Cultural Overview

Bali is famous for its rich, predominantly Hindu, culture. However, animist, Austronesian traditions prevailed in Bali until the beginning of the Christian era, when Indian and Chinese influences began to be felt, and the Balinese developed their own version of Hinduism. Wet-rice agriculture, organized around irrigation societies and with important royal ritual patronage, was practiced during the first millenium of the Christian era.

Precolonial Balinese society was stratified and organized in kingdoms based on wet-rice cultivation. Trade, especially in slaves and rice, has long been important, and Bali has never been as isolated as its tenure of Hinduism in the face of Islamization might suggest. There is a long history of culture contact, not only of Indianization and European colonization, but also of a strong Chinese presence in administration and trade, and Arabic and Indian influence. The literature has differentiated between the "lowland" mainstream society of courts and castes, and the "highland" Bali-Aga society, with tendencies towards gerontocracy, principles of precedence, and bilateral kinship organization, but recent research suggests a more complex situation.

Bali was finally pacified and colonized by the Netherlands from 1908. Following the Japanese interregnum and the revolutionary war for independence (1945-49), Bali was incorporated into the nation-state of the Republic of Indonesia. Internal administration has been in line with the homogeneous model implemented nationwide; the province has eight districts, each with subdistricts and administrative villages.

The careful cultivation of the "Bali as paradise" image by the Indonesian government and tourism industry has wrought an explosion in international tourism in Bali, with an associated process of export-oriented industrialization. There have been dramatic socioeconomic transformations in Bali since 1970, involving a shift from a predominantly familial peasant mode of production to a wage-labor mode of production, urbanization, and incorporation into the global capitalist economy.

Population growth, caused mainly by declining mortality rates, has been dramatic. Bali's population increased from 800,000 in 1817 to 3.15 million in 2000 (BPS, 2000; Raffles, 1817/1978, Vol. 2, p. ccxxxii). However, there has been a recent sharp decline in fertility; the total fertility rate dropped from 5.96 in the period 1967-70 to 2.28 in the period 1986-89 (Hull & Jones, 1994, p. 135). The majority of the population still lives in the rural villages of the southern rice-bowl areas. Increasingly, prime farming land is giving way to roads, hotels, art shops, golf courses, and urban sprawl.

The affluence of Bali, compared with the poverty of other (especially more easterly) islands in Indonesia, and the attractions of the tourist industry have led to internal labor migration as well as urbanization; urban and periurban areas are increasingly heterogeneous, with mosques and churches now not unusual sights and a cosmopolitan life-style in the main tourist areas. The Balinese too have spread out across the archipelago, participating in processes of religious colonization, transmigration, and the bureaucratization of the nation-state.

Bali is often characterized as a caste society, divided into the four great Hindu divisions. The "high castes" comprise the priestly caste (brahmana), the royal rulers (satria), and traders/administrators (wesia), and are commonly known as the "three groups" (triwangsa) or "insiders" (wong jero). They are distinguished from the "outsiders" or commoners (wong jaba), who comprise perhaps 90% of the population. The triwangsa have their own descent groups and ideally marry endogamously. Caste differences are most obvious in levels of language used, personal names, respect behavior (e.g., seating positions), and in some social separation (e.g., in eating and some rituals). Wong jaba are optionally organized in descent groups, calculated from an apical ancestor.

Arguments over caste and status have dominated Balinese public discourse since the late 19th century, perhaps as a reaction to the Dutch "freezing" of what was once a more fluid and contestable social structure.

There is a patrilineal kinship system, a patrilocal residence pattern, and agnatic inheritance. Everyone in Bali must marry. Endogamy within a variety of groups (descent groups, caste/status groups, and villages) is desirable.

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