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.
With 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.
An example 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
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
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. … ” Incidentally, the Srivijaya Empire was important in spreading Buddhism across Southeast Asia.
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
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
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 …”
Traces of the blacksmith ancestors in Java, with the Hindu Ganesha as their god, are found in a rather strange 15th century Javanese–Hindu 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.
In 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
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.
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 … …