Past & Present : How Bali Absorbs Cultures

Culture | Written By, Bruce Granquist |

Up to the present day, the Balinese have been remarkably open minded and genuinely curious about the life that has arrived on its shores. They could have reacted with fear and anger towards the attitudes and beliefs introduced to their island, some of which are radically different than their own.

This is especially true considering that these new ways of living have recently arrived in such a large amount. It is to the credit of the Balinese that they have been able to maintain their curiosity and accommodating spirit, but there is always the possibility of getting too crowded and overwhelmed.

Fortunately the Balinese have become quite good at picking and choosing from the grand smorgasbord that has arrived at their table. They have not been in a vacuum throughout history, and have demonstrated their skill when incorporating new ideas in their own way. Over the centuries nothing from the outside has been incorporated entoto, nor have they lost their identity in the swirling waves of South East Asian history, here are some examples.

  One of the first visitors to Bali was the artist W. O. J. Nieuenkamp who made several trips here early in the 20th century. He is remembered today for his disciplined enthusiasm and his skill in preserving his impressions of daily life. These impressions became drawings and paintings and further became prints that he published back in his native Holland. He certainly was not a mercenary, nor dogmatic, he wasn’t trying to bring anything or take anything away, but he still had his own agenda. He was looking for a way of life that was ‘pristine’ and ‘unspoiled’. He tended to romanticise the Balinese, their holistic approach to life, their more ‘natural’ attitude to nudity. Nieuenkampcould  have spent more time recording the short comings of Balinese culture if he had wanted to.

   But as he was watching Bali, Bali was watching him. An anonymous local artist carved Nieuenkamp peddling around on his bicycle. Presumably this sculptor wanted to  record his impression of this unique figure as clearly as possibly, but the image is unmistakably Balinese. He is shown with a flower behind his ear and a bicycle with wheels made of lotus flowers. 

When the traders ( or possibly political refugees) from the Dong Son civilisation (in modern day Vietnam) left their homeland and migrated south about 2000 years ago, they brought with them the knowledge of a sophisticated metal working culture. Large cast drums of their influence have been found throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, including Bali. The Balinese learned from this knowledge, imported the necessary materials, and made some fine examples of their own. The most famous one is the Pejeng drum. It is noteworthy because of its large size, its method of construction, and its unique design. No other example of metal drum resembles it.

  When the early Indian merchants visited the coastal settlements of Bali they mainly bought and sold goods, but they also introduced various cultural ideas and religious beliefs. These proved invaluable to the development of early Balinese culture. But again these ideas were adapted selectively, the Balinese weren’t interested in becoming Indian.

Archeological finds in West Bali from about 2000 years ago include some large stone sarcophagi. This suggests that even though certain Indian practices were being practiced at that time, the Indic practice of cremation had yet to be fully accepted. Even today some of the ancient Balinese funerary practices are still being followed, most notably in the mountain village of Trunyan.

  One of the most important political imports from India was the image of the king as a god, whose legitimacy was displayed and proven in lavish ceremonies and massive temple complexes. Other cultures in South East Asia also adopted these concepts, their remains are famous today, Ankor Wat, Pagan, Borobudur, Prambanan, even though their respective cultures have all but disappeared.

  This concept of the god king proved irresistible to the Balinese leaders at that time, but again they did things in their own way. Instead of carving the universe in stone with the residing king’s image enshrined carefully within this microcosmos, the subjects and priests acted out the parts themselves, creating the universe in the ceremonies. This is one reason for the longevity of this culture, it is not static, it needs to be continually re- enacted. If the earliest Balinese kings had tried to build a massive, Borobudur style temple complex on Bali they might have killed their own culture. Bali might have become just one more photo op on the way to another ethnic-architectural tourist destination.

  Throughout their long culture the Balinese have absorbed and been enriched by those influences they have regarded as useful, disregarded those that seemed destabilising, and just found humour in those things that seemed irrelevant.

About Author :

Bruce Granquist

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