Bali lures tourists from all over the world. The island’s incredible scenery, however, sometimes blinds tourists to the fact that it is much more than just a tropical paradise. Behind the five-star resorts and picture-perfect sunrises and sunsets lies an island culture steeped in tradition and spirituality, not to mention one of the friendliest, most welcoming destinations anyone could wish to visit.
Bali’s history can be traced back to the Stone Age, with its rich heritage starting to leave an archaeological record during the reign of Majapahit, between 1293 and 1520 CE. The Majapahit was a maritime Hindu empire with the island of Java as its seat of power. This ancient civilization reached its peak during the reign of Hayam Wuruk, who led conquests throughout southeast Asia.
Also known as Rajasanagara or Bhatara Prabhu, Hayam Wuruk was the fourth emperor of the Majapahit Empire; he was a member of the Rajasa Dynasty. During his reign, the epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata became embedded in Javanese culture. According to Hindu teachings, Hayam Wuruk was a reincarnation of Shiva Mahadewa, manifesting himself on Earth as a Javanese king. Hayam Wuruk was crowned emperor at just 16 years of age. During his reign, he is credited with helping to further the Indianization of Javanese culture through the propagation of Hinduism and Sanskritization.
Hayam Wuruk’s reign was the height of that empire with the Emperor’s reach covering a large area that included the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Borneo, and the southern Malay Peninsula. Credited by historians as laying the foundations for Balinese arts, the era came to an end following Hayam Wuruk’s death at the age of 55. The ensuing power vacuum catalyzed struggles within the ruling family.
While the kingdom of Java continued to grow in terms of both strength and influence, Hindu priests, intellectuals, artists, and royalty subsequently began a mass exodus from Bali. Their exit was a chance for the Dutch to reach across the archipelago, culminating in the creation of the Dutch East Indies. However, Bali was only under Dutch rule for a century or so, before becoming part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.
Bali and Tourism
One of the most famous islands on the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is home to an ancient culture renowned for its hospitality. The island’s hills and mountains, sandy beaches, rugged coastlines, rice terraces, and volcanic hillsides provide a stunning backdrop to its cultural past, culminating in a world-class tourist destination. Visiting Mount Batur, a 5,600-foot-high volcano, is a popular activity. Dramatic views and the island’s largest crater lake are located on the mountain.
Travelers from all over the world flocked to Bali during the 1920s following a well-publicized influx of Western artists. However, international travel was decimated by World War II. Tourism only resumed in force during the 70s and 80s, when Australian surfers began gathering on the Balinese shoreline in search of the perfect wave.
Today, Bali welcomes around 6 million international arrivals per year. It was named the world’s leading travel destination by TripAdvisor in 2017. With its dramatic landscapes, striking natural attractions, and world-class resorts, Bali features on the bucket lists of many experienced travelers. Although the pandemic limited travel generally, Bali is hopeful for another tourism resurgence.
Today, Bali’s main ethnic groups include the Balinese, Madurese, Javanese, and Bali Aga. Also known as the Bali Mula, the latter group are an indigenous people who have predominantly settled eastern regions of the island. Translating to “Mountain Balinese” in English, they are believed to be the island’s original inhabitants, having travelled to Bali long before the Hindu-Javanese wave of settlers.
Village tourism provides visitors with an authentic taste of island life. The secluded village of Tenganan in Karangasem is a stronghold of Balinese cultural heritage. Guests can learn about traditional customs and rituals, shop and discover local crafts, and take in the impressive sights in the hamlet.
Today, most Balinese people practice Balinese Hinduism, one of the only Indonesian provinces to do so. Their spiritual devotion colors all aspects of life on the island. Balinese culture retains significant Indian and Javanese influences. Bali has its own distinctive culture and rich tradition of arts, music, and spiritualism. From Ubud Water Palace, with its serene ponds and intricate stone carvings, to Tibumana Waterfall and Tegallalang Rice Terraces, the island boasts new astonishing locations around every corner.
Rich in cultural and artistic heritage, Bali is also home to numerous world-class museums. Established by Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati in 1954, the Puri Lukisan Museum is one of Bali’s oldest art museums. It houses an extensive collection of traditional and contemporary Balinese artwork, including paintings, textiles, and sculptures.