Bali is home to about 3.2 million people. About 95 percent are Balinese. The other five percent are Chinese, Muslims and other minorities. About 80 percent of the island's population live in the southern part of the Bali. Much of the western part of Bali is uninhabited jungle, where tigers lived until the 1940s.

Bali has long enjoyed the reputation of being an enchanting place where everyone seemed to be an artist, everyday was a festival, fruit and flowers grew in abundance, and gentle heavily-made-up little girls perform mystical dances. In the minds of many people minds Bali is as close to paradise as you can get. It has beautiful scenery: temples, rice terraces, beaches, volcanos and beautiful villages placed among lush vegetation. For better or worse these things have been exploited by the tourism industry. In recent years Bali has suffered from its reputation..Many places have became crowded, overdeveloped and spoiled. The nice places are increasingly becoming fancy resorts accessible to rich. While the places accessible to everyone else have become congested and touristy.

Bali was colonized by Hindu invaders in the 9th century and unlike most of the rest of Indonesia the island refused to bow to Islam when it arrived several centuries later. Bali is the only Hindu island in Indonesia and contains one of the largest concentration of Hindu people outside of India. Balinese Hinduism incorporates elements of animism and ancestor worship, draws few distinction between secular, religious and super natural life; and makes no real distinction between the living and dead. The arts are held in high esteem. Artist include painters, woodcarvers and basket makers. One thing you see everywhere are wonderfully carved and colored wooden flowers. The Balinese are regarded as warm, mellow and fun loving.

Bali is a relatively small, diamond-shaped island. It covers only 5,580 square kilometers and measures 140 kilometers across from east to west, and 80 kilometers from north to south. No part of the island is more than 30 kilometers from the sea. The inhabited areas are mostly in the south and east. The landscape includes large volcanos and dense forests in the north and a coastal plain in the south. In between are steep ridges and ravines covered with "cascades of rice terraces" and rimmed by coconut palms, bamboo and banana trees. Most of the western part of the island is forest, where tigers used to live. Bali’s central mountains chain contains several peaks over 2000 meters and many active volcanos. Mt. Agung volcano dominates the north part of the island. The volcanos produce nourishing volcanic soil and the mountains block clouds, bringing lots of rain.

Bali is located just 8 degrees south of the Equator. The climate is nearly the same the year round. The temperature averages around 28 degrees C and the same amount of rain falls nearly every month. Humidity rises during the day and drops of at night. The air temperature is most delightful in the cool mornings and evenings. On Bali, the rainy season is between October and March; the dry season between April and September. The high season for tourists is July and August. The temperatures this time of the year are slightly cooler than the rest of the year and there are refreshing breezes coming off the sea. The low season is in the winter when the weather can be a little muggy, hot and rainy.

Books: Island of Bali by Miguel Covarrubias (1937) is regarded as the classic from the period when Bali was discovered by the rich and famous. There are multitude of other books, many of them dealing with Balinese arts and culture. Margaret Mead spent some time in Bali in the 1930s. She learned the language, listened to folk tales and myths and wrote a book called Balinese Character with her husband Gregory Bateson.

Early History of Bali

Though no artifacts or records exist that would date Bali as far back as the Stone Age, it is thought that the very first settlers to Bali emigrated from China in 2500 B.C., having created quite the evolved culture by the Bronze era, in around 300 B.C. This culture included a complex, effective irrigation system, as well as agriculture of rice, which is still used to this day. Bali’s history remained vague for the first few centuries, though many Hindu artifacts have been found, which lead back to the first century, indicating a tie with that religion. Though it is strongly held that the first primary religion of Bali, discovered as far back as A.D. 500 was Buddhism. Additionally, Yi-Tsing, a Chinese scholar who visited Bali in the year A.D. 670 stated that he had visited this place and seen Buddhism there.

The earliest evidence of human habitation of Bali are some 3000-year-old stone tools and earthenware vessels from Cekik.. The earliest people in Bali likely practiced some form of animism (belief in spirits). Buddhism and Hinduism arrived via Java. The oldest writing found in Bali are stone inscriptions that date to the 9th century. By that time rice was being extensively grow under the subak system. From what can be ascertained from archeological, literary and oral evidence, the indigenous people of Bali came into increasing contact with people from Java around the A.D. 5th century and were influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist religions found there but also by the language and political traditions associated with them. It is not known whether people that introduced these traditions were Indians or Javanese or both.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Ancient megalithic ritual sites bear witness to the long history of this island, although they have been covered over by later terraced rice fields and villages. Archaeological finds include bronze artefacts from before the present era. A large bronze drum or kettle gong called “The Moon of Pejeng”, stored in a temple in the small village of Pejeng, indicates contacts with the Dong-son bronze culture, which spread from Southern China to South-East Asia in the first millennium B.C. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

In the early centuries A.D. Bali gradually came under the strong influence of the Indianised Hindu-Buddhist culture. Bali was also influenced from time to time by Chinese culture, as can be seen in architecture and the visual arts, and in theatre, where certain mask types and plots indicate Chinese influences. The nearby island of Java played a decisive role in the development of Balinese culture. Java often overran its tiny neighbour, and Bali did not have its own king until the tenth century. In the late tenth century a Balinese prince married a princess from East Java, which led to a brief union of the kingdoms of Bali and East Java. The island of Bali, however, was never wholly Javanised; it continued to develop its own type of Hindu culture, which, unlike that in Java, managed to retain its integrity against the spread of Islam, which came to dominate Javanese culture in the fourteenth century.**

In the A.D. 11th century, Airlangga, the son of a Balinese king and a Javanese queen, united Bali with an eastern Javanese kingdom. At the age of 16 Airlangga fled to the forests of western Java when his uncle lost the throne and later reclaimed the throne and became one of Java’s rulers. For three centuries Bali was mostly at least semi-independent and intermittently ruled by the Java-based Majapahit kingdom, which was conquered by Muslim forces in 1527. When the East Javanese Majapahit dynasty was conquered by later Islamic dynasties in the early 1500s, members of the Hindu nobility, artists, and priests fled to Bali, bringing with them a new wave of Javanese culture. Early contacts with Islamic Java were few, and Balinese culture was able to develop its intrinsic features undisturbed by outside influences.

For three centuries Bali endured as a Hindu kingdom while the rest of Indonesia became by Islamicized or Christianized. Periodically Bali was dominated by other kingdoms. It in turn influenced other islands, namely Lombok, and enslaved some of its own people. In the 16th century, a ship full of Dutchmen accidently landed on Bali. The Europeans fell so deeply in love with the place they stayed for two years, and when it was time to leave some refused to go. Bali at that time was regarded to be at its peak. The king of the island had 200 wives. He traveled around in a chariot pulled by two white buffalo and had at his disposal a retinue of 40 dwarves.

Later Balinese History

The Dutch largely ignored Bali because it didn’t have any important tradeable goods, it lacked a good harbor until the mid 19th century and its wasn’t positioned along any major trade routes. In 1855 the first Dutch officials arrived on the island. Over the following decades, often using salvage claims over shipwrecks to enter Balinese territory, the Dutch took more and more control of the island and pushed the Balinese kingdom into the south, where it put up military resistence to colonialism.

The Dutch put pressure on the Balinese rulers by siding with their adversaries, the Sasaks of Lombok. In 1906, the Dutch invaded Bali and mounted a naval bombardment of the island after the Balinese refused to pay compensation for ransacking a Chinese ship. When it became clear the Balinese royals could no longer hold off the Dutch, they chose to die rather than submit to colonial rule. Under the now legendary puputan, the royal family ordered their palaces to be set alight. Then clad in white and armed only with spears they and some of their supporters hurled themselves at the Dutch. Maybe a thousand died. The Dutch gained controlled of the island.

The Dutch enacted a policy called Baliseering, or the Balinization of Bali, which was aimed to “protect” the island’s culture from spreading Islam and keeping it traditions alive. Court life on Bali largely died under the Dutch. For some people, the defeat of the Balinese marked the passing of an era. The great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote, “I bowed my head” and “went back to my desk. I took out my diary and wrote these words: ‘Today I begin.’”

Bali After Indonesian Independence

After the Japanese occupation of Bali in World War II, there was fighting between those who supported Indonesian independence and those who favored a continuation of Dutch colonial rule. One Balinese resistance movement, in the tradition of pupatan chose to be wiped out rather than surrender at the Battle of Margarana. Bali’s airport, Ngurah Rai, Is named after the group’s leader.

The 1960s was a tragic time in Bali. The island’s main volcano, the sacred Gunung Agung, erupted and caused great damage, while famine and bloody political upheavals killed thousands of Balinese. The beginning of mass tourism was heralded by the opening of an international airport in the late 1960s.

The tourism boom on Bali began in the 1970s and gained momentum through the 1980s and 1990s and was not slowed until the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the Bali Bombing in 2002.

Bali Volcano Eruption

On March 16th, 1963 Bali’s Gunung Agung erupted for the first time in 120 years, with a follow up eruption in May, destroying much of northeastern Bali and killing 1,100 people and leaving 100,000 other homeless. Entire villages were destroyed by layers of ash and flows of hot mud that made it all the way to the sea. Hard rains after the eruption exacerbated the problems, creating landslides and lahars. Roads were closed off, villages were swept away and more people suffered, this time from lack of food. [Source: Windsor Booth, National Geographic, September 1963]

The Balinese call Mount Agung the "navel of the world." They regard it as the center of their universe. During the eruption a gate built to honor president Sukarno was destroyed. This was seen as a symbol of corruption in the government, which was soon ousted. Many Balinese believed that Sukarno caused the eruption by forcing religious leaders in Bali to “stage” an important ritual at a tourism conference.

Some 200 people died when a pyroclastic flow (an incandescent cloud of volcanic debris) raced down the mountain through the in the town of Subagan. Nearly all the inhabitants of the village of Lebih were burnt to death or suffocated by clouds of hot gas. Boiling mud and ash obliterated other towns, where children made strange wailing sounds as they choked to death. Some areas strewn with dog eaten bodies were still too hot to enter weeks after the eruption. Days became night as far away as Java when clouds of cinder and ash blew over and drinking water was in short in supply as rivers and streams became a silty grey mess.

Besakih, Bali's most sacred shrine is located right beneath the volcano. Even though there were dangers of new eruptions and the Governor of Bali forbade people from visiting the temple, thousands went anyway to celebrate an April full moon ceremony. Offerings to the gods included plaited palm fonds, bowls of rice, fried cakes, barbecued fowl, squat bananas and spiny durians. Some ceremonies are climaxed with women picking up burning coals in their bare hands.

After the eruption many Balinese moved to other parts of Indonesia. Two leaders and hundreds were killed during the anti-Communist purge after the 1965 failed coup. Many Balinese were involved in the killing as Communism was viewed as a threat to the traditional Balinese way of life.

Bali Bombing in 2002

Bali bombing site October 12, 2002 a bombing on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians, and injured more than 160, many of them suffering from terrible burns. The attack took place at Kuta Beach, a popular resort with foreign tourist in Bali. It was the worst terrorist attack since the September 11th attacks and brought Indonesia to the forefront of the war on terrorism. The attacks are carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, a South-east Asian extremist group inspired by Al Qaida.

Two bombs went off almost simultaneously. The first went off at Paddy’s Irish Pub. It killed eight people and was carried in the a vest of a suicide bomber. The main bomb went off seconds later in front of the Sari Club on Jalan Legian, the main street in Kuta. A third bomb went of at the U.S. consular offices but didn’t cause any casualties.

The main bomb was made of one-ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, potassium chloride and other chemicals and at least 50 kilograms of chlorate explosives. These were placed inside filing cabinets in a white van parked by a suicide bomber in front of the Sari Club. Powerful enough to leave behind a crater in the street, the bomb was set off “booster charge” of a TNT-like explosive activated with a cell phone. The bomb explosion set off secondary blasts caused by exploding gas cylinders in the club causing the flimsy roof of the club to collapse, trapping hundreds inside. Fires spread to adjacent buildings, some of which had their roofs blown off and walls smashed by the blast.

Describing the scene the morning after the blast an AP reporter wrote: “Blood still spattered walls and the roadway. A leg was on a nearby roof. A charred hand was on the sidewalk. Shoes and sandals were scattered across the road...Th blackened remains of dozens of cars and motorbikes cluttered the town’s main road...At the airport tourists sat on the ground hoping to board flights.”

Victims of the Bali Bombing

Bali bombing site Many of the victims of the Bali bombing were killed by the explosion but many more were killed in the fires set by the explosives,. People from 22 nations were killed. In addition to the 88 Australians, 29 Britons died as well as citizens from Germany, Sweden, Portugal, South Korea, South Africa, Canada and of course Indonesia. Seven Americans were among the dead. They were the primary targets.

The Sari Club was popular with young backpackers and surfers. It only admitted foreigners. Most of the victims were inside the club. Many of the local victims were Balinese who worked at the club, lived nearby, drove taxis waiting outside the club and just happened to be walking by.

One survivor told AP, “Some poor bugger was laying right in the corner and one of his legs was gone....he was quite coherent, he was just saying, “What going to happen to me?” Another said, “I have never seen anything so horrible. There were so many people , 18- to 20-year-olds, people in pieces all over the street.”

A survivor who was in the club told AP, “I saw people on fire. Many people were carrying others. Most were bleeding. Everything as on fire . It was chaos . It was dark except for the flames...There were bodies all over the floor. So many bodies were just black mounds, some were red.”

Relatives of the dead visited the morgue at Sanglah Hospital and looked for their lost loved ones. They had to wear masks of the smell and concerns about the spread of disease because there wasn’t enough refrigeration for all the bodies. Some never found their loved ones. Some victims were burned beyond recognition, blown to pieces, or both. Balinese who couldn’t find their relatives held a special homecoming ceremony for the unaccounted for dead, who are believed to be lost in limbo between the physical world and the spiritual world.

Survivors of the Bali Bombing

One survivor, a man from Tasmania, told Reuters he was partying with five friends, three of whom died. He blacked out after the explosion. “When I woke up I noticed blood spurting from my neck and my leg and my left arm. I saw many dead bodies inside and outside Sari club.” Another survivor told Australian television, “Looking outside...people are yelling and screaming, they are all going “we are going to die.”

Describing one of his friends a man who was having a drink at Paddy’s when the bomb went told the Independent “I didn’t recognize the face, only the voice. He had burns on his face, his shoulders, his arms. He looked like his flesh was still burning. He couldn’t breath very well. He was trembling a lot.” An American told AP, the blast “lifted me off my feet. All the buildings in the vicinity just collapsed, cars overturned and debris from the buildings fell on them.”

All the injured were brought to a single hospital, the Sanglah Hospital in Denpesar. Some with terrible burns waited for hours, with no painkillers or bandages or cream, until they could be treated. Within 36 hours all the foreigners had been airlifted o Singapore or Australia for better care. The locals remained at Sanglah for treatment.

Bali Royalty Today

Trisha Sertori wrote in the Jakarta Post, “The mantle of royalty sits lightly on the shoulders of Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa. Born into Ubud’s royal family, the blood of ancient kings runs through his veins in a line dating back to the Majapahit Empire: a line broken last century when Dutch colonisation reduced kingdoms to regencies. Now just a regular man like any other, Pak Cok as he is familiarly known, is witty, insightful and deeply spiritual, but can be blunt when required—the very qualities that characterise great leaders whatever the political system. Cok has no desire for a return to monarchy—any return to the past, except to learn from history, is a “dangerous fantasy”: “The system we have now is right for this time—it’s a system for the people.” "These are combined with legends and facts from archaeologists to give the stories of the past." [Source: Trisha Sertori, Jakarta Post, January 30, 2009 *-*]

“He fulfills his own obligations in a cultural and social context, through his involvement in politics, his religious and cultural activism, and his roles as president of The Bali Heritage Trust, patron of the Ubud Writer’s and Reader’s Festival and Rotarian. “I’m descended from that ancient way of life. To be born into the palace is to follow social structures; one of these is to preserve, maintain and innovate the physical and nonphysical—or the material and spiritual—culture of our society,” Cok says. “Keep to those obligations and they earn the respect from the community—a title alone is not enough to earn that respect; respect comes rather from what you do.” *-*

“Cok stepped outside the confines of his Balinese upbringing early, shocking his family by marrying an Australian girl, Asri, in 1978. His family quickly grew to love his bride, who is now mother to his three children and grandmother to their six-year-old grandson. The young couple moved to Sydney, where they lived for 12 years. Cok studied art and helped with the Australian Museum’s Pacific and Asian collection as a volunteer, “building bridges of culture between Bali and Australia”. His work with the Australian Museum sat well with his lifelong dedication to conserving traditional Balinese culture, a dedication now manifest in his role with The Bali Heritage Trust, an organisation established in 2003 by former Bali governor Dewa Beratha. “A lot of our literature has been lost due to volcanic eruptions and colonisation, so many villages are rewriting those histories from sources that are still here. These are combined with legends and facts from archaeologists to give the stories of the past.” *-*

Cok agrees that as Bali develops—tourism is flourishing, building is feverish, farmland is swallowed up—it can become difficult to see tradition as a living, breathing expression of the island’s society, particularly in the southern regions. “The difficulty is in how to maintain a cultural system with the outside influence of many different cultures and religions.” Heavily tourist-oriented regions therefore need help maintaining that culture. “That’s something you have to actively do. Make a political commitment to that, especially when Bali is promoted as a tourist area because of that culture.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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