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Bali Day 2: Sunday, August 6, 2017

David on side stairway

David Black on the side steps leading up to Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia.

Although I could have stayed on the edge of the caldera looking at Gunung Batur forever, we had one more place to visit on our tour: Besakih Temple, the Mother Temple of all Bali.

Snake fruit and oranges

A fruit stand selling oranges, snake fruit, and bananas on the way to Besakih Temple.

Gusti had done well answering my questions about the shrines and temples we passed this morning, and now we were going to visit my first major Hindu religious site on Bali. We got back into the car (after I bought a small bag of oranges to try) and drove down ridgelines through small towns, gradually rounding the mountain until we got to the bottom foothills. I had no idea exactly where on Bali we were, but had the feeling that not many tourists got this far. That suited me just fine.

David at Besakih steps

The main steps to Besakih Temple, which only believers are allowed to use. I had to climb up some side steps. Wearing a sarong is required to enter the temple grounds. Gusti had to show me how to tie it properly. This temple is the mother temple to the rest of Bali.

From a distance it is hard to see Besakih Temple because its pagodas and walls are so old and covered in vegetation that they blend into the basic mountainside. We stopped at one of many parking lots and were immediately besieged by people selling souvenirs and sarongs. All Hindu temples require a sarong on Bali, and I had already purchased one the day before. Gusti and a lady selling postcards helped me correctly tie my sarong on; it was a bright aqua colored batik print, and with my ice-dyed blue shirt, I must have stood out. Gusti walked with me up to the foot of the temple, walking along a pathway through fruit stands selling snake fruit, oranges, bananas, and durian (which I could smell from a distance). He told me that only Hindu believers are allowed to walk up the central staircase or go inside the temples, but that tourists could see inside through the gates and could reach the top via a side staircase. We took some photos at the bottom of the main stairs, then worked our way around to the side entrance.

11-step pagoda

The main temple pagodas have eleven levels representing the eight cardinal directions and top, middle, and bottom. From the side stairs we could see into the main temple courtyard.

Walking in the sarong was difficult. I kept tripping as I walked up the stairs, and finally had to hold up my skirt as I have seen ladies do. Since everyone was wearing one, I did not feel out of place. I’m sure the vendors around the temple were charging much higher prices than what I had paid the day before.

David before mother temple

On the lawn leading to the main stairway into Besakih Temple. This far up in the mountains, the air is fairly cool, and there are fewer tourists than at most Hindu sites around Kuta or Ubud.

The temple complex was huge, with walled compounds that Gusti said were family clan temples. They surrounded the main courtyard and largest temples of the central complex. There were large pagodas with eleven stories, which Gusti explained represented the eight points of the compass plus top, center, and bottom. Believers in white shirts and gold hats and sarongs were placing offerings and praying inside the main courtyard, and everywhere the dark stone walls were green with mosses and grass.

Besakih temple from above

The temple complex as seen from above.

Gusti showed me large photos of one of the biggest ceremonies held here. Each year, the people of the local town dress in the white and gold clothing and take out the shrines of the Hindu gods, carrying them on their shoulders all the way to the ocean, where they go through a purification rite before being carried back up to the temple. The photos showed a huge procession winding its way to the sea. Other ceremonies are held only once per generation, going back hundreds of years.

Pagoda and flowers

Temple pagoda and bougainvillea flowers. The entire complex is divided into separate areas and temples for each of the major families of Bali. Gusti said his family has a temple here, too.

We walked up the side stairway and peaked into the various courtyards. This complex has some 32 clan temples and a number of larger temples, and is truly a huge area. Yet it doesn’t seem huge, because it blends in so well with its surroundings. Everywhere I pointed my camera, the photos were gorgeous.

Gusti told me that this was the central and highest level of temple in Bali. It was at the foot of the sacred mountain. At the next level down were the four regional temples at the four primary directions, with Tanah Lot in the south. These temples were under the administration of Besakih. Then each city or town had at least three community temples that were under the regional temples. Finally, each household had its own family temple or shrine.

Green temple vista

The lush green grass and plants at Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia.

Gusti was great at taking many photos of me and at explaining the ceremonies of these temples. I was surprised that a place so sacred was also open to tourists. There were restrictions, but I got to see inside all of the areas. I didn’t see many westerners, but there were some Indonesians walking up the stairs with me. Most of the people here were believers and came up the middle stairs; the central courtyard was pretty busy. So although it was mildly crowded, most of the people here weren’t tourists. That made my experience that much more pleasant.

Worshippers in courtyard

A view into the main courtyard, where worshippers kneel before the main pagodas.

It was humid but nicely cool this far up the mountain and very refreshing. Even though I had climbed a large number of stairs, I wasn’t tired. But it had been a long day, and by the time I got back to the car I was ready to head back to Ubud. I took off my sarong and climbed into the car and we started down the mountain.

Shrines to the sea

Portable shrines in the Besakih Temple. Once per year, they are carried by hand from here all the way to the beach to perform a purification rite. The local villagers dress in white and make quite the procession.

I dozed off, but we came to a winding road down a cliff with incredible views. I wasn’t able to get a good photo through the trees along the road, and could only catch glimpses. Once we reached the valley floor it was late afternoon and the hills and mountains glowed in the sunlight with a breathtaking green beyond the rice fields. Some of my photos through this area turned out very well.

David above temple in sarong

David Black at the top of Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia.

The towns became larger and more numerous. We passed groups of school children marching, practicing for Indonesian Independence Day. We came into Ubud from the south and passed the Monkey Forest Temple on our way to the center of town. We drove down Jalan Kajeng to my bungalow. I had already paid Gusti and the driver when we started out, a total of $155 U.S., but I gave them a decent tip as this had been an extraordinary day, well worth the money.

Temples and flowers above

Flowers and pagodas at Besakih Temple.

I was getting hungry again but was too tired to walk into town, so I ate the last of my snacks and some of the oranges. I tried to get on Google Hangout with Becca and the boys, but our timing was off and I fell asleep. Once I woke up again, I spent the remainder of the evening uploading photos. I had taken hundreds and lots of video just today. I also started to repack my things in anticipation of leaving Indonesia tomorrow.

Bali Hai scene

A perfect photo of the Balinese countryside on my way back to Ubud.

I will be sad to go, with so many thing left to see and do. But I’ve been here for nearly four weeks and I miss my family. It’s time to go home.

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