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A temple trio: Besakih and beyond

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As we trundled down a busy artery towards Sanur, a mellow beach town in southern Bali, I grasped at the scant words I knew flowing back and forth between Bama and Bli Komang.

“Before becoming a driver, he used to be a sculptor,” Bama relayed. We soon learned that Bli Komang hailed from a village of stone carvers, and that the Balinese love of art – such an integral part of their culture – was instilled in him from an early age. According to Bli Komang, all Balinese students had to choose from four kinds of traditional arts: dance, painting, decorative sculpture, and carving statues.

His own choice was in decorative sculpture, and as we sped past a stone fence rich with intricate patterns, I asked, via Bama, if he could carve to that same level of detail. “Bisa!” he said. “I can!” With a broad smile, Bli Komang revealed that he could carve directly on a block of stone without needing to draw a sketch.

Our driver’s artistic training explained his insights at each place we visited; without being prompted, he had pointed out where the stones were stacked together without the aid of mortar, along with the precise origins of each building material – down to the name of the nearest village. At Pura Goa Lawah, an important temple built around a holy bat cave, Bli Komang touched the rich black stone as we leaned against the wall, observing a throng of kneeling devotees mid-ceremony. “This is all from Mount Agung’s eruption in 1963,” Bama translated, “[Quarried] near Besakih.”

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Pura Goa Lawah, the bat cave temple

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Note the gilded bat above the central gateway

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A moment in prayer

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Offerings before the bat cave

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Decked out in ceremonial dress

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Devotees leaving Besakih

The cave at Goa Lawah temple is said to extend all the way to Pura Besakih, 30 kilometres away, the holiest of Bali’s nine directional temples believed to protect the island from evil spirits. Over a thousand years old, it was built in honour of the legendary giant snake Naga Basuki, the resident cave-dwelling reptile in charge of keeping the earth in balance. Today the vast complex is revered as the ‘mother temple’, which Balinese Hindus visit every 210 days during the festival of Galungan.

Pura Besakih sprawls across a network of terraces on the southwestern slopes of Mount Agung, Bali’s highest, most venerated, and – as an active volcano – its deadliest peak. Agung last erupted in 1963, blowing off 100 metres from the mountaintop, killing nearly 2,000 people and devastating eastern Bali. Its lava flows came extremely close to destroying Besakih, missing the vast complex by mere metres at times.

The temple has since become a major tourist attraction, and sadly a victim of its own popularity. Here we were confronted with the dogged persistence of children selling postcards inside its courtyards and the reality of vendors overcharging on all kinds of goods; at times it felt more like a market than a place of devotion. Bli Komang escorted us past the infamous ‘guides’ known to prey on foreign visitors, lamenting that even for the local Balinese, a nasi campur (mixed rice) could cost up to 100,000 rupiah.

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Besakih’s famous split gateway and Mount Agung

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Inside the ‘Mother Temple’ of Balinese Hinduism

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Through the gateway

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Distinctive pagoda-like ‘meru’

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Gilded guardians

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A cascade of ijuk roofs

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A ‘kulkul’ watch tower – holding ceremonial wooden gongs

Still, there was no doubting the holiness of the place for him – as we ascended the steps up to the iconic split gateway, he gently chastised two women in baggy trousers that would otherwise be acceptable in a lesser temple setting. “Ibu-ibu, you must wear sarung to go into the temple.” They smiled and carried on, ignoring his remark.

That morning Bli Komang had greeted us in a traditional Balinese sarung, patterned in golden fabric and delicately embroidered in silk – a dramatic change from his usual jeans. “I don’t feel comfortable wearing normal clothes to Besakih,” he told Bama. And he had two brightly coloured sarung for us too, with matching sashes to fasten them around our waist.

Near the top of the complex, I looked out over the roofs of ijuk thatch and pagoda-like meru marching down the mountain. It was here that Bli Komang turned to me with an expectant grin. “Bagus?” He asked. “Good?” Although I disliked the rampant commercialisation of the ‘mother temple’, I nodded. “Ya, Bagus!”

For us, the antithesis of Besakih came in an unexpected treat on our final day in Bali. Bli Komang had noticed Bama’s enthusiasm for sculptural details, and after the Barong performance at Batubulan, he drove us to the neighbouring village of Singapadu to see its Pura Puseh and Pura Desa, two functionally different temples housed in the same compound.

Bli Komang did not say much about the twin temples, except to mention that they were very old and had sculptures like no other. He was right. Almost every surface was encrusted with carvings, a riot of detail that culminated in several impressive gateways that loomed over the nearby pavilions. Swinging open a low metal gate, he told us that local residents would come once every six months for ceremonies, and we soon came across a lone man dutifully sweeping the inner courtyard. It was then that I realised we were being shown around Bli Komang’s local temple, for the man was none other than his own uncle.

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Pura Puseh/Pura Desa Singapadu

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Beautiful reliefs on the outer wall

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Elephant-like creatures

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A holy water carrier

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Inspired by nature

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A rice granary, or ‘lumbung’

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Exuberant gateways at Singapadu

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh, that is so beautiful. I hope to see that for myself one day.
    Leslie

    June 12, 2014
    • Perhaps you will, Leslie… you never know!

      June 13, 2014
      • You never know, indeed.
        Leslie

        June 14, 2014
  2. Ironic but it’s true. The demanded selling of the locals crushes its own tourism. I hope the local government will take actions on this….
    Anyway I like all the pictures, James.. really beautiful!

    June 12, 2014
    • Makasih, Riyanti. I hope for the same – Besakih is a beautiful place and it really shouldn’t go on like this.

      June 13, 2014
  3. Lovely post James, certainly brought back some memories. We weren’t bothered by post-card-selling kids but we went to Besakih during the time of an annual 2 week major religious observance and there were great throngs there every day. I think the children must have been sent away during this time, or kept outside. You were lucky to have such a wonderful guide. And Bama speaking the language.

    June 12, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison. It sounds like you and Don went there at just the right time – Besakih must have been completely different at Galungan. I remember being captivated by your photos and descriptions… and what a privilege it was to be invited to the ceremony.

      June 13, 2014
      • Yes, a huge privilege. We were very lucky.

        June 13, 2014
  4. The commercialization of Besakih was the main reason why I hadn’t gone there until my fifth visit to the island. It’s such an irony how Bali’s Mother Temple, supposedly the most sacred temple on the island, has turned into such place. However Bli Komang couldn’t hide his sense of pride towards the temple. He mentioned to me, though, that the management of all temples in Bali is carried out by local communities. And the one responsible for Besakih happened to be not the nicest community – according to Bli Komang.

    That small pura in Singapadu really suited me well. Maybe he read my mind after all. 🙂 Beautiful photos James! I really like your capture of those ijuk roofs at Besakih.

    June 12, 2014
    • Yes, Besakih was certainly impressive but it felt the least spiritual of all the temples we visited… it must be so much nicer to go first thing in the morning before the vendors set up shop! Singapadu was such a nice change – I would love to know when it was built, the style of the carvings and what they represent. Thanks Bama! 🙂

      June 13, 2014
  5. Besakih is indeed beautiful, but I had a torrid time there with the scamsters and touts…even though I was prepared for it. I wont be going back there in a hurry, and certainly not on my own. Great write up, though, as usual, James. 🙂

    June 13, 2014
    • Appreciate that, Lee. 🙂 We got off lightly I think… having an actual guide from the start really helped. I think the scammers and touts were also more interested in Western tourists, although the postcard-selling kid was still persistent with the two of us.

      June 13, 2014
  6. Tonya R. Moore #

    It’s such a deeply beautiful place…

    June 14, 2014
    • Bali as a whole is wonderfully photogenic – and it’s one of my favourite islands in the world.

      June 15, 2014
  7. Such a shame, isn’t it? Reminds me how the ‘commercial’ charges at the Temple of the Tooth stand at such odds with the incredible veneration pilgrims and worshipers feel for the place. You were very lucky with Bli Komang, and having Bama to mediate the finer points. My friend Rai’s local temple wasn’t as beautiful as the one you saw at Singapadu, but the atmosphere of rejoicing and thankfulness, piety and communal solidarity at the festival she took me to, was something I’ll never forget.

    June 17, 2014
    • Absolutely, Meredith. At times I was disappointed that Besakih felt more like a marketplace than Bali’s holiest temple. Having a local connection makes such a big difference, I now wonder if you took your camera along and wrote about it on the blog!

      June 17, 2014
  8. The commercialization is what puts me off our temples as well James. At least there are no ugly hoardings and such here. None of it is evident in your marvelous photos in any case. The shots of the Ijuk roofs and the view through the gateway are particularly beautiful. Looking forward to a new series from Bali.

    June 19, 2014
    • Thank you, Madhu – sadly it seems an inevitable outcome in so many sacred sites. Bama and I were in Bali for a short stopover coming back from (dare I say it) an even more beautiful place… first post coming soon!

      July 2, 2014
  9. Very beautiful photographs. Enjoyed seeing them and relived my journeys there.

    June 27, 2014
    • Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      July 2, 2014

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