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Denpasar
City of villages and even more crowded than Jakarta

Denpasar is a "village-city" with an aristocratic past. Born from the ashes of the defeated Pemecutan court following the Puputan massacre of 1906, Denpasar became a sleepy administrative outpost during Dutch times. Since independence, and especially after it was made the capital of Bali in 1958, it has been transformed into a bustling city of some 350,000 souls that provides administrative, commercial and educational services not only to booming Bali, but to much of eastern Indonesia as well. Denpasar is the most dynamic city east of Surabaya, and arguably the richest in the country - there are more vehicles per capita here than in Jakarta.

New city, old villages

Originally a market town - its name literally means "east of the market" - Denpasar has far outgrown its former boundaries, once defined by the Pemecutan, Jero Kuta and Satriya palaces and the brahmanic houses Tegal, Tampak gangsul and Gemeh. Spurred in all directions by population pressures motorized transport, urban growth is little enveloping the neighboring villages obliterating the surrounding rice fields, leaving a new urban landscape in its wake housing estates in the midst of rice fields in the middle of the city.

To the northeast, urbanization spills. Across the Ayung River into the village Batubulan, famous for its barong dance where the conservatory of dance has recently been relocated. To the south, it reaches Sanur and even to Kuta, while the Bukit it is now subjected to a frenzy of land speculation. To the northwest, it sprawls as far Kapal, whose beautiful temple now has to seen above the din and dust of suburban traffic.

This unchecked growth has swallowed many old villages of the plain, yet in many ways they remain as they were - their arc architecture focused around open courtyard they have intact their intricate temples collective banjars. The power structure its although adapting to new urban tasks and occupations, has also not changed much. Local satriyas, be they hotel managers or civil servants, remain princes - they still have control of land and territorial temples and M mobilize their "subjects" for ceremonies

Local Brahmans are even more powerful continuing to provide ritual services for their followers and occupying some of the best positions in the new Bali. Thus Denpasar is a showcase of Balinese social resiliency - still "Bali" and worth a visit for its gates, its shrines and its royal mansions.

But Denpasar is nevertheless a modern city. Shops, roads and markets have conquered the wet rice field areas allowed to be leased and sold by village communities. Here, urbanization has taken on the same features found elsewhere in Indonesia - rows of gaudily-painted shops in the business districts; pretty villas along the "protocol" streets; narrow alleys, small compounds and tiny houses in the residential areas.

Experiment in integration

This new urban space continues to welcome waves of new immigrants - Balinese as well as non-Balinese. As such, it represents an experiment in national integration. Inland Balinese indeed make up the majority of the population. The northerners and southern princes and Brahmans were here first. Early beneficiaries of a colonial education, they took over the professions and the main administrative positions and constitute, together with the local nobility, the core of the native bourgeoisie. Their villas - with their roof temples, neo-classical columns and Spanish balconies - are the modern "palaces" of Bali.

More recently, a new Balinese population has settled here, attracted by jobs as teachers, students, nurses, traders, etc. Strangers among the local "villagers," these Balinese are the creators of a new urban landscape and architecture. Instead of setting up traditional compounds with their numerous buildings and shrines, they build detached houses with a single multi-purpose shrine. In religious matters, they are transients - retaining ritual membership in their village of origin, praying to gods and ancestors from a distance through the medium of the new shrine. They return home for major ceremonies, to renew themselves at the magical and social sources Of their village of origin.

Apart from the Balinese majority, there are several non-indigenous minorities in Denpasar, comprising a quarter of the total Population. Muslim Bugis came to Bali as mercenaries as early as the 18th century. They have their own "banjar' in the village of Kepaon, where they live alongside the Balinese, speaking their language and intermarrying with them. Old men of Pemecutan will show you a "Bugis" shrine in a small temple near the family cremation site.

The Chinese came early as traders for the local princes. They integrated easily, blending their Chinese and Balinese ancestry. They also have a shrine, the Ratu Subandar or "merchant king's" shrine up in Batur, next to the shrines of Balinese ancestral gods. New Chinese, often Christians, have arrived, attracted by the booming economy of Bali.

There are also Arabs and Indian Moslems who came in the thirties as textile traders and have since become one of the most prosperous local communities. They live in the heart of the city, in the Kampung Arab area, where they have a mosque.

Most migrants, however, are Javanese and Madurese, known collectively as "jawa." They fill the ranks of the civil service and the military (Sanglah and Kayumas areas) as well as the working classes, skilled and unskilled (Pekambingan, Kayumas, "Kampung Jawa" areas). New actors on the Balinese social stage, they introduce new habits - food selling, peddling, etc. They are also builders of new housing: shacks and tiny houses that bring Denpasar into line with other cityscapes of modern Indonesia.

Thus Denpasar is very much a place where the theme of nation-building is played out. It brings together within earshot of one another the high priest's mantra, the muezzin's call, and the parson's prayer. "Eka Wakya, Bhinna Srutti" - "The Verbs are One, the Scriptures are Many" - so goes the local saying. Balinese tolerance within a national tolerance.

Balinese city, Indonesian nation

Nation-building is also very much a Balinese concern. It is "Indonesia" and "development" overtaking Bali. Denpasar is the center from which the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, is spreading to other parts of the island. One speaks Indonesian here interspersed with Balinese words. Through Denpasar, Bali is surrendering its most potent cultural force: its language.

Denpasar is also the breeding ground for a revamped traditional culture. It is here that the concepts of Balinese Hinduism are being re-Indianized by the Parisada Hindu Dharma (Religious Council of Hinduism), beyond the maze of Bali's old lontars and oral traditions. The Supreme God, Widhi, here assumes precedence, relegating the ancestors to minor functions. New prayers are taught (Tri Sandhya) and new government priests officiate, called from Denpasar to the villages for the rites of officialdom and for inter-caste rituals. Reversing the old village-based trend,

Denpasar is also home to the New Arts. New dances and music are created and taught spreading into the villages from the city.

Last, but not least, Denpasar is the home of a new breed of Balinese. Born to the sounds of a new music, raised in a world o new wishes and desires, taught in the word of a new national language and culture, the young of Denpasar are Jakarta-looking rather' than Bali-oriented. Their thoughts take for in a world of Kuta discos and lavish Sanur villas. They are the avant-gardes of a new Westernized Indonesia. Resilience, renew and decadence - Denpasar will in any case be the stage for a new Bali.

Denpasar sights

As a microcosm both of modern Bali and modern Indonesia, Denpasar is easier to understand than to see. Nevertheless, it awaits the intelligent traveler who wants to learn about the future as well as the past, and who wishes to take home more than just a few images. So forget your lens for awhile. Forget the traditional village Bali; have a look at the new urban Bali.

In the very heart of Denpasar, just behind the main artery of the city, Jalan Gajah Mada one can see many traditional compound with their gates, shrines and pavilions, in among the multi-story Chinese shop fronts Shrines dwarfed by parabolic TV antenna Gods of the past versus gods of the future?

For a more typical look at Denpasar's villages, a drive through the streets of the "villages" of Kedaton, Sumerta, and particularly Kesiman will do. Kesiman has some of the best examples of the simple, yet attractive Badung brick-style. Alas, dying witness to a passing grandeur, the Badung brick-style is disappearing, replaced by the new baroque of the Gianyar-style, and the ugliness of reinforced concrete.

Of the temples, the most ancient is Pura Maospahit, right in the middle of the city on the road to Tabanan. It dates back to the Javanization of Bali in the 14th century. No less interesting, although more recent, are the temples of the royal families: Pura Kesiman with its beautiful split gate, Pura Satria and its lively bird market, and Pura Nambang Badung near the princely compounds of Pemecutan and Pemedilan.

A "modern" temple is also worth a visit the Pura Jagatnatha, right on the central square of the city next to the museum. Built as a "world" (Yagat) temple, its tallest building is a big padmasana "lotus-throne" shrine that symbolizes the world as the seat of Parama Siwa, the "Supreme Siwa." Modern Hindu intellectuals meet there for full-moon religious readings - a barometer of Bali's new monotheism.

Among the palaces, the most typical is the Jero Kuta, which still has all the functional structures of a traditional princely compound. The Pemecutan Palace has been transformed into a hotel. The Kesiman Palace, a Private mansion, houses the most elaborate family temple.

For a look at examples of traditional Balinese architecture, one might visit the Bali Museum, right on Taman Puputan square. The good, yet ill-presented collections are kept in buildings illustrative of the Tabanan, Karangasem and Badung styles.

New architectural landmarks

For a look at modern Bali, go first to Taman Puputan square. Facing the museum and the Jagatnatha Temple one sees the heavy-set, new military headquarters. On the far right, the Balinese Catur Mukha "God of the Four Directions" gazes impassively through one of its four faces at the statue of the fallen heroes of the Puputan. The Javanese-pendopo-styled governor's residence closes the inventory of power symbols in the center of town. "Chinese" Denpasar and the main markets are a few blocks away, on JI. Gajah Mada, JI. Thamrin and A. Hasanuddin.

For modern Balinese architecture, do not miss the new administrative complex in Renon. It is a landmark made to stay, a projection of Balinese architects into their own future. Go also to the Werdhi Budaya Art Center. New shrine of the island's culture, it hosts a museum of the Balinese arts as well as stages for dance and theater. On its monumental Ksira Arnawa stage are held equally monumental displays of modern Balinese choreography. For the local color, definitely don't miss the Pasar Malam. Pekambingan night and food market.


Location map of Denpasar

Last revised on January 24, 2010
    
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