Although there are no artifacts or records dating back to the Stone Age, it is believed that the first settlers in Bali migrated from China around 2,500 BC, and by the Bronze era, around 300 BC, quite an evolved culture existed in Bali. The complex system of irrigation and rice production, still in use today, was established around this time.
History is vague for the first few centuries. A number of Hindu artifacts were been found dating back to the 1st century (AD), which suggests that the main religion, around 500 AD, was predominantly Buddhist.
It wasn’t until the 11th century that Bali received the first strong influx of Hindu and Javanese cultures. With the death of his father around AD 1,011, Airlanggha, a Balinese prince, moved to east Java and set about creating unity. Having succeeded, he then appointed his brother, Anak Wungsu, as ruler of Bali. During the ensuing period there was a reciprocation of political and artistic ideas, and the old Javanese language, Kawi, became the language used by the aristocracy.
With the death of Airlanggha, in the middle of the 11th century, Bali enjoyed a period of autonomy. This proved to be short lived as in 1284, the East Javanese king Kertanegara, conquered Bali and ruled over it from Java. In 1292, Kertanegara was murdered and Bali took the opportunity to liberate itself once again. However, in 1343, Bali was brought back under Javanese control by its defeat at the hands of Gajah Mada , a general in the Majapahit, the last of the great Hindu-Javanese empires.
With the arrival of Islam in neighboring Java during the 15th century, a large number of courtiers, artists, musicians and craftsmen fled to Bali. As such, the Balinese have always been creative.
With the spread of Islam throughout Sumatra and Java during the 16th century, the Majapahit empire began to collapse and a large exodus of the aristocracy, priest, artists, and artisans fled to Bali. For a while Bali flourished and the following centuries were considered the Golden Age of Bali’s cultural history. The principality of Gelgel, near Klungkung, became a major canter for the Arts, and Bali became the major power of the region, taking control of the neighboring island of Lombok and parts of East Java.
The European Influence
The first Dutch seamen set foot on Bali in 1597, yet it wasn’t until the 1800’s that the Dutch showed an interest in colonizing the island. In 1864, having had large areas of Indonesia under their control since 1700’s, the Dutch government sent the troops to northern Bali. In 1894, the Dutch sided with the Sasak people of Lombok to defeat their Balinese rulers. By 1911, all the Balinese principalities had been defeated in battle, leaving the whole island under Dutch control. After World War I, Indonesian Nationalist sentiment was rising and in 1928, Bahasa Indonesia was declared the official national language.
Life in bali is very communal with the organization of villages, farming and even the creative arts being decided by the community. The local government is responsible for schools, clinics, hospitals and roads, but all other aspects of life are placed in the hands of two traditional committees, whose roots in Balinese culture stretch back centuries. The first, Subak, concerns the production of rice and organizes the complex irrigation system. Everyone who owns a sawah, or padi field, must join their local Subak, which then ensures that every member gets his fair distribution of irrigation water. Traditionally, the head of the Subak has his sawah at the very bottom of the hill, so that the water has to pass through every other sawah before reaching his own.
The other community organization is the Banjar, which arranges all village festivals, marriage ceremonies and cremations, as well as a form of community service known as Gotong Royong. Most villages have at least one Banjar and all males have to join one when they marry. Banjars, on average, have a membership of between 50 to 100 families and each Banjar has its own meeting place called the Bale Banjar. As well as being used for regular meetings, the Bale (pavilion) is where the local gamelan orchestras and drama groups practice.
The Balinese are Hindu yet their religion is very different from that of the Indian variety. There is a caste system, but there are no “untouchables” and occupation is not governed by caste. In fact, the only thing that reflects the caste system is the language which has three tiers; 95% of all Balinese are Hindu Dharma, and speak Low or Everyday Balinese with each other; Middle Balinese is used for talking to strangers, at formal occasions or to people of the higher Ksatriya caste; High Balinese is used when talking to the highest class, the Brahmana, or to a pedanda (priest). It may sound complicated, but most of the words at the low and medium levels are the same, whereas High Balinese is a mixture of Middle Balinese and Kawi, an ancient Javanese language.
The main religion is Agama Hindu Dharma, which arrived in Bali with the spread of Hinduism via Sumatra and Java during the 11th century. Although originally from India, the Balinese religion is a unique blend of Hindu, Buddhist, Javanese and ancient indigenous beliefs, with customs that are very different from the traditional form of Hinduism practiced in India today.
The Balinese worship Brahmana, Shiva and Vishnu, who are seen as manifestations of the Supreme God Sanghyang Widhi. Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) is also visible, but more commonly, one will see shrines to the many gods and spirits that are uniquely Balinese. The Balinese believe strongly in magic and the power of spirits and much of the religion is based upon this. There is a belief that good spirits dwell in the mountains and that the seas are home to demons and ogres.
Most villages have at least three main temples; one, the Pura Puseh or “temple of origin”, faces the mountains and is dedicated to the village founders, another, the Pura Desa or village temple, is normally found in the centre and is dedicated to the welfare of the village, the last, the Pura Dalem, is aligned with the sea and is dedicated to the spirits of the dead. Aside from these “village” temples, almost every house has its own shrine and you can also find monuments dedicated to the spirits of agriculture, art and all other aspects of life. Some temples, Pura Besakih for example, on the slope of Mount Agung, are considered especially important and people from all over Bali travel to worship there.
“Offerings” play a significant role in Balinese life as they appease the spirits and thus bring prosperity and good health to the family. Everyday small offering trays (canang sari) containing symbolic food, flowers, cigarettes and money, are placed on shrines, in temples, outside houses and shops, and even at dangerous crossroads.
Festivals are another great occasion for appeasing the gods, where woman bear huge, beautifully arranged, pyramids of food, fruit and flowers on their heads. There are traditional dances and music and the gods are invited to come down to join in the festivities. There are many festivals that are well worth observing.
Dance & Drama
Dance and drama have historically played an important role in Balinese society. Through this medium, people learned about the tales of the Ramayana, Mahabarata, and other epic stories from Balinese history. The following are brief descriptions of some of the better known dance-dreams that are performed regularly on Bali.
This is a warrior’s dance. It is usually performed by men, either solo or in group of five or more . The dancers try to portray the full range of emotions displayed by a warrior, such as anger, courage, ferocity and passion. It is a dance that requires great skill, with the artist having to display the whole range of inner emotions, mainly through facial expressions.
Barong & Rangda
This is basically a story about the struggle between good and evil. Good is personified by the Barong Keket, a strange, fun-loving creature in the shape of a shaggy semi-lion, and evil is represented by Rangda, a witch. Ultimately, the two characters engage in battle, at which point the Barong’s keris bearing followers rush in to attack Rangda. The witch, however, uses her magical powers to turn the keris knives in upon their owner’s, who fall into a trance and begin to stab themselves. The Barong uses magic to protect his followers from the knives. In the end, the Barong triumphs and Rangda retreats to recuperate her strength for the next encounter. The Barong and Rangda dance is a very powerful performance and is not taken lightly by those involved, nor should it be by those in the audience.
The Kecak, as a dance, developed in the 1930’s, in the village of Bona, where it is still performed regularly. The theme is taken the Ramayana and tells the story of Rama, who, with the help of the monkey army, tries to rescue his wife from the clutches of (the evil) King Rawana. This is a very exiting dance to watch, and is performed by a large group of chanting men sitting in a circle, chanting & waving their arms and swaying to and fro in unison.
This dance tells the story of Princess Rangkesari who is held captive against her will by King Lakesmi. Rangkesari’s brother, Prince Daha, gathers an army together to rescue his sister. Princess Rangkesari then tries to persuade Lakesmi to let her go to avoid a war, but he denies her her freedom. On his way to battle, Daha is attacked by a raven (a bad omen), and is later killed in battle. The dance only takes the story up to the point where the king departs for battle, and it is performed by three people, two ‘Legongs’ and their attendant, the ‘Condong’. The Legong is a classical and graceful dance, and is always performed by prepubescent girls, often as young as eight or nine years old.
Sanghyang Trance Dances
The Sanghyang is the force that enters the bodies of the entranced dancer. There are a number of Sanghyang dances, but the most common are the Sanghyang Dedari and the Sanghyang Jaran. The Sanghyang Dedari is performed by two girls, and is very similar in style to the Legong; the main difference is that the Sanghyang Dedari girls are supposedly untrained and can keep in perfect time with each other, even though their eyes are firmly shut. The accompanying music is provided by a female choir and a male Kecak choir. In the Sanghyang Jaran, a boy dances around and through a fire, riding a coconut palm hobbyhorse. This is frequently called the “Fire Dance”, for the sake of tourists. In both dances, a priest is always on hand to help bring the dancers out of their trance-state at the end of the performance.
Topeng (Mask) Dances
In Bali, masks are considered sacred objects and are revered as such. The best ones are traditionally carved on auspicious days and the dancers who wear them are believed to be possessed by the spirits of the masks. Characters can be identified from the shape of the features; noble characters always wear full, refined masks; while evil is represented by bulging eyes and garish colours. The characters are silent, but communicate using complex gestures of the hand, head and body. The story lines usually follow popular myths, or episodes from history.
Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppet)
Wayang Kulit is one of the great storytelling traditions of the Javanese and Balinese. The Wayang show normally consists of a small 4 piece orchestra, which provides the musical accompaniment, to around 60 ‘puppets’ carved out of flat pieces of water buffalo hide and the Dalang (puppet master.) The Dalang has to be both incredibly skilled, as well as knowledgeable, and he not only manipulates all the puppets, but also provides a different ‘voice’ for each one. Good characters normally speak in ancient ‘Kawi’ and the evil or coarse characters speak Balinese. The Dalang, must be fluent in both languages.