Balinese Temples and Holy Men
It is often said that there are more temples per square mile in
Bali than anywhere else in the world and this could well be true.
There are hundreds of thousands of them, many more than the number
of 20,000 that is often cited. Swellengrebel in his Bali: Studies
in Life, Thought and Ritual, 1960, mentioned that figure.
There are family temples, village temples, royal temples, rice
temples, mountain temples, river temples, water temples, market
temples, temples to particular gods or goddesses and so on and
so on. The key point is that each temple represents, and has a
congregation of, a particular social unit. In that temple offerings
will be made on a regular basis to the gods that are linked to
and concerned with their affairs. So the Rice goddess, Dewi
Sri, will receive offerings in the rice temples, the market
gods in the market temples, the village ancestors in the village
temples and so on.
Great gods are worshipped in great temples and lesser gods are
worshipped in local temples. The Sea God, for example, has relevance
for more than one community and so is not be worshipped in a mere
The temple will have a shrine to the principal deity, but possibly
also smaller shrine to other deities that are connected in some
way. So, for example, the principal deity in a market temple is
Maya Sih, who is the mistress of illusions. But there will also
be smaller shrines to Dewi Sri, the Rice goddess. Rice is sold
in markets and markets are therefore important to the Rice goddess.
This has the effect of linking market temples to rice temples
Other places can become holy. Trees can become holy. Rocks can
become holy. Places holding a holy object engender respect, as
do the dwelling places of spirits, and become holy.
Pura means temple. (Puri means palace, the place where royal families
live). Balinese only visit those temples that have a social relevance
for them. There are some temples, however, that have relevance
State temples: Sad-Kahyangan
There are six state temples, all ancient historical sites, in
which all Balinese have an interest, as they protect the entire
island and the Balinese people as a whole. They are called the
Sad-Kahyangan or Six Great Temples.
Different regions mention different temples, but most commentators
describe them as:
Mother Temple, which is the most important temple in Bali and
is the spiritual and religious centre of the universe, where
and Siwa are worshipped, as well as many kings and princes of
the past, who have become divine ancestors. See the article
entitled Famous Balinese Temples for a detailed description
of the temple.
which sits on a cliff in the most southern tip of Bali and is
also described in the article
entitled Famous Balinese Temples.
the bat cave temple, near Kusamba on the coast.
in the Karangasem district in East Bali.
on the slope of Batukau mountain in the Tabanan district, which
is said to be the oldest temple in Bali, because Siwa sent seven
of his children from Mount Semeru in Java to the sacred places
in Bali and the gods arrived at Batukau first as they were coming
from the west.
the second largest temple in Bali, in the Singaraja district
in North Bali.
stake that every Balinese has in these six great temples reinforces
the notion of the oneness of Balinese civilization and that despite
the so-called caste system that the Balinese people are one.
Village temples: Kahyangan Tiga
There are the following three temples in nearly every village.
They are called the Kahyangan Tiga, the Three Great Temples, and
are said to have been initiated by Empu Kuturan, the legendary
Javanese priest in the 11th century:
in the mountainward kaja area devoted to the founders of the
village and dedicated to Wisnu, god of water, called the Origin
or Navel Temple.
in the centre of the village, at the village courtyard or main
crossroads, devoted to the affairs of the village, men in other
words, where the banjar meets and dedicated to Brahma.
in the seaward kelod area, devoted to the souls of the dead
but not yet cremated, and dedicated to Siwa or his wife, Durga,
called the Death or the Underworld Temple.
members of the village, regardless of caste or status, may visit
the village temples. A wantilan or meeting hall for cockfights
is usually very near the Pura Desa and a huge sacred banyan tree
often shades the area.
is an elevated word for temple, meaning place of the gods, and
indicates a summing-up of an entire social order, be it the state
or the village. Pura is the ordinary word for temple. The individual
temples are, however, called Pura so and so.
there are functional temples. The irrigation societies, subaks,
have temples, the farmers have temples, the merchants have temples,
and the fishermen have temples and so on.
temple, private or public, has an anniversary celebration, usually
every Balinese year, which is every 210 days. These odalans are
major events, usually with music and dancing. A few temples fix
their odalans by reference to the lunar calendar and then they
take place either at full moon, Purnama, or new moon, Tilem. Most
odalans last three days.
mentioned in the article entitled
Everything comes in 3s, temples are divided into three sections.
Gates divide the sections.
the furthest, holiest part and the middle part is a gate called
the Kori Agung, on top of which is usually a carving of a bulbous
head, called a Bhoma, who protects the inner sanctum.
front is a free standing wall called the Aling Aling, which is
to prevent evil spirits entering, evil spirits being able only
to walk in straight lines. Private houses usually have Aling Aling
Between the middle section and the outer section of the temple
is usually the famous Balinese split gate, called a candi bentar,
which some believe symbolizes Mount Meru, the world mountain.
temples have a hollow log, a kulkul, with a hammer hanging beside
it, used to call the villagers to ceremonies or to warn them
of disasters, like fires or emergencies or the discovery of
a thief. The double sounding of the kulkul followed by a rapid
striking means that there has been a robbery. It is usually
in the corner of the middle part of the temple in a special
pavilion or bale.
the empty seats or thrones described in the chapter entitled
Balinese Symbolism, are found in public and family temples.
They may also be outside in particular places.
are regarded as the throne of Siwa. Siwa sits in the centre
of a lotus, surrounded by four petals, to the north, east, west
and south by Wisnu, Iswara, Mahadewa and Brahma, each associated
with a particular colour, day, part of the body, weapon, metal,
magical syllable and form of supernatural power.
it means lotus seat. The base is Bedawang Nala, the turtle that
supports the world with the two snakes. In the centre is the
world of man, where his daily activities are sometimes carved
and various aspects of God are displayed at the top.
Linggas are oblong rocks, rounded at the top, which represent
Siwa's phallus. Thanks to it, he established his superiority
over Brahma and Wisnu. They are found in temples and sacred
spots. Several are in the Elephant Cave in Bedulu near Ubud.
There is a beautiful meru in Campuan Temple, opposite Murni's
Warung. They are expensive to build, but very spectacular.
These shrines are symbolic of the mythical world mountain, Mount
Meru at the centre of the world, which is the home of the gods.
Merus are likewise the homes of the gods when they visit during
temple ceremonies. They descend to the temple down the open
shaft, which is the centre of the meru.
Merus have an uneven number of tiers, one to eleven, which get
smaller the higher they get, resembling a pagoda, thatched with
black sugar palm fibre. The higher the meru, the higher the
status of the god within the meru and to whom it is dedicated:
eleven roofs for Siwa and nine for Brahma and Wisnu.
You can also tell the rank of a temple by the height of its
merus. You cannot tell by the style of architecture. There are
eleven-storied merus at Besakih and Mount Batur Temples, the
two most important temples in Bali.
The height of the merus in family temples indicates the family's
caste. The commoners, Sudras, have one to three roofs, high-caste
aristocrats five to nine, consecrated kings, eleven. Kings have
divine ancestry and so are entitled to eleven.
Each large family group or clan has its own temple, the Pura Dadia,
where family members pray to the founders of the family. Dadias
are explained in the article
entitled Names, Titles and Castes.
Private family temples
Every Balinese does belong to a family temple and they need constant
Family temples vary. Some shrines, however, are obligatory. The
temple is always surrounded by a wall and built in the sacred
northeast, kaja-kangin, corner of the family compound. In it will
be shrines, about ten feet tall on chest-high carved plinths,
mostly devoted to deified family ancestors. Offerings are usually
placed there daily and always on important days.
There is always a roofed shrine in the family temple with three
compartments devoted to Brahma (on the right), Wisnu (on the left)
and Siwa (in the centre). It is called the Sanggah Kemulan, sometimes
also the Shrine of Origin. It is a holy place and the central
place of worship.
A Balinese origin story is that God created man as follows:
formed the bones, flesh, nerves and body temperature.
Wisnu formed the blood, marrow, fat, glands and body fluids.
Siwa formed the breath, the link between body and soul.
is always a roofed shrine called taksu on the kaja north side
devoted to the god of one's art or profession. A performer of
a particular art form, be it shadow
puppets, acting, music
or singing, will make offerings at this shrine for as long as
the person performs. Great performances are said to have taksu.
There will be a high throne-like altar in the auspicious northeast
corner called a padmasana. It is orientated towards Mount Agung.
If a member of the family cannot attend a particular temple ceremony,
he will pray at this shrine instead.
There is also always a roofed single compartment shrine in the
family compound, but not in the family temple, the Sanggah Pengijeng,
whose spirit protects the property. It usually stands in the centre
of the compound.
Kitchens and wells always have small shrines, often high up out
of the way, devoted to Brahma, god of fire, and Wisnu, god of
Balinese Holy Men and Women
There are many kinds of respected ritual practitioners in Bali.
The most common are:
Pedandas: high priests.
The common Sudra priests, pemangkus, have direct day-to-day charge
of their temples, their affairs and their maintenance. They dress
in white from head to toe, say prayers, invite the deities to
attend ceremonies and sprinkle holy water over offerings and those
who are praying. They are mainly men, often poor. There are, however,
some women priests. They may marry. On death they are not buried
but cremated as soon as convenient.
Pedandas: high priests
The other kinds of priest are Brahman high priests, pedandas,
who are well educated and versed in the holy books. They dress
splendidly in black and white, wear mitres and carry out major
ceremonies. They chant holy mantras, ring bells,
waft incense and
make elaborate symbolic hand gestures. They are more involved
with families than with temples.
Any Brahman may be a priest, but only a few are. He must usually
have a Brahman wife in order to be consecrated. After his death
his wife may become a fully-fledged priest. Each operates independently,
but as a class they are associated with the nobility and are regarded
as brothers. Each royal family is linked to a priestly house.
In pre-colonial times there was a close symbiotic relationship
with the rulers. Priests largely manned the royal courts. No priest
could be consecrated without permission of the local ruler. No
local ruler could be legitimately installed except by a priest.
Only a priest can directly address the gods in order to sanctify
water. The pedandas enter into daily contact with Siwa, unifying
their souls with his, and thereby make holy
water. His soul is lifted up from his abdomen by means of
meditation. It then leaves the body and Siwa enters through the
fontanel, so that the priest and god become one. Holy water can
also be gathered from certain holy springs and lakes, but only
that made by pedandas has sufficient power for certain, especially
Their income is restricted to the consecration and sale of holy
water, tirta, but they are allowed to accept gifts. Manual labour
is denied them. They are the only group in Bali subject to dietary
restrictions: beef and chicken are forbidden, but duck is allowed.
Food must be offered to them on new plates or fresh banana leaf
cones. They meditate daily in their houses, called geria.
In earlier times they advised and prayed for royal families and
strengthened the ruler spiritually. They settled disputes and
were exempted from taxes.
Part of the ceremony of becoming a pedanda involves his symbolic
death. He is wrapped in a shroud and then symbolically comes back
to life. They are never buried and are not cremated in a cemetery,
but in pure ground, which has never been used for such a purpose.
The bier on which the body of a pedanda is carried to the cemetery
is a lotus seat called a padmasana, the same name as the altar
of Siwa, the sun god. A person who has been one with Siwa cannot
be buried, as he would then be a servant of the deity of the temple
of the dead.
unified with Siwa also means that there will no longer be a series
of rebirths. For this reason the multiple roofs representing the
heavens do not appear above the lotus seat of the pedanda.
There is a small number of Buddhist pedanda (pedanda boda), who
take part in some ceremonies. They largely differ in their ritual
There is another category of person, the balian or medium, who
is consulted in case of illness. Balians cure illnesses arising
from supernatural causes. Western trained doctors cure illnesses
arising from natural or obvious causes. They are normally low
caste and do not earn much. It is estimated that there are about
2,500 different types of balian.
They base their knowledge on different sources, for example, palm
leaf manuscripts, trance messages from the gods, ancestors or
spirits, divine gifts like a piece of cloth, jewel or kris,
Some specialize in divination, midwifery, abortions (now illegal),
massage, preparing corpses for cremation, casting harmful spells
or handing out charms.
They are also consulted on problems, such as the reasons for fires,
livestock dying, crop failures, family conflicts, premature deaths,
suicides, or helping with finding out a person's temple of origin.
In the south and southwest of Bali the father or grandfather of
a new baby visits a balian several days after the birth. The balian
contacts the ancestors and learns whose soul has been reincarnated
in the baby. This is supposed to be done in silence - the father
or grandfather not telling the balian the purpose of his visit.
These priests specialize in exorcism.
The shadow puppeteers are also priests. See the article
entitled Wayang Kulit - shadow puppet performances.