Last night I watched The Intern on television and decided to write about it because the story seems relevant to our time, the characters are attractive and the humor gentle, it has several nice subplots, and with one exception, never annoyed me. Robert De Niro plays Ben Wittaker, a 70 year old retired business manager working as an intern in a website business. Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, his boss. Quoting a reviewer, here, “In Intern, She’s the Boss, but He’s the Star.” De Niro is masterful in the role, Hathaway is convincing and the young actors surrounding them are charming. Here and here for reviews.

The current meaning of “intern” is new to me. I’ve always pictured an intern as a recently qualified doctor in a hospital, fresh out of medical school, doing a year’s training in a medical specialty. Interns worked long, grueling, punishing hours for low pay, and hospitals depended upon them for cheap labor. For many years, movies and television dramas about doctors in hospital internships were popular with the public. I discussed one such movie here.

Now the internship is defined as job training for white collar and professional careers. From a study I did in rural Turkey, 1968 to ’72, I became familiar with traditional apprenticeships for trade and vocational jobs, the original internships. The boy in the photograph here is in an apprenticeship, as were boys in the butcher shop shown, and a boy in the photo of a furniture workshop in another essay on our apartment in Ankara. In the central Anatolian town Hasan and I studied, described here and in other posts, we observed boys working as apprentices, on the way to becoming a master, Usta, in various traditional crafts, such as blacksmith. Usta is a title of respect, like Bey (or Doctor) for a professional or learned man. In the mid-1970s, doing an M.B.A. in the Kellogg School (in my mid-40s), between the two years most of us did a summer management internship that was not directly related to future employment. (Mine was in the American Hospital in Paris, unpaid.) The current internship is a new institution. In my generation, at least in the early years, the tradition still existed of a business/industry doing its own training of the management staff and of its skilled laborers. Then came the vocational schools, the M.B.A., the professional Master’s degree preparing people for the job market. And now we have the intern as cheap, or free, labor while learning on the job, not too different from the apprentice, except the apprenticeship was more personal and the young person’s future was far more secure.

The movie begins with showing why Ben wants the intern job; it is a way out of the boredom that has overtaken him. He’s a widower whose children and grandchildren live too far away for him to be involved in their lives. He is in good health, has a good income, still lives in his proper bourgeois home, has many acquaintances, if not exactly friends, and is part of an upper middle class neighborhood. He knows this area of Brooklyn, even the building in which he will be an intern. Midway through the movie a romantic interest for him, a woman of about sixty, is introduced. It annoyed me that the two women his age are both made to look foolish and unattractive.

In Jules we see a frantically busy entrepreneur running a business she loves, engaged in its every detail and on good, if not close relationships with her employees. We also see her aid-de-camp informing her that the company’s investors want her to step aside, to bring in a qualified CEO to manage the company more efficiently, and they have a number of men prepared to take over for her. Granted that she did create and build a very profitable business in eighteen months from nothing to hundreds of employees, she really is in over her head, isn’t she? So, all she needs to do now is interview the CEO candidates and select the one she prefers. In the meantime, as Jules struggles with this, she and her husband, who is a stay-at-home Dad to their adorable daughter, are having troubles.

Ben is tactful and observant. He becomes everyone’s friend, an advisor to the young men in matters of romance, and a helper with several management problems. His experience is useful, even in this world of changed technology, more casual dress and manners for young men, young women in key positions, and certainly less hierarchy. He soon finds himself in a position to be Jules’ constant source of support, and they become friends. He respects both her and her business acumen.

This is an agreeably done story of an older person finding meaning in life by being involved with and helping younger people, of a modern woman succeeding in the business world if the man in her life accepts a blurring of traditional roles, and of friendship between generations. To think reasonably about it overall I had to check and set aside my thoughts on social reality and what someone with my background and frame of mind would have done in Ben’s situation.

Park Slope brownstones

The movie is set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and part of the story is the setting — scenes of building facades and interiors, of the streets and of the parks where children play. The brownstone row houses are handsome.

Brooklyn Conservatory of Musid

I would like to have seen more of the public buildings, the way we saw more of Manhattan and Harlem in Jungle Fever,  the movie I discussed here, and included a useful map of New York City and its boroughs.

Azad, my adopted son, watched the movie with me and was surprised by the gentrification of Park Slope. In the 1980s he had gone into the area to look for a place to live but found it too crime ridden for his comfort. An image that stays with him is of a car on a main street sitting on bricks, its tires and everything detachable long gone. People in the neighborhood were poor, older working class, like the Irish and Italian, and Black and Latino people who had moved in as middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Finally, Azad rented an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, near the IRT subway stop, not far from the great St. George Hotel.

A notable feature of The Intern is everyone in the workplace, except for one woman, and in Ben’s neighborhood being standard of-European-descent White. In most movies and on TV these days, a more realistic ethnic and racial diversity is shown, at least among the extras. Since Ben had worked for forty years in a top managerial position in the remodeled building of his internship, he surely would have known a more mixed demographic as workers, more like the minority group women we see when Jules goes to the factory floor to show workers how to box items for shipping. Think of how Ben might have volunteered to teach in a vocational school, showing less privileged young people learning technical job skills how to development the management skills also needed for moving up the career ladder. That sort of engagement would have broken the boredom, but these people were not part of his community, of his reference group, and probably invisible to a man like Ben.  Oh well. At least the movie doesn’t stereotype minority group people; it just pretends they don’t exist.

Azad often chose to walk across the historic, magnificent Brooklyn Bridge to reach the Manhattan office where he worked. How I would have loved to walk on the bridge, to have had that experience.

Normally I would not write about a musical, but I saw La La Land with my son, Arun, a cinephile who writes about movies as well as politics, and walking out of the theatre, on the way home in the car, into the evening, we talked about the movie. I had seen it from the first scene onward as a drama and focused on the characters, on their relationship, and with a few exceptions, let the music and dance slip by as okay, some of it nice. Arun began liking the movie in its second half. The following day a friend phoned to tell me she and her husband had seen it and wondered why it was getting such good reviews. (Arun comments on the wildly different opinions people have of La La Land.) She compared it with Hollywood musicals from the past, and found it lacking, above all, in memorable songs. She listed the musicals she loved, including Carousel, which reminded me that in 1955 I had gone out of my way to see Oklahoma because Agnes de Mille had choreographed it. “De Mille revolutionized musical theatre (Broadway) by creating choreography which not only conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters but enhanced the plot. Her choreography, as a reflection of her awareness of acting, reflected the angst and turmoil of the characters instead of simply focusing on a dancer’s physical technique.” In those years I followed modern dance and Martha Graham. De Mille and Graham were friends.

Both movie music and La La Land type Hollywood nostalgia are beyond my ken. I grew up with only junk music in my environment and although I loved to dance, paid little attention to the music (until the Beatles). Not until the 1950s, when I was in my twenties, did I think of movies as anything other than a way to pass the time, and then, from the mid-60s to late ’90s lived as an expatriate, with concerns other than cinema. Over the years I saw Hollywood musicals but didn’t pay attention to them. They were song and dance performed by singers and dancers, the plot lines were simple and the characters single-dimensional, remaining the same persons at the end as they were at the beginning. There was nothing for me to analyze. Still, I loved On the Town (1949), the adventures of sailors on leave in New York City. In West Side Story (1961), my favorite, which I’ve seen many times, the cast of characters is larger and more complex. I can describe the two sides, the Jets and the Sharks, and how the Romeo and Juliet theme is translated into the New York setting, love the marvelous dancing and the significant, truthful lyrics of the songs, but everyone already knows the story.

La La Land, unlike the usual Hollywood musical, is character driven and actors, not dancers or singers, play the main characters. For thinking about this musical, I read articles on the Fred Astaire musicals I missed and on the musicals I’ve seen. Additionally, I’ve been watching dance videos on-line. (again and again of Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights. oh my)

I like this review but disagree with —  “Emma Stone, in a luminous performance, is by turns plucky, furious, hopeful, distraught, and devoted, and when she sings the wistful ballad “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” she is every inch a star.” Obviously, this is the consensus but it escapes me.

I read that Damien Chazelle, director of La La Land, was influenced by The Umbellas of Cherbourg. Like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, it is a musical in which actors, not professional singers and dancers, sing and dance. I didn’t like The Umbrellas… at all. Won’t bother with the Allen movie.

But this does remind me of Guys and Dolls, back in the 1950s, and of Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons acting the lyrics, singing in their pleasing natural voices. Nothing in La La Land matches them or comes even close. (A review from 2013 is here) But Ryan Gosling is graceful, like Brando, and I enjoyed watching him in the nicely choreographed dance in the sunset. I’ve watched a part of it since, several times, on video. I was enchanted by the Griffith Observatory scene, by the grand building and by the couple in a ballroom dance, she in a long white gown, floating up into the planetary dome.

The opening scene of La La Land is fun and it lets us know we are in Los Angeles. I noticed that neither Mia (Emma Stone) nor Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) were out there dancing. Quite the opposite. Both remain seated in their cars, detached from the action and happen to aim their general annoyance at one another. Sebastian drives a convertible and is conspicuously different. Mia’s car is ordinary enough that I can’t identify it. Early scenes establish them both as serious artists. Mia shares living quarters and is friendly with other aspiring actresses but she keeps herself a bit separate from them. Posters on the wall of her bedroom are of Ingrid Bergman. It seems that Sebastian shares an apartment with his sister but she leaves, exasperated by his obsessive, single-minded, purist approach to jazz. From this review,  “Consider the scene in which Sebastian listens to a jazz record and tries to reproduce the pianist’s sound. It’s not imitation for imitation’s sake. He’s trying to get inside the head of an artist he loves. … ”

Both Mia and Sebastian are struggling to make a living and make it in their adored Hollywood (and in the beautifully photographed L.A. they wander through), she as an actress and he to own a nightclub where he can play and promote his beloved jazz. In early scenes it is established that both are beset with disappointing responses to their art, and in cleverly demonstrated sequences they are shown coming to appreciate and support one another as artists, all the while falling in love.

To compensate for my lack of attention to songs in the movie, I recommend this analysis of the plot. According to Nate Sloan, a musicologist, the song “City of Stars” collapses the film’s entire plot into 2.5 minutes. It is the movie in microcosm, using techniques borrowed from old Hollywood and from Romantic opera. About halfway through the film, jazz pianist Sebastian and aspiring actress Mia sing “City of Stars” and it establishes the bond between them. “La La Land’s narrative hinges on whether its lovestruck Angelenos will choose each other over their respective ambitions. This central question — of whether head-over-heels romance can be reconciled with the individualistic drive needed to succeed in Hollywood — runs through the lyrics of “City of Stars.” (Let it be said that individualist drive is required for top-of-the-field success in most professions/industries.)

La La Land’s answer to this central question is the first of its sort I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie. It’s a story of the relationship between a young woman and young man in different professional worlds, both talented and ambitious, who fall in love, and although Sebastian is the more giving of the two, respect the other’s work and support the other’s career. Gradually, however, the demands of pursuing career brings on discord and they come to an impasse that is implied rather than shown. Both reach success, but not together. And that is the drama, interpreted differently by every viewer of the film.

La La Land’s leading lady is certainly different. Mia is unapologetically career oriented, ambitious and she succeeds. Plus, she is presented as a likeable person.  In the few movies I know of with a career-oriented and professionally successful woman, the husband is a flawed individual, as in Funny Girl (1968) and A Star Is Born (1954). I liked the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies because in them she is a successful professional in a good marriage with an equally successful husband, but even there he asserts his dominance, and they have no children. One of their movies, Woman of the Year (1942) is about an international affairs correspondent who receives an award as “America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year.” Her husband is a sports writer, and they “encounter problems as a result of her unflinching commitment to her work.” The movie denouement has her giving up her professional ambition and happily accepting the humble role of traditional wife. The movie was financially successful, won awards for Hepburn and was made into a Broadway play. I wonder what Hepburn’s private thoughts were of it all. Other than for the money earned, they could not have been positive. I could do comments on movie versions of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but – at another time.

I recommend the on-line discussion here of “The End of La La Land Explained.” The Comments are wonderful, some of them truly insightful. Most seem to be from young people who were caught up in the romance of the story. My perspective is different; it’s that of a woman in her late eighties with the particular, unusual history described throughout this blog. I viewed Mia and Sebastian as functioning in two different worlds and reaching across them to keep their love for one another alive. She is trying to work in an industry where job descriptions are fuzzy and hiring is done by heartless individuals for whom the applicant is invisible as a person. Other actors do not give her camaraderie, certainly not support. Sebastian wants only to play jazz piano and make a living doing it. After a number of frustrating gigs, he has the good fortune of a fellow jazz musician, Keith, (R&B star John Legend) seeking him out and providing him with work that compromises him only a little in his art. Scenes of Sebastian after that are of him in his natural milieu, moving in a small society of people like himself who clearly understand and appreciate him.

Suddenly, we are presented with Mia as an internationally famous actor who has a home, a small child, a nanny to help her with motherly responsibilities and a husband who is, I assume, from her own world and can adjust his schedule to hers. She is in a happy marriage. This is followed by a dreamy fantasy vision of her and Sebastian together, both successful, married, with a child, of what might have been. We see that Sebastian has his jazz club but learn nothing of his personal life. And why should we? Most likely, along with success in a business compatible with his art, he has a wife who gives him children and a personal life. Mia had to chose the right husband for her to have it all. Memories of their time together and of the love they felt for one another will always be with them.

In the review by Manohla Dargis, one with great photographs:   “In his study “Pursuits of Happiness,” (the philosopher) Stanley Cavell writes that certain screwball films of the 1930s and ’40s involve the creation of a new woman or what he calls “a new creation of the human.” He sees these films as “parables of a phase of the development of consciousness at which the struggle is for the reciprocity or equality of consciousness between a woman and a man,” which is a nice way to describe “Top Hat” and the rather different “La La Land.”

Ah yes. The ancient dream of Abelard and Heloise — It may be more readily accommodated today than ever before but rarely for a lifetime.

Any woman with career ambitions or who is already in a career will find these articles interesting.

I rented and watched Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) and will watch his Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Whiplash is excellent but I have enough problems with it that I’ll discuss it separately, in another essay.

Good-bye to Bali

This is my eighth essay on Bali, and it’s time to move on. For months, beginning with this essay, I’ve been reading, thinking, puzzling over Bali, Tabanan, Jatiluwihthe history of Bali, searching for the reasons why this peasant society is so different from other peasant societies, setting down in writing a good part of what I learned along the way and finally arrived here, at journey’s end. I remain as charmed as ever by Bali’s remarkable people and by the countryside Nehru described as “the morning of the world.” In my first letter from Indonesia to Ravi I wrote, “I love Bali.” Someone took photos of me in my first days at work in Bali, of me with the village development program team, walking with the health center staff and sitting with the volunteers at a ceremony, obviously happy to be in their company. I wonder if the people there noticed something that strikes me whenever I go through my photographs from Indonesia. Unlike in most other countries where I lived and worked, I am the same size as the women of the country.

Among the many images of Balinese society, such as the subak and banjar, I carry away with me is that of a highly cohesive community with each person’s place in it well defined and arranged into an interpersonal hierarchy so amiably and gently enforced as to be almost invisible to an outsider; I sensed the conformity, the importance of group over individual, but learned of hierarchy through reading. I also remained unaware of the societal hierarchy, even though I had read of a Balinese class system using Hindu caste names and did encounter it once, briefly.

I have an explanation and diagram of the Indian caste system here

In outline for India, Brahmins were the priests, Kashatriya the warriors controlling government, Vaisya the craftsmen and merchants, Shudra the peasant farmers. Ranking below these castes grouping were, and still are, the outcaste peoples. The caste hierarchy is basic in Indian society, enormously complicated and crosscut by social class differences, levels of wealth differences, regional and rural and urban differences.

Portrait of the Buleleng king and his secretary

Portrait of the Buleleng king and his secretary

For Bali, Brahmin priests and Kastria/Kashatriya warriors from Hinduized Java, Indian men among them, moved into Bali with the Majapahit conquerors and set themselves up as a ruling elite over the various kingdoms that evolved during their domination.

A prince during the colonial period

A prince during the colonial period

They married Balinese women and established royal lineages. From what I read, Wesya/Vaisya lineages may descend from Hinduized men from Java who served as administrators under the Ksatrias kings. Indian traders, who are Vaisya, may have been among them. (12% of Balinese Y-chromosomes are likely of Indian origin) I read that Balinese men did not do commerce. Women did the small, local trade. balinese-king-1597Chinese and Sulawesi men did the major trade. Eventually Chinese men brought in Chinese wives and established their own small, often affluent, ethnic communities. The vast majority of the people, the village farmers and craftsmen/farmers, were Shudra.

For descriptions of Bali’s caste systems, here and here.

My one encounter with the Balinese social hierarchy happened near Denpasar in 1978. I wrote about it in a letter to Ravi. “… After our formal interviewing, we stopped at a family gathering in an old temple complex with modern housing included. bali-girlsShe (my colleague) knew one of the women there, the mother of a school friend, and talked with her. Actually, we were on the site of an ancient royal residence, participating in the gathering of the king’s descendents for their annual ceremony. The head of the lineage, a very handsome man, lives in Denpasar and works in the Governor’s office. He speaks English. He, and many others, asked me to visit them. The hospitality is so easy and gracious. For the ceremony, women had brought food and it was blessed in the temple. This was also the day for blessing all knives and the kris. After we left my colleague told me her school friend is from this lineage, which is Kashatriya. The friend is a lawyer and married a lawyer who is Shudra. Her family disowned her, so they moved to Surabaya. The mother said the family still does not forgive the daughter for marrying below her caste. It is strange to hear the Indian caste names being used. … … ”

From another 1978 letter to Ravi and the children —

“I have just returned from a most wonderful day. A woman from the office, Dr. Inne, a lovely person, picked me up this morning at 7:30 and we drove in the office jeep to a village on a mountain lake, Lake Batur. bali-trunyan-village-on-lake-baturThe volcano is also Mt. Batur. The countryside is green, terraced rice fields with coconut trees. Temples are everywhere and the village houses are quite decent. People smile; children are bold and friendly. In the village hamlet I interviewed the midwife and program fieldworker. Next we went across the lake by a motorized ferryboat to a second hamlet, up a hill to talk with the village headman. We could see a steady stream of tourists, all Indonesian, climbing up, staring at everything.

“Both these hamlets are of the aboriginal Balinese, who are considered very different. The road into their mountain area is from only three years ago, and they have been further isolated by strong endogamy. They do not cremate like other Balinese; they put the bodies of their dead on the ground under a tree that gives off a sweet smell that stops the odor of decay. So there we were, older boys hanging around, just watching; me, through Dr Inne, talking with the headman and taking notes; skeletons lying in a clearing with rotting clothes and bowls of food offerings; old Chinese coins scattered around on the ground. I picked up three of the coins.

“By 4:00 pm we finished the interviewing and had a chat with villagers who wanted to know how village people in America do family planning. I put my notebook down and we just talked. Inne is a good interpreter. Rural people don’t often express curiosity about other countries. I did my best to respond in a way that would make sense to them.

“From there Inne and I went to a restaurant high on a ledge, bali-viewover the lake, facing the volcano. Then back to Denpasar, past temples and rows of women, each woman carrying on her head a colorful, carefully arranged stack of food, taking it to the temple to be blessed. I spent the evening talking with program people. Tomorrow I’ll write all day, must work hard.

(I have since learned the name of the village – Trunyan – here and here.)

“Two days later – These are country folk. People are up and moving by 5:30 am. It is now 7:45 and I am dressed, have had breakfast, reviewed some materials and am waiting for the office car. My room is one in a U around a small garden, one story. I’m told it is the first hotel in Bali, 1927 or so, and the plumbing and electricity reflect that fact. But I like the place. Last night a group of Japanese teen-agers moved in. Wherever they move they have American pop music blaring. Why do teenagers like noise?

“I wrote all day yesterday. Hope the people at the office find the report useful. … …”

And now I move on to other parts of my life in Indonesia, always there for work and preoccupied with it but happy being with the people in this land of amazing, beautiful islands.

My previous essay on the artful crafts of Bali, here, ended with the statement, “In 1354, Majapahit forces from Java, led by Gajah Mada, landed in Bali and captured Bedulu. It changed the course of history for Bali.” With that invasion an island of chieftainships and small kingdoms began its transformation into a medieval sort of society, one of substantial kingdoms, each with a Hinduized high caste elite ruling over peasant villages and marketplaces. Cities, truly urban communities, did not develop until the Dutch colonial period in the mid-19th century.

And this provides the context to complete my exploration begun four months ago of Bali’s crafts and folk art. I discussed the basketry, pottery, spinning and weaving, the production of bronze tools and musical instruments — crafts inherited from Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the sort I am fond of and collect – and continued on to a brief consideration of stone and wood carving from later times, after the society had evolved from simple autonomous villages into chieftainships and small kingdoms. For this essay I venture further into Bali’s history and how the Balinese culture, unique and so very attractive, came into being, captivating artistically minded foreigners and managing to resist the damaging effects of sun-and-sand tourism.

The 1354 CE invasion was the beginning of Bali’s kingdoms, providing royal patronage under which traditional dance, music, painting and sculpture flourished and was elaborated. Balinese dance and the gamelan are folk dance and folk music, taught by villagers to the young; they were important in daily life. As reported in Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies in the early 1930s, the dance movements were highly stylized; the stories, characters, themes being danced were known to everyone; theatrical performances were given frequently, for each rite de passage (birth, etc.) for religious rites, for celebrations, etc.  In the 1980 I twice watched performances of dance with an Indonesia colleague who commented on the meaning of the dancers’ movements and dismissed as novices the graceful, high-spirited girls I favored. Regarding paintings and sculpture, largely religious in nature, a simple love of decoration may well have contributed to their ubiquity in royal palaces and temples, as well as in village life. Quoting from an excellent discussion of traditional Balinese painting, here, “… (Painting) was a world of Hindu gods, demons, and princesses dressed in the ancient attire of Hindu Javanese times. Quaint but uninspiring, their purpose was to instill moral and ethical values by relating laws of adat. Specialists in the traditional arts of religious drawing and painting were commissioned by the rajas to paste gold leaf on pieces of clothing; paint statues and artifacts in bright splashy colors; and decorate wooden cremation towers, palace altars, and pavilions. Noblemen from the courts loaned each other artists, in this way spreading art all over the island.”

In the 20th century, foreigners introduced the concept of art for art’s sake, of the explicit valuing of creativity and individual expression in painting and sculpture. Fortunately, many of the traditional craftsmen and women were intrinsically artists and their work survives to be appreciated as art.

I will summarize here some of what I learned of Bali’s history. I’m still thinking about my conclusions and final thoughts. That I’ll add later.

majapahit-empire-mapWith the 1354 invasion, Bali was pulled into the Majapahit Empire, a vast thalassocracy based in east Java, an empire stretching from Sumatra to New Guinea — present-day’s Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand, Sulu Archipelago, Philippines and East Timor.

Thalassacracy? It was a new word for me, but after weeks of reading Indonesian history, struggling to remember long, totally unfamiliar names of people and places outside my experience, of feeling overwhelmed, “thalassocracy” was a gift. It gave me a framework for organizing this new information, for making sense of it. I began to see how people acted and to imagine why.

First, a defintion. Thalassocracy is from Greek, thalassa, meaning “sea” and kratein, meaning “to rule”, thalassokratia, “rule of the sea,” to rule by controlling sea lanes, a state ruling over maritime realms, a sea-borne empire.

Phoenician ship

Phoenician ship

An phoenician-trade-thalassocracyexample of a thalassocracy familiar in western history is the ancient Phoenician network of merchant city-state ports, each a politically independent unit separate from its hinterland, a sea-based civilization spread across the Mediterranean from 1500 BCE to 300 BCE. Sidon may have been the oldest of the cities. From there a colonizing party founded the city of Tyre and onward to the founding of other such city-states and a great Mediterranean commercial empire. Each city faced the sea, separate from its tribal hinterland. It depended upon the people outside its walls for food and basic goods but was not an urban community that had grown organically out of the society behind it.

It was from the Phoenicians that we inherited the alphabet, a way to write letters that represent phonemes, the basic significant sound units from which words are formed. It is a way to write a language that can be easily learned and applied to any language. Unlike a scribe or a priest who specialized in being literate (as with hieroglyphics or Chinese), a trader could quickly learn a script to write his language, keep records, read the ancient religious stories some wise man had transcribed from the oral tradition. Through their maritime trade the Phoenicians spread writing by alphabet across their territory. One variant was adopted by the Greeks, who transmitted it to the Romans.

The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician in the 7th century BCE and became the official script of the Persian Empire, appears to be the ancestor of nearly all the modern alphabets of Asia. Most alphabetic scripts of India are descended from the Brahmi script, which is often believed to be a descendant of the Aramaic script, transmitted via the Persians to the Mauryan Empire (322 BCE – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Empire (320 — 550 CE) of India —  and from there to Sumatra, Java and Bali. For centuries in India, the Ramayana, Mahabharta and Bhagavad Gita epics in the Sanskrit language had been passed on orally, through story-telling, and finally set down in writing during the Gupta Empire. Sanskrit words entered the Javanese Austronesian language with the adoption of Indian religions and Javanese today regard Sanskrit as an ancestral language.

Maritime Silk Road for spices

Maritime Silk Road for spices

Javanese ship, Borobudur, 9th century

Javanese ship, Borobudur, 9th century

Before discovering thalassocracies, I rarely thought of sea lanes or of rivers, the original highways of rising civilizations. Nowhere I lived as a child was near a river or a lake, and as for the sea, in my center-of-the-continent world people believed two enormous oceans, one on either side, protected America from the rest of the world. It was ancient roads, like the Grand Trunk Road and Roman roads, that fascinated me and I wrote about them, with pictures, here.

Not until the 1960s was I anywhere near the sea, but when I did get there the experience was serious. I lived in an ancient city-state, daily visiting the harbor and the buildings that had once been part of an Indian Ocean commercial empire. I was in Mogadiscio, the northern-most of East Africa’s coastal city-states, where men in dhows sailing the monsoon winds from India and Arabian lands came to trade, continued down the coast to other city-states, including Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, and last to Sofala, then sailed north when the monsoons turned back toward India. I do not know if any one of the coastal city-states in the region controlled the others as in an empire, but before the Italians came to Somalia at the beginning of the 20th century, the Sultan of Sohar in Oman, but living in Zanzibar, controlled much of the trade, or at least taxed it. I included the photos of Mogadiscio’s Customs building and Omani residences in previous essays. Notes, pictures and my photographs of the original Mogadiscio are here and others are here and here.

Indonesia is a nation of islands but for me it was land I entered and left by air and traveled across by vehicle. I was on water only when taking the ferryboat between Surabya and Madura. Only now am I coming to understand much of what I saw and experienced. I wrote previously, here, about what being in Indonesia meant for me. The time was from 1977 to 1991 and I did consultancies, evaluating rural health care programs across the islands for the Ministry of Health, viewing Indonesian society from the perspectives of villagers and medical personnel. I flew to Jakarta from Paris, where Ravi and I were living, usually having broken the long flight with a stay-over in Delhi or Bangalore, once in Lucknow, twice in Allahabad, visiting with one or another of Ravi’s aunts, uncles, cousins. Within hours of being in India I was in Indonesia, a culture so different from Indian culture that learning of Hinduism in Indonesia’s past surprised me, as did the Buddhism in Borobudor and in Bali. Islam also came to Indonesia via Indian traders, but I was involved with primary health care, with colleagues, with new friendships and hardly noticed religious practices. After having lived in Somalia, Turkey, India, France, I took a diversity of religions as a normal part of life.

Through writing previous posts, essays on Ravi’s childhood in India, exploring the cities and places where he grew up, I learned something of India’s history. Now I return to India and try to understand why, beginning in the 2nd century BCE, men in those great civilizations I recently discovered would bother to get into ships and sail from the Bay of Bengal, even as early as the Mauryan Empire, to the distant eastern seas. (I wrote of Mauryan culture and Buddhism here.) The motive was not seeking land to settle a growing population; the men in ships were traders. Still, what were they looking for and what did they carry with them to use in an exchange? I assume (reasoning from Bronze Age traders in my part of the world) the Indian traders were well armed and ready to fight, using metal weapons, and to take what they came for. Violence may not work well long term, but the threat of violence would underlay the trade relationship, and perhaps, ensure the payment of a tax. Once trade with a coastal city proved profitable, the Indian traders’ guild would, most likely, establish a trading post there, with a member in charge, ready to welcome and provision fellow Buddhist traders (Ganesh was their deity) when they stopped at the port.

Indian traders sailed to the islands for profit, but they also carried with them new technologies and new concepts. By the 5th century, traders from the South Indian Pallava dynasty had brought writing to Tarumanagara, a Hinduized kingdom based near Jakarta, where their script was used for recording the names and deeds of kings. (By the 8th century other Indian scripts were introduced and an indigenous script evolved from them.) The traders used Sanskrit, the lingua franca of ancient and medieval South Asia, not their own languages, Telagu or Tamil.  (as Latin, inherited from Rome, was the lingua franca of medieval Europe)

Chola Empire c. 1030 CE

Chola Empire c. 1030 CE

I wondered what items were being traded across these vast distances, and with whom. In the Bronze Age tin and copper for tools and weapons were among the first commodities to be traded anywhere, and the lumber for building ships, tall trunks for the masts, were resources to be sought, not available everywhere.  By the time of the Srivijaya thalassocratic Empire based in Sumatra, 650 – 1377 CE, the great empire that preceded the Majapahit Empire (c.1293 — 1500), the goods traded were “… Rice, cotton, indigo and silver from Java; aloes, resin, camphor, ivory and rhino’s tusks, tin and gold from Sumatra; rattan, rare timber, gems and precious stones from Borneo; exotic birds and rare animals, iron, sappan, sandalwood and rare spices from Eastern Indonesian archipelago; various spices of Southeast Asia and India; also Chinese ceramics, lacquerware, brocade, fabrics, silks and Chinese artworks. … ” southeast-asia-trade-route-map-12th-to-early-13th-centuries-by-gunawan-kartapranataIncidentally, the Srivijaya Empire was important in spreading Buddhism across Southeast Asia.

Chola navy and the battle of Kedah

Chola navy and the battle of Kedah

Throughout most of their shared history, ancient India and Indonesia enjoyed friendly and peaceful relations. However, it was also competitive and in 1025 CE, the Chola king from Tamil Nadu in South India, launched naval raids on Srivijayan cities. This particular attack on a city in Malaysia. was short and meant only to plunder.

Bali never came under a thalassocracy’s dominance; it was not geographically situated for that. As noted previously, here, until modern air travel Bali was not an easily accessible island. It is surrounded by coral reefs. The channel west of Bali is not easily navigable; the currents are very strong.

Chinese ship 13th century

Chinese ship 13th century

Heavy seas lash the southern coast and the few harbors are small, but not so small as to deter Chinese and Sulawesi Bugis traders despite the fact that ships sailing near the shore frequently crashed and sank, providing the Balinese with goods to be salvaged at their leisure. Bali’s agricultural wealth also attracted Javanese adventurers. Carved into a 10th century Belanjong pillar found near the Sunar harbor, Denpasar is an inscription in both Sanskrit and Balinese, indicating that a king of the central Java’s Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty had lead a military expedition from the sea to this site. The Sailendra was both a thalassocracy and a large civilization in Central Java, Buddhist and most notable for Borobudur.

Model of a Majapahit ship

Model of a Majapahit ship

The Majapahit thalassocratic empire, 14th century, was based in an East Java city, recently discovered and being excavated, near today’s Surabaya. Gadja Mada succeeded in landing his ships in sufficient numbers to conquer the Balinese kingdoms. (How I wish I had known this history in the 1980s when I was driving about in Surabya, staying there in a hotel, taking the ferry to Madura.)

A clear outline of the relationship between Java and Bali and the succession of kingdoms and empires is here.

Bali was not overtaken by a thalassocracy but it had always been linked with Java, receiving much of its culture from the more advanced Javanese civilizations. With conquest, Hinduized Javanese, and a certain number of Indians, moved in and set themselves up as an elite. They brought their religion and writing, as well as the technology, iron working, for making tools – the hoe, iron clad plow, knives, axes — critical in producing the abundance of food that supported a growing population and the elites’ lifestyle. The blacksmiths also fashioned the kris, prestigious swords, for the kings’ warriors.

The blacksmiths of Bali are a guild with their gods and religious ritual inherited from Hindu traditions. They have a lineage name, Pande, and are endogamous.  From a newspaper account: Family head Pande Putu Sunarta, his brother, Pande Made Suteja, and their wives and children are richly proud of their heritage and of the knowledge they continue to hold in an unbroken tradition that began as early as the 11th century in Java under the Majapahit Kingdom and that later came to dominate almost all of Indonesia. Sunata said, “At the time our family arrived in Bali there was only the Bali Mula (villagers) here. There were no cities at that time because kingdoms had not yet begun, so in a way our family helped in the establishment of the kingdom working as blacksmiths. … my tools are an extension of my body … we learned this esoteric knowledge from our ancestors …”

ironsmith-keris-relief-at-sukuh-templeTraces of the blacksmith ancestors in Java, with the Hindu Ganesha as their god, are found in a rather strange 15th century JavaneseHindu monument located on the slope of a mountain between Central and East Java provinces. At the time, the area was under the rule of the late, 1293–1500 CE, Majapahit Kingdom. This scene in bas relief depicts on the left Bhima, the mighty blacksmith of the Mahabharata, forging the metal while a dancing Ganesha in the center holds what may be a dog, while Arjuna, of the Bhagavad Gita, on the right operates the tube blower to pump air into the furnace.  An interesting article on metallurgy and its important symbolism in early times is here.

A good article here on Bali’s exceptional metallurgy — in bronze. copper, brass, silver, gold and iron.

portuguese-shipIn 1585, the Portuguese government in Malacca, on the Malay peninsula, sent a ship to establish a fort and a trading post in Bali. The mission failed as their ship foundered on the reef of the Bukit peninsula, at Denpasar. However, five survivors made it ashore and were welcomed by the king of Gelgel, known as the Dalem. He provided them with wives and homes and they became part of his court.

In 1597, a Dutch explorer arrived in Bali with 89 men, a mere third of the number who had begun the journey. After visits to Kuta, on the western shore of Denpasar, and Jembrana, to the northwest, he assembled his fleet in Padang Bai, northeast of Denpasar and now a ferry port. He met with the Dalem of Gelgel and one of the Portuguese sailors from 1585. In 1601 a second Dutch expedition appeared and the Dalem gave them a letter allowing the Dutch to trade in Bali.

Balinese slave 1718

Balinese slave 1718

Besides these attempts, the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, left the Bali trade to private traders, mainly Chinese, Arab, Bugis and occasionally Dutch, who mainly dealt with the  opium and slave trade. According to Willard A. Hanna’s Bali Chronicles, 2004, “Balinese slaves were highly prized both in Bali and overseas. Balinese male slaves were famous for their manual skills and their courage, the females for their beauty and artistic attainments.” The kings of Bali typically sold opponents, debtors, criminals, orphans and widows as slaves to be used in Batavian households, the Dutch Colonial Army, or sent abroad, the biggest market being the French Mauritius. Payment to the Balinese kings was usually made in opium. The main port for this trade was the Buleleng harbor in north Bali.

In the mid 19th century the Dutch built their harbor, Singaraja, on the northern coast and marched their soldiers south to take over the island.

I think of Balinese society, beginning with the Majapahit invasion, as medieval, one of kingdoms where the ruling elite lived in palace enclosures and most everyone else lived in villages as farming folk who were also the craftsmen/women. And there were market towns. I have not learned who ran the markets but read that women did most of the trading and Balinese men did not engage in trade. The Chinese and Bugis traders provided the royal families with opium but must also have sold metals to the bronze and iron smiths, maybe through the king, who would take his cut. By the mid-1800s, as the slave trade diminished, kings/princes depended on selling their subjects’ rice, cattle, palm oil and cotton cloth for revenue. Pierre Dubois reported that tobacco, coconut, coffee and indigo were cash crops, but I think those were mainly in north Bali.

My picture of the court society comes from “Bali in the Early 19th Century: the Ethnographic Accounts of Pierre Dubois” by Helen M. Creese. He was a bureaucrat in the Dutch colonial government, the Civil Administrator in Badung, in the 1830s.  He wrote poetic accounts of rice terraces, rivers, hundreds of villages and small domains stretching down from the mountains to the sea, but mostly he spent his time with the ruling class and was caught up in its status system, its complications and constantly changing configurations. (I will comment later on the relationship between Bali’s caste elite and the villagers.)

Most salient are Dubois’ observations on how geography determined the governmental structure of Balinese society. It was an island of relatively small principalities, using his term, with sharp borders between them. Each principality was separated from its neighbors by deep ravines and high mountains, and a high mountain range separates the north from the south. There are no navigable rivers to sail. Roads, where they existed, were extremely difficult to use and dangerous because of tigers and “malefactors,” by which Dubois must have meant bandits and thieves.

Balinese soldiers

Balinese soldiers

Poor mobility mitigated against warmongering and against hostile forces of one prince launching an offensive against another, especially in the wet season. The principalities remained small; no one prince could conquer the others to build a national kingdom and outsiders, even the Dutch, did not see Bali as a profitable place for extracting raw resources or for establishing plantations. From the book by Geertz in the 1950s: wars between the princes were short. Battles were fought on foot using only knives, spears and bludgeons, fighting often stopped at nightfall or sometimes with the first death in battle, and only rarely did a war involve extended campaigns.

Dubois wrote of the taxes the Prince collected on all forms of public ritual and entertainment, on any productive activity such fishing, salt, sales, besides a share of the harvest and the corvée, a labor tax on the peasant.

In the principality justice system the Prince was the highest authority, and Dubois considered his decisions mostly arbitrary rather than just. The Prince did not keep a police force or a standing army. There was, of course, no school system. The Geertzes were less negative about the ruling class. They saw the political system of Prince, lords and subjects as buttressing and making possible a great deal of ritual activity. The peasants provided the food and the work but they were also the main participants in the great feasts and dramatized displays.

The views of Bali from Dubois’ perspective, and from those Margaret Mead, here, and Clifford Geertz, are different from the way 20th century foreign artists viewed the culture and how later tourists see Bali. Until fairly recently, perhaps until Indonesia’s independence, the real Bali was a land where the powerful took far more than their share of what the society produced, but because the Balinese villagers understood how to use their rich soil, water, climate and were left until recently without much interference from the outside world, they lived far better, had more leisure and a richer culture than most villagers elsewhere.

More of my thoughts and observations next … …

In Part I of this essay, from a month ago, I outlined here my views on the Balinese as a peasant society, on the society’s origin and its beginnings, critical points in its history and more thoughts on why Bali is so different from other peasant societies. I describe much of Balinese culture through a discussion of its crafts – of the basketry, pottery, spinning and weaving, the production of bronze tools and musical instruments — crafts from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, the sort I usually pick up when in other countries.

Unfortunately, the quality of Balinese crafts completely escaped my attention when I was there, preoccupied with work and my Indonesian colleagues. for-ravis-deskInstead, I bought two ordinary souvenirs in an ordinary shop, but even they are worth a comment. One is a touristy wood carving I had made for Ravi’s desk, of his name with the barong hovering protectively over it. The barong, king of the good spirits and enemy of Rangda, the demon queen, is everywhere in Bali, including in a ritual dance between Barong and Rangda that represents the eternal battle between good and evil. It is one of the surviving beliefs from Bali’s Austronesian origins, from a time when their religion was a form of animism, when they honored the spirits of nature and the spirits of ancestors who remain among the living, and all good spirits, like the one whose image I took home with me.

bali-sanghyang-dedare-dance-possessed-by-hyangsIn Bali and Java, ancestral spirits possessing exceptional supernatural abilities are the hyang, spirits that inhabit sacred realms in high places, in the mountains and volcanoes. Since hyang move only in straight lines, a traditional Balinese building has a wall, an aling-aling, just inside the doorway that will stop them from entering. A dance and ritual performance treatsbali-vishnu-and-garuda_2 possession by the hyang. Anthropological accounts report the Balinese fearing malevolent spirits that move through the village, dangerously, in the dark of night. These beliefs continue and persist alongside and mixed in with later, Indian influenced religious beliefs and the numerous complex rituals that permeate all aspects of Balinese life.

I bought the other souvenir, a statuette only six inches tall, probably because seeing something so thoroughly Indian surprised me, and as with all Balinese crafts, I was impressed with the skillful, highly detailed carving of two figures bonded together as one. But it needs explaining.

wayang puppet of Garuda

wayang puppet of Garuda

It is of the god Vishnu sitting astride Garuda, a giant mythical bird with the head and wings of a bird and the body of a man. In this pose of god and mount, Garuda leans forward, standing with legs splayed. He wears a headdress. Unfortunately, the long beak of my statuette’s Garuda is chipped.

And how did Vishnu and Garuda come from India to Bali? More broadly, how did it happen that Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are Indonesian religions and part of Indonesian culture?

An aspect of Bali’s culture that usually receives considerable attention, its religion, was not something I noticed while there. I had no time to attend the elaborate public rituals that attract tourists and no occasion to observe private worship. With colleagues and friends I discussed our work and common interests. On one consultancy, a six-month assignment across Indonesia, my assistant/interpreter was a medical student, ethnic Chinese and recent convert to Christianity. He told me about his Christian groups and activities but we avoided talk of his faith. I greatly appreciated Indonesians’ generally open and tolerant attitude toward the religion, or non-religion, of others.

But still, seeing elements of Hinduism and Buddhism in Bali and of Islam elsewhere in Indonesia did seem a bit odd and I had no way to explain it. In the history I learned in school, that of Europe, the adoption of Christianity followed military conquest from Rome, and centuries later Islam followed conquering Arab and Persian armies. Otherwise, colonialism was a factor in spreading the two world religions.



I had wondered how Buddhism moved from India to countries throughout Asia, especially to South East Asia. And how could Islam be found so far from its center? The answer surprised me. It was trade and traders, men from centers of empire in India sailing forth from the Bay of Bengal into South East Asia and the islands to acquire goods, such as spices and cloth and lumber to build their ships, carrying with them their Hinduism, Buddhism, and later, Islam. Reasoning by analogy from what I know of merchants (and wrote of here) who sailed from Portugal in the 16th century to nations around the world, and particularly to Indonesia, I can imagine how the spread of a new religion happened, slowly, over the centuries. Inevitably, some of the tradesmen married locally and settled down in coastal towns, created small communities practicing their Indian faith. People in the vicinity would be attracted to the more complex, more abstract beliefs and mythologies of the Mauryan (322 and 185 BCE) and the Gupta (320 to 550 CE) Empires’ sophisticated cultures, later those of the Chola and of the Gujeratis. Traders brought other innovations as well, such as a script for writing and iron for tools and weapons, all of which would lead to economic growth. The local community increased in size and social complexity and when a chieftain or a king converted, the faith spread. Adopting the king’s religion expresses political loyalty, and his religion becomes the religion of the state.

Java’s agriculture is highly productive and by the 8th century the population on the Kedu Plain of Central Java was large and dense enough to support a sizable, culturally rich Buddhist kingdom ruled by a royal line known as the Shailendra Dynastry. (The royal court is pictured on a Borobudur bas-relief, shown in Part I .) The marvelous Borobudur was built in the 9th century, designed in the Javanese Buddhist architecture style that blends ancient ancestor worship and Buddhist concepts. The word in Indonesian for ancient temples and sacred structures is candi; thus the Borobudur is Candi Borobudur.

map-maurya-dynasty-in-265bceOne of the world’s great historic figures is Ashoka of the Maurya Empire, and to him we owe the rise of Buddhism as a religion and a philosophy. (I wrote here of Ravi’s childhood visits in Sarnath and his fascination with Buddhism.)  Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE. The center of his empire, Magadha, today’s Patna, was also the birthplace of Buddhism. He was born Hindu, but, according to legend, after witnessing the devastating effects of war on his people he embraced Buddhism, resulting in Buddhism’s consequent spread across the empire. He promoted economic growth, and as Mauryans began absorbing the ideals and values of Buddhist teachings, discouraged the caste system. Buddhism became the religion of traders and merchants.  (Jainism arose in the same period but did not spread beyond India.)

Early expanion of Buddhism

Early expanion of Buddhism


Many Buddhists believe Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu. garuda-pancasilaIn Indonesia, the heroic, mythical Airlangga of the 11th century, ruler of an East Java kingdom but born and raised in Bali, follower of Buddhism, is shown in statues and paintings as Vishnu-like, riding Garuda. I have not read of Airlangga as a Vishnu incarnation but some believers may view him as such. He is associated with the Garuda, a mythical bird that captures the imagination, like the image of the eagle being ubiquitous in European cultures. And the concept of the phoenix, originally from ancient Greece. Indonesia uses the Garuda Pancasila as its national symbol.

I notice that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is not included in the Indonesian Vishnu and Garuda. In the Indian original she is Vishnu’s consort and almost inseparable from him, as if his spirituality must be balanced by her practical emphasis on wealth and prosperity, all of which takes me back to a continuing discussion between Ravi and me, sometimes with an edge on it, about American culture. This is too complex for little more than an outline here; maybe I’ll return to it another time in detail. Suffice it to say that Ravi grew up in an extended family where educated Brahmins in the professions or holding a government position had the highest prestige, the Sikhs and their military symbols were admired, but tradesmen and men in small businesses had low prestige. Although somewhat different, it reflected the usual Indian caste system. In American culture, almost the opposite holds; small business, business in general, is prestigious, a job with government is so-so, and except for medicine, professions rank by how much money the person earns. In Bali, traditionally, men did not engage in trade. In the local marketplace women were the traders. (This is a pattern in many cultures.) The more lucrative trade of major commodities was done by outsiders, by men from China, Sulawesi, and of course, from India. Some of the early Indian traders elsewhere in S.E. Asia recognized Lakshmi in their temples as one of their own, but in Balinese culture she had no male advocates to rescue her from obscurity. In the Airlangga stories, in an East Java statue, he is depicted as Vishnu accompanied by his two consorts, Lakshmi and Sri, the Indonesian goddess of rice and of wealth.

Vishnu and Garuda was part of the Indian traders’ Hinduism but during the early era of their influence in Indonesia, from the 8th through the 11th centuries, when traders and merchants were organizing into guilds and adopting Buddhism as their religion they took Ganesha, the elephant god, as their principal deity.



The elephant is not an animal familiar to me, but Ravi, despite having no contact with them, loved the idea of the elephant. In India, traveling with him, I had the good fortune of occasionally seeing real elephants in their natural setting. I had read of warrior elephants being critical in Ashoka’s expansion of the Mauryan Empire but that had been in India’s past. In the 1980s I watched a row of elephants, obviously working animals, ambling along a rural road; then a bridegroom in Jaipur riding to his wedding on an elaborately decorated elephant, and on another day tourists perched atop an elephant on their way to a palace. I met an elephant while standing in a South India temple as it gently touched the top of my head with its trunk. Once, when Ravi and I were driving on a bridge, crossing a river, we stopped for a few minutes to watch a boy, a mahout, bathing an elephant that lay on its side, stretched out in the shallow water. They both appeared at that moment to be in a perfect state of contentment.

Sumatran Ganesha

Sumatran Ganesha

It took me a while, but I came to understand why the elephant could become a god-figure in India and why Indonesian Buddhists would adopt Ganesha into its pantheon. After all, Indonesia has it own elephant, a smaller and separate species, now in danger of extinction. I know of the Sumatran elephant from a Batak wood carving where the eyes, tusks and trunk are suggested.

bali-goah-gajah-caveOne of Bali’s earliest known Buddhist sites is near Ubud, in Bedulu, now a small town but in the 9th century the center from where a king ruled over many villages, employed some sort of military force, and where Buddhist priests kept temples for the practice of Buddhism. Today a 9th century sanctuary, the Goa Gajah, Elephant Cave, and the ruins of a temple bathing pool remain. No elephant is pictured anywhere, and no clear idea is given by anyone to explain why the cave has elephant as its name. The elephant was not indigenous in Bali. Available here are photographs and descriptions of what the tourist can see — the ruins of a Buddhist temple that was carved from the rock, with broken carvings and unfinished statues of the Buddha strewn about; of an ancient shrine in the cliff face with statues of Ganesha and two goddesses; of the man-made cave interior for which the Goa Gajah is the doorway and of the ritual bathing pool with seven apsara statues carved into the side walls and from which the fountain water flows. A statue of Buddha from as early as the 8th century is mentioned. ganesha-on-institute-of-technology-bandung

I regret not having seen these historical places and not having visited the Denpasar museum. Here for a discussion of Buddhism in Java and Bali, and here to learn what remains of Buddhism in Bali.

In India, Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and all literary arts including music, literature and speech and Ganesha is the god of intellect and wisdom. Saraswati did not make it to Indonesia, but the Indian traders took Ganesha with them and today he is the Indonesian god of the sciences.

bali-yeh-pulu-bedulu-2Another experience I missed while working in Bali was Yeh Pulu.  In Bedulu, after visiting the Goa Gajah and surroundings, one goes to the other side of town to see a frieze carved into a cliff face. It is a bas-relief sculpture some twenty-five meters long and two meters high, from the 14th century, depicting in a sequence of scenes the everyday life of Balinese villagers. Some consider it a story enacted by the Hindu god Krishna. I think it the former. Individuals are distinguished from one another, local architecture is shown, people are at work, there are real animals, game is being hunted. At the end of the tale is a statue of Ganesha.

relief-kuda-borobudur-horseI was struck by the presence of the horse, an animal domesticated on the Asian steppes, not indigenous to Indonesia, nor, as inferred from linguistic evidence, brought along with the Austronesian heritage. Two seemingly unrelated words are used in different parts of Indonesia for horse, but linguistic analysis and the islands’ social history indicate that the horse came from India. A thoughtful, well written and all too-brief discussion is here. It would be fascinating to search further for the roots of the two words in India’s two language families – Dravidian and Indo-European.

This account of a temple touched me.

In Tampaksiring, north east of Ubud, are remains of Gunung Kawi, a temple and funerary complex from the 11th century, shown in Part I of this essay.

In 1354, Majapahit forces from Java, led by Gajah Mada, landed in Bali and captured Bedulu. It changed the course of history for Bali. That next, but first a comment on Bali’s stone and wood carving. An excellent discussion is here.

I like the introductory sentence — “The Balinese seem unable to tolerate unadorned stone. With fanged, bulging-eyed statues guarding every gate and shrine, and walls, benches, and pedestals of traffic signs carved in stone, stone-carving is so ubiquitous on Bali … …” and the urge to carve and ornament surfaces was already flourishing during the Buddhist period just covered. I wonder what happened to the urge for representative art, as in Borobudur and in Yeh Pulu. The men who carved objects from the island’s soft stone and of wood were village farmers practicing their craft to produce the traditional, standardized items required for the community’s religious and ritual life. During the time of medieval kingdoms, they were employed by the royal family to provide ornaments and objects for the royal palaces and temples. Art and creativity were not the craftsman’s explicit goals but certain among them were also artists and we sense that in a good number of the statues and decor we now treasure.




Obama and the Capitol Dome

Obama and the Capitol Dome

It’s been more than a month since November 8, the night of the American Presidential election and I still haven’t recovered. I’m in a state of shock, avoid watching the news on television, obsessively read one analysis after another of Cabinet appointments and future public policies, have trouble returning to my writing and the ideas that usually fascinate me. How can I concentrate on my memoir and learning the history of Bali when reminders are everywhere that this bizarre, mean-spirited, pathological liar Donald Trump will soon be President of the United States, of my country. And I am angry. He will be President even though Hillary Clinton, an experienced, highly competent and moral candidate, won nearly three million more votes than Trump won. His victory is due to an archaic institution written into our Constitution. It is the Electoral College, a group of individuals who come together for the sole purpose of casting votes to elect the President in that presidential campaign and then disband. Every four years American citizens vote for a presidential candidate, but additionally, in each of the fifty states the political parties or other entities select Electors who will meet on the day of the College and cast votes that represent the state’s vote for a candidate.  The number of Electoral votes assigned to each state is based on the number of Representatives it has in Congress. On election day, both popular votes and electoral votes are counted but the candidate receiving the most Electoral votes, not the most popular votes, is elected. Technically, the Electors need not be conduits for the state’s popular vote; they may vote their own conscience but such instances are rare.  For explanations, try herehere and here, but it’s not easy to understand the reality of 1789 when it was written and of today’s bias favoring rural areas and small states. (re: the photo. Both Obama’s smile and the Capitol Dome are beautiful.)

Until recently no one cared much about the Electoral College because with an exception or two in the 1800s, the winner of the popular vote was also winner of the Electoral College. However, in 2000, Al Gore won more votes than George W. Bush won, but Bush became President. Now, sixteen years later, the winner-loser situation is even more egregious.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would have continued Barack Obama’s policies and programs, which I believe should be set forth now, before the next, radically different administration begins. So — I post this documentary film by Fareed Zakaria on Barack Obama’s eight years in office and the country and world at that time, on Obama’s charisma, his policies, his actions on the national and international fronts. Zakaria uses film from the era and interviews with key players in the administration. It is a comprehensive, intelligent commentary, assessment and review of Obama’s legacy.

You can watch The Legacy of Barack Obama on youtube —  here or here.

The film covers a series of challenges to Obama’s Presidency. It begins with images of Obama campaigning for the presidency and of the night of November 4, 2008, when the nation knew he had won. It was a time of hope, but we soon learned that on the very day of Obama’s inauguration a good number of Republican Congressional leaders met to design their total, unremitting opposition to him and to any program he initiated, no matter what its merit or even whether they agreed with it. This was beyond normal partisanship; it was extreme opposition fueled by racism. Next the film covers the country-wide actions of police officers against Black people, a new civil rights movement and Obama’s response to a newly overt racism. He tried to create a United States of America. He tried but could not curb the gun lobby’s power. He dealt with, and welcomed, the increasing diversity in American society, recognizing women’s rights and the rights of homosexual individuals. I wish more attention were given to immigration as an issue in American society. Upon stepping into office, Obama was faced with the deepest recession since the 1929 Great Depression; the economy dominated his time and attention. His actions are shown and explained. Foreign policy coverage includes the Afganistan war, fighting Alqaeda, ISIS and drone warfare. Despite the opposition of right wing politicians and their allies he put in place programs for protection of the environment and to stop the expansion of nuclear weapons. For me, his greatest accomplishment was having legislation passed to make health care a fundamental right for everyone.

Throughout the film, Zakaria shows Trump’s opposition to nearly everything Obama has accomplished.

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author of several books on international affairs. He writes a weekly column for The Washington Post newspaper and articles for leading magazines. He is a major public intellectual. I am a fan of his Sunday morning program on television’s CNN, Fareed Zakaria GPS, in which he brings together experts from across the world and across different fields to comment on important social and political issues.



bali in indonesia mapI wrote my fifth essay on Bali three months ago, in October. This should be the last; I should stop puzzling over what makes Bali and the Balinese so attractive to so many people, myself included, but cannot until my curiosity is satisfied. I was in Bali four times, first in 1978 and thrice during the 1980s, always on assignment to evaluate village primary health care programs, too tightly scheduled to be a tourist. Still, through my work and with colleagues I saw much of the island, met delightful people and came away fascinated with Bali, which is not the way one usually feels after visiting peasant villages. Now, nearly forty years later, I round out my experience of Bali and return to address the question of how this unique culture and its rich tradition of folk art came about.

Bali’s remarkable agricultural system (described here and here) is almost unique. It entails the entire village community being engaged in planning and coordinating activities and each family contributing the labor, then rewards them all with an abundance of food and long stretches of leisure time. Another society, the Ifugao of the Philippines, in northern Luzon, had a similar rice paddy irrigation system, a complex system of unwritten law, general prosperity,  governing by a council of elders but without the aesthetic side of their culture ever becoming comparable to that of the Balinese. Factors other than abundance and leisure must be taken into account to understand how the Balinese culture came into being, developed through the ages and persists into the present. This I needed to explore.

It may not seem right to think of Balinese as peasants, but that is what they were until tourism took over the economy. The Bali we know was until recently a medieval society of small kingdoms, each kingdom with a royal family in a palace compound ruling over, and being sustained by, village dwelling peasants whose lives revolved around producing food, tools, containers, cloth, and buying and selling goods in a local marketplace. Inferring from studies I read, I picture the city of the kingdom to be no more than a central marketplace set in the vicinity of the royal establishment and major temples. Craftsmen remained in the villages, no moving to live in towns or organizing into guilds, no forming communities separate from being farmers. Further, because Bali had no merchant class or entrepreneurs to establish factories it had no urban working class. And the Dutch, taking control in the mid 1800s, chose not to impose major changes on the society.

I begin with Bali’s beginning, then consider intermediate periods and finally quote from two sources a description of the medieval kingdoms that continued into the 20th century. Written records and archeological evidence for reconstructing Bali’s history are scarce but linguistic studies and population genetics give us basic information on where Bali’s ancestors came from and approximately when they arrived on the island.

As with all of Indonesia’s islands, the island of Bali was formed during the thaw that followed the last glacial period, circa 110,000 to 12,000 years ago. By around 45,000 years ago, certain Homo sapiens, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, using flaked stone tools, having migrated out of Africa and walked to Asia, made boats and traveled eastward by sea. New archeological evidence shows that by 42,000 years ago these early settlers had crossed the then shallow oceans to reach New Guinea, Australia and other islands. Paleolithic stone axes and adzes were found in northern Bali, in Sembiran.

The Austronesian language

The Austronesian languages

Circa 3000 to 600 BCE a seafaring Neolithic people arrived on Bali and replaced the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic meaning the agricultural revolution. Their language, and their culture, was Austronesian, one of a large family of languages spoken in most of the Indonesian archipelago; in Borneo; in all of the Philippines, in the Polynesian islands; much of Malaysia; in areas of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan; and oddly enough, in Madagascar off the East African coast.

Austronesian in Taiwan

Austronesian in Taiwan

I’ve resisted the temptation to wander off from Bali and describe the people most linguists consider the ancestors of all the Austronesian peoples, now a small number of back-country indigenous tribes, the Formosans, still living among the majority Han Chinese in Taiwan. These original inhabitants of Taiwan either brought with them or adopted the South China Neolithic, their population increased and around 5000-2500 BCE their excess population began migrating out, first to the Philippines. This was new to me and fascinating. I learned that the Neolithic of South China was separate from the millet based Neolithic along the Yellow River of North China, discussed here in my essay on China’s Terracotta Warriors. The South China Neolithic, 7500–6100 BCE, was based on rice and the domesticated pig, later the buffalo, and developed primarily around the central Yangtze River region in Hunan province.   The last Neolithic culture, 3400–2250 BCE, was in the Yangtze River Delta.

neolithic tools

neolithic tools

ducks by the 800s CE

ducks by the 800s CE

The Austronesian Neolithic migrants to Bali brought with them ground stone tools, rice farming, the dog and the pig. The chicken was domesticated in North China and quickly adopted as a farm animal everywhere. The Austronesians brought, as well, the making of clay pots and certainly of basketry, although it is not a craft that leaves evidence for the archeologist to easily discover.  For a brief, readable history of Bali, here.

The Balinese today are essentially from that Neolithic migration. A study of the contemporary Balinese Y chromosomes show 83.7% Austronesian, some 2.2% possibly from the pre-Neolithic hunting/gathering Homo sapiens, and other genetic evidence shows approximately 12% of the Balinese paternal gene pool is from India, from Hindu priests and rulers who migrated in and became a ruling class.

Bali mountains and rivers

Bali mountains and rivers

That’s it. No other migrations. A homogeneous population with one common history. Until recently, the island was not easily accessible. It is surrounded by coral reefs. The channel west of Bali is not easily navigable; the currents are very strong. From Hildred and Clifford Geertz’s very interesting book, “Kinship in Bali,” in the 1950s – “Bali, historically, has been quite effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Located on the southern edge of the Indonesian archipelago, with the mountains on its northern side, Bali’s back is turned on the commercially busy Java Sea where Chinese, Arabs, Indians and Europeans sailed to reach the Spice Islands. Bali’s harbors are few and small. The southern coast is lashed by heavy seas, and the Balinese people have never been attracted to sailing or fishing.” Formerly, shipwrecks near shore were common and the Balinese salvaged their contents.  Here for a map of the spice trade.

Nevertheless, between 800-300 BCE, the Balinese did have contact with the Austronesian Dong Son society of Northern Vietnam, a Bronze Age civilization, “civilization” meaning cities where a military, religious ruling elite was based and ruled over a countryside of villages. The Bronze Age saw the widespread adoption of agriculture and use of irrigation. The wheel was introduced during the Bronze Age and people used animal drawn carts. Knowledge of astronomy and mathematics developed during this period. The first forms of writing were developed.

The Balinese acquired from the Dong Son civilization the knowledge of and techniques for casting bronze tools, weapons and drums. Since copper and tin for making bronze are not found in Bali, we have to assume trade routes had developed, most likely by traders from China and from Sulawesi.

I have not yet discovered when the Balinese first practiced paddy rice agriculture and the water buffalo. They could have brought it with them as part of the South China Neolithic or acquired it later from the Dong Son contact. I should think the more advanced tool kit of the Bronze Age would help in expanding the terracing required by paddy rice farming. The later introduction of iron tools would have been critical in further improvements and elaborations. I will discuss in Part II of this essay when and under what circumstances they began their present irrigation system. For some reason, they did not acquire the potter’s wheel or the wood-lathe, both Bronze Age innovations.

From the 700s to 900s CE the Balinese were influenced by the Medang Kingdom of central and east Java, a period when Buddhism was being introduced from India and Bali had its first known kingdom.



Borobudor is from this period. The bas-relief sculptures here are from Borobudur. The East Java Singhasari Kingdom, also Hindu-Buddhist, followed. (At some point I’ll return to how and why Buddhism spread as a world religion.)

I want to pause at this point before continuing on to Bali  in the year 1343 CE and the Majapahit Kingdom to consider four of the crafts for which Bali is famous. Two came out of the Neolithic, pottery and basketry. Cotton cloth and bronze smithing came from the Bronze Age.

The ancient Austronesian Neolithic seafarers brought with them the making of clay pots. However, for reasons I do not understand, the craft did not fare as well in Bali as in other lands. Alternative materials, such as bamboo and the pandanus leaf, bali-pandanus-basketwere available for making containers, and the Balinese used them skillfully, but until metal containers arrived nothing could replace ceramic for carrying water, cooking, safe storage. Every village would need someone, usually a woman, to make its pots and the usual terracotta objects for religious rituals.

bali-potteryThe pots were made by coiling, the first and basic technique. A series of pictures are shown here. Women of the Hopi, an indigenous people of the southwestern United States, made some of the most beautiful pottery ever this way. Imagine the skill required by the Balinese woman to keep the wall of the pot from collapsing while adding layer upon layer, employing only two simple wood tools to smooth the surface. She set the finished pot out to dry, then fired it with nothing more than a covering of straw. The resulting pot, no matter how attractive, is brittle and easily broken. I found no explanation for why the potter’s wheel and better means of firing were not adopted. Certainly both improvements could have been introduced to the Balinese, as were spinning and weaving. In other societies, the potter’s wheel came with men taking over the making of pottery as full-time craftsmen. I wondered if the local clay might not have held up under proper firing, but with the tourist market having developed and a man taking over to turn ceramics into a business, that same clay, called excellent red clay, was shaped into tiles, properly fired and sold for roofing material, at least until the clay of the potters’ village was depleted.

A partial view into the past can be seen in a contemporary village of potters not yet fundamentally changed by the tourist industry. It is said that traditional Balinese excluded potters from the villages because they were considered unclean, so the potter families stayed together, living in a special village, such as Pejaten village, in Tabanan district. Until recently, they were poor, owning only the land they lived on and no rice fields. Every family worked to turn out its own pottery. Men dug out the clay but women made the pots, in recent times on a hand-wheel but with the traditional method of firing, and they sold the pots in local markets. Here for a view of contemporary ceremics in Bali.

Surely, basketry began in the Neolithic, at least in the late Neolithic, along with spinning and weaving. I have baskets from many cultures. It is primordial craft. In Bali, as elsewhere, baskets are part of daily life, used in every household, made from local materials, bali-tenganan-basketsold in the village markets, and as is usual for Bali, they are beautifully fashioned. The finest baskets, the finest I have seen anywhere (except for those from Ischia, now extinct) are made in Tenganan village, a Bali Aga culture that holds to the original Austronesian traditions and ceremonies. The Tenganan baskets are made of a reed from the area and “smoked” over coconut husks to add patina and strength.

drop spindle

drop spindle

In most cultures, the weaving of cloth began in the late Neolithic, which archeologists infer from spindle whorls of stone or pottery. (I wrote about that here.)  Cotton was cultivated in the Indus Valley civilization by 2500 BCE but the Austronesian Neolithic did not include the making of cloth. Growing the cotton plant, processing the harvested boll for fiber, spinning with a drop spindle and weaving came to Bali from India via Java, perhaps around 200 BCE. For the Indian Textile history here.

Documents on the history of China’s T’ang dynasty named a place, possibly in Bali, that paid tribute in cotton cloth to China in 647 CE, and again, a copperplate inscription found at a village in Bali, dated to 896 CE, covered something about taxes on raw cotton and on yarn, and something about a devastating raid. Apparently, there was trade, plus more forceful means for exchanging goods, with cotton yarn and cotton cloth being primary commodities. Various historians report that Bali produced cotton “of the most excellent quality and in great abundance” in its drier coastal regions. It was noted that the weavers of the pre-Majapahit Tenganan village preferred the cotton grown on Nusa Penida, a small island off the east coast of Bali.

Traditionally, everywhere, spinning was women’s work. Spinning is the complex, time-consuming process of transforming cotton fiber into yarn and it requires knowledge, skill and considerable labor. First the seeds must be separated from the fiber, followed by the processes of willowing, lapping, carding and drawing. In Bali and throughout the islands, women spun this finished fiber into yarn using a drop spindle, not so simple as it appears. bali-woman-spinning-1910They spun while sitting together, while walking, whenever and wherever their hands were not otherwise engaged. After spinning, they used another process to stretch the yarn. Then to dye it. The stages are detailed here. By the 1600s, the spinning wheel had been introduced into Java, most likely by traders from India, and it reached Bali under the Dutch. After the spinning comes the weaving. How much time would it take to make one sarong, even after growing the cotton? A month? Maybe longer.

In the 1700s and later the Dutch trading company, the VOC, took over and developed a profitable, for them, business based on exporting cotton yarn made by Indonesian women; they acquired hand-spun yarn from Java and sold it in Holland. They built an industry for producing yarn in Java but not cloth in Java. After all, one reason to keep a colony was to control a market of colonials who had to buy goods the colonialist produced at home.

Bali is known for its ikat, a length of cloth in which the pattern is made by tie-dyingbali-tenganan-belt-loom-2 either the warp or weft yarn before the weaving. The weaving is done by women using a belt loom. Bali favors the weft ikat; warp ikat is favored on other Indonesian islands.

the geringsing dress

the geringsing dress

The yarns, either warp or weft, are tied in places with lengths of banana bast. When the yarns are dipped in dye the tied areas resist the dye and remain uncolored. Repeated tying and dyeing results in an intricate, multihued pattern. (When I was working in Sumatra, a colleague gave me an ikat from that island.) Weaving a length of cloth in which both the warp and the weft are resist-dyed prior to weaving is called double ikat. It is done in only three countries: India, Japan, and one village in Bali, again the Bali Aga village of Tenganan. (It must be a tourists’ favorite today, which is one way to keep traditional crafts alive.) These lengths of cloth have high spiritual significance and in Tenganan they are still worn for specific ceremonies. They are called geringsing and treasured for the magical powers they are believed to possess.

A video very much worth watching is here. It is by Hans and Fifi and filmed in Semiran village in north Bali. Among other interesting sights, we see a woman weaving, the last of the town’s traditional weavers. The local basketry is shown. A traditional house/compound is opened for filming. In the compound, separate buildings are for sleeping, preparing food, storing food. A plow can be seen. The couple also film a temple complex with its Majapahit architectural and decorative elements.

Sailendra King and Queen

King and Queen  Borobudur

an 11th century temple

an 11th century temple

Bali’s bronze smiths believe themselves to be the descendants of a number of gamelan-smith extended families in Tihingan village, Klungkung Regency, and these families believe they migrated from Central Java during the time of Java’s Indian influenced Buddhist kingdoms, possibly coming to Bali when the first royal palace courts were established, perhaps following an invasion and when chieftainships were evolving into small kingdoms. Recently archeologists uncovered near Tihingan a hearth from a disused, previously unknown foundry they date to the 11th century CE. The first written inscriptions found in Bali are Buddhist in nature and they use the Indian Sanscrit as well as the Balinese language. They appeared in the 8th century CE on clay pallets in the regency of Gianyar. A pillar in Sanur, 914 CE, is the first known inscription in which a Balinese king recorded his name and it shows connections with the Buddhist kingdom in Central Java. For photos of the Buddhist temples, the candi, and extraordinary architecture from that period in Java —  here.

Borobudur musicians

Borobudur musicians

Bali gamelan instruments

Bali gamelan instruments

The Borobudur bas-relief sculpture  of musicians lacks metallophones and xylophones but the musical ensemble is thought to be the ancient form of the gamelan, before bronze smiths produced the instruments for later rulers in their palaces and temples. The palace elite would have been the one audience who could have afforded imported copper and tin to make the instruments and to support the craftsmen/farmers in their villages. Today’s bronze gamelan musical instruments are beautifully made. A description of how the smiths work and produce the instruments is here.


In 1342 military forces from the Javanese Majapahit kingdom landed in Bali. Seven months later they defeated the Balinese king and captured the Balinese capital Bedulu, situated near today’s Gianyar town.


To be continued … … but first a memory.

It happened in northern Bali, in a village near the original Dutch city, Singaraja. I was in the province to review the villages’ primary health care program and was staying in a bali-dutch-house-in-singarajahotel, an elegant but seedy Dutch hotel that faced onto a broad but empty road that led, I think, to the harbor. My young interpreter/assistant friend and I were the only guests staying there. The hotel is probably gone. Singaraja had been a grand colonial city with fine architecture, such as this Dutch colonial house. The Dutch later moved their base to Batavia, today’s Jakarta, and I stayed in such a house in Jakarta. I will look into why the Dutch moved to Jakarta.

My clearest memory of being in north Bali is of a plea from the headman of one of the villages. He had waited for me to complete my interviewing and observations, then said he wanted to show me something, so I followed him, with my interpreter, outside the village to a visually lovely area, green and lush and wet with pools of water. The headman told me the worst health problem for the villagers was not an illness in my program; it was malaria, and he thought I should know they had tried to fight the disease. A few years previously, a government official had shown them a method for controlling the mosquito population, and for a year or so the villagers had greatly reduced the number of new cases of malaria. The control mechanism was putting a slick of oil over the water that always covered much of the ground around the village, and it worked. They gratefully repeated the oil slick a second time, with the same effect. However, as the headman explained, putting down the oil and cleaning and maintaining the area required more work and time than they could spare from their farming. Finally, they had to choose; it was either having enough food or being free from malaria. I reported his story to the authorities I knew. How great is the need, the suffering, how limited the resources.  I can still feel the sadness.

And I remember from a primary health care program in a southern American state talking with an older Sanitary Engineer in the state’s Department of Health. He told me that when he first worked there, in the 1940s, malaria had been a common problem but he had located the low areas where water accumulated and had ditches dug to drain the land. It solved the malaria problem. The headman’s village land could not be drained in that manner.

Further on malaria and colonialists — I wrote here about the British defeating Tippu Sultan, 1799, in his royal establishment in Srirangapattana and stationing their troops in his city, only to find they were being defeated by the mosquito. Consequently, they moved their base to another of Tippu Sultan’s forts, the delightful Bangalore situated on high ground with a pleasant climate free of a mosquito infestation.