Balinese History – Pre-history to the Europeans

Balinese History – Pre-history to the Europeans

The First Balinese

The first wave of humans moved east out of Africa. About 1.8 million years ago they are believed to have reached China. At that time the levels of the sea rose and fell many times so they could have made it by land to Java. Later it would have to have been a journey by sea.

China domesticated rice about 8,000 years ago. Linguists and archaeologists are widely agreed that the first Austronesian settlers sailed south from southern China via Taiwan and the Philippines into Indonesia between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, cultivating rice as they went. They probably moved because of a population explosion. There is genetic evidence as well. It had been thought possible that the Polynesians could have come from America and not Asia – as Thor Heyerdahl had suggested in the Kon-Tiki expedition – but genetics has now shown this to be incorrect and that their journey began in coastal China or Taiwan.

Between 3000 BC and 400 AD, a period of nearly 4,000 years, they had colonized most of the inhabitable islands of the Pacific from the Philippines to Hawaii and Easter Island. They also settled on Malaya’s coasts, south Vietnam and even Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. In these places, the Austronesian family of languages survives.

In the Philippines, one group went east and another group went west. The one moving west towards Indonesia spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages, to which Balinese belongs. They had several religious practices that resemble Bali’s religion closely. Probably between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago they reached West Indonesia. Nothing is known about the people who lived in Bali (and there would have been some) before then.

Perhaps these early seafarers kept moving because of population pressures. Or maybe they were reacting to volcanoes, earthquakes, typhoons or other natural disasters. The monsoon winds would have helped them as long as they kept near the equator.

There is archaeological evidence of habitation about 2,000 years ago at two sites in Bali, one in Gilimanuk on the northwest coast and the other in Sembiran in the north-centre. These indicate a population of fishermen, hunters and farmers. Their graves show they were in possession of copper, bronze and iron objects, which must have been imported. The Balinese did not have the knowledge to create them. In Gilimanuk archaeologists also found graves for pets, including dogs, horses and chickens. In 1964 a grave was discovered of a man with his dog.

Rsi Markandeya

The alternative story is that Rsi Markandeya, a great Siwaite Hindu saint, was the first person to set foot on Bali, when it was still joined to Java, around the end of the 8th century. He and 8,000 of his followers came from Mount Raung in the Basuki area of East Java to settle, but the gods were unhappy. They made them sick. They went back and after receiving divine advice realised that the reason for the gods’ displeasure was that he did not perform the correct rituals.

Some years later he returned, this time with fewer people, from the village of Aga. They performed the ceremony of burying the Five Metals (pancadatu) – gold, silver, iron, copper and precious stone – at a place on the slopes of Mount Agung. This place is now called Pura Basukian. The gods were happy and they settled in the areas around Campuan, Taro, Tegalalang and Payangan and the present temple area of Besakih.

In these areas Markandeya and the settlers from Mount Raung are still commemorated. The Gunung Lebah temple in Campuan, opposite Murni’s Warung, was founded by him. He is credited with establishing the basic institutions of society, including the subaks (the irrigation societies), desa (the village) and banjars (the community organisations). On his travels a number of his followers remained behind in various villages. Hence the current name of Bali Aga for those people and villages that pre-date the later Hindu invasions.

The Metal Age

In northeast Vietnam, about 500 BC to 300 BC, around the Dong-Son area in the North Annam region there was a flourishing metalworking culture. Richly decorated gong-like drums, which were probably imported by Indian traders, were first starting to appear at this time. They were favourites amongst the Indonesians.

By at least the first century AD Bali had acquired the skills to cast or smelt copper, bronze and iron. It may be, although there is a debate about it that the massive Pejeng kettledrum, called the Pejeng Moon, was made in Bali. It is still in the imperial temple, Pura Panataran Sasih, Pejeng, not far from Ubud. It is housed three meters above the ground, so it is wise to bring binoculars.

The Balinese believe that it is heavily charged with power. There are intense pairs of faces on the sides between the handles, which are among the earliest representations of the human face in Indonesia. It is called the Moon Drum because there are many stories about its origin and all have to do with the moon.

One story is that the drum was the wheel of the chariot of the goddess of the moon. Others say that it was her earplug. It fell into a tree. Its brilliance stopped a thief’s nocturnal activities and he decided to dim the light by urinating on it. The thief died instantly and the Moon Drum cracked and lost its glow. Some traditions say it is was not the wheel of the goddess’s chariot or her earplug but the moon itself. Others say that it is the wheel of the chariot that carries the moon through the night sky.

Whatever it is and whoever made it, modern metallurgists are surprised that ancient man could acquire such control over the temperatures and the varying ratios of the alloy, which is copper, tin and lead, to produce a perfect piece. Further, it is tonally correct for drumming.

India and China

Trade with India began in the first century AD. Indian ceramics of that period have been found in Bali. The Indians were just interested in trade, not conquest or migration.

The Chinese were also trading with Indonesia by at least 400 AD. They came as Buddhist monks, traders and emissaries of the Middle Kingdom. Ships sailed back and forth between India, Indonesia and China. The Chinese scholar, Yi-tsing, reported in 670 AD that he had visited a Buddhist country called Bali.

The Indians also introduced religions to Indonesia. By the 5th century AD a Hindu kingdom had been founded. By the 600s one of the kings of Sumatra was a Buddhist and the town of Palembang, a centre of Chinese trade, was much influenced by Buddhists coming from India and China. The kingdom of Srivijaya, around modern Palembang, in fact became a major centre of Mahayana Buddhism, whose political influence was felt all the way up the Malayan peninsula as far as Thailand. Monks and priests travelled to Bali from the kingdom of Srivijaya.

There were probably Buddhists in Java in the 5th century and certainly by the 8th century AD. In Java the great Sailendra dynasty built the largest Buddhist temple in the world, a great stepped, pyramid-shaped mandala, Borobudur, on the outskirts of Jogjakarta in south Java, some time between 750 and 850 AD.

The Javanese kingdom of Mataram assumed regional power in the mid-9th century.

Just as the dominance of Buddhism throughout the eastern half of Asia seemed inevitable, Islam attacked successfully. It moved into the Malay Peninsula and then captured most of the Indonesian islands, but not Bali. In east Java an early Islamic tombstone carved in about 1082 has been found. Islam swept through the southern part of the Philippines.

The Early Balinese Kings

The earliest evidence of kingship is from seven bronze edicts in Old Balinese from 882 – 914 AD. They are dated according to the Indian Saka calendar, which shows Indian influence. It is likely that the local rulers were impressed by stories of the Indian rajas and, wanting to strengthen their own control, asked for advice from the Brahman priests. The rituals of these powerful priests would supernaturally legitimise an increase in the ruler’s power. The princes tried to associate themselves with Indian culture as much as possible and created family trees with roots in Indian culture. They claimed to be temporary incarnations of the Hindu gods.

The link between divinity and kingship is not only a Balinese concept. King Solomon was anointed by Zadok the Priest. Anointing is reserved for priests, prophets and kings and forms the central part of the coronation ceremony of the English monarch.

The earliest ruler is Kesari Warmadewa, three of whose inscriptions have been found. He ruled around 913. This is probably the same man as Sri Wira Dalem Kesari, who is said to have built a palace at Besakih, the present day Merajan Selonding being his place of worship. He is said to have enlarged Pura Panataran Agung, which was then a small and simple temple, as well as building some other Besakih temples.

Nine subsequent bronze edicts, from 915 – 942 AD, show the kings using Indianized names.

Historical finds suggest that the capital was in the region of Intaran/Pejeng and Bedulu. This would connect the region with the mountain temples, particularly Penulisan near Kintamani. The kings built monastic settlements to reinforce their claims to power and Buddhist and Siwaist priests and monks lived there. There were some monastic settlements in the Lake Batur region, which was also a royal hunting ground.

It was a feudal system. The king and the court offered protection and mediated in village disputes. In return the villagers provided services, maintained temples, carried out rituals and ceremonies. They paid taxes and on request provided the king with armed guards. Communications between the king and the commoners were through the village council.

There are references to weavers, iron and goldsmiths, irrigation tunnel builders, carpenters, masons, shipbuilders, musicians, singers and dancers. These specialisations suggest a healthy surplus-producing economy, which would have been based on wet and dry rice cultivation. Vegetables, cotton and kapok were grown and horses, cattle, goats and pigs were bred.

Relations with East Java

The Java-inspired marriage of the great-granddaughter of the king of East Java to the Balinese prince Udayana brought about a Javanization of the Balinese court. Her name, Gunapriya Dharmapatni comes before that of her husband in documents. This may be because she had a higher status than him and may have been more powerful. After 989 AD royal decrees were written in Old Javanese. It is thought that she introduced Tantric rites and sorcery to Bali, beliefs which are still evident in witches and witchcraft. Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, near Bedulu, not far from Ubud, was built around this time, as a rock hermitage for Siwaite priests.

The Queen probably died first. Their last joint edict was issued in 1001. Udayana issued his last decree in 1010, ceased to rule in 1011, and died sometime between then and 1022. Their two sons, Erlangga (sometimes spelt Airlangga) and Anak Wungsu inherited the right to rule. Airlangga was sent to Java and worked for his grandfather in East Java. He succeeded in uniting East Java, ruling it from 1037 to 1049, while his younger brother ruled Bali, perhaps in his name. Bali was therefore one of Erlangga’s domains and started a link with Java.

Erlangga developed a deep interest in a mystical, inner religious life and became a hermit. Tradition has it that he had the body of a king and the head of a Hindu mystic.

Nine massive, stupa-shaped royal tombs, called Gunung Kawi, near Tampaksiring, completed around 1080 AD, are evidence of royal funeral cults and strong Javanization. They are a short trip from Ubud and are reached by walking down 300 steps.

Java rules Bali

Bali was conquered for the first time in 1284. It became subject to foreign rule by the East Javanese king, Kertanegara, the founder of the Majapahit dynasty. Religion was brought back to and centred in the court. The influence of the mountain temples waned.

There were strong Tantric elements again. Black magic and sorcery returned. These concepts are still evident in today’s trance cults, occult practices and beliefs in witches and goblins, which are especially dominant in the south and south-western parts of Bali, and particularly in Sanur, Kesiman, Tabanan and Gianyar, where the court had the most influence.

Bali is independent again

Kertanegara was murdered in 1292 and Bali was independent again for another 50 years.

Java carves Bali up

For the Balinese, history really begins with the Majapahits and with a myth. The myth is that in 1343 the great Majapahit kingdom of East Java, then at the height of its powers, sent armies to Bali to defeat the king of Bali, who was a supernatural monster with a pig’s head, who lived near Pejeng. The Balinese therefore see themselves as the descendants of the great Majapahits – with the exception of a few pockets of aboriginal Bali Aga people.

Indonesian nationalists claim that the Majapahit Empire stretched over what is now modern Indonesia as well as the Malay peninsula. The actual area was probably only Java and some nearby coastal regions, with a nominal tribute being paid by other coastal states.

Following the conquest the prime minister and commander-in-chief, Gajah Mada, asked a Javanese Brahman priest for help in bringing the Balinese into line. The priest sent his grandson, Ida Dalem Ketut Kresna Kapakisan, who established his court and palace at Samprangan, just east of Gianyar, around 1349. He founded a dynasty that would last until the 20th century. He was born a Brahman, but had to change his status to a Satria, in order to rule. It is noteworthy that caste can be changed. He had the full support of Javanese administrators, who were located strategically throughout the island.

Kapakisan subdued most of Bali but there were a few areas that were difficult. He asked Gajah Mada for help. He sent his powerful, magical kris, Ki Lobar, and at the sight of it, the last two areas of opposition, Pejeng and Bedulu, were defeated.

Two leading local clans, the Paseks and the Bandesas, who traced their origins to Javanese high priests, collaborated with Kapakisan. They were given special tasks in respect of the temple system and village order. King Airlangga and Empu Kuturan had already entrusted these clans with leadership. (For details on Empu Kuturan see the article entitled Famous Balinese Temples). The Paseks are still influential today.

When Dalem Ketut Kresna Kapakisan died, his eldest son became the king, but he was weak and was replaced by his younger brother, I Dewa Ketut Tegal Besung, who moved the court to Gelgel, near Klungkung, on the southeast coast in 1383 and founded the Gelgel dynasty. Gelgel became an artistic centre.

He died in 1460 and was succeeded by his son, Waturenggong, and the court flourished.

Bali’s Golden Majapahit Age

Over in Java, in the late 15th century, disputes sparked off civil wars and the Majapahit Empire was declining. Islam had entered through Sumatra in the 13th century and at the beginning of the 16th century was making headway in the coasts of Java. They pressed inland and dealt the Empire a fatal blow between 1515 and 1528. The aristocracy, priests, jurists, artists, artisans and those unwilling to be islamised moved to the easternmost parts of Java and Bali. The descendants of the former vassal Balinese kings stayed in power and eased the process.

Newcomers who were engaged in the same crafts lived together in certain villages. Their descendants still do today. Goldsmiths and silversmiths lived in Celuk, painters and draughtsmen in Kamasan, ironsmiths in Klungkung and Kusamba, coppersmiths in Budaga and gong smiths in Tihingan.

King Waturenggong succeeded in integrating the aristocracy and the people. The empire extended beyond Bali to include parts of East Java, Lombok and Sumbawa and there was peace and prosperity.

God-king worship also changed. Although he was still believed to be the incarnation of Wisnu, people no longer actually worshipped him. Nevertheless he was directly associated with the divine. As far as religion went, there was emphasis on complex classification systems and numerological and colour symbolism. See the article entitled Balinese Symbolism.

He kept close contact with ordinary people, travelled and mounted theatrical performances. Painting, literature, music and drama were promoted as useful propaganda for royal policy. During his reign, cremation, which was a privilege of the nobility, began to be practised by all strata. The Pasek and Bandesa clan members continued to be entrusted with temple properties and leadership tasks.


Government, caste and religion were reformed under King Waturenggong’s priestly teacher and poet, Nirartha, who came from East Bali in 1537. He travelled throughout Bali and went to Lombok and Sumbawa and established many temples. He concentrated on rituals connected with death, soul purification, weddings, pregnancy, birth and maturity and is responsible for the supremacy of the Siwa cult and the Brahman priests. Nirartha is regarded as the father of all Brahmans. There are five classifications of Brahmans, based on the descendants of his sons by five wives. See the article entitled Names, Titles and Castes.


With King Waturenggong’s death around 1558, the Golden Age went into rapid decline. There were tremendous rivalries, much scheming and inevitable decay. This state of affairs continued for about 100 years until eventually a new king, Dewa Agung Jambe came to power.

Gelgel seemed to have lost its power and was polluted spiritually, so the capital was moved to neighbouring Klungkung. The Gelgel period is therefore roughly 1400 – 1700 and the time of its dissolution was about the same time that the Dutch were becoming solidly established in the rest of the country.

Dewa Agung Jambe became the first king of Klungkung in 1686 and was known as Dewa Agung, a title inherited since then by all kings of Klungkung. For the next 200 years the Dewa Agung was the nominal, supreme king of Bali.

Allegiances were withdrawn from Gelgel and a number of tiny autonomous states grew up, ruled by powerful aristocrats, who claimed to be descendants of the nobles who accompanied Kapakisan from Java in 1343. They ruled as kings or princes. In the end Bali became nine small kingdoms: Karangasem, Badung, Mengwi, Gianyar, Tabanan, Buleleng, Bangli, Negara and Klungkung. (These names still exist as distinct administrations called kabupaten. Their chief executives are called bupatis). Yet they all regarded Klungkung as the highest royal authority. There was great rivalry between them, which was good for the arts and created great artistic endeavours – and still does.

So, Klungkung is the direct heir of Gelgel and Samprangan and through them the Majapahits.


There is a story about the origins of the Ubud Royal family. 150 years ago there was there was no Royal family in Ubud, which was then just a village of a few hundred people. The villagers needed the protection of a prince and went to ask the prince of nearby Peliatan for one of his sons to become the prince of Ubud. The king had four sons, but they were not available, as one was in Peliatan and the others were princes of Mas, Petulu and Batuan. But he did have an illegitimate son from a palace servant girl.

The men of Ubud found the illegitimate prince living near Mount Batur in humble circumstances and brought him back to Ubud. They gave him a house and called him Tjokorda Beten Buah or The Prince who lived under a Betel Nut tree, as that was where they found him living. The new Tjokorda sent one of his ministers out to ask his half-brother in Batuan for some rice. The half-brother was incensed and a war began. Ubud won and took the prince of Batuan’s land and everything from the palace. It is said that one of the wooden kulkuls in the village banyan tree comes from Batuan. North Ubud banjar beats it if there is a death in the community.

Bali Aga

It is usually said that the Bali Aga people are those who were living in Bali before the Majapahits arrived from Java, although there is no evidence for this. They were subject to Buddhist and later Hindu influence. The Majapahits were not able to assert their authority on all parts of the island, because of limited resources and it was more profitable to concentrate of the rich low-lying areas. The Bali Aga villages tend therefore to be in the mountains on the northern and eastern coasts, such as Trunyan, near Mount Batur, and Tenganan, near Candi Dasa, and the island of Penida.

They comprise about one or two per cent. of the population and still display marked differences from the rest of Bali, for example, there is no caste system, they do not speak High Balinese, and they do not cremate their dead.

Balinese History – Pre-history to the Europeans