Gunung (Mount) Agung is the largest and most active volcano in Bali, Indonesia. Standing at 3000 feet, it is the highest peak on the island (I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari 1). Surrounding this mountain, are many little villages composed mainly of Balinese Hindus. At the base of Gunung Agung lies a group of sacred Hindu temples known as Pura Besakih. This refers to a complex of sacred temples located in the adat village of Besakih on the island, as opposed to one singular temple (I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari 2).
Pura Besakih contains the most sacred and influential Hindu temples known to Balinese Hinduism, the most influential being Pura Pentaron Agung (Stuart-Fox 79). The origin of the development of Pura Besakih is not concrete. However, it is believed to have been built sometime in the 11th century, before the construction of both the Sukuh and Cetho temples which were built in the 15th century. It is a very popular tourist attraction for individuals around the world, known for hosting some of the religion’s largest religious rituals critical to Balinese Hinduism (Ardhana, Sulandjari, and Setiwan 26). Each temple is built on a separate mountain ridge on the great volcano, constructed in the form of punden berundak (terraces). This particular design represents a belief that past inhabitants of the region possessed. They had believed that each terrace increased in holiness as it increased in height (Ardhana, Sulandjari, and Setiwan 27). For example, if a particular temple had four terraces, the highest (fourth) would be the one that was considered closest to the spiritual realm, therefore, the holiest. In contrast to other Hindu temples located in Asia, these temples belonging to Pura Besakih are like no other. The temples have a structure similar to that of a courtyard, with no walls. They contain a row of shrines and altars to several gods located at the “upstream” or “mountainwards” (kaja) corner of the innermost courtyard. This is unique to other Hindu temples in Asia as most are built to honor a singular god and are typically structured as buildings (Lansing 66). The specific temple structure on the island of Bali reflects the unique composition of Balinese Hinduism as it is a combination of both Hinduism and Buddhism, this particular religion is widely practiced throughout Bali but is not common in many other regions of Asia, that practice more orthodox Hinduism, as well as Indonesia where many identify as Muslims (Rodrigues 347).
There are many villages on the island of Bali, and like their temples, they are unique. As explained by David Stuart-Fox (2002), no village is independent of another as their rituals and economy influence the other villages, similar to a food web (54). Each customary or traditional (adat) village contains different temples that are primarily responsible for, whether it be for aesthetic reasons or preparations for future rituals. Within the obligations of an adat village, certain groups and families are also responsible for the maintenance and rituals of certain temples and may have different relationships with each temple (54). There are two different types of relationships between the temples and villagers of Besakih as well as the rest of Bali. These relationships are known as pangamong and maturan relationships. ‘Support’ or pangamon relationships entails full responsibility for the enactment of ritual (55). In other words, those who have a pangamon relationship with a temple are responsible for the organization and carrying-out of rituals. This may include providing manual labor to maintain the condition of the temple or paying dues (uran) in order to pay for future rituals. The other type of relationship, maturan, is voluntary in nature. Compared to pangamon relationships, they are not obligatory and instead of providing means for a ritual, they are offerings given to specific gods or ancestors of a family on an individual basis (55). Both cases of these relationships are seen throughout the sacred temples of Besakih.
There are specific rituals practiced in specific temples, determined by different factors. One factor that contributes to the type of rituals that are performed is determined by a hierarchical organization of the temples within the Pura Besakih. These may influence the type of relationship that villagers have with a temple in Bali. The sacredness of each temple is systematically classified based on a number of aspects. These include the regional location of the said temple, agriculture and irrigation surrounding it, and descent (Stuart-Fox 53). Descent refers to the group or family that the temple belongs to, some hold a greater social status than others and the placement of a temple on the hierarchical system of Bali resonates with that.
In the case of Besakih, the most sacred temple is Pura Pentaron Agung and also the largest. Stuart-Fox describes the temple as being located in the center of Pura Besakih (70). Pura Pentaron Agung is considered to be a ‘general public temple’. This means that it is non-specific to Balinese Hinduism as it is also visited by many other Hindus in Indonesia, as well as many tourists. It is not privately supported, in fact, it is maintained by Parisada Hindu Dharma Pusat, the official national Hindu organization of Indonesia (71). Not only is Pura Pentaron Agung the most sacred and largest temple in Besakih, but it is also the only temple within the complex to contain a shrine known as the Triple Padmasana or lotus seat. This shrine in its uniqueness is the most influential one located in Pura Besakih and is the only lotus seat (padmasana) shrine in the area (79). The shrine sits atop a raised foundation with several engravings etched into the sides, on top of the foundation, are three identical statues lined in a row constructed in the shape of a small throne, at the base of these statues is Bedawange Nala, the cosmic turtle which is supporting these seats (80). The reasoning for constructing this specific shrine is not known, some scholars have theorized that it is to commemorate Sanghyang Widdhi Wasa, a highly regarded god in Bali Hinduism (81).
The great mountain, Mount Agung is the highest peak on Bali, making it the most sacred mountain (I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari 1). It is surrounded by streams and two major rivers that run north and south of the mountain. Exotic vegetation grows all throughout the island encompassing the volcano creating a unique beauty and ecosystem. Despite its sacredness, no temples or shrines reside at the peak. This is partly due to the fact that it is an active volcano, but also has to do with the long and treacherous hike involved in reaching the peak of the summit. The fact that it is an active volcano can come with complications and previous eruptions have been difficult to predict (I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari 2). This comes with ongoing risk for the civilians living on the island of Bali, yet many still reside in the area. A lot of climbers and/or tourists/climbers have gone missing, lost, fallen, and even died while doing the trekking/climbing (I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari 1). This climb, however, is viewed as being extremely spiritually purifying to Balinese Hindus and is often done by older practitioners of the religion. Climbing to the peak is considered to be very cleansing and a rather freeing experience to those that are able to conquer it. In an ancient Balinese myth, it is said that Gunung Agung is a broken-off piece of Mount Mahameru, metaphorically implying that the god of Mount Agung is the son of the god Mount Mahameru, the high god Pasupati (Stuart-Fox 2).
Both Gunung Agung and Pura Besakih are extremely influential to the island of Bali both in the past and present. They have helped to shape the unique composition of Balinese Hinduism that encompasses both a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism. This unique religion has attracted tourists and religious scholars worldwide to this beautiful destination whether it be for curiosity or research. It provides a means for maintaining economic stability on the island and has also become an important factor for helping to provide future rituals, ceremonies, and festivals in order to maintain the unique culture of this sacred island.
References and Further Readings
Geertz, Hildred (2004) The life of a Balinese Temple: artistry, imagination, and history in a peasant village. Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press.
Ardhana I Ketut, Seitwan I Ketut, Sulandjari Sulandjari (2018) “The Temple of Besakih, Sukuh and Cetho: The Dynamics of Cultural Heritage in the Context of Sustainable Tourism Development in Bali.” Indonesia: E-Journal of Cultural Studies 26-30.
Lansing, John Stephen (1995) The Balinese. Fortworth: Hartcourt Brace College Publishers.
I.G Mudana, I.K Sutama, C.I.S Widhari (2008) “Local Community Entrepreneurship in Mount Agung Trekking.” Journal of Physics Conference Series 953(1):012107. Accessed February 28, 2019. doi: 10.1088/1742-6596/953/1/012107.
Stuart-Fox, David J. (2002) Pura Besakih: temple, religion and society in Bali. Leiden: KITLV
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Adat villages of Bali
Banten Sane Munggah
Balinese water temples
Bhatura Turun Kabeh
Village life of Bali
Article written by: Anna Blackmore (Spring 2020) who is solely responsible for this content.