When visiting a temple, you’ll encounter all sorts of elaborate gates, shrines or other interesting looking structures. But you probably won’t always understand what you’re looking at.
Some temples will have special shrines dedicated to certain deities outside the Trimurti, for example.
Furthermore, you’ll likely notice a number of covered pavilions within the temple compound. These might be for gamelan performances or village meetings, but it’s often unclear to the casual visitor.
One thing all Balinese temples have in common, though, is that they’re all open to the sky.
The reasoning is so that the gods being summoned during special ceremonies can descend from the heavens into the temple before eventually returning home.
The list below is an outline of the most standard elements you’re likely to find at a temple in Bali.
1). Candi Bentar – As you approach a temple, the first thing you’ll notice is the candi bentar, or split gateway. These gates resemble a mountain that was split into two exactly even parts. To fully grasp the symbolism of the candi bentar, some basic familiarity with the legend of Mt. Meru is required.
Mt. Meru is a mythological mountain where the gods dwell. It appears not only in Hindu mythology but in Jain and Buddhist stories also. The Balinese believe that the original Mt. Meru, located somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, was transported to Bali by Shiva, where it was then split into two.
2). Paduraksa – Most temples also contain inner gates known as paduraksa or kori agung. These gates separate the different areas within a temple, such as the jaba pisan from the japa tengah (see above).
Unlike the candi bentar, these gates are not split into two. Furthermore, you’re likely to find the face of Bhoma, the Balinese Jungle God. While the creature may look fierce, he merely acts as a protector, scaring the evil spirits away from entering the holier parts of the temple.
3). Meru – Aside from the temple gates, the most distinguishing characteristic of Balinese temples are their multitiered pagodas of varying numbers of thatched roofs. These are situated in the holiest and innermost jero section of a temple. These towers also symbolize Mt. Meru and are even simply referred to as meru.
Different towers may be dedicated to different gods, or sometimes even individuals or local mountains. Meru towers have either 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11 tiers – a sequence of numbers considered sacred not just in Bali but in cultures throughout the world. It’s said that a Balinese temple’s importance can more or less be determined by the height of its highest meru.
4). Bale Kulkul – A bale kulkul is a special tower housing a drum. The drum is used to call participants for village meetings or announce deaths, among other things. During special ceremonies, when gods or spirits are believed to descend down upon the temple complex, the kulkul might be banged on to announce the deity’s arrival.
The drum itself hangs from the ceiling of the thatched roof. It’s typically a hollow wooden cylinder with a slit down the middle, which is then struck with a special type of hammer.
5). Padmasana – Above we went over the importance of the Trimurti, or the holy Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Ultimately, though, Balinese Hinduism is a monotheistic religion.
Their supreme god is known as Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa. This deity, however, is so beyond normal human comprehension that it cannot be symbolized by a single statue or painting.
Considering how visual and symbolic Balinese culture is, how do they go about representing something which can hardly be comprehended?
They use what’s referred to as a padmasana, or an empty throne on which the formless Widhi Wasa is said to sit. The padmasana is unique to Bali and you won’t find it in other Hindu countries like India.
It’s said to have been created by the 16th century priest Dang Hyang Nirartha, who also influenced many other aspects of what make up Balinese Hinduism today.