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A Guide to Bali's Temples

All About Bali's Temples - Their Origins, Their Ceremonies, and Their Purpose

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Pura Ulun Danu Bratan temple, Bali.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan temple, Bali.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

At last count, the island of Bali in Indonesia had some 20,000 temples within its borders. Unlike their counterparts on the neighboring Indonesian island of Java, the temples of Bali have collectively flourished over the past centuries, surviving the arrival of Islam and Dutch conquerors later on.

As markers of Balinese culture and identity, Bali's temples demonstrate the health and vibrance of Bali's local communities. As Ni Wayan Murni explains:

"The key point is that each temple represents, and has a congregation of, a particular social unit. In that temple offerings will be made on a regular basis to the gods that are linked to and concerned with their affairs. So the Rice goddess, Dewi Sri, will receive offerings in the rice temples, the market gods in the market temples, the village ancestors in the village temples and so on." (Source; emphasis mine.)

Types of Bali Temples

Thus the types of temples in Bali can be classified according to the social unit they serve: there are temples devoted to villages (territorial temples), professions (functional temples), and clans (family temples). A very few special structures are public temples: they either cement the bond between the state and its subjects (state temples), or serve a protective/devotional purpose for the entire island (kahyangan jagat).

With the exception of public temples, temples in Bali tend to have limited memberships: Balinese devotees will only worship in temples devoted to their own clan, their own village, or their own profession. That explains the prevalence of temples all around Bali: Balinese temples are a marker of identity, and identity is simply not transferable.

Public Temples of Bali

These temples count among the more popular tourist destinations in Bali, due to their size and general accessibility. The latter is no coincidence: public temples serve Bali as a whole, being open to all Balinese without regard to village, family, or professional affiliation.

The most important public temples are known as the "six great sanctuaries" - the pura sad kahyangan (literally "temples of the world"), located in key points throughout the island. These temples are not dedicated to any single Hindu deity; they serve no less than the ultimate manifestation of God, Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa. These pura sad kahyangan are:

Another type of temple venerates the legendary missionaries who first introduced Bali to Hinduism. These temples - pura dang kahyangan - pay tribute to these teachers' lives, acts and teachings. Two temples that fall under this class are Pura Luhur Uluwatu in South Bali and Tanah Lot.

Note on visiting Bali temples: Bali's public temples generally don't discourage foreigners from visiting, so long as sufficient respect is paid. After all, these are living temples, sanctuaries of deities that are as real and familiar to temple worshippers as your family members are to you. Before planning a visit to a public temple in Bali, please read our article about Etiquette Tips for Travelers in Bali, Indonesia.

Territorial Temples of Bali

Territorial temples serve a particular village's local deities, and thus are exclusive to the families within a given village - villagers may only worship at their respective village's territorial temples.

These temples usually come in a set of three per village, known as kahyangan tiga,and are located in particular geographically-appropriate places in and around the village that correspond to the Hindu/Buddhist three-tiered cosmology. (More on the latter here: Culture of Bali - The Geography of the Balinese Spirit World.)

Each of Bali's villages usually have three village temples, placed according to the idea of swah, bwah, and bhur, located respectively at the highest side or the side facing Gunung Agung, the town center, and the seaward or lowest side.

  • Pura Puseh, dedicated to Lord Brahma who created the world. The village founders are venerated at the local pura puseh, which is normally set on the highest spot of the village, usually closest to Gunung Agung. Its location corresponds to Swah, the upper world, which is occupied by the spirits of deified ancestors and the gods
  • Pura Desa, dedicated to Lord Wisnu, who maintains the world. Set at the village center, the pura desa helps regulate the village's activities. A pura agung, or town hall, may be attached to the pura desa, providing a venue for important village meetings. Its location corresponds to bwah, the middle world, which is occupied by flesh-and-blood people.
  • Pura Dalem, dedicated to Lord Siwa, the destroyer: the temple of death. The pura dalem is set at the lowest part of the village, often facing the sea, corresponding to bhur, the lower world, where demons reside. As the area of the village closest to bhur, the cemetery is usually located here. The pura dalem at the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest is one of the most tourist-accessible examples.

Functional Temples of Bali

Functional temples are devoted to particular professions and their patron deities. Examples of professions with dedicated temples include entrepreneurs, rice farmers, and fishermen.

Rice cultivation provides the richest number of functional temples: growing rice in Bali also has a religious dimension, thanks to the ancient subak irrigation system set up centuries in the past. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan on the shores of Lake Bratan is the most prominent functional temple of this type, being the "mother temple" of all subak temples on the island.

Temples stand all the way down the flow of irrigation, from large pura ulun danu on the lakes, down to pura ulun empelan on the weirs, to pura ulun suwi close to the main dams, to pura bedugul, the smallest temples located in individual family ricefields.

Traders and market sellers worship at another functional temple, the pura melanting located next to Bali's markets. These temples are dedicated to the goddess of seeds, gardens, and markets, Dewi Melanting.

Family Temples of Bali

Family temples are the smallest and most numerous temples in Bali. Every family compound has its own shrine dedicated to worshiping one's ancestors, and clans or extended families have their own temples for ancestor worship. Such temple membership is purely hereditary: one can only worship at the temples of one's own ancestors, nowhere else.

Not all dead ancestors get the benefit of deification and worship. In Balinese culture, deification and subsequent worship is accorded only to ancestors whose bodies have been purified by ngaben, or the traditional Balinese cremation ceremony. (More here: Bali Culture - Balinese Cremation: Passing On to the Next Life).

Odalan - Bali Temple Anniversaries

Every temple in Bali has a birthday, and the bigger the temple, the grander the birthday party. The odalan - or temple anniversary - takes place once every pawukon calendar cycle (more on pawukon here: Bali Culture - Balinese Calendars: Galungan and the Pawukon Calendar). Odalan bring whole communities together in celebration.

The odalan is usually determined by the temple priest to fall on the nearest full moon; the length of the odalan can vary from one day to eleven days, but more commonly lasts for three days. The odalan for Pura Besakih, the mother temple, is never shorter than seven days.

During odalan, the temples are dolled up to look their best - the temple walls and pavilions are adorned with painted cloth, carved wood, and coins. Devotees set up colored umbrellas, umbul-umbul flags, and penjor in front of the temple.

On the day before the ceremony, carved wooden animals called pratima - considered the physical home of the deities worshiped in the temples - are carried to holy springs and bathed there. Upon their return, a colorful welcoming ceremony begins, sometimes accompanied by pendet dances.

Finely dressed women take towering heaps of offerings to the temple, where the priests (pedanda) bless them to the tune of finely chiming silver bells. The heights of the offerings often defy gravity, as they are handled with skill by the ladies bearing them wearing their most colorful finery. The offerings are not left behind at the temple; instead, they are carried back to be consumed at home.

During the length of the odalan, cockfights and cultural shows like calonarong dances and wayang kulit keep visiting villagers occupied.

If you want to know where the nearest odalan is happening during your visit to Bali, ask your hotel's tourist desk, or inquire at the nearest tourism office. The Bali Tourism Board site provides a list of tourism offices in Bali (offsite); ask at the office nearest your hotel.

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