Bali, where the Gods are Staring

26/08/2014 18:30

Skilfully Liah gathers some rice with a few small pieces of fruit and frangipani white petals with a hint of yellow in the centre and a pinch of salt and chilli. With the certainty that habitude provides deposits the jumble on a small domestic shrine, in front of an image of the goddess Dewi Sri as the smoke of incense bars wrapped all in the fragrance of the daily offering. After briefly tilting her head jumps back with the agility granted by her budding youth and disappear through the door into the rice fields.

It is a scene daily repeated. Each home has a small private chapel dedicated to the family gods. The Hindu pantheism, in Bali, took a character from a certain intimacy liturgy, later denied at major festivals that fill the ancient shrines that dot the entire length of the island. That’s why is called the island of a thousand temples, but actually, widely exceeding ten thousand.

And there are various types for different purposes. The most common are aforementioned which can be tiny altars at the entrance of the house. The guilds have their own dedicated to a particular profession, whether fishermen or farmers or traders. Rice, the most widespread crop occupies most of the rural shrines. The largest of them is Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, on the Lake Bratan shores. It was dedicated to the lakes and rivers goddess Dewi Batari Ulun Danu. Part of the temple, two towers with pagoda shaped multiple roofs, are located on a small island close to the shore. They give the feeling to be floating weightlessly just over the lake.

Every village has usually three temples in a kind of utilitarian triad called kahyangan tiga, the three heavens or paradises. The first, called generically Pure Puseh, is usually placed in the higher location and points towards the highest mountain. In Bali that means towards Gunung Agung. Symbolizes the origins and is dedicated to Brahma and to the founder’s spirits. The second, Pura Desa, is in the centre of town, belongs to Vishnu and protects daily life activities. The third and last, Pura Dalem, is the ancestors temple and their place is usually next to the graveyards.

Most of the temples usually have a common structure where a succession of enclosures is in ascending holiness. The first courtyards are usually reserved to prepare offerings and for other marginal activities during festivals. In inner premises are located meru, the stylized pagoda shaped pavilions whose roofs are always odd. 

Other shrines, pura dang kahyangan, worship the legendary masters who introduced Hinduism in Bali. The highlights are in the south of the island. Pura Luhur Uluwuatu and one of the best known, Tanah Lot. The first is one of the oldest, dating back to the eleventh century and seems to be hanging over a cliff. In fact it is nearly two hundred feet above the point where the waves break. Tanah Lot, have become an icon, is probably the most famous temple in Bali. Attributed to the monk Danghyang Nirartha and built in the sixteenth century on a small island off the coast, access is only possible at low tide. The restoration was carried out in the last century nineties ensuring the building had not just crumbling over the sea.

Pura sad kahyangan, the six temples of paradise, the most important of the island, are not dedicated to any individual deity but the latest manifestation of the Supreme Being: Sanghyang Widhi Wasa, which correspond to the creator Brahma in the Hindu pantheon. The largest of them is Pura Besakih, on the southern slope of Mount Agung. In fact it is a complex that brings together about twenty temples and over eighty related construction, all surrounded by rice fields. They call him the Mother Temple, perhaps because of its venerable age, some have already a thousand years, perhaps because of the space it occupies, or because there live all the gods and goddesses, in the navel of the world. On March 17, 1963, coinciding with Eka Desa Rudra festival preparations, Gunung Anung began a violent eruption which killed more than a thousand people and over one hundred thousand were displaced. Lava flows reached the sea at various points along the coast cutting roads and isolating villages. Despite the short distance between the mouth of the volcano and the temple, about three miles, it did not suffer significant damage.

Other shrines and palaces are related to the liquid element. Tirta Empul near Tampaksiring, about twelve miles from Ubud, is built over a hot spring. They say it was created by the god Indra piercing the ground when looking for the fountain of immortality. The bathing area dates from X century. The Balinese come here to purify themselves in the belief that dive into their pools provides luck and health. Tirta Gangga, eastwards, literally means waters of the Ganges. A maze of pools and fountains dotted with white statues surround the place where the Raja of Karangasem built his palace. On the outskirts of Ubud, Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, has elements dating from Mahapajit imperial times in the ninth century, when it was created as a Buddhist monastery, since its existence is well documented in a manuscript on palm leaf from 1365, called Nagarakertagama. Inside the cave, whose threshold is the carved mouth of a demon that breaks through his hands, there is a statue of elephant headed Ganesh, son of Shiva. Stone carved into the rock sentinels are guarding the two central pools whose waters flow from the hands of six female figures. The temple was rediscovered by the Dutch in 1923. The fountains and pools would not be dug up and clean of weeds until 1954.

There are more temples in the vicinity of Ubud, near the centre of the island. Gunung Kawi, Poet Mountain, houses the ashes of former royals whose figures are carved into the blackened rock walls giving access to the whole. Probably are here the remains of King Udayana, his queen Mahendradotta and their children Airlangga, Anak Wungau and Marakata and also his concubines.

Each temple revives during the celebration of their festivals, in the days, and sometimes nights, when their premises are packed with people, music and colours. The songs and dances seem to be aimed by a dual audience. One worldly and other divine. That's when the gods watch with a certain curiosity.

© J.L.Nicolas


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