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A Rich Literary Heritage

Three languages are spoken on Bali: Balinese and its dialects, Indonesian, and a kind of Old Javanese called Kawi. Contacts with Hindu Buddhist Java between the 9th and 16th centuries exerted a strong influence on the language and literature. Later contacts with Muslim Java, with Blambangan, and with Lombok between the 17th and 19th centuries also left their traces. At present the Indonesian language, which derives from Malay and is used in the schools, in the mass media and as the lingua franca of commerce and government, is having a great impact.

Standard Balinese uses different levels, each with its own set of parallel vocabulary, to indicate the caste or status of the speaker visa-vis the person spoken to. There are three main levels: alus (high), kasar (low) and mider (middle). This means that a low caste person uses formal high Balinese words in speaking to a person of higher status, while the latter will reply using the low vocabulary. Only several hundred words are covered by these parallel vocabularies, but they tend to be the most commonly used ones.

Indonesian is now spoken and taught at school, and children from six years onwards are thus brought up bilingually with a stress on Indonesian. Moreover, intellectuals and many Balinese parents in towns like Denpasar and Tabanan consider it more fashionable to speak only Indonesian. As a result, knowledge of formal or high Balinese among the younger generation is declining.

Kawi is now mainly a literary language, surviving in spoken form only in the theater. Heroes representing high caste characters from the classical literature express themselves in Kawi, but it is only understood by a few specialists, by dalangs and by some of the older people in the audience.

Courtly literary genres

Much of the diversity displayed by Balines4 literature today has historical roots. Written sources can be found in the following languages on Bali: Sanskrit, Old Balinese, Old ( Javanese, Middle Javanese, Balinese, Sasak (from Lombok), Malay and Indonesian.


Sanskrit was used in royal edicts dating from the 9th to the 11th centuries, and still to day in hymns (stuti, stawa) recited by priests There are many Sanskrit loanwords in Old Javanese, Balinese and Indonesian. Old Balinese was used in edicts issued between A.D882 and the early 10th century.

By the end of the 10th century, when close links were established with east Java, Old Javanese was employed in the inscriptions : and it is likely that Javanese literature came to Bali at this time also. Ironically, while Old Javanese is still known and used in Bali, it has all but disappeared on Java. Poems and prose works on religion, grammar, metrics , magic, medicine, history and genealogy are still being produced here in Old Javanese.

During the culturally rich Gelgel period (1550-1600), the kings of Bali kept Balinese or Javanese scribes in their service. These scribes wrote in Middle Javanese, and introduced a whole new genre of laudatory poems on the beauty of women (the queen in particular), or the death of a beloved. They also produced works on politics and ancient history to legitimize the position of the king.

Later east Javanese literature, including stories of Muslim knights such as the Menak and Kidung juarsa tales, became known in Bali in the 17th century. When Karangasem took control of western Lombok at the end of the 18th century, Sasak literature was brought to eastern Bali as well. In Karangasem many sasak words occur in poems.

As Balinese nobles formed their own independent courts and became more powerful around 1700, they began to sponsor works of court literature. Brahman authors were very popular, probably because they knew Old Javanese and were well-versed in religion, politics and the classical literature. The language of these new kidung poems was Old Javanese with many Balinese elements added.

A new genre of poetry (Geguritan or Parikan) - epic histories and love stories about Balinese kings, princes and heroes written in Balinese - developed at the end of the 18th century. Folktales, riddles and rhymes were also noted down in Balinese from the end of the 19th century onwards.

When the Dutch began their conquest of Bali early in the 20th century, at a time when the Balinese themselves were constantly at war, a new genre came into being - a poem on the devastation (rusak or uug) of a realm.

Most works of Old Javanese and Balinese literature are anonymous. The manuscripts consist of lontar palm leaves, prepared and cut to size (usually 3.5 to 4.5 cm high and 35 to 50 cm long), and then bound together by means of a string run through perforations in the center or the left hand side of the leaves. An iron stylus is used to inscribe them and the lines are then blackened with soot. Illustrated manuscripts are also known from the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

For the most part, Balinese literature is not meant to be read silently but to be sung and recited. It is read during rituals and in theater performances; certain passages are sung or adapted for the wayang or the stage. There are also special clubs (seka bebasan) devoted to the singing and recitation of poems.

New ideas, new language

With the increase of Western influence during the 1920s and 1930s, many Balinese, especially the Brahmans, came to feel that the Balinese were becoming alienated from their religion and culture. To counter this, they composed religious treatises in Balinese. Treatises on Balinese script, grammar and language were also produced under the influence of Dutch scholarship.

After the revolution, Balinese authors began to write novels in Indonesian, and later also poetry. A Balinese literary movement came into being as well. The Balai Penelitian Bahasa in Singaraja, now in Denpasar, began a Balinese folktale series in 1978.

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