Mount Agung the great mountain, at 3142 meters is the highest in Bali. It is a live volcano and has erupted many times throughout its history, the most recent being in 1963. Because it is the highest mountain, it is the symbol in Bali of Mt. Mahameru where the High God, Sanghyang Widhi Wasa, resides surrounded by the lesser deities. In Indian mythology Mt. Mahameru is both the residence of the gods and the axis of the world and a similar mountain cult sees to have existed in Indonesia before Indian influence reached this country.
The journey to the summit of Mt. Agung is difficult and its being a volcano has precluded the erection of a shine or temple there. In a sense, the summit itself is a temple and at the greater festival a ceremony is held both there and by the sea, the two poles of Balinese sacred geography.
Besakih Temple lies on the southwest slope of the mountain at an altitude of about 1.000 meters. It is situated in the village of Besakih, in the Rendang district of Karangasem regency, about 22 km north of the town of Klungkung.
Besakih Temple is the “mother temple” of Bali, the holiest temple in the island. Its greatness lines is not only in its size and the number of structures (198 by one count), but also in a spiritual sense. It is the essence of all the places of worship in Bali where Hindus in Indonesia and not only Bali, pay homage to Sanghyang Widhi Wasa in His manifestation as Tri Purusa (Parama Siwa, Sada Siwa and Siwa), the lords of the Three Worlds (Tribhuwana), the lower, middle and upper worlds.
Beside that, Besakih Temple functions as the unifying center of worship for all Hindu Balinese, for despite the thousands of family, clan and village temples, Balinese Hinduism is fundamentally homogenous. At Besakih Temple, all Balinese from whatever caste or clan worship together.
Interspersed among the villagers homes and gardens covering a section of slope cut by two streams, usually dry, are some two score temples: the 18 public temples four special subsidiary many temples honoring deified ancestors, besides the clan and family temples of the local villagers. Pasar Agung Temple a few kilometers to the east is also intimately related to Besakih Temple.
Every temple has its own name. The term Besakih Temple refers to the whole complex and especially the great central temple of Penataran Agung Temple which consist of a series of terraced courtyards containing dozens of shrines and moms (pagoda) wherein or associates with which are held the greatest of the Besakih festivals.
Although at first glance the temples are spread over the slope without seeming order there are in fact relationship between some of them based on important Hindu doctrines. These relationship is not a modern imposition but dates back the 16th century, if not before.
In Hinduism the five gods (Panca Dewata) of the four cardinal directions and the center play a very important role, each being associated with a particular colors. This macrocosmic structuring of the universe is manifested at Besakih in the relationship between five temples that form a rough cross on the landscape. These temples are Gelap Temple (Temple of Lightning) representing Iswara in the east (white). Kidulung Kreteg Temple (Temple south of the bridge) representing Brahma in the south (red), Ulun Kulkul Temple (Temple of Origin of the Slit-Gong) representing Mahadewa in the west (yellow), Batu Madeg Temple (Temple of the Standing stone) representing Siwa (Multi-coloured) the Penataran Agung Temple. All the Besakih temples, being oriented towards Mt. Agung rather than the exact points of the compass, lie on a northeast-south west axis. For ritual purposes Gelap Temple, or in other words Mt. Agung, is designated east and so on through in everyday speech the direction towards the mountain (kaja) tends to be associated with north as it does throughout south Bali.
The great central temple of Penataran Agung Temple we will look at in detail on the next page. Of the other two, Batu Madeg Temple is more interesting, It is more compact than Kiduling Kreteg Temple and has a fine series of means which are strikingly seen from afar through the bamboos that grow near the temple. It also possesses some interesting antiquities stone linggas (symbol of Siwa), Statues of Ganesa (the elephant heated son of Siwa), and some megalithic type shrines. These remains and the very name of the temple suggest that originally Batu Madeg Temple may have been a prehistoric sanctuary that only later become associated with Hindu deities.
One traditional classification of the Besakih temples divides them into two groups: those ‘soring ambal-ambal” (below the terraces) and those “luhuring ambal-ambal” (above the terraces). The dividing line is the space in front of the Pura Penataran Agung where the great bhuta yadnya ceremonies of Panca Wali Krama and Eka Dasa Rudra are held. The temples lower down the slope fall into the first group, those higher up into the second group.
Of the eleven temples in the lower group, several are associated with the underworld. These include Bangun Sakti Temple dedicated to Anantabhoga, the cosmic naga (serpent) associated with the earth and its fruits: Basukian Temple dedicated to Basuki, the cosmic naga associated with the waters of the earth who was rope around the mountain in the story of the churning of the milky ocean to produce amerta the elixir of life: Goa Temple which is also connected with naga Basuki and perhaps Manik Mas Temple whose god, according to one interpretation, should be associated with Bedawangnala, the cosmic turtle, who supports the universe on his back around whom the cosmic nagas twine. The upper group of seven temples includes Penataran Agung Temple, Kiduling Kreteg Temple, Batu Madeg Temple, and Gelap Temple discussed earlier together with Tirta Temple, Pengubengan Temple and Peninjoan Temple.
There Besakih temples are considered the counterparts of the sea of temples called Tiga Kahyangan found in almost every village in Bali : Basukian Temple as the Puseh Temple (Temple of origin), Penataran Agung Temple as the Desa Temple (Temple of the community) and Dalem Temple as the Dalem Temple (Temple of the dead of all potentially destructive forces, where Durga wrathful from Siwa’s spouse is enshrined). However instead of serving a village community, these Besakih temples serves the whole community of Hindu Balinese.
Dalem Puri Temple, although a small temple (of the lower group) on its festival day in the seventh lunar month draws crowds as large as those at the yearly Bahatara Turun Kabeh festival. The area surrounding the temple is called Tegal Panangsangaran (fieId suffering) and often it is here rather than in the temple that people come to ask that the souls of their dead after the prescribed death rites have been performed be granted favor in the afterworld.
Beside the public temples four special subsidiary temples associated with particular clans have an intimate relationship with Panataran Agung Temple. These are Ratu Pasek Temple, Dukuh Segening Temple and Panyarikan Temple to the right of the Panataran Agung temple, and Ratu Pande Temple. When the gods of Besakih leave temple for the sacred bathing place or for the seaside, the deities of these four temples always lead the procession.
Also the right of Panataran Agung is the complex of Padharman temples which honor the deified ancestors of particular clans. The largest and most north worthy of these is Padharman Dakem whose series of merus honor the deities rulers of the Gelgel dynasty. This temple was rebuilt in 1978.
In 1977 a comprehensive plan was drawn up to restore and beautifully the whole Besakih complex. This included construction of parking lots at the bottom end, an arrangement that returned to the former tradition of always proceeding on foot beyond Manik Mas Temple. Left of the entrance to Panataran Agung Temple an elaborate wantilan complex called Mandapa Kesari Warmadewa was built for meetings and communal activities. At several temples building continued through February 1979, in readiness for Eka Dasa Rudra ceremony which held every 10 years.
After ornate temple one sees where in Bali, it is remarkable to what extent, despite changes, Besakih Temple has retained its stark beauty which together with a superb setting gives the temples their feeling of holiness, of presence. Fortunately to reach Besakih was a pilgrimage in 1932 the Dutch opened the road making the temple readily accessible. Now at major festivals huge crowds from all over Bali and beyond come in buses, trucks and cars to pay homeage to Sanghyang Widi Wasa and the gods of Besakih.