The history of Nusa Penida island in Bali starts in the 10th century. The earliest writings on Nusa Penida have indeed been found on the Belanjong Pillar, which dates back to 914 AD. This pillar contains inscriptions that mention a military expedition of the first King of Bali, Sri Kesari Warmadewa, against Nusa Penida.
The conquest of Nusa Penida and the arrival of the Dutch
The people of Nusa Penida have long been able to resist to the kings of Bali who organized many other military expeditions. However, in the second half of the 17th century, Nusa Penida island was definitely conquered during an expedition of the Gelgel dynasty. The last king of Nusa Penida, Dalem Bungkut, perished in combat.
Nusa Penida became then part of the court of Klungkung, one of the nine kingdoms of Bali. After the integration of Bali into the Dutch East Indies in 1908, which became Indonesia later on, Nusa Penida remained attached to the Klungkung Regency.
A Dutch map created in 1900 calls Nusa Penida the Bandit Island. Why ? Because Klungkung regency used to deport to Nusa Penida its criminals, political opponents and black magic adepts. This is probably the origin of the very bad reputation of the island. It is also maybe the origin of the legends that surround the history of Nusa Penida. In any case this bad reputation preserved the island of the tourism for a very long time !
What does Nusa Penida means ?
Nusa means “island” and penida means “priest” in Balinese language. So Nusa Penida means literally island of priests. Better than Bandit Island, the name given by the Dutch in 1900 !
The reputation and the perfume of adventure surrounding Nusa Penida inspired also a comic strip created by the cartoonist Bob de Moor and published in the Journal of Tintin in 1950. The comic strip traces the adventures of Georges Barelli that lands in Nusa Penida after a long adventure. The cover of the album speaks for itself !
Black magic, an integral part of the history of Nusa Penida
According to the legend, the last king of Bali, Dalem Bungkut, has become a dreaded leader of the other world, Ratu Gede Mas Mecaling, the Great Lord with golden fangs. According to another legend, Mecaling lived in Bali, in the small village of Batuan, before being exiled to Nusa Penida because of his black magic. In any case, he is still feared by some Balinese who do not dare to pronounce his name aloud.
Mecaling was a powerful wizard. He regularly sent diseases and epidemics to the Balinese people as a revenge. One day when the Balinese were celebrating Nyepi, full of joy and laughter, Mecaling decided to deceive them. He went to Bali taking the form of Barong, the leader of the good armies. And his army of demons destroyed everything in Bali. Since then, the Balinese New Year, Nyepi, is a day of silence, no one makes noise or has fun, to fool the demons if they come back. This is why Nusa Penida inhabitants follow strictly the Nyepi tradition.
The origin of the pilgrimage to Nusa Penida
The next day, the terrified people of Bali went to a priest. He summoned Barong to send Mecaling back to Nusa Penida. The high priests of Gelgel’s kingdom came later on to Nusa Penida to clean the island of dark spirits and banish Mecaling. But Mecaling has not totally disappeared and the Pura Ped Temple retains his spirit. This temple is therefore a source of power for those who practice black magic. But also a place of pilgrimage for those seeking protection from evil and sickness. There is also a solemn rite that every Hindu in Bali must perform at least once in this lifetime. During a pilgrimage to the temple of Pura Ped in Nusa Penida, he must find the balance between the negative and the positive. That is the only way to reach calm and harmony.
What are the different temples in Bali and Nusa Penida ?
The temples are called pura in Bali. The term pura comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “city or “palace”. There are several types of pura, each serving a specific function of Balinese rituals.
- Located in the mountainous region of Bali, the Pura kahyangan jagad. The mountains are considered as the sacred magical and haunted realm. The most important pura kahyangan in Bali is the Besakih complex on the slopes of Mount Agung.
- For water management function on top of religious functions, the Pura tirta,
- Located in the villages and the cities Pura desa serve as the center of Balinese people’s religious activities.
- Pura puseh are dedicated to the worship of Vishnu.
- Pura mrajapati to worship prajapati, the lord of creation and protector.
- Located by the sea to appease the sea Gods and deities Pura segara are usually important during the Melasti One example of this type of temple is Pura Tanah Lot
- Pura dalem, dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Durga, Mother nature, Banaspatiraja (barong), Sang Bhuta Diyu, Sang Bhuta Garwa, and other deities. These temples are connected to rituals concerning death.
The most visited temples in Nusa Penida island are Pura Dalem Ped and Pura Goa Giri Putri. Both of them are important places to understand the culture and the history of Nusa Penida.
Pura Dalem Ped
Pura Dalem Ped is the most important temple in Nusa Penida islands. Because it hosts the demon king Mecaling himself. The Balinese consider it as one of the holiest temples in Bali. 5 temples compose in fact Pura Dalem Ped. The first one is Pura Segara, the palace of Batara Baruna (The God of the ocean), in the north, close to the coast of the Nusa Strait Sea from where you can hear the waves of the sea. In the south, you will find Pura Taman, a temple garden with a pond lined with lotus plants. It is a temple for purgatory. The main temple, Penataran Ratu Gede Mecaling, is in the western part and is the symbol of Nusa Penida islands magical power. The last two temples are Pelebaan Ratu Mas and Bale Agung.
I went for the first time to Pura Dalem Ped in December 2019 to collect holy water for an important ceremony during Adiwana Warnakali Hotel construction. I knew the ceremonies would take place in 4 different Pura. But I understood only during the course of the day that there would be 10 ceremonies, in each temple of each Pura. And believe me, we collected a lot of holy water for the next day ceremony !
Pura Goa Giri Putri
Pura Goa Giri Putri is one of the 15 awesome sites to see in Nusa Penida island. It is located inside an impressive cave. The word “goa” means cave, “giri” means ’hill’ and “putri” means ‘princess’. The cave is indeed a holy site mostly dedicated to Shiva. Shiva is the third god in the Hindu triumvirate. The triumvirate consists of three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. The other two gods are Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva’s role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it.
You will find also at the end of the cave a shrine dedicated to the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion, Guanyin.
Visiting Goa Giri Putri is an amazing experience, always fascinating. And I never miss the ceremonies at the last temple in the cave to get the famous Balinese red white black bracelet on my wrist.
What to do before entering a temple in Bali ?
Before entering any holy temple in Bali, you must wear a Balinese traditional dress such as a sarong. Usually you can rent one before entering any temple. You also need to keep a positive mind. You are not allowed to do bad things and speak rudely. Women cannot enter a temple during their menstrual periods.
How to wear a sarong in Bali ?
Wearing a sarong properly is important in the local culture. In Balinese, the sarong is called a kamen. Men and women wear it differently. A woman wrap her sarong from right to left, about one and a half times, ending up over the right hip. The outer layer should fall lower than the inner layer. The sarong should cover the body from hips to ankles. The garment can be held in place by simply tying it, or with a long cord tied to either end. Balinese women usually wear an outer waist corset over the abdomen to help stay neat. A waist sash (senteng) is mandatory for both males and females attending a ceremony or entering a temple. Women wear the sash on the outside of their blouse.
A man will wrap his sarong from left to right around the hips, at around calf-length. Most importantly, it is tied so that the extra cloth falls in the front in a flourish, called a kancut. The kamen is secured by a belt, and over this is worn the obligatory waist sash, often with a secondary hip cloth.
Culture of Nusa Penida
Nusa Penida belongs to Bali but it has its own Balinese dialect, which is not spoken anywhere else on Bali. And there are some aspects of the culture of Nusa Penida which are unique.
Baris Jangkang dance
Typical to Nusa Penida is the Baris Jangkang dance. It represents the demon army which served Dalem Bungkut, the last king of Nusa Penida, in a war against troops from the Balinese King Waturenggong of Gelgel. The dancers wear traditional clothing (kamben cepuk) from Nusa Penida and are equipped with long spears.
The dance starts with clownesque figures wearing masks who explain the background of the war. Next appears the demon army, followed by their leaders, Dalem Bungkut and his war lord I Gde Mecaling. Dalem Bungkut and I Gde Mecaling dance with a lot of maniac laughing, speaking in a strange demon language. While the demon army dances with slow and simple movements.
A national Cultural heritage
This sacred dance was designated as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage (WBTB or Warisan Budaya Tak Benda milik Indonesia) by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Customary village of Pelilit, Pinginutan in Nusa Penida, close to Atuh Beach, for instance, frequently stages this dance during the piodalan or temple festival. At this village, Baris Jangkang Dance features different stories such as Guak Maling Banten (Raven steals the offerings), Buyung Masugi (Flies wash their face), and Jelantik Maisik (Jelantik whispers). The main goal of the dance is to reject catastrophes. The musical instruments used are very simple like kempul, a pair of gamelan, petuk, cymbals and dendeng.
You can also watch this dance performance during the Semarapura Festival, Nusa Penida Festival, and the Bali Arts Festival every year.
Some questions ?
If you have some questions about the history of Nusa Penida or the culture in Bali, feel free to ask through a comment or a message. Or go to the dedicated article to find more practical information about Nusa Penida.