The Mystical History of Bali, The Island of Gods

Culture & Heritage

Published on 14 Dec 2018

by WorldRoamer® Travel Team

The Mystical History of Bali, The Island of Gods

Culture & Heritage

Published on 14 Dec 2018

by WorldRoamer® Travel Team

Travel back in time to understand the rich history of Bali, the Island of Gods. There's more to Modern Bali than meets the eye.

What lies beneath modern Bali? Don't forget to enrich yourself in the island's rich history and amazing heritage. Here are some pockets of history packaged in such a way that you can read it to each other as bedtime stories when roaming the Island of Gods.

The Island of Gods

Bali is also known as The Island of Thousands Temples and Bali Dwipia, and includes the surrounding isles of Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembogan Island, Nusa Ceningan Island, Serangan and Menhangan Island. Belonging to Indonesia, the island is famed worldwide for being a tourist destination and attracts millions across the globe.

Influence of Hinduism

The predominant religion in Bali is Hinduism, and this was deeply rooted since the early days. Hindu Java began to spread into Bali during the reign of King Airiangga from 1019 to 1042. After he fled into the forests of western Java following the dethroning of his uncle, he went on to become one of Java’s greatest kings. His mother moved to Bali and remarried shortly after his birth, thus creating a link between Java and Bali. Memorials seen near Gunung Kawi are evidence of the architectural link between Bali and the 11th century Java.

After Airiangga’s death, Bali retained its semi-independent status until Kertanagara was crowned. He conquered Bali in 1284, but was only in reign for eight years before he was murdered. Bali regained autonomy and the Pejeng dynasty, near modern-day Ubud, rose to power. In 1343, Gajah Mada, the chief minister of the Majapahit dynasty, defeated the Pejeng king and brought Bali back under Javanese influence.

Gajah Mada controlled most of the Indonesian archipelago but Bali was the furthest from his extent of power. Here the ‘capital’ moved to Gelgel, near modern-day Semarapura (once known as Klungkung), around the late 14th century, and for the next two centuries this was the base for the ‘king of Bali’, the Dewa Agung. The Majapahit kingdom collapsed into disputing sultanates. However, the Gelgel dynasty in Bali, under Dalem Batur Enggong, extended its power eastwards to the neighbouring island of Lombok and even crossed the strait to Java.

As the Majapahit kingdom fell apart, many of its intelligentsia moved to Bali, including the priest Nirartha, who is credited with introducing many of the complexities of Balinese religion to the island. Artists, dancers, musicians and actors also fled to Bali at this time, and the island experienced an explosion of cultural activities. The final great exodus to Bali took place in 1478.

Timeline of the Dutch conquest

The first Europeans to set foot in Bali were the Dutch seafarers in 1597. Falling in love with the island, some of them refused to leave Bali. Cornelius Houtman, the ship’s captain, befriended the king who then had 200 wives, Balinese prosperity and artistic activity. The Dutch returned later but was interested in profit and not culture and did not give Bali a second glance.

In 1710, the capital of the Gelgel kingdom was shifted to nearby Klungkung (now called Semarapura), but local discontent was growing, fewer rulers were breaking away from Gelgel domination and the Dutch began to move in, using the old policy of divide and conquer.

In 1846, the Dutch used Balinese salvage claims over shipwrecks as the pretext to land military forces in northern Bali.

In 1894, the Dutch chose to support the Sasaks of Lombok in a rebellion against their Balinese rajah. After some bloody battles, the Balinese were defeated in Lombok, and with northern Bali firmly under Dutch control, southern Bali was not likely to retain its independence for long. Once again, salvaging disputes gave the Dutch the excuse they needed to move in. A Chinese ship was wrecked off Sanur in 1904 and ransacked by the Balinese. The Dutch demanded that the rajah of Badung pay 3000 silver dollars in damages – this was refused.

In 1906, Dutch warships appeared at Sanur; Dutch forces landed and, despite Balinese opposition, marched 5km to the outskirts of Denpasar.

On 20 September 1906, the Dutch mounted a naval bombardment of Denpasar and then commenced their final assault. The three rajahs of Badung (southern Bali) realised that they were outnumbered and outgunned, and that defeat was inevitable. Surrender and exile, however, was the worst imaginable outcome. Hence, they decided to take the honourable path of a suicidal puputan – a fight to the death. The Dutch begged the Balinese to surrender rather than make their hopeless stand, but their pleas went unheard and wave after wave of Balinese nobility marched forward to their deaths. In all, nearly 4000 Balinese died in the puputan. Later, the Dutch marched east towards Tabanan, taking the rajah of Tabanan prisoner. However, he chose to commit suicide rather than face the disgrace of exile.

The kingdoms of Karangasem and Gianyar had already capitulated to the Dutch and were allowed to retain some powers, but other kingdoms were defeated and the rulers exiled. Finally, the rajah of Klungkung followed the lead of Badung and once more the Dutch faced a puputan. With this last obstacle disposed of, all of Bali was now under Dutch control and became part of the Dutch East Indies. Dutch rule over Bali was short-lived, however, as Indonesia fell to the Japanese in WWII.


On 17 August 1945, just after WWII ended, Indonesian leader Soekarno proclaimed the nation’s independence, but it took four years to convince the Dutch that they were not going to get their great colony back. In a virtual repeat of the puputan nearly half a century earlier, a Balinese resistance group was wiped out in the Battle of Marga on 20 November 1946; Bali’s airport, Ngurah Rai, is named after its leader. It was not until 1949 that the Dutch finally recognised Indonesia’s independence.

The huge eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963 killed thousands, devastated vast areas of the island and forced many Balinese to accept transmigration to other parts of Indonesia. Two years later, in the wake of the attempted communist coup, Bali became the scene of some of the bloodiest anticommunist killings in Indonesia. These were perhaps inflamed by some mystical desire to purge the land of evil, but also came about because the radical agenda of land reform and abolition of the caste system was a threat to traditional Balinese values. The brutality of the killings was in shocking contrast to the stereotype of the ‘gentle’ Balinese.

Bali Today

Tourism funded many developments in Bali and helped pay for improvements in roads, telecommunications, education and health. Present day Bali remains independent with a strong Hindu / Buddhist in a country dominated by Islam, giving it a unique character from the rest of Indonesia.

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