Candi Gunung Kawi: a legacy in stone
The rock-cut gateway stood at the end of a dramatic approach, where the footpath descended through soaring coconut palms and rice terraces now ripe for harvest, before being hemmed in by natural walls of solid rock. Two posts framed the entrance, one with words clearly inscribed in Balinese and Indonesian, and the other in English.
“NOTICE!! Before entering the temple, visitors are kindly requested to sprinkle the holy water (provided) over your head.”
Nearby, a small brush lay partly submerged in a humble clay pot, which was fitted to a basin swaddled in golden fabric. We bowed our heads as Bli Komang – our driver and guide to all things Balinese – flicked holy water, first onto Bama’s hair, and then mine. As the cool spring water ran down the top of my head, I took one step forward and gingerly stepped over the threshold.
Set in a lush, steep-sided ravine, Candi Gunung Kawi is the kind of place where you would expect to see Indiana Jones, surveying his surroundings by the light of a kerosene lamp. The mysterious temple dates from the 11th century, with multiple shrines in niches measuring seven metres high – expertly carved from the landscape on both sides of the sacred Pakerisan River.
Unlike most other Balinese temples, Gunung Kawi has the distinction of being called a candi and not a pura. Bli Komang explained that the title was used because the complex wasn’t built for the gods, but in honour of the local kings.
Although the complex was known to the Balinese for centuries, it wasn’t until 1920 that a Dutch archaeologist brought it to the attention of the wider world. Historians believe that Gunung Kawi was constructed in 1080 AD by monarch Anak Wungsu as a series of funerary monuments dedicated to his father, the great ruler Udayana.
Across a small bridge on the eastern bank of the Pakerisan, the five larger shrines are said to commemorate King Udayana, Queen Mahendradatta and their three sons. Their eldest, the hero-king Airlangga – literally ‘jumping water’ – grew up in Bali but crossed the straits to his uncle’s court during his teenage years, eventually ruling the eastern portion of Java. Marakata, the second son, rose to the Balinese throne after the death of Udayana, and Anak Wungsu followed when Marakata died. None of the rock-cut shrines ever housed the royal family’s remains or ashes, but each one had a symbolic function as an abode for its deified members during temple festivals. ◊