Upon arrival in Sidemen yesterday–the day after a sizable storm blew through the night before and cleared out the haze–nearly every turn in the road brought into view Mount Agung, Bali’s highest at 9944 ft (3100 m.). It is believed to be a fragment of Mt. Meru/Kailash in the Himalayas, the archetypal pivot of the world for both Buddhist and later Hindu traditions. Sidemen is 30 kilometers away from the mountain but I could easily see a horizontal swath cut into the densely forested slopes. This is the site of Pura (temple) Besakih, more formally the Pura Penataran Agung. It is about 1000 meters up the side of the mountain and is acclaimed to be the “mother temple” for all of Bali’s Hindus.
With a reputation dating back to the 12th century (and probably before that, although no records exist), it was an obligatory trip for someone like me interested in religion and culture. I started off on a motorbike and then quickly realized that I was overconfident about maneuvering successfully the twists and turns, trucks and potholes for an hour ride each way. Not three minutes after leaving the inn, I about got run off the road by a truck cutting a turn sharply into my lane. Fortunately, the inn was understanding about the incident, and with a few calls they were able to find a driver for me. And so for the bargain price of $33, I had a chauffeur, Mr. Lanangrai Gusti, who was not only an expert driver but could answer many of my questions about life by the roadside.
Guidebooks had warned about the aggressive touts who foist themselves upon hapless foreign tourists, demanding outrageous fees for their services. Maybe they were tired after the busy weekend but I ran the gauntlet quickly (“Mister! You must have a guide! The temple is having ceremony! You cannot go in without guide!”), with only a couple who stayed with me for about fifty meters before giving up. Sometimes having long legs, a fast walking pace, and knowing the word for a sharp “no thank you” (Tidak!) is good enough. I was, however, slowed down by the sarong I had to wear as a sign of respect. I guess the gods aren’t keen to see men’s hairy, ape-like legs.
At the upper gateway beyond which visitors are not allowed without a temple “guardian,” a soft-spoken man in his late 40s w/ a pencil-line mustache explained the terms calmly and clearly: for giving him a 50,000 rupee donation ($5), he will accompany me into the temple and explain its meaning. We have a deal and head up the steps.
The temple is actually a large complex of 23 affiliated temples, some dedicated to Brahma (which is unusual in India), some to Vishnu, and some to Shiva. When seen as unified (their true nature if we myopic humans could only see), they are the “Trimurti” or “three-in-one.” The overall arrangement of the structures is their placement on a series of stepped pyramids, a common feature of many megalithic sites (such as Borobodur, the mandala-pyramid temple complex not far from Yogjakarta, Indonesia…where I’ll be very soon). Each temple has a split gateway (candi bentar) and focuses the visitor’s attention on the transition from one realm of existence to the next.
(the colored umbrellas indicate the different deities: red for Brahma, yellow for Vishnu, white for Shiva; not sure about the black)
My guardian explains that a picturesque, graded succession of seven-tiered pagodas represents the seven levels of the cosmos. Some further research yielded the following: “Every universe is covered by seven layers — earth, water, fire, air, sky, the total energy and false ego — each ten times greater than the previous one. There are innumerable universes besides this one, and although they are unlimitedly large, they move about like particles of dust (later translations say “atoms”) in You. Therefore You are called unlimited” (Bhagavata Purana 6.16.37.) Note that the “you” in this passage refers not to a human being (who is described elsewhere as constrained by his version of the cosmos and by a “span of seven hands” in height) but to Krishna, the complete incarnation of the high deity, Vishnu.
I love the symmetry and order that is imposed on the cosmos via this temple on the slopes of a very active volcano. It last erupted in 1963 and killed some 1500 people on several different occasions w/ pyroclastic flows. Most descriptions make a point of mentioning the “miraculous” escape of the temple, mere meters away from the lava streams, proving to the Balinese that the gods like to demonstrate their power while preserving the principle site where their worship occurs. That said, I was still surprised to see trash piled up, open lots neglected and full of weeds right beside a major temple entrance, and various buildings, walls, and pathways in stages of disrepair. Perhaps my own “false ego” limits my understanding here: what is crumbling or decaying was once whole; what is now trash was once new and valuable; what is human today was conditioned by the karma of previous lifetimes.