Bali in the Course of History




Kings of Bali as heads of regions during the Dutch colonial goverment

The Balinese Kings in 1938

Bali has a long history of ambivalent relations with the outside world. Traders and invaders took turns in bringing direct and indirect influences from India, China, the Middle East, Europe. With an extraordinary talent, however, the Balinese absorbed these different contributions and wave them into a unique culture so that it is not easy to distinguish which is local or foreign origin. Throughout the history of Bali, the Balinese have always fiercely fought for their independence, often ready to fight until the end rather than surrender. In addition, the history of Bali is equally formed out of the internal rivalries. Over the centuries, the rival kingdoms had been opposed to each other to take control of power, natural resources and religious symbolism. Today, after 30 years of centralized government from an authoritarian regime, local authorities have regained the power, and the civil society begins to be heard. Yet, the lovers of Bali fear that the island may be up for sale.


  • Indianization of Bali.

Trade, direct or indirect, was established with India some 2000 years ago, though Bali only received Indian influence by the eighth century during the golden age of Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Sriwijaya based in Sumatra. It seems that some Balinese leaders have chosen to adopt elements of Indian political and religious system to strengthen their power and their prestige.

  • Early kingdoms and Javanese influences.

Bronze edicts of the ninth century give hints of this period. Bali had a wealthy economy. The surplus generated by diversified agriculture enabled the growth of specialized craftsmen clans : painters, sculptors, weavers, gold and blacksmiths, musicians, dancers, etc.. In this hierarchical society, kings ruled hand in hand with priests under the central authority of Sri Kesari Warmadewa, the first king of Bali ever known. The royal courts that served as political and religious centers were located in the center of the island around Pejeng and Goa Gajah. Hindu cults, Visnuism and Shivaism were practiced side by side with Buddhism  with a strong tantric element.  Village communities took part in dances, orchestras, and puppet shows, organized by the royal courts and inspired by the great Indian epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. At the end of the tenth century, the influence of Java was more powerful. It is likely then that the legendary priest Mpu Kuturan from Java introduced the tripartite system of Balinese temples, which are found today in all villages in Bali.

  • The era of Majapahit.

During the following centuries the kingdom of Majapahit in East Java which was very wealthy thank  to the rice farming  grew in power. It took control of the maritime trade of the archipelago and dominated its neighbors. In 1343, the troops of Majapahit, headed by its vizier Gajah Mada invaded Bali crushing the fierce local resistance and establishing court in Samplangan near Gianyar and then moved to Gelgel near Klungkung. In the mountains, however, some villages retained their independence. They are now called Bali Aga. During this period, Bali had received many cultural heritages from Java in particular the syncretic Buddhist-Shivaist religion. Classical literature forms and architectural concept as well as the caste system were derived from Majapahit. Dance and theater evolved from Javanese narrative model, and paintings and sculptures were strongly influenced by the puppet-show theater (Wayang). This supposedly turned the ancient “barbarian” Bali into the renascent Bali of aesthetic elegance and liturgical splendor.

By the end of 14th century, Bali  regained its independence. Weakened by internal rivalries, the kingdom of Majapahit lost its power. Besides, on the northeast coast of Java, Muslim trading communities changed into powerful states, including the sultanate of Demak which eclipsed the floundering Majapahit.

  • The golden age of Bali

As the Muslim traders grew more and more in importance, people in Sumatra and Java converted to Islam. However, the aristocracy, artists and scholars of Majapahit who had refused the new religion moved to Bali inaugurating an era of splendor that would late be seen as the  Bali's golden age . The vision of Bali as a refuge of enlightened Hinduism remains a central theme of Balinese indentity. 


In the 16th century, the king Waturenggong extended Bali’s influence from Gelgel over parts of East Java, Lombok and Sumbawa. His reign witnessed a renaissance of Hindu arts, literatures and religion, fostered by the reformist priest Danghyang Nirartha who had settled in 1540s from East Java. Having been contact with Islam, Nirartha decided to strengthen Balinese Hinduism by emphasizing the 'Oneness of God'. As a great architect, he surrounded the island by a series of guardian temples such as Rambut Siwi, Tanah Lot, Uluwatu and many others.

  • The Slave Traders.

By the 16th century, Europeans were starting to dominate Southeast Asia. Bali was becoming the center if 'slave trade' in the archipelago. Balinese princes sold debtors, political opponents, prisoners of war, soldiers and manpower to the Dutch. This trade changed the political stability of the island. Situated far from location of the main maritime trade routes, Gelgel lost of its might and even broke into pieces after a coup in 1560, and Bali became an unstable maze of warring kingdom.

Benefiting from its harbour in the north coast and enriched by the slave trade,  Buleleng grew in power by occupying Blambangan in East Java in 1691. Besides, the king of Karangasem began occupying Lombok in 1740, while Blambangan passed under the control of Mengwi for the whole of the 18th century.


In 1840s,  the Dutch obtained submission of one Indonesian potentate after the other, but the Balinese kings resisted, only recognizing verbally the Dutch's suzerainty but never signing formal arrangement. The climax of the discord between the Dutch and teh Balinese was the law of the sea. International law denied the right of salvagers to retrieve shipwracked cargoes - it was a piracy.  To the Balinese, it was a reward for saving the ship and the crew. The dispute of this case in Buleleng gave the Dutch a pretext to attack the north Bali.

  • Fighting until the End.

Over time, the Dutch defeated the Balinese kingdoms one by one, as they were weakened by the internal feuds. Only the rich courts of Badung and Tabanan and the prestigious kingdom of Klungkung remained independent.  In 1906, using the pretext of new shipwreck pillage, the Dutch landed in Sanur and attacked Badung.  Ordered to stop, they accelerated instead, to be mowed down a few meters from the stunned soldiers.  These survivors turned their weapons against themselves in an orgy of suicidal killing : men and women stabbing each other, finishing off the injured while a priest were reciting mantras, ushering these noble souls to Wisnu's heaven. Since then, the Dutch colonization over Bali had started in a river of blood. Three thousand people died during these puputan at several palaces in Denpasar. Two years later, a similar puputan decimated the House of Klungkung. Being arrested by the Dutch, the raja of Tabanan committed suicide rather than facing exile.