Nusa Penida, a tropical karst island (Helbig, 1941)

Below German article was written by anthropologist Karl Helbig in 1939/1940, and published in 1941 during Dutch colonial occupation of the archipelago and is quoted in its entire length to do justice to the various interesting details given on many aspects of everyday life in Nusa Penida. Most strikingly, Helbig states that the island of Ceningan was by 1940 still uninhabited. On Nusa Penida, he reports, the Dutch colonial authorities had established schools in which (with an esclamation mark) of the total 90 pupils 50% were girls!

Translation from German by Godi Dijkman. I would like to express my gratitude to Ulrich Schröder, Bochum University, Germany (see: Advisors) for his kind help and infinite patience with the translation; since this text deals mainly with geology, the translation proved a true challenge. Various images in below article seem to be missing and the translation needs further verification. Hence work in progress!


helbig-eine tropische karstinsel 1941 coverMany descriptions are known of tropical limestone and karst areas and islands, from the Indies, Philippines, South Celebes and Java. Only recently, H. Lehmann attempted a thorough explanation of the limestone landscape and karst formations in the mountain range of south Java (Morphologische Studien auf Java, Stuttgart 1936). With a description, published in 1937, of a visit to Penida Island located between Bali and Lombok, I would like to draw attention to another example of tropical Limestone landscape for the benefit of karst researchers. But first of all, I would like to give a short monograph of the small island and demonstrate how an isolated population shapes and uses its narrow, remote and disadvantaged living space. I have not been able to find any information on Nusa Penida in German geographical literature. Even in Dutch there is, apart from good topological maps, to my knowledge, only one geographically oriented publication by A. Gertis, written in occasion of the mapping of the island in "Jaarverslag van de Topographische Dienst in Nederlandsch Indië over 1924: Enkele aanteekeningen omtrent Noesa Penida" [Notes on Noesa Penida]. Besides, there are very few popular travel books, from which the geographer could draw information, especially since only rarely foreign visitors take the trouble of going there. Recently, after my visit, only Baron von Plessen - known for his films on Bali and Borneo - visited the island to focus on zoological and cultural-historical problems.

Nusa (Noesa = island) Penida (a Balinese word which, among other things, could mean "bad limestone") with the smaller islands of Tjeningan and Lembongan in the northwest directly opposite from Nusa Penida, belongs to a fragmented tertiary limestone region, which extends from South Java to Tafelhoek [Bukit] (southern tip of Bali; see also my article 'Bali, eine tropische Insel, landschaftlicher Gegensätze', in: Zeitschrift für Erdkunde, 1939, 9/10) and south Lombok.

Despite the small surface area of the almost rectangular-shaped island of just over 200 square kilometres - about 18 km from northwest to southeast, with an average width of 11 km, there are only 22,300 people, or about 112 inhabitants per square kilometre, according to the official 1930 census. On the smaller island of Lembongan there are more than 4,200 inhabitants, i.e. 475 per square kilometre. Tjeningan, furthermore, divided in two parts by a narrow sea strait, is uninhabited. According to the Punggawa, a native civil servant stationed in Sampalan on the north coast, 1937 showed the highest total number of inhabitants of the island: 30,000. This little-known island has twice the population of the much talked-about island of Banda, and is culturally far more important. This is the reason why I dedicate a detailed description to Nusa Penida.

Geomorphic position

From the south coast of Bali, located at only 12 km distance from the far northwestern tip of Penida, one sees the island as a stepped table block with curbed, steep edges. But in actual fact, on the north side, behind a coral reef belt of some 300 metres wide, there is a narrow plain expansion of a few hundred metres between the sea and emerging drop-off. On the northwest coast, around the customs and trading centre Toja Pakeh, to a greater extent it bears the distinct character of younger alluvium on a coral underlay. Similarly, across on the northeast coast of Lembongan - crescent-shaped with advancing inland bays - a swampy lowland strip emerges. White and red coral rubble and numerous sea urchin shells cover the beach consisting of coral gravel and calcareous sand. But there is also black sand of volcanic origin, undoubtedly driven over from Bali and perhaps also from Lombok. Fierce northeasterly currents run in the Badung Strait between Bali and Penida, and between the latter and Tjeningan, increasing to an extraordinary strength of six to ten miles per hour. In the legends of the natives, related by amongst others Gertis, this flow plays an important role.

According to these legends, Tjeningan emerged from a large vessel that the God of the Chinese fitted out to shake and subdue the holy ruling God Sanghyang Mahadewa on Mount Agung, Bali's scared mountain. Indeed, the ship managed to crush a piece of Bali - today's Labuan Amuk Bay still shows the result of these ramming notches - but Mahadewa succeeded to push it back, and the mighty flow of the ocean detected it, brought it to capsize and drove it to Penida's coast, where it remained as the island Tjeningan. Another version has it that Penida is this wreck, while Tjeningan and Lembongan were the sloops, also known as the "children" to "mother" Penida. Yet another version considered Penida as a detached piece of Bali, to which today it is still connected by a legendary underground tunnel. Scientifically, the 1/2km strait between Penida and Tjeningan is some 223m deep, after a previous collapse, and the currents could have contributed to the sharper separation of the neighbouring islands from the main island of Penida.

helbig tropische karstinsel1941

Image right: Map of Nusa Penida (Helbig, 1941)

The small island complex ows its existence to vertical movements, hand in hand with the surf. Everywhere, compact coral limestone and amorphous limestone layers in flat overlapping beds form the surface of the steps and steep edges. It is possible that, similarly to the limestone masses in South Java, they came into existence discordant with folded Miocene breccias and sandstone layers of volcanic origin. Nowadays however, such outcrops are not found anywhere. A threefold grading is found in the north and northeast coast behind the narrow coastal strip, with levels of 25 to 40 (low level) and 80 to 110m (intermediate level) under the higher block of the central piece (Highlands).

On the east, south, and southwest side, however, there are no coastal strips or low level steps at all. They have likely fallen victim to the uninterrupted fierce surf of Indian Ocean, which has eaten its way far into the intermediate layers, and here and there has taken away isolated small rock tower islands. Nevertheless, this intermediate level is still wide as in the north and northeast. In the south, it reaches an average of 220m at its greatest height and falls down to 200-180m in the southeast, and to the west even further down. There, just under 100m, about the same height as the neighbouring islands, it can justifiably be regarded as a separate part of this intermediate layer. Likewise, the highlands of the core block reach a 'resolved' plateau of about 9 to 4km, with its highest level on the southern and southwestern edge - in the extreme southwest Bukit Mundi is the highest summit at 529m altitude - whereas in the east and northeast it falls down to 400 to 350m. Thus, there is a clear inclination to the northeast.

Gertis breaks down this composition of subsequent risings in three stages with long intermittent pauses. He assumed that the individual stages were pure abrasion surfaces, and the uplift in the south must have been stronger than the north side. However, the high cliffs in the south also remind us of a borderless marginal sinking after an initial uplift. However, the fact that an approximately 8km wide, and 100 to 200m deep shelf plate forming the seabed off the south coast, could be taken into account as well. By the same token, it could also be a sunken layer below sea level; a flooded coastal abrasion surface emerged by recent 'aggression'. By contrast, on the north coast, without much surf, such a shelf is hardly formed and the ocean drops rapidly to 400 to 500m. On the other hand, corals in the lower coastal region of the North again suggest a recent uplift and regression of the sea. Conclusive remarks regarding the formation processes of the island are therefore only possible after accurate geomorphological investigations. Above all, it remains to be established whether or not fragments of abrasion and perhaps also young coral formations on the medium and low(er) levels can be found. Many cave formations on the edge of the individual steep layers probably give the impression of surf formations, but could also be fossil outlets of subterranean karst rivers.

Surface areas

helbig karst cross section1941Image left: Nusa Penida karst cross section (Karl Helbig, 1941)

Crossing of the island from north to south, at the beach behind the coral reef there is a narrow coastal strip covered with small agricultural fields. A piece of land of fine dust, in the dry state pale grey to grey-yellow, and dark grey-brown when wet, interspersed with stone ruins, is located in thin layers on the limestone bedrock. Ascending to low-level layers this layer rises everywhere, jagged and shady, with thousands of holes and furrowed on the surface. Yet, there can be no question of clear cart tracks. On the following, much higher located levels, it also occurs in high walls made mostly of light grey, sometimes snow-white and occasionally blackish rock, for example at the edge of the plateau between the villages of Batu Kandik and Batu Madeg. Deep into the steep southern coast, it forms blackish cliffs, completely vertical up to 200m, or even deep surf inlets of cantilevered upward formations (image 2, missing). The foraminiferous surface is weathered like crumbly-like dry mortar, while erosion in mountain plateaus and smooth rock cannot be found; they are slides on which occasionally the rare rain water rushes down. Next to them, there are also numerous deep ravines with many notched blocks. There, on rare occasions, natural rivers are found flowing down to the coast, but in general not a single drop of water is to be found in them. Such V-shaped valleys are arranged in many a parallel fashion around the island. On the steep south and east coast they reach the sea, whilst the others are curved out in the high cliff walls at considerable height. Also at the edges of the core blocks those canyons are deeply notched. The ridges in between the valleys, constituting independent mountain ranges, glide down towards the intermediate plateau layers below. Notch gorges and escarpments make for equally difficult transport over land and between land and the coast.

The surface at intermediate levels as well as in total perfection in the central highlands entirely consists of convex shapes, full of rounded hollow forms in this typical tropical karst landscape. Around the edges, rows of equally high tops occur with small valley notches on the outer sides. (H. Lehmann refers to those formations in the Southern Mountains of Java as 'directed karst' (gerichteter Karst), which he mentioned in his article on Mount Kendeng in Java in the "Geographischen Wochenschrift", 3/1935). Subsequently, towards the interior, more or less perfectly formed half-cones of mostly 30 to 40m relative height prevail. It is the consummate 'cone karst' (image 1, missing). They change further away inland into irregular hills, often reminiscent of bread loaves or inverted troughs as if the half-cones were interconnected by low walls. Between the hills, there are isolated steep-sided funnels and embedded basins, meandering in all directions, interlocking themselves in karst troughs of rarely more than 200m greatest width. The first of these usually begins with a wide, horseshoe-shaped end of the valley at an intermediate saddle, and the last ends in a lower plateau level down from a downwards-going notch gorge.

None of these hollow concaves contains standing or flowing water. The fact that in case heavy rainfall water does not flow, but at best formation water pools are formed at the lowest point, proves that the terraced fields of the natives are created without interruption over the whole width of the valley (as shown on image 1, missing), and were hand-made. Occasionally during my stay on the island, we hiked for half a day in constant rain over the plateau and saw not the slightest trickle, apart from some dripping rock faces strands. However, at the bottom some wells were no longer able to contain the underground water that came down from the slopes, which oozed into puddles on the surface. But the following morning, nothing but damp patches were left. All water must therefore quickly seep into the bottom, a process that in other karst areas on the island occurs harmoniously.


All these hollow forms contain a very dark, near-black, humus-rich soil of friable and good texture. Mohr compared this black earth, also present in the moulds of other limestone landscapes of the East-Indies, to 'Vorindiens' regur as having been washed together over impermeable clay layers at the base of former small lakes and ponds. [in: "De grond van Java en Sumatra", Amsterdam 1929, "De bodem der tropen in het algemeen en die van Nederlandsch Indië in het bijzonder", Kon. Ver. Koloniaal Inst. Amsterdam, Mededelingen XXXI, I.]. But even on the slopes and hilltops a dark, blackish-brown and a mainly brown or grayish-yellow colouring prevails. Nowhere on the whole island, however, not even at the highest altitudes (530m), there is a trace of red earth, comparable to the well-known "Terra Rossa". It is important to realise that according to previous findings (Lehmann, Mohr, see above) those black soil formations in tropical limestone are found at heights of no more than 300m for the islands of the East Indies at annual temperatures of 25° C. Also, the presence of traces of ash from the volcanoes of Bali, which could have favoured as foreign factors to the red colour of the soil - as observed in the limestone areas of Java - do not seem to have taken place, because northerly winds are extremely rare in this zone.


Distinct seasonal changes and long dry periods, which, according to Mohr, together with heavily drained soil are also prerequisites for the formation of black soil in tropical karst, also occur on Nusa Penida to extreme perfection, whereas in Java and other areas this is rarely achieved. As everywhere on the southern shores of the Lesser Sunda Islands, the monsoons here are moderate. According to Braak ("Het klimaat van Nederlands Indië", Batavia, 1929) in the main wind direction the southern component prevails in all months except January and February. Also, the main rain bringer of the archipelago, the northwest monsoon, appears here as a southwest wind. The distribution of rainfall corresponds to the main monsoon period in the Malay area, with minimum rainfall in the middle of the year and highest rainfall in the last and first months of the year. But throughout the year the total amounts of rainfall show little consistency, as is the case in the monthly distribution within different years. It is an important observation that the total amounts are extremely low and that during three to four months not a single drop of rain falls - there isn't even any dew -, and that the small amounts occurring in other months may result from a single, rapidly disappearing squall. Unfortunately, there are only observations from the coastal village of Sampalan and the reported numbers may not be absolutely reliable. There are no data, however, of the plateau with probably more rainfall, caused perhaps by the greater height and more abundant vegetation.

Table below: Rainfall Sampalan January - August (p.400), Helbig 1941

Year/Month January February March April May June July August Year Mm & Days
1933 13 175 250 99 13 124 0 60 1,160 mm
  4 14 12 7 4 11 0 6 81 days
1934 100 238 113 108 4 3 119 68 1,140 mm
  10 17 9 5 3 1 9 1 77 days
1935 218 31 149 46 41 4 0 0 650 mm
  15 6 9 7 6 2 0 0 60 days
1936 134 95 60 101 4 10 35 8 654 mm
  12 6 4 9 2 2 2 2 61 days

Table below: Rainfall Sampalan September - December (p.400), Helbig 1941

Year/Month September October November December Year Maximum daily amount Mm & Days
1933 24 3 141 258 1,160 119/XII mm
  4 1 7 11 81   days
1934 0 185 170 32 1,140 111/X mm
  0 4 12 6 77   days
1935 0 66 25 75 650 68/III mm
  0 6 3 6 60   days
1936 7 45 42 113 654 54?IV mm
  1 4 8 9 61   days

But the highlands are undoubtedly greatly disadvantaged compared to similar altitudes of adjacent larger islands. I repeatedly observed how cumulus clouds gathered in the sky over Penida but due to the rising hot air above the superheated limestone masses a veritable hole remained, while all around the island it rained at sea without the island having been refreshed by a single drop. Only with the onset of the lively southwest wind in December, estimated to a level four wind-force, wet clouds accompanied by vigorous thunderstorms were driven onto the island and hung over it for hours letting down moderate continuous rain even up to the plateau. However, cloudy and hazy days with poor visibility are likely to occur frequently. Given the generally prevailing dryness of the air and land, high temperatures are bearable, despite the annoying reflection from the hot limestone soil. Along the coast, in the morning, we measured a temperature of 26° C, around noon 32° C, in the evening 28° C in December, whilst in the highlands temperatures were approximately 24, 29 and 26° C.


We already mentioned the fast flow water on slides and in ravines, which dries up very quickly at moderate and low rainfall. The water table must be extremely low, apparently at sea level. Throughout the inland there are neither water sources nor groundwater wells, and even on the cliff edges there are no water outlets. Only in the very near coastal areas water can be found. To the south, water bubbles up at the foot of the cliff in some partly warm springs. Otherwise, along the flat coast in the estuary sections of larger canyons, fountain excavations are found, and the occasional wild waters are then not in the middle, but along the edges. Generally, however, this well water is brackish. Even in Toja Pakeh, which means "fresh water", we felt it was salty.

Vegetation and wildlife

The question of the original vegetation must of course remain open. It has never been resolved satisfactorily, even for the more well-known parts of the islands of this archipelago. On the plateau, there may have been forest under once more balanced precipitation conditions in the past. A "sacred grove" in the west near Batu Kandik bears the characteristics of remaining natural but not very dense forest. But this forest only fills a deeper hollow form. Giant individual trees, mostly Ficus species, found around villages and temples, prove that they are a viable species. These trees could of course be planted intentionally as cultivated trees. Alang-alang grass, ubiquitous in the highlands in the archipelago as a plant species covering burnt fields in formerly forested areas, is reminiscent of earlier forests. Today it is abundantly interspersed with steppe plants: small mimosa, gnarled individual trees with partially felted, sometimes leathery leaves, including the "djoewat" fruit trees [Syzygium/Eugenia cumini] sometimes resembling blackthorn, and Opuntia [Opuntia, paddle cactus] and smaller spurge species [Euphorbia, milk-weed] including agaves, scattered pandanus plants and most of all vast fields of thorny lantana scrubs. Today, in the deeper regions this meagre vegetation dominates completely, especially Opuntia and Lantana spread into extended hedges and an impenetrable wilderness.

Likewise, there isn't much wildlife here. Larger game is not found or does no longer exist apart from snakes and birds. Among them, yellow-crested white cockatoos deserve special attention as they are not present in Bali. But they do occur on Lombok. The well-known animal dividing line [Wallace Line] through the Lombok Strait would thus be better drawn west to Penida. The natives assert, however, that these birds were formerly also found in Bali but were banned to Penida given its contentious and thieving behaviour! Large, canary-yellow blackbirds [Black-naped Oriole, Oriolus chinensis?], small, hummingbird-like species and others birds, together with immense flocks of pesky flies (not mosquitoes) complete the still existing natural fauna of the island. But in the surrounding sea the residents are offered a substitute for the failing diet of wild game meat in the form of small reef animals, turtles, large fish, octopus and rays.


The fact that this hot and needy island of Nusa Penida, surrounded to the south and east by a wall-like coast and huge waves, and on the west by strong currents, protected to the north by dangerous reefs, rain and low water, still has such a large population is due not only to nearby Bali and its suitability for karst pans. These circumstances alone would have certainly caused only minor immigrations. To what extent such events actually took place in prehistoric times, it is not apparent. Today, it is a well-know fact that the population was forcibly deported from southern Balinese principalities, notably from Klungkung. Criminals, debtors and other unpopular people since times immemorial have been banned here for life by their lords. In 1925, insolvent Balinese were sent to Penida by their princes for temporary detention to pursue a hard day's work in miserable circumstances while their blessed home was seen far off in the distance.

After the Dutch occupation of southern Bali (1912), numerous voluntary emigrants also joined to do so. Amongst seafaring individuals in miserable circumstances , this peculiar settlement unconsciously carries the name of "Bandit Island". The name does not refer to actual circumstances, but to a mutilation of "Nusa Penida" to "Nusa Pandita", which would mean "Holy Island". "Pandita", among sailors thereupon was transformed to "Bandit". While in the past the inhabitants of Penida were indeed regarded as criminals and treated as such by the Balinese, today they are entirely free within their island. But in case they were exiles (together with their descendants), they were not allowed to leave the island. Cruel death sentences formerly pronounced on refugees - they had to be tied to a rock islands off the west coast, leaving them to starve to death, or, if they managed to escape, were to be stabbed by the nearest village chief - and similar anachronistic punishments were of course abolished since the expansion of Dutch rule.

This peculiar settlement history may be ascribed to the fact that foreigners on the island are almost completely absent. The few Chinese - three on Penida, six on Lembongan - have lately engaged in trading mainly copra and coconuts. With regards to the natives, they are mainly dark and gaunt humans, mostly in the mountainous areas of Bali, often with significant Old Malay (altmalaiischen) striking facial features, as one finds it anywhere on the islands, especially with mountain peoples. They are probably members of the rigid and obstinate hill tribes, which have been sent into exile. The Balinese language, still pure on the north coast, is replaced by an incomprehensible dialect in the interior. Even with regards to clothing, particularly women's garments, there are deviations from the home country. Over a colourfully striped tunic they wear a dark blue to black skirt, with a naked upper body. The population maintain Balinese animistic cults, covered only lightly by a Hinduistic veil, and during many festivities express this in a much more serious way, and present it in a much more lively manner than the population of Bali itself. The cremation of the dead is practiced both here and on mainland Bali. According to Gertis in 1923 there were only 95 Mohammedans: Malays and Islamized Balinese, almost all in Toja Pakeh, who maintain active relations with the Muslim village of Kusambe on the south coast of Bali. A caste system as in Bali does not exist here, as the population, with very few exceptions on the north coast, all belong to the Sudra caste. Thus, all artificial caste differences disappear.


As many as 119 villages in 12 subdistricts ('village communities') were counted, and - apart from inaccessible localities at the foot of a number of cliffs - they are so evenly distributed, that all settlements of the island enjoy the same advantages and disadvantages. While the villages along the north coast have brackish water holes and opportunities for fishing, they lack the fertile agricultural valleys and slightly higher rainfall of the highlanders. With regards to water supplies, these villages are rather disadvantaged. They find themselves dependent solely on rainwater, and every family has to collect this in clay jars (imported from Bali) or in homemade hollowed-out limestone cisterns. In addition, most of the settlements have a common "djoembang", a bottle-shaped hole sculptured out with difficulty in the limestone bedrock. The walls of the djoembang have been given an impermeable clay layer while a sealable cover at the top seals off the bottleneck. For this purpose, V-shaped grass roofs or (more recently) corrugated iron roofs were constructed to lead rainwater into the djoembang, and so the water is kept fresh for months in the underground vault.

Also, here and there in deep hollows rainwater pools called "goemblang" were built for the cattle. Due to the strong pollution by excrements, they appear to be more in demand as wallowing places, rather than regular watering places. In times of drought, cattle must be driven regularly to wells along the coast: arduous marches that last for days on end. But even these wells are not always perfect, as cattle are watered immediately beside them in limestone troughs with buckets in the form of small lontar leaves, while unfiltered excretions end up in the fountain with the spilled water. Therefore, often enough, epidemics occur in the villages dependent on such wells. Water supplies on the south coast are a most precarious affair. On simple ladders, consisting merely of billets plugged into rock holes, water carriers united in guilds called "sekehe toja" often descend more than 200m to the springs at the foot of the cliffs whilst holding on firmly to small, hewn holes in the rocky cliff.

During the construction of the settlements the sometimes vehement winds must be reckoned with, and so they are built in valleys or in the lee of hill tops on the slopes. But just as independent from flowing or spring water, the villages are constructed in the presence of building materials. They can be found everywhere. Along the coast, chunks of coral lime are taken and limestone debris towards the interior. With both materials, for the construction of walls, patterns are made of different inclinations of the individual rows, (see the wall, image 4, missing). Sometimes but not always, the walls - or at least the base - are plastered with clay. In some cases, carefully hewn blocks at roughly double brick size are used, mostly for the construction of temples. The roof of dry grass rests on the rafter framework of bamboo.

The blocks used for stamping rice are also made of limestone, which, together with the inevitable cock baskets, belong to the inventory of every house court. As is the case on Bali, the sometimes quite large villages are subdivided into rectangular 'compartments' for each extended family, and again the wall surrounding every family homestead is made of a chalk blocks (image 3, missing). Between these homesteads there are narrow aisles. Only Toja Pakeh, being a distinctly Malay settlement, lacks this typical Balinese village form. It does, however, preserve the walled single-family homestead, but not the union of all homesteads in the narrow village. Moreover, the small mosque of the Mohammedans is an eyesore to the general Balinese impression.

A temple complex likewise surrounded with limestone walls is present in every village. Besides, there is quite a number of particularly holy places of worship on dominant hills, and sometimes near the coast. In some of them certain yearly festivals are held during general pilgrimages. Sometimes, as in the sacred sites of Bali, the festivals take place amidst multi-storey wooden pagoda, shaded by large trees, and the pungent aroma of cream-coloured "djepoeng" [Plumeria ssp.] flowers essential for dance and worshipping ceremonies. Natural strangely shaped stones, incorporated here and there in the surrounding wall at the birth of twins or at events, which would appear strange to animists, or stones standing erect on special pedestals, stand out as a sign of a primitive, natural sacrificial cult. In addition, there are also white strange animal and demon sculptures, throne chairs for the sun deity (image 4, missing) carved out of limestone, wood carvings on the beams of temple assembly halls and masks kept in the temple for elaborate cultural festivities of high perfection. Here, the legacy of the artistic people of the Indian Archipelago, the Balinese, is revealed most clearly.


If all Balinese extensive fire farmers - highly qualified in all aspects of agriculture - would have been transplanted to Penida, the island would probably have become a desolate place, and at best only a handful of the most pathetic creatures would have eked out a living. Thus it happened that farmers arrived who had always been accustomed to extract everything they could from the soil. But what they found was something completely different from what they were used to in local conditions, and the toughness and adaptability they mustered was truly admirable. Nothing like the gentle coats of volcanic cones suitable for farming, or the mineral-rich volcanic soil, and especially the means to irrigate the land.

Only one thing could be done there: the construction of terraces, which is carefully done, as every spot of useful soil in the archipelago is used for the cultivation of crops. With axe and crowbar the towering crags are removed and all the rock debris is removed from the fields. They are used for setting up small low walls ("Galangang") to separate one terrace from another. Their purpose is twofold: they are designed to prevent the flushing away of soil and possibly catch and steady it. New agricultural fields are built deliberately for the purpose of depositing initially induced flushed soil in sufficient thickness with the rain. The largest parcels of land can be found at the horseshoe-shaped valley heads and in the karst pans. A plough and a two-pronged cultivator, provided with a 'tail' (Sterz) made for loosening soil and destroying weeds is operated. In the confined valleys between the hills, the terraces are always narrow, sometimes only a meter wide, climbing upwards along steep lateral slopes. Here, only 'hacking agriculture' (Hackbau) is possible, and even weeding is done by using hoes consisting of a sharp clamped iron with a split stem, used preferably in a squatting position. But also on the half-cones and other inclinations, the fields often rise high up encompassing entire cones mostly in closed circles.

In 1924, 17,800 ha of cultivated land were measured, which for the most part consisted of those terraced fields. (Up to the time of this survey, as Gertis noted, only 1,500 ha was declared and paid taxes for by the residents, as they knew they were on their isolated island, far from any European control). However, these landscaped and carefully designed terrace cultures provide a very pleasing sight. The view from Bukit Mundi over the surrounding area is unforgettable. Repetitiously, the circular and horseshoe-formed terraces are situated on the hilltops, and far in curly bows, the white small walls include valley closings, pulling in winding garlands through narrows and ravines, going out again in a wide sweep. The villages are white and rectangular, the great temple works are embedded, and in the depths off the coasts there are the bright bands of the surf. The neighbouring islands of Tjeningan and Lembongan blur out into hazy fog, even though one cannot see the sea separating the narrow terraces.

Dry rice (padi gaga) found only in the deepest, wetter parts of the moulds finds opportunities for growth. Higher up towards the interior corn prevails, which on Penida seems to be the staple diet. Beans, tubers, red pepper, cotton (kapok) are planted as intercrops between corn and rice. Moreover, coconut trees that have little to fear from dangerous palm rats are found in small groups everywhere in the lowlands around Toja Pakeh and on Lembongan. But around the villages there are very few fruit trees such as durian, apart from betel palm [Areca catechu], Piper betel plants and bamboo bushes. However, these fruits are of no importance for the diet or even for trade and daily meals are exceedingly monotonous. As a rule, rice is stored for festive occasions, so every single day there is corn porridge on the menu, mixed with cassava flakes or with flour from parched slices of cassava tubers. At best, we were offered a few fresh or roasted beans or balls of grated coconut in pepper sauce and, where available, some additional seafood.

But generally, in any year, food supplies are insufficient. In 1923, for instance, Gertis mentions that total import amounted to 61,300 guilders, of which 50,000 guilders spent on food, almost exclusively rice, i.e. up to 4/5 from Bali and about 1/5 from Lombok. The rest consisted of petroleum and cloths, while at the same time much cloth is still spun on the island, dyed with vegetable juices and woven in home industries. On two small markets in Sampalan and Toja Pakeh these goods and other trade items are traded. The export in the same year reached a value of 134,700 guilders, i.e. about 6 1/2 guilders per head of population. In addition to around 80 tons of copra, 1,091 cattle and 1,927 pigs were generally sold off to Bali as live animals for slaughter. Remarkably, the uninhabited island of Tjeningan recorded a comparatively high export figure, but the economy there does not play an important role. It concerns the harvest of edible birds' nests from a cave, which for three years was leased to a Chinese contractor for a large sum of money (1923: 9,000 guilders). It provided in said year 450 kg nests amounting to a value of around 23,000 guilders!

In 1923, Gertis claimed that the entire herd consisted of more than 8,000 cattle and nearly 11,000 pigs, a relatively high figure. There are no buffaloes and horses. The highest parts of the hills on which there is no usable soil, normally collected by alluvial deposits, particularly serve as grazing ground. Livestock and copra production are the only significant sources of income of the population, which is set primarily on self-sufficiency. Fishing along the coastal areas, especially at night with torches, collecting edible items from the reef at low tide, and salt mining offer the main income in the same primitive way as described for the north coast of Bali [see Helbig, supra]. Coastal shipping in small proas and outrigger boats (djoekoeng) to Bali and Lombok, however, lies primarily in the hands of Mohammedan Balinese and Malays; regular steam - or motorized connections do not exist.


Nusa Penida is excellent proof of what can still be extracted from the disadvantaged landscape if only suitable settlers are brought in. Although the Dutch government, which concerned itself with the island only after 1912, cannot expect to see any 'indirect conclusions' (old-fashioned German: Überschlüsse) from the island, Penida honestly strives to support this significant contingent of self-sufficient people in their difficult existence. It has endeavoured to eliminate the risk of disease through education and occasional overgrowth of the wells, and has taken measures to ensure sufficient water supplies even far away from the well areas, as well as supplies of rice in time of famine.

In addition to the proliferation of the usual rain catchment systems, they built several large rain tanks of limestone in the highlands to prevent disasters in extremely long periods of drought, and also to limit to a minimum the arduous cattle marches to drink in the coastal wells. I visited a tank at Tanglad, which measured about 25m in diameter at a depth of about 10m; it seemed much too large for the scanty rainfall. Sufficient water and adequate food supply in times of crop failures are the two factors that determine the entire life of the island. If the reported figures result not only from various accurate estimates or payments, but indeed are truly reliable, the population of the main island in 1928 (20,475 people) would have increased in 1930 by almost 10% to 22,300 inhabitants, and in 1937 even more.

It is probably best to conclude that everything is being done to improve the living conditions. Attempts have already been made to raise the mental state of the extremely backward and shy, but new and curious, basically childish and cheerful population. In the administrative village of Sampalan (a subdivision of Klungkung, South Bali), as well as on Lembongan and Sakti, a large village in northwest Penida, schools have in recent years been opened. In the latter village, during my visit, two Balinese teachers were teaching 90 children, including 15 girls!


  • Helbig, Karl - Nusa Penida, eine tropische Karstinsel, Hamburg-Blankensee. Mit 2 Textfiguren und 2 Tafeln, Abb. 1-6, In: Mitteilungen der Graphischen Gesellschaft in Hamburg, Band 47 (1941), Mitteilungen XI.VII, Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land en Volkenkunde, 4-3-1988 (j-285-/1/), p.393-409

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