While Ubud seems to outsiders like one small town, it is in fact fourteen villages, each run by its own banjar (village committee). Ubud has grown rapidly, and some central parts are creaking under the strain of coping with the number of visitors. That said, most development is sympathetic to the zeitgeist, if not designed specifically in the local style. Growth continues apace, but there are still terraced rice fields along the rivers, and away from the town centre, regular, quiet village life carries on relatively undisturbed.
Ubud, a town in central Bali,is far removed from the drunken bikini scene in Kuta, and is regarded as the cultural centre of Bali. It is famous as an arts and crafts hub, and much of the town and nearby villages seems to consist of artists’ workshops and galleries. There are some remarkable architectural and other sights to be found, and a general feeling of well being to be enjoyed, all thanks to the spirit, surroundings, and climate of the place.
In many ways, the history of the Ubud area (not so much the modern day town) is the very history of Bali itself.
Ubud has a known history back to the eighth century, when the Javanese Buddhist priest Rsi Marhandya came to Bali from Java, and meditated at the confluence of the two Wos rivers at Campuan, just west of the modern day town centre. A shrine was established and later expanded by Nirartha, the Javanese priest who is regarded as the founder of Bali’s religious practices and rituals as we know them today. At this time the area was a centre of natural medicine and healing, and that is how the name Ubud originated: Ubad is ancient Balinese for medicine.
The Javanese Majapahit kingdom conquered Bali in 1343, and the key final victory was against the Pejeng Dynasty centred at Bedulu, just to the east of Ubud. A great flowering of Balinese culture followed, and the ancestry of Ubud’s current day aristocratic families can be traced back to this period. In the sixteenth Century, there was a total transplantation of the Majapahit Kingdom to Bali as the Islamisation of Java forced them eastwards. Power flip-flopped between various dynasties and feudal lords, but the Ubud area remained a very important cog in the various regencies which ruled the island.
In 1900, Ubud became a Dutch protectorate at its own request, and the colonialists interfered little, allowing the traditional arts and culture of the area to remain relatively unchanged. The modern era of Ubud perhaps began in the 1930s, when foreign artists were encouraged by the royal family to take up presence in the town. From their Ubud base, the likes of Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet were instrumental in promoting an understanding of Balinese art and culture worldwide. From the 1960s onwards, travellers started to arrive in earnest, mostly intrepid types as the infrastructure was still very limited indeed. Since then, Ubud has developed rapildy into a high profile, top class international destination, whilst still maintaining its integrity as the centre of Balinese art and culture.
The palaces have long been the largest landholders in the area. They used to manifest this role in a largely “custodial” way, managing vast tracts of rice-growing land for the benefit of the community and the temples. In recent times, however, with the advent of western models of land ownership, many palaces have developed or sold landholdings to augment their personal wealth–sometimes conspicuously. In pre-colonial Bali, palaces were the primary patrons of art, music, dance and literature. The Ubud palaces consciously continue this tradition. They act as repositories of traditional culture, and develop artistic endeavours throughout the area, much to the benefit of both Ubudians and visitors.
The Tjokordas are no longer the physical embodiment of The State, they are just private citizens, with the same concerns as other private citizens, plus a few more. Accordingly, the Ubud palaces are essentially just family homes, and none have yet been turned into museums of public tourist attractions. While some of them are fine examples of traditional architecture, none are “historical” in terms of age. In fact, most are pretty new. The oldest Ubud palace was located a little to the east of Pura Dalem Ubud, above the main road. It collapsed in an earthquake early this century, and nothing remains but a flat place with traces of foundation here and there.