Bali is known as ‘Pulau Seribu Pura’ or the island of a thousand temples. Large temple complexes with exquisite architecture, temples on top of mountains, in caves, near lakes, rock-hewn temples on coastlines and various smaller shrines in paddy fields and households dot the entire landscape. Balinese encompass the essence of Buddhism and Hinduism. Together with indigenous animist beliefs, there is also much to celebrate throughout the year.
Historically, much of the Indonesian archipelago was once under the Hindu Majapahit kingdom of Java. Buddhism precedes Hinduism; the latter came to Indonesia from India in the 1st century AD. With Islamic influence in 14th century AD, the intelligentsia and culturally inclined people fled to Bali from Java. Javanese priest Nirartha is credited to introduce Hinduism to Bali and built many temples.
Seaside temples are spellbinding for their location as well as the traditional dance performances. Cut from a single black lava rock, Tanah Lot Temple in Tabanan looks spectacular as waves come crashing against it. It’s inaccessible during high tide. However, during low tide, devotees climb its rocky stairs in prerequisite white attire and the approaching dusk casts an orange and red glow that endows irresistible charm to the temple. Another in the south is Pura Uluwatu on a limestone cliff that offers a magnificent view. Thousands flock to see its ‘Kecak’ fire dance based on the Ramayana. In the northern coast, in the midst of Bali’s favourite frangipani trees, stands Ponjok Batu Temple in Buleleng.
The chanting of Gayatri Mantra, shlokas, following Sanskrit scriptures, enactment of dance-drama from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, trikala sandhya (Sun worship thrice a day), belief in the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and in life after death; all these are tenets of Indian Hinduism.
Yet there are differences in Indonesian Hinduism (Agama Hindu Dharma) as they believe in one supreme God of Sanghyang Widi Wasa and Cewa (Shiva). Devotees frequent the Pura Jagatnatha at Denpasar to offer bunga jepun (frangipani flowers) to the supreme God. Blooming lotus in temple ponds is typically Indian.
The Pura Taman Saraswati in Ubud is surrounded by lotuses; flowers such as jasmine, hibiscus and marigold also abound. In the sacred monkey forest of Padangtegal, the concept of tri hita karana (three reasons for prosperity) is a core belief, much like Indian Hinduism to attain physical and spiritual wellbeing. It comprises principles guiding to maintain harmony among humans, with environment, and with the God. The moss-infested 14th century temples built during the Pejeng Dynasty are Pura Dalem Agung, of Hyang Widhi (Shiva), Pura Beji (Goddess Gangga) and Pura Prajapati (Prajapati).
There is openness in Balinese culture and everyone can enter temples wearing sarongs and worship in obligatory ceremonial attire. At Pura Tirta Empul, a water temple located near the town of Tampaksiring, and Gunung Kawi, an 11th century temple and funerary complex in Tampaksiring, people irrespective of faith take bath in holy water coming from sculptured spouts. Much emphasis is laid on ceremonies and customs that are followed with strict rules. On Nyepi, the Day of Silence, the entire island plunges into silence.
But Balinese can’t do away with dance, music and ceremony, so the day before is marked with fanfare. During Galungan festivities, the streets of villages are decorated with artistically elaborate penjor, an arched bamboo with hanging canang (a woven tray of coconut leaves in which are put flowers, rice cake and sweets).
Villages in the morning are fascinating sights with decorated canangs. Follow the fragrance of jasmine or that of swirling incense smoke and you could see a woman sprinkling water and paying obeisance to the shrine in their lush green tropical garden. Chances are sculptures of pigs, frogs, demons, Ganesha or some guardian deities guard their house. One of the most artful decorations is of banten tegeh, which burst with colours as fruits, flowers and rice cakes are piled like tower and carried by women on heads for collective praying at community temples. These are offered to thank their Gods and appease the demons to maintain harmony in their lives.
Art like faith is a way of life for Balinese and their temple architecture speaks volumes about their aesthetics. At Batuan temple near Sukawati, the characteristic candi bentar (symmetrical split gate) is the entrance into the outer sanctum. The most imposing, towering and elaborately sculptured are the paduraksha or kori that marks entrance to the main sanctum of the temple. Dotted in the temple complex are stone sculptures of guardian deities and demons, wooden sculptures and floral motifs. In every temple, the central throne is empty unlike Indian Hinduism and the sculpture behind indicates its occupant like a Garuda sculpture means its Vishnu throne.
In the largest and holiest temple of Bali, Pura Besakih, on the terraced slopes of Mount Agung are 23 related temples witha striking pagoda-like multi-tiered roof, thatched roof made of ‘ijuk’ fibres. Even before these temples, there were consecrated enclosures, altars, cairns (stones stacked like a tower) and stone enclaves and cave temples to indicate a primitive way of worship of the ancient Balinese.
Even historic places of worship are found from Bali’s 18th century Mengwi kingdom and archaeological sites from Pakerisan valley, a UNESCO heritage site.
The Balinese have three types of temples—one in their ancestral village, another of community celebrations in towns and the temples of the dead related to cremation. They are accommodating yet adhering to their core beliefs. For them, spiritualism is not something distinct from the elaborate rituals in their daily lives.