Balinese Temples and Holy Men

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 local temple.

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 for everyone.

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:

Pura Besakih

the Mother Temple, which is the most important temple in Bali and is the spiritual and religious centre of the universe, where Brahma, Wisnu 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.

Pura Uluwatu

which sits on a cliff in the most southern tip of Bali and is also described in the article entitled Famous Balinese Temples.

Pura Goa Lawah

the bat cave temple, near Kusamba on the coast.

Pura Lempuyang Luhur

in the Karangasem district in East Bali.

Pura Batukau

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.

Pura Pulaki

the second largest temple in Bali, in the Singaraja district in North Bali.

The 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:

Pura Puseh

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.

Pura Desa

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.

Pura Dalem

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.

All 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.

Kahyangan 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.

Functional temples

Then 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 anniversaries

Each 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.

Public temples layout

As mentioned in the article entitled Everything comes in 3s, temples are divided into three sections. Gates divide the sections.

Between 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.

In 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 too.

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.

Structures within temples

Drum: Kulkul

Public 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.

Empty seats: Padmasana

Padmasanas, 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.

They 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.

Literally 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.

Phallus: Lingga

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.

Pagodas: Merus

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.

Family group temples 

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 attention.

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:

Brahma 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.

There 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 water.

Balinese Holy Men and Women 

There are many kinds of respected ritual practitioners in Bali. The most common are:

Pemangkus: local priests.
Pedandas: high priests.
Balians: mediums.
Sengguhu: exorcists.
Dalang: puppeteers.

Pemangkus: local 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 royal, ceremonies.

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.

Being 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 practices.

Balians: mediums 

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.

Sengguhu: exorcists

These priests specialize in exorcism.

Dalang: puppeteers

The shadow puppeteers are also priests. See the article entitled Wayang Kulit – shadow puppet performances.