Famous Balinese Temples
Visitors to temples must dress appropriately, which means a sarong and sash for both men and women. Shorts should not be worn. Balinese temples are at their most interesting and colourful when a ceremony is in progress.
Pura Besakih: the Mother Temple
This is the most important temple in Bali, named after the region of Basuki in East Java, from where the first settlers came in Balinese tradition around the end of the 8th century. It is about 1,000 meters (3,333 feet) above sea level on the southwest slope of the volcano Mount Agung. It is in the village of Besakih, in the district of Rendang of the Karangasem regency, about 22 kilometers north of the town of Klungkung. The temple may date from pre-Indic times, but is now closely linked with Majapahit times. Mount Agung is the highest mountain in Bali and that has given Pura Besakih its very special status.
The traditional lontar texts often call the mountain To Langkir (to means man, langkir means highest), suggesting that it was the home of a mighty spirit or ancestor. In other texts, the deity is called Putranjaya, eldest son of the great Hindu deity Pasupati, or is equated with Mahadewa. In time Indian belief harmonized with original Balinese beliefs and became infused in a manner that is impossible to disentangle. Mount Agung became the symbol of Mount Mahameru, which in Indian belief was the axis of the world. The mountain became the symbol of the One God and Besakih a place to worship Him. All Balinese, from whatever caste or clan, worship together in the temple.
There are 18 public temples, four special subsidiary temples, many temples honouring deified ancestors, and clan and family temples of local villagers. Every temple has its name. Pura Besakih refers to the whole complex.
The temple is in three parts and by one count has 198 structures. In many cases the temples are positioned according to relationships between them, dating back to the 16th century, if not before. The symbolic positions of the temples are evident.
Pura Gelap (Temple of Lightning) representing Iswara is in the east and white. Pura Kiduling Kreteg (Temple south of the bridge), an incarnation of Brahma, and therefore coloured red, is in the south. Pura Ulun Kulkul (Temple of Origin of the Slit-Gong) representing Mahadewa is in the west and yellow. Pura Batu Madeg (Temple of the Standing Stone), representing Wisnu is in the north and black. The central part, Pura Panataran Agung, where the whole population worship, is dedicated to Siwa and multi-coloured. It is the central and largest temple consists of a series of 7 terraced courtyards (six of which have structures on them, the position of the seventh is unknown) containing 57 shrines and pavilions.
Pura Kiduling Kreteg, Pura Batu Madeg and Pura Panataran Agung are the largest and represent the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, the Creator, Wisnu, the Preserver and Siwa, the Destroyer, who themselves are associated with earth, water and air.
Pura Kiduling Kreteg has a fine series of merus and some interesting antiquities: a stone lingga (symbol of Siwa), statues of Ganesha, the elephant headed son of Siwa, and some megalithic shrines.
There is another classification of the temples: into two groups. The dividing line is in front of the Pura Pantaran Agung. The temples above the line are luhuring ambal-ambal (above the terraces) and those below it soring ambal-ambal (below the terraces). The upper group of 7 temples include Pura Pantaran Agung, Pura Kiduling Kreteg, Pura Baru Madeg, and Pura Gelap, and Pura Tirtha, Pura Pangubengan, and Pura Paninjoan. Empu (Sage) Kuturan, who came to Bali from Java in the 10th century AD, had a profound effect on Balinese religion and society. It seems that he reorganized and perhaps enlarged Pura Besakih. Pura Paninjoan is associated with him. Niartha, another great priest, active in the 16th century, has a statue in the Pura Pantaran Agung.
The lower group of 11 temples, some of which are associated with the underworld, include Pura Bangun Sakti dedicated to Anantabhoga, the cosmic naga (serpent) associated with the earth and its fruits; Pura Basukian dedicated to Basuki, the cosmic naga associated with the waters of the earth, who was the rope around the mountain in the story of the churning of the milky ocean to produce amerta, the elixir of life; Pura Goa which is also connected with naga Basuki; and Pura Manik Mas whose god is associated with Bedawangnala, the cosmic turtle, who supports the universe on his back, around which the cosmic naga twine.
Three Besakih temples are counterparts of the three main temples, the Tiga Kahyangan, found in most villages. Pura Basukian as Pura Puseh (temple of origin), Pura Panatran Agung as Pura Desa (temple of the community) and Pura Dalem Puri as Pura Dalem (temple of the dead). Instead of serving the village, they serve the whole Balinese community.
Beside the public temples, there are four special temples, associated with particular clans that have an intimate relationship with Pura Panataran Agung. They are Pura Ratu Pasek, Pura Dukuh Segening and Pura Panyarikan to the right of Pura Panataran Agung and Pura Ratu Pande to the left. When the gods of Besakih leave the temple for the sacred bathing place or the seaside, the deities of these four temples always lead the procession.
Also to the right of Pura Pantaran Agung is the complex of padharman temples which honour the deified ancestors of particular clans. The largest is the Padharman Dalem, whose merus honour the deified rulers of the Gelgel dynasty (15th-16th century). The temple was rebuilt in 1978.
You walk up 52 steps and enter the temple through a split gate. In front of it is the Bale Pegat, the dividing line between the mundane world and the sacred. In the first courtyard are two pavilions used by the gamelan orchestras.
Walk up more stairs to the entrance to the second terrace. The most important buildings are the Sanggar-Agung, the throne of the Trinity, which was built in 1917, and the Samuan Agung where the deified ancestors gather to receive offerings. There is also a Bale Agung, where villagers meet. A little further east is the Gedung Kawas, where holy meals are prepared. Near the gate is where the high priests chant their mantras. Next to it is a little structure for offerings. Along the western wall is where the rajas would sit. Beside the staircase in the west is a meru in pagoda style with eleven roofs, dedicated to the deified ancestors, and a little more to the west one with nine roofs for Ida Sanghyang Kubakar. Palanquins are kept inside this meru. For a detailed explanation of merus, see the article entitled Balinese Temples and Holy Men.
Continuing up the staircase is the third terrace. On the western left side are two merus with nine and eleven tiers. The smaller one is dedicated to Ratu Geng and worshipped by the village people and the larger one is dedicated to Ratu Mas paid homage by the Dewa Agung, king of Klungkung. The temple treasures are kept in a wooden structure with three roofs to the west of the pavilions. The Ngurah Sidemen and Arya Penatih families worship the group of two stone altars and four merus.
The male god of Mount Agung and the female goddess of Lake Batur are the supreme gods of Bali and the king of Klungkung is the supreme king of Bali. The god of Mount Agung is symbolically related to the king of Klungkung. His title is “Dewa Agung”, which means “Great God” or “God of Agung” and one of his main duties is to perform the rituals at Pura Besakih. The goddess doesn’t have a special relationship with any king.
The fourth terrace has one central meru with eleven roofs, dedicated to Ratu Sinaring Jagat, the light of the world. East are two shrines, where dancers and artists pay homage to the Bhataras of fine arts. At the end of the staircase is a pavilion closed on three sides which houses two couples, 12th century divine statues. Against the western wall is a pair of pavilions for Ida Ratu Ayu Subandar, the Bhatara for trade. On the west is a little shrine for the Pande clan.
The fifth terrace has two pagodas dedicated to deified ancestors.
The highest terrace contains two little shrines, both for the deities of Mount Agung itself.
The main yearly festival is the Bhatara Turun Kabeh (the Gods descend all together) held on the full moon of the tenth lunar month, which usually falls in April. Every year in the fourth lunar month the leading lords of Bali make offerings at Besakih in the name of the whole population. At least every ten or 100 years the two greatest ceremonies held in Bali are celebrated – the Panca Wali Krama – and Eka Dasa Rudra.
The Panca Wali Krama – it was held in 1933 (the road to Besakih was built the previous year), 1960 and 1978. In 1963 Mount Agung erupted during the preparations for that year’s Eka Dasa Rudra. There was extensive damage. After partial restoration the ngenteq linggih ceremony was held in 1968 to consecrate the new buildings.
Two very sacred edicts, written on wood panels, survive from the 15th century and during ceremonies are regarded as symbols of the presence of the deities of the Pura Panataran Agung. One is dated 1444 and the other 1458. They confirm the special status of Besakih and forbid anyone, including government officials from requiring the people to do anything, as they have the duty of looking after the temple.
As the major temple in Bali, the state has ultimate responsibility for its upkeep and provides much of the finance. The regency governments support certain temples, for example, the Karangasem regency supports Pura Kiduling Kreteg, and Bangli supports Pura Batu Madeg. Individuals give donations and the temple itself owns 14 hectares of rice fields. In 1917 the great earthquake severely damaged Besakih and was restored by the Dutch.
There are ten official pemangkus, each having one or more temples in his care.
Batur is an area that is a profoundly sacred part of Bali. It is 35 kilometers (22 miles), about a 40 minute drive north of Ubud, the road gently rising all the way. The area comprises Mount Batur, 1,717 meters (5,633 feet), which is a live volcano, often to be seen smoking and rumbling, Lake Batur, Bali’s largest lake and, a lava scarred terrain with many temples. Around live the villagers who serve them.
As mentioned in the article entitled Balinese Origins, Volcanoes and Civilisation Mount Batur is an example of a double caldera and is one of the biggest in the world. It is eight and half miles wide. It has been partly filled by the beautiful Lake Batur, which is four miles north to south, and another volcanic cone.
Pura Ulun Danu: Head of the Lake Temple
This temple is at the northeast shore. It is not to be confused with Pura Ulun Danu Batur, which is on the rim of the caldera. It is especially important for the Balinese. Only here can you get holy water of a particular variety.
The water is collected from the lake itself, directly in front of the temple. Visitors have to wear a sash and not go near. Bathing is forbidden. The lake is the ultimate source of water for the rivers and springs that irrigate central Bali. It is therefore of the utmost importance. The temple priests say that the lake is fed by springs located at each of the wind directions. Each of the springs is the origin of water for that particular region of central Bali. So, farmers from North Bali collect their holy water from the northern spring of the lake and so on.
The villagers of nearby Songan maintain the temple.
Pura Ulun Danu Batur, Temple of the Crater Lake
This is Bali’s second most important temple after Pura Besakih. It is the ceremonial throne for Dewi Danu, the goddess of the lake. There are dramatic, many-tiered, pagoda-like merus, often covered in mist from the lake. The goddess is honoured with a tall meru of eleven tiers, the highest number. The meru of her consort, the god of Mount Agung, has only nine. That indicates her importance.
According to legend Dewi Danu and the god of Mount Agung emerged from an erupting volcano in 231 on our calendar. Together they took control of the waters and lands of Bali. They are the complementary male and female gods of the island.
There are two other nine-tiered merus, dedicated to the god of Mount Batur and to the deified King Waturenggong. King Waturenggong is discussed in the article entitled Balinese History – Pre-history to the Europeans.
One of the most interesting shrines is a pavilion in the inner courtyard to the far left. It is Chinese looking, dedicated to a Chinese princess, who resembles one of the Barong Landung characters in the dance play.
The temple stands at the head, physically and symbolically, of the water temple system and controls all water in central Bali. It is the supreme water temple. The temple is maintained by the several hundred irrigation societies, subaks, of the surrounding regions. Subaks are described in the article entitled Balinese Origins, Volcanoes and Civilisation. They pray to the goddess of the lake for rulings on water distribution. The high priest, her earthly representative, lays down her rulings. The subaks also pray that there will be no crop pestilence and honour the mountain gods and deified ancestors.
The high priest is an interesting character. He is picked out as a young boy by a virgin priestess after his predecessor dies. He is a commoner from a particular descent group called the Paseks of the Black Wood. He wears his hair long, dresses in white, is called Jero Gede and has complete control over the temple. He is neither fully divine, nor fully human. He has a job for life.
The Paseks of the Black Wood believe that they are the oldest of the Balinese descent groups and that they pre-date the kings. The story is that soon after the gods took possession of Bali following the emergence of the goddess of Mount Batur and the god of Mount Agung, the great priest-god Mahameru visited them, He bathed in Lake Batur and then decided to go on to Besakih. On the way he saw a statue of black wood, which looked human and he brought it to life. He taught him sacred knowledge, so that there would be priests in Bali. He was the first human in Bali.
The second-ranking priest is called the Lesser Jero Gede. He comes from the Pasek Gelgel descent group. The Pasek Gelgel were commoners who became loyal servants of the Gelgel kings. The Lesser Jero Gede is identified with the nine-tiered merus for the god of Mount Agung and is therefore linked to Besakih and the court of Klungkung. The two main priests thus derive their powers from different sources.
Unlike other temples in Bali, it is permanently open, and has a permanent staff of priests. A virgin priestess selects the 24 permanent priests when they are children. They serve for life.
The age of the temple is unknown, but there are references to it in 11th century texts. There was an eruption of Mount Batur in 1905, when the lava stopped at the main entrance. It was damaged in the 1917 eruption, although again the lava stopped at the walls. Another eruption at 1 am on 3 August 1926 covered the temple in tons of rubble and the village in many feet of lava rocks. Some shrines were saved, and brought up the cliff to the rim of the crater, and the present temple built around them. The present temple is a reconstruction of nine previous temples.
Pura Uluwatu: Temple above the Stone
This is a very beautiful, very sacred temple, whose full name is Pura Luhur Uluwatu, down south on the western part of the Bukit. The Bukit is a raised seabed of grayish, white coral rock. The name of the temple means “the Temple above the Stone”. Ulu means “head”, watu means “rock” and luhur implies “heavenly”. It is perched on a cliff overhanging the Indian Ocean 90 meters below. Its history is not well recorded.
It is difficult to date the temple, but it is old. Two famous people are associated with it.
The first is Empu (Sage) Kuturan, who came to Bali from Java in the 10th century AD riding a deer. He arrived at Padang Bai, the harbour on the east coast. He was a Siwaistic priest, but strongly influenced by Buddha. Religion had declined and he renewed customs and religious ceremonies and ethics. He also built many merus (tiered shrines) throughout Bali. When he came to Pura Uluwatu, he built the meru and added shrines. Perhaps he even built the temple.
The other is Nirartha, also a Siwaistic priest who arrived from Java in 1537 AD. He journeyed all over Bali building temples and shrines, including Tanah Lot. He incorporated some Buddhist principles into Balinese Hinduism. He added Padmasana shrines to the temples he visited, including Pura Uluwatu. These are shrines in the form of an empty chair for Sanghyang Widi Wasa, the Supreme God. Nirartha died at Pura Uluwatu and achieved moksa, which is Nirvana, eternal bliss, when the spirit is united with the spirit of God. It requires no cremation for such a pure soul to be released from its body.
The temple has several unique architectural features. Because it is built of strong coral stone, it is fairly well preserved, although the monkeys have caused some damage. It is set on a spectacular cliff. You can see the tip of Java 63 kilometers (30 miles) away on a clear day. A troupe of sacred monkeys lives in the temple stealing food and brightly coloured jewellery. You look down on magnificent cliffs and sea, where you may see sea turtles coming up for air. You will also see wide-winged white frigate birds soaring against the sky. Their nests are in the cliffs. The spectacular position is worth the visit alone.
It is part of a number of sea temples on the south coast, including Tanah Lot, Pura Sekenan, Pura Rambut Siwi and Pura Petitenget. All pay homage to the guardian spirits of the sea. This one is the most spectacular and is one of the Sad-Kahyangan group of temples of Bali.
For many years entrance was forbidden to everyone except the prince of Badung, who owned the Bukit and visited the temple right up to his death at Dutch hands in the puputan massacre of 1906. Uluwatu now belongs to the Balinese people and is administered by the royal family in Denpasar. It is sacred to fishermen, who come here to pray to Dewi Laut, the sea goddess. They believe that the temple is a ship turned to stone.
Prior to Bandung the Royal dynasty of Mengwi controlled the temple, but coastal parts of southeast Bali were lost to Bandung around 1810.
You go through a simple limestone entrance and up 71 steps to the rectangular outer courtyard. The outermost gateway is a split gate, a candi bentar, exceptional in that the inner sides are not flat but end in carved wings. The front and back surfaces are decorated with stylised flying birds. They look like complicated Chinese phoenixes.
All three courtyards are surrounded by coral, which has enabled the temple to survive for centuries and gives it a brilliant white appearance. The kala or monster heads are partly one-eyed, partly two-eyed. Some support a symbolic Mount Meru, the Cosmic Mountain. Above the large head is an amerta vessel. Balinese temples – and their gateways – are often considered to represent Mount Meru. Further Mount Meru has a close connection with amerta, as Mount Meru contained the nectar of immortality.
When the demon Kala Rahu stole the water of immortality from the gods, the sun and the moon saw him. When they told Wishnu, he sent a lightning bolt to cut off Kala Rahu’s head. Kala Rahu was just about to drink the elixir when he was cut in two. He had the water in his mouth. So his head became immortal and his body died. Now he chases the sun and the moon, and when he catches them he eats them. But he has no body and when he swallows, they just come out again and get away. The Balinese bang pots and pans during a solar eclipse to frighten Kala Rahu.
The entrance to the inner courtyard is an enormous arched kala gate flanked by Ganesha guardians. Ganesha is the elephant God, the son of Siwa.
At various times parts of the temple have fallen into the sea. Some new parts have been added. The candi-like building is new.
From the centre of the northwest wall is a beautiful view of the steep cliffs and ocean. Go down into the outermost courtyard and from there you can see the tip of East Java 50 kilometers away. Sunset is a beautiful time, when the temple is covered in rich golden light.
The temple has an unexplained rule that nobody can carry a red hibiscus or wear the black and white chequered poleng cloth. See the article entitled Balinese Dress and Textiles for a description of poleng.
Tanah Lot: Sea Temple of the Earth
Tanah Lot is one of the most beautiful temples in Bali, as well as being one of the most important. It means “Sea Temple of the Earth” and looks like a small pagoda. 13 kilometers west of Tabanan in Berabon village, it is built on a huge eroded outcropping of rock on black volcanic sand. World Monuments Watch lists it as one of the 100 most endangered and historical sites in the world.
People come to watch the sunsets from the park opposite the temple. Another good spot to see the temple is from Pura Enjung Galuh on a hill just to the west.
It is part of a magnificent series of temples along the south coast, all dedicated to the protective sea spirits. Each temple is visible from the next along the entire southern coastline. You can see Pura Uluwatu on a clear day.
It is said that Nirantha, King Waturenggong’s priestly teacher and poet, who came to Bali from East Java in 1537, built Tanah Lot. Bendesa Beraben, the area’s holy leader, became very jealous when his followers joined Nirartha and ordered him to leave. Using his magical powers, Nirantha left by simply moving the rock upon which Tanah Lot was built from the land into the sea and changed his scarf into the sacred, poisonous snakes that still guard the temple. Later, Bendesa Beraben converted to Nirantha’s teachings.
The snakes (ular suci) live in sandy holes just above the waterline along the beach. When the tide is out, they slide into the temple. Snakes are holy creatures in Bali. They should not therefore be disturbed.
Many Balinese also come to pray and they must be respected. There are two pavilions and two black thatched-roof meru shrines-one with seven-tiers, dedicated to Sanghyang Widi Wasa, the Supreme God, and the other with three-tiers, dedicated to Nirantha.
Like all Bali temples, Tanah Lot celebrates odalans, once every Balinese year of 210 days; the birthday falls close to the festivals of Galungan and Kuningan, when ancestor spirits are invited to visit their family shrines. Four days after Kuningan, Hindus from all over Bali come laden with offerings, rice cakes, fruit, carved palm leaf, and holy water to pray to the gods and goddesses. Women carry towers of these offerings on their heads, waiting until low tide to walk over the concrete walkway and up rock-cut steps to the temple. Only Hindus may climb the temple stairway and enter the grounds.
At high tide, when the walkway is submerged, the waves can be rough. It is best to arrive at low tide, which is around noon during a full moon.
To prevent further erosion around the south of the temple, ugly concrete tetrapods have been lowered into the sea. More in front of the temple are planned with the help of soft loans from the World Bank and other international donor agencies.
Famous Balinese Temples