Gianyar is the very heart of Bali - a modern and prosperous center of the arts with a history dating back a thousand years. Most of the cultural activities relating to tourism on the island - from painting and woodcarving to dance and music - are focused here, as is a broad range of agricultural activities.
Gianyar is the second most densely populated district of Bali (after Badung), with the majority of its 340,000 people relying upon tourism for their income. Nevertheless, the region is quite diverse, economically as well as geographically. The old harbors of Ketewel and Kramas down on the coast are still fishing villages, while up in the mountainous plateau above Ubud, vanilla, coffee and cloves are grown. The rich volcanic soils in between are fed by two of Bali's major rivers - the Ayung and the Petanu - and from these soils grows some of Bali's best rice.
The major tourist area of Gianyar consists of a string of villages along the main road up from Batubulan to Ubud, with each village being famous for a different artistic form. Bali's most famous dancers and best-known painters come from this region. Bali's most famous antiquities have also been found in this area, including the 2,000-year-old "Moon of Pejeng" bronze drum, the Goa Gajah hermitage at Bedulu with its elaborate relief's, and many other remains dating from before the 11th century. These all testify to the strength and continuity of the traditions upon which Bali's modern arts are founded.
Lying at the center of the area in which most Balinese antiquities have been found, the village of Bedulu was the site of an ancient capital of Bali before the Javanese Majapahit kingdom conquered the island in 1343. After the decline of Bedulu, other parts of Gianyar have been important court centers.
When Majapahit established a line of kings in Bali in the 14th century, their first capital was at Samprangan - now a sleepy village just outside of present-day Gianyar town. Later, in the 18th century, the village of Sukawati established itself as a separate court center and members of the Sukawati royal family settled between the Ayung and Petanu rivers, with branches in Peliatan and Tegallalang up in the mountains.
At the end of the 18th century, the Sukawati dynasty was forced to surrender its control of the area to a new family based in Gianyar to the east. As a result, most of the important districts and villages of Gianyar have members of both the old Sukawati line of Cokordas and the new Gianyar line of Dewas or Anak Agungs, and the history of the 19th century revolved around competition between the two lineages.
In 1884 the royal family of Negara, from the Sukawati line, overthrew the kings of Gianyar and plunged the region into turmoil. The conflict was finally resolved only ten years later, when a prince from Ubud, also of the Sukawati line, took the side of the Gianyar family and suppressed the rebels. There are still other important aristocratic families in Gianyar, however - foremost of which are the Gustis of Blahbatuh, whose palace was a major 19th-century power.
In more recent times, Ubud and Gianyar have been the twin centers of the region. Ubud now has the reputation of being Bali's cultural center, thanks especially to a group of expatriate western artists who made their homes here in the 1930s, but Gianyar has provided most of the political and administrative leadership. Bali's most important politician on the national stage, Anak Agung Gede Agung, diplomat and former foreign minister of Indonesia, is from the Gianyar royal family, and has retired to the palace of Gianyar to serve in the now-ceremonial role of king.