Pura Luhur Uluwatu is spiritually important to the people of Bali, as it is one of Bali’s sacred directional temples (kayangan jagat) protecting the island from evil spirits in the southwest.
It's this proximity to evil, presumably, that compels the temple's guardians to require the wearing of special sashes or sarongs, as they are supposed to protect visitors from evil influences. (If you don't bring your own, don't worry - these items can be borrowed at the temple gate.)
The temple at Uluwatu was built by the Javanese Hindu guru Empu Kuturan in the 10th century. Seven hundred years later, the guru Niratha added further to the temples on the site.
"Ulu" means head, and "Watu" means rock; the temple at "the head of the rock" stands atop a sheer cliff rising two hundred feet above the Indian Ocean.
The temple commands a wonderful view of the sea breaking against the base of the cliffs below, and a totally unforgettable sunset.
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Kecak and fire dance
The most compelling part of the temple complex, however, comes from its nightly kecak and fire dance performances.
"Kecak" is derived from an old Balinese ritual called the sanghyang - a trance dance driven by its participants' repetitive chanting. In its ancient form, the sanghyang communicated the wishes of the gods or of the ancestors.
In the 1930s, a German visitor reformatted the sanghyang into the more familiar kecak performance - doing away with the spiritualistic aspect of the dance and building it around the Hindu Ramayana epic.
No musical instruments are used in a kecak performance - instead, you find about thirty bare-chested men sitting in a circle, uttering "chak… chak… chak" rhythmically and repetitively. The total effect is trance-inducing - repetitive voices and outlandish costumes creating a trippy multimedia experience.
The performance plays out as the sun sets, and the culmination involves a giant fire display that is integral to the plot. (Visitors wearing flammable material may want to get a seat higher up in the stands.)
Rama and Sita
To help those unfamiliar with the Ramayana, synopsis sheets are handed out to audience members before the show.
The plot goes like this:
Rama, a wise prince and the legal heir of the throne of Ayodha, is exiled from the his father Dasarata's realm. He is accompanied by his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Laksamana.
While crossing the enchanted forest of Dandaka, the demon king Rahwana spots Sita and lusts after her. Rahwana's deputy Marica transforms himself into a golden deer to distract Rama and Laksamana.
Rahwana then transforms into an old man to fool Sita into stepping away from a magic circle of protection set by Laksamana - thus fooled, Sita is spirited away to Rahwana's realm of Alengka.
Rama and Laksamana discover the deception too late; lost in the forest, they encounter the monkey king Hanoman, who swears his allegiance and goes off in search of Sita.
Hanoman finds Sita in Alengka. The monkey king takes Rama's ring to Sita as a token of his contact with her husband. Sita gives Hanoman her hairpin to give to Rama, along with a message that she is waiting for his rescue.
Hanoman marvels at the beauty of Alengka, but begins to destroy it. Rahwana's giant servants capture Hanoman, and bind him to be burned. Hanoman uses his magical powers to escape from certain death. Here, the performance ends.
Despite the historical and cultural implications of the performance, the Uluwatu kecak performance is strictly for the tourists. The fiery escape of Hanoman is played up for visual effect, and the actors who play Hanoman, Rahwana, and the giants ham it up mightily. The night I watched, Hanoman went up to a bald German tourist in the front row and rubbed the man's head, to everyone's amusement.
Getting to Uluwatu
Uluwatu is at Bali's southwest end, eleven miles south of Kuta. Take the Bypass from Kuta, heading to Nusa Dua down the road Jalan Uluwatu.
The best way to get to Uluwatu would be to arrange a trip with your hotel or travel operator. If you absolutely must take a bemo, ride the dark-blue Tegal from Kuta to Jimbaran, then take a taxi all the way to Uluwatu.
Coming back is more difficult if you don't have any ride pre-arranged. You can try hitching a ride from any of the folks leaving at the same time as you.
Before entering the temple complex, you'll pay an entrance fee of 50,000 rupiah at the booth in front of the temple steps. You'll also be asked to wear a sarong or a sash if your clothes are too short.
The stairway meets Uluwatu's outer courtyard, rimmed with trees and infested with kleptomaniac monkeys who like stealing anything glittery. A sign at the entrance warns visitors to stow away their jewelry, eyeglasses, and other valuables to make sure the monkeys don't get to them first.
Further down the courtyard, you'll walk onto a cliff-top walkway that leads to the kecak arena. This is a great place to get pictures taken, as you can set the temple on top of the cliff as a backdrop. The temple itself is off limits to visitors.