The island of Bali has inherited a unique culture, which today encapsulates a belief system derived from multiple influences.

The original inhabitants of the island shared intrinsically animist beliefs in common with the shamanic magic practices widely distributed through the early Indonesian and Polynesian cultures, worshipping the spirits of nature, and the ancestors, who dwelled upon mountain tops, fundamental beliefs which still are at the core of Balinese life today, reflected in the many temples facing the powerful gods of Bali’s volcanoes.

The influence of the Indian beliefs of both Buddhism and Hinduism arrived in Bali and the wider archipelago at around the first century AD, with Indian pottery dating back to this time unearthed in northern Bali, illustrating well established trading and cultural links with India.

Several Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms emerged in Indonesia in the early centuries AD, including Yawadvipa, Sunda, Tarumanagara and Kalinga, but the first of the great empires which held sway over the Indonesian archipelago was the Srivijaya Empire, who built the world's largest existing Buddhist monument, the astounding temple of Borobudur in Java.

Though Bali never came under its rule, the presence of this mighty Buddhist Empire and neighbouring Hindu Kingdoms certainly shaped the thinking of the whole region, and its successor, the Majapahit Empire would engulf almost the entirety of Malaysia, Indonesia and much of the Philippines, which cemented the presence of Hindu-Buddhist Traditions on the island, which were intertwined with the local beliefs.

When the Majapahit Empire finally collapsed in the fifteenth century, it left a gulf into which Islam began to spread, and many of the aristocracy of Majapahit fled to Bali to escape as the Islamic wave washed all over the surrounding archipelago, leaving Bali as the only surviving island to retain its ancient historic culture. 

Indeed Bali is the only remaining culture in the whole of Southeast Asia to have retained the ancient Hindu culture which once dominated almost the entirety of the region, sweeping all before it. For this reason, a visit to Bali represents an insightful window into a once vast cultural landscape at the heart of the development of the region. 

Today in Bali, these influences thrive in what is described as Balinese Hinduism, with Hindu iconography being the ideological host within which elements from Buddhism, Ancestor worship and ancient animist practices are woven together in a charmingly unique coherent fusion which pervades everyday life.

Bali was able to preserve its heritage in the wake of Islam, but would soon face another challenge as the spice-hungry nations of Europe began to focus on the area, an influence that would reach Bali in 1846, with the arrival of the Dutch who eventually colonised the island.

The resultant inevitable attempt to introduce Christianity, which began with the arrival of missionaries in 1864, utterly failed and the Dutch government, rather wisely, forbade further attempts at Christianisation.

It was during the colonial period that Chinese immigrants began to arrive in Bali as workers for the Dutch East India Company, which introduced Taoism and Confucianism, though their descendants practise these ideas within the prevailing culture.

Some Chinese immigrants were Christian converts and, in 1930, several hundred Balinese were converted, which provoked a fierce reaction from the Hindu population, which destroyed the church and evicted the converts from their lands.

In reaction, the Dutch established two Christian villages, the Protestant Blimbingsari in 1939, and the Catholic Palasari in 1940, which remain at the heart of Christian presence in Bali today though the uptake of Christianity is slight.

When the Dutch were obliged by the United Nations into giving up their claim to Indonesia, Bali became part of the Indonesian Republic, which despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, is constitutionally secular, officially recognising Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

In recent years, Bali has been acquiring an ever increasing influx of Muslims from Java who may in future change the demographic of the island.

The Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 at the hands of Muslim extremists led to considerable resentment by the local majority, but did not lead to violence and has since largely subsided.

The enormous draw of Bali’s fascinating culture to tourists around the world is perhaps the best protection to preserving the island’s heritage intact into the future.


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