The temples of Bali share the top spot on the must-visit list besides its beaches. ANURAG MALLICK goes on a Balinese temple trail to uncover some of these architectural gems
The sun was about to set across the cliffs of Uluwatu, the stony headland that gave the place its name. Our guide Made explained that ulu is ‘land’s end’ or ‘head’ in Balinese, while watu is ‘stone’. Perched on a rock at the southwest tip of the peninsula, Pura Luhur Uluwatu was a pura segara (sea temple) and one of the nine directional temples of Bali protecting the island. We gaped at the waves crashing 230 ft below, unaware that the real spectacle was about to unfold elsewhere.
A short walk led us to an amphitheatre overlooking the dramatic seascape. In the middle, around a sacred lamp, fifty bare-chested performers sat in concentric rings, unperturbed by the hushed conversations of the packed audience. They sat in meditative repose, with cool sandal paste smeared on their temples and red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears. At sharp six, chants of ‘cak ke chak’ stirred the evening air. For the next one hour, we sat open-mouthed in awe at Bali’s most fascinating temple ritual.
The kecak dance, filmed in movies like Samsara and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, was an animated retelling of the popular Hindu epic Ramayana. There were no instruments, yet the unbelievable cadence of intonations formed a musical underlay to the dance drama – Sita’s abduction by Ravana, Jatayu’s valiant aerial fight and Rama bringing Sita back with help of the vanara sena (monkey army). Dressed in white, a playful Hanuman posed for selfies before setting fire to ‘Lanka’. He kicked balls of hay with reckless abandon, drawing big gasps from the crowd. We had been warned about the notorious monkeys in temples, but this was something else!
We filed out of the arena in a daze, a magical start to our Bali tour. Over dinner at the seaside Mata Hari restaurant at Jimbaran Beach, we enjoyed more performances with temple dancers and dragon dances. Tanah Lot, another sea shrine perched on a rocky outcrop amidst crashing waves, was a 45-minute drive from Kuta to Beraban on the west coast. It was late, so we retired to our hotel Mercure Legian Kuta, to continue our Balinese Temple Run the next morning.
While Indonesia is largely Muslim, over 80% of Bali’s four million population is Hindu. The 5600 sq km island measures 90 km from north to south and 195 km west to east at its widest point. Yet, with over a thousand shrines dotting the island, one needs a plan to take on the Island of the Gods. After a hearty breakfast, our guide Made gave us a brief overview of Balinese Hinduism on the tour bus. The supreme all-in-one almighty god is Acintya (the inconceivable) or Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, composed of the trinity Brahma, Visnu and Siva.
There are four types of temples in Bali – public temples, village temples, family temples for ancestor spirits and functional temples based on profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or goddess of grain in the fields; fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna by the sea. Every village has a pura desa for Brahma, pura puseh for Vishnu and pura dalem for Shiva. The Balinese hold sacred the philosophy of tri kaya parisuda – think positive, speak positive and act positive – to attain nirvana.
From the bus, Made pointed out statues of Arjuna, Krishna and Ghatotkacha. Bhima’s son fought Karna in the Mahabharata war and is revered by the Balinese as a loyal, intelligent and powerful figure. As a flying knight, he was responsible for the air defense of the Pandavas and is thus believed to provide safe passage to all flights landing in and out of Bali! Driving past the roundabout dominated by the gigantic statue, we slowly climbed to the highlands of Ubud 400m above sea level.
Grabbing sarongs to be suitably attired for the 15th C Pura Desa Batuan, we learnt about the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Temple layout is governed by the concept of tri mandala or three realms divided by walls – the Nista Mandala or outer courtyard reserved for waiting and performances, the Madya Mandala or middle realm for religious preparations with drum towers and gamelan pavilions and Utama Mandala, the sacred innermost realm.
The main entrance or Candi bentar was split in two, as if hacked by an unseen giant cleaver. “That is the concept of Rwa bineda or maintaining balance between opposing forces. The left and right halves of the gate denote balance or harmony, a principle that governs our lives. Similarly, the guardian spirits or gatekeepers are clad in checkered black and white cloth,” explained our guide.
Kori agung, the gate between the madya mandala and the inner compound is an ornate roofed tower. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or protective screen after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. It is believed that spirits travel only in straight lines, so are bounced off the protective wall. After exploring the temple and its various pavilions, we continued to Ubud.
Centuries ago, Hinduism was brought to Bali by Sage Markandeya, who came from India with 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, Mount Demalung in Java to Gunung Agung (9944 ft), the highest mountain in Bali. Here, on the southern slopes, he established the mother temple Pura Besakih, the largest and holiest temple on the island.
Mount Agung is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe, whose fragment was brought to Bali by the first Hindus. Markandeya consecrated the pancha dhatu (five metals) and following the course of the Patanu river, he arrived at a confluence or ‘campuhan’ of the Pakerisan river.
Made continued the legend as we drove past the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud and stopped on Jalan Raya for a short walk to Pura Gunung Lebah, literally ‘temple on a mountain slope’. We halted at the temple steps near the spot where Markandeya supposedly sat in meditation, chanting mantras and asking the sick and diseased to jump into the river. Miraculously cured, they rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine) and that’s how the place was named Ubud!
Even today, confluences are considered sacred by the Balinese who come here for purification ceremonies. Westerners come for yoga, Balinese massages, healing courses, rafting or hikes along Campuhan Ridge. At Ubud Palace, on the doorway of the royal shrine Puri Saren Agung, we saw Kala’s face as portal guardian. The serene lakeside Saraswati Temple was a short walk away.
We drove 8km southwest of Ubud, where one of Bali’s most beautiful temples Taman Ayun, literally ‘beautiful garden’ sits in a serene park of trees and ponds. It is a pura tirta (water temple) as well as a pura wawiten (family temple), built by the Rajas of Mengwi. Its pagoda-like multi-tiered roof or Meru, represents the sacred mountain. An ornate sculpture of Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle) Garuda stands proud, a symbol of Indonesia’s emblem and national carrier. It is omnipresent – in shops, the airport and GWK (Garuda Wisnu Kencana) cultural park.
Bali comes alive during temple festivals, which are elaborate affairs with ritual baths in rivers or ponds, processions, ceremonies and cock sacrifices. Every day outside homes, shops and street corners we spotted locals making ritual offerings or Canang sari, a small palm-leaf basket with flowers, rice and incense. It’s mandatory to include a trio of objects to represent the Divine Trinity – gambier or catechu (kattha) for Brahma, betelnut for Vishnu and tobacco and lime for Shiva. In Bali, there is divinity at every doorstep…
Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is at Denpasar, south of the tourist hotspot of Kuta. Flights from India take 8½–9½ hrs via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok by Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia. Ubud is 25km from Denpasar.
Temple etiquette & Tips
Wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and legs; sarongs are available on hire outside most shrines. Do not enter the temple premises if you are bleeding or menstruating.
Where to stay
Mercure Legian Kuta
Centrally located and walking distance from bars, restaurants and Legian beach
Ph +62 361 9386100 www.mercure.com
Where to Eat
Jendela Bali, GWK
Panoramic restaurant at Garuda Wishnu Kencana Cultural Park offering Balinese & Western fare with oceanic and mountain views to match. Ph +62 361 700 808 www.gwkbali.com
Sari Organik, Ubud
Organic café overlooking paddy fields with Balinese meals like nasi campur – rice, fried tofu, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), veg curry & chicken satay. Ph +62 361 972087
New Mata Hari Café, Jimbaran Beach
One of the many beachside restaurants at the popular Jimbaran stretch offering seafood, live entertainment and great views. +62 361 705 988
For more info, visit www.indonesia.travel
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of JetWings magazine.