Bali’s Early Days

This time I’m going to talk about one of the books I purchased at the UWRF (Ubud Writers and Readers Festival) taking place on 6 – 10 October 2010 at Ubud, Bali. I was there to volunteer for the festival, with my role then was as a Writer Liaison for a group of writers, helping them settle well during the festival and their stay at Ubud. Of course during the five festival days, I had also ample of time attending the programs – panels, discussions, book launches, or other cultural events – and for sure time to buy some books! Many interesting books of the writers participating the festival were sold there at the festival bookstore, and all seemed to be so interesting, specially after having attended and listened to their thoughts in their programs. I bought (only) six books (why did I buy that few? I should have bought more!), and here is a ‘review’ on one of those.

Bali’s Early Days: Widow Sacrifice, Slavery & OpiumA.A. Gde Putra Agung/ Saritaksu Editions, 2010/ Essays (historical, anthropological)/ English/ 81 p.

Written by A. A. Gde Putra Agung, a Professor Emeritus of Universitas Udayana, and also the son of the last Raja of Karangasem, this historial and anthropological essays on early period in Bali, where widow sacrifice, slavery and opium trade were still taking place in some parts of Bali, was a brief research result of the Professor, based on notes and manuscripts best kept in the Puri Karangasem (the royal palace), as well as other resources, such as historical books and journalist reportages specially those made during Dutch colonial period. The publication of this book is very intriguing for Bali is widely known as a paradise island with the flaw image of ‘only beautiful things happen in Bali’, but it indeed has a bleak history in its past. On the other hand, knowing one’s past is very important to understand oneself and identify with one’s root, so that one can head forwards to the future more confidently. Basically it is the reason why this book is published and it was what was highlighted on the Book Launch taking place in cafe Nomad in Jalan Raya Ubud, and all of us, the festival attendees, celebrated its launching.

The book is divided into three parts concerning widow sacrifice, slavery, and opium trade that happened in Bali circa 1723 – 1904, a period where kingdoms in Bali were still struggling (and battling) to win the power and where the Dutch was still trying to put its feet in Bali. Every part of this book is ended with a brief multi-dimensional analyses, permitting the readers to look at the situations in different angles and relate them to the intertwined values that lived in the epoch.

Widow sacrifice, or mesatja as it was called in Bali, is the rite of life sacrificing done by the wife (also could include concubines) of the Raja (King) following the death of the Raja. The act took place at the cremation, where the wife (and concubines) would walk voluntarily and fall themselves into the cremation fire. Other form of mesatja was done by stabbing the body with a dragger (keris). It was seen as the ‘the act of faithfulness’ and the tradition was linked to the texts about being faithful (satya; setia) (which actually do not tell anything about killing oneself, rather, merely on being honest in thought and behavior, on keeping promises and keeping one’s words, and all those have far wider meaning), and also linked to the dynamic of the accumulated power on the king at the time.

Agreement between Raja Tabanan and Dutch government on the abolition of Mesatja

It’s very hard for me to imagine that this really took place some time in the past and to imagine that one could actually commit to this ‘brave’ and horrible act. In this book, there are some descriptions and eye-witness reportage, based on manuscripts, on how they did it, the minute-by minute scenes that took place, that made me chilled when reading it. Fortunately, this rite was abolished, starting by the agreement made between the Raja of Tabanan and the Dutch government (who forced the agreement as they saw the rite as ‘shockingly inhumane’), then spread to other parts of Bali. All parties were then willing to bring back the original meaning of ‘being faithful’ or satya, and the fact that killing oneself is actually one of the ‘biggest sins’ according to Hindu religion.

As for slavery and opium trade, both had strong relation with the Dutch policies at that time, although local interests also played a role here. As what was needed by the colonial period, Dutch needed supplies of men to support their wars in Java and in other parts of the world where Dutch colony existed. Balinese slaves were regarded as ‘favorite’; the men were reputed to be very loyal and willing to learn new things and they made fierce soldiers, whereas the women were known for their affection and being valued for their good knowledge in health care (p. 29). They were highly priced, and they were transported as far as Mauritius. The Balinese kingdoms took some role in providing the slaves and took benefit with some agreement with the Dutch. Within the kingdoms as well, there were some practice of slavery where people from lower social status would ‘dedicate’ their lives to the needs of the royal family. Multi-dimensional approach on social-economic, social-culture and social-politic, including the impact of the war between Dutch and England that took place far away in Europe, on the practice of slavery is elaborated here. One ‘anomaly’ reality was the fact that the situation of slaves in Bali during those times was actually ‘not so bad’. It is recorded that when the kingdom in south Bali fell apart in 1906, around the same time as the end of slavery in Bali, although the slaves were all set free, most of them chose not to leave their masters (p. 51).

Opium smoking in Java

The opium in Bali was closely related to the colonial Dutch policy in gaining as much profit as possible by establishing a market monopoly. The opium was listed in the VOC trading as early as 1603, as one of its profitable commodities in the East Indies (p.56). Starting 17th century, Dutch was trying to establish the opium trade between Bali, Batavia, Singapore and Europe, and in doing so, they had to win the commerce from previously other players in the commodity, which were the Chinese, Bugis and Javanese traders. Balinese kings were firstly involved in the trade, then they received privileges in opium consumption. They were actually the biggest consumers (p. 57). There were tales that told that in some royal palaces, the opium smoke was so dense that the geckos fell from the walls (p.55). Then the demand to get it was so high that it forced the traditionally inward-looking Balinese to develop export commodities (that would benefit the Dutch) to pay for their addiction and so began to open the island to more trade. They even helped the trade through the rural areas, where the kings usually played role as middlemen.

Those Balinese kings were naive, not realizing that the Dutch colonial’s ‘generosity’ was actually a double-edged sword. From social, cultural and psychological perspectives, as what happened in other areas of colonization, the Dutch handicapped the Balinese with the additive pleasure, leading them unsuspectingly into bondage, far beyond the comprehension of the Balinese people (p. 77). But when, at a later part, the Dutch used their politics to get agreement from the Balinese kings to wipe out some traditional rights concerning the royals’ pride and identity, it finally burst local resistance, which then led to the famously long and fierceful war against the Dutch in the island.

The book launch at Cafe Nomad, Ubud, Bali, Oct 2010

This book openly presents a ‘dark’ history of the so-called ‘paradise island’. A glimpse on the past of Bali that would enrich our understanding of the island and its people.

There is always something we can (or I should say, must) learn from history, for that history not to repeat in the future.

Mei, Balikpapan, 24 November 2010

9 thoughts on “Bali’s Early Days

  1. Mba Meiiiii.. Asik bgt bisa ketemuan sama penulis2 hebat di festival itu dan pastinya bisa beli buku2 keren jg ya di sana! Iya, 6 buku mah kurang banyak mba!😀 Hm, terakhir ke Ubud pas jaman kuliah, hihi, udah lama bgt!

    Bukunya menarik sekali mba Mei apalagi disertai dg dokumentasi foto2 gitu, paling seneng deh liat dan bacanya! Jd inget jaman pelajaran sejarah SMA dulu ttg kerajaan2 di Indonesia😀
    Berarti dulu di Bali makna “setia” itu horror bgt ya mba, aku sampe takjub baca ritual pengorbanan sang janda raja2 Bali, hiiii… Dan baru tau jg kalo budak2 Bali itu paling difavoritkan sama kompeni, aku kira malah budak2 Jawa loh.. Ternyata budak2 Bali itu sayaaaaang bgt sama tuan2nya sampe udah dibebaskan aja masih kepingin ikut sama tuannya, hebat ya!😀

    Ulasan buku yg menarik mba. Sukaaa!🙂

    1. mademelani

      ya emg horor banget tuh ya… sblm baca ini aku masih mikir semua ritual itu cuma cerita/ dongeng aja, taunya beneran… padahal teks yg dijadiin acuan, yg dikutip di buku ini, sama sekali gak bilang ttg bunuh diri gitu, cuma setia pada perkataan dan perbuatan…. btw tapi kalo si istri raja yg mati duluan, rajanya kok gak ikut ‘setia’ dgn ikut mati ya?? (power acculumation on the king!)

      ttg budak, di sini cuma dibilang budak bali dipandang favorit dgn alasan2 tsb, tp jg gak dibilang ter-favorit. jadi sangat mungkin budak jawa atau lainnya jg termasuk favorit, mgkn utk alasan yg beda, mgkn utk yg bekerja di perkebunan? yg pasti sih semua pasti menguntungkan yg makai budak…

      ya budak2 itu tetep gak mau ninggalin tuannya, mungkin ada faktor setia juga, tapi mungkin juga krn mrk udah turun temurun ikut orang/ tuannya, jd kl ‘dilepas’ suruh hidup sendiri mgkn mereka gak mau/ gak berani jg… ya tp yg hebat dlm kondisi ini ya tuannya ya, budaknya sih tetep kasian…

  2. JoV

    Nice article. I remembered watching a movie adaptation of “The Passage of India” a novel written by E.M. Forster and the widow of the king was burnt alongside. Although I watched it perhaps 20 years ago, that burning scene I could still remember it vividly and felt horrified by it. Lucky there is no more such practices now.😉

    1. mademelani

      Oh that must be horrible to see the scene like that. I was only reading, and I already felt horrified and the fact that one could really commit to such act is just beyond my imagination…

      Btw, at Ubud festival, a malaysian writer, Tash Aw, was in the group I was taking care of; a very nice and polite guy🙂, he was talking about something concerning the intertwine between history and fiction in his sessions.

  3. astridfelicialim

    Mei, I remembered we talked about widow sacrifice when we had coffee in Starbucks, and that makes me want to see u again =) Thanks for writing this nice review…And I should have asked you to bring some books for me, heehee! (Six is definitely not enough haha)

    1. mademelani

      hi Tid, yes let’s meet up again, I’ll be in Jkt soon… will let you know!🙂
      Thanks!, but I realized here I was not making a ‘review’, it’s more like a summary of the book content, just felt the urge to share the intriguing things I had just read. Should learn more on making a real review!🙂

      Yeah, six is just too few. Why oh why didn’t I buy also all those other books, you know there were some from Thomas Kennealy, Anne Enright, Nam Le, and some other Australian and Middle East writers…

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