It’s said that in Bali, there are more temples than there are houses. Some estimates are even as high as 50,000, in fact. While this may be hard to believe at first, it doesn’t take much time on the island to notice that temples are literally everywhere. Many of the island’s major tourist attractions, of course, are elaborate temples like Taman Ayun or Uluwatu. But a countless number of smaller ones exist in sleepy rural villages and even in each family compound.
Though it’s possible that the main purpose of your trip may be to surf or party on the beach, there’s simply no avoiding a visit to at least a couple of temples during your time in Bali. Considering how unique Balinese temples are, learning a little bit about their symbolism and architectural features beforehand can greatly enhance the experience.
Balinese temples are complex. They could even be likened to living organisms that need to be fed and cared for in the form of festivals and offerings. Considering what an integral part they are to Balinese culture, this article is only able to scratch the surface of all there is to know. After learning a little bit about the basic temple layout and architectural elements, we’ll then go over some of the more noteworthy temples you can visit during your time on the island.
The Number Three
Balinese temples, or pura, have strong associations with the number three. Temples are divided into three spaces: an outer courtyard in addition to two holier inner yards. Each temple also has spaces of worship for Hinduism’s three prominent deities: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. And within the context of a Balinese village, there is also something called the ‘three temple system.’
Each Balinese village contains its own Pura Puseh, Pura Desa and Pura Dalem temples. The Pura Puseh is dedicated to both the god Vishnu and the human founders of the village. These are usually situated facing Bali’s most sacred and largest mountain, Mt. Agung.
The Pura Desa is the temple of the local spirits as well as the god Brahma. These are usually located somewhere in the middle of the village.
Finally, the Pura Dalem is dubbed “the temple of the dead” and it typically faces the sea. Pura Dalem temples tend to be dedicated to Shiva or related deities like Kali, Durga, or even Rangda. The whole death theme is not all somber, though, as these destructive forces are considered necessary for dissolving impurities, evil entities, and earthly illusions.
The Pura Puseh, Pura Desa and Pura Dalem temples are the bare minimum that any village in Bali must have, but it’s likely for there to be many more. Many temples, it should be noted, fall outside these three categories, such as state temples or those belonging to the local village association. And of course, each family compound in Bali has its own temple as well.
Not only are there temples in a Balinese village for each god of the Trimurti, or divine Hindu trinity, but the three main gods are also symbolized in each individual temple. This could be in the form of three tall thatched meru towers (see more below), in which case the tallest one will most likely represent Shiva. The divine trinity is also sometimes represented by color, with red standing for Brahma, black for Vishnu and white for Shiva.
The number three also plays an important role in the overall layout of each individual temple in Bali. Upon entering a temple you’ll first find yourself in the jaba pisan, the intermediate space which acts as a bridge between the sacred space and the outside world. The next section is the jaba tengah, or middle section, where things like gamelan performances or food stalls might be situated during a festival. Finally, the most sacred and innermost area, the jero (or jeroan), is where things like the main tower and whatever important relics the temple may possess are located.
Individual shrines or towers within a temple might also be divided into three parts to represent the ‘three worlds’: the underworld, the human realm and the heavens. This is a common theme throughout both Hindu and Buddhist temples, as can be observed at places like Borobudur.
Among the tens of thousands of temples in Bali, there are nine particular temples which are considered to be most important. Confusingly, the list of temples will change depending on who you ask, but it’s the number that’s most important. The Balinese consider these special temples to help balance out the forces of the entire island, like some kind of enormous version of feng shui.
From left to right: a jaba pisan, japa tengah and jero section of various Balinese temples
Architectural Elements of Balinese Temples
When visiting a temple, you’ll encounter all sorts of elaborate gates, shrines or other interesting looking structures. But you probably won’t always understand what you’re looking at. The list below is an outline of the most standard elements you’re likely to find at a temple in Bali.
But there’s also going to be quite a bit of variation, too. Some temples will have special shrines dedicated to certain deities outside the Trimurti, for example. Furthermore, you’ll likely notice a number of covered pavilions within the temple compound. These might be for gamelan performances or village meetings, but it’s often unclear to the casual visitor.
One thing all Balinese temples have in common, though, is that they’re all open to the sky. The reasoning is so that the gods being summoned during special ceremonies can descend from the heavens into the temple before eventually returning home.
As you approach a temple, the first thing you’ll notice is the candi bentar, or split gateway. These gates resemble a mountain that was split into two exactly even parts. To fully grasp the symbolism of the candi bentar, some basic familiarity with the legend of Mt. Meru is required.
Mt. Meru is a mythological mountain where the gods dwell. It appears not only in Hindu mythology but in Jain and Buddhist stories also. The Balinese believe that the original Mt. Meru, located somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, was transported to Bali by Shiva, where it was then split into two.
The two sides also represent the Balinese concept of duality and the importance of maintaining a balance between dark and light forces.
Most temples also contain inner gates known as paduraksa or kori agung. These gates separate the different areas within a temple, such as the jaba pisan from the japa tengah (see above).
Unlike the candi bentar, these gates are not split into two. Furthermore, you’re likely to find the face of Bhoma, the Balinese Jungle God. While the creature may look fierce, he merely acts as a protector, scaring the evil spirits away from entering the holier parts of the temple.
Aside from the temple gates, the most distinguishing characteristic of Balinese temples are their multitiered pagodas of varying numbers of thatched roofs. These are situated in the holiest and innermost jero section of a temple. These towers also symbolize Mt. Meru and are even simply referred to as meru.
Different towers may be dedicated to different gods, or sometimes even individuals or local mountains. Meru towers have either 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11 tiers – a sequence of numbers considered sacred not just in Bali but in cultures throughout the world. It’s said that a Balinese temple’s importance can more or less be determined by the height of its highest meru.
A bale kulkul is a special tower housing a drum. The drum is used to call participants for village meetings or announce deaths, among other things. During special ceremonies, when gods or spirits are believed to descend down upon the temple complex, the kulkul might be banged on to announce the deity’s arrival.
The drum itself hangs from the ceiling of the thatched roof. It’s typically a hollow wooden cylinder with a slit down the middle, which is then struck with a special type of hammer. The most famous bale kulkul, known as the “Moon of Pejeng” actually houses a large bronze kettle drum, although the drum is no longer played.
Above we went over the importance of the Trimurti, or the holy Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Ultimately, though, Balinese Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. Their supreme god is known as Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa. This deity, however, is so beyond normal human comprehension that it cannot be symbolized by a single statue or painting.
Considering how visual and symbolic Balinese culture is, how do they go about representing something which can hardly be comprehended? They use what’s referred to as a padmasana, or an empty throne on which the formless Widhi Wasa is said to sit. The padmasana is unique to Bali and you won’t find it in other Hindu countries like India. It’s said to have been created by the 16th century priest Dang Hyang Nirartha, who also influenced many other aspects of what make up Balinese Hinduism today.
Notable Balinese Temples
As mentioned earlier, many of Bali’s most popular tourist spots happen to be temples. Below is a brief list of some notable temples on the island, but it is by no means complete. Visiting the following temples, though, reveals how while most Balinese temples share a similar layout and basic architectural elements, there’s plenty of variation when it comes to setting and scale.
Pura Uluwatu is located at the southern tip of the island, at the edge of the Bukit Badung peninsula. One of the most important temples in all of Bali, Uluwatu is dedicated to Shiva or Rudra – the destructive aspects of the divine.
The temple’s true origins remain somewhat of a mystery, but it’s estimated to be at least 1,000 years old. Notably, this is the spot where the highly influential priest Dang Hyang Nirartha is said to have achieved moksha, or enlightenment.
For the casual visitor, Uluwatu’s stunning cliff-side scenery is the main attraction over the temple itself. The area is especially popular at sunset and it’s one of the best places to see a kecak “monkey chant” performance. But even if you miss the performance, there are plenty of real monkeys all over the area. Just make sure to take care of your small items when visiting.
Located about 20km northwest of Kuta, the seaside Tanah Lot Temple is one of Bali’s holiest temples and one of its most iconic landmarks. The temple itself, completely inaccessible during high tide, is always off limits to foreigners. That doesn’t stop tourists from visiting in droves, however, as the sight of the temple is still spectacular from a distance – especially at sunset.
Tanah Lot was built by none other than Dang Hyang Nirartha in dedication to the sea god Baruna. The rock temple has long been inhabited by sea snakes, which according to legend, were formed out of Nirartha’s sashes as he fended off angry opponents of his teachings.
The temple is also revered for being a natural source of holy water. While foreign visitors can’t walk up to the main temple, they can stand in line to get blessed with the water by a local priest. After that, it’s possible to partially climb up one of the rock staircases on the side.
Even though it gets predictably crowded at sunset, there are still plenty of isolated places around the beach to stand and take pictures, or simply admire the majestic setting in peace.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
Featured on the Indonesian 50,000 rupiah note, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is one of the most unique and picturesque temples in Bali. The most notable feature of the temple would have to be its towering 11-tiered meru in the middle of the lake, which from a distance appears to be floating.
Located in Lake Beratan (or Bratan) in the mountainous region of Bedugul, this temple dates back to the 17th century and is where locals come to pray to the water goddess Dewi Danu. The tall meru, on the other hand, is dedicated to Shiva.
Another unique feature of the temple are the female idols at the base of the tall meru to which women can pray for fertility. Though the shrines in the middle of the lake are the main attraction, there is a more typical temple compound situated on the mainland as well.
Located in the village of Mengwi in the south central part of the island, Pura Taman Ayun is both a water temple and the family temple of the royal dynasty which once ruled the Mengwi Kingdom.
The temple was constructed in 1634 and is known for its numerous tall meru towers. Visitors can’t enter the main parts of the temple, but the spacious courtyard surrounding it provides clear views of the interior from many different angles. The outer part of the complex is also home to a couple of interesting museums, like the Manusa Yadnya and Ogoh-ogoh museums.
Walking around the peaceful, green garden, you’ll even come across a number of soothing water fountains. There are nine of them in total, in fact – a number that should come as no surprise for those familiar with Balinese numerology!
Though Taman Ayun is one of the most sacred and beautiful temples in all of Bali, it gets relatively fewer visitors than the other temples mentioned in this list. That makes it a great option for those looking to see a large temple away from the crowds.
Other Notable Temples
Noticeably missing from this list is the “mother temple,” Pura Besakih. Considered to be the most sacred temple in all of Bali, the massive temple complex of Besakih faces the holy mountain of Gunung Agung. Unfortunately for tourists, however, Besakih has an especially bad reputation for scams and aggressive touts, which is why I decided against going out of my way to visit during my trip. I would like to see it for myself sometime in the future, though.
For a special pilgrimage spot that’s almost completely unknown to foreign visitors, you might want to visit Pura Dalem Ped on Nusa Penida island, a temple dedicated to the demon king Mecaling. But you don’t have to limit yourself to only the major temples in Bali, of course. As mentioned, there are literally tens of thousands of them, so have fun exploring! Just be sure to follow proper temple etiquette, which you can read more about below.
If you’ve already been to Bali, you’ve probably gotten the feeling that locals here and there seem to be in constant preparation for a ceremony of some sort. And with so many temples on the island, there’s a good chance that at least one odalan, or temple anniversary festival, is taking place somewhere near you. Exactly what takes place at an odalan depends on the temple, but most ceremonies begin with offerings and prayer before gamelan performances go on into the night.
Aside from basic maintenance from some local priests, many Balinese temples remain vacant for much of the year. These anniversary festivals, then, are a time when local villagers not only make important offerings, but when the community can get together to undertake any necessary repairs. If you happen to be staying nearby an odalan celebration, local villagers will most likely be happy to welcome you to join the festivities.
Temple Dress Code & Etiquette
If there’s any one rule you need to be aware of before visiting temples in Bali, it’s that all visitors must where a sarong before entering the compound. This is a special Balinese sash which is tied around the waist, long enough to go below the knees.
Unlike Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, where you simply need to cover your legs, in Bali it doesn’t matter if you’re already wearing long pants or not. You must wear a sarong whether it’s over shorts or jeans, and the same dress code applies to both men and women.
Most of the major temples in Bali include sarong rental in their entrance fees, but it’s a good idea to have a sarong of your own. Either buy one or ask at your accommodation if they can lend you one, as many minor temples do not provide them.
Ladies shouldn’t enter a temple during menstruation, and nobody should go with an open wound. And as with any holy place around the world, simply be respectful and don’t go climbing on top of the shrines or other structures.