Bali, a land with towering volcanoes and pristine rivers flowing out onto turquoise water of the Indonesian seas. Its fertility not only brought welfare to its residents but also sparked wars between Bali’s many small kingdoms, fighting for as many lands to control as possible. At the eastern coast of the island a kingdom saw its rise and decline over the course of centuries in a rather idyllic setting, nestled between Mount Agung – the island’s tallest volcano and most sacred place – and Lombok Strait.
Karangasem was a small kingdom throughout most of its history, often annexed by other more powerful Balinese kingdoms or those from neighboring islands. From the 18th to early 19th century, however, the kingdom saw a union with its counterpart in Lombok, often referred as Karangasem Sasak. In the early 19th century Karangasem Sasak’s sphere of influence grew significantly, successfully defeating smaller kingdoms on the island and leaving the Kingdom of Mataram as its sole rival.
Seeing a big opportunity from this rivalry, two European traders – a Dane and a Briton – took advantage by selling weapons and ammunition to the belligerents. Exacerbated by the involvement of the King of Karangasem Bali who saw the emergence of Karangasem Sasak as a threat to his own kingdom, the latter was finally defeated by the Kingdom of Mataram, a new ally to the Balinese kingdom.
A few decades later both Karangasem Bali and the Mataram fell into the Dutch influence, creating unprecedented years without wars after centuries of turbulent history. Thanks to the newly introduced Dutch administrative systems – Rechstreeks bestuud gebied, Zelfbesturend landschappen and Stedehouder – order was in place, to some extent. During that period the King of Karangasem, I Gusti Gede Bagus Jelantik, commissioned the construction of water palaces and gardens at the eastern part of Bali.
Incorporating Dutch, Balinese and Chinese architectural features, it took 12 years to complete the main water palace. Designed by two architects – a Dutch and a Chinese – Taman Ujung Sukasada, as it is officially called, was also built in accordance to Tri Hita Karana principle, a Balinese cultural system which keeps the social fabric intact and harmonious with the nature.
At its heart, lies a pavilion built in Dutch 20th century building style, embellished with Balinese sculptures and ornaments, surrounded by a rectangular pool. The seemingly floating residence has been used by the royal family of Karangasem since then, stretching out a staggering 400 hectares. However years later that number was reduced to merely 10 hectares due to the land reform following Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands in 1945.
In 1963 the water palace was decimated by the eruption of Mount Agung, the biggest eruption of the volcano modern Balinese society has ever witnessed by far. 15 years later the derelict palace was further damaged by the earthquakes in northern and eastern parts of the island. For decades Taman Ujung Sukasada ruins were abandoned, until 1994 when the government decided to start detailed surveys on what was once a beautiful royal compound.
Soon after the Asian Financial Crisis the World Bank funded the first phase of Taman Ujung Sukasada restoration project, one of the projects the organization approved the Indonesian government to carry out. In the subsequent few years the palace was restored bit by bit, starting from the fence and the pools in 1999 to the pavilions in 2003. One year later Taman Ujung Sukasada was finally reopened to the public, although the ownership of the entire palace grounds remains in the hands of Karangasem royal family.
While most of the buildings and gardens that make Taman Ujung Sukasada were gentrified and rejuvenated, one building, however, was left untouched by the restoration project. The ruins of Bale Kapal, literally the boat pavilion, still stand at one side of the complex, overlooking the other pavilions below. Possibly built as a viewing platform to watch the ships sailing through the waters between Bali and Lombok, Bale Kapal is a testament of the indiscriminate power of Mother Nature that once almost wiped out the palace entirely. The same power which shaped Bali’s exquisite landscapes, ironically.