Sacred Monuments

Ancient Temples of Bali

The island is being eaten away. It may take millions of years before it's gone, but the sea is moving in. Responding to this oceanic island-eater, the Balinese believe that the ocean is home to the demonic forces of destruction. The mountains, the givers of soil and trappers of rain clouds, are the abode of the benevolent creators. Most every Balinese village has three temples, one oriented towards the interior mountains and dedicated to Brahma, the creator. Another in the center of the village dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver. And on the outside of town, towards the ocean is the temple to Siva, the destroyer.

In a twist on mainland Hinduism, the Balinese add a fourth, overarching deity, Sanghyang Widhi. And thousands of specific spirits, dwelling in mountains, lakes, special rocks, plants, your favorite cooking bowl. A highly resilient people, the Balinese have created an inspired mix of monotheism, Hinduism, and animism.

Although there's a lot of individual variation, most temples, called pura in Balinese, are usually comprised of two courtyards: a transitional outer and a sacred inner. The outer courtyard is entered through the distinctive Balinese split gates, called candi bentar. This is the place for larger assembly — cock fights, dance and gamelan performances, the preparation of offerings. Usually the outer courtyard has a kulkul tower, which is a kind of a bell tower, used for signalling to the villagers to come to temple functions or if something's awry in the village, such as a fire or a possessed postal worker. The inner courtyard is where the shrines and offering spots are located, and is frequently closed to casual visitors during temple festivals.

The best time to see a Balinese temple is during its festival, which is generally only once a year. But with some 20,000 temples on an island only 87 by 56 miles large, you'll have a lot of opportunity to see temple festivals. Since festival time is when the temple's deity comes to visit, it's important to look your best — kind of like when your rich and childless Uncle Henry pays a call. If you please him, he can do you big favors. But if you bore him, he's likely to forget about you just when you want to be foremost in his mind.

So show respect. Leave the tacky t-shirt and beat-up tennis shoes behind. Men will be asked to wear a temple sash, which you can frequently rent outside the temple gate, but it may make sense to buy one at market so you'll have one when rents aren't available. If you take pictures, do so respectfully. And treat the priests just like you would a cleric back home. When you're communing with the divine, you don't want camera flashes going off in your face. Also, it's hyper-bad form to be standing at a higher level than the priests during ceremony — so down off that ledge!

Unlike the Javanese monumental temples, Balinese temples have never been forgotten or forsaken. And what they lack in awesomeness, they make up for in charm and spiritual devotion. The best way to apprehend Balinese temples is not in the context of a few great sites, but as a broad network of significant nodes in a living, breathing, modern culture. The following temples are a taste of what's there. . .

South Bali

The southern part of the island is the flattest and most densely populated. The capital, Denpassar, is here, along with the island's only international airport. This is the part of the island that you'll probably see first.

Pura Luhur Ulu Watu is one of the most beautiful temples in Bali - both for its site and for its wonderful carvings. The temple is on the westernmost part if the Bukit. The Bukit is a large table formation in the very south of Bali connected to the main island by a narrow stretch of land. It's the raised seabed, emerged from the ocean eons ago, and now gradully being eaten away and worn down. Considered sacred, this area was formerly forbidden to outsiders. Ironically, it now has some of the biggest tourist traps in Bali - it's almost as if the Balinese used the relative isolation of the area to make a kind of cash-cow ghetto.

Pura Ulu Watu is dedicated to the spirits of the sea. It is considered one of the sadkayyangan, or six most sacred sanctuaries of the island. The narrow temple site sticks out like a finger 250 feet above the crashing waves. The very end of the temple is where the most sacred inner court is located. And, fittingly, this is the part that is becoming smaller and smaller over the years, as the edge of the outcropping drops into the sea. It's almost as if the temple as a whole is being offered to the sea. But constant rebuilding is normal in Balinese temples. Everything is always in process. Construction replaces what's been lost to the gradual decay of the wind, the rain and the lichen, as well as what's been lost to dramatic upheaval, such as in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The temple is hewn out of black coral rock, which is exceptionally hard. The stone carvings here are particularly fine, and have stood the test of time.

Pura Taman Ayan in Menwi is a modern temple, large and a little off-putting. Originally built in 1634 as the main temple of the Mengwi kingdom, it was almost completely rebuilt in 1934. The most remarkable feature of the temple, besides its ceremonial vitality, is the large moat that surrounds it. This was once the temple of the royal family of Megwi, whose descendants still provide for it. Generously, there is a shrine to the enemy inside.

Drop in if you're in the neighborhood, but otherwise no need to seek this one out.


Gianyar is known as the"land between the parallel rivers." One river is said to be aligned with destructive spirits, and has no temples along its bank. The other is supremely sacred, and hosts the highest concentration of sacred sites in Bali. Many important artefacts are found here.

Goa Gajah is popularly known as the elephant cave. But that's a misnomer since there are no elephants depicted in any of the permanent carvings of the site. What you have is the head of a large, fierce demon whose mouth is open in a devouring grimace — not the sort of place you would just casually stroll into if you were a spirit. The cave may have some association with prosperity, hence the statues of Ganesh, the Indian elephant-head god of the nouveau riche and aspirants. The cave was unknown except to local villagers until 1923. In 1954 they discovered a pool in front of the cave, which has now been completely excavated.

This is a pleasant stopover, but if you're looking to say"wow" — and mean it — well, maybe you will, and maybe you won't.

The temple buildings of Pura Penataran Sasih are unremarkable, but who cares — they house the venerable Pejang drum. The drum is at least as old as the first century AD. There is no record of this drum ever not being here. Legend has it that the drum was the wheel of the chariot that carried the moon across the sky. It shown as brightly as the moon -- and you know how those heavenly bodies hate competition. One day the wheel fell loose and fell to the earth, landing in Pejang. A beggar found it glowing in the trees, took it down and urinated on it. This doused the radiance, and the drum has had a dull patina ever since. The gods killed the impudent beggar, but that didn't bring back the glow, or even the sheen.

The drum is decorated with exquisitely beautiful engravings incorporating spiraling swirls, mask-like figures, and distinctive "knob 1pma1 loop" patterns. It beats NASA moon rocks by spades.

The locals call Pura Pusering Jagat the "naval of the world." But kind of like Ray's Original Pizza in New York, there are several navals of the world in Bali. This is a very ancient site, dating back to at least the early Hindu period. The treasure here is a carved stone vase that at one time was said to house the waters of immortality. The Balinese call this vase Naragiri, or "the Mountain of Man." The vase symbolizes Mount Meru, the Hindu holy mountain. It's alive with the mountain, sea and snake imagery associated with the legends of Mount Meru.

Gunung Kawi is set along a ravine on a site that looks over one of the most beautiful interior views on Bali. These are not tombs in the sense that anybody is interred here. Presumably, the persons honored by this site were cremated, and their ashes scattered in the ocean, which has been the custom for a long time on Bali. The centerpiece of this temple are two rows of rock cut candi, which are shrines cut into natural rock walls. A conventional temple complex serves the spirits commemorated by the candi.

Tirtha Empul is a peaceful watering place. According to myth, the gods came here to rest and detox after their epic struggle with Mayadanava, who tried to poison them. All Gianyar dance clubs come here to bathe their performance masks. The buildings here are modern, and not especially remarkable.

East Bali

East Bali is dominated by Mt. Agung, the highest and most active volcanoe on the island. Since the terrain is drier and more rugged, this part of the island is much less densely populated than the south. Because of its remove, the culture in East Bali tends to be more conservative, too. Perhaps this is the fullest experience of"old Bali" that you can find.

Considered the mother temple of Bali, Pura Besakih is huge, centralized, impersonal. The long axis of this temple is aligned with the peak of Mt. Agung, the highest and most sacred temple in Bali. There's a lot that might be possible to explore here, if so much of the complex wasn't closed off so much of the time for temple observances. This is an interesting site to visit if only to compare it to the more intimate, community-based spiritual life of the villages.

Pura Meduwe Karang in Jagaraga is kind of an offbeat site, famous for its florid and whimsical carvings. A favorite of all who see it is a relief of a Dutchman riding a bicycle, the rear wheel of which has been turned into a lotus flower.

The name of this temple translates as temple of the owner of the land. The temple is dedicated to the agricultural spirits who look after unirrigated land.

Poisonous black sea snakes supposedly guard Tanah Lot, but they're still letting the camera clutching throngs through: in fact, this is the most visited temple in Bali. The name translates as temple of the earth in the sea, and in fact it's accessible only during low tide. Like Ulu Watu, this is another of the six most holy temples in Bali. A worthy stop, especially if you enjoy walks along the beach. Think twice though if you hate crowds.

West Bali

The wild west. The western part of the island functioned much the same way as the western U.S.: as a frontier -- the place for social and religious renegades, the setting for bloody legends. This is the least densely part of the island: two-thirds of it is still covered in forest. The Balinese themselves consider the region not quite civilized. This part of the island is definitely most off the beaten track, and offers great hiking and wildlife viewing.

Rambut Siwi commemorates a haircut. . . Niratha, the holy man who came to Bali to reinforce Hinduism from erosion by Islam, left his hair (rambut) here — hence the name. This is yet another exquisite temple on the seacliffs above a beautiful beach. The whole complex smells of frangipani, and in September and October the cempaka flowers are in bloom, attracting hundreds of large, colorful butterflies.

Besides the brahman's hair, there are other intriguing associations about this place. The temple houses shrines to the rice goddess, Rambut Sedana, and to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, shown here with her symbolic goose. Two sacred caves open up at the base of the cliff. One is said to house a dragon and the other is the entrance to a passageway that extends through the mountain to the town of Singaraja. Don't try testing these stories out though: both caves are extremely sacred and visitors are asked not to enter.

North Bali, Bangli

The north side of the island is relatively remote, and is home to the Bali Aga people, who were here before the influx of the now predominate Malay peoples. The Bali Aga keep alive many ancient, pre-Hindu traditions, features of which are incorporated into the region's temples.

Up a long flight of stairs, Pura Kehen is a graciously removed but not withdrawn temple. It's the state temple of Bangli, and as befits an ancient people, it houses many important ancient artefacts. The complex includes the Pura Penyimpenan (literally"Temple for Keeping Things"), a museum for inscribed stones. The inscriptions on the stone relate to fire, and therefore of home and family life, since the fire, or hearth, is the center of the home. There are signs of pre-Hindu megalithic structure in the construction of high platforms and in the stone which stands inside the first courtyard. This courtyard is spectacular during festival, when the stairs are lined with colorfully dressed celebrants bringing offerings.

Central Mountains

Some of the best outdoor recreation in Bali can also be found in these relatively rugged and remote reaches. There are plenty of hiking opportunities, plus climbing, off-highway vehicles, and waterskiing on Lake Bratan. All are infused with the presence of venerable Balinese culture. A GORP kind of place.

Pura Ulu Danau was built in the 17th century on highland Lake Bratan. This gemlike temple is half on the mainland, half on a tiny island. The complex is dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver, in his guise as Dewi Danu, who protects all living creatures. Small and charming, it comments on the spirit of place without leaving a big footprint. A peaceful, shimmering vision.

There is more rainfall around Pura Luhur than anywhere else on very rainy Bali. Moss covers the stones of this temple, and the jungle presses in. You can search for shrines secreted away in the jungle, knowing that the most amazing shrines of all are the orchids and butterflies that live here. The temple represents the spirit of the mountain, which does seem to be especially present here. A hidden treasure.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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