A Brief History of Bali

Bali’s history is as colorful as its culture and landscape—a vivid tapestry of absorbing, adopting, and adapting.

At the end of the last Ice Age, rising sea levels formed the string of islands that is modern day Indonesia. At many times, the islands of Java and Bali were connected, so it makes sense that humans have inhabited Bali just as long as Java. However, while the oldest human remains found on Java date to about 1.7 million years old, the oldest evidence of human occupation on Bali comes from stone tools found in Trunyan village that date to about 202,000 years old.

Around 2000 BC Bali began to attract large numbers of settlers from Java, as well as far off lands like Assam, Yunnan and Tibet. These Neolithic migrations were followed by the opening of trade routes with China and India, the two great civilizations of that era.

Evidence strongly suggests that cultural influence between China and Bali must have been prominent by 500 AD, and it is known that by the year 700 AD many of the island states in the archipelago were already practicing a system of government that originated in India. The first written inscriptions found in Bali are Buddhist inscriptions from the 8th century, and evidence suggests that Hinduism was adopted on Bali from the 7th century onwards.

Over the centuries the kings of Java have conquered Bali on numerous occasions, most notably in 1343 AD when Gajah Mada brought Bali under Majapahit control and moved the royal court to Gelgel. When the Majapahit dynasty fell to Islam in the 15th century, Bali became independent again, but also a refuge for the Javanese aristocracy who fled here and brought with them artists, musicians, dancers, craftsmen and Hindu priests. Today over 95% of Balinese still practice this unique form of Hinduism, and you can still see the Majapahit influence in the island’s arts and culture.

During the 16th century, European traders began arriving on Bali, the first of which was a Portuguese expedition. Over the years various Balinese kings allowed the Europeans to set up trading posts on the island, and they often formed alliances with different powers to assist them against invasions from neighbouring islands. After one such invasion by Lombok in the 17th century, Bali was split into nine different kingdoms.

In 1846 the Dutch started a series of military attacks on Bali and neighbouring Lombok that would last for decades. Although the Dutch had the upper hand, the Balinese proudly refused to surrender and instead marched directly into battle knowing that death was imminent, or committed ritual suicide called ‘puputan’. At the end of it all over 4,000 Balinese died including entire royal families in one go.

The Dutch ruled Bali for the next century, eventually introducing tourism and marketing the island as a mystical and exotic destination, which still resonates today. In 1942 the Japanese invaded the island and occupied it until the end of WWII in 1945. Just days after the Japanese surrender, Sukarno declared Indonesian independence.

 

Bali is now one of the 27 provinces of the Republic of Indonesia. The population of is currently around four million, and the island is divided into eight regencies, plus the municipality of Denpasar, which follow the boundaries of the last Balinese kingdoms prior to Indonesian independence in 1945.

 

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