Yes, Bali boasts superb beaches and tourist resorts big and small, but there’s far more to the island than sunshine and sand. Bali’s traditional and religious culture plays out at all levels; from flower petal offerings, to colourful processions, temples, ceremonies and traditional music and dance.
If you’re a cultural kind of traveller, here are some of the island’s most intriguing monuments and temples to help you plan your sightseeing trip in Bali:
Take the gentle walk down a steep, stone stairway via terraced rice fields to the bottom of a lush green river valley and you’ll be standing at one of Bali’s largest and most ancient monuments. As you wander around the temples, monuments, fountains and streams, you can’t help but feel a certain amount of ancient majesty in the air.
Gunung Kawi encompasses ten beautiful shrines (candi) cut into the sheltered niches of rock within the cliff face. They are thought to be imitations of statues of members of 11th century Balinese royalty, while another belief is that they were all carved out of the rock face by the mighty fingernails of Kebo Iwa in one, single hard-working night.
Pura Taman Ayun
This enormous royal water temple is a popular stop-off on a drive to or from Bedugal. The complex is surrounded by a wide moat and was the Mengwi kingdom’s main temple until 1891, when it was conquered by neighbouring Tabanan and Badung.
The temple was constructed in 1634 and renovated in 1937 – now it’s a spacious place to wander around. You will find a large, open, grassy expanse in the first courtyard before entering the inner courtyard with its multitude of multi-tiered shrines (meru). The temple is part of a complex rice field irrigation (subak) system and was designated a UNESCO site in 2012 – it’s an impressive place to stop off and admire the temple and its lotus-blossom filled pools.
Perched nearly 1,000 metres up the side of eastern Bali’s Gunung Agung is Pura Besakih, Bali’s most important temple – important because it is considered to be the largest and holiest Hindu temple in Bali.
Besakih Temple was once a terraced temple to the dragon God of Besakih, who is believed to live inside the sacred mountain. Part of an extensive complex of 23 separate temples, the largest and most important being Pura Penataran Agung, Pura Besakih is accessed via a split gate taking you to the courtyard where you will be greeted by the flower-decorated central shrine, dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The complex comes alive during its frequent ceremonies.
Don’t miss this, arguably one of the finest temples in eastern Bali. The state temple is a miniature version of Pura Besakih and is terraced up the hillside with steps leading to its beautifully decorated entrance. The first courtyard hosts a huge banyan tree with a hollow tree-trunk drum used to sound a warning.
The inner courtyard boasts an 11-tiered shrine along with other shrines plus thrones for the Hindu trinity: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. See if you can spot all of the 43 altars amid the intricate carvings.
Puri Agung Karangasem
As you approach, note the intricately sculpted panels of the entrance gate. Move on to the main courtyard and a left turn takes you to the main building known as the Maskerdam (Amsterdam) due to the fact that it was built during Dutch rule.
You will witness several rooms, including the royal bedroom and a furnished living room comprising gifts from the Dutch royal family. The Maskerdam lies opposite the ornate Bale Pemandesan, which was once used for royal tooth-filing ceremonies (allegedly to control evil human characteristics such as greed, lust, anger, confusion, stupidity, jealousy, ill-will, and intoxication by passion or drunkenness). Bale Kambang, surrounded by pools and still used for family meetings and dance practice. This is a truly evocative place where, with the help of the vintage photos, you can take the mind to how it might have been like to live under the 19th century Karangasem dynasty.
Pura Luhur Batukau
A very peaceful, spiritual place, Pura Luhur Batukau lies on the slopes of Gunung Batukau and was the state temple in the days when Tabanan was an independent kingdom.
Its seven-roofed shrine is dedicated to the guardian spirit of Maha Dewa, in addition to the shrines for Bratan, Buyan and Tamblingan lakes. Outside, you’ll be treated to epic views of the surrounding forest. The air is cool and misty and the chants of the priests are accompanied by birdsong. Facing the temple, take a stroll to the left to witness a small yet lively white-water stream. To the right of the temple, there’s a picturesque pond with steps rising to a small temple at its centre.
Pura Luhur Ulu Watu
Perched precariously on the south-western tip of the peninsula, this temple overlooks the area’s impressive cliffs and surf. A popular Kecak dance takes place in the grounds at sunset, its dramatic coastal setting making it all the more spiritual.
Ulu Watu is a temple dedicated to the spirits of the sea. It was first established in the 11th century by the Javanese priest, Empu Kuturan and the complex was added to by fellow Javanese priest, Nirartha, known for the coastal temples at Tanah Lot, Pura Sakenan and Rambut Siwi. Enter via an unusual arched gateway with its statues of Ganesha. The coral bricked walls inside are adorned with carvings of Bali’s mythological characters. The small inner temple built onto the jutting tip of land can only be accessed by Hindu worshippers.
Taman Tirta Gangga
Amlapura’s rajah built the water palace of his dreams in 1948 and Taman Tirta Gangga is a masterpiece, backed by a stunning crescent of rice-terraced hills. This multilevel water fantasy provides two swimming ponds which can get very popular at weekends. The ornamental water features are filled with lotus blossoms and huge koi serving making for a fascinating reminder of the days of former Balinese rajahs. Marvel at the eleven-tiered fountain shrine and sit under the huge old banyan trees to take in the views.