminine allure.
To quote Krause, brandishing his medical credentials, ‘the always power-
ful great chest muscle provides the most favorable foundation for
beautifully formed breasts . . . clothing cannot enhance this beauty but
it has the merit of not diminishing it’.7
In fairness, in addition to its mildly prurient appeal, Krause’s
photography covered a wide range of fascinating and important subject
matter. While his photographs are grainy and primitive by later stan-
dards, they, like Nieuwenkamp’s drawings, remain an invaluable record
of Bali before the impact of modernity. Fortunately, published exam-
ples of the work of both men are still widely available.
Word of the island’s natural beauty and cultural appeal began to
spread. Bali gradually became a fashionable destination for Western
artists and intellectuals with a taste for the exotic, and a small but
memorable expatriate community came into being. Important changes
in the character of Balinese art, drama and music took place at the
This emergence of new styles remains difficult to define or label.
It was certainly not a renaissance or even a renewal; Balinese culture
was never in need of rebirth. It was not simply a matter of foreign artists
teaching Balinese new techniques; in some cases the change was entirely
home-grown, while in others the foreign element was marginal. Nor
was it exclusively a response to market forces, although as the Balinese
discovered that their art was saleable, the Depression-driven need for
cash played a part.
Neither was it the product of a calculated public relations effort
by commercial interests—they barely existed at the time—much less
by a colonial government, which, as mentioned above, was initially
conflicted about tourism. It cannot even be said that the change was
unparalleled in Balinese history. We know very little about the history
of Balinese art, music and dance before the colonial period, but it is
unlikely that the selective eagerness for change which marked the 1930s
The pivotal personality
The spirit of one man, a German painter and musician, infuses the
cultural history of Bali at this critical period. Walter Spies was born in
Moscow in 1895 to a wealthy and cultured German merchant-
diplomat family. He inherited a taste for the arts, becoming a talented
musician and painter. In the 1920s he visited the Dutch East Indies and
found employment as bandmaster to the Sultan of Jogjakarta in Central
Java. Although hired to produce European music and play the piano,
Spies became much more interested in the royal Javanese gamelan
Then he visited Bali, and soon decided it was an even more appeal-
ing venue. Invited by the ruler of Ubud, Cocorde Gede Raka Sukawati,
he moved there in 1927 and built a house on what was then the edge
of the village, where two streams join. The place is named Campuhan,
meaning ‘the confluence of two rivers’, and it could serve as a metaphor
for Spies’ life work.
Spies was a painter and photographer as well as a musician and
amateur naturalist; indeed he seems to have been interested in just about
everything. His enthusiasm is well conveyed by his commentary on
kebiar, a new form of gamelan music evolving at this time, quoted at
the head of this chapter. Indeed, it may well be that his lively and expres-
sive personality endeared him more than anything else to the Balinese
and was the primary source of his influence.
Spies was not dogmatically dedicated to the preservation of old
styles, realising that the dynamism of Balinese art was essential to its
vitality. He was, however, concerned that commercialisation would in
time reduce the Balinese to producing anything that would sell. Thus
he helped to establish the Bali Museum in Denpasar in 1932 and served
as its curator. The primary mission of the museum was to collect and
conserve examples of the best Balinese art from the past. But in addi-
tion it encouraged, through purchase, the best new art. It was a first
step, but Spies and others wanted to go further and develop a more
intensive, collaborative effort with the artists themselves.
Changing styles in painting . . .
There had been some Western influence on Balinese art before Dutch
rule. Mads Lange had his portrait painted by a Balinese artist during
his mid-nineteenth century reign in Kuta. When the linguist van der
Tuuk commissioned sketches at the turn of the century, the artists were
already experimenting with non-traditional techniques and materials
such as paper.
Prior to tourism, painting had been among the less important of
Balinese art forms. The most significant was dance-drama, central to
much religious observance, followed by music, architecture, carving and
painting. Painting was used mostly for temple and palace wall decora-
tions, in a restricted palette of colours obtainable from natural sources.
Painted cloths, from either fabric or bark, were used for costumes and
festive decoration. Black line drawings were used to illustrate religious
and other texts on palm leaves (lontar). There was no such thing as
modern paints, or frames.
Imported materials now began to appear on the market, and foreign
artists including Spies enjoyed introducing them to the Balinese. If they
admired something the foreign artists were doing, they might incorpo-
rate it in their own work. This tendency has of course continued down
to the present, and there are now many Balinese artists who paint in
But this is getting ahead of the story. There is no doubt that the
combination of world depression and heavy Dutch taxation, discussed
in the preceding chapter, created a need for cash beyond anything expe-
rienced in the old, largely subsistence economy. Painting (or carving,
or dancing) for tourists was one way to meet it. By the 1930s, visitors
familiar with Bali were remarking that, especially in the Ubud-Gianyar
area, everybody seemed to be painting.
Spies could have done nothing without the help of Balinese princes
and artists who understood and shared his concerns. In 1936 he joined
forces with several other individuals to found the painting cooperative
Pita Maha, meaning ‘Grand Ancestors’ in Old Javanese, the literary
language of Bali. The name was intended to evoke the forces of creativ-
ity and continuity in Balinese religion.
In 1929 Raka Sukawati had invited another foreign artist, Rudolf
Bonnet, to live in Ubud. Bonnet was Dutch, a more traditional artist
than Spies and, most would agree, less talented. But he loved Bali and
Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet is shown with one of his most famous Balinese colleagues,
Anak Agung Gede Sobrat, perhaps the best-known practitioner of the Ubud Style. This
photo was taken when Bonnet returned to Bali after Indonesian independence in 1949.
(Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
obviously got along very well with the people, although by most accounts
he was more inclined to attempt to teach them what and how to paint
than was Spies. Bonnet, not Spies, was apparently the prime mover
behind the founding of Pita Maha. The vigorous participation and spon-
sorship of the Ubud Royal family, in the person of Raka’s younger brother
and eventual successor, Cokorde Gede Agung Sukawati, was essential
to the success of the initiative. Another Pita Maha co-founder was I Gusti
Nyoman Lempad, whose work is discussed below. Lempad, the son of an
architect and artist, had been in effect the court architect of Ubud when,
in his sixties, he became one of the most talented painters of the era.
With about 150 artist-members, Pita Maha was organised along
the lines of a traditional temple or irrigation association, which made
it comfortable and comprehensible to its Balinese membership. It met
weekly in the palace office of the Cokorde Agung or in Spies’ house to
discuss and pass judgment on paintings which the artists themselves
brought in from the region around Ubud.
Pita Maha did its job with admirable effectiveness, but its selec-
tions were mainly earmarked for export and foreign display, in an effort
to promote the quality of Balinese art abroad. Following World War II,
Rudolf Bonnet returned to Bali and, with Cokorde Agung Sukawati,
established a local art museum, the Puri Lukisan, which opened in 1957,
to ensure that quality art was displayed in Ubud as well.
Important as Pita Maha was, two anecdotes illustrate more subtle
but perhaps more powerful ways in which Spies influenced Balinese
artists. The first concerns I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, the co-founder of
Pita Maha. Lempad, famous as an architect, carver and master builder,
had apparently never painted when he designed a house for Spies at
Campuhan. Spies gave him some paper, and an illustrious new career
Lempad worked in his own variant of the traditional style used for
palm-leaf manuscript illustrations. He is most famous for ink drawings
flecked with red and gold highlights with vigorously individualistic
subject matter. He sometimes depicted explicitly sexual subjects,
indicating, given his talent and status, that such work was not neces-
sarily a corruption of Balinese culture by tourist influence. Lempad died
in 1978, reportedly at the age of 116.
The second story concerns an occasion when Spies gave a long
piece of high-quality wood to a young Balinese and asked him to make
two carvings. The artist returned with one carving because he could
not bear to damage the spirit of the wood by cutting it in two. Spies
was thoroughly delighted, praised the artist, and may have encouraged
the development of the long, attenuated carving style for which Bali
Then there is the question of Spies’ own style. His Bali paintings
were often based on local folk tales and featured attenuated figures and
strong use of silhouette, suggesting that he, and to a lesser extent
Top: The Sukawati brothers, Cokorde Gede Raka and his younger sibling Cokorde Gede
Agung (shown here), were instrumental in making Ubud a cultural centre in the 1930s by
extending royal patronage both to foreign visitors like Spies and Bonnet, and to Balinese
artists. (Source: Puri Saren, Ubud) Left: Walter Spies with his cockatoo and pet monkey
at Campuan, Ubud. (Source: The Horniman Museum, London) Right: I Gusti
Nyoman Lempad was among the most renowned Balinese artists of the 1930s.
He died in 1978 at the age of 116. (Source: Neka Art Museum, Ubud)
Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, were both influencing Balinese
artists and being influenced by them.
There were other foreign artists in Bali in the late 1930s besides
Spies and Bonnet. Some of them, including the Belgian Jean Le Mayeur
and the Dutch Willem Hofker, were popular with Westerners (both
specialised in lush, bare-breasted Balinese maidens), but none appears
to have had any impact on Balinese styles.
Due to the work of Pita Maha and other factors, several new
regional and stylistic categories of Balinese art emerged in the 1930s
and remain important today, albeit increasingly commercialised. They
include three main styles.
The Ubud style, with emphasis on bucolic rural and village scenes
of cockfights, temple festivals and farming activities, was influenced by
Bonnet’s orthodox approach to anatomical style, and for many West-
erners came to typify Balinese art. Its best-known practitioner, a favourite
of Bonnet’s, was Anak Agung Gede Sobrat.
The Batuan style, from a village only ten kilometres from Ubud,
featured sombre colours (often black and white), a penchant for the
sinister side of Balinese religion (scenes of sorceresses and evil spirits),
and finely detailed miniatures.
The Sanur style, the least prolific of the new schools, was the only
one including marine subjects, probably inspired by the nearby aquar-
ium and ready access to a beach-going tourist clientele.
In the postwar years these three were joined by the bright, colour-
ful, relatively simple ‘Young Artists’ style centred in Penestanan, which
began under the influence of the Dutch artist Ari Smit in 1960.
Finally, ‘traditional’ painting, including both palm-leaf and palace
decoration, remained alive and important. It usually depicted scenes
from Indian-origin religion and mythology, leavened with Balinese folk-
lore. The village of Kamasan was the best-known centre for traditional
painting. The style was languishing when, in the 1920s, the Dutch
commissioned Kamasan painters to decorate restored portions of the
palace in Klungkung, which had been destroyed during the Dutch assault
in 1908. The result included the famous ceiling paintings in the
Klungkung Hall of Justice.
. . . and other art forms
Wood-carving underwent its own evolution. The impact of a growing
international market for Balinese art was obviously a major driving force
in this case. The attenuated style mentioned above rapidly gained favour.
It may have been additionally stimulated by the admiration of Spies
and Covarrubias for the decorative panels, or lamak, which the Bali-
nese use for festival decoration. They are typically adorned with cili,
stylised feminine figures representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri.
Much later the famous carver Ida Bagus Njana, in the village of
Mas, introduced a new style of squat, compressed figures reminiscent
of Japanese netsuke. And some carvers, inspired by natural forms and
pure whimsy, produced a volume of cheap but appealing work for tourists,
and some works of genius. The carvings of I Tjokot of Jati fall in the
latter category. One of his specialties was to carve an entire tree with
intricate designs out to the limits of its extremities, the result often
weighing hundreds of pounds, hardly the sort of thing a tourist could
carry back to Chicago or Tokyo.
In the realm of music, parallel changes were taking place, without
evidence of more than marginal influence from foreigners. During this
period the style of gamelan music known as kebiar first appeared. Its
distinctive rhythms, alternately explosive and languorous, have come
to epitomise Balinese music for most non-Balinese. The flavour of kebiar,
which means a ‘sudden outburst of flames’, or ‘to flash’,8 is well conveyed
by the Spies quotation that begins this chapter. It stands in ultimate
contrast to the slow tempo and dreamy mood of the Javanese gamelan.
Kebiar originated in north Bali and spread almost as fast as its rest-
less pace. By 1928, when the first recordings of Balinese music were
made, it was only beginning to appear in the south. But only three years
later, when musicologist Colin McPhee arrived, the new style was
already widespread there.
Spies was enthusiastic about the new genre. For him it evoked the
passion of German composers of the expressionist period, and he
welcomed its innovative style. In 1939, from the jail in Surabaya where
he was imprisoned on a morals charge (see below), he wrote to a friend
and musical scholar: ‘You must come to Bali for a longer stay, there are
such fantastic new kinds of music here which you will enjoy incredibly.’9
McPhee, more of a classicist, was initially intrigued by the new
music but became concerned when it began to supplant older styles,
leading to the melting down and recasting of antique gamelans which
had been the mainstay of village ritual in the past. McPhee came to
regard kebiar as the negation of everything classic. He worried that it was
superficial, and hinted that it might represent a kind of Balinese iden-
Today, for better or worse, kebiar style suffuses most Balinese music,
although older styles have survived. Kebiar was certainly a hit with
tourists, but it seems clear that its appeal to the Balinese themselves
was the main cause of its popularity.
Drama was also in a state of flux. Indeed, no other medium better
demonstrates the Balinese flair for adaptation and innovation or the
rapidity with which styles can change. A famous dancer named Mario
(I Ketut Maria), frequently mentioned in the books of the period,
invented a kebiar dance to accompany the new music. Performed with
upper body and arm movements while seated in a cross-legged position,
it was wildly popular throughout Bali for a time, but went out of fashion
after World War II. Other forms, including arja and janger, incorporated
modern elements, to the mingled dismay and amusement of the expa-
In 1930, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias arrived on a honey-
moon trip. He and his wife Rosa, a Mexican-American dancer, attended
a janger performance staged for tourists. He noted that it was then the
‘inevitable sight for the newly arrived tourist’. Boys and girls were
Mentioned in almost every book about Bali in the 1930s, Mario (I Ketut Maria)
was the dancer who invented a kebiar dance to accompany the newly evolved gamelan
music of the same name. The photo was taken by pioneer hotelier Robert Koke.
(Source: Neka Art Museum, Ubud)
arranged in a square with a dance master in the centre; the partici-
pants wore orthodox Balinese dress, and plot was classic in style.
Covarrubias felt the performance was worthy but ‘somehow it did not
But on their first evening out, wandering on the outskirts of
Denpasar, the couple came across something startlingly different—a
street performance of janger for a Balinese audience, where the costumes
were mock European (including mustachios). It included a wild kecak
(monkey dance) chorus, and the whole was riddled with slapstick
humour. This kind of janger was then popular in various forms all over
Bali, but in the decades after World War II it completely disappeared.
The modern form of kecak, now seen by virtually every tourist,
was also created at this time. A smaller version of the hissing, chatter-
ing male chorus had previously been part of a ritual purification dance
form known as sanghyang. In 1931 Spies was serving as technical advisor
for Island of the Demons, a German-made film about a village threat-
ened with destruction by Rangda, the witch. One of his Balinese
assistants had the idea of expanding the kecak chorus and combining it
with a plot drawn from the Ramayana, creating what is now the stan-
dard version. The result was a purely secular dance quite different from
anything in the previous Balinese repertory. As we have seen, kecak was
also being incorporated into janger dancing at this time, and it is clearly
an oversimplification to conclude that Spies personally invented modern
Tourism takes root
The resident expatriate community continued to grow in size and variety,
reaching a total of several hundred by World War II. In addition to
Dutch officials and commercial representatives, still primarily in the
north, it included anthropologists, artists, dancers and students of dance,
writers and film makers. Musicologist Colin McPhee was married to the
anthropologist Jane Belo, and both wrote books of lasting value.
After their honeymoon stay, Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias came
back in 1933 for a second long visit and together produced Island of
Bali, a detailed and affectionate account of Balinese culture. Published
in 1937, it was an instant bestseller in the USA. Both the illustrations
and the portion of the text on Balinese courtship were quite exciting
to a pre-Playboy generation of adolescents browsing in their parents’
libraries, but the book also introduced them to the notion that alien
cultures could produce high-quality art and attractive lifestyles. Island
of Bali has deservedly remained standard fare for visitors.
Commercial tourism was growing, if slowly. The German Neuhaus
brothers established an aquarium at Sanur, along with an art gallery
which became a local outlet for Pita Maha-approved paintings. Tourist
numbers increased from around 100 a month in the 1920s to more than
double that by World War II. In 1936 an American couple, Robert
and Louise Koke, established the Kuta Beach Hotel in partnership with
Vaneen Walker, an English-American woman who, inspired by the film
Island of the Demons, had originally come to Bali to learn painting.
Walker, better known by her Balinese name, Ktut Tantri, later
quarrelled with the Kokes and started a hotel of her own. She is said
to have frequented the lobby of the rather stuffy Bali Hotel in Denpasar
to lure guests to her more interesting beach-front location in Kuta.
She was imprisoned by the Japanese and later supported the Indone-
sian Revolution as a propaganda broadcaster known to those who
disapproved of her as ‘Surabaya Sue’. Her autobiography, Revolt in
Paradise, is perennially popular.
Louise Koke also wrote a book, Our Hotel in Bali, a charming
account of Balinese tourism in its infancy. Neither woman mentioned
the other in their respective accounts. Both hotels were destroyed during
the war, but Kuta itself survived and flourished beyond the wildest imag-
inings of its pioneer hotel-keepers.
Transportation facilities slowly improved. South Bali already had
a network of small roads built with corvée labour, narrow but adequate
for big touring cars not in a hurry. In the 1930s a pair of Germans opened
the first ferry between Java and Bali at Gilimanuk, and the Dutch assis-
tant resident at Denpasar built a road of sorts linking his town with
the ferry, through thinly populated country where tigers were still occa-
sionally seen at night.
In 1932 the Dutch had scratched out a landing strip on the Bukit
peninsula south of Denpasar, but after a trial flight crashed it was
deemed too dangerous, even though there were no casualties. Regular
air services began in 1938, thanks to a more adequate facility at Tuban,
near the site of the present airport, and Bali became a stop on Dutch
commercial flights to Australia and Makasar. But air travel did not
displace shipping as the primary means of transport to Bali until after
World War II.
Walter Spies remained an essential first point of reference for
scholars and well-connected visitors. He introduced such visitors as
Covarrubias and Margaret Mead to Bali, usually helped them find
accommodation, and often influenced their initial thinking about what
and where to study. He did the same for German novelist and Holly-
wood screenwriter Vicki Baum, who wrote the novel A Tale from Bali,
still in print, in which she pretends to draw on the papers of a deceased
Dutch doctor who knew everything there was to know about the place.
In fact, one of her sources was Walter Spies; another was a local Dutch
For years Spies got along well with the colonial authorities, espe-
cially the more intellectually inclined, including archaeologist Willem
Stutterheim, his American companion, dancer and later art historian
Claire Holt, and Roelof Goris who, like Stutterheim, worked for the
antiquities service. Even the most orthodox officials saw Spies as a valued
advisor on matters cultural, which were increasingly recognised as excep-
tionally important for Bali.
Spies was a friend of the first director of the state tourist agency,
helped organise Bali’s contribution to the Paris Colonial Exposition of
1931, which included a dance troupe, and arranged lavish entertain-
ment for the governor general of the Indies when he visited in 1935.
He took care of other famous visitors ranging from Charlie Chaplin to
Leopold Stokowski. Indeed, Spies became so distracted by his ‘host with
the most’ role that in 1937 he built a small house at Iseh, a remote loca-
tion on the slopes of Gunung Agung, where he hoped to find occasional
peace and get on with his art.
Spies usually lived well. He did not paint much, perhaps in part
because one painting made enough money for him to live for a year. In
1928 he traded two paintings to a German friend for a car. ‘It is a beau-
tiful car’, he wrote his mother, ‘Very strong and climbs the mountains
like nothing else. I am learning to drive now’.11 Later he used the
proceeds of a painting sale to American millionaire Barbara Hutton to
pay for a small swimming pool at his residence in Campuhan, in addi-
tion to a house for her which she never used. But his income was sporadic
and sometimes, especially during the Depression, he was hard up.
What put Bali in the international limelight at this point in time?
The beauty of the natural setting and the virtuosity of Balinese art
and culture were, of course, the primary reasons. Now, thanks to Dutch
roads and modern shipping, the island was suddenly accessible, albeit
only to wealthy or highly motivated tourists. Films and other public-
ity, such as Covarrubias’ series of articles in Vanity Fair, pitched Bali
into prominence as the latest trendy international destination. Bali’s
reputation for harmony, however exaggerated in the light of social
and historic reality, made it increasingly appealing to a generation of
Westerners seeking escape from the dismal realities of the Depression
and the looming threat of another world war.
The more discerning visitors considered themselves lucky, with
some reason, to have witnessed such a treasure before it was subjected
to large-scale development and change. The rich or famous were often
able to meet some of the Balinese rulers in the throes of cultural tran-
sition, their prosperity enhanced by increasing Dutch emphasis on
indirect rule. A more colourful spectacle can hardly be imagined. Here
is Willard Hanna’s vignette of the Raja of Gianyar, Ide Anak Agung
Ngurah Agung, with his automobile in the 1930s:
One of Gianyar’s greatest triumphs was his Fiat Grand
Phaeton, which he had had refitted to suit his tastes and
his station. This was one of the very first motor vehicles
to be seen in Bali and what it lacked in power it more than
compensated for in panache. The Radja had the windshield
so heavily bordered in gold that the driver had to peer
around rather than through it; even at that he had diffi-
culty seeing over the radiator ornament, which was almost
a life-size Garuda cast in pure gold. The Fiat had power
enough to proceed at a stately pace on level ground, but
the royal subjects were summoned to push when it ventured
uphill and were well advised to flee when it sped down.12
Within a few years Balinese princes were investing in automobiles to
the point where Margaret Mead complained that cars were supplant-
ing patronage of the arts as a royal status symbol. But some rulers, notably
those of Gianyar and Ubud, continued to patronise art, as we have seen.
The rajas were also sending their children to colonial schools, produc-
ing leaders who would in some cases fight against the Dutch in 1945–49,
and in other cases go on to hold positions of great importance at both
provincial and national levels.
For some visitors, visions of bare breasts or Balinese acceptance
of homosexuality had something to do with the island’s attraction, just
as the discos and ‘cowboys’ of Kuta do today, but one can overdo this
point. It is often suggested that Bali’s tolerance of homosexuality (or
more accurately bisexuality) attracted Walter Spies, but if that had
been the case he could as well have stayed on Java, where a similar
tolerance is equally traditional. As recently as the 1970s, long before
gay rights became acceptable in the West, the Indonesian Marine
Corps general who was mayor of Jakarta presided over transvestite
beauty contests in the nation’s capital and no Indonesian thought twice
Few of the resident expatriates or tourists who relished their time
on the island were very interested in the moral or political issues posed
by colonialism. Most of them simply accepted it as inevitable. Others
regarded Dutch rule on Bali, benign by comparison with its counter-
parts elsewhere, as essentially progressive, and even as contributing to
preparation for independence, whenever that might arrive. There was,
it seemed, plenty of time.
Even the scholars rarely commented on the obvious economic
problems, such as widespread poverty and growing land shortage, hardly
unusual in Asia at the time, or the inequities of such practices as corvée
labour (which, after all, resulted in excellent roads that all of them
used), or onerous taxation, or scant attention to education except for
the ruling families. In some cases the expatriates may have been reluc-
tant to offend the colonial authorities who were friendly and hospitable
to them. For example, Margaret Mead, critical of Dutch inattention to
public health in a private letter, made approving comments about it in
her published research results.13
The growing reputation of Balinese performing arts attracted a
scattering of film makers, actors and musicians. The most famous was
Charlie Chaplin who, together with Noel Coward, visited in the early
1930s. Coward scribbled a ditty in the Bali Hotel complaints book, later
As I said this morning to Charlie There is far too much music in Bali, And although as a place it’s entrancing, There is also a thought too much dancing. It appears that each Balinese native, From the womb to the tomb is creative, And although the results are quite clever, There is too much artistic endeavor.14 Ambrosia to the anthropologists
If some found Bali’s culture a little exhausting, it was nectar and ambrosia
to the anthropologists. Margaret Mead worked in Bali with her third
husband and fellow anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, from 1936 to 1938.
Mead was already a rising star, thanks mainly to Coming of Age in Samoa,
published eight years previously, which had suggested to an admiring
popular audience that Western societies had something to learn from
other cultures about more relaxed and enlightened attitudes toward adolescent sex.
Margaret Mead with a young Balinese informant in the highland village of Bayunggede.
(Source: Library of Congress, Margaret Mead Collection)
Mead was also a veteran field worker with plenty of experience
in New Guinea locales where both living conditions and access to cere-
monies were infinitely more difficult than in Bali. She and Bateson, a
less famous but extremely capable social scientist, were entranced by
their research assistant, I Made Kaler, recruited for them by Spies. Kaler
spoke five languages and did everything from running the household
to taking notes on ceremonies. He was ‘just about the nearest thing to
perfection that God ever made,’ she wrote home.15
Above all, the sheer volume and variety of Balinese ceremon-
ial life was entrancing. The island, Mead later wrote, ‘teemed with
expressive ritual’.16 This was still the springtime of social science, with
the accent on science. Its practitioners fervently believed that enough
research could systematically unlock the mysteries of human behaviour.
It followed that both volume and variety of data was important.
Because the Balinese saw most of their ceremonial acts as offer-
ings to the gods, they were quite willing to stage performances for
foreigners who would pay the minor expense involved. ‘Only those who
have worked in societies where money has no power to persuade people
who do not, at the moment, feel like doing something can realize what
a paradise Bali was for us. Ceremonies every day—if not in this village,
then in another only a short distance away,’ Mead wrote.17 Moreover,
Bali’s good roads made it easy to observe a great deal: ‘. . . an anthro-
pologist is presented with an unprecedented situation—quick, easy
transport between dozens of versions of the culture. A journey that
would take three days in New Guinea—and more than that to prepare
for and recover from—is made here in an hour.’18
On arrival Mead and Bateson were, like so many others, assisted
by Spies. Initially they lived near him in Ubud, but they soon decided
to move to a remote and much poorer mountain village, Bayunggede,
near Kintamani. Here, among the Bali Aga, they believed they had
found Balinese culture stripped to its essentials; a place where they could
in only one year understand the ‘ground plan of the culture’.19
From time to time they would return to the lowlands and mingle
with the other expatriates, including Spies and his colleague, Beryl de
Zoete, McPhee and Belo, and the American dancer Katharane Mershon
with her husband Jack. When Bateson’s mother visited, they rented part
of a palace owned by the ruler of Bangli for nine dollars a month; else-
where they paid for an elaborate musical performance. ‘It gives one a
fine feeling of being a patron of the arts and lord of the manor combined
to be able to order an opera.’20 Of Spies, Mead wrote early in her stay:
Walter is a perfectly delightful person, an artist and a musi-
cian, who has lived in Bali for some eight years and has
welcomed and entertained all the interesting people who
have come here. He has done a great deal to stimulate
modern Balinese painting and has painted Bali himself and
in general has worked out a most perfect relationship
between himself, the island, its people and its traditions . . .
Our only other neighbor is a mild, responsible, only a little
twinkling Dutch artist [Bonnet] who supplies system and
bookkeeping in Walter’s attempts to protect and encour-
age the Balinese artists to resist the tourists and do good work.21
Mead and Bateson applied Freudian theory to Balinese culture, hoping
thereby to learn about universally applicable aspects of schizophrenia.
In order to test the potential of film to capture large amounts of behav-
ioural data they took more than 25 000 still photos and 22 000 feet of
movie film at Bayunggede. The result was Balinese Character: A Photo-
graphic Analysis, a rather dry book with large numbers of small pictures,
without much popular appeal at the time and never a huge scientific
success either. But their work remains of great value, even though its
Freudian emphasis may strike the modern reader as quaint. In contrast
to the widely held notion that Bali was a land of harmony, Mead and
Bateson emphasised the role of fear in the Balinese character: ‘It is a
character based upon fear which, because it is learned in the mother’s
arms, is a value as well as a threat.’22
Bateson and Mead were fascinated by a variation on the legong
dance in which young maidens impersonate the demonic sorceress
Rangda. Having observed that Balinese mothers enjoyed teasing male
children by, among other things, pulling their penises, they concluded
that the terrifying Rangda represented the mother in Balinese society.
‘The dance sums up the besetting fear, the final knowledge of each
Balinese male that he will, after all, no matter how hard he seeks to
find the lovely and unknown beyond the confines of his familiar
village, marry the Witch, marry a woman whose attitude toward human
relations will be exactly that of his own mother.’23 Freudian anthro-
pology soon went out of fashion and, perhaps surprisingly, no one has
ever suggested that Mead’s theory of pervasive fear in Balinese culture
could help to explain the bloodletting of 1966.
During the same period, Spies was doing a very different book on
Balinese dance and drama with his British friend and colleague, Beryl
de Zoete. Spies, thirty-nine, was homosexual; de Zoete, fifteen years
older and often described as a fringe member of the Bloomsbury set, was
platonically married to the much older Arthur Waley, a renowned sinol-
ogist. De Zoete was an accomplished student and critic of dance and a
talented writer. She was the principal author of the book that resulted;
Spies was the ideas man and photographer.
De Zoete had an acerbic streak, and could not resist sniping at
what struck her as Mead’s and Bateson’s pretensions to calculated scien-
tific method. She satirised this kind of approach in a series of photos
entitled ‘anthropology in Bali’, featuring an assistant measuring skulls,
a clock to synchronise field notes, and a canine presence to represent
Pavlov’s dog. The plot thickened when another anthropologist, Jane
Belo, although a good friend of Bateson and Mead, was initially criti-
cal of their ‘cold and analytical procedures’. Mead noted in her
autobiography: ‘Beryl, who had an acid tongue and a gift for destruc-
tive criticism, satirized this conflict between science and art, and I
identified her with the witch, a prevailing Balinese figure.’24
Mead and Bateson also collected art, especially from Batuan, one
of the new style centres. They liked the dark hues and sometimes
macabre subject matter of the Batuan artists and asked at least one of
them to illustrate his dreams. They left Bali in 1938, having decided
to return to New Guinea to gather additional material to compare with
their Bali findings. I Made Kaler, their talented research assistant,
commissioned a farewell painting from one of the Batuan artists with
whom the Meads had worked. It shows them in an outrigger canoe
paddling away from the island. On the shore behind them Balinese
weep, and volcanoes spout smoke letters reading, in English, ‘Good
Bye, Good Luck’. Before them is an island covered with welcoming,
frizzy-haired Melanesians. The artist, I Ketut Ngendon, was later killed
in the revolutionary struggle; his story is briefly told in the following
This superb photograph first appeared in Spies and de Zoete, Dance and Drama in Bali
(1938), where it was captioned ‘Djegog at Djembrana. Old Dance’. The authors lamented
the ‘decay’ of this form, and especially the great bamboo orchestra which accompanied it.
Today, thanks to the stimulus of tourism, jegog has been revived.
(Source: The Horniman Museum, London)
Meanwhile Spies and de Zoete completed their masterpiece, Dance
and Drama in Bali, published in 1938. The book combined profound
knowledge of Balinese drama, elegant prose and dramatic photographs,
and recorded a wealth of material much of which might otherwise have
been lost. In an introductory essay de Zoete lamented the encroach-
ment of cheap cloth, tin roofs and a few missionaries, then wrote:
Bali is neither a last nor a lost paradise, but the home of a
peculiarly gifted people of mixed race, endowed with a great
sense of humour and a great sense of style, where their own
creations are concerned; and with a suppleness of mind
which has enabled them to take what they want of the
alien civilizations which have been reaching them for
centuries and to leave the rest. And in spite of the few
exceptions mentioned above they seem to have left the
rest very successfully.25
She went on:
The Balinese are always building new temples, always using
new motives for their temples and sculptures; whatever
comes to hand, whatever amuses them at the moment.
Why may they not make new dances? Obviously it would
never occur to the uninitiated that they might not. But
certain Europeans dread lest anything so awful should
happen to the Balinese as to modify what they are pleased
to call the Balinese tradition. Yet the great and ineradic-
able charm of the Balinese is that their tradition is at once
so sure and so flexible.26
Of course, Spies and de Zoete did not see all change as admirable. Unlike
Covarrubias, for example, they did not know quite what to make of
the new rage for janger dancing. They wrote that despite having ‘as
respectable a religious origin as any dance in Bali’, janger had become
a vehicle for popular ‘Malay opera’, or stamboel, sometimes in the form
of a play within a play, featuring grotesque European characters and
‘Malayo-American’ music. It was, they concluded, ‘fascinating in its
absurdity’, repellent in some respects, but also a nice caricature of things
foreign as seen through Balinese eyes.27
The curtain drops
Time was running out, however. By the end of 1938 everyone knew that
war was likely. Apprehension, if not panic, was in the air. For reasons
Anthropologists Mead and Bateson are shown leaving Bali for New Guinea in 1938, while
Balinese weep, Melanesians in the foreground gather to welcome their new guests, and
backdrop volcanoes spout ‘Good bye, Good luck’ in English. The artist, I Ketut
Ngendon, died in the turmoil of the Indonesian struggle for independence.
(Source: Institute for Intercultural Studies Inc, New York)
still not fully understood, Dutch officialdom suddenly launched an
Indies-wide crackdown on homosexuality. On 31 December 1938, Spies
was arrested for violating a law forbidding sex with a minor. His friend
Roelof Goris was arrested on a similar charge. Spies’ other friends tried
to defend him. Margaret Mead, back in Bali on a return visit, explained
to the court the difficulty of determining the age of a Balinese youth
and delivered a lecture on narrow-minded attitudes toward homosex-
uality, but in vain.
Spies went to jail in Surabaya where he remained until Sep-
tember 1939, when he was released and returned to Bali. There he
tried to resume his old life. He did some exquisite coloured drawings
of insects and sea creatures, which he gathered on Bali’s reef flats, for
the colonial zoological service. But after the outbreak of war in 1940
he was re-arrested and sent with other enemy aliens to internment
By early 1942 the Japanese were threatening Sumatra, and the
German detainees, including Spies, were loaded on the Dutch freighter
Van Imhoff, bound for Ceylon. On the way the Japanese bombed the
vessel and it began to sink. The crew abandoned ship, but the captain
felt he could not unlock the hatches without authorisation from higher
authority, and Spies and most of the other prisoners on board were
trapped and drowned.
He was fondly remembered by the Balinese who felt that, unlike
many, he had given more than he took away. One of them said, ‘He
deepened the colour of our dreams.’28
Well before war intervened, Western commentators were begin-
ning to wax pessimistic about the future of Bali. As early as May 1932,
an article in Vanity Fair intoned, ‘Let us hasten to talk of Bali, for tomor-
row it will be only a memory, so true is it that men always kill what
they wish to love’.29 A 1939 traveller warned, ‘Hasten dear reader, and
visit Bali if you want to see the last flicker of unsophisticated native
life before modern sophistication drowns it all’.30 While more know-
ledgeable observers knew full well that Bali was anything but
unsophisticated, and recognised an underlying resilience, even they
could not help worrying about the cumulative impact of tourists,
missionaries and international commerce.
In the end the enduring contribution of the expatriate intelli-
gentsia was to give Bali a global reputation as a place of extraordinary
cultural value. It was important that this recognition should be well
established and communicated to other Indonesians, as in time it was.
Indonesia’s first president, the half-Balinese Sukarno, could credibly
claim Bali as an exemplar of Indonesian culture, a matter for national
pride and foreign admiration. Other Indonesians came to agree, despite
their occasional irritation at foreigners who jetted into Bali with only
minimal awareness of the rest of the country.
As their economic circumstances permitted, Indonesian tourists
would join the foreigners in coming to Bali. And after the troubled
times that lay ahead, tourism would make Bali prosper and eventually
replace agriculture as the island’s primary source of livelihood. It was
to be a development success story on a scale, and with attendant risks
and costs, beyond anything foreseen at its inception.
OCCUPATION, REVOLUTION AND BLOODBATH (1942–1966)
The Pax Neerlandica was over. Bali was to be in political turmoil for
the next quarter of a century, a time which included periods of wide-
spread violence associated with the final stage of the Japanese
occupation, the Indonesian Revolution (1945–49) and the attempted
coup d’état of September 1965. While events on Bali were of marginal
national importance compared to what was going on in Java, the human
costs were high, and the killing in early 1966 was at least as bad as
anything elsewhere in Indonesia. In one sense Bali was reverting to
form, to the endemic warfare of the pre-colonial era, but now conflict
was sharpened by the new generation of tensions which had accumu-
lated behind the misleadingly tranquil façade of Dutch rule, including
growing landlessness and an urge to settle old scores.
The Japanese landed at Sanur on 18 February 1942. Under their occu-
pation, Indonesia was divided between army and navy zones of
administration. The army was initially in charge of Bali and quickly
gained a reputation for harshness, but in May 1942 it was replaced by
a more compatible navy regime.
In general, the Japanese found Dutch colonial institutions quite
acceptable, and the initial reaction of the Balinese to their new polit-
ical masters was positive. Most of the rulers had no trouble coexisting
with the Japanese, although one senior sovereign, the Raja of Gianyar,
whose Fiat Phaeton had been the talk of Bali before the war, was exiled
for difficult behaviour. He was succeeded by his son, the western-
educated Anak Agung Gede Agung, later prominent in both local and
national politics. The Japanese assigned to Bali no doubt congratulated
themselves on their good fortune at ending up in such an attractive
spot, and some of them became genuinely interested in Balinese culture.
However, as the Japanese began to lose the war, their regime, on
Bali as elsewhere, turned increasingly oppressive until it became a hell
of hunger, forced labour, and the compulsory production of rice and
other commodities. Balinese were pressed into work battalions, the
Romusha Corps, and sent to unknown destinations, most of them never
to return. Those who remained endured real hardship.
Nonetheless, on Bali as on Java, Japanese rule opened up new
political vistas for youth in particular. Both administrative regions, north
and south, were now headed by a Balinese. The Japanese expanded
education and by 1944 there were 50 000 students on Bali, compared
with 26 000 in 1942. They made education available to low-caste Bali-
nese for the first time. They founded paramilitary organisations and
martial arts clubs. They peddled their own brand of fiery rhetoric to
support the imperial war effort.
On Bali as on Java there soon emerged a distinction between older,
often aristocratic nationalists and more radical youth (pemuda) who saw themselves, in many cases justifiably, as the vanguard of revolution. The Dutch had established the nucleus of a Balinese military organisation,
the Prayoda Corps, in 1938, drawing mostly on recruits from the aris-
tocracy. The Japanese enlisted its members and used its old training
ground in Singaraja to form a Balinese unit of their Indonesia-wide
militia, Peta (an acronym for ‘Protectors of the Fatherland’). Peta was
to become the core of the post-occupation Indonesian army.
Throughout Indonesia, Peta and its counterparts provided a heady
immersion in military affairs which accorded well with nationalist aspi-
rations. Thus the stage was set for bitter conflict when the Dutch,
refusing to recognise that their prestige had been irreparably damaged,
attempted to return after World War II.
The Dutch and the French would never have been able to reoc-
cupy their Southeast Asian possessions had it not been for the support
of their wartime allies. In the case of the Dutch East Indies, that unhappy
responsibility fell to the British. In October 1945, employing British
Indian troops, they stumbled into a costly battle with Indonesian Repub-
lican (nationalist) forces in the East Java port of Surabaya, and their
commanding general was killed. More than preoccupied on Java, the
British wanted to move slowly in facilitating Dutch re-entry elsewhere
in the archipelago.
Thus the Dutch did not return to Bali until March 1946, when
they accepted the surrender of Japanese troops at Sanur, the same loca-
tion where they had landed in 1906, and where the Japanese had come
ashore in 1942. But the Indonesian Republicans had beaten them to it.
The Indonesian Revolution on Bali
The Japanese accepted Allied surrender terms on 14 August 1945. On
17 August the Indonesian nationalists declared independence and
proclaimed a Republic under President Sukarno. Less than a week later,
Sukarno appointed as governor of the Lesser Sundas (including Bali)
A Dutch army patrol somewhere in south Bali in 1946, during the Indonesian Revolution.
Like many independence struggles, this one was also a civil war. About 2000 Balinese
died, approximately one-third of them fighting on the Dutch side.
(Source: KITLV Archives, Leiden)
I Gusti Ketut Puja, who had served as the administrator of north Bali
for the Japanese. Now he returned to Bali from Java to organise a Repub-
lican presence before the Dutch could return. At first the Japanese, who
were understandably confused about what to do next, cooperated with
the Republicans. In October they turned civil government over to
Governor Puja and the local branch of the Indonesian National
Committee which he had established. In the same month a small Dutch
naval party attempted to land at Singaraja, resulting in the death of
I Ketut Merta, Bali’s first revolutionary martyr.
But by January 1946 it was clear that the Dutch were going to
return with Allied support, and the Japanese authorities on Bali changed
course. They temporarily arrested Puja and his senior supporters, and
remaining nationalist forces moved into the hills to launch armed resist-
ance. In late January, a few weeks before the Dutch landed, what was
left of the Indonesian National Committee turned over power to the Paruman Agung, a conservative council of Balinese rulers originally set up by the Dutch in 1938.
Once the Dutch were back on Bali their armed forces used tough
tactics against the nationalists, re-arresting Governor Puja and harass-
ing the Republican guerillas. On at least one occasion they deployed
modest air power, including a B-25 bomber and a Piper Cub, to strafe
villages. The poorly equipped Republican forces, initially numbering
about 1500, eventually decided on a ‘Long March’ from their base camp
in the mountains between Tabanan and Buleleng to the slopes of
Gunung Agung, rather than adopting the dispersed guerilla tactics
favoured by the more radical youth. They may have intended to draw
the Dutch military away from the west coast of Bali, where it was hoped,
in vain, that Republican forces from Java were going to land.
The Balinese forces were constantly harassed by the Dutch mili-
tary. On 20 November 1946, I Gusti Ngurah Rai, a veteran of the
pre-war Dutch militia, led them in a disastrous engagement near
the village of Marga in Tabanan, in which they were trapped and
overwhelmed by Dutch forces using airplanes. Ninety-six Republicans
died along with their leader. Balinese writers have characterised the
Battle of Marga as a puputan similar in spirit to those of 1906–08, a last
heroic stand by ill-equipped nationalists against a better armed colo-
nial force. The engagement is celebrated in at least two Balinese poems
in classical style, and by many quasi-religious monuments. After the
Revolution the martyred commander, Ngurah Rai, was designated a
National Hero, and the modern airport serving Bali is named after him.
He is the only Balinese National Hero besides Patih Jelantik, the protag-
onist of the 1846–49 war. The Battle of Marga coincided with a period
of aggressively tough tactics on the part of the Dutch elsewhere in
Indonesia, including a notorious campaign of terror against the Repub-
licans on the island of Sulawesi, which resulted in at least 3000 deaths
over a three-month period.
Throughout the Indonesian Revolution, the struggle on Bali
moved in rhythm with the war on Java and with the erratic progress of
I Gusti Ngurah Rai, a Balinese hero of the Indonesian Revolution, died in a disastrous
engagement with superior Dutch forces in 1946. He is shown here (on the far left)
attending school in Java in 1931. In the back row, from left to right, are the future
Dr A.A.M. Djelantik and his older brother, Gede Djelantik, later ruler of Karangasem.
(Source: Courtesy Dr A.A.M. Djelantik)
diplomatic efforts to end it. At Linggajati, in November 1946, the Dutch
and the nationalists reached agreement for the first time. Under pres-
sure from the British, who were anxious to withdraw their occupation
forces from Indonesia, the Dutch recognised de facto Republican author-
ity over Java, Sumatra and Madura. The two sides also agreed to work
towards a federation, to be called the United States of Indonesia, under
the Dutch queen. To most nationalists, however, the proposed federa-
tion was a transparent effort to mobilise anti-Javanese sentiment in
the Outer Islands against predominantly Republican Java.
While it soon became clear that the Linggajati agreement was
doomed, the Dutch persevered in their efforts to establish the proposed
United States of Indonesia. In December 1946, at a conference in
Denpasar, they proclaimed the State of Eastern Indonesia, or Negara
Indonesia Timor (NIT), including Bali and all the Dutch territory east of Bali except West New Guinea. Although the new state was
suspiciously similar to a 1938 colonial realignment named the Great
East, it nonetheless encouraged many hitherto undecided Balinese to
support the Dutch. The discouraged Republicans argued that Bali should
be included with Java in the areas under direct Republican control.
They also joked that the initials for the new state really stood for ‘Negara
Ikut Tuan’, or ‘state which follows the (Dutch) master’.1
In fact, supporters of the concept were far from uniformly pro-
Dutch or anti-nationalist. The new President of the NIT was Cokorde
Gede Raka Sukawati, the man who had invited Walter Spies to Ubud.
Ide Anak Agung Gede Agung left his position as ruler of Gianyar and
served successively as NIT Interior Minister and Prime Minister, while
his younger brother, Anak Agung Gede Oka, succeeded him as ruler of
Gianyar and chaired the influential Balinese Council of Rulers. Inter-
estingly enough, the Balinese aristocrats supporting the NIT soon fell
out with the dwindling number of Dutch civil servants on Bali, who
belatedly concluded that it had been a mistake to give these ‘feudal’
rulers so much power.
The ruler-dominated NIT regime, which had real power in Bali-
nese affairs, may not have been popular with the Dutch, but it was
certainly not sympathetic to the more fervent revolutionary youth in
the Republican ranks. Geoffrey Robinson, whose book The Dark Side
of Paradise is the definitive account of this period in Balinese history,
says that Anak Agung Gde Agung ‘did his best to destroy the armed
resistance in Bali in efforts to ensure that “moderate” educated aristo-
crats like himself would dominate whatever political system emerged
from the Revolution’.2 Tension between the NIT and its opponents
became one more source of conflict on Bali among armed gangs linked
with rulers or political parties.
Robinson sees three underlying schismatic forces at work from
1945 to 1966. First, there was competition for leadership within many
of the eight royal establishments, especially those which had been under
direct rule until 1938, resulting in a proliferation of claimants for royal status. Second, the problem of caste, already controversial under the
Dutch, encouraged political radicalisation as educated low-caste Bali-
nese increasingly assumed leadership roles in the nationalist movement.
Third, and perhaps most significant, were the economic inequalities
related to declining rice production, increasing landlessness, and marked
contrast between those regions which produced a rice surplus and those
which did not. All these divisions both aggravated and were aggravated
by the ingrained competition among Bali’s diverse descent groups—
clans, royal families and more.
The suffering that resulted is well illustrated by the story of I Ketut
Ngendon, the Batuan artist who painted the ‘Good bye, Good luck’
painting for Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in 1938 (see photo
page 154). The talented Ngendon was of low-caste origin. In the 1930s
he graduated from peddling woodcarvings to become something of an
artistic impresario for his village, arranging dance performances, elab-
orating new dramatic styles and hosting foreign visitors sent by Walter
Spies. Following a friend who had been taught by Rudolf Bonnet, he
began to paint and was one of the artists to establish what became known
as the Batuan style. For Ngendon, artistic activity opened a window
on the Western world, and he became dissatisfied with the inequities
of colonialism and the Dutch-supported caste system.
During the Japanese occupation, Ngendon met a Javanese artist
and travelled with him to Java, where he became a nationalist and is
said to have met the future President Sukarno. When he returned to
Bali he organised a Batuan cell of the nationalist movement, and when
the Dutch military cracked down on nationalist activities he and ten
or fifteen other Batuan villagers joined the armed guerilla forces. In
general, the people of the area were not sympathetic to the nationalist
cause; certainly the leaders of Batuan were not.
Eventually Ngendon was captured by police of the anti-revolu-
tionary Gianyar government in 1948. They took him to the Batuan
cemetery and executed him. Anthropologist Hildred Geertz, who tells
his story in her book on Batuan painting, Images of Power, makes it clear
that not all Ngendon’s fellow artists shared his political views, and
that his brutal death reflected a pattern of acute societal tension broadly
typical of any civil war.3
In July 1947 the Dutch attempted to achieve a military solution
by launching their first ‘police action’ on Java. Although they took
much territory, growing pressure from the Allies, upon whom they
depended for post-war reconstruction aid, soon compelled them to
resume negotiations. In January 1948 the two sides agreed to a cease-
fire on Java at a conference held on board the US cruiser Renville. As
part of the Renville terms, the hard-pressed Republicans agreed to with-
draw their troops from all Dutch-occupied territory and to recognise
the NIT as an equal partner in the negotiating process.
On Bali, the Renville agreement seemed to undercut any further
justification for opposing the NIT. At least 1000 Republican guerillas
came down from the uplands of Bali and surrendered, leaving behind
a small ragtag group of diehards. Henceforth the diehards did little fight-
ing but emerged after the Republican victory in 1949 claiming ‘the
mantle of revolutionary purity’ and were a potent force in Balinese poli-
The momentum of the broader struggle soon shifted again, this
time decisively against the Dutch, partly due to intense pressure for a
settlement from the United States. In December 1948 the Dutch
launched a second ‘police action’ on Java, which achieved initial success
but soon led them into a diplomatic and military morass. A combina-
tion of effective guerilla resistance and growing international pressure
compelled the Dutch to participate in United Nations-sponsored nego-
tiations which over the next year led to Indonesian independence.
On Bali the ‘police action’ of December 1948 persuaded the ruling
family of Gianyar, hitherto major supporters of the Dutch-sponsored
eastern state, to change sides and back the Republic. The head of the
family, Anak Agung Gede Agung, resigned from his NIT position with
his entire cabinet and in due course joined the Indonesian Socialist
Party (PSI) led by one of the Republic’s founding fathers, Sutan Sjahrir.
In 1955 Anak Agung Gede Agung became Indonesia’s Foreign Minis-
ter, in which capacity he served with distinction. The PSI was to be
the favoured party of many Balinese, both aristocrats and others, in
the tumultuous times that followed.
Meanwhile the Dutch presence on Bali was steadily decreasing,
initially because of the apparent success of the eastern state, later because
it became clear that in fact the Republicans were winning. By the end
of 1949, only three Dutch officials were left on the island. The handover
of sovereignty to the Republic of Indonesia took place on 27 December
1949. The war for Indonesian independence had cost Bali about 2000
casualties, of whom roughly one-third died fighting on the Dutch side.5
The Sukarno era
Independent Indonesia got off to a disorderly start on Bali. Unrest
continued in the form of conflict between the revolutionaries and local
military units which had collaborated with the Dutch, as well as among
the various revolutionary factions. There was disagreement between
veterans of the struggle and the authorities over who would be inte-
grated into the new national army. In the early 1950s bands of ex-guerilla
fighters again took to the hills, often in support of Balinese political
factions. Violence led to more violence, and some indulged in outright
banditry. All this resulted in an estimated 500 Balinese killed in 1950
One of the best known and most lethal of these private armies was
LOGIS, or Continuation of the All-Indonesia Guerilla Organisation.
As the 1955 national elections approached, LOGIS supported the PSI,
known at the national level for its upper-crust, intellectual image. But
LOGIS specialised in political intimidation, including assassinations.
Those targeted were for the most part opponents of the PSI in the
Nationalist Party (PNI), and by harassing them, or worse, LOGIS may
have contributed to the PSI’s resounding electoral success on Bali.
With the advent of Republican rule, Bali’s rajas lost the official
status they had enjoyed under the Dutch, but only after heated debate.
Those who wanted to preserve their standing argued that the old king-
doms should be declared ‘special districts’ (daerah istimewa), as had been
done in the case of the Sultanate of Jogjakarta in Central Java. While
similar arrangements were informally initiated in some of the Balinese
kingdoms, they were never officially confirmed. Despite their loss of
state sponsorship, however, the rajas retained influence as landowners,
as educated individuals, and as traditional leaders of high status. In addi-
tion to effectively denying the rajas official standing, the Sukarno regime
established elected legislative councils at both province and district
(kabupaten) levels. The provincial assembly was to elect the governor,
subject to confirmation by the national president.
President Sukarno took a personal interest in Bali, at least in part
because his mother was Balinese. Soon after independence he told a
local audience, ‘Bali has always been this country’s pride and joy’.6 From
the earliest days of his presidency he intervened frequently in Balinese
affairs, usually on the side of the more radical Republican elements, but
also in efforts to calm things down. After one period of worsening polit-
ical violence, he summoned a collection of feuding youth leaders to
Jakarta and urged them to settle their differences.
In 1950 Sukarno named a left-leaning scion of the royal house of
Jembrana, Anak Agung Bagus Suteja, to be regional head of Bali, and
elevated him to the governorship when Bali became a province in 1958.
Governor Suteja was to be an influential player throughout the Sukarno
era, until he perished during the 1966 killings. In general the Balinese
aristocracy remained politically conservative but, as the case of Gover-
nor Suteja illustrates, not always.
Sukarno helped obtain recognition for the Hindu-Bali religion
in 1958–59, including representation in the Ministry of Religion and
the creation of an official Hindu association, the Parisada Hindu
Dharma Indonesia. This was a great relief to the Balinese, who had
been much concerned by earlier debate over whether Indonesia should
become an Islamic state, a prospect which for obvious reasons they
The president delighted in taking world leaders, including Nehru,
Tito, Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai and Khrushchev to Bali. During Nehru’s
visit he famously referred to the island as ‘the morning of the world’.
One of Sukarno’s pet projects was the Bali Beach Hotel at Sanur, making
him the father of Bali’s postwar tourism revival. Completed in 1964
with Japanese war reparations funding, it was Bali’s first and for many
years its only major modern hotel; its high-rise style was later deemed
a mistake, and has never been repeated. Sukarno also constructed a
lavish presidential guest house overlooking the ancient bathing place
at Tampaksiring, allegedly so he could ogle Balinese maidens at their
ablutions, and held licentious parties there, or so his detractors said.
True or not, reports of such behaviour offended conservative Bali-
nese. Nonetheless, Indonesia’s first president was generally well regarded
on the island, at least in the early years of his rule. His popularity
descended decades later to his daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri (‘daugh-
ter of Sukarno’), who became President of Indonesia in 2001. Local
affection for Sukarno contributed to the fact that Bali never devel-
oped serious regional grievances against Jakarta and displayed no
sympathy for the Outer Islands rebellion of 1958. This insurrection,
supported ineptly by the USA, was rooted in the economic grievances
of resource-rich provinces in Sumatra and Sulawesi which wanted a
greater share of their own export revenues. But Bali was still poor, if
anything a financial drain on the national government.
While the downside of Republican rule on Bali was primarily
economic, it was more similar to the situation on Java. Clumsy economic
nationalism, manifested through interventionist policies, was easily
exploited by corrupt local officials and led to inflation, growing short-
ages of food and declining wages. As Indonesia’s currency became
worthless, civil servants were guaranteed low-priced rice, while others
could obtain it only with difficulty, if at all. Due in part to the exemp-
tion of some peasants from the land tax after 1951, Bali was increasingly
dependent on Jakarta for revenue, but the centre was also in deepening economic trouble.
The government favoured indigenous entrepreneurs over ethnic
Chinese, a policy which Governor Suteja implemented vigorously at
the local level. The result may have contributed to the prevailing
economic disorder, but it also encouraged Balinese to embark on busi-
ness careers. The new entrepreneurs included both aristocrats and
well-connected former revolutionary youth leaders.
In the late 1950s, against the background of regional rebellions
in Sumatra and Sulawesi, Sukarno ended Indonesia’s brief period of
parliamentary democracy and proclaimed ‘Guided Democracy’. This
was a fluid system emphasising mass mobilisation versus reliance on
political parties, which Sukarno saw as antagonistic and divisive. There
were to be no more democratic national elections in Indonesia until
Guided Democracy also featured radical economic policies and a
search for external enemies. First, Sukarno mobilised popular emotion
to assert Indonesia’s claim to West New Guinea, now the Indonesian
province of Papua, which had been retained by the Dutch. After this
dispute was settled diplomatically in September 1962, he embarked on
a campaign to ‘swallow’ the nascent Federation of Malaysia. A small-
scale war with Britain broke out along the border dividing Indonesian
Borneo from the formerly British territories of Sarawak and North
Borneo, which were being incorporated in Malaysia.
By this time Sukarno had abolished the more conservative major
political parties, the socialist PSI and Muslim Masjumi, which had
supported the Outer Islands rebellion of 1958. He appeared to have
embarked on an increasingly reckless effort to balance the huge commu-
nist party against the politically conservative army. The political
philosophy of his later years was NASAKOM, an acronym referring to
a fusion of nationalism, religion and communism. All this took place
in an atmosphere of escalating international tension resulting from
the Cold War, heightened by the beginning of war in Vietnam. To the
nervous Western powers, NASAKOM appeared to be shorthand for a
rapid drift toward communist dominance.
The storm and drama of this period had great impact on Bali. At
the beginning of the Republic the major national political parties had
established themselves rapidly on the island. Because Muslims were a
small minority, the Muslim parties Masjumi and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)
were only minor players. That left the Nationalist Party (PNI), the
Socialist Party (PSI) and the Communist Party (PKI) to play major
roles. All three were initially strong, but there was little ideological
consistency to their popularity, another way of saying that party poli-
tics on Bali reflected the complexity of the underlying social system.
A simplified scorecard would have read as follows, moving from right
to left on the ideological scale:
• The PSI (Indonesian Socialist Party) was at the national level primarily appealing to Westernised intellectuals, with a genteel character and weak mass following. It was influential in the early years of the Republic, until it was banned in 1960. But on Bali the PSI developed a mass base, was aided by unruly paramilitary forces like LOGIS, and enjoyed diversified support from members of the older educated elite, from elements in the military, from
factions among the young nationalists (pemuda), and most importantly from some of the wealthier rulers, especially the influential royal family of Gianyar.
• The PNI (Indonesian Nationalist Party) was regarded as the party of Sukarno and drew national strength from its following among high-status Javanese officials. On Bali it also had links to the security forces (especially the police), to youth elements, and to certain members of the aristocracy. After the demise of the PSI in 1960 it became the bastion of anticommunism, again at variance with the pattern elsewhere in Indonesia.
The PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) had relatively little following in the early years and
finished in third place on Bali in the elections of 1955. It gathered strength as it appeared to be gaining favour with Sukarno, and as the overall course of
Indonesian politics veered to the left. With some exceptions, it lacked the aristocratic connections of the other two parties and was more dependent on ideological and class appeal.
Aristocratic links were extremely important. Imagine what the French Revolution might have been like if the nobility had been able to rely on the support of peasant followers. That is what often happened on Bali, quite contrary to the apparent dictates of class interest. For
example, Robinson notes that ‘the rajas of Klungkung and Karangasem,
two of the most notorious collaborators [with the Dutch] during the
Revolution, became PNI supporters; they were most welcome because
the substantial personal followings they commanded could be easily
transformed into mass support for the party’.7
The same dynamic operated in the struggle over land reform. In
a situation of growing absolute land shortage, some tenants who on
ideological grounds might have been attracted to land reform realised
that if they lost the protection of their lords they would probably be
displaced by other tenants.
In August 1961 the most prominent former member of the now-
banned PSI on Bali, Anak Agung Gede Agung, the former raja of
Gianyar, held a grand cremation ceremony for his late father, of Fiat
Phaeton fame. He invited President Sukarno only belatedly, and the
President concluded that the ceremony masked a plot to assassinate
him, perhaps with US complicity. Sukarno had no reason to like this
talented Balinese lord, who had been a leader of the controversial State of Eastern Indonesia, and then, as Indonesian Foreign Minister, had
upstaged the President by persuading the Dutch to negotiate the heated
dispute over West Irian. As a result, Anak Agung Gede Agung was
jailed from 1962 to 1966 along with PSI founder Sutan Sjahrir and
With the PSI decapitated and done for, its Balinese followers
switched to either the PKI or the PNI, mostly the latter. From this period
until 1966, the political contest on Bali would be between these two
Prelude to cataclysm
Again reflecting national trends, the island became a political hothouse
with the temperature continually ratcheted upwards. The two antago-
nists, PNI and PKI, and above all their mass organisations, were locked
in competition for control of the local government and access to
resources. The PKI’s cultural front, Lekra (Institute for People’s Culture),
launched an assault on elements of traditional art and culture which it
deemed insufficiently progressive. While this campaign was widely
disliked and remembered, the main issue was land reform.
Both landlessness and tenancy had grown steadily on Bali since
the Dutch conquest. About one-third of all farms were worked by
tenants. Much of the problem was due to population growth; there was
simply not enough land to go around. As of 1950, almost 90 per cent
of all holdings were less than two hectares.8 Thanks in part to the Dutch,
there were no large plantations and no truly large private owners.
There were now roughly 1.5 million Balinese, double the number
at the beginning of full Dutch control. Prime irrigated rice land, espe-
cially in the south, was under tremendous pressure, and much of the
rest of the island was too dry or too mountainous for intensive cultiva-
tion. With the postwar tourist industry as yet unborn and the national
economy in tatters, conflict over land reform was virtually inevitable.
Most Balinese, no matter how poor or uneducated, sensed that given
the absolute shortage of land and the highly politicised context such
conflict would be zero-sum in nature, meaning there would be no
winners without losers, and that the losers would include many people
of modest means.
Land had been an issue on Bali at least since the early 1950s, when
revolutionary youth returning from the hills sometimes found that they
had lost their land due to their ‘illegal’ activities. In March 1951 the Bali-
nese legislature mandated a minimum share of 50 per cent of the crop
for tenants as well as a land tax exemption for all holdings of less than
three hectares, freeing about 80 per cent of landowners from taxation.
But the tenancy provision was not enforced, thanks to a combination of
landlord resistance and traditional tenant-landlord loyalties.
A decade later the national legislature passed new laws allowing
a maximum of five hectares of wet rice land and six hectares of dry land
per household in the most densely settled areas of the country. Excess
holdings were to be redistributed by the state, preferably to the tenant
cultivators. Absentee landlordism was abolished. For tenants, harvest
sharing was set at fifty-fifty on wet rice land, a more favourable ratio
than existing practice in many areas of Bali.
Given the nature of the problem, successful implementation of
these measures on Bali would have required broad faith that the process
was impartial. Instead it was relentlessly politicised. In 1963 the commu-
nists decided at the national level to pursue land reform aggressively.
In effect, this was a green light to the PKI’s increasingly powerful Indone-
sian Farmers’ Front, or BTI, to seize and redistribute land according to
the law, but without any semblance of due process. Also practised on
Java, such seizures were known as ‘unilateral action’ (aksi sepihak). At
the local level the BTI engaged in competition and conflict with the
PNI farmers’ organisation, Petani.
Governor Suteja did not direct the police to stop the unilateral
seizures and was clearly supporting the communists, although he
was never formally a member of the PKI. It was widely assumed that
President Sukarno was supporting Suteja; he had after all reappointed
him in 1959 in spite of the fact that another, more moderate candidate
had won election by the regional legislature.
The actual pace of land reform varied from district to district. It
was rapid in the north and east, where holdings were relatively large.
It was slower in south Bali, especially where strong ruling families could
delay implementation. Unilateral action was widespread, supposedly
targeting relatively big landholders, which included temples. Often,
however, the immediate victims were tenant farmers. The result was
‘deep bitterness . . . not only between landlords and tenants but also
among Bali’s poorest tenant farmers’.9
The sense of malaise engendered by the growing political turmoil
was reinforced by two natural disasters, the first a plague of rats in 1962,
the second an eruption of Gunung Agung in early 1963 which killed
at least 1500 people and took 62 000 hectares of scarce land out of
production. The eruption occurred as Bali was preparing to hold an
island-wide Eka Dasa Rudra temple festival at the Besakih mother
temple on the slopes of the volcano.
This ritual purification ceremony was supposed to take place only
once every 100 years, according to the Balinese calendar of 200-day
years, but there was no record of when the last one had been held. Its
revival was not a local initiative, but had been inspired and supported
by two Javanese officials, the head of police and the military commander,
who apparently felt that the ritual might help to calm down what was
obviously becoming an overheated political situation. President Sukarno
was scheduled to attend but did not, and the ritual could not be brought
to its proper conclusion.
At the time, the local press reported that the eruption was a posi-
tive sign that the gods were attending the ceremony. With hindsight,
others reached different conclusions. Bali’s last major volcanic event
had been the great earthquake of 1917, accompanied by an eruption of
the Batur volcano. This disaster had been seen by many as evidence of
divine displeasure over neglected religious ceremonies, following Dutch
displacement of many Balinese rulers whose job it was to conduct such
Similar theories on this occasion saw the 1963 eruption as godly
retribution for sacrilegious behaviour, such as the redistribution of temple
lands. Still later, it was seen by some as foreshadowing and perhaps legit-
imising the ‘final cleansing’ of local communists during the massacres
of 1965–66.10 The destruction wrought by the eruption was until recently
clearly visible along the road from Denpasar to Karangasem.
The killings of 1965–66
On 30 September 1965, disaffected military officers in Jakarta assassi-
nated five senior generals, leading to swift military retaliation, the
eventual extermination of the Communist Party, and the establishment
of the ‘New Order’ under General, later President, Soeharto. The army
claimed the communists were responsible and the communists appeared
to accept responsibility.11 Others claimed that the army, backed by the
USA, had staged the killing of the generals as a pretext for destroying
the PKI. Heated controversy has swirled around this episode and its
aftermath ever since.
Violence between communists and Muslims spread through Java
in the months following the attempted coup. To this day there is no
certainty about the total number of victims throughout Indonesia, with
estimates ranging from 82 000 to more than 1 million. As military units
deployed through the Javanese countryside it became crystal clear that
the Communist Party was finished, and that the army was condoning
and often encouraging the killing of communists by political rivals. It
was this pattern which spread to Bali in early December 1965.
The Balinese were almost immediately aware of the events of
30 September, and along with other Indonesians they held their breaths
waiting to see who would emerge victorious from what everyone recog-
nised as a death struggle between the PKI and its opponents. But Bali
was at the end of the process, with major killing beginning there only
after the arrival of Java-based troops.
The incident that ostensibly triggered the violence on Bali was
the killing of an army officer and two Ansor youths by PKI members
in the village of Tegalbadeng, Jembrana, on 30 November 1965. Ansor
was a Muslim youth group heavily involved in the killings on nearby
Java, which had peaked in October and November. On 7–8 December,
troops of the Brawijaya Division and the army’s paracommando regi-
ment, which had been spearheading the anti-communist campaign
on Java, arrived on Bali. A number of other high-ranking military
officers, including the future president, General Soeharto, visited Bali
The anxiety of the new army leadership is easy to understand.
Troops garrisoned on Bali up to this point were suspect, notably the
regional commander, Brigadier General Sjafiuddin, a loyal adherent of
Sukarno whose wife was alleged to be a PKI women’s front activist. By
this time, Governor Suteja had departed for Jakarta, where he was caught,
imprisoned and then killed under circumstances which remain unclear.
What followed was horrific. To quote from Christian Science Monitor
correspondent John Hughes’ book Indonesian Upheaval:
Whole villages, including children, took part in an island-
wide witch-hunt for Communists who were slashed and
clubbed and chopped to death, by communal consent.
Whole villages that had made the fatal mistake of
embracing Communism were wiped out. Almost within
view of the big new [Bali Beach] luxury hotel the govern-
ment has built to woo tourists to Bali stand the charred
and blackened ruins of one such village . . .
Night after night flared red over Bali as villages went
up in flames and thousands of Communists, or people said
to be Communists, were hunted down and killed. Knowl-
edgeable sources say 40,000 Balinese were killed in two
weeks of butchery. Estimates have gone as high as 80,000.
Nobody will ever know the exact toll. As one Balinese told
me, ‘When people were killed in batches of less than ten,
nobody even bothered to keep count’.12
Later research has not refined Hughes’ estimate of the total killed on
Bali, although Robinson seems inclined toward the higher figure, while
noting there is just as much debate about the number on Bali as on Java.
Eighty thousand would have approached about 5 per cent of Bali’s popu-
lation, in which case Bali may have been proportionately even harder
hit than Java. There is to this day a distressing lack of firm evidence to
support the various estimates.
Some Balinese were killed in communal massacres, as in Jembrana.
In other cases the army transported the victims to selected places, includ-
ing police jails, where execution was carried out by villagers, often local
PNI activists. Corpses were dumped into the sea or mass graves and
none were afforded the cremation which according to Balinese reli-
gion is required preparation for the afterlife.
According to some accounts, Ansor activists were imported from
Java to help. PNI leaders fostered the idea that the campaign was a Bali-
nese Hindu holy war against atheism, paralleling the declaration of a
leading Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah, that the killing on Java
was an Islamic holy war, or jihad. Anti-communist Balinese later said
that many communists had been allowed to volunteer for execution
(nyupat). To do so was said to signify repentance, a state of mind more
compatible with Balinese religious belief than unwilling execution,
although by no means sufficiently so to make up for lack of cremation.
Even Governor Suteja was allegedly allowed to nyupat when he was
killed in Jakarta. But on Bali this distinction apparently meant only
that those who wished to do so were allowed to come forward and move
to a different part of the execution area, where they were shot just like
Why did it happen? Anti-communist Western commentators
favoured a cultural explanation. They agreed with Balinese conserva-
tives that this explosion of violence was, at least in part, a reaction to
communist defilement of Balinese custom. Marshall Green, US Ambas-
sador to Indonesia at the time, wrote in his memoirs:
In the last analysis, however, the bloodbath visited on
Indonesia can be largely attributed to the fact that com-
munism, with its atheism and talk of class warfare, was
abhorrent to the way of life of rural Indonesia, especially
on Java and Bali, whose cultures place great stress on toler-
ance, social harmony, mutual assistance . . . and resolving
controversy through talking issues out in order to achieve
an acceptable consensus solution.14
The violence, according to this explanation, also manifested the violent,
dramatic side of Balinese religion, reflected in its mixture of mysticism
and tantric-derived magic, including the phenomenon of trance which
releases the individual to commit socially unacceptable acts.
Others have little patience with such arguments, regarding them
as myth-influenced misreading of Balinese tradition, compounded in
the case of American commentators like Green by fervent US sym-
pathy for the anti-communist cause, linked with broader Cold War
objectives. Instead, according to this viewpoint, the killings are
adequately explained by well-documented economic and political
tensions, unleashed by less than subtle military support.
Regardless of the controversy, two things are clear. First, the killings
were most severe in those regions, notably Jembrana and Buleleng,
where land reform, with its attendant political tension, had been most
rapidly and aggressively implemented. Second, the army and the police
did encourage and at minimum provide logistical support, especially
transportation, for the mass executions. In December 1965 the top
Indonesian military officer on the scene, paracommando regiment commander Sarwo Edhie, noted:
The situation in Bali is different from the situation in
Central Java. Whereas in Central Java I was concerned to
encourage the people to crush the Gestapu, [acronym for
Gerakan Tigapuluh September—30 September Movement,
hence shorthand for the communists], [in Bali] on the other
hand, the people were already eager to crush the Gestapu
to its roots. The important thing was not to let that enthu-
siasm be misused by certain people, leading to anarchy.
That is what we had to prevent.15
Here Colonel Edhie was saying in effect that tensions had been running
even higher on Bali than on Java, and that the army had been concerned
not to lose control, which he clearly implies it did not. Neither he nor
any other senior military leader ever suggested that the massacre should
have been stopped.
In addition to the killings, an estimated 100 000 Indonesians were
detained following the failed coup, and many of them remained in jail
for decades.16 While there were some detentions on Bali, the number
seems to have been much lower than on Java.
Was the Balinese bloodletting inevitable? Possibly not. Bali may
have been unfortunate to have had in the person of Brigadier General
Sjafiuddin a local military commander who was suspected of being a
communist sympathiser, unusual in Indonesia at the time. An officer
with the full confidence of the new army leadership just might have
been able to keep matters under control on his own and avoid the fatal
intervention of troops from Java, or at least reduce the extent of the
In conclusion it seems apparent that the killings of 1965–66 were
rooted in the darker aspects of Balinese history, that they were exacer-
bated by tensions and divisions originating over past decades, and that
they were condoned and encouraged by the Indonesian military in what
it saw as the endgame in a mortal struggle.
The killings were over by mid-January of 1966, whether from sheer
exhaustion or because it was obvious, especially to the army, that the
Balinese PKI was finished. Soeharto’s New Order regime quickly estab-
lished itself and began to make slow progress against some of the
economic problems that had plagued the island. There was no more
talk of land reform, which in any case would recede in importance as
a new tourism-driven economy developed. Sukarno’s Bali Beach Hotel
was open for business, still state-owned but managed by an American
company. Growing numbers of visitors were still charmed by the island,
and as impressed as ever by the seemingly harmonious nature of Bali-
nese society. Those who heard about the killings generally found it hard
to comprehend that such an orgy of violence could have occurred here,
of all places.
Many Balinese, in common with other Indonesians, remain deeply
disturbed by the events of 1966. They worry that something in Bali-
nese culture must have allowed this tragedy to happen, and if so they
would like to identify what it was. Others have a more straightforward
interest in knowing exactly what happened to friends and relatives.
Even at this late date, systematic research could clarify whether or not
the estimate of 80 000 deaths was substantially accurate.
Counterbalancing this desire for the truth is a multifaceted fear
of reopening old wounds, plus some concern that today’s democracy
might not be permanent. If authoritarian right-wing rule were to return
to Indonesia, any evidence of pro-communist sympathy in the past could
once again be a risky proposition. The picture is further complicated by
calls for investigations into more recent human rights violations in East
Timor, Aceh, Papua and elsewhere. Where to begin? Just how much
probing in the name of truth and reconciliation, always a painful process,
can any country be expected to endure? On balance, it is far from certain
that we will ever achieve substantially better understanding of the 1966
DICTATORSHIP, DEMOCRACY AND THE EVOLUTION OF TOURISM (1966–2002)
After 1966, politics on Bali reverted to something approaching
humdrum normalcy. The New Order of General Soeharto was to last
31 years, about the same length of time as Dutch colonial rule on the
island. There were other resemblances as well. Like the Dutch, the New
Order put primary emphasis on ‘peace and order’. With the army clearly
in charge, the violent factionalism that had marked the Sukarno years
came to a halt. For over a decade Bali remained under the watchful
eye of Governor Sukarmen, an army colonel of Javanese origin. But
there was no sign of serious unrest, and in 1978 he was replaced by a
Balinese, Professor Ida Bagus Mantra, a recognised authority on Bali-
nese culture. Since then there have been no more non-Balinese
The Soeharto regime was explicitly quasi-military in nature. The
army, after all, had won the struggle of 1965–66, and it espoused a
doctrine, the so-called ‘dual function’, which was at least as important
as the sketchy Indonesian constitution of 1945. Dual function doctrine
asserted military responsibility for oversight of political, social and
economic affairs, as well as defence. Members of the armed forces were
allocated a fixed share of seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly
(MPR) which formally elected the President. They were favoured for all
kinds of government positions, from ambassadorships to sub-district chiefs.
A system of ‘territorial’ military administration, parallel to the
civil structure, extended down to the village level. Dual function
doctrine encouraged regional commands to engage in business to support
themselves, a practice which had started during the Revolution when
the army took over many former Dutch enterprises. One result was a
pattern of inefficient and often predatory military capitalism which
has continued to plague Indonesia down to the present.
However, the new system was implemented with a relatively light
hand on Bali, if only because there was no need for jackboot tactics.
Surviving left-wing Balinese politicians who might most have resented
army rule disappeared from public life. Everyone was still in shock from
the killings, and many Balinese were understandably grateful for the
end of tumult. Military participation in local government was obvious
but muted—for example, military retirees were often favoured for posi-
tions as village chiefs (lurah). On a more positive note, the army became
directly involved in some local development projects. These supple-
mented a non-military, low-interest loan programme which stimulated
cottage industries with export potential.
In fact, most of the New Order’s trademark policy initiatives had
nothing to do with the military, but were the result of growing tech-
nocratic emphasis on economic development. Supported by substantial
foreign aid from the West and Japan, they included family planning and
the introduction of high-yielding rice varieties. These two programmes,
discussed at greater length below, were on the whole popular on Bali
despite some elements of official encouragement verging on coercion.
Like the Dutch, the Soeharto regime yearned for a more orderly
structure of local administration. In 1979 the national government passed
a new Village Government Law. Had this law been applied rigorously
on Bali, it would have replaced community selection of hamlet (banjar)
leaders with administrative appointment by senior authorities, and
thereby radically changed the nature of local government. Nothing of
the sort happened, and the banjar remained a vital force in Balinese
political life, often to the immense benefit of New Order programmes
such as family planning. Other aspects of the 1979 law were only slowly
and sporadically implemented. The confusion between differently
defined ‘administrative’ and ‘customary law’ villages continued.
The next great watershed in Indonesian political history was the
end of the New Order and the transition to democracy in the late 1990s.
As was the case elsewhere, Balinese students turned out in the streets
of Denpasar and demonstrated to support their colleagues in Jakarta
and to call for reform. Their protests contributed to the national unrest,
further fuelled by economic crisis, which led to the resignation of Pres-
ident Soeharto in May 1998. He was replaced by B.J. Habibie, who ruled
until genuinely democratic parliamentary elections took place on 7 June
1999. Following those elections, the People’s Consultative Assembly
chose Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, to be Indonesia’s
next president, and Megawati Sukarnoputri to be his vice president.
Wahid was impeached for erratic behaviour in 2001 and Megawati
succeeded him as president.
President Megawati was already popular on Bali because she is
Sukarno’s daughter and one-quarter Balinese. Her party, the Indone-
sian Democracy Party (PDI), is the lineal descendant of the old
Nationalist Party (PNI) which had always been strong on Bali and had
been the principal local opponent of the doomed Communist Party
before and during the killings of 1966. The PDI was the front-runner
locally in the 1999 elections, as it was nationwide. In general, the Bali-
nese have appreciated and taken full advantage of Indonesia’s democratic
reforms, which began under President Habibie and have continued to
evolve. The Balinese press is lively, and local elections are sometimes
On the whole, however, the political history of Bali since 1966
has been relatively insignificant compared to economic and social
developments. Tourism has been the key issue, but important new
environmental and land-use concerns have emerged as the result of
tourism and accompanying economic growth. As the tourism boom
accelerated, Bali changed from a relatively poor to a relatively rich
province in the Indonesian context. As the old agrarian base receded
in importance and upscale resorts replaced rice paddies, the debate
among Balinese over the future of their civilisation intensified.
The dialogue on this subject has become pervasive to the point
where it sometimes seems that to qualify as a Balinese intellectual one
has to question relentlessly the premises of modernity and the meaning
of being Balinese in a globalised setting. The shock of the 12 October
2002 terrorist bombing has added a new dimension to existing concerns
about the risks and costs of economic success.
In order to understand the debate, we must first track the growth
of tourism and efforts at both provincial and national levels to promote,
manage and profit from it.
Tourism hits high gear
I first saw Bali in the early 1970s as a junior American diplomat.
Frequently, then as now, high-ranking foreign visitors to Indonesia
managed to break away form their official duties to visit the fabled island,
and some of them never set foot in the national capital at all.
For Americans of cabinet level or above, our embassy in Jakarta
would send a substantial party by road and ferry across Java to set up
the necessary clerical, communication and security arrangements at the
Bali Beach Hotel. It was still the only major hotel, although there were
one or two bungalow-style facilities at Sanur, as well as the old Bali
Hotel in downtown Denpasar and some rustic home-stay facilities at
Kuta, still little more than a village and a beach. Upcountry in Ubud there was one small hotel, the former Walter Spies residence at
Campuhan, while visitors with connections were sometimes lucky
enough to be guests of the hospitable ruler of Ubud, Cokorde Gede
Agung Sukawati, at his residence.
Among our more memorable official guests was John Connally,
Secretary of the Treasury and former Governor of Texas, who dropped
in on Bali for a rest stop late in 1971. Folksy and imperious in the Texas
tradition, Connally was best known for having been with John F.
Kennedy at the time of his assassination. He then switched parties,
and by 1971 was being touted as a potential Republican candidate for
president, making him very important indeed to us. He arrived on a US
Air Force plane with a large party including many aides, Secret Service
agents, his wife and children.
In those days diplomatic spouses were expected to be unpaid
members of the embassy team, and my wife had been tapped to help
organise a cultural programme. Knowledgeable Australian friends had
just set up one of the first foreign-operated tourist agencies on Bali,
and through them she was able to arrange a special dinner and dance-
drama performance in the palace of a Balinese prince who had never
done such a thing before.
Bursting with pride, we presented what we regarded as a once-in-
a-lifetime opportunity to Connally’s staff. But the secretary and his
family decided at the last minute that they would rather relax at the
hotel and enjoy the poolside buffet, leaving only a few embassy officials
plus the plane crew to attend the performance in their place. The raja
put on a memorable feast, the village children turned out in force, the
topeng (masked dance) was exquisite, and as far as we could tell our VIP
was not missed.
The next morning was set aside for sightseeing. A motorcade was
duly assembled in front of the Bali Beach Hotel. It was made up of ageing
Chevrolet sedans with big tailfins, which somehow seemed appropri-
ate. But the Secret Service inspected them and told our tour agent
friends the cars wouldn’t do—all the tyres were bald. When informed
that there were no better cars or treads on Bali, the head agent shuf-
fled the cars around to save face, and off went the Secretary, his family
and entourage for a highly successful tour of temples and art shops.
We did not realise it, but John Connally was on the leading edge
of a tourism boom. Bali’s reputation as an exotic destination had survived
and flourished in the immediate postwar years, despite political unrest
and the scarcity of hotels and other infrastructure. Hollywood and Broad-
way both had a hand in this, and Bali-hype grew sillier than ever.
The musical South Pacific, set in World War II New Hebrides (now
Vanuatu), immortalised ‘Bali Ha’i’, a mystic island across the sea evoked
by Bloody Mary in her song to the star-crossed young lovers. (Author
James Michener, whose Tales of the South Pacific inspired the musical,
rather unconvincingly claimed that Bali Ha’i was wholly fictional and
had nothing to do with the real Bali.)1 A Bob Hope–Bing Crosby film,
The Road to Bali, showed the two stars and Dorothy Lamour cavorting
in front of a fake Balinese temple. And Bali’s bosomy image was further
uplifted by the well-advertised, American-manufactured line of Bali bras.
After 1966 the new Indonesian regime continued Sukarno’s proud
promotion of Bali as a showcase of Indonesian culture. But now the
door was open to private enterprise, both foreign and domestic. Even
more important, Bali was again at peace. It was also an overpopulated
agrarian island with a serious and growing problem of landlessness.
For Bali, tourism appeared to be a heaven-sent solution to the
nationwide problem of inadequate employment and income. Its devel-
opment was henceforth to receive strong support from the Indonesian
government and international aid donors. Critics often point out that
the Balinese people were not involved in the decision to promote
tourism, at least not in a formal sense. But there is no evidence of local
opposition to this policy, given the alternative of reliance on an increas-
ingly overstretched agricultural base. From the beginning, most Balinese
seem to have assumed that tourism could be managed so as to minimise
cultural damage. No one fully foresaw the transforming impact of the
economic change that was to follow.
By the early 1970s, Balinese communities were showing some signs of irritation
over the rapidly growing influx of sometimes scantily-clad foreign tourists, even while
they welcomed the increased income that resulted from tourism. This sign appeared
near Klungkung in 1971. (Source: Robert Pringle)
On the eve of World War II, over 2000 foreign tourists a year were
visiting the island. It seemed like a large number at the time. Figures
are lacking for the Sukarno era (1945–66), but by 1969 the number had
grown to 86 000, presumably in large part due to the opening of the
government-built Bali Beach Hotel just before the change of regime.
By 1974 the number had increased to 313 000, and it had doubled again
by 1982 to 642 000. Foreign exchange earnings from tourism on Bali
rose from US$10.8 million in 1969 to US$359 million in 1982.2
By 2002 approximately 1.5 million foreign tourists were visiting
Bali yearly. So were approximately the same number of Indonesian
tourists, according to the provincial government. They included large
numbers of Javanese students who arrived in big buses which were much
in evidence, especially at school vacation time, on the island’s narrow
and increasingly congested roads.
If Bali did not exactly become rich, it certainly prospered, rela-
tively speaking. In 1980, the island’s per capita income was two-thirds
the national figure (US$308 compared to US$456). By 1990 the figure
had risen to US$592 compared to US$560 for Indonesia as a whole.
Between 1980 and 1990, Balinese real per capita income rose by 4 per
Tourism-based prosperity had many side-effects, one important
example being the further evolution of education. Bali was tradition-
ally a literate society, and the first Dutch official in north Bali estimated
in 1859 that half the men and as many as one-fifth of the women there
could read and write.4 Subsequently, as we have seen, progress in educa-
tion was slow until after independence. But by 1985, about 85 to 90 per
cent of Bali’s seven- to fifteen-year-olds attended school.
Higher education has undergone a similar expansion. Udayana
University opened in 1958, initially (and aptly) as a branch of Airlangga
University in Surabaya. Bali’s best-known public university now draws
many students from beyond the island, especially to its well-known
medical faculty, its foreign-language departments and its non-degree
programmes serving the tourist industry. Equally well known is Bali’s
leading performing arts college, the College of Indonesian Arts (STSI),
which integrates traditional village-level performing arts with an
academic curriculum. By 1997, Bali had about 30 institutions of higher
learning, the majority of them private. Literacy is close to universal.
‘Tourists for Bali—not Bali for Tourists’
This slogan, written in Indonesian on a banner across a remote rural
road, was encountered by a foreign visitor in the mid-1970s. The visitor
was heartened by the sentiment, but also somewhat mystified. At whom
was the message aimed? If at foreign tourists, why was it in Indonesian,
not English? If the target was Balinese, why wasn’t it in Balinese? And
why was it displayed in a remote area?
In fact, the slogan had resulted from a series of seminars sponsored
by the provincial government in 1971 to deal with the already well-
Dictatorship, democracy and the evolution of tourism
worn question of how to profit from and simultaneously preserve Bali-
nese culture. Its message was aimed primarily at the national government
in Jakarta. The seminars were stimulated by a 1971 proposal, written
by French consultants but financed by the World Bank, which led to a
1974 master plan for tourism.
The plan decreed that major Western tourist development would
henceforth be concentrated in two places: at Sanur, site of the Bali
Beach Hotel, and in a new 425 hectare resort enclave to be developed
at Nusa Dua, south of the airport. There were to be no more high-rise
hotels like the Bali Beach—nothing was to exceed 15 metres, or the
height of a coconut palm. It was hoped that this strategy would minimise
the impact of development on the still relatively pristine south Bali-
Written as the tourist boom was just beginning, the master plan
was based on what turned out to be false premises. It assumed that
first-class international tourists would be the main threat to Bali’s
cultural heritage and did not anticipate the flood of budget travellers
who were about to transform Kuta from village to neonised strip. It did
not foresee the later development of domestic tourism, much less the
secondary and tertiary economic spin-offs from tourism which could
hardly be fenced into a limited area.
Nevertheless, the plan had a tremendous and largely successful
impact. Over the next two decades a dozen new hotels were developed
in a lavishly landscaped setting at Nusa Dua, along a spine of land
looking down on attractive beaches hitherto home only to scattered
The new hotels all followed the low-rise style originally pioneered
at Sanur, albeit executed on a much larger scale, incorporating many
Balinese cultural features and surrounded by superb gardens. By
the time they were built, thousands of Balinese were employed in the
hotel and tourism sector. The skill, charm and enthusiasm which
they brought to this new vocation were an important factor in the
But before the carefully planned, capital-intensive hotels of Nusa
Dua could be completed, they were upstaged by spontaneous develop-
ment at Kuta, just to the north on the other side of the peninsula. The
small hotels established there by Robert Koke and Ktut Tantri did not
survive World War II, but the coconut palms and the beautiful rural
setting did, for a time. So did the surf.
Kuta was ready and waiting when the tourist boom began, made
to order for young backpackers arriving on the short air-hop from
Australia and looking for budget rooms. There was initially no multi-
national investment here. Instead, Balinese villagers began opening
shops and home-stays catering to the surfing crowd. If this trend did
not quite fit the master plan, it was certainly a laudable example of local
participation in economic development.
Slowly but inexorably Kuta’s commercialisation accelerated. By
the mid-1980s it was already creating sanitation and traffic problems.
By the mid-1990s there were 4600 hotel rooms, all five-star, in Nusa
Dua; 5000 rooms in Sanur, mainly five-star, and 17 600 rooms, most of
them starless, in Kuta.5
As early as the 1970s Kuta had developed a reputation for relaxed,
anything-goes-that’s-fun ambience. Foreigners who equated Bali with
toplessness or even nudity assumed that Kuta was the place to go ‘native’.
Initially the Balinese authorities found this troubling, and for a time
signs appeared informing visitors that topless bathing was not allowed.
A few people were even arrested. This did not last long. Soon Kuta
offered everything, including drugs and drink and a wide variety of
nightlife. It became a small, densely packed city of restaurants, karaoke
bars, fast-food outlets, hotels and shops of all descriptions, even a bungee-
jumping tower. As of 2002, before the bombing, there was still no
high-rise development, but at least one powerful Balinese entrepre-
neur was said to favour it.
One trademark attraction was and still is male prostitution. Hand-
some young men, often from other areas of Indonesia, are available for
lonely, middle-aged Western and Japanese women, or for younger groups
of Japanese women known as SOLs (for ‘single office ladies’). The
so-called Kuta Cowboys live by their charm. They know that to demand
money upfront would shatter the image of romance which, rather than
raw sex, is their stock-in-trade. They have learned to depend on their
clients to proffer what is right without being asked, be it cash or maybe
a trip to Australia. Bali has thus far avoided the curse of a massive sex
industry, of the kind that plagues some other Asian tourist destinations.
HIV/AIDS cases are still relatively few in number, but there is justifi-
able concern that the disease could take off on Bali and elsewhere in
Kuta was not the only tourist destination to experience radical
change. Something similar, if more muted, happened in Ubud. As late
as the 1970s, this epicentre of Balinese cultural evolution was still rural.
The Cokorde’s palace at Ubud’s crossroads and its various temples
followed a classic south Balinese pattern. In most places rice fields
bordered the roads, except where (as at Campuhan) the ground breaks
away into a steeply carved river valley. Art shops were already prolifer-
ating both in Ubud itself and in the densely settled adjacent regions.
A few Balinese families were opening small restaurants and home-stays.
In time there was more substantial investment, initiated by the
Ubud ruling family and other relatively wealthy Balinese, but increas-
ingly by outsiders as well, whether foreign or Jakarta-based. There are
now several luxury hotels, and it is possible for anyone to stay in the
Cokorde’s palace as a paying guest. As in many other parts of Indone-
sia, people have preferred to build small hotels and shops flush with
the roads, creating unbroken façades which block the view of the rice
fields on either side. By 2000, Ubud did not look or feel at all the way
it had 30 years previously. It had become a small city.
The master planners’ intention to concentrate tourism infra-
structure in the south came under immediate pressure from other regions
which felt left out. In response, in 1988 the governor proclaimed a
‘Spatial Arrangement Plan’ which authorised fifteen (eventually sixteen)
new locations for tourist infrastructure and development. Among
the first areas to be developed were Candidasa, on the coast near
Karangasem, and another coastal resort area around Lovina in north
Bali. In both cases prominent Balinese were instrumental in promot-
ing the developments.
Large-scale tourism also spread to the ethnically Balinese west
coast of Lombok, where magnificent temples and unspoiled beaches
remained unvisited for years after major development on Bali itself. On
Lombok, interests controlled by President Suharto’s youngest son,
Hutomo ‘Tommy’ Mandala Putra, were behind most of the new hotels.
By the early 1990s, two new trends in Balinese tourism were well
underway. The first, little documented, was the development of a robust
domestic tourist industry. It has been a boon to small business, because
most Indonesian tourists patronise small hotels and eat at roadside stalls.
But the habits of some can be as expensive as those of any foreigner.
For the wealthiest of the Soeharto-era Indonesian elite, a trip to Bali
to celebrate New Year’s Eve became a must.
The second trend was toward high-end, capital-intensive invest-
ment sponsored by alliances between wealthy, politically prominent
Balinese, other Indonesian capitalists, military and ex-military entre-
preneurs, and the Udayana regional military command based in
Denpasar. In 1995, journalist and scholar George Junus Aditjondro
published a monograph entitled ‘Bali, Jakarta’s Colony’, which high-
lighted the prominence of President Soeharto’s family in numerous Bali
tourist investments, from hotels to white-water rafting. Aditjondro, an
Indonesian scholar resident in Australia, emphasised that Bali’s tourist
boom resulted from decisions in which the people of Bali had no say.
He also cited social and environmental costs, from water shortages to
the profanation of sacred sites.
In a national context of growing demands for political and
economic reform, Balinese for the first time protested against a tourist
project. The Meridien Nirwana Golf and Spa Resort, backed by a
wealthy Jakarta-based conglomerate, overlooks the Tanah Lot temple,
one of Bali’s most holy. It is located on a formerly pristine stretch of
Tanah Lot temple, as seen from the Nirwana Resort and Golf Club. Construction of this
resort, which opened in 1999, was delayed but not stopped by protests resulting from its
proximity to one of Bali’s holiest places and the displacement of farmers. The trestle-like
structure in the background is being used to place giant concrete tetrapods to halt ocean
erosion at the base of the temple. (Source: Robert Pringle)
the Tabanan coast, where rice terraces cascade down to the sea. The
temple is clearly visible from both the golf course and the hotel lobby.
The resort was planned in 1991, but engendered years of objec-
tions from farmers who resented losing their land, from Hindus who
believed it would violate a religious stricture against development close
to a holy site, and from a group of sympathetic foreign scholars. Compro-
mises eliminated some of the more egregious features, such as a spotlight
which would have illuminated the temple at night for the benefit of
hotel guests. The 1997 financial crash caused further delay, but the hotel
opened under French management in 1999.
Tanah Lot is now besieged by tourists, both foreign and domestic,
who come by bus and car to view it at sunset, requiring a large parking
lot and stimulating a small city of food and souvenir stalls. The islet on
which the temple sits is being undermined by Indian Ocean swells which
crash picturesquely against its base, necessitating construction of an
ugly if temporary trestle so that huge concrete pylons can be placed to
block the surf.
The surrounding rice fields are giving way to development, with
the Nirwana resort complex being the closest and most obvious (but
not the only) offender. The hotel has been cleverly designed to minimise
its visibility from the temple, although not vice versa, and is arguably
less obtrusive than the growing clutter of shops and stalls. Only the sea
will remain as it was after the unavoidable anti-erosion construction
work is completed. Tanah Lot has become a sad spectacle, and future
generations, both Balinese and foreign, will probably regret that more
effective measures were not taken to preserve both the temple and its
Protests also erupted over plans to build a huge statue of the Hindu
god Vishnu mounted on the mythical bird Garuda, just south of Bali’s
international airport. Announced in 1990, the monument was
conceived by a Balinese artist resident in Bandung and is intended to
appeal primarily to Indonesian, not foreign, tourists. The gold-plated
Garuda will be 146 metres high, supposedly the world’s tallest statue.
Originally estimated to cost $83 million, it will include a complex of
restaurants, a 700-seat amphitheatre, and yet another shopping mall.
Stylistically it is the culmination of a trend toward large, often garish
statues depicting Hindu-Balinese themes which have been in vogue
for some time at town crossroads across the island.
For many Balinese intellectuals and foreigners, the great golden
Garuda epitomises everything wrong with Bali today, especially uncon-
trolled development. For its promoters it demonstrates Indonesia’s
emergence from financial crisis, the diversity of Indonesian culture, and
the blending of traditional values with the latest construction tech-
nology. Although stalled for a time by the 1997–98 economic slump,
the project is now under construction, with strong support at both the
national and provincial level.
The economic offspring of tourism
Sometime in the mid-1990s tourism overtook agriculture as Bali’s leading
economic activity. According to a Balinese economist, the total contri-
bution of the tourism sector to provincial finances, including both
income and investment, was 51.6 per cent in 1998. At the same time
tourism was generating 38 per cent of Bali’s formal employment.7 These
figures probably fall far short of capturing tourism’s full importance
because they do not include its impact on other sectors, or its spin-off
By imprinting Bali on both national and international conscious-
ness, tourism led to major new economic activity. Thanks to its
world-class hotel infrastructure, the ‘resort island’, as it was now being
called, became a regional gathering ground for conferences and meet-
ings of all kinds. It also became a place where both foreigners and
Indonesians like to do business, resulting in a remarkable surge in what
amounts to entrepot trade activity.
For example, furniture is now manufactured in nearby Java,
sent to Bali for final finishing and sale, and then sent back to the
port of Surabaya in East Java for export to foreign destinations. Handi-
crafts from other parts of Indonesia as far away as Papua are shipped
to Bali both for sale to tourists and for export, along with Balinese
handicrafts. There has been similar impact on the important garment-
manufacturing industry. Little of this economic activity is ascribed to
tourism, yet without tourism it would not have developed.
Bali also became a political and financial safe-haven, especially
for Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese, who were traumatised by unprecedented
anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in 1998. (Contrary to what many non-
Indonesians believe, the 1965–66 killings on Bali, Java, and to lesser
extent elsewhere, were only marginally directed against ethnic
Chinese.) Indonesian Chinese have invested or bought homes in Bali
as a prudent alternative, ‘a place where they can send the children at
election time’, as one observer told me. Whether the terrorist bombing
of October 2002 will permanently affect this pattern remains to be seen.
Some of these investments, often made in partnership with Hong
Kong or Singapore Chinese, have been substantial. Others consist of
little more than a structure which combines downstairs business space
with upstairs family quarters. Known as ‘rukos’ (for rumah-toko, or ‘house-
shop’), they are another cause of rapid urbanisation throughout south
Bali. Other immigrants, less affluent, arrived in larger numbers to escape
unrest elsewhere in the country or to seek employment generated by
tourism and its side-effects. In late 1998, according to one source, at
least 760 non-Balinese were moving to Denpasar monthly.8
Demographic trends: Family planning
The early phase of the tourism boom was accompanied by remarkable
and positive changes in Bali’s demographic makeup. By the early postwar
years, the island appeared to be facing a Malthusian crisis. Population
was spiralling upwards, outstripping locally grown rice supplies and
forcing poorer Balinese to rely on less nutritious substitutes, mainly
the starchy root known as cassava. Today, however, there are substan-
tially fewer Balinese than was anticipated.
When the Dutch established full control over the island in 1908,
it had a population of perhaps 750 000. In 1930 the population stood
at 1 101 000. According to census figures, it had grown to 1 519 000
by 1957; to 2 100 000 by 1971; to 2 470 000 by 1980 and to 2 716 000
by 1991. Population density increased from 381 per square kilometre in
1971 to 500 per square kilometre in 1990 (dense indeed, but not quite
as dense as East or Central Java)9. In the mid-1970s experts were predict-
ing that the number would almost double by 2000, to 4.4 million.10
Instead, the 2000 census recorded 3 147 000 inhabitants.
From 1950 to 1971, Bali’s population grew at slightly less than
2 per cent per year. From 1980 to 1990 the growth rate was only 1.2 per
cent, the third lowest for any Indonesian province. One reason for the
declining rate of increase was an extraordinarily successful family plan-
Like the Javanese, many Balinese were aware by the 1950s that
uncontrolled family size was no longer rational, but they did not know
what to do about it. President Sukarno believed that there could never
be too many Indonesians. He accepted the communist position that
population control was a capitalist plot—the West was simply trying
to keep the developing countries small and weak. His successor,
Soeharto, was willing to listen to those who argued that Java and Bali
were sinking beneath a burden of population growth which was making
it impossible to provide a decent standard of living.
Bali’s population growth rate had started to drop compared with
the colonial period even before the fall of Sukarno. In 1961 a Dutch-
trained chief medical officer and scion of the Karangasem royal family,
Dr A.A. Made Djelantik, began an informal family planning programme
with the help of a non-governmental organisation, Planned Parenthood
International. The villagers proved extraordinarily receptive, and after
1966 the programme, now a national priority, continued to grow with
assistance from international aid agencies. In the 1970s Balinese fertil-
ity dropped at the fastest rate of any province in Indonesia, while the
number of Balinese accepting contraception was the highest. The
method of choice was, and still is, the IUD.
Family planning experts credit the decision-making ability of the
banjar, the lowest unit of local government, with Bali’s success. ‘The
banjar were able to make a collective decision and then execute it’,
according to one Balinese familiar with the history of the programme.11
While this is no doubt true, something similar happened in Javanese
villages, which do not have banjar.
Did strong government support for family planning verge on
coercion? Perhaps, but it seems clear that the majority of Balinese,
exercising their preferences through their neighbourhood-based banjar,
were strongly supportive of the programme. On both Java and Bali,
widespread desire to reduce the burden of large families, at a time when
fewer children were dying in infancy, appears to have been the critical
factor. Today some estimate that population growth on Bali would be
nearing replacement rate—meaning only sufficient growth to maintain
the current population—were it not for the influx of non-Balinese
attracted by job opportunities.
O Pioneers! Transmigration
‘Transmigration’ was another government programme designed in part to
relieve overcrowding. Initiated by the Dutch shortly after 1900, and
continued by both Sukarno and Soeharto, it aimed to relocate peasant
families from overpopulated Java and Bali to the Outer Islands. The Dutch
hoped it would also help develop remote provinces through the intro-
duction of wet rice technology. Sukarno in particular believed it would
further his nationalist aims by integrating the Outer Islands with Java.
During the Soeharto era, the World Bank supported transmigra-
tion for years, despite strenuous attack from critics who claimed, with
some reason, that it was environmentally unsound, did not significantly
slow population growth, and simply replicated Javanese (and Balinese)
poverty elsewhere. Be that as it may, the Balinese programme achieved
surprising success at both ends of the transfer process.
The earliest Balinese transmigrants had been exiled for political
misbehaviour to Banda, a dry coral island in Maluku Province, renowned
as the original home of nutmeg. They were unhappy and asked to be
transferred to another location where they could farm. In 1906 the
Dutch allowed them to move to Parigi in Central Sulawesi, a fertile,
well-watered but under-populated area, in the hope that they would
introduce their sophisticated methods of rice cultivation. Later they
were joined by men guilty of marrying higher caste women. Under tradi-
tional Balinese law such individuals might have faced the death penalty.
Instead the new Dutch rulers sent them to the wilds of Sulawesi.
The Parigi programme had a chequered history. The early migrants
faced every conceivable hardship, including isolation, land disputes with
the local population, disease, and almost constant political unrest during
the Sukarno era. At one point many of them went home to Bali. Begin-
ning in 1957, those who stayed were joined by an influx of several
hundred Christian Balinese originally resettled by the Dutch in western
Bali because of friction with their Hindu neighbours. In the early 1970s,
the government’s transmigration programme gathered momentum and
more than 15 000 Hindu Balinese migrated to Parigi.
Some of the transmigrants were government-sponsored, meaning
they received transportation, land and initial support from the Depart-
ment of Transmigration. Others were volunteers, so-called ‘spontaneous’
transmigrants, who paid their own way and were supported by those
who had preceded them. Some were farmers whose lands had been
destroyed by the eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963, while others were
fleeing violence and uncertainty after the 1966 killings.
As the earlier settlers on Parigi flourished, increasing numbers of
Balinese followed them voluntarily. While the transmigrant commu-
nities around Parigi were initially dominated by Christians, they became
strongly Hindu following the massive arrival of Hindus in the 1970s.
The Parigi case seems to have been broadly typical of Balinese
transmigration. As with family planning, the organising ability of the
banjar helped the Balinese to succeed, in this case as pioneers in a strange
land. From 1953 to 1999 a total of 219 000 people left Bali as trans-
migrants, the largest numbers from Buleleng and Jembrana, for
destinations in Kalimantan (Borneo), Maluku, Sulawesi, Sumatra,
Sumbawa and Papua. Some undoubtedly returned home, but a large
proportion remained, as witness the thriving communities they founded.
The government-sponsored programme is now over, but a trickle of
voluntary transmigration has continued.12
As hoped, the pioneers were able to replicate the complex irriga-
tion technology of their home island. In general they have been eager
to maintain ties with Bali, and to recreate and uphold Balinese culture.
Often, as soon as a transmigrant community is able to save enough
money, it orders a gamelan orchestra to be made and sent from Bali so
that a proper ceremonial life can begin. Today some migrants are even
critical of what they see as a ‘false prosperity’ in their old home, depend-
ent on outsiders and, in their view, increasingly divergent from Balinese
Balinese agriculture transformed
If Bali now has fewer mouths to feed than was anticipated, it is also
producing more rice to feed them. During the early 1970s, the Inter-
national Rice Research Institute developed new high-yielding varieties
of ‘miracle rice’. The government introduced them throughout Indo-
nesia with strong support from foreign aid donors. Combined with
improvements in irrigation methods, the new varieties led to a 50 per
cent increase in rice production between 1969 and 1982. Both Bali and
Indonesia as a whole regained self-sufficiency in rice, regarded by most
Indonesians as very desirable, regardless of whether or not some impor-
tation might make sense in purely economic terms. Bali began exporting
rice to the rest of Indonesia.
The Green Revolution, as it was labelled, has nonetheless been a
mixed blessing on Bali, as elsewhere. Despite higher yields overall, the
new varieties turned out to be much less dependable, in part due to pest
and disease problems, with heightened risk of wide variation in yield
from one harvest to the next. The new rice has a pasty, insipid taste
compared to traditional strains. Most important, the increase in yields
is dependent on regular applications of chemical fertilisers and pesti-
cides, which are an added expense for farmers.14
In the early 1970s, the government required farmers to switch to
the ‘miracle’ varieties and pressured them to plant as often as possible,
eliminating traditional fallow periods and the rotation of dry crops in
the paddy fields. Government agents, backed by foreign advisors,
dictated to farmers when they should plant and how fertilisers and pesti-
cides should be applied, usurping both the function of the subak
irrigation societies and the broader coordinating role of the water
temples located at the volcanic lakes, Bratan and Batur.
One result was an upsurge of pest problems, which had tradition-
ally been controlled by carefully timed crop rotation. After complaints
from farmers supported by social scientists, the agricultural technicians
began to allow the subak once again to help decide how the planting
cycle should be managed. In the mid-1980s the government dropped its
emphasis on continuous rice cultivation and began to encourage both
fallow periods and rotation of dry crops such as soybeans and corn
between the rice cycles. But overall the Green Revolution is still in place.
Critics wonder whether ‘miracle’ rice technology is sustainable
over the long run. Traditional methods required no artificial imported
fertiliser, although manure and other organic matter was applied. This
plus natural nutrients generated by the rich stew of the paddy fields
created a stable system in which soil fertility did not decline over time.
Under the new system, the use of pesticides has a sterilising effect, killing
many organisms other than those targeted. Some research has indicated
that soil quality on Bali is now declining. And the application of large
amounts of hydrocarbon-based fertiliser is overloading the rivers with
phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, contributing to the pollution of
the streams themselves and degrading the coral reefs and shallow marine
The result is one of several emerging environmental problems
discussed in the next chapter. It is true that the new system of agricul-
ture, dependent on heavy injections of energy in the form of fertiliser,
is part of a worldwide phenomenon, as typical of American corn as it
is of Balinese rice. If change is needed, it is needed everywhere, not
just on Bali.
Today Balinese farmers are free to plant as they wish, normally by
collective decision at the subak level, and approximately 5 to 10 per
cent of the total crop once again consists of traditional varieties.
A complete reversion to pre-‘miracle’ methods would entail a substan-
tial reduction of current rice production, and no one is suggesting that
this is likely or even desirable. Most experts feel that the harmful side-
effects of the Green Revolution can be mitigated by a middle-ground
approach, including renewed respect for the value of traditional culti-
vation and water management technologies.
Bali’s experiences with expanding tourism, family planning and
the Green Revolution all demonstrated a new range of opportunities
and attendant problems at the end of the twentieth century. As the new
millennium dawned the island faced additional challenges, and would
soon experience a shock unlike anything in its often turbulent past.
BALI IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY: NEW CHALLENGES, INCLUDING TERRORISM
On the evening of 12 October 2002, violent explosions tore through
the most crowded area of the Kuta strip, incinerating two nightclubs
frequented by young Westerners, mostly Australians. A third, much less
powerful bomb exploded harmlessly several miles away near the modest
US Consulate. The Kuta blasts killed at least 202 people, about three-
quarters of them foreigners, of whom 88 were Australians. Suddenly,
and for the first time in its history, Bali was front-page news around
The Indonesian police, working as a team with Australians and a
few Americans, made surprisingly rapid progress in the subsequent inves-
tigation. Good forensic work on the principal bomb-carrying vehicle
led to an East Javanese suspect whose testimony rapidly led to others.
It soon became clear that the radical Islamic organisation Jemaah
Islamiah was the main source of funding and operational support. Links
to the al-Qaeda network seem almost certain. In a mid-November 2002
radio broadcast someone claiming to be Osama bin Laden took credit
for the attack. He said it was aimed at Australia, but other sources
have suggested that Americans were the main target. It is equally likely
that the attacks were aimed against the West in general, as well as at
the insufficiently Islamic Republic of Indonesia. Trials of 33 suspects
began in June 2003, and two months later the first trial ended with the
conviction of Amrozi, who was sentenced to death.
A Balinese police officer, Major General I Made Mangku Pastika,
returned to Bali to head the investigation and rapidly achieved inter-
national star status for his frankness and professional demeanour. Pastika,
the son of a primary school teacher, had once served with the United
Nations in Namibia. More recently, in Papua, he had demonstrated a
refreshing capacity for honesty and effectiveness in dealing with possi-
ble military involvement in high-profile killings. Time Magazine named
him ‘Asian Newsmaker of the Year’ for 2002. Jakarta then appointed
him to be police commander for all Bali, a clear recognition of his excel-
lent leadership of the investigation and of the national importance of
Bali in both symbolic and economic terms.
Bali’s tourist industry, just recovering from the impact of the World
Trade Center attack a year previously, was devastated. Hotel occupancy
rates plunged to near single digits. Major hotels tried not to lay off
workers, but thousands of small businesses were pushed to the brink of
Many observers feared that the damage would be compounded by
a violent Balinese reaction against the local Muslim minority, which
was almost certainly blameless. But the provincial authorities, from
Governor Dewa Made Beratha on down, worked hard to prevent this,
in part by mobilising the banjar network to warn against such violence,
in part by sponsoring a series of cleansing and reconciliation rituals.
Balinese Hindus believe that without proper observances the spirits of
people killed remain abroad in the land, dangerous and malevolent.
Following the 12 October 2002 bombing in Kuta, the Balinese placed offerings and held
ritual observances at the disaster site to cleanse it, to prevent dangerous behaviour by the
spirits of the dead, and to promote reconciliation. The climax of this ritual process was a
major ceremony on 15 November. (Source: AP/World Wide Photos)
The ceremonies required to ward off this danger were held in a way that
underscored Bali’s hard-won image as a sanctuary of harmony. The
island’s long experience with lethal natural disasters may have helped
its people to cope on a spiritual level with this man-made cataclysm.
Before the Kuta explosion, the Balinese had assumed that their
island was safe from terrorism, already looming as a problem elsewhere
in Indonesia. They had apparently forgotten that in March 1985 a group
of Islamic radicals based on Java, who had previously detonated a bomb
at the Borobodur in Central Java, tried to send another bomb to Bali,
possibly to Kuta. Before the bus the terrorists were on could reach the
ferry across the Bali Strait, the bomb exploded, killing three of them.
One crucial difference this time was that the accused perpetrators of the 2002 Kuta terrorism had been trained by veterans of the anti-Soviet
jihad in Afghanistan and were far more technically proficient.1
The Balinese had been greatly annoyed when, in the aftermath
of the World Trade Center attack, Western governments warned their
citizens to stay away from Indonesia, without exempting Hindu Bali. In
the months after September 11, Balinese taxi drivers routinely gave
foreign clients polite but pointed lectures explaining the difference
between safe, peaceful Bali and riot-prone Jakarta, coupled with expres-
sions of hope that tourists would soon get over their overwrought
reaction to ‘Waytaysay’ (WTC) and return to Bali in droves.
The traumatic impact of the totally unexpected bombing in Kuta
was accordingly profound, and it is too soon to judge its long-term conse-
quences. Some Balinese immediately pointed fingers at over-reliance
on tourism and argued for a re-emphasis on agriculture. Indeed, the
tragedy may well stimulate some healthy re-examination of the island’s
recent economic management. But for the moment the national and
provincial governments, together with the private sector, focused on
repairing the immediate damage.
Hotels and airlines offered deep discounts. A big cultural mission
flew to Tokyo with the objective of reassuring the notoriously crisis-
sensitive Japanese. Aid donors and private sources pitched in with
emergency assistance. The national Minister of Tourism, himself a
Balinese, took a diplomatic delegation around his home province, Bule-
leng. Plans to hold a series of international conferences on Bali were
reconfirmed. New security measures were introduced at hotels, at the
airport, and on the ferry from Java. Central government concern was
understandable: Bali accounts for at least half of all national tourism
revenue, and the tragedy dealt a big blow to Indonesia’s already bruised
Ten weeks after the bombing, President Megawati and other high
officials came to Bali to celebrate New Year’s Eve in style, and some of
the big hotels at Nusa Dua were once again filled to capacity. The cele-
bratory mood was abruptly jarred a few days later when President Megawati
announced extremely unpopular national price hikes for hitherto
subsidised fuel and utilities, with no exceptions for Bali. Moreover, no
sooner had the impact of the bombing started to recede when Bali’s
tourism industry was hammered by the cumulative impact of the Iraq War
and the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic, leaving
many hotels still struggling and small businesses in even worse shape.
A United Nations survey conducted in mid-2003 found that average
incomes across Bali had dropped by 40 per cent since the crisis began.
A whiff of paranoia
Assuming that the Indonesian government can respond effectively to
the threat of terrorism nationwide, its impact on Bali will diminish with
time. A happy outcome will depend on more than tough, effective
sleuthing, however. Indonesia will need greatly enhanced capacity to
deal wisely with separatism and ethnic unrest. Reform of the military,
police and legal institutions is urgent. The Balinese can contribute in
only a minor way to this national effort. But they also face a complex
array of social, religious and environmental problems on their own
island. Temporarily overshadowed by the Kuta tragedy, these challenges
will remain alive and in need of attention. Some of them are urgent.
And unlike terrorism, they can only be addressed at home.
Thus far the island has escaped the kind of ethnic turmoil that has
plagued some other regions of Indonesia, but there have been a few
disturbing indications that Bali might not be immune from the disease.
For one thing, the Balinese seems to be increasingly anti-foreign. This
does not mean they harbour sentiments against visitors from other coun-
tries who come to Bali for pleasure. Such people are seen as ‘tourists’,
not foreigners, and by and large are regarded with mercenary affection.
‘Foreigners’ in the negative sense are other Indonesians who come
to Bali to work and maybe to live. They include, for example, the
Javanese farm labourers who work the rice harvests in south Bali, the
local labour force being largely occupied in the hotel, handicraft and
restaurant businesses. Matters are arranged so that these workers return
to Java soon as the harvest is over. But many other people who come
to Bali for employment remain there.
Anti-‘foreign’ sentiment has been reported among the increas-
ingly prominent, banjar-based religious security police, or pacalang. These
units were traditionally responsible for maintaining order at religious
processions and ceremonies, but they can be quick to mete out vigi-
lante justice to suspected criminals, and are sometimes prone to stirring
up trouble with neighbouring banjars. They are a reminder of the para-
military violence which plagued Bali during the Revolution and in the
Sukarno era. That said, the pacalang turned out to be an asset follow-
ing the Kuta bombing, as Bali struggled to strengthen local security.
Then there is the hardy perennial of angst about Balinese iden-
tity in a rapidly changing world. It centres around the reconciliation of
tradition with modernity. How, for example, can a busy professional be
expected to meet personal obligations as a member of a banjar which
may be hours away from his or her place of employment? Yet banjar
obligations, such as helping to prepare for funerals, lie at the heart of
What about the role of the Balinese calendar, with its intricate
guidance on when things should be done? How can this convoluted
system dictate the activities of a businessman or tour operator? Yet if
the way Balinese tell time—not what time it is, but what kind of time
it is—is consigned to the ash heap of progress, some of the island’s charm
will go with it.
What about the substitution of money and modern technology for
the painstaking labour that traditionally went into temple offerings?
Already these offerings are often purchased at a neighbourhood offer-
ing stall, rather than being made by the devotee. The use of blowtorches
has become commonplace as an aid to cremation, with the requisite
equipment and fuel tank transported by pickup truck, the workers of
course arrayed in proper customary dress.
Similar dilemmas have been faced by many other societies seeking
to reconcile religious practices with the demands of modernity. And
certainly the Balinese debate over modernity does not imply any diminu-
tion of religious vitality; quite the contrary. Any visitor will soon observe
the active use of wayside shrines and household temples, even in the
most urban of settings. The Kuta tragedy evoked new proof that Bali-
nese Hinduism remains a potent force. But it is also true that the
Balinese are experiencing a surge of anxiety, aggravated by the rapid-
ity of social change, which is stirring up some old religious divisions,
especially on the matter of caste.
The Hindu schism
The Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (Indonesian Hindu Council),
created at the time that Sukarno gave official status to Balinese religion,
is more involved than ever before in trying to define what is accept-
able Hinduism. For example, it has attempted to set guidelines for the
creation of ogoh-ogoh, the huge papier-mâché monsters which are now
paraded through the streets of Bali in Mardi Gras-like celebrations on
the night before Nyepi. This occasion, often referred to as the Balinese
New Year, must be preceded by an annual cleansing of evil spirits. On
Nyepi Bali shuts down; by law no one is to work, tourists are not allowed
outside their hotels and even the airport closes.
Nyepi was not legally recognised until 1983, and the huge papier-
mâché ogoh-ogoh are a relatively new phenomenon. The Hindu Council
would like all of them to reflect proper Hindu themes. But the Bali-
nese youth who make them sometimes prefer ogoh-ogoh modelled on
pop culture, equipped with cell phones, celebrating drugs and drink, or
replicating Spiderman. The role of the monsters is after all to repre-
sent about-to-be-cleansed evil spirits in preparation for the New Year,
and the kids argue that their creations are just as realistic as the ortho-
dox models, whatever those might be. At the first Nyepi following the
Kuta bombing there was an ogoh-ogoh depicting Amrozi, one of the
accused terrorists. Perched on his shoulder was the demon-sorceress
Rangda, goading him to do unspeakable things.
For several years the Hindu Council has been at the centre of a
much more serious dispute over what kind of priests should be allowed
to officiate at ceremonies. Until recently, customary practice gave an
important role in some ceremonies to priests from the important non-
caste clans which have roots going back to the Old Bali kingdoms. But
in recent years the high-caste priests, tracing their descent and author-
ity to the Majapahit invaders from Java, have attempted to improve
on custom by asserting that only they are legitimate.
The dispute sharpened when, in September 2000, the non-caste
group succeeded in taking over the central, all-Indonesia Parisada
Hindu Dharma, issued decrees legitimising a role for all priests, regard-
less of caste, and even recommended abolition of the entire caste
system. The high-caste group retaliated by seizing control of the pro-
vincial council on Bali and disavowing the decisions of the national
council. Things began to get heated, and a December 2001 press report
in the Jakarta Post was headlined ‘Balinese Hinduism on the Brink of
The headline may have been overblown. However, anyone familiar
with Bali’s history can understand why this contretemps is potentially
more serious than disputes in European or American Christian churches
over such matters as the ordination of homosexuals and women. Argu-
ments about social status on Bali have often really been about political
power and all too frequently settled by bloodshed. Moreover, the current
disagreement has sharpened old resentments on the part of non-caste
Balinese intellectuals, which were being debated in the provincial press
as long ago as the 1930s.
Interestingly enough, the non-caste leaders have been able to
bolster their case by reference to ancient Indian texts, pointing out that
the oldest Hindu scriptures say nothing about caste. For this and other
reasons, Balinese Hindus are increasingly travelling to India as religious
tourists. The controversy has generated volumes of coverage in the
provincial press and is not settled at this writing.
Religious tolerance on Bali
Interfaith relations, traditionally excellent, have eroded somewhat,
particularly between Hindus and the small (about 2 per cent) Chris-
tian minority, divided fairly evenly between Catholics and Protestants.
By its nature Christianity is a proselytising religion, and some of the
Balinese churches have offended Hindu sentiment by (among other
things) using Hindu terminology in their liturgy, apparently in an effort
to attract converts.
Because Christian communities tend to be ethnically Balinese,
there is likely to be tension when Christians neglect customary obliga-
tions centred around temples and other predominantly Hindu
institutions. This was apparently the cause of anti-Christian rioting in
the upland town of Kintamani in 2001, when Hindus attacked and
burned the residences of several of their Christian neighbours.
The majority of Muslims, by contrast, are ‘foreigners’, that is, non-
Balinese Indonesians, although some have been on Bali for a very long
time. They have rarely attempted to proselytise and the majority of
conversions to Islam have come about through marriage. Although their
proportion of the population has more than doubled since colonial
times, to just under 10 per cent, Bali’s Muslims have usually remained
in discrete communities and do not seem to be regarded as a threat by
the majority of Hindus.
Mutual tolerance is partly a matter of familiarity; as noted in an
earlier chapter, some Islamic communities on Bali are hundreds of years
old. Moreover, the older Muslim communities have a history of syncretic
accommodation with their Hindu neighbours, extending even to the
use of Balinese motifs in the pulpit carvings found in some old mosques.
However, the Kuta bombing undoubtedly placed a new strain on
Hindu-Muslim relations. Until Bali recovers from terrorist-induced
recession, the danger of anti-Muslim violence will persist.
The arts: Still lively . . .
Well before World War II, Western observers were predicting that
commercialism would swamp creativity and ruin Bali, at the same time
that they were overlooking the poverty, landlessless and lack of social
services that were the flip-side of their idyll. We have seen, however,
that Balinese art, music and drama, essential to the island’s appeal, have
all demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for change, whether or not
Western observers approved. The same pattern has continued under
The fundamental fascination of the Balinese for their own culture
is alive and well. The melodic crash of urban gamelan music, from a
banjar ensemble gathering for regular evening practice, is still intrigu-
ing, for all that the musicians must now compete with the noise of traffic
on nearby streets. As the agrarian sector waned, tourism and the growth
of service industries injected large sums of money into the Balinese
economy. This strengthened the economic foundation necessary for a
rich cultural life and helped to maintain traditional pride in Balinese
culture, now linked with economic well-being. As in the 1930s, not
everyone is enthralled by the results in their entirety. But, on balance,
money and pride intermingled have been a stimulus to artistic activity.
Both old and new forms continue to abound and proliferate. At last
count, there were about 35 types of gamelan extant on Bali. Jegog, an
ancient type of bamboo orchestra from West Bali, had fallen into decay
by the 1930s, but now has been revived as a tourist attraction. The ogog-
ogoh phenomenon described above is an example of recent innovation.
Balinese culture continues to find new and spontaneous expression, from
cartoon magazines to dump trucks adorned with barong paintings.
Robust state sponsorship has played a part. In 1961, a high school
for the performing arts elaborated a new dance-drama form called
sendratari, in which a narrator seated with the gamelan orchestra relates
the story while dancers act it out in pantomime. A new one is created
each year for the annual Bali Arts Festival.
Community troupes still produce dramatic performances of high
quality for tourists. It continues to be true, as Margaret Mead noted
decades ago, that a Balinese ceremony financed by outsiders is not neces-
sarily deprived of genuine religious content, even when it happens on
schedule three times a week. Much traditional culture is televised,
although there is concern about the consequences of endlessly repeat-
ing dramatic performances removed from their traditional village settings.
No doubt some homogenisation and poor quality is inevitably
resulting from commercialisation. The key question for Balinese artists
is still, as it was in the 1930s, whether this negative impact outweighs
the positive stimulus of economic support. Controversy continues. A
few years ago, the students of the leading Balinese art institute in
Denpasar embarrassed their school president by turning a major paint-
ing exhibit into a noisy protest against the rampant commercialisation
of Balinese art. Yet Bali’s annual Arts Festival, initiated by the province
in 1979 primarily to stimulate tourism, was immediately popular among
the Balinese themselves and has remained so.
. . . but is it sustainable?
If Bali’s cultural soul moved into the second millennium in remarkably
good health, the same cannot be said for Bali’s physical body. The island
is plagued with environmental problems of many kinds, virtually all of
them the result of too many people combined with increasing affluence,
the downside of the economic success story. As noted, Green Revolu-
tion agriculture is degrading soils and overloading Bali’s streams and
coastal waters with chemical pollutants, raising the question of whether
the new farming methods are sustainable over the long run.
There has been enormous, human-induced physical change, the
majority of it in the last 50 years. Bali’s Indian-derived civilisation was
born on an island which was still largely uninhabited and mostly under
forest. Except for remnants in areas which are either too high, too dry
or too rugged for agriculture, the last significant old-growth forest was
cleared long ago. The most extensive wild area, the West Bali National
Park, on land which falls in the ‘too dry’ category, is experiencing
management problems similar to those which plague other national
parks in Indonesia.
Arid as it is, the west is no longer empty, and the tigers which
once prowled the highway from Denpasar to the ferry landing at Gili-
manuk had disappeared by World War II. Meanwhile Bali’s woodcarving
industry has become a major consumer of exotic wood from elsewhere
in the archipelago, much of it illegally harvested.
Bali was originally surrounded by coral reefs, the same reefs that
provided heaven-sent shipwrecks to be plundered by the local rulers.
Today this colourful underwater habitat has suffered heavy damage from
villagers who mine the coral to make lime for cement and, together
with fishermen from other islands, use explosives and poisons for fishing.
This is especially unfortunate at a time when tourist interests are trying
to promote diving and snorkelling as one more reason for a Balinese
The odds are stacked against any effective conservation effort.
There are still too many poor Balinese living near the reefs, and it is
hard for them to abandon any activity that will provide some income.
In the early 1990s an expatriate began a project to persuade north Bali-
nese villagers to try ecotourism instead of dynamite fishing by hosting
divers and snorkellers. He finally gave up under threats from the local
population and decided to develop horse-riding instead.
In addition, most of Bali’s coral reefs are exposed to the full impact
of rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming, which have been
damaging and in some cases killing reefs across the Pacific. Those near
Nusa Penida, off the south coast, are about the only ones bathed by
The World Wide Fund for Nature has successfully campaigned to end Bali’s role
as a regional market for sea turtle meat, and enlisted the support of the tourist industry
to safeguard the few remaining turtle nesting sites on Bali. (Source: World Wide
Fund for Nature Wallacea Program, Denpasar)
upwellings of cold water, without which experts feel that preservation
efforts, always an uphill battle, are likely to be futile. Elsewhere, along
the heavily travelled coastal route between the airport and Sanur, the
elimination of mangrove habitat is causing salt water to invade the
water supply in this most populated area of the island.
As anywhere else in the world, environmental issues stir passion-
ate debate, especially when conservation clashes with customary
behaviour. Such has been the case with sea turtles. Readers of Colin
McPhee’s pre-war classic A House in Bali may recall references to the
consumption of turtle kebabs (saté) on ceremonial occasions. The turtle
figures prominently in Hindu mythology as the foundation on which
earth itself rests. Turtle shell was used to make valuable handicrafts and,
as tourism developed, turtle meat even appeared on hotel menus.
As a result of this dietary preference, Bali became a regional hub
for the sea turtle trade. Turtles were being imported from all over eastern
Indonesia, kept live in pens at the Balinese port of Benoa, then sold
for local consumption or re-exported. On Bali itself, coastal develop-
ment has eliminated many of the beaches suitable for use as nesting
areas by the light-sensitive creatures.
Enter the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), with a programme
based on Bali to help save the globally endangered sea turtles in Indone-
sian waters. In 1999 the Fund persuaded Governor Beratha to issue a
decree shutting down the turtle trade. Pro-turtle forces appealed to the
Balinese to make their ceremonial kebabs from something else. Duck
meat was suggested, the duck being another creature esteemed in Bali-
nese culture. The result was strenuous protest from the turtle traders,
the great majority of whom were not from Bali, but just doing business
there. In November 2000, the angry traders organised a march on the
WWF offices in Denpasar. They chanted, ‘If we can’t eat turtle meat,
we’ll eat you instead.’
Understandably alarmed, the Balinese director of the WWF turtle
programme appealed to Governor Beratha, who defused the situation
by personally receiving the demonstrators. However, he stood behind
his turtle decree, several of the traders were jailed, a prominent Hindu
cleric supported the ban on trade, and the turtle pens at Benoa went
out of business. Now the project has set aside a strip of Balinese coast
where WWF is paying local fishermen, formerly turtle hunters, to protect
nesting turtles, while distributing publicity at hotels encouraging tourists
to support its efforts.
The turtle episode was a skirmish won in a war which is generally
being lost. It was manageable because there were no powerful interests
arrayed against a favourable outcome. The really big battles revolve
mainly around land use and are far more problematic.
‘ Bali makin jelek ’
My taxi was crawling through traffic in Denpasar, surrounded by the
usual swarm of motorcycles. As one foreign scholar observed, the provin-
cial capital has changed in recent years ‘from a noisy but comfortable
small town to a wildly getting out of hand metropolis whose long fingers
grab out along the highway in all directions all over the island’.2
The taxi driver wondered out loud what could be done about the
traffic. Maybe, he suggested, the government should build elevated free-
ways, as in Jakarta (which in spite of them has some of the most ghastly
traffic in the world). At one point he observed, ‘Bali makin jelek.’ It
means, ‘Bali is getting ugly.’
The idea that Bali, of all places, should be getting ugly, not just in
a few areas, but generally ugly, still comes as shock. But although much
remains beautiful, there is no doubt that uglification is beginning.
Despite the slowing of population growth, Bali is ever more
crowded. The population density of the province is five times the
national average, exceeded only by Central and East Java. Moreover,
today’s increasingly affluent Balinese take up a lot more space than their
parents did. Urban sprawl extends from the provincial capital into the
south Bali heartland and beyond. From Sanur to Karangasem one is
rarely out of densely congested areas. Glorious views of rice terraces
carved from the long volcanic slopes are increasingly obscured by houses
To escape one must go to the eastern end of the island, or high
on the flanks of Gunung Agung, where the kind of scenery common-
place on Bali 30 years ago remains accessible. Toward the sea, around
the most famous cultural centres—places like Mas, Batuan, Pejeng,
Bedulu and dozens more—much of the development is directly tourist
related—art galleries, handicraft manufacturers and outlets for their
products. But elsewhere, as much or more commercial activity serves
Balinese or other Indonesian markets. There is a long strip which sells
A Balinese view of the hazards of urban sprawl, by cartoonist Surya Dharma.
(Source: Surya Dharma)
nothing but bamboo furniture, another specialising in stone carving
(very few tourists go home with large stone carvings), yet another
devoted to pottery, and so on. Everywhere there is incessant new
One result is that Bali is losing irrigated rice land at an acceler-
ating rate. In the mid-1980s an Australian ecologist calculated that the
rate of loss was about one per cent a year, and it has certainly gone up
since then. The erosion of Bali’s agriculture is a symptom of either
economic success or overdependence on tourism, depending on how
you look at it. But it could, by contributing to uglification, damage the
very foundation on which tourism rests.
A related problem is water. Famous for its verdant, sculptured land-
scape, with rivulets trickling from every crevice, all artfully channelled
and managed, south Bali was saturated literally and spiritually with
water. But now the heavily urbanised south faces an imminent water
crisis. Badung, the district around Denpasar, will soon need to import
water from other districts. The subak societies, charged with managing
irrigation, are willy-nilly being drawn into disputes with city-dwellers
and businesses. In one recent case a group of subak in Badung cut off
water to a municipality because their farmer members did not have
enough to grow rice.
Bali’s uncontrolled development puts at risk a vital relationship
between culture, aesthetic appeal and natural surroundings. Aesthetic
appeal was and to a large extent remains the bedrock foundation of
Balinese tourism. As discussed earlier, the artists, social scientists and
globetrotters of the 1930s were attracted by a high culture, richly endowed
with artistic creativity, set in a magnificent rural setting. Although Bali-
nese culture derived from one of the great traditions of Asia, there was
nothing like it elsewhere. Early observers worried that the culture would
be destroyed by exposure to outside influence, but foresaw no threat to
the physical setting—what today we call the environment. It can now
be safely concluded that they had it pretty much backwards.
We cannot be absolutely sure that environmental degradation will
ruin Bali’s resort industry. Tourist motivations no doubt vary by nation-
ality and age. The Western aesthetes who dominated pre-war tourism
are now a minority. In 2001, Japanese were the most numerous foreign
tourists, followed in descending order by Australians, Taiwanese, British,
Germans and Americans. The Kuta surf-and-nightlife crowd is presum-
ably less interested in Balinese culture than is the educated, middle-aged
constituency staying at five-star hotels. Asians may be more partial than
Dutch to karaoke bars, and so on.
But in general, and despite all the uncertainties, it is safe to
conclude that Bali’s attraction will diminish if the island develops a
reputation for incipient physical ugliness. There are, after all, good
hotels, beaches, nightclubs and golf courses in many other places in
Asia and beyond. What Bali has that the others do not is the same
cultural and aesthetic heritage that first made it famous.
As this suggests, the island requires a determined, coherent land-
use regime. It would be based on the premise that the preservation of
Bali’s landscape, including its water resources, is a fundamental provin-
cial and national interest for long-term economic reasons. There are
plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world for land-use regimes of
this nature in areas of great historic or cultural interest. But on Bali
the only land-use rule which has been respected up to now is the old
one restricting the height of buildings to 15 metres, the approximate
height of a coconut palm.
Meanwhile, some of the rules that do exist are generally ignored.
Although it is still technically illegal for foreigners to own land on Bali,
the prohibition is widely circumvented by building houses and leasing
the land they stand on. According to one estimate there are now about
5000 expatriate landholders on Bali, and trendy expatriate bungalows
are all the rage in the prime scenic areas of the south.3
The cynical conclusion, which appears almost universal among
the Balinese, is that money can buy anything. That viewpoint is no
doubt exaggerated. There is evidence, for example, that Balinese
communities, acting at either the banjar or the customary village level,
can sometimes bring effective pressure to bear on local development
initiatives when they feel that customary law is being violated. In one
case in 1997, the governor of Bali, Ida Bagus Oka, withdrew his support
from a controversial coastal resort development in which his family had
interests after his own village threatened him with expulsion for trans-
gressing local custom.4
But the speed with which the overdevelopment problem has arisen,
plus the factionalism of Balinese society, has made concerted action
on a wider scale difficult. And, as anywhere else, Balinese elites are
divided between an intelligentsia which is becoming quite sensitive to
the dangers of uncontrolled physical development and a business
community more interested in making money.
Some Balinese—how many is not clear—will welcome the
proposed expansion of the Benoa port, or perhaps the construction of
a new port in north Bali which would require road links across the
already environmentally stressed interior of the island. Some may even
support the construction of a bridge to Java, announced in 2002 as an
objective by President Megawati, although the Kuta bombing (staged
from Java) will make many others think twice about it, and the current
governor of Bali is flatly against it. All these projects will be strongly
opposed by other Balinese on environmental grounds and as funda-
mental threats, not only to tourism, but to the island’s embattled identity
as a place of beauty.
An optimistic Balinese proponent of developmental moderation
told me it was like the classic battle between ‘good’ Pendawa and ‘evil’
Kurawa families in the Indian-origin Mahabharata epic, a mainstay of
the shadow puppet theatre repertory on both Java and Bali. The Kurawas
are more active, more numerous and have more physical assets. The
Pendawas are slower to mobilise, wiser and more subtle, and in the end
they win. Perhaps this is true, but time is running out.
The challenge of decentralisation
Until quite recently, critics often blamed Bali’s more controversial
tourism-related projects on the absence of democracy. As noted above,
under the Soeharto regime alliances between the first family, the mili-
tary and business interests, both foreign and domestic, were behind
many big hotel developments. They were not sensitive to popular
opinion. In the case of the Tanah Lot (Nirwana) project, for example,
it proved easy to stifle or ignore grassroots opposition.
Today the political process is very different. The provincial gover-
nor is indirectly elected by the provincial legislature (DPRD), although
he (or potentially she) is still subject to presidential confirmation. The
heads of the districts (kabupaten) are also indirectly elected by their
local assemblies. The provincial and district assemblies are elected by
popular vote, as is the national parliament. In 2004 Indonesia’s presi-
dent, until now chosen by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR),
will also for the first time be directly elected.
The system has many flaws, on Bali as elsewhere, but no one denies
that it is increasingly democratic. Thus far, however, the new provin-
cial democracy has had little visible impact on development issues.
Meanwhile Bali, along with the rest of the country, is faced with the
new and troubling challenge of decentralisation.
In 1999, Indonesia’s parliament passed decentralisation legislation
which gave great but ill-defined powers, as well as new financial
resources, to the country’s 357 district and city governments. In theory,
the powers devolved include all major categories except police, judi-
cial, monetary, religious, defence and foreign affairs. The law responded
to widespread agreement that a healthy democracy in Indonesia would
require the abandonment of the old, highly centralised system and a
greater degree of local participation.
Under the old system, provincial governors and regional military
commanders, both in fact responsible only to Jakarta, were the key
figures in local power structures. District heads were appointed, often
from the ranks of the military. But under the 1999 law, not yet fully
implemented, sweeping new powers would go directly to the districts,
and the 27 provinces would be largely bypassed.
Many observers immediately concluded that Jakarta was practis-
ing divide-and-rule tactics; it did not want to devolve power to the
provincial level because it feared this kind of decentralisation might
stimulate additional secessionist movements similar to those in Aceh
and Papua. Proponents of the reform countered that most of the provinces
are artificial creations without ethnic or historic rationale, and that the
districts and cities are therefore a sounder basis for local autonomy.
Because the powers being transferred have not yet been well
defined, decentralisation has led to considerable confusion. Some
districts aggressively seized the initiative, going so far as to impose new
taxes on inter-district commerce or to claim control over maritime
traffic. Confusion or not, two-thirds of the national civil servants
formerly paid by Jakarta have already become the responsibility of the
districts and cities.5 Since 2001 the districts have received cash subsidies
from Jakarta to cope with this new responsibility, but they predictably
complain that the money is not sufficient.
Everyone agrees that it will be a long time before the districts have
the necessary expertise to cope with their new authority, however it
may eventually be defined. The government of Megawati Sukarno-
putri, which took office in 2001, has added to the confusion by signalling
that it will be less enthusiastic than its predecessor about giving away
central authority and by launching a very slow review of the entire
Decentralisation is particularly interesting in Bali because its nine
districts are for the most part identical to the nine traditional kingdoms.
(Denpasar, once the capital of Badung, now has separate status as a
municipality.) This might raise the spectre of resurgent dynastic rivalry
were it not for the fact that historically the most lethal Balinese faction-
alism rarely coincided with the chronically unstable kingdoms, but
was manifested at lower levels of the political process.
Some of the poorer districts—those with minimal returns from
the tourist bonanza—quickly saw decentralisation as an opportunity to
make up for lost time. The district head of Buleleng, for example,
announced plans for an exclusive resort and a cable car in the middle
of the island, near Buleleng’s border with Tabanan.
Cynics may wonder whether chaotic competition among districts
could be any more damaging to the island’s environment than what is
already happening in south Bali. But most Balinese seem convinced
that regardless of the track record to date, the small island needs
an integrated planning capability, not nine rival jurisdictions each
out to maximise its own benefit. The governor has pointed out that
many issues are not amenable to district-level control, one example
being the administration of the mother temple, Besakih, which
serves all Balinese. He has created a unit to refine a provincial policy
on decentralisation. Jakarta has asked all the provinces to submit recom-
mendations and the provincial government of Bali hopes that it will
be able to persuade Jakarta to give it the coordinating authority it needs.
Up to this writing, many Balinese have remained dubious about
the whole thing. ‘Let’s not have a policy that will hurt the Balinese
people,’ remarked one.6 Another commented, ‘Suddenly, local officials
feel they have new power and authority to do whatever they want.
Small-scale tyrants are everywhere.’7 Bali is hardly anticipating either
economic ruin or civil war as a result of decentralisation, if and when
it is fully implemented. But the outcome of the undertaking may deter-
mine whether the island can manage its challenging environmental and
social agenda in the years ahead.
As this is written, the island province of Bali stands as an economic
and political success story. It has found a significant place in the dis-
orderly, democratic Indonesia of 2003. Tourism and its spin-offs have
made the province relatively prosperous compared to many others. Bali’s
economy expanded robustly in the 1970s and ’80s and for much of this
period its growth was almost 10 per cent a year, 2 percentage points
higher than the national economy.8 The growth rate slowed in the down-
turn of 1997–98, and Bali remains far from wealthy in absolute terms.
There are still many very poor people, tourism revenue is concentrated
in the south, and the growth process has increased the gap between
relatively rich and relatively poor.
Nevertheless, and not withstanding the need for better environ-
mental policy, it is unlikely that many Balinese would want to turn the
clock back to the overcrowded, underfed agrarian blind alley of the past.
They are in general fiercely proud of what they have accomplished,
viewing their progress as primarily the result of their own hard work,
whatever the role of outside capital and national policy may have been.
Individual Balinese are playing a vigorous role in the Indonesian
state. They have a higher percentage of positions in the military than
their share, less than two per cent, of the national population. They
continue to succeed as officials, businessmen and artists in the broader
national context. From an Indonesian perspective, Bali remains a source
of pride both as a lucrative source of foreign exchange and as a show-
case of Indonesian culture.
The Balinese are not too worried about being a Hindu island in
a sea of resurgent Islam. They realise, as foreign observers often do not,
that their Hindu-animist culture may be closer to the syncretic brand
of Islam espoused by most Javanese, hence by most Indonesians, than
is the fundamentalist, jihad-prone variety professed by an extremist
minority. In other words, the Balinese are more in tune with the polit-
ical and cultural mainstream of Indonesia than religious nomenclature
suggests. They sense that Megawati Sukarnoputri is their kind of Muslim,
just as her late father was. Of course they were traumatised by the Kuta
terrorism, but they also realise, cold comfort though it may be, that the
problem is indeed worldwide.
For more than 70 years, outsiders have been warning that Bali is
on the verge of ruin, one way or another. It still isn’t true. The envi-
ronmental problems are serious, but by no means beyond the capacity
of the island’s talented population to solve. Hopefully the Balinese will
use their new, as-yet evolving democratic institutions to do so. The
threat of terrorism, which emerged so tragically on 12 October 2002,
will have to be addressed primarily at the national level, but the Bali-
nese have already demonstrated that there is much they themselves can
do at the local level.
Terrorism aside, today’s challenges are after all the side-effects of
an economic success which would have amazed and perhaps even
pleased the pessimists of yesteryear. None of the environmental and
land-use issues are unique to Bali. They are for the most part variations
on a global challenge: how to achieve sustainable development, defined
as using natural resources without destroying them and thereby denying
future generations the opportunity to do the same.
Bali’s economic resource base happens to be dominated to an
unusual degree by cultural and aesthetic content. But the beauty and
creativity which have made the island famous depend as never before
on a carefully nurtured environmental foundation. Creating public
policy and private investment based on that premise is easy to propose,
but extremely difficult to implement. It is without doubt the greatest
challenge facing Bali today.
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS
What conclusions can be drawn from the history of Bali? What is
unusual, what worth remembering about this one province of a far-flung
island republic? What are the most important themes in Bali’s history?
What are the issues which, if better understood by a new generation,
might help them to deal with the future?
Bali’s history has its share of intriguing questions and ‘what ifs’,
and a number relate to the pre-colonial period, where evidence is often
very thin. One of them is the reason for the survival of Balinese
Hinduism. As discussed in Chapter 3, the conventional explanation is
not, in my view, persuasive.
Another durable riddle is the radical divergence between the char-
acters of Javanese and Balinese culture, especially in matters of aesthetics
and organisational behaviour. Again in my view, history does not shed
any more light on this subject than it does on the stylistic differences
between the French, the Italians and the English, but the subject needs
More recently, Bali has been fortunate at a number of key points.
Freedom from direct European control in the seventeenth and eigh-
teenth centuries spared Bali the worst excesses of colonialism and shaped
its subsequent development. Bali is lucky to have possessed no spices,
no precious minerals, no wide expanses of land suitable for plantation
agriculture, or other enticements which might have drawn the Dutch
in sooner, and with heavier hands.
The delayed arrival of colonialism meant that it came to Bali with
a guilty conscience, in the form of a local variation of the Indonesia-
wide Ethical Policy. On balance, its positive aspects outweighed its
considerable failings. The Dutch have not often received high marks
for their governance in the Indies, but their policy of protecting Bali
from disruptive intrusion, including large-scale European investment
and missionary activity, was preferable in hindsight to any conceivable
alternatives. Like other colonial powers, the Dutch were parsimonious
with social services, including health and education, yet what they did
provide became the basis for independence. The central paradox of
Dutch rule was that in their eagerness to preserve, they were sometimes
driven to invent what they concluded ought to have existed. In so doing,
they ended up making significant and sometimes unfortunate changes.
From the vantage point of 2002, their ‘reform’ and strengthening of the
caste system is probably the most important example.
Partly because of fortuitous timing and colonial restraint, Balinese
civilisation came to be recognised as something special, a kind of hot
spot in the world’s cultural landscape. The Western artists and social
scientists who visited between the two world wars publicised this
heritage, and it rapidly emerged as Bali’s most important economic asset
as well. Nothing similar happened in other parts of Indonesia and there
are few parallels elsewhere in the world. As a result, physical moderni-
sation has paradoxically imperilled the basis of the modern Balinese
economy, while the rapid pace of change is making rational responses
to developmental and environmental policy issues particularly difficult,
Bali has been a success story in the Republic of Indonesia at many
levels. All Indonesian governments have regarded Bali with pride as a
showcase of national culture. Relations between Denpasar and Jakarta
have been correct if not always cordial both before the development of
tourism, when the island was a financial liability, and more recently,
when it has been an asset to the centre. It is true that since independ-
ence Bali, until recently, has had little control of its own destiny, yet
at no time have there been symptoms of severe unrest, much less of
From a political perspective, Balinese culture seems almost a mixed
blessing. It combines cohesiveness with divisiveness, a passion for status
with a yen for democracy, sparkling humour with morbid fear—the list
of apparently contradictory traits could be extended. But one thing is
certain—the Balinese sense of pride in being Balinese is very strong,
and all the overblown rhetoric about Balinese creativity should not
obscure its reality. This creativity will continue to be a tremendous asset
in dealing with future challenges of all kinds.
The Balinese are passionately interested in their own history insofar
as it affects personal or community status and power. It is not clear
whether beyond academia they are especially interested in history as a
source of social truth or as a guide to future policy, in Santayana’s sense
that ignorance of history dooms us to repetition of past mistakes. Like
everyone else, the Balinese people would profit from more attention of
this kind to history. As a case in point, it seems high time to deflate the
mythology of Majapahit origins, which does no justice at all to the first
half millennium of Balinese history, functions as a defence of the caste
system, and is therefore a source of considerable antagonism.
Caste itself remains a big problem, as the Balinese are well aware.
Perhaps the time will come when they find another way of measuring
personal status, as all people do in one way or another, and modify or
abandon the misleading terminology of caste. Although Bali’s past is
full of unanswered questions, it seems clear from the historical record
that the modern caste system is largely a product of colonial rule. If so,
there is little reason to preserve it in the name of tradition.
Another area that needs more attention is the study of the earli-
est periods, prehistory and Old Bali (the term I have used to cover events
from the adoption of Indian religion to the Majapahit conquest). There
is plenty of talent available on Bali and elsewhere to pursue more
research in these fields, but few people recognise their importance and
there is accordingly little money available. A better understanding of
their ancient past would help the Balinese sort through the problems
that beset them today. Aside from that, the history of the Old Bali king-
doms is fascinating in its own right, and has been unduly neglected since
the departure of the Dutch.
The bloody events of 1965–66 remain unsettling to many Balinese,
with reason. Although there is growing interest in analysis of the killings
and some relevant research is underway, it is still difficult to penetrate
the phobias that surround this subject. It is to be hoped that the neces-
sary work can be done before those who were present are all deceased.
Better understanding could help dispel the perverse notion that such
violence is somehow inherent in Balinese character and that it is likely
to resurface in the absence of strong authoritarian government.
The Balinese have recently been handed a hot potato in the form
of an ill-defined decentralisation policy. On Bali as elsewhere in Indone-
sia, empowering local jurisdictions seems essential to achieve sustainable
democracy, but devolving authority to the level of the old kingdoms
may not be prudent given the urgent need for harmonisation of land-
use issues on this small island. Some degree of provincial authority will
be essential, whether it is proffered by Jakarta or, more likely, must be
elaborated by the Balinese themselves. Perhaps the issue will have been
solved by the time this book is published, but that seems unlikely.
Few Balinese seem to have much patience with the foreign
penchant for discussing Bali in sweeping terms—has it been spoiled, or
worse, and so on. What does interest them, and what they debate
endlessly among themselves, is the kind of modulated change which
will be necessary to allow cultural requirements and the demands of
modern life to coexist. At times it almost seems as if the Balinese are
unaware that they are not the only ones faced with conflict between
tradition and modernisation, made more acute when tradition has ongoing economic value. The same dilemma is, for example, faced in
many areas of Europe, where tourism is equally dependent on careful
management of aesthetic and environmental capital. While few solu-
tions are perfect, and none are easy, there is ample evidence elsewhere
that such challenges can be met and mastered, with adequate attention
to the well-being of future generations.
Terrorism has now cast another shadow over Bali’s future. Yet there
is every reason to believe that the Balinese will be able to surmount this
challenge, much as New Yorkers and others are doing. For outsiders,
Bali will remain a literally wonder-full place to experience. But it can
only be appreciated, not as a false paradise, but as one particularly fasci-
nating example of humans struggling to maintain a unique heritage
while deriving advantage from what the world has to offer.