Temples And Traditions: On A Spiritual Trail In Bali

Bali's "Pura" temples blend Indian and local customs with ornate architecture and art. Balinese Hindus visit regularly for rituals, deepening their connection to faith
Perched on a rocky headland, Pura Batu Bolong is one of Indonesia's most scenic Hindu temples
Perched on a rocky headland, Pura Batu Bolong is one of Indonesia's most scenic Hindu templesPhoto: Getty Images

Tired after his strenuous journey along the south coast of Bali, Dang Hyang Nirartha spotted a rock a little away from the shore. He lay down to rest. Lulled by the breeze and the lapping of the waves, he fell asleep. In his dream, Nirartha, the revered 16th-century Shaivite priest, saw a temple on the rock. The local fishermen who had turned up in the morning with refreshments dutifully followed instructions and translated his epiphany into reality.

We walk from the car park to the cliff facing Pura Tanah Lot. The top of the pelinggih meru, a pagoda-like tiered structure emblematic of Balinese Hindu temples, is visible above the foliage on the rock. It is high tide, and the temple seems to be floating on the water.

Embracing Balinese aesthetics, the Handara Gate mirrors the grandeur of a temple entrance
Embracing Balinese aesthetics, the Handara Gate mirrors the grandeur of a temple entrancePhoto: Shutterstock

This temple is one of the seven temples built along the island's southeast coast, forming a protective chain against malevolent forces. A mythical sea snake formed from Nirartha's sash is said to protect the temple. Dewa Baruna, or Varun, the God of the seas, is the temple's presiding deity.

As we shift our gaze to our right, Pura Batu Bolong comes into view. Like its more famed counterpart, this temple, too, is located in the sea on a rocky outcrop. The rock's allure is magnified by a natural archway carved over centuries by waves and the wind.

Balinese Hindu temples allow entry only to Balinese worshippers who are correctly attired, and these temples are no exception.

Walking back from the temples, I spot a box prominently displayed on the pathway. It is labelled "Donation" with "Dana Punia" below it. Sounds familiar?

Two thousand years ago, sailors, merchants, and mendicants from India sailed to distant lands, spreading Hindu philosophy and later Buddhism. These religions dominated the Indonesian archipelago till the advent of Islam in the 14th century. Many converted to Islam while some moved eastwards to Bali island, where over 90 per cent of the population is Hindu. Over the centuries, it blended with the local animist and ancestral worship beliefs, to create a unique form of Balinese Hinduism.

"How many temples does Bali have?" I ask Nyoman, our driver-cum-guide. We were driving to another temple in the Balinese highlands, far north of the coast.

He mulls over my question.

Pura Ulun Danu Beratan is a significant Shaivite temple on Lake Bratan's shores
Pura Ulun Danu Beratan is a significant Shaivite temple on Lake Bratan's shoresPhoto: Shutterstock

"Maybe 10,000 temples? Maybe a hundred thousand? No one has a count, but you will find a temple wherever you turn your gaze."

Nyoman smiles and asks me, "How many temples do you think are in my house in Banjar village?"

Without waiting for an answer, he says, "Six".

Noticing my incredulous look in the rearview mirror, he finds a video on his phone and shows it to me. I count six temples neatly lined along the walls of his house's compound.

Travelling around this tiny island for the past few days, I am aware of this. Each house and every village has a temple and there are shrines in every nook and corner.

"See that temple ahead?" Nyoman gestured, pointing to a pillar-like shrine hewn out of lava rock in the middle of a crossroad.

"That's called a Caturmuka (Chaturmukha, in Sanskrit, or four-faced). It blesses travellers in all four directions."

The atmosphere is ethereal as we wind up the road to the highlands. A hint of rain is in the air, and wisps of clouds swirl around us with pockets of rice fields amid the lush green vegetation. Once atop the plateau, we drive along the seemingly never-ending Lake Beratan—the second biggest on the island—before we reach Pura Ulun Danu. This 16th-century temple is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the Goddess of water, lakes and rivers.

It is raining hard now; even the large umbrella the driver thoughtfully offers fails to protect me as I step outside the car.

Down the paved path, I spot the candi bentar, a split gateway characteristic of Balinese temples. Candi bentar symbolises a mountain split into two, a portal that connects the physical and spiritual worlds. A cluster of pelinggeh merus—with 11 tiers—soars above through the veil of rain. They are devoted to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

Sixty kilometres south, we return to Peppers Seminyak, our haven of luxury after the long and strenuous drive and the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring touristy Petitenget beach. Walking to our villa, we encounter a white-clad lady, Ibu Agung, who has come to make offerings at Pura Sumur Kembar, a temple within the resort premises, right next to our villa. Canang sari, small square bowls fashioned out of palm leaves, are piled onto her basket. Each contains leaves, colourful flowers, sweets and even cigarettes! And each component of the offering is imbued with deep spiritual significance.

Balinese Hindus carrying offerings during the Melasti ceremony at the Pura Ulun Danu Beratan
Balinese Hindus carrying offerings during the Melasti ceremony at the Pura Ulun Danu BeratanPhoto: Getty Images

Krishna, a resort executive, says Ibu belongs to the local community, who relinquished their rice fields for the resort. However, the community still cares for the two temples on the resort premises.

Pura Sumur Kembar, or the temple of the twin wells, dates to the 16th century. Ibu Agung steps into the temple courtyard and places the canang sari near the holy wells, the main shrine and the corners of the temple courtyard. She then lights up dupa- incense sticks ("dhoop"), sending spirals of fragrant smoke to the heavens.

At Pura Besakih, a complex of 23 temples on the slopes of Mount Agung, Nyoman wraps a sarong around my legs to prepare me for my temple visit. He marches me along the walkway to the base of the main temple in the complex, Pura Penataran Agung.

I climb a steep flight of stairs to the tall, impressive candi bentar. On either side are statues inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I am only allowed to peer inside the temple complex from the candi bentar.

Down the path, i spot the Candi bentar, a split gateway that symbolises a mountain divided into two—a portal that connects the physical and spiritual worlds

We climb down and make our way to the Shiva temple. Nyoman hoists me up a tall mound near the temple wall to observe the activities there. There are a handful of worshippers braving the drizzle and making offerings at the various shrines inside.

I spot canang sari placed on the wall. "These have been placed by unfortunate foreigners who bought offerings for the temple but had to console themselves by leaving them behind here."

The Brahma temple is closed to all; Nyoman informs me that it opens only a few days a year for some specific ceremonies.

It is raining hard as we reach Pura Bati Madeg, the Vishnu temple. We take shelter under the roof of a square platform at the corner of the temple courtyard.

"Let's just wait out the storm," he says. From the corner of my eye, I spot the temple priest on a platform across the courtyard. If he has spotted me, he says nothing; he is enjoying his smoke. Across the courtyard, I see five merus of different heights. I am too wet even to ask who they were dedicated to.

On our way out of the complex we cross Pura Penataran Agung again. The rains have abated. The wrought iron side gate is open, and I can see the temple's central courtyard alive with activity. A bold sign proclaims in Bahasa, "Dilarang Masuk," do not enter, for prayer only.

I see colourful parasols—yellow, red and black. "Yellow is for the wind God, Shiva", explains Nyoman with his usual zeal.

"Red is for fire, or Brahma, and that black one is for the water God, Vishnu."

Before I can even grasp this information, Nyoman snatches my phone and gallops into the depths of the courtyard. He emerges after a few minutes, breathless but with a broad smile.

"I am sorry you could not get up close with the proceedings inside, but your phone did. Here, I have taken many photos inside to give you a good idea of the ceremonies. Now, shall we move on?"

Back at my villa in Pepper Seminyak, I browse through the images Nyoman has taken. The colourful parasols in the temple courtyard in the backdrop of tall pagoda-like multi-tiered merus, their reflections on the wet courtyard floor, and the multicoloured umbrellas of the worshippers form a kaleidoscope of images.

Our temple trail in Bali concludes, but the memories linger in the silence of the ancient stones and the whispers of the sea. Bali's temples, from the dramatic Tanah Lot to the tranquil Ulun Danu and even the relatively small Sumur Kembar, are more than just destinations; they are timeless keepers of myths, inviting us to return, explore, and dream.

For a Bali itinerary, click here.

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