Tuesday, February 2, 2010

About Bali

More than four thousand years ago, Bali was an emerald green, tropical rain forest covered island. The first wave of human arrivals from across the seas brought with them techniques for rice cultivation, new languages and new customs. These early immigrants and others who followed over the years helped to create a haven, providing today's visitors with a wealth of sights and sounds, dances, music, arts and crafts.

The Island of the Gods is situated approximately on latitude 8o South and longitude 115o East. Bali and the neighboring island of Lombok are the most westerly of the Little Sunda Islands, and part of the 13,700 islands that make up Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world.
The so-called Wallace Line that runs between the island and Lombok serves as the boundary between Asia and Australia, thus naturally separating the flora and fauna between the Sunda Shelf from the Sahul Shelf (to which Australia belongs). To the east lies the island of Java, which once was joined to Bali.

While little is known about the Stone Age people who first settled on the island, the Bronze Age people left a more lasting legacy. The Dong Son culture with its highly developed techniques of casting bronze objects flourished in Bali. The largest of the mysterious bronze rain drums, found in several Southeast Asian countries as well, was cast in Bali. Considered a sacred object, it is worshipped by the Balinese in the Pura Penataran Sasih Temple in Pejeng. It is said to be wheel that fell off the chariot of the goddess of the moon.

The Bronze Age people, who had a highly sophisticated art of casting bronze objects, also knew the techniques of dry rice cultivation and the art of weaving. Later waves of migrants, Malays mainly, brought with them the secret of wet rice cultivation that increase yields several fold. It began the transformation of Bali into a complex system of irrigation that would provide the water for the rice terraces. Rice then became the stuff of life and the measure of wealth.

Kingdoms began to flourish based on this wealth, with all playing homage to the pre-Hindu form of Dewi Sri, the beloved goddess of rice, represented in the ancient form of the chili motif found to this day in offerings.
Hinduism was introduced into Bali by the Brahmin priests in the 1st Century AD. These priests traveled along with the Indian merchants who were seeking the fabulous wealth of islands in this region. Hinduism caught on in Bali because it received the patronage of the kings. Buddhism to was accepted and both religions would be blended with elements of the old animistic faith. Throughout Bali, remains of these early independent kingdoms have been found attesting to their early practices and beliefs.

Of the many tales of old, one tells of a legendary evil king with a pig's head name Beda Ulu, the same name given to the present-day village of Bedulu, the site of his capital. Another relates to a giant Kebo Iwa, who is said to have carved many caves with his fingernails. These tales continue to be told to this day by the older folk.

Yet it was Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism that attained the dominant position in the Balinese way of life. Even the inscriptions left by the early kingdoms, were in the form and language of ancient India. Later monuments used a combination of the Indian and the Balinese languages.

Close to Bedulu stands the Goa Gajah (Elephant Caves), a religious complex that blends both the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Inside this complex there is a cave for meditation with three sets of lingga (phalluses) of Siva, a holy bathing pool and a sculpture of Hariti, the Buddhist deity.
Several other monuments still stand as testimony to a glorious past in Bali's history. Gunung Kawi or Poet's Mountain houses several 11th century royal tombs. The list would seem endless for the student of early Balinese history and just as fascinating for the modern day traveler.

But by the 12th century, this glorious period would come to an end with the invading armies of the Majapahit Empire and their brilliant General Gadjah Mada. Bali would become an important province of this East Java kingdom that became one of the most powerful empires in this part of the world.

It is said that Hindu Majapahit Empire gave Bali the form and structure that stands to this day. The caste system, rules and rituals, art and temple architecture were all passed on from this powerful empire. But Islam began to gain a foothold in the region in the 15th century, much of the strong links with India were broken. Even the mighty Majapahit would crumble by the 16th century and many Javanese nobility moved to Bali, the last stronghold of Hinduism, taking with them their courtly rituals and practices.


Left on its own, Bali would return to its animistic past. But this was the period when gamelan, dance, drama and the shadow puppet theatre would develop and flourish. It was also a time of profound change, for not only would there be the rise of Islam but the first westerners were beginning to appear. The Dutch admiral, Cornelious Houtman arrived off the coast of Bali in 1598 to a friendly welcome by Watu Renggong who was king of a united Bali. Encouraged by this gesture, the Dutch named the island New Holland and their influence grew over the archipelago. But with the death of Watu Renggong, the other rulers would rule independently while still paying homage to the Dewa Agung - the honorary title of the Raja of Klungkung. The rulers would often engage in bloody warfare, and a period of conflict took hold.

This would change in the 19th century when the Dutch began to consolidate their hold on the various regions of their domination. The Balinese were a thorn in Dutch ambitions, as they seemed to enjoy a measure of independence and prosperity. In the 1840s, the Dutch mounted three wars to gain control over northern Bali. They succeeded only because other rulers in Bali sought Dutch aid for their own gains.

There were local heroes like Gusti Djelantik, who managed defeat the Westerners on one occasion in a brilliant move by feigning retreat, only to lead his army now brimming with over confidence, over the hills of Jagaraga in the north where they were ambushed. The ill equipped local forces were often easily outgunned by the Dutch with their modern weaponry.

The Dutch launched several ruthless campaigns in the archipelago, and it seemed the brunt of it were aimed at the Balinese. This response in Bali was typical. Local kings led their followers in puputan ("ending") in which all were given the rites of the dead and then marched out to be mowed down by Dutch gunfire. Those who were still standing were cut down by their own followers, thus ensuring their heavenly path to the glorious paradise of their illustrious ancestors.

The puputan happened between 1906 and 1908 when the kings of Denpasar and Klungkung chose this path rather than surrender. Thus the Dutch gained complete control over the island and imposed their brand of colonialism, which even included slavery and forced labor. But with the colonial power in firm control, the first waves of tourist began to "discover" the island.

Soon the world would hear of Bali, the islands of Gods, dance and drama. Thousands would descend on the island in search of the bronze drums and bare breasted beauties, and several would make their homes here, or take back with them some exotic object to adorn their own homes in the west. Even the local royalty would get into the act, competing among themselves to hire out automobiles and even their princely homes. Home stay was here to stay.

Of the many westerners who fell to the charms of Bali, perhaps the most famous was Walter Spies, the German painter who left legacy for all to see. Art and crafts were given new life catering to the needs of the tourists. This was a Golden Era in Bali's annals. Moviemakers would immortalize the isle, while books would capture forever the charms and life style of the Balinese.

But in the 20th century Bali would also suffer the ravages of disasters; an earthquake and the eruption of Mount Batur in 1917 caused the loss of human life and untold suffering, then the island was hit by the Great Depression. Yet Bali remained in the minds of the most as the holiday island and almost every tourist fell in love with it.

Even the Japanese occupation was only a temporary obstacle, for slowly after the end of the Second World War, Soekarno, who was part Balinese, would declare Indonesia an independent nation and with it Bali gained its freedom forever.

The early days after the 1945 Declaration of Independence was tough of the islanders as with the rest of the nation. But independent Indonesia was a reality and the fledgling nation set its own course. Tougher times lay ahead when in the 1960s the island would suffer a famine, and first known eruption of the holy mountain, Mount Agung. Then as Balinese society itself was deeply divided between political ideologies and patronage, thousands suffered on the island, until the New Order Government, led by President Soeharto restored peace and gave the nation a new direction.

Tourist hotels, in the meantime, had sprung up in several parts of the island. The tourism industry was flourishing soon to gain the status of being among the top foreign exchange earners for the country. Almost every major hotel chain in the world is now represented in the island. The dream or turning Bali into a tourist haven has now become a reality. While the early attractions were mostly around Sanur and Ubud, the planned Nusa Dua complex and even Kuta Beach, which was unplanned, have become the major centers of tourist interest.

In Kuta, the hippies and the backpackers led to its rapid growth, and even to this day remains the place where you will find the true holidaymaker. But Bali offers much more for those who really want to spend time savoring a lifestyle, tradition, friendliness and inspiration. Head out to Ubud to immerse in the arts and crafts, to Batubulan for stone carvings, to Mas for silver and gold, to Tenganan for the geringsing cloth. You could spend a lifetime here and yet discover some place new, something that you missed. This is the charm and beauty of Bali. Arrive on its shores and be prepared to be swept off your feet.