Bali’s Mother Temple

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The spiritual center of Bali lies 3,000 feet up the slopes of Gunung Agung, the tallest of the string of volcanoes that dominate the island’s interior. This religious sanctuary, known as Pura Besakih, is in fact a sprawling complex of over twenty separate temples. Many are dedicated to specific clan groups or even craft guilds; others are devoted to a single deity. With so many different temples, Besakih is bustling year round, but never more so than right now. During the 10th lunar month, usually in March or April, all the gods of Bali gather here for the Bhatara Turun Kabeh: ‘the Gods Descend Together.’ Tens of thousands of people make an annual pilgrimage to Besakih for this event, often spending hours sitting in traffic and waiting at the temple gate for their turn to pray and present offerings.

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Once past the imposing main gateway Besakih feels like a small city, with a maze of alleyways and rows of shops and food sellers. The most obvious reminders of this city’s sacred purpose are the towering multi-roofed shrines that dominate the skyline. Each individual temple has at least a few of these structures, called meru, to honor specific deities and ancestors. A meru can have anywhere from one to eleven layers, always in odd numbers. Many of Bali’s largest temples boast a single 11-tiered meru, but Besakih has at least half a dozen of these impressive structures.

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As I made my way deeper into the complex I was caught up in a stream of devotees in their finest white cloth, carrying bundles of offerings on their heads as they travelled between various temples. The crowd (as well as the air) thinned out towards the top of the sanctuary, which is a pretty good hike when your legs are wrapped in cloth down to the ankles. From here you can see most of south Bali until the fog rolls in around mid-morning.

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The view from the top was nice, but most of the action was taking place down below in Besakih‘s main temple. This central area consists of an open courtyard surrounded by open pavilions, meru shrines, and a special three-seated lotus throne for the holy trinity of Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Balinese Hinduism generally stresses the singular aspect of God; most temples contain a single seat of honor for the divine presence, but Besakih honors the full trinity with its triple throne. In this picture the lotus throne can be seen on the far right side, decorated black, white and red.
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Successive waves of new arrivals entered Besakih‘s central courtyard to complete the brief prayer ritual. As the congregation rotated, a gamelan group played slow pieces on a gong gede (literally ‘big gamelan’). It has none of the searing tempos and surgical precision of most Balinese music but makes up for the lack of speed with stately melodies and awesome acoustic power. Almost forty musicians pound out the meandering tune, which demands more patience and memory than technical ability.

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The gong gede also accompanied a pair of large group dances: an offering dance performed by women and a warrior dance performed by men. The dancers wound their way around the courtyard, taking the show where space allowed. The dances were more of a staged offering than a performance, but a small crowd gathered to watch and take pictures. When the last dance was finished, I slipped back into the stream of humanity descending the grand staircase and flowing back down the mountain to the villages and homes of Bali’s lowlands.

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