Bali, the “island of the gods”, is without doubt a special and unique place. An integral part of the vast Indonesian archipelago – yet different in so many ways.
Predominantly Hindu, in a nation of just under 240 million people where Islam is the principal religion, the island is the only place outside of the Indian sub-continent where the Hindu religion exists in any real strength.
First introduced into the region by 6th century traders from India, Hinduism spread rapidly across the whole archipelago, peaking in the 14th century with the Majapahit Empire.
The rise of Islam from the 14th century slowly but surely eclipsed the Hindu kingdoms and ultimately forced the remnants of the Hindu elite to take refuge & consolidate on the island of Bali around the end of the 15th century.
Their descendants have succeeded in protecting & enriching their heritage through to the present day, strongly resisting cultural & religious encroachment under a succession of foreign and Indonesian rulers.
Balinese Culture & the Banjar Village Committee
Bali’s present day culture is a unique fusion of the Hindu & Buddhist religions, village life, the land and it’s crops & irrigation and the great many festivals & celebrations that bind the whole thing together. The basic unit at the village level is the “banjar” committee that represents a grouping of households within the overall village or local community.
Banjar means ‘neighborhood’ and the committee is fundamentally important to the Balinese way of life, with membership being compulsory for all married man. Regular meetings are held to discuss and decide on such issues as the dates for religious events, collect money for ceremonies, allocate temple maintenance amongst the members, oversee land sales and where necessary administer punishment for troublemakers – all of which is based the traditional law called Adat.
Because the decisions are discussed & decided in this communal manner using the Adat traditional law, it reinforces & enhances the balanced and interconnected nature of village life.
Balinese Culture & the Subak Village Committee
While the focus of the Banjar committee is on the village and maintaining it’s overall harmony, a second village committee called the Subak is focused on the Sawah or rice-fields which are integral to Bali’s overall social system. The Subak’s principal role is the control & distribution of the water supply required to produce rice – the bedrock of Bali’s economy & it’s culture, and the committee meetings determine when a farmer can flood his fields.
The name of the committee comes from the traditional farming system called Subak Abian, which is based on the Hindu philosophy of “Tri Hita Karana”, which states that happiness is derived from three basic tenets – good relations with God, with other people and with the environment itself.
This communal approach to village life and farming is remarkably effective and is a major factor in the overall ethos of the island.
Balinese rice field near Candi Dasa on the east coast of the island
Today about 88% of the island’s population is ethnic Balinese & Hindu, with the remainder comprising of 11% Muslims and 1% Christians. With a land area of 5620 sq km (2190 sq miles) and a population of about 3m it is Indonesia’s most popular tourism location.
Denpesar is the capital and also the economic hub of the island with a population of about 400,000 people, but the principal tourist areas are on the southern tip of the island around Kuta & Legian, Nusa Dua & Sanur.
Map of Bali showing the capital Denpesar and the main towns
Bali is many things to many people – obviously to the Balinese themselves it is home and they are very proud of it & their special culture, but they are also very tolerant & welcoming to the throngs of visitors that come to the island.
It’s not just the tourist dollar they welcome, they are genuinely nice people as a whole and understand the tangible benefits that tourism brings.
The negative side of tourism is rampant over-development in certain areas…
To the many expatriates that have made the island their home, Bali offers the great combination of a nice lifestyle at a very reasonable cost but not without it’s frustrations – with traffic & bureaucracy probably topping the list.
For tourists, the island offers the complete gamut of accommodation & the accouterments that go with it, and whether you want the most luxurious hotel or villa to the most humble losmen home-stay, you will find it in Bali – with everything else in between.
The island and it’s people have suffered badly as a result of the terrorist attacks that caused so much hurt & suffering in 2002 and then again in 2005 when the tourist trade was just starting to recover.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Bali and the effect on it’s people were significant – the terrorist’s attacks were aimed at the owners of the tourist related businesses, but the people most hurt were the local Balinese who feed their families from the tourist dollars, not the people who own the businesses.
The Australian Government continues to issue travel warnings about Indonesia in general and Bali in particular due to the danger of further terrorist attacks. My opinion is that the threat is minimal to none existent away from the main tourist areas and I visit the island regularly & own a house in Canngu near Seminyak.
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