The beautiful eastern regency of Karangasem is truly something special distinguishing itself in so many ways from the rest of the island. Physically it is dominated by the towering presence of Mt Agung (3142 m), the island's most sacred and highest volcano, whose dramatic foothills and lava flows provide some of the most spectacular landscapes found anywhere in Bali. High up on Mt Agung's southern flanks perches the great "Mother Temple" of Besakih, while to the south and east lie a number of more or less isolated villages that have played a key role in Balinese history.
Culturally, Karangasem is in fact a very conservative area. Here, for example, the use of the various Balinese speech levels is more strictly adhered to and a number of archaic ritual, dance and musical forms have been maintained right up until the present day. 'I lie eastern and northern parts of the regency are quite arid, and overall this is a less densely populated area than southern Bali. In fact, it has many affinities with the drier and more rugged islands of eastern Indonesia more so than any other part of the island.
For several centuries after the decline of the great Javanese empire of Majapahit, the king of Klungkung just to the west of here was, at least in name, the paramount ruler of Bali. The other Balinese rulers became more and more independent over time, and by the 17th century, Karangasem was able to successfully oppose Klungkung. It subsequently emerged, during the 18th and 19th centuries, as the most powerful kingdom on Bali. Its rulers were particularly influential in northern Bali (Buleleng) and Lombok, and frequently allied themselves with other Balinese rajas in times of war and intrigue.
During the 17th century, Karangasem forces already occupied much of the neighboring island of Lombok, fighting there against Macassarese from Sumbawa and eventually colonizing the western rice-growing areas of the island, with the result that today there are large numbers of Balinese living there who regard Karangasem as their homeland. After the middle of the last century, the tables turned and Karangasem became a vassal of the king of Lombok himself a Balinese prince from Karangasem.
After Buleleng and Jembrana, which fell into Dutch hands in the middle of the last century, this was the next Balinese kingdom to be conquered by the Dutch when they invaded and "freed" the indigenous Sasak population of Lombok from Balinese rule in 1894.
Altogether Karangasem encompasses an area of 861 sq km, and according to the 1987 census the population numbers around 350,000 souls, meaning that the average population density is about 400 per sq km. Most of the populace, however, lives in central and southern Karangasem, especially around the capital of Amlapura, and population densities here are much higher than the average.
Many areas of Karangasem suffered great devastation as a result of the eruption of Mt Agung in 1963. Traces of this eruption can still be seen today, particularly in the Kubu and Tianyar areas on the northeastern coast. Already very dry, the northeast became all the more so after the eruption. A government project to encourage the planting of jeruk (a citrus species) here was not much of a success, but nowadays grapes are very much in vogue, as is cacao. South and southeast of Mt Agung lay the traditional rice-growing areas, with their spectacular terraced and irrigated rice fields. Higher up coffee, cloves and other cash crops are grown on steep mountain slopes. The coastal areas of Ujung and Seraya to the south, and Amed, Kubu and Tianyar to the north are the site of traditional fishery and salt-panning communities.
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