Of all my travels so far, I can say with certainty that in Bali I have had the most spiritual experience. For a month of discovering, one by one, the beauties of the island, I included some Balinese temples in the itinerary, as well. And it was hard enough to choose which ones to visit because there are too many, more than 20,000. Each house has its own mini temple, and each village has at least three important temples dedicated to Hindu deities, each of which has an essential role in community life. Due to the extremely large number of religious spaces, the island has acquired a title as “Island of the 1000 Temples”.
Balinese Hinduism, the majority religion on the island
Although on the other islands of Indonesia the majority religion is Muslim, Bali is distinguished by a Hindu religion, represented by over 83% of the island’s population. Balinese Hinduism has its origins in Indian Hinduism, brought here over 2,000 years ago, but is also strongly influenced by the Majapahit Empire, which is said to have been one of the largest and strongest empires in the history of South East Asia.
The supreme deity for the Balinese is Brahma, but the locals also believe in Vishnu, the protective deity, and in Shiva-the destroyer. Besides these, the Balinese have a god dedicated to every element of nature. They have the term “dewi” in front of their name if the deity is considered feminine and “dewa” if he is a male. The most common are Dewi Sri, the rice protector, Dewi Danu, the lakes protector, Dewi Baruna, the Deity of the seas, and Dewi Melanting, considered goddess of prosperity. Now I think it’s a little easier for you to understand: with so many protective divinities per square kilometer, the Balinese had to build numerous temples for their offerings.
I know that the information may seem overwhelming and difficult to digest, and there are many details to remember, but I find it extremely important to mention, as mythology is fascinating and contributes a lot to the charm of the island.
What the Balinese temples look like
Looking for the most special temples to visit, I found that for every one of them, the first term in the name is pura. I later found out that pura means temple and is a word that comes from Sanskrit, meaning space surrounded by walls. Basically, this simple term briefly describes the appearance of a traditional Balinese temple. But things are more complex than that, and you will have the surprise that when you walk into a place of worship on the island, you will have the feeling that you have entered a labyrinth with many courtyards and turrets. And to make sure you don’t get lost inside, you’ll have to understand the three simple rules of partitioning. There are 3 mandalas or 3 different backyards for each temple, each of which has a well-defined role: nista mandala, the first courtyard, the link between the temple and the outside world, madya mandala, the middle and the last, but the most sacred and the most high, utama mandala.
Inside the mandalas there are some pavilions called bale, but also some towers, called meru. If you are an admirer of Japanese pagodas, then I’m sure you will like it. These are multi-level and are covered with reeds, offering a very nice design to the eye. I’m telling you from now that you will want to photograph even the smallest details inside a temple, every stone ornament, and every sculpture carefully executed, portraying grotesque and frightening figures of mythological demons and animals.
But the structure of the gates is not accidental. Either you will admire those very high, dramatic gates, separated by a significant space, or you will enter the temple through some ornate gates, protected by some turrets. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about even if you haven’t been here before. Images of the Bali temples are viral on Instagram.
The strategic location and, surprisingly or not, in close communion with nature, it’s also worth mentioning. It is imperative that the temples be positioned according to the sea, the mountain, and the sunrise, and that in each of these three places there is at least one temple of great significance. Because of these positions, temples are often located in places with breathtaking landscapes, whether we are talking about a reddish sunset, or about some steep cliffs in which the ocean strikes its foamy waves.
How does the Balinese people manifest their faith
The answer to this question will be very easy to figure out, from the first steps taken in the Balinese realm, when you see some palm tree branches, filled with flowers and fragrant sticks, spread all over the streets, in yards, on cars, in stores, in intersections, and in absolutely any place.
The offerings are devoted to them, the deeds, the goddesses in which the Balinese believe so much. For that very reason, when you visit a temple, you will have to dress decent, and cover yourself with a sarong, a material worn as a long skirt, and embroid it with a colored scarf, called sash. The temple rituals are very complex and contain many prayers and sometimes traditional dances. However, a sarong is not compulsory in every temple. You will see that for the majority, it is enough to have clothing that fully covers your legs and sometimes your shoulders.
Now that we understand how the Balinese religion works, I will write a few words about each temple that has impressed me and which I recommend you to visit when you are on the Island of the Gods.
The 5 temples you must visit
when you are in Bali
5. Ubud Palace / Puri Saren Agung
Address: Jalan Raya Ubud No.8, Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia
This temple is a landmark for the island because it is the official residence of the royal family, the last descendants still living there. Although it was built between 1800 and 1823 by Ida Tjokorda leader Puta Kandel, it was rebuilt almost entirely after the devastating earthquake of 1917.
It is not a temple that excels for its beauty, but it is worth visiting especially that it will be handy if you are in Ubud. It is located at an intersection that you will surely cross, the corner between Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Raya Ubud. Entrance is free and, unlike other temples, proper clothing here is not required. In the evening, traditional dances are organized, so if you want to participate in them, you’ll need to spend 100,000 Indonesian rupees.
Although I did not assist in the evening’s cultural event, I could enjoy and admire the skills of the Balinese craftsmen, who carved some teak wood doors exactly when I was visiting the temple. I recommend visiting the Ubud Palace packed with the Ubud market, just as I did, being pretty close to each other.
4. Pura Besakih
Address: Besakih, Rendang, Karangasem Regency, Bali 80863, Indonesia
The 4th place is reserved to the temple that we have arrived to with great effort, being the final point of a one-day road trip route on the island’s East Coast. Specifically, we left Sanur and we climbed the eastern coast slightly, crossing some very beautiful places, perhaps the most special of the island, then finally, we would reach the foot of Mount Agung, the highest in Bali. The road was thrilling, challenging and fragmented, a sign that some serious storms were in the area.
The good news is that there is also a shorter, more direct to follow, but we chose the other one because we wanted to see the beaches from the eastern part of the island, about which I will tell you in a future article.
Why should you visit Pura Besakih? Because it’s the greatest. It is the temple with the greatest religious significance on the island, the largest and most sacred, in the Hindu concept. Its age extends over 1,000 years since the time when Japanese conquerors settled in these lands. Just like the mountains that guard it, the Besakih temple boasts impressive dimensions that will overwhelm you at first glance. It is on 6 levels and comprises 23 temples, their core being Pura Penataran Agung.
Besides its extremely interesting history, involving a mythological dragon ‘Naga Besukian’, the main source of inspiration for choosing the name of the temple, Besakih went through an attempt to further strengthen the Balinese’s conviction that this is the head of the island of Indonesia. In 1963, a number of Agung Mountain volcano eruptions took place that killed more than 1,700 lives and its lava flowed a few yards to the temple so that the entire construction remained intact. The event is considered a miracle; therefore, the locals strongly believe that the gods wanted to make a demonstration of their power without destroying the imposing monument.
Though its beauty is indeed impressive and I felt tempted to propel this temple to the top position in the top of my preferences, the enthusiasm was a little bit diminished by the people gathered at the entrance to the temple, trying to fool tourists and to make them pay invented and obviously illegal charges for unnecessary things. For example, you need to know that it is not mandatory to rent a guide or to pay an overcharging fee if you have already paid the entrance ticket.
Also, if you have a dress at the bottom of your body that covers your legs completely, it is not necessary to wear a sarong. Just as I did and you can see in pictures. However, Besakih is an extremely beautiful temple that can not be missed on your island’s must-do list.
3. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
Address: Jl. Bedugul – Singaraja, Candikuning, Baturiti, Candikuning, Baturiti, Kabupaten Tabanan, Bali 82191, Indonesia
Imagine the shore of a large lake, surrounded by mountains, through which clouds are squeezed, and on the surface of the lake floats a Balinese temple with many turrets and fine sculptures in the red rock, surrounded by a grass covered pond green crust and sprinkled with red flowers. Seems like the description of a perfect wallpaper on the living room wall, but you can see all of this by visiting the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, built in 1633 and dedicated to the goddess Dewi Danu, the protector of the lakes and rivers.
Bratan Lake is the second largest in Bali and has a very favorable position for rice crops, representing an important source of irrigation for them. The settle between the mountains, at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level, gives it a mysterious air, often surrounded by a dense fog. Although the floating temple deserves a visit anytime, you need to check the weather before coming here because the rainfall is quite frequent regardless of the season and the air is cooler than in the southern part of the island.
Give yourself enough time to admire the architecture of buildings, but also to walk through the beautifully landscaped gardens of the complex. Near the temple, there are some local restaurants that I recommend to try.
2. Uluwatu / Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Address: Pecatu, South Kuta, Badung Regency, Bali, Indonesia
Uluwatu is probably the most famous temple in Bali. That’s why I wanted to see it from the first days on the island. After we stayed in Kuta, we rented a scooter and headed south, among hundreds of cars and other scooters. In short, an unspeakable traffic from which we feel very happy that we have escaped unhurt.
There are two main entrances to the temple, one to the south and one to the north, and access to the interior is done exclusively with a sarong and a sash. The road from the entrance to the temple itself takes a few good minutes. The moment we reached the edge of the 70-meter-long precipice from which we could admire the immense beauty of the Indian Ocean was the first time I really felt that the Bali love was inevitable. Although a very touristy place, Uluwatu has a magnificent location on the western side of the island, being the ideal place to watch the most beautiful sunsets, so the crowd of tourists becomes an insignificant factor. Also after the evening, the Kecak groups are also dancing, but we have not been able to witness them, but I have heard that it is a real pleasure to look at them.
In addition to the dancers, there are also some other entertainers who make their living in the trees and the temple fences. They are prepared to steal your valuables anytime and anyhow and will act just like robbers, each member having an essential role in committing the offense. I’m talking about the cute, mean monkeys from Uluwatu, whom I watched in action, with much amusement and sympathy towards the victim, while they were stealing the sunglasses of tourist. So, I found out how you can get your goods back because the woman (victim) was lucky enough to have an employee of the complex next to her in that moment. The foolish little monkey was offered a bag of some food, when she lost sight of the glasses, being quickly recovered by the employee.
From a religious point of view, Uluwatu is considered one of the six most significant temples on the island, but also the place where the three divine forces, Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, have joined together, becoming a whole. Uluwatu is dedicated to the deity Siva Rudra, considered to be the protector of all the elements and aspects of life in the universe. Though hard to believe, in view of their habits against ethics and morality, besides divine forces, the little monkeys are also seen as proctors against evil influences. It seems that the pair of glasses was one of these forces: D
1. Tanah Lot
Address: Jalan Raya Tanah Lot, Beraban Village, Kediri, Tabanan
It was not easy for me to decide which of the temples is my favorite, but finally, I realized Tanah-Lot gave me the best vibe, probably because of perfect positioning, where you can see the sparkling waves hitting the black cliffs. The name of the temple is translated as “land in the sea,” which is a brief description of the beautiful places around the temple.
The Tanah Lot is seated on a rock, accessible only during the low tide. When I visited, the ocean level was very high, so it was impossible to go to the temple. However, it seemed to me more beautiful, being surrounded by waters that give it a special and unique feel.
It is definitely one of the most tourist and busy temples in Bali, but it is worth all the effort and time of each of us. Besides the religious significance, there are also some myths and legends that turn around Tanah-Lot, which, frankly, I would not want to experience, but just keep them in the rank of interesting stories or fun facts. It is a black and white snake, hidden in the cliffs, ready to attack the forces of evil.
Obviously, Tanah Lot has an associated deity, just like the rest of Bali temples. This is Dewa Baruna, the protector of the seas and oceans, as you probably expected.