The captivating history of Bali

The paradisiac and culturally advanced island of Bali has been inhabited for a long time. Sembiran, a village in northern Bali, is believed to have been the home of the Stone Age people, proven by the discovery of stone axes and adzes. Further discoveries of more sophisticated stone tools, agricultural techniques, and basic pottery at Cekik in Bali’s far west, point to the people of the Neolithic era. At Cekik, there is evidence of a settlement together with burial sites of around one hundred people believed to be from the Neolithic through to the Bronze Age. The massive drums of the Bronze Age, together with their stone molds, have been discovered throughout the Indonesian archipelago, including the most famous and largest drum in Southeast Asia, the Moon of Pejeng, nearly two meters wide, now housed in a temple east of Ubud. In East Java and Bali, there has also been a concentration of carved stone sarcophagi, which can now be seen in the Bali Museum in Denpasar and the Purbakala Museum in Pejeng.

Bali was busy with trade from as early as 200 BC. The prasasti, stone or metal inscriptions, which are Bali’s earliest written records from the ninth century AD, show a significant Buddhist and Hindu influence, especially in the statues, bronzes and rock-cut caves around the monument of Gunung Kawi and the Goa Gajah Cave. Balinese society was relatively sophisticated around 900 AD. The marriage portrait of the marriage between Balinese King Udayana and East Java’s Princess Mahendratta is captured in a stone carving in the Pura Tegeh Koripan temple in the Batur area. Their son, Erlangga, born around 991 AD, later succeeded to the throne of the Javanese kingdom and united Java and Bali until his death in 1049. His younger brother Anak Wungsu ruled Bali.

In 1284 Bali was conquered by Kertanegara, the ruler of the Singasari kingdom in East Java, until the turn of the century. Bali was under its own rule under the hands of the king of Bedahulu east of Ubud. The year 1343 AD is an important date in Balinese history as the whole island was conquered by East Java under the mighty Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom. This resulted in massive changes in Balinese society, including the introduction of the caste system.

Balinese who did not embrace the changes moved to the isolated and remote mountain and hill areas. Their descendants are known today as the Bali Aga or Bali Mula meaning the “original Balinese”. They still live separately in villages like Tenganan near Candi Dasa and Trunyan on the shores of lake Danau Batur and maintain their ancient laws and traditional ways. When Majapahit in East Java fell in 1515 and the many small Islamic kingdoms on the island merged into the Islamic Mataram empire, Majapahit’s most dedicated Hindu priests, craftsmen, soldiers, nobles, and artists migrated to Bali and flooded the island with Javanese culture and Hindu-Buddhist practices. Considering the huge influence and power of Islam at the time, it is worth pondering why and how Bali remained strong Hindu and Buddhist believers.

Batu Renggong, also known as Dewa Agung which means “Great Lord”, became king in 1550, and this title became hereditary through the succeeding generations of the kingdom of Gelgel, and later Klungkung, until the twentieth century. Bali reached the pinnacle of its Golden Era under the reign of the Batu Renggong, the great god ruler. Bali’s decline started when Batu Renggong’s grandson, Di Made Bekung, lost Blambangan in East Java, Lombok and Sumbawa. Di Made Bekung’s chief minister, Gusti Agung Maruti, eventually rebelled and reigned from 1650 to 1686, when he in turn was killed by Di Made Beking’s son, Dewa Agung Jambe, who then moved the court to Klungkung and named his new palace Semarapura, the Abode of the God of Love.