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Spectacular back road to Besakih

The back road leading from Amlapura up to Rendang and thence to Besakih is one of the most scenic in Bali. From Amlapura the first villages passed are Subagan and Bebandem (see above). Shortly after Bebandem there is an intersection, and a turn to the right takes You to the small village of Jungutan, site of the third famous Karangasem water palace.

Jungutan is not so much a palace, actually, as a small complex of ponds situated in a quiet and relaxing setting - a nice spot to stop and walk around. Back at the intersection, the road continues west through Sibetan, well known throughout Indonesia for its delicious salak - a crisp, tart fruit encased in a rind that has the look and feel of snakeskin. The winding road through Sibetan is lined by densely-planted salak palms and trucks may be seen loading them for market. These fruits are better here than anywhere else in Indonesia - peel the scaly skin and enjoy the thirst-quenching pulp.

Soon after the salak plantations, a road to the left leads a short distance to Putung, where there is a small bungalow hotel and restaurant with a view of the coast. The main road continues on from here to Duda, at the foot of Mt Agung. This village holds a large festival in the temple of origin on the full moon of the fourth month (around October). After Duda there is another intersection. The road to the left from here goes through Sidemen to Klungkung. The road straight ahead leads to Rendang and the turn to Besakih.

Sidemen, southwest off the road between Duda and Selat, is well worth a visit. The scenery is gorgeous, and traditional varieties of Balinese rice are grown. There is a good home stay with a magnificent view down across a valley of rice terraces to the sea and south Bali. Closeby is a weaving factory where high quality traditional textiles (endek) are produced. In Sidemen there are also several places where the costly kain songket is woven from silk, with gold and silver threads added to create the patterns.

The road onwards to Rendang leads first through the old village of Selat, an area that suffered badly from the eruption of Mt Agung. It is possible to climb the volcano - a sign reading "Gunting Agung, 10 km" marks a turn-off where a road leads a good way up the sacred mountain. Don't attempt the climb unless you are well-prepared and have a guide. If you speak Indonesian, guides are locally available but be sure to bring along food, water and warm clothing for the steep climb to the summit. At 3142 in, this is Bali's highest peak and it gets quite cold. Only to be attempted between July and October.

The village just after Selat, Padangabai, is known for its gambuh association. Gambuh is a classical dance-drama with slow and stately music that is only irregularly performed these days. The road then continues on through Muncan, past one of the most exciting rice field landscapes in Bali. The terraces are at their most spectacular when flooded, just before the young rice is transplanted. Finally at Rendang you arrive at the main Klungkung Besakih route; a turn to the right will bring you up to Bali's "Mother Temple."

Driving up to Besakih from Menanga, the silver-grey cone of Mt Agung looms above, its summit still bare from the ravages of the 1963 eruption. At 3142 meters, this is the highest peak on Bali, and a major locus of divine power in the Balinese cosmos. The huge temple located here, Pura Besakih, is the greatest of all Balinese sanctuaries - the most sacred and powerful of the island's innumerable temples. For this reason, it has always been associated also with state power. It lies at an altitude of 900 meters on the southwestern slope of the mountain, offering spectacular views over the whole of southern Bali.

Pura Besakih is not a single temple but a sprawling complex consisting of many separate shrines and compounds, united through ritual and history into a single sanctuary. 'Mere are 22 temples in all, spread along parallel ridges over a distance of more than a kilometer. The highest of these, Pura Pengubengan, lies amidst beautiful groves in a state pine forest. Most of the temples, however, cluster around the main enclosure, Pura Penataran Agung.

In this same area there are many ancestral temples (pura padharman) supported by particular clan group. Four public temple also form a distinct sub-group (catur lawa or catur warga) and are associated with certainkin groups. Local kin groups of Besakih village lagers also have temples here.

It is busy almost every day at Besakih. Balinese often come in order to obtain holy water for ceremonies back in their home villages as a symbol of the god's presence. For most major rituals, the witness of the god of Gunung Agung/Pura Besakih is required. Balinese come to Besakih also at the end of the long series of funeral rites, after the post cremation purification of the soul has taken place, to ready the soul for enshrinement in the family house temple. In all cases, the worshipper is sure to pay reverence at the triple lotus shrine of the Pura Penataran Agung.

The symbolic center

Pura Penataran Agung, the "Great of State" is the symbolic center of the Besakih complex. Originating probably as a single prehistoric shrine, its six terraces suggest a history of successive enlargements, the lates being in 1962. In all, there are 57 structures in the temple, about half of which are devoted to various deities. A study of these provides glimpse of important developments in the history of the temple.

The meru or pagodas were probably introduced no earlier than the 14th century, whereas the lotus throne (padmasaanna) dates from about the 17th or even 18th century. With the introduction of the padmasana, ritual focus of the temple seems to have shifted from the upper terraces to the second, lower terrace. The padmasana is now the ritual center of Pura Penataran Agung and of the Besakih complex as a whole.

The three seats in the lotus throne are dedicated to the godhead in his tripartite form as Siwa, Sadasiwa and Paramasiwa or, more commonly in the popular tradition, to Brahma (right), Siwa (center), Wisnu(left). These deities are associated with the colors red, white and black respectively. Behind the padmasana lies the Bale Pasamuhan Agung where the gods of the Besakih temples take residence during major rituals.

Of all the present structures in the temple, only one or two predate the great earthquake of 1917. Although visitors are normally not allowed inside the main courtyard, there are several vantage points from where one can get good views of the shrines.

Temple categories

A dual structure underlies the Besakih sanctuary as a whole through a division of the sacred areas into two parts. Pura Penataran Agung is the main temple "above the steps." Its counterpart "below the steps" is Pura Dalem Puri, the "Temple of Palace Ancestors." This small but very important temple, associated with an early dynasty of the 12th century, is dedicated to the goddess identified as Batari Durga, goddess of death and of the graveyard, as well as of magic power.

The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa is the basis of a three-part grouping that links the three largest temples. Pura Penataran Agung, the central temple, honors Siwa; Pura Dangin Kreteg ("Temple East of the Bridge") honors Brahma, and Pura Batu Madeg ("Temple of the Standing Stone") honors Wisnu. On festival days, banners and hangings in their colors represent these deities. Pura Batu Madeg in particular has a fine row of meru.

A five-way grouping links these three temples with two others, each being associated with a cardinal direction and a color. Pura Penataran Agung is at the center. Surrounding it are Pura Gelap (east/white), Pura Dangin Kreteg (south/red), Pura Ulun Kulkul (west/yellow) and Pura Batu Madeg (north/black). This five-way classification, the so-called panca dewata, is extremely important in Balinese Hinduism. At Besakih, however, it seems to have been a relatively late development, as it is not mentioned in Besakih's sacred charter, the Raja Purana, which probably dates from the 18th century.

The gods descend

The unity of the complex of 22 public temples becomes manifest, above all, in Besakih's great annual festival, the Bhatara Turun Kabeh or "Gods Descend Together" rite. This falls on the full moon of the 10th lunar month (purnama kadasa), in March or April. During this month-long festival, the gods of all temples on Bali take up residence in the main shrine at Besakih. Tens of thousands of people from all over the island come to worship at the triple lotus throne, and solemn rituals are conducted by brahmanaa high priest

In terms of numbers of worshippers, the annual ritual at Pura Dalem Puri is also quite remarkable. Within the 24-hour period of this festival, soon after the new moon of the 7th lunar month (around January), vast crowds pay homage here, presenting special offerings with which to insure the well-being family members whose death rites were completed the previous year.

But these great rituals are only the most in important out of a total of more than 70 held regularly at the different temples and shrines at Besakih. Almost every shrine in Pura Penataran Agung, for instance, has its own anniversary, almost all of which are fixed according to the indigenous Balinese wuku calendar. The most important festivals, however, follow the lunar calendar. These include rituals conducted by brahmana priests at four of the five main temples, and also a series of agricultural rites culminating in two of Besakih's most interesting ceremonies the Usaba Buluh and Usaba Ngeed, which center around the Pura Banua dedicated to Bhatari Sri, goddess of lice and prosperity. With the exception of the brahmana rituals mentioned above, most ceremonies at Besakih are conducted by Besakih's own pemangku.

State and temple

The performance of rituals and the physical maintenance of the temples demand considerable resources, and throughout the temple's history these have been at least partly provided by the state. During pre-colonial times, the relationship between state and temple was expressed in a largely Hindu. idiom of religion and statecraft, but in the course of the 20th century this changed to one couched in legal and constitutional terms.

The earliest history of Besakih consists of legendary accounts that associate the temple with the great priests of the Hindu traditions in Bali, beginning with Rsi Markendya. In the 15th century two ancient edicts inscribed on wood, now regarded as god-symbols of an important deity of Pura Penataran Agung, indicate heavy state involvement.

The Gelgel and Klungkung dynasties (15th to early 20th centuries) regarded Pura Besakih as the chief temple of the realm, and deified Gelgel rulers are enshrined in a separate temple here, called Padharman Dalem.

Through the turmoil and shifting politics of the 19th century, which saw the rise of Dutch power on the island, the temple was seriously neglected. The great earthquake of 1917 completed its destruction, but at the same time galvanized the Balinese, who then rebuilt the temple with Dutch assistance. Control was maintained by the princely houses, who were responsible for rituals and maintenance. After independence, the regional government of Bali took over responsibility. Only in recent years has the Hindu community itself taken on a greater share of the burden involved in the temple's upkeep.

Cosmic rites of purification

The involvement of the Balinese with Pura Besakih is at no time more in evidence than during the great purificatory rites known as Panca Walikrama and Eka Dasa Rudra. Ideally these are held every 10 and 100 years respectively, but in practice they have been irregular. The Panca Walikrama was held in 1933,1960,1978 and most recently in 1989.

The Eka Dasa Rudra, greatest of all rituals known in Balinese Hinduism, is an enormous purification rite directed to the entire cosmos, represented by the 11 (eka dasa) directions. Rudra is a wrathful form of Siwa, who is to be propitiated. It has been held twice this century, once in 1963, and again in 1979. The Eka Dasa Rudra of 1963, held at a time of great political tensions, was an extraordinary catastrophe, for right in the midst of the month-long festival Mt Agung erupted with violent destructive force for the first time in living memory. Such a strange coincidence prompted various interpretations, the most common being that the deity of the mountain was angry, perhaps over the ritual's timing.

According to certain sacred texts, the rite should be held when the Saka year ends in two zeros. Such was the case in 1979 (Saka 1900), and it was decided to hold the Eka Dasa Rudra once again. The mountain remained calm and hundreds of thousands attended the main day of celebration, including President Suharto. This marked Besakih's new-found status as the paramount Hindu sanctuary not only for Bali, but for all of Indonesia.

Last revised on January 28, 2010
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