The Mother Temple of Bali may be the most important temple on the whole island but foreign visitors increasingly skip it because it’s not worth the hassle. “This place is run by gangsters, ” says one blogger. “Rude children followed us everywhere, shouting taunting jibes; overbearing ‘guides’ at the entrance demanded money even though we had paid,” says another. “Besakih is awful and the tourist authority should do something about this,” blogs yet another.
Besakih Temple is located on the slopes of Mount Agung, the holiest place on the island. When Mount Agung erupted in 1963 killing almost two thousand people, the flow of lava missed the temple by only a few meters, which only increased its esteem within this largely Hindu community.
Besakih is actually an extensive complex made up of a number of temples and shrines, some which are off-limits to non-worshippers. Visitors can spend a few hours climbing the steep stairs, making their way up the mountain but I chose to stay near Pura Penataran Agang, the symbolic centre, built on six levels and the largest and most important temple.
Gods don’t live in Balinese temples; they go there when there is a special ceremony. The Besakih Temple has many special ceremonies simply because each of the temples and shrines within it has a birthday that must be celebrated. I visited during the full moon in March and on that day ceremonies are held in Hindu temples all across Bali. The phases of the moon are particularly important to the Balinese, with the most important days being the full moon (purnama) and the new moon (tilem).
The day I was there was also Buda Keliwon Pegatuwakan, the full moon day that ended the Galungan festivity that takes place every 210 days. On that day, women carry ‘towers’ of fruit on their head as they make their way to their temple to thank the gods for the fruits of the Earth; I saw several of them walking elegantly along the side of the road as we drove to the mountain from Ubud but I refrained from taking a photo for the load each was carrying was quite extraordinary and I didn’t want to disturb their concentration. As part of the festival, long, curved bamboo poles were placed on both sides of the road for miles and miles; they were decorated with palm leaves, corn cobs, coconuts, a piece of white or yellow cloth and other offerings as thanks to the gods.
If you visit a Hindu temple on a regular day you just need to wear a sash around your waist. On a special day you must also wear a sarong. My driver thought I should purchase my sarong and sash before I reached the temple so that I would be wearing them when I left the car. He also said I didn’t have to hire a guide but if I did that I should not pay more than 30,000-40,000 IDR although they would try to get at least 100,000 IDR (about US $11) from me. That seemed like good advice considering I was only paying $22 for the car and driver for a full day.
When we arrived there were only a handful of tourists in sight and no tour buses. Would the hawkers and scammers be desperate? I bought a ticket at the office for 15,000 IDR (about $1.50) and as I made my way down the road towards the temple I was approached by several men, one demanding to see my ticket, others telling me I could not get into the temple without a guide, and lots of kids trying to sell me postcards. I put on my earphones, turned up the music on my iPod and paid them no attention. I was doing this alone.
There were lots of worshippers and I was swept up the stairs to the various terraces with them. It was a joyous occasion, not a solemn one, and everyone looked so grand. Finally I faded into the background, watching it all, until I eventually left. No one harassed me.
My visit was easy but that was an exception based on stories I have heard. So until the ‘reception committee’ at Besakih learns some manners, foreign tourists may continue to “vote with their feet” and not go there. Others may decide to have a look but refuse to hire a guide or buy a postcard and instead see what we can for the $1.50 ticket and then move on to another temple, another site, for there are many worthy ones.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012