Mystery of the Candis

An Introduction to Early Balinese History

By John Cooke


 Few visitors to Bali travel the barren coastal road that winds around the island’s northeastern shore  - and fewer still pause to explore the desolate countryside through which it passes.  Crossing the bleak, boulder-strewn flanks of the island’s slumbering volcanic peaks, this is not the alluring landscape of the tourist brochures.  Green only briefly during the wet season, the scenery here is typically brown and unwelcoming.  

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine people ever wishing to settle here by choice, particularly when the southern slopes of the very same mountains, barely a day or two’s trek away, are so lush and bountiful throughout the year.  And yet it is along these harsh shores that archaeologists have uncovered revealing evidence of Bali’s early inhabitants.  Through their excavations it has been possible to reconstruct a fascinating vignette of the society  that occupied these shores more than two and a half thousand years ago. 

History is a distillation of human experience, tracing through time complex interactions within and between societies.  It seeks to provide an understanding of the myriad influences that have molded mankind’s fluctuating fortunes.  Although generally presented as a chronological sequence, history is rarely a simple linear progression, but rather a rich fabric of many dimensions, woven of disparate and seemingly unconnected threads.  In tracing the story of one particular element – a dynasty, a disease, a crop or a technology – its course  will be determined by a multitude of peripheral influences.

The story of Bali’s distant past presented here is a  personal interpretation of hazy events glimpsed unclearly through the dense mists of time.  It is a narrative that attempts to untangle some of the many physical and cultural strands from which the island’s history is woven. 

The Island of Bali

Bali, lying just eight degrees South of the equator, is but one of the 13,677-odd islands that make up the great Indonesian archipelago.  Just 5632 sq. km. in area, it is barely the size of the State of Delaware.   Nevertheless, as home to a unique and vibrant culture, and renowned for its  outstanding natural beauty, Bali’s reputation as an island paradise far exceeds its small physical size.

Separated from neighboring Java by barely two kilometers of turbulent sea, these waters are of relatively recent origin, and have never posed a significant barrier to the passage of either wildlife, merchants or military adventurers.  Nevertheless, the major influences in Bali’s early (as opposed to more recent) cultural and political history appear to have come not from Java, but from distant lands to the north, separated by far more challenging expanses of open sea. 

In order to understand Bali’s human history we must first put it into perspective by casting back in time and looking at the region’s fiery origins.  Geographically considered the westernmost in the chain of Lesser Sunda Islands (despite its close physical and cultural links to Java), Bali lies in one of the most geologically active regions on Earth, part of the Pacific Rim’s great “ring of fire”.  This subterranean violence, generated deep within Earth’s crust, is a consequence of the slow, relentless passage of the tectonic plates that carry the continental landmasses on their stately progression over the surface of the globe.  The chain of volcanic islands of which Bali forms a part, stretch some 3500 km from Sumatra to Flores, and marks where the Australian Plate is gradually being forced beneath the Eurasian Plate at the rate of some 6 cm. a year - 60 km every million years. 

Gunug Agung, Bali's highest volcano (9896ft) seen from the mountain-top temple Pura Lempuyang in eastern Bali.  The mother temple at Besakih is high on the forested flanks of the volcano.

The incalculable forces involved in this extraordinary process create friction sufficient to melt the opposing masses of rock.  The resulting magma - hot, liquid, and under tremendous pressure - seeps slowly to the surface, intermittently breaking through to create active volcanic cones.  But not all volcanoes behave in the same way.  Unlike the volcanoes of Hawaii, where the magmas flow freely and accumulate gradually as spreading lava sheets, Indonesian magmas are highly viscous and move far less readily.  On reaching the surface, these slow-moving magmas have time to cool, periodically blocking release of the pent up forces beneath.  Thus trapped, great reservoirs of liquid magma accumulate within the volcano, building up pressure until the earth can contain it no longer.  Without warning the top of the volcano gives way and the contained magma bursts forth with unimaginable violence.  Thus did the entire island of Krakatau, lying off the coast of Sumatra, vanish on the evening of August 27th, 1883.  Such catastrophic explosions are characteristic of Indonesian volcanoes, and periodically cause widespread death and destruction.    

With the passage of time the volcano, its core now emptied, slowly collapses back within itself to form a giant sunken crater or caldera.  Eventually, as fresh magma reaches the surface, new volcanic vents may appear within the caldera, slowly occluding it as discharged ash and lava gradually continue to accumulate.  In Bali the stages in this process may be clearly seen on Mt. Batur.  A massive explosion some 30,000 years ago created a caldera that today is almost 14 km across - one of the largest and most impressive in the world.  In the lowest part of this caldera – actually an area of secondary subsidence on the original floor – a large lake has formed from the runoff of the frequent and heavy rainfall over the mountains.  Mt. Batur itself, an active secondary volcanic cone sporting numerous subsidiary vents around its flanks, rises within the circling embrace of the caldera, to a height of 1,717 m.  As it grows through frequent minor (and occasionally not so minor!) eruptions it gradually enlarges its base at the expense of the lake, which is slowly shrinking in consequence. 

Lake Tamblingan, the last unspoilt lake in Bali.  The palaces of the ancient kingdom of Tamblingan are said to have been submerged by the lake as it filled.

A later stage in the process is visible as one moves westwards along Bali’s volcanic spine.  Here three mountain lakes - Buyan, Bratan and Tamblingan – presumably once formed a single body of water.  They lie within the remnants of another giant caldera, whose northern rim, shrouded in dense forest, rises steeply for several hundred feet above the water surface.  Ancient eruptions giving rise to Mts. Lesong, Pucuk and Sangyang, have since obliterated the southern margin of this caldera, their lava streams dividing the original lake into the three  bodies of water we see today.  It is quite possible that some of these dramatic events may even have taken place in relatively recent times and within folk memory, for local legend reports the palaces of the ancient Kingdom of Tamblingan lying submerged beneath the shallow waters of the lake that bears its name.  Reports of artifacts occasionally brought up from the lake floor by local fishermen lend credence to this belief.   


Born of fire, Bali’s turbulent geological past has exerted a profound influence both on the island and its human population.  The great mountain chain that forms Bali’s East-West spine rises to 3013 meters - and higher still before the 1963 eruption of the sacred volcano, Gunung Agung.  These peaks act as magnets, attracting the clouds that deposit over 300 centimeters of rain over the mountains each year – primarily on their fertile southern slopes.  

It is only when the southwesterly moisture-laden monsoon winds are blowing that rain reaches the northern and eastern coasts of Bali.  From April to December they remain parched and barren, swept by the dry southeast trade winds blowing out of the deserts of central Australia.  This seasonal reversal of the prevailing winds, known as a monsoon pattern, is caused primarily by the shifting pressure gradients that result from the warming and cooling of air masses over Australia and Eurasia.  Hot air rising creates a low-pressure cell, while sinking cold air causes pressure to increase.  Thus during the Australian winter a high pressure system builds, forcing air northwards towards the low pressure region resulting from the summer heat of central Asia.  Conversely, as the pressure patterns in Australia and Asia are reversed with the change in seasons, so the prevailing winds shift direction also. 

However, the monsoon winds do not simply oscillate between North and South for they are further influenced by forces generated around the equator by the spin of the earth – the Coriolis Effect.  Air flowing northwards is deflected anti-clockwise as it approaches the equator, while air flowing southwards towards the equator is given a clockwise spin.  The effect of the Coriolis vortices on the seasonal North-South wind movements, for Bali lying south of the equator, results in southeasterly trade winds during the dry season and southwesterly monsoon winds during the rains. 

The monsoon weather patterns in the region not only affect rainfall, but have also directly contributed significantly to Bali’s cultural history as well.  From November to March the Indian Ocean is swept by westerly winds that not only bring rain to Indonesia, but for thousands of years have also carried sailors - together with merchants, their trade goods, and customs -  eastwards from ports as distant as the Persian Gulf and northern India, propelling them throughout the Indonesian and Malay archipelagos and even on to China.  From April to October, the complimentary dry season, returning ships from the Indies laden with spices, gems, and slaves have been carried back to their home ports by the opposing southeast trade winds.  These generations of visiting seamen from distant lands have left an indelible mark on the fabric of Balinese political and religious institutions. 


Masters of terracing and irrigation, the Balinese cultivate rice on every accessible hillside, even on steep canyon slopes.  Historically, the wealth of Bali accrued from its ability to grow more rice than needed to support the population, allowing it to export the surplus.

Not only does the abundant, year-round rainfall on the southern slopes of Bali’s mountains support lush vegetation and a wealth of associated wildlife, but it is also responsible for sculpting the complex terrain that characterizes the Balinese landscape.  Built up from the deposition of successive layers of volcanic ash and debris, Bali’s soil is rich in nutrients and extremely porous.  Even when compressed by the weight of overburden into paras rock, a form of tuff, it is soft and easily weathered. 

A typical deeply eroded ravine, only a few feet across and with smooth, vertical walls.

Rainwater constantly draining from the high peaks has created many impressive gorges like that of the Ayung River, but less obvious to the casual observer are the multitude of smaller canyons and ravines created by lesser streams.  Often only a few meters across but seemingly bottomless, these mysterious chasms radiate from the mountains, dividing the land into a series of narrow ridges running down from the high country to the coast.  Concealed beneath a dense canopy of foliage and hung with a multitude of vines, slick black walls of polished rock provide the barest of toeholds for clinging ferns and epiphytes.  From the gloomy, unfathomable depths, the distant roar of tumbling water hints at a remote and alien nether world.  Such places exert a magical fascination on the imagination and it is easy to understand why they are considered the abode of evil demons and other chthonic forces.  Those unwary enough to penetrate these mysterious depths risk being swept away in sudden flash floods generated by distant storms in the mountains, contributing still further to their awesome reputation. 

Even today, with modern bridge-building techniques, East-West travel across the ridges and their defining gorges remains difficult.  In earlier times it was harder still, if not impossible.  Throughout history, the ever-changing political landscape of Bali has always reflected the physical constraints imposed by the pattern of ridges and their deeply incised river gorges. 

Human Origins 

Who Bali’s first human inhabitants might have been we cannot be sure, for they have left us no clear evidence of their presence, but nevertheless we may speculate with some confidence on their origins.  Bali was only separated from Java in quite recent times as sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age - some twelve thousand years ago,  and hence within folk memory.  It would, therefore, appear probable that Java Man and his relations, who roamed the Solo River Basin almost two million years ago, might also have hunted through the forests of Bali and fished along her shores.  Java Man (Homo erectus) was not yet truly human and is sometimes placed in a separate genus (Pithecanthropus).  Ngandong (Solo) Man, also from Central Java, who lived half a million years ago in the same region, represents a transitional stage in the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, from the earlier H. erectus.  

The appearance in Java some 100,000 years ago of Wajak Man – clearly Homo sapiens - during the Pleistocene Fourth (last) Glaciation signals the start of truly human activity in this region.  It was from Wajak Man, who displays clear affinities with the Austro-Melanesian races, that the first Australians were probably descended.  Although we may safely assume that these people too passed through Bali en route to New Guinea and Australia they have left few, if any traces.  It is possible that some very simple Paleolithic flaked tools from North Bali may constitute their legacy.  It is tempting to think also that it might have been their Mesolithic descendants who around 3000 BC occupied the Selonding cave close to Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai Airport. 

The Austronesians 

The story of modern human settlement in Bali really begins some 7000 years ago in southern China.  A society developed here that was advanced in the mysterious art of metalworking, seemingly proficient in both wet and dry 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 the ancestors of the 270 million Austronesians that today range from Madagascar to New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.  Much of what we know of this great tide of human expansion comes from archaeological and linguistic studies, for written records would not survive here until much later.  It is important to note that, contrary to popular convention, Java and Bali were not populated by way of land bridges through the Malay Peninsula, but by sea-borne immigrants from the North. 

The scene is now set to examine more closely who the first documented inhabitants of Bali might have been.  From around 400 BC, and probably long before that, 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 jewelry, and made decorated clay utensils.  Their tools included stone adzes, together with bronze and iron implements.  In addition 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 a hereafter, 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. 

One of the enormous stone animal sarcophagi in which early inhabitants of Bali buried their dead.  

Thus bodies might be buried, unenclosed, in a variety of sitting, squatting or lying postures, some with skull 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.  Although simple stone sarcophagi are known from Java, these large and elaborate ones are a wholly Balinese phenomenon. 

Indian Influences 

Archaeological discoveries have revealed much about the societies that occupied the region around Sembiran and the nearby port of Julah in Northeast Bali.  We can infer that they were animists, recognizing the spirits resident in rocks and waterfalls, living creatures and the violent forces of nature.  It is also clear that dead ancestors were deified and believed to exert a powerful influence upon the living.  Over the centuries these indigenous beliefs would gradually absorb and integrate from passing merchants and seamen, elements of both Buddhist, and to a lesser degree Hindu beliefs, so laying the foundation for modern Balinese-Hinduism. 

Despite lying off the major maritime routes and lacking most natural products sought by traders, Bali was still lapped by passing waves of commerce that carried a tide of new ideas from distant parts.  By the beginning of the Christian era clear trade links existed between India and the communities of North Bali.  Through contacts with merchants and navigators, many of whom were Buddhist, ideas of Indian art forms, religious practice, and political & administrative institutions were gradually introduced to the indigenous population.  

Early rulers of Bali drew heavily upon this cultural legacy, adopting the Indian Hindu Saka calendar in their inscriptions, and assuming indianised royal titles.  Likewise the memorial sculptures of deified rulers and their spouses show strong Indian stylistic influence.  It should be emphasized that this was a process of selective assimilation of new ideas rather than of their being imposed through force of arms.  Moreover, it came wholly through contacts with merchants from India, and seemingly not by way of Java. 

It is regrettable that just as we start to glimpse the recognizable beginnings of Balinese history, the screen goes tantalizingly blank for almost 700 years.  The story only resumes when Balinese rulers began to issue edicts written on bronze tablets or inscribed in stone, but by this time a complex, island-wide society had arisen, of whose antecedents we remain frustratingly ignorant. 

Even though we lack direct confirmation from Bali itself, we know something of what was going on in other parts of the archipelago.  From the 6th to the 9th Century trade between India, China and the Indonesian archipelago was dominated by the powerful Sriwijaya dynasty.  Fiercely aggressive and with a shifting political center that included Palembang in N.E.Sumatra, Sriwijaya emerged from among the multitude of estuarine city states that controlled the trade and economic fortune of inland forest and mountain communities.  An inscription dated AD 682 records Sriwijaya’s successful attack on the neighboring city of Jambi, and for the next 400 years the story continues as one of frequent military activity. 

For some two hundred years, from the early 8th Century, central Java was under the sway of the Sailendras, a derivative branch of Sriwijaya.  Although the Sriwijaya state religion was Buddhist, in Java this co-existed with a flourishing Hindu culture.  It was the Sailendras who began construction of the great Buddhist temple at Borabudur, but when they were driven out of Java in AD 950 the work was completed by the rival Sarijaya dynasty, who also built its Hindu counterpart, Candi Prambanan.  


One of a pair of Bodhisatvas at the Buddhist temple at Goa Gaja.  Its partner, much better preserved, was stolen several years ago.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find evidence of early Buddhist and Hindu culture in nearby Bali.  Although the ruins of a large rock-carved stupa in high relief had been known since the 1920s at Goa Gajah and small clay votive stupas had been found in the same area, clear evidence of Buddhist practices in early Bali was limited.  Later on the AD 1365 epic Negarakrtagama would speak of “honored Buddhist Bishops” in Bedahulu and Lwa Gajah  “supervising the multitude of eminent domains and clergy”, but demonstrable physical proof of this Buddhist presence was largely lacking.  With the passage of time the legacy of these powerful early Buddhists has faded.  Today the Buddhist tradition in Bali is represented by a small indigenous Buddhist priesthood, who in spite of their diminished importance, nevertheless still play a vital role in certain religious ceremonies alongside their Shivaite and Visnuite Hindu counterparts.  

This somewhat clouded picture of Bali's Buddhist heritage was dramatically transformed with the chance discovery in 1983 of the remains of a large 8th – 9th Century octagonal stupa in Desa Pasangambu just North of Tirtha Empul.  Reconstructed by the Archaeological Service, this fine Buddhist monument now rises dramatically among the meru roofs of Pura Pegulingan, an otherwise typical Bali-Hindu temple.  The abundant artifacts recovered during this excavation provide clear proof of a thriving Buddhist community here that maintained strong links to similar centers elsewhere in Bali and even as far away as northern India. 

Written Records 

It is Bali’s frequent outbursts of volcanic activity, and concomitant devastating earthquakes, that have helped to make deciphering the island’s early history so difficult.  Those human artifacts able to withstand the ravages of damp, mould and insect attack have largely been destroyed beneath the rubble of successive seismic events or lie buried under many consecutive layers of lava and volcanic ash.  When Mt. Tambora, on the distant island of Sumbawa, erupted in 1815 Bali was, in this one event alone, covered with ash to a depth of one meter, destroying crops and buildings with heavy loss of life. 

It was only with the advent of durable written records – inscriptions in stone and metal - that we start to get a clear picture of early Balinese political institutions.  Writing may have been too profane a medium for recording the long oral traditions of religion, but for keeping track of commerce it proved a blessing to merchants.  Likewise it early became a necessary tool of government, particularly in promulgating new legislation and in substantiating the legitimacy of each new regime by recording military triumphs over their denigrated predecessors. 

The art of working in bronze, which had reached China from western Europe during the 7th or 8th Century BC, attained an advanced level of technical proficiency under the Shang Dynasty three and a half thousand years ago.  By 500 BC it had spread to Vietnam, where the casting of ritual bronze kettledrums, apparently sacred symbols of royal power and prestige, flourished in the Dongson region.  From Vietnam the art of bronze casting spread with dispossessed royalty to other parts of Austronesia, arriving in Bali by AD 500, where it grew and prospered.  That this occurred is all the more remarkable when it is realized that neither tin nor copper  – the fundamental constituents of bronze – are to be found on the island.  The indigenous, technologically advanced, bronze casting industry clearly relied on substantial supplies of raw materials imported from overseas, which in turn indicates a flourishing network of distant trading partners. 

 It was indeed a happy stroke of fate that had the written word in Bali committed to bronze tablets, of which over two hundred have now been discovered.  The earliest of these bronze edicts (prasasti), issued by unidentified rulers between AD 882 and 914, were written in Old Balinese and long remained indecipherable.  Like countless statues and other sacred objects of mystical but unspecified magic power, the bronze tablets lay concealed within the shrines of Bali’s many temples or buried for safekeeping in deep river gorges.  

However, not all early writing in Bali was committed to bronze inscriptions.  In 1932 a large stone pillar covered in curious writing, was discovered in the village temple at Belanjong towards the North end of Sanur beach.  Poorly preserved and only partly readable, it was nonetheless a remarkable find, for it combines an improbable mix of scripts and languages.  The early or Pre-Nagari script from India, usually reserved for Buddhist writings in Sanskrit, was found to be in the Old Balinese language.  Conversely, the Old Balinese (Kawi) script proved to hold a Sanskrit text.  Dated by the Hindu Saka calendar as having been erected in the early months of AD 914, it recorded a victory of King Sri Kesari Varmmadewa over his enemies.  The first Balinese ruler we know by name, Kesari initiated the successful Varmmadewa dynasty and is also associated with the founding of the mother temple at Besakih.  The identity of his vanquished opponents remains something of a mystery.  While they were probably neighboring rulers, some think they could have been princes from the distant island of Banda in Moluku, from whence Java and Bali later imported domestic slaves.  If this were indeed so, it stands as dramatic testimony to the extent and power of early Balinese royalty. 

Political Institutions 

Once the language of the early bronze edicts could be read, they shed valuable light upon the social structure and political institutions of the time, revealing that these were not the “Dark Ages” that scholars had long supposed.  Rulers arose through force of arms from among local clan leaders, but justified their kingship on the grounds of ritual status, specifically through reincarnation and the possession of sacred objects such as a magic kris or gemstone.  Once spiritually empowered in this way the god-king could safely delegate political control.  While the court and its religious advisors sought to avert assaults on the realm by the unseen demonic forces of nature and other such malign influences, more mundane matters such as dispensing justice and administering the nation could be left to a hierarchy of local priests and secular district officials.  In this way communities, particularly those remote from the seat of power, were left largely free to enjoy their own customs and traditions without direct interference from the court.  This was of special significance to the mountain villages that were able to keep their independence and separate way of life, in return for safeguarding the passage of travelers through their region, and  in maintaining the ancestral shrines through which royal power was claimed. 

It is no accident that Bali lacks the hill forts and cliff-top castles so characteristic of Europe, for here nature unaided provided an abundance of easily manned defensive positions for ridge-top communities and their belligerent petty princes.  But it was not simply defense considerations that attracted people to take up residence along the ridges – there were pressing economic motives too.  A society totally dependent on rice cultivation requires assured water for irrigation, and he who controls the mountain ridges and gullies also controls the water supply.  It was therefore imperative for successful lowland rulers to extend control as high as possible into the mountains.  Indeed, the most powerful of Bali’s early rulers clearly saw the importance of cooperating with mountain communities, rather than attempting to dominate them.  In addition to safeguarding the water supply, and hence the economic base of the society, it also ensured access to the valuable trade passing through the northern ports. 

 Moreover, the mountains were home to many specialized artisans whose skills were needed throughout the empire.  Additionally, the high mountains housed the shrines and temples of the ancestral deities through whom ritual status and royal power were derived.  Access to the ancestral spirits was essential if the royal families were to maintain their own god-like essence.   The consequence of all this was that  lowlanders and highlanders found themselves living at least in mutually beneficial, if not actually harmonious, symbiosis. 

Although we have no way yet of knowing the precise location of the palaces from which these early kings ruled their empires, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that places them between the Pakerisan and Petanu rivers, in the vicinity of Bedaulu and Pejeng.  But these were not simply the courts of successful regional warlords.  Their domain extended over the high mountain spine of Bali, all the way to the northern coastal ports, and included commercial and religious networks, provisions for defense, elaborate systems of taxation and obligatory corvée  labor.  In this increasingly complex society, those who possessed special skills such as masons, carpenters, dyers, irrigation experts, musicians and dancers, could demand, and receive, exceptional privileges and status for their contribution to society.  No group of craftsmen was more revered than the metal workers.  Their skill reflected close communion with Agni, the Vedic Fire God, whose power originated deep within the mysterious volcanoes.  Even today the Pande blacksmith clans of Bali emphasize their own high status outside the traditional Balinese caste system, maintaining a separate religious hierarchy beyond the regular Shivaite priesthood. 

A statue comemmorating a deified royal couple in the mountain-top sanctuary of Pura Tegeh Koripan.   Showing strong Indian stylistic influences, this statue is about one thouand years old, and is one of many preserved in this extraordinary temple. 

The earliest bronze edicts, dating from AD 882 - 911, include instructions for building Buddhist monasteries and hospices for travelers in the high mountains, and for the construction there of a temple to the Fire God, as well as regulations concerning tax collection and the corvée labor obligations of specific communities and craft associations.

Two places mentioned in the prasasti remain of special interest today.  Covered in moss and lichens, and often swathed in mist, the mysterious Pura Tegeh Koripan is a treasure house of early statues and carvings.  It was here, seemingly on a megalithic pyramid erected on Mt. Penulisan – the highest point on the Batur caldera rim – that orders were given for the construction of a sanctuary.  Not far distant, deep within the Batur caldera itself, lies the mysterious village of Trunyan.  This isolated and unwelcoming community on the remote eastern shore of Lake Batur worships an ancient local deity, Bhatara Da Tonta.  Housed in an underground chamber, the god’s giant effigy is still regularly bedecked in flowers, washed, and anointed with oil, as part of present day village initiation rites - exactly in the manner prescribed in the AD 911 bronze edict. 

Growth of Javanese Influence 

There are records of sporadic Javanese attacks on Bali from early in the 8th Century, but these were successfully repulsed, indicating the strength of Balinese leadership, although who these early rulers were remains lost in the mists of time.  It was during the reign of Udayana (Dharmodyana), “scion of a famous race of kings” that Javan influences began to be felt in Bali.  A member of the Varmmadewa dynasty founded about one hundred years earlier by Sri Kesari, Undayana’s place in history was assured when, around AD 988, he married a Javanese princess known variously as Mahendradatta or Gunapriyadharmapatni, “Spouse of virtue’s friend”.  Her high status was unquestionable, for she was great-granddaughter of the powerful early Javanese king Sindok. 

The union initiated one of Bali’s most significant royal lineages and marked the beginning of a gradual infusion of Javanese cultural, religious and political ideas into Balinese court circles.  It is probable that the marriage was part of a conscious Javanese policy of cultural annexation.  With the arrival of Mahendradatta at Udayana’s palace near Pejeng the old order changed.  The new queen brought with her from Java a retinue of advisors, courtiers, servants and slaves, and with them came refinement, elegance and new concepts of kingship.  The language of the court changed immediately from Old Balinese to Old Javanese, and all royal proclamations were henceforth issued in the new tongue.  Moreover, it was always Mahendradatta’s name that appeared first on such proclamations, indicating her high ritual status.  Nevertheless, the great changes taking place within the palace and to the machinery of state affected only a small segment of the population, and had little impact beyond the palace walls.  Only gradually, through shadow-puppets and mask dramas, were the king’s subjects introduced to the new court elegance and religious practices.  No longer were the temples through which royal authority was imposed to be positioned at opposite poles of the kingdom’s axis.  From now on the temples would be placed at the center of royal power instead of at the periphery. 

From AD 989 to 1001 proclamations continued to be issued jointly, but for ten years thereafter only Udayana’s name appears, suggesting either the early demise of his consort, or perhaps her fall from grace.  According to the popular Calong Arang story, as a condition of his marriage to Mahendradatta, Udayana had agreed to take no other wife but subsequently broke his word.  Mahendradatta is then said to have turned to black magic for revenge, and is now firmly identified with Rangda, the ultimate witch and traditional Balinese epitome of evil. However, her later demonic reputation appears at variance with the honor seemingly accorded Mahendradatta in death.  Her hilltop cremation site in Pura Kedarman  (Pura Bukit Dharma) at Kutri contains an exquisite statue of Durga that is believed to memorialize her, as does a statue in Pura Teggeh Koripan on Mt. Penulisan showing her beside her husband.  On the other hand, it is also true that this was when “left path” tantric practices were introduced in Bali, laying heavy emphasis on the demonic forces of evil. 

History records three sons from the marriage of Udayana and Mahendradatta..  The first, Dharmawangsa, succeeded to the throne of Bali around 1016, while his younger brother, Airlangga, succeeded his uncle and inherited a small kingdom in Java.  After various vicissitudes and setbacks, Airlangga’s domain, centered in Kediri, grew to become the dominant power in East Java, although he was never able to add Bali to his empire.  Airlangga’s younger brother, Anak Wungsu, eventually ascended to the Balinese throne, issuing edicts between AD 1050 and 1078, thus making him a contemporary of William “The Conqueror” Duke of Normandy. 

But mere javanisation of the courts of Bali was not sufficient to stifle the imperial aspirations of her neighbors.  To the powerful rajas of East Java, Bali still appeared as a land of barbarians that should be brought under their direct control - a point of view that had persisted unfulfilled since at least the 8th Century. 

Some two hundred and fifty years after Udayana the balance of power finally changed.  Even though Chinese sources already listed Bali among the dependancies of Java, in 1284 the powerful if somewhat enigmatic ruler Kertanagara (1268-1292), last of the East Javanese Singosari dynasty, captured the queen of Bali and finally brought the island under foreign domination.  Like Mahendradatta before him, Kertanagara was strongly influenced by tantric Buddhist practices and the demonic statues to be found in the Pejeng area, particularly at Pura Kebo Edan, probably represent his legacy.   

One of the dynamic dancing figures at Bitra

Apart from these temple statues, there are relatively few tangible remains from this early period of Balinese history.   One of the most curious archaeological sites dating back to this era is  a small crevasse behind the elevated temple in the village of Bitra.  Hard to find and difficult of access, the vertical rock walls are covered with a profusion of relief carvings.   Several panels bear recognisable fables from the Tantri tales.  Javanese in style, these clearly date from the 14th or 15th Century Majapahit period.  However,  there are also much earlier figures.  A rock-hewn chamber of characteristic design, now partly demolished by earthquake damage, hints that these other carvings probably date back roughly a thousand years, while stylistically the figures themselves also suggest a connection with the Pejeng era.  What sets them apart is the extraordinary dynamism of some of the figures, which is in stark contrast to the rigid poses of most human representations from this time.   Unfortunately, no report has yet been published on the archaeology of the site. 

The death of Kertanagara in 1292 was to give Bali a brief respite while a new ruling dynasty, Maospahit or Majapahit, established itself in Java   By the early years of the 14th Century Javan forces were again in action, first subduing, and then pardoning Pasunggrighih, the Prince of Bedaulu.  Following the death of Pasunggrighih, a strong ruler, Bali descended into anarchy and chaos as scattered efforts were once more made to escape foreign domination.  It was not to be.  Irresistible forces under the skillful leadership of distinguished general and statesman Gaja Mada soon reestablished Javan hegemony over the island.  A later chronicler reported that the “vile, long-haired princes of Bali” were beaten and wiped out, and that “all customs are now consistent with Java”.  While not strictly true, for scattered resistance persisted a long time, this did mark a major turning point in Balinese history.  A Golden Age was about to begin - one that would reach its zenith in the middle of the 16th Century under the greatest of all Balinese kings, Dalem Baturenggong. 

The Bali Aga 

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.  Their presence was felt particularly in the fertile southern lowlands, whose population became evermore imbued with Javanese forms, beliefs and practices.  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”.  Because the term has acquired a negative, if not a derogatory, connotation there is a growing tendency to use instead the neutral name ‘Bali Mula’ - ‘Original Balinese’.  This is unfortunate because they are in no sense “original”, while the term ‘Mountain Balinese’ is, from an historical perspective, completely apposite. 

It is often believed that, like the Celts in Britain, the Bali Aga are relicts of an earlier population forced to take refuge from successive waves of invaders in ever more difficult and inhospitable terrain.  This view is largely incorrect and quite misleading.  So far as the Bali Aga are concerned, they and their forebears have always occupied their ancestral mountain villages from choice, and performed there 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, indiginous 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.  The remote Sasak-derived villages in the mountains of eastern Bali may have originated from refugees fleeing invasion and turmoil in their own land, or more probably, from escaped Sasak slaves brought to Bali by the Raja of Karangasem following one of many successful military enterprise across the  Lombok Straits. 

The view of the Bali Aga as nonconformists clinging tenuously to ancient forms of religion and social structure is clearly borne out by the village of Tenganan.  Here, in a coastal community that can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as remote or isolated, the old ways are zealously guarded and rigidly maintained.  Conversely, the village of Trunyan, which lies remote on the far lake shore within the Batur caldera, and does not welcome visitors, nonetheless require their young men to travel through lowland Bali for a time living as beggars.  It is tempting to speculate that this little-known practice, reminiscent of  the itinerant monks of Thailand, derives from the strong Buddhist tradition of the area a thousand years ago. 

The question is often asked whether the Bali Aga represent separate relict communities, united only by time and geography, and by a reluctance to integrate with the lowland population.  The answer is that the mountain communities, particularly those around the flanks of Mt. Batur, formed a coherent society that maintained close links with one another, perpetuating the old highland crafts and traditions.  Differences in, for example, death practices, reflect the slow assimilation of new ideas introduced through trade contacts.  To the present day some villages still leave corpses out to be disposed of by the forces of nature.  On the other hand, many of the less-isolated Bali Aga communities today, while retaining old architectural traditions and a gerontocratic village administration, nevertheless follow more or less conventional Balinese-Hindu religious practices and regularly cremate their dead. 

The Candis 

The annals of conquest abound with the re-written histories of victors intent on denigrating and demonizing their vanquished opponents.  Thus did the triumphant Majapahit seek to justify their invasion of Bali, rigorously deprecating the honor and achievements of her old kings, who were portrayed as coarse, evil and demonic.  As the glory that was Majapahit rose to ever more exalted heights, so memory of the old Balinese kingdoms faded - but they could not be forgotten. 

A remote and seldom-visited candi at the confluence of the Krobokan and Pakerisan rivers.

Powerful Balinese rulers of the 11th Century assured their place in history through the construction of a series of unique rock-cut monuments, known collectively as candis.  Carved in high relief, and often protected within a deeply incised niche, some 15 candis are presently known in Bali, with others undoubtedly awaiting discovery.  The most famous are found in a single complex bordering the sacred Pakerisan River at Gunung Kawi, and pose many unanswered questions.  One has only to overhear the fanciful misinformation being imparted to visiting tourists here to realize how little is understood of these remarkable structures. 

The term candi refers to the abode of Candika, Goddess of Death, and consort of Lord Siva.  These rock-hewn candis are a wholly Balinese phenomenon, unknown elsewhere.  However, they take their general form from the free-standing candis of East Java, which show  very similar architectural forms and decorations.  Whereas the Balinese candis have successfully withstood the ravages of time, their Javanese counterparts proved less durable.  Many, if not all, surviving today have been rebuilt from the rubble of past earthquakes. 

The four minor Candis at Gunung Kawi, believed to memorialize four concubines who committed suttee on the funeral pyre of their lord and master.

Gunung Kawi, with a total of ten candis, includes both the largest and the best-preserved examples.  It is believed to date from around AD 1080, and memorializes a great king, together with four wives and four concubines who, in all probability, immolated themselves by committing suttee at his death to join him among the gods.  Thought by some to be a memorial to Anak Wungsu himself, it seems more probable that Anak Wungsu built it to honor his father, the great ruler Udayana.  Set well apart from the rest, and forming a separate sanctuary complex, is a tenth candi that may ultimately prove to have been Anak Wungsu’s own memorial. 

The candis, it must be emphasized, are not tombs, for they have never contained human remains or ashes.  Rather, they are symbolic earthly accommodations to house the deified royal family when they are invited down to be entertained at temple festivals.  The only object to be placed within a candi was a stone plaque (peripih) with nine holes containing symbolic offerings of foodstuffs and metal objects representing the necessities of earthly existence. 

The so-called "Tenth Tomb" at Gunung Kawi.  Set at some distance from the other nine candis, this is often thought to memorialize a leading courtier.  It appears more probable that this is the memorial to Anak Wungsu himself, after he had had the other candis constructed in honor of his father, Udayana. 

In shape the candis resemble small buildings surmounted by massive three-tiered roofs bearing nine stylized lingam-yoni fertility symbols.  Each candi bears evidence of a doorway, carved in relief, but going nowhere.  Instead, there is a small chamber beneath the candi, accessed by a sloping shaft from the front, in which the nine offerings were placed.  Above the doorway is a panel that at one time would have born an inscription, although few decipherable remnants have survived.  One candi, slightly elevated above the rest, still bears part of its inscription, written in the striking quadrate lettering that briefly characterized East Javan Kadiri monuments during the 11th Century.  It is this that provides, however tenuously, the clearest evidence of when Gunung Kawi was constructed. 

At Gunung Kawi, and elsewhere, it is clear that provision has been made in its construction  for water to be directed towards the monuments and thence into sluices and spouts.  Today, maintaining an undoubtedly ancient tradition, water that has flowed over a candi is believed to have become imbued with divine properties through contact with the essence of  the resident deity.  Thus Gunung Kawi remains even today an important source for the holy water that is central to Balinese religious practice. 

Perhaps the most striking thing about Gunung Kawi is the sheer size of the undertaking.  In addition to the deeply incised niches that protect the candis, each nine meters in height, there is evidence of much greater rock moving activity having taken place.  It must be emphasized that the creation of Gunung Kawi involved the removal of all the surrounding rock matrix in which the finished structure was embedded – a truly monumental volume of debris. 

The candis at Tegallinggah, which were abandoned after severe earthquake damage before completion.  They remained hidden under debris for almost a thousand years, before being excavated by the archaeological service .  They are rarely visited

To put Gunung Kawi into perspective, it is helpful to visit the candis at Tegallinggah a few miles to the south.  Discovered in the 1950s after lying hidden beneath layers of mud for almost a millennium, the site was apparently abandoned before completion, following severe earthquake damage.  From its half-finished state one can garner much useful information about techniques used in its construction.  It is clear that the twin candis at Tegallinggah originally overlooked a small, fully enclosed excavated cloister.  

This gateway was the only visible structure before Tegallinggah was excavated. 

Access was gained by a flight of steps leading up through the massive gateway that still stands close by.  Today the candis are exposed to full view because the facing wall of the cloister, adjacent to the river gorge, has collapsed.  Examining the Gunung Kawi candis in the light of the Tegallinggah excavations, we can now see evidence that they too were probably once protected within two massive rock-hewn cloisters.  Contrastingly, such enclosures are not found at most other candis, which often stand prominently exposed to view from a distance

This type of rock-hewn construction, which is extremely labor-intensive, is well known in India, where large granite temples have been built by removing all the encompassing non-temple rock.  However, it is not otherwise known in Bali or in Java, pointing once again to powerful early Indic influences. 

Most visitors to Gunung Kawi, marveling at the nine magnificent royal candis, tend to overlook both the isolated tenth candi and the 34 other rock-hewn structures present in the area.  These  take the form of  excavated chambers, and have traditionally been assumed to be merely monastic cells for ascetic hermits.  As such they appear to have been largely dismissed from further consideration.  However, careful examination suggests that they more probably served other functions and so call for closer attention. 

The Role of Gunung Kawi 

Gunung Kawi can reasonably be viewed as a temple honoring the deities into whom Udayana, Anak Wungsu and their sacrificial retinue were exalted.  We would not, of course, expect it to conform precisely to modern Balinese temple design, as this dates only from the revision of religious practices initiated in the mid-sixteenth century by Niratha, Baturrenggong’s revered high priest and advisor.  Nevertheless, there are some striking analogies. 

What we see is a sacred riverside location strongly fortified against invisible (niskala) malignant forces.  The antithesis of a military stronghold – overlooked and readily approachable from several directions – Gunung Kawi is nevertheless an impregnable spiritual redoubt.  The cloisters, highly susceptible to military assault from above by fire, spears and arrows, were left open in the manner of modern temples to facilitate the entry of descending deities.  We do not know the rules of engagement applicable to tenth century demons but, probably like their modern counterparts, they too were able only to travel in straight lines.  Thus the massive entranceways, which necessitate 90-degree turns, would have been secure against their assaults. 

The interior of a typical chamber, showing the decorative features that suggest a replica of a thatched roof.  At the far end is the opening to a second, totally enclosed chamber.

Apart from the candis themselves, the remaining room-like structures all share certain common features, and may be classified into three main types.  Each is built in a form that clearly represents a thatched bamboo bale or shelter of the kind found throughout Bali today, but carved out of stone and set into a protective niche for permanence.  This impression is strongly supported by the architectural features, carved in bold relief, that support and embellish the high vaulted ceilings within, which are very reminiscent of traditional Balinese alang-alang thatched roofs.  Thus, just as in modern temples, we see an assortment of thatched pavilions, each serving different functions and so differing in structural detail – although what these functions might have been remains unclear. 

It is no flight of fancy, no wild speculation, to view the existing main cloister at Gunung Kawi as a temple courtyard.  When the adjacent modern temple celebrates its odolan or ritual birthday, the normally tranquil and deserted cloister comes alive.  Women in their temple finery occupy the surrounding chambers, quietly talking amongst themselves as they create a multitude of offerings.  Every available space within the cloister is used to store either the finished offerings or the various components required for their completion.  It is easy to extrapolate this contemporary use of the cloisters back to the days of their creation. 

The simplest of the various chambers found at Gunung Kawi comprises a single space, whose ceiling may be supported by one or, particularly when the size is large, two pairs of sturdy stone pillars.  Next come similar spaces, which also have leading from them a second, closed chamber.  

A chamber of the third type, with central opening and two "windows", one real and one false.  Note the stone "thatch".

However, it is the third category that is perhaps the most intriguing.  Chambers of this type are closed off by a front wall that has both a central doorway and an elongated horizontal window opening.  They also have a closed chamber that sports a deeply incised false window niche symmetrically placed to match the real window.  There can be no denying that the ten chambers of this type present to western eyes a very house-like appearance, which may account for the belief that they were constructed to accommodate priests and ascetics, and yet one must seriously question whether this could ever have been their true purpose. 

It is difficult to imagine any of these ‘rooms’ being constructed primarily for human residency, particularly by people accustomed to living in airy thatched bamboo shelters.  These are dank, noisome holes –in some cases actually running with water.  They provide no privacy, and the side chambers, which are often only partly excavated and very rough hewn, would be most improbable, airless places in which to try and sleep.  It seems far more likely that such durable structures must rather have been designed for specific ritual purposes.  What these purposes may have been, we can only speculate. 

Symmetrically flanking the candis at Gunung Kawi, and also at several other sites, are large spaces, often divided into three sections by pillars.  Some exceed eight meters in length by three meters deep, with lofty, vaulted ceilings rising to more than two and a half meters in height.  They would appear far better suited to displaying offerings than sheltering temple guardians. 

Many of the closed side chambers possess remarkably resonant acoustics, and it is tempting to think that this special quality might have been exploited by a Delphic taksu in trance to enhance the messages brought from the gods.  Another, more mundane but perhaps more probable role for such spaces would have been safe storage of sacred relicts between ceremonies, and indeed some show evidence of having had some kind of recessed door to keep out intruders. 

Yet another possible function  – and one  not hitherto considered by historians – might be a role in funerary rites.  Even today there are remote Bali Aga communities who consider fire too sacred to be polluted through cremation, and so commit their dead to the mercy of nature, leaving them above ground, as do the Parsi in Bombay.  A thousand years ago such practices may well have been more common, and the furthermost cloister at Gunung Kawi, far removed from the candis, might well have served as a place in which corpses could be left to rot and be picked clean by natural processes.  The small side chambers may then have served as charnel houses for safekeeping accumulated skeletal remains.  If this were so, it would explain why further side-chambered rooms were still under construction when all building work at Gunung Kawi suddenly ceased.  

It is not known when or why Anak Wungsu’s great temple fell into decline, but there is ample evidence of severe damage by a succession of seismic events.  Initially, efforts were clearly made to repair the devastation.  Evidence of this may be seen just inside the main entrance gateway to Gunung Kawi, where the southernmost of the pair of flanking niches has been rebuilt.  No simple matter, when the original collapsed, a new one was excavated behind it, still leaving visible traces of its demolished predecessor.  This too suggests a more profound purpose for such structures than mere priestly habitation. 

Today we see widespread evidence of earthquake damage.  One assumes that it must have been one sudden, final catastrophe that prompted the eternal temple to be abandoned, for work on new chambers was still in progress when the masons left them unfinished.  For a site so manifestly important to be forsaken without any further attempts at restoration suggest that its time was well past, and that the cult sustaining it was in decline, which would most probably have occurred some time after the imposition of Majapahit religious practices throughout lowland Bali.

 There can be no doubt that further candis and associated ancient structures await discovery in Bali’s overgrown canyons and forbidding gorges.  In 1925 a sudden landslide along the Kalebutan River near Pejeng revealed a beautiful candi with an adjacent cloister on the opposite bank.  Each new find adds to our understanding of this important but obscure period of Balinese history, and new discoveries are not the exclusive domain of professional archaeologists and historians.  The curious hiker exploring Bali’s less traveled river gorges with a discerning eye can still  stumble across sites of major importance, unknown to all but a few local farmers who remain blissfully unaware of their significance.


Home Page

BCP Programs

About the BCP

Meet the Children

Rent a BCP House 

All About Bali


The Bali Children’s Project is a tax-exempt non-profit charitable foundation registered in the state of California and in Indonesia (EIN 26-0021623)

  • The work of the BCP is wholly dependent upon the generous donations of individuals and organisations.   

  • All donations go exclusively to support our charitable programs

Last Update: 20/09/05
Web Author: Arachne Enterprises
Copyright ©2005 The Bali Children's Project  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED