Bali is not exactly short of temples, but one in particular stands out – a century after it was hit by a devastating earthquake, discover the island’s ‘Mother Temple’
Bali might be known for beaches and parties, but describing it as a ‘tropical escape’ does it a bit of a disservice. Delve into its heart and you’ll see the Indonesian isle is more like a giant spiritual retreat. Thousands of holy compounds stud its interior, the majority of them Balinese Hindu – in contrast to the mainly Islamic main land – but one truly stands out.
At the centre of Bali’s temple network lies the 8th-century Pura Besakih, known as the ‘Mother Temple’. Sat on the slopes of sacred volcano Gunung Agung, it comprises 23 temples and over 200 buildings. It also has special significance among local Hindus, as the spirits of ancestors from every island family are said to reside there.
Such is Bali’s fragile geography, however, it’s remarkable any of its centuries-old temples still stand, and none more so than Besakih. This year marks a century since it was struck by a devastating earthquake. Extensive rebuilding followed, but it has fared better since, miraculously surviving the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung unscathed.
Stepping into Pura Besakih, you’ll be struck by its vast 3km-long stretch of temples, its central walkway adorned by rock-cut figurines. If you’re in luck, a clear day will reveal the towering Agung volcano. And, if you visit during a ceremony or festivaI (there’s more than 70 a year), the bunting and decorations provide vivid contrast with the imposing dark lava stone of the buildings.
Entry to the complex’s temples is forbidden, except for prayer or for making an offering, but the steep climb up its steps is worth it for views of the island, as seen from Split Gate. Elsewhere, you’re free to explore by yourself, but be prepared to swat away armies of souvenir touts and ‘official’ guides – arriving on an organised tour helps fend them off.
Pura Besakih is just the tip of Bali’s temple iceberg. Delve into bat-laced Goa Lawah, the relic-fil courtyard of Goa Gajah or the tall pagoda-topped temples of Ulun Danu Beratan. Equally, if you’re up to the challenge, conquer the marked trail up the summit of Agung – from there, you can really appreciate why Bali is the ‘island of the Gods’.