Far from the madding crowds, Ubud has long been a quiet haven for the arts. Set amidst emerald green rice paddies and steep ravines in the stunning central Balinese foothills, some 25 km north of Denpasar, the village was originally an important source of medicinal herbs and plants. "Ubud" in fact derives from the Balinese word for medicine - ubad.
It was here that foreign artists such as Walter Spies settled during the 1920s and '30s, transforming the village into a flourishing center for the arts. Artists from all parts of Bali were invited to settle here by the local prince, Cokorda Gede Sukawati, and Ubud's palaces and temples are now adorned by the work of Bali's master artisans as a result. Unfortunately, the tourist boom has transformed Ubud into a bustling business center, complete with traffic jams and fast food outlets.
According to an 8th century legend, a Javanese priest named Rsi Markendya came to Bali from Java and meditated in Campuan (Sangam in Sanskrit) at the confluence of two streams - an auspicious site for Hindus. He founded the Gunung Lebah Temple here, on a narrow platform above the valley floor, where pilgrims seeking peace came to be healed from their worldly cares. You can get there by following a small road to the Tjetjak Inn on the western outskirts of Ubud, then taking the path down toward the river.
Important 19th century court
In the late 19th century, Ubud became the seat of punggawa or feudal lords owing their allegiance to the raja of Gianyar. All were members of the satriya family of Sukawati and contributed greatly to the village's fame for the performing and plastic arts. The kingdom of Gianyar was established in the late 18th century and later became the most powerful of the southern states of Bali.
And while elsewhere the Dutch conquest had such disastrous consequences for the Balinese royal houses, in Gianyar for the most part the raja and his subjects benefited from a Dutch administration that brought improved road irrigation networks, health care and school The period between 1908 and 1930 indeed, brought significant changes to the area, and toward the end of the 1930s Ubud was prospering as a budding tourist resort due to flowering of the arts here.
In the late 19th century a certain Cokorda Sukawati established himself in Ubud and was instrumental in laying the foundations for the village's fame. The area was at this time bereft of remarkable cultural features. It was it, the interest of the Cokorda that various artists and literati sought refuge here from other kingdoms. Ubud slowly accumulated specialists and evolved into a cultural center with resident artists and lontar experts.
A prime example is the case of the young I Gusti Nyoman Lempad who, with his father, a noted literati, sought and found refuge in Ubud from the king of Bedulu. In gratitude, the young apprentice sculptor helped to decorate the main Puri Saren palace in Ubud and carved statues and ornaments on the main temple (Pura Puseh) of the noble family, north of the palace. He also carved the temple of learning (Pura Saraswati). His work is still to be seen on location and some of his statues can be admired in Ubud's museum. At an advanced age he turned to pen and ink, working right up until his death in 1978 at the age of 116.
A flowering of the arts
The punggawa of Ubud between the World Wars, Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati, was a member of the Dutch Colonial Government's Volksraad (People's Council) in Batavia and already interested in the "arts and crafts movement" spreading from Europe to Asia and Japan. He encouraged Walter Spies to settle in Ubud, thus provoking a growing tide of visitors to this enchanting village.
At the turn of the century, painting in Bali was integrated in religious or adat ceremonies with the themes being taken from classical Balinese tales that were well-known from wayang performances. Inspired by the foreign artists who settled in Ubud, Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati gradually changed this tradition. The unique m6lange of traditional Balinese and modern currents of western art forms that came to be associated with Ubud then took place.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Ubud became the focal point for foreign artists and other creative people gathering around Spies, a highly gifted and versatile German artist. A Painter and a musician by training, Spies heard of Bali on reading Jaap Kunst's Music of Bali, published in 1925, in which the Dutch musicologist praised neighboring Peliatan highly for its gamelan orchestra. His work and anecdotes on the island riveted the attention of Spies, who was then director of the sultan of Yogyakarta's European orchestra.
Many other talented foreigners were attracted to Ubud also at this time. Among others, Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias popularized the hitherto little known beauty of Bali upon viewing Gregor Krause's magnificent photo album, published in 1925. Krause had worked as a doctor in Bali around 1912. After living in Ubud and Sanur, Covarrubias wrote his Island of Bali, one of the classics on Bali to this day.
Rudolf Bonnet, the Dutch painter, was told of Bali's breathtaking beauty by the etcher and ethnographer Nieuwenkamp in Florence and came here to seek inspiration in the late 1920s. Colin McPhee came to join Spies' experiments and stocktaking of musical traditions, which were at this time very dynamic, with new creations springing up overnight. They worked together with the legendary Anak Agung Gede Mandera of Peliatan. McPhee later published a book on Bali's musical traditions as well as an account of his experiences here, A House in Bali.
Ubud rapidly became the village "en vogue" for many of these visitors - an insider tip from the many musicians, painters, authors, anthropologists and avant-garde world travelers who passed this way, especially after Spies settled in Campuan next to Ubud, on what is now the site of the Hotel Tjampuhan.
Spies and Bonnet both encouraged local Balinese artists, each in his own fashion. In 1936 they founded the Pita Maha, an artists' organization, together with Lempad, Sobrat and I Tegalan, among many other excellent Balinese artists. This association was to guarantee and promote the high artistic standards of its more than 100 members.
Ubud since independence
The Pita Maha movement did survive the vagaries of the Japanese occupation and the Indonesian struggle for Independence. However, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati, assisted by Bonnet, later founded the Palace of Arts Museum (Puri Lukisan Museum) in 1953 to provide a retrospective of local achievements. Balinese artists thus continued to work together, sparking a renewal of artistic activity in the 1950s.
In the early 1950s, Dutch painter Arie Smit founded the Young Painters School of naive painting in Penestanan with Cakra. This style, free of any philosophical or abstract influence, led to relatively uninhibited young school children using bright chemical colors to produce two-dimensional landscapes depicting daily life. Their work reflects the changing vision and lifestyle of young Balinese during the post-war period.
Han Snel was a young Dutch soldier who left the Dutch Colonial Army and 'vanished' into Bali after his military service. He then found his way up to the hills around Ubud. His work captured the imagination of both foreigners and Balinese alike with its invigorating synthesis of both cultures. Following his marriage to Siti, he built a studio in a secluded spot in Central Ubud. Antonio Blanco, another Western painter, settled with his Balinese wife and five children on the heights of Campuan, bordering Penestanan. This eccentric even had one of Ubud's first telephones, a link between paradise and the madding crowd's abroad.
The tourist boom
In the 1960s and 1970s the hotel and catering industry implanted itself here modestly enough compared to how it had taken firm control of Kuta-Legian, but this idyllic village did nevertheless witness an ever-accelerating flow of visitors who came to delight in the arts and to escape from the daily grind. In short, tourism knocked gently but insisting on Ubud's door. The advent of mass tourism in the 1980s has provided many young inhabitants of this village with stable employment rather than farming the fertile rice field in the surrounding hills. Land reform and hereditary laws, in any case, have led to scarcity of arable land.
It is therefore with mixed feelings that the visitor will notice how "business-like" the Ubudians are, although their artistic talents are still being cultivated. But modern time brings progress which is not to be stopped in the name of nostalgia. The inhabitants of Ubud retain their individuality and generosity, of spirit through all the changes, which leave the visitor wondering how this charming people can manage to deal with the dizzying alterations in the village structure resulting from the modernization of social, economic, and perhaps occasionally spiritual facto This must be one of the world's most closely guarded secrets, or perhaps it is only that special peace of mind which comes from such a beautiful environment and a mild climate. The unruffled calmness of Ubud has soothed many a visitor, while the extraordinary beauty of the surroundings still inspire the creative to work.
Nowadays you are also able to enjoy the fruits of that extraordinarily prolific period of pre-World War II Ubud in dance, music, painting and sculpture. Dance performances are given daily in at least three places including the main palace. In the meanwhile, ceremonies still abound where you can see various dance or shadow puppet performance or listen to excellent gamelan music. Pain and sculptors, writers and creative designers continue to seek abiding inspiration in the quiet stylishness of Ubud, Campuan and nearby Sayan. Gracious Ubud is certainly worth a visit.