Historically, the Balinese village of Ubud can trace its roots to as far back as the 8th century. It is documented on ancient palm leaf scripts that a revered holy man from India by the name of Rsi Markaneya embarked on a spiritual journey across Java and eventually came to the island of Bali to spread the teachings of Hinduism.
It was on his travels that he received a divine revelation that in Bali he was to bury five precious metals on a mountain slope where the mother temple of Besakih now stands today. Along with a group of followers, Rsi Markaneya was magnetically attracted to a destination located in the central foothills of the island that radiated light and energy. This place was Campuhan in Ubud at a junction in the Wos River and it was here that he felt compelled to build a temple by the name of Pura Gunung Lebah.
On subsequent expeditions around Bali, Rsi Markaneya built a number of other significant temples and created a shared irrigation system for the terraced landscape that is still practiced by farmers today. The formation of the banjar, which is a village council responsible for community and religious affairs, was also inspired by this holy man. In essence, it can be said that Rsi Markaneya is responsible for the foundation of Balinese Hinduism in it purest form referred to as Agama Tirta or the religion of holy water.
Since being discovered backing the 8th century, the area of Campuhan has always been highly regarded by the Balinese for its immense spiritual powers. Even the term Ubud is derived from the term ubad, meaning medicine in reference to the traditional healing properties of the array of plants that randomly grow here. Generations of Hindu worshippers have made special pilgrimages to the fork in the Wos River to mediate, bathe and collect holy water for temple ceremonies and cleansing rituals.
There had always been ties between Java and Bali, but it was the disintegration of the once mighty Majapahit kingdom in the 15th century that saw a mass exodus of nobles to Bali. A new kingdom on the island’s east coast called Gelgel was consequently established and gave sanctuary to many important ruling families. They brought with them an artistic legacy and the principles of the caste system.
By the 17th century Bali invariably experienced a rapid emergence of new kingdoms, including the founding of several royal houses in Ubud. However, this period also saw much conflict between the royal clans with supremacy as the ultimate goal. A prince from Klungkung was sent to create a palace in Sukawati as a centre of great power and aesthetic beauty. Artisans came from all over Bali to help in its construction and once completed many of them chose to stay. Sukawati today is a community that strongly supports all forms of artistry as well as dance and music.
With the successful establishment of a reigning authority in Sukawati, palace retainers were then sent in the late 1700’s to secure the area of Ubud. A pair of cousins formed rival communities in Padang Tegal and further north in the area of Taman. Following subsequent fighting between these neighbouring villages the king of Sukawati sent his brothers Tjokorde Ngurah Tabanan to Peliatan and Tjokorde Tangkeban to Sambahan to establish palaces with the notion to control these troubled areas.
Despite early feudalistic struggles between the kingdoms of Peliatan and Mengwi, the two overcame their differences following a battle that is said to have involved magical powers. Thereafter, the people of Mengwi moved to help populate Ubud and during the latter 1800’s the entire area began to flourish with plentiful rice supplies and a booming economy.
By the middle of the 19th century there was a certain anti-Dutch sentiment brewing within the kingdoms and conflict was still rife. Mengwi experienced a bitter defeat and all land was distributed between its aggressors. Several of the battles that took place were actually fuelled by the Dutch and it was an unusual time that saw opposing kingdoms suddenly form alliances.
The colonizing Dutch authorities chose to start interfering with the island’s politics at the beginning of the 20th century. Under the leadership of Tjokorde Gede Raka Sukawati, Ubud came to be known as a sub-regency and then much later in 1981 became a sub-district taking over the administration of 13 neighbourhoods and 7 traditional villages. The district of Ubud today encompasses all areas within the boundaries of Tegallalang, Peliatan, Mas and Kedewatan.
Bali saw a significant influx of overseas visitors during the 1930’s.This first wave of tourism was focused in and around Ubud due to the business confidence of Tjokorde Gede Agung Sukawati who was proficient in English and Dutch. He had established a small guest house and his older brother Tjokorde Raka Sukawati, who lived across the street, took the initiative to welcome the celebrated artist cum composer Walter Spiers to Ubud to live and work.
This set a trend for other foreign artists and soon the likes of Rudolf Bonnet and Willem Hofker arrived to set up easel and paint. As word of Ubud and its enchanting beauty spread, the village went on to host a circle of famous faces such as Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplain, H.G Wells and the recognized anthropologist Margaret Mead.
The vision to establish a painters association was born in 1936 and saw a collaboration to form the Pita Maha between Tjokorde Gede Agung, Spies, Bonnet and several local artists. With the help of the American composer Colin McPhee, who had built a home along the stunning Sayan Ridge, the group was responsible for bringing together some of Bali’s greatest artists to teach painting, dance and music to a younger generation. Ubud developed the reputation as being the cultural pulse of Bali and that image still stands today.
World War II brought hardship to the island and Ubud suffered considerably. The Japanese invaded and this was later followed by a violent struggle against the Dutch for independence. Indonesian gained its freedom and its first president in 1945, but some 20 years later a so called ‘communist coup’ saw thousands of murders across the archipelago. Many lives were stolen, especially in Ubud and it is local folk lore that the white egrets inhabiting the area of Petulu are actually the lost souls of those who were massacred.
After almost 20 years of uncertainly, tourism resumed in Ubud during the 1970’s when backpackers and hippies set out to seek new experiences. A steady flow of visitors have since found themselves captivated by the intense beauty of the landscape and gracious hospitality of its people. Ubud has managed to embrace the 21st century with dignity and still retain its timeless artistry, culture and religion. It is a unique destination blessed with a strong sense of community and rare spiritual energy.