True Balinese, Bali Aga, the first inhabitants of Bali By Polly Christensen

The attraction of Bali lies in its magnificent natural beauty and the unique richness of its remarkable cultural heritage. Bali’s dramatic landscape is permeated by countless tracks and trails, which I love to explore on foot, searching for little-known antiquities and ancient monuments, often traveling through remote and beautiful countryside rarely, if ever, visited by tourists.

Little is known, with any certainty, of Balinese history before about the 16th century, even though fossil skulls from neighbouring Java indicate a human presence in this part of the world, for more than one and a half million years. Although a few artifacts extending back to the Stone and Bronze Ages have been found, evidence of these early inhabitants is not abundant. Wooden structures are ephemeral in the tropics, and even stone buildings seldom survive the severe earthquakes that periodically shake this geologically active land. Moreover, what does survive is likely to be concealed eventually under layers of volcanic ash.


The story of modern human settlement in Bali really begins some 7000 years ago in southern China. A developed society, which was advanced in the mysterious art of metalworking, proficient in the cultivation of rice, skilled in boat-building and fearless as navigators. By 4500 years ago, these people had reached Taiwan, and a little later the Philippines. They finally landed in Bali and Java about 1000 BC.  These resourceful seafarers are ancestors of the 270 million Austronesians that range from Madagascar to New Zealand and Easter Island. Much of what we know of this great tide of human expansion comes from archaeological and linguistic studies. Their written records would not appear until later.

From around 400 BC settlements existed on Bali’s northern and western shores, populated by Austronesian immigrants who herded, fished, hunted and, in the wet season, cultivated rice. More than one hundred burials, representing both sexes and a diversity of ages, have provided us with valuable insights into the society in which they lived. They constructed simple shelters, adorned themselves with beads, pearls and bronze jewellery, and used clay utensils. They possessed metal spearheads and ceremonial axes, which may have had ritual rather than military significance, as symbols of descent and status.


It is unclear how homogeneous these early Balinese communities were, for although the similarity in grave objects in different regions suggest uniform beliefs in an afterlife, (with close links between the real and spirit worlds), the wide diversity of ways in which bodies were disposed of suggest either a fragmentation into discrete, independent societies, or more probably the evolution of one or more complex hierarchical communities in which particular burial rites and practices were restricted to specific social ranks or castes.

Thus bodies might be buried unenclosed in a variety of sitting, squatting or lying postures, some with skull parts or extremities removed. Alternatively bodies would be enclosed, either as defleshed bones within an earthenware pot or whole within a massive stone sarcophagus. Over 30 of the latter have been discovered in widely separated parts of Bali. The most striking are in the form of an animal that closely resembles a giant turtle, and one is forced to wonder whether this is in some way linked to Bedawan, the great cosmic turtle that carries the universe on its back in modern Balinese-Hindu belief. 


A well-known myth in the mountainous areas of Bali involves Rsi Markandeya, a holy man from East Java, who came to Bali around the 8th century, with several hundred followers to establish a community. This story explains the origin of Bali Aga people such as those living in the villages of Tenganan, Pegringsingan, Trunyan, and Pedawa. Emphasis is placed on the importance of a priest in society, who can act as the ‘super human mediator’ between human beings and gods. This famous manuscript or “lontar” tells of Markandeya and his followers who came all the way from Mount Raung in the Basuki area of East Java, only to be met by a pestilence which broke out and killed most of the settlers.

Some years later Rsi Markandeya returned and with 400 people from the village of Aga they performed a ceremony to bury the Five Metals (pancadatu) – gold, silver, iron, copper and precious stone – at a place on the slopes of Mount Agung. This place is now called Pura Besakih. And until this day, the settlers are known as Bali Aga, the original Balinese. Rsi Markandeya is also credited with establishing the basic institutions of island society, including subaks (irrigation societies), desa (villages) and banjars (sub-village organizations).


During the 15th and early 16th Centuries the baroque courts of Majapahit and their dependents moved increasingly into Bali to escape the growing tide of Islam then sweeping Java. Nevertheless, many people, particularly in areas remote from Majapahit influence, remained loyal to the old Balinese Kings and never embraced the new order. Descendants of these early dissenters still exist today, and are found primarily in less-accessible parts of the island, where they are called Bali Aga or Mountain Balinese. According to the Bali Aga, their forebears have always occupied these ancestral mountain villages from choice, and performed traditional crafts and trades appropriate to the nature of the land.

The one exception is found in a cluster of remote villages occupying the ridge between Gunung Agung and Gunung Abang. Desperately impoverished and utterly isolated, these communities are clearly of Sasak descent, although their history has yet to be resolved. The Sasaks, indigenous inhabitants of the neighbouring island of Lombok, apparently possess a unique genetic marker showing them to have originated some two thousand years ago from a single community in South India through contacts with merchants and navigators, many of whom were gradually introduced to the indigenous population. 


The village of Trunyan is squeezed tightly between the lake and the outer crater rim of Lake Batur, an almighty volcano in Kintamani. Descendants of the original Balinese, predating the arrival of the Hindu Majapahit Kingdom in the 16th century, inhabit this Bali Aga village. Trunyan people live in ways that are vastly different from other Balinese. In the sub-village of Kuban, which lies close to Trunyan, there is a mysterious cemetery separated by the lake and accessible only by boat; there is no path along the steep walls of the crater rim. The temple in Trunyan is called Puser Jagat, meaning ‘Navel of the Universe’. Its architecture is highly unusual, and stands in the protective shade of a massive banyan tree.

Unlike Balinese from the south, Trunyan inhabitants do not cremate or bury their dead, but just lay them out in bamboo cages to decompose. However, this custom is unusual and many of the less-isolated Bali Aga communities follow conventional Balinese-Hindu religious practices. A macabre collection of skulls and bones lies on the stone platform and surrounding areas. The dead bodies do not produce any foul odour because of the perfumed scents from a huge taru menyan tree growing nearby. Taru means ‘tree’ and menyan means ‘nice smell’ and in fact, the name of Terunyan was also derived from these two words.

The village of Trunyan itself is situated at the edge of Batur Lake. This location is inaccessible except by boat, and it takes around half an hour across the calm waters. Trunyan is home to 760 families and presently only a handful of tourists visit the village each day. The Bali Aga people speak a dialect of the Balinese language that is entirely their own, dating back thousa
nds of years. And the language spoken in Trunyan village is quite different to one spoken in Tenganan.


Tenganan is located in the eastern part of Bali, 17 kilometers from Amlapura, the central city of Karangasem Regency. Hidden in the hills, the trip to Tenganan is exhilarating, traversing winding roads through the ranges. The people of Tenganan are tall and slender, in a rather ghostly way, with white skins and refined manners. The majority of men still wear their hair long. They live in a communistic system where individual ownership of property is not recognized and Tenganan prohibits divorce and polygamy, unlike other Balinese villages.  The village owns enormous tracts of fertile and well-cultivated land that fill every need of the village and make it one of the wealthiest in the region.

Long ago, Tenganan ancestors filed and blackened their teeth; they lived in family clans ruled by a council of elders, who were also priests of their religion, worshiping powerful forces of nature. Occasionally, by means of sacrifice, they brought their ancestral spirits down to earth to protect them. Villagers buried their dead or abandoned them in the jungle to be carried away by the spirits.

In Tenganan, where tourism is more easily embraced and the people are said to be ‘friendlier’ a three-day festival called Udaba Sambah is held during the months of June or July. Tenganan to this day provides a considerable draw card for tourists, foreign and domestic alike, who come to witness the ancient and original Balinese practicing a ritual in which the locals use thorny pandan leaves to hit their opponent with the aim of drawing blood during combat.


I received a hint of Bali’s antiquity during my first visit to the island several years ago. There are numerous statues and other sacred objects of ‘great age’ preserved, which reflect a diversity of cultural influences. The largest and most impressive candi (chandi) complex is at Gunung Kawi and receives many visitors. Unknown to outsiders until 1920, Gunung Kawi consists of 10 rock-cut candi (sheltered niches cut into the sheer cliff face) in imitation of actual statues.

More recently, archaeologists were drawn to a small man-made cave in the gorge of the Pakerisan River near Tegallingah, Gianyar. The entrance was blocked with mud and dirt, but they uncovered a stone staircase, which lead them on to a great complex of rock-cut candis and hermit cells concealed beneath massive accumulations of debris. Potentially rivaling Gunung Kawi in magnificence, the Tegallingah Candis were partially destroyed by a tremendous earthquake before completion and the site was abandoned. For almost one thousand years the ruins lay lost and forgotten. What purpose they served is unclear. Some believe that they were hermit cells, in which lived ascetic guardians of the shrine. Sadly, no inscriptions remain to identify the king so splendidly memorialized here.

Prudent travellers, wishing to visit monuments and ancient village dwellings, are advised to hire official guides from various Bali tour operators. Tourists must careful, due to the unstable roads and rugged terrain of the area. It is also important to be respectful when observing the villagers way of life.

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