Pura Besakih, Bali’s largest and most sacred temple complex, graces the lower southwestern slopes of Gunung Agung at about 900 metres above sea level. The scale of the complex is impressive, encompassing almost two dozen temples traversing the slope.
Often shrouded in mist thanks to the altitude, and with the imposing volcano in the background, the scenery is dramatic and atmospheric. However for the visiting tourist, rather than the spiritual and mystical experience it could be, hordes of self-professed ‘temple guards’ and touts tend to give rise to frustration and a rather negative impression.
The site is thought to have had spiritual significance since ancient times. The first shrine was believed to have been built in the eighth century in honour of Naga Besuki, a dragon deity and guardian of the mountains and oceans believed to inhabit Gunung Agung. Other shrines were added and stories tell of the founding of Pura Besakih during the 14th century Majapahit empire’s conquest of Bali. Despite its ancient origins, most of the modern temple complex has been reconstructed following a major earthquake in 1917. An eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963 saw the lava flow miss the temple by metres. This close call was seen as a miraculous sign that the gods wanted to show their power without destroying the temple built in their honour.
The symbolic centre of Pura Besakih is the lotus throne or padmasana in the central temple, Pura Penataran Agung, which dates to the 17th century and is dedicated to Shiva, the most venerated in the Balinese Hindu pantheon. Aligned along a single axis, a series of terraces and staircases leads to numerous gateways and courtyards designed to lead the worshippers on an upward journey and closer to the seat of the gods in the holy mountain. Two other main temples, Pura Batu Madeg dedicated to Vishnu and Pura Batu Kiduling Kreteg dedicated to Brahma, are surround by separate temples belonging to different regencies and caste groups.
Every shrine celebrates its own anniversary each year according to the Balinese calendar (which runs over 210 days), and with more than 70 regular festivals, Pura Besakih is busy with worshippers drawn from all over Bali, dressed in colourful traditional clothing and carrying artfully arranged offerings. The annual Ida Bhatara Turun Kabeh ceremony is one of the most important festivals held at Besakih, while every decade the bigger Panca Bali Krama is held, then around every century there is Eka Dasa Rudra, the most important ceremony in Bali, bar none. In 1963 Indonesia’s first president Sukarno convinced local priests to move Eka Dasa Rudra forward a few years to impress an international convention of travel agents. This is believed to have brought about the deadly eruption of Gunung Agung. The story is that the travel agents turned up for the ceremony amid the rumblings and smoke of the eruption, but Sukarno did not.
To visit the temple you are required to wear a sarong and sash and have your shoulders covered. If you arrive without, a multitude of tourist shops and hawkers will try to fleece you by selling you one. It’s not possible to enter many of the temples unless you’re there to pray or making offerings, however much is visible from the gates, or over the walls (please don’t climb up for a better view).
For the casual visitor, Pura Besakih is, frankly, a tourist trap. The official ticket price is 15,000 rupiah, however on our visit, at the ‘official booth’ we were told it was 400,000 rupiah. We said we just wanted an entry ticket, and were told in response that it wasn’t possible to enter without a guide, and that was included in the extra cost. This is not true — you don’t need a guide. After some debate, we finally bought the ticket and then had to pay an extra 5,000 rupiah for ‘parking’; when we asked for a receipt, none was forthcoming.
Ticket in hand, we were followed by a ‘temple guardian’ offering guiding services. In fact, we wanted a guide to explain the history and perhaps give us some insight into the cultural aspects of the temple complex and eventually agreed on a reasonable price. Reasonable if the guide had explained anything. Our ‘guide’ had three sentences: “This is a holy temple”, “This is this the mother temple of Bali”, “The temple was built in the eighth century” — repeat. At least it meant other touts left us alone.
If you would like the services of a guide, we would recommend engaging one from an outside reputable tour company; at least they may have some knowledge of the temple. However if you do just want to explore yourself, start by following the path along the outer edge of Pura Penataran Agung. You will be able to see which areas you can enter, and as long as you have your sarong and sash, you won’t cause offence. As we said though, don’t climb up on walls to get a better view, or walk in front of people praying.
While the complex is very interesting, the touts are a major headache. We really hate to say you should avoid a place, but there are plenty of other interesting temples in Bali you can visit without the hassle you’ll find here. If you decide to go it alone, stand your ground, and ask for a printed ticket (this will have the correct entry price on it). You need not pay any more. If you do decide to engage a guide (you may be luckier than us and get someone with knowledge), agree on the price upfront. Do not settle for a “whatever you think”, as that can turn into extortion at the end of the tour.
While more than 20 temples are at the site, the casual visitor will probably only find the central focal point of particular interest. Be warned there are lots of stairs to climb, so wear comfortable shoes. Allow for an hour on site (not counting the time required to beat off the touts with a stick).
How to get there
The best way to reach Pura Besakih is via your own transport — the temple is a 40-minute drive from Sidemen, about an hour from Gunung Batur region or 90 minutes from Ubud. It’s possible to travel via public bemo, but this will make the trip an all day outing, and unless you are attending a ceremony, it’s not worth the extra time.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 5th July, 2016.