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I found Bali’s most overlooked attraction

by Staff

Overlooked in busy Semarapura is this fascinating and tragic historical site.

While travellers throng Bali temples such as Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, I encountered only a handful at Klungkung. This is a not a remote site, either. Klungkung isn’t camouflaged by isolated jungle, or roosted high on a peak. Instead, this engrossing complex is in Semarapura, on the busy road between tourist-soaked Ubud and one of Bali’s most-visited temples, Goa Lawah.

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After arriving at Klungkung, I noticed a graceful stone stupa tower opposite it, with a small museum in its base. Called a Puputan monument, it commemorates how this kingdom ended in 1908 with a mass ritual suicide. When Dutch forces invaded Klungkung, having already conquered Bali’s other kingdoms, its royal family chose to end their own lives in unison.

In the Puputan museum, I read how the Dutch laid waste to Klungkung, slaughtering its residents and destroying its palace. Fortunately, three buildings within this compound survived the raid. They include two imposing stone gates and the sublime Kertha Gosa pavilion, which I crossed the road to inspect.

Built in the late 1600s, this intricately carved wooden structure sits atop a stone base, surrounded by a decorative pond. Yet it wasn’t until I scaled its stairs that its full splendour was exposed, because the ceiling of this pavilion is cloaked in wonderfully complex paintings.

Depicted within these murals are two distinctive Balinese art forms many tourists encounter while holidaying on this island. Klungkung had a major influence on Wayang puppet theatre and Keris daggers. The former is a lively stage show which tells tales from Hindu mythology, while the latter is a handcrafted weapon commonly displayed as a good-luck charm in Balinese homes and temples.

Kertha Gosa pavilion sits atop a stone base, surrounded by a decorative pond. Picture: Ronan O’Connell.

Using a digital touchscreen display in the pavilion, I was able to view images of each mural and learn what it symbolised. The prevailing themes were dark, with humans violently punished by Hindu deities for their indiscretions. While I scrolled these artworks, I eavesdropped on a Balinese tour guide as he relayed the pavilion’s history to a small group of tourists.

Kertha Gosa used to host religious ceremonies, royal banquets and military strategy meetings, he told them. The guide then gestured to a large wooden table and chairs from the Klungkung era, positioned in the middle of the pavilion. Lion carvings decorated the king’s seat. Dragons and oxen marked the chairs reserved for the royal secretary and priest, respectively.

A far larger trove of Klungkung artefacts greeted me in the adjacent Semarajaya Museum. Encircled by meticulously tended, lush gardens, this facility has galleries which showcase clothing, sculptures, ceramics, paintings and weapons from the Klungkung era.

The ceiling of Kertha Gosa pavilion is cloaked in wonderfully complex paintings. Picture: Ronan O’Connell.

Text displays, meanwhile, told me how Klungkung was the successor of Bali’s Gelgel and Majapahit kingdoms. Across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it controlled a swath of southeast Bali, coexisting in relative peace alongside several other Balinese empires. During this period, Bali became the last Hindu stronghold in Muslim-majority Indonesia. It also remained unconquered by the Dutch, who had been colonising Indonesia since the 1600s. Eventually, however, all the other Balinese kingdoms were seized, the museum details. That left Klungkung as a key target for invasion.

One of the final, bloody moments in this kingdom’s history came at that aforementioned tourist attraction, Goa Lawah temple. Having seized Bali’s north, the Dutch landed at Padangbai – now a busy port for tourist boats to the Gili Islands – and surged inland. At Goa Lawah, they were resisted by Klungkung soldiers.

But by the time the Dutch charged into the Klungkung palace, its royal family had recognised defeat was imminent. Their deaths signified the end of Bali’s independent kingdoms. More than a century later, curious tourists can still visit remains of this royal era all across the island, especially here in Klungkung.

Klungkung Palace and adjoining Semarajaya Museum reveal the grandeur and riveting tale of the Klungkung Kingdom. Picture: Ronan O’Connell.


1.    Bali Museum

    Tourists tend to bypass traffic-choked Denpasar, but it’s worth visiting for the island’s largest museum. Its vast collections span bronzeware, pottery, weaponry, sculptures, musical instruments and ancient garments.

2.    Tenganan

    Designed like a long corridor, with a communal plaza in between two parallel rows of old homes, the 600-year-old village of Tenganan is very photogenic, and also a great place to buy traditional crafts.

Goa Jepang caves are said to be haunted by the victims of Japanese soldiers who used them to conduct sneak attacks during World War II. Picture: Ronan O’Connell.

3   Goa Jepang   Klungkung

These eerie caves, carved into a hillside, are said to be haunted by the victims of Japanese soldiers who used them to conduct sneak attacks during World War II.

4    Astungkara Way

   At Astungkara Way, about 7km southwest of Ubud, tourists can learn about regenerative farming techniques and join scenic cross-island hikes of up to 135km.

5 Kusamba

This quaint seaside village southeast of Klungkung Palace is home to many small art studios, including the island’s last traditional keris makers.

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