Thursday, November 24, 2011

Mount Agung and the Mother Temple

High above the jungle treeline near the center of Bali rises an active volcano, Genung Agung. Although this lava spewing giant is mostly quiet, it has erupted as recently as the 1960's, leaving its slopes covered in rocky black remnants of lava flows. As the tallest point on Bali, it has dominated not only the landscape, but also religious ceremonies and rites for centuries.

To the locals, Genung Agung is a representation of Mount Meru. Mount Meru is, according to Hindu tradition, the center of the universe where the almighty god Shiva lives. We were lucky to visit on a clear day as normally the peak is shrouded from view by the clouds rolling in from the sea.

Near the foot of Mount Agung on the eastern side of Bali is Pura Besakih, otherwise known as the Mother Temple. All of the other temples on the island get their spiritual energy from this temple. When it last erupted, Mount Agung sent lava streaming down towards Pura Besakih. Miraculously, the lava missed the temple, sometimes by just a few yards. The Balinese took this as a sign that the gods wanted to show their power, but did not want to destroy this monument erected by the faithful.

Here we are at the steps leading to the main temple shrine. Jennifer and I are wearing the customary sarong with a sash that all visitors must wear. The gate with two spires is really a spire that has been split in two. This is a representation that each of us has a good side and a bad side. When a worshipper enters the temple, the bad is left behind, leaving only the good. Being cleansed from evil and only having good is symbolized by the unified spire in the middle of the main temple area.

The temple has many courtyards which are used for prayers and other ceremonies. One of the main features of a major Balinese temple is an eleven-tiered pagoda, like the ones in the background below. These are called merus, and are built to honor Shiva.

Here is another look at one of the courtyards. The huts are used for various ceremonies. The smaller huts are actually thrones for the gods of the temple or for deceased ancestors.

Here is Craig standing behind one of the thrones for the gods located in the temple.

While we were visiting, one of the local patron villages visited the temple as well. They all dress in white clothing and walk up the steps to participate in religious ceremonies. These women are carrying offerings up to the altars. The offerings are mainly flowers and fresh fruits that are placed in tin bowls or woven baskets.

Every 100 years or so, the Balinese will bring live animals to this temple to sacrifice them to the gods. They march up these steps, then onwards up to the top of the mountain. When they reach the volcano's crater, they sacrifice the animals to the volcano (our guide said they do this by throwing the animal into the lava pit in order to make the gods happy). One of the reasons the volcano erupted in the 1930's was because the local sacrifices happened on the wrong day, so they had to be re-done. The last such sacrifices were in the 1970's, and attracted tens of thousands of faithful Balinese to the temple grounds.

In addition to animal sacrifices, Balinese religion features many rites that are performed on behalf of deceased relatives. This procession was held on behalf of a close relative who had passed away earlier that year. This ceremony will allow the dead to pass into the highest part of heaven.

Here is another view of the processional. Ancestral worship is a major part of life on Bali. Each family home has a small throne in it where the family's ancestors can stay. This is one reason many families in Bali pass down property for generations. The place you live becomes more than a home for your immediate living relatives. It's a home for all of your ancestors who have gone before as well.

By the time we walked around Pura Besakih, it was filling up rapidly with visitors who came to worship and offer prayers. In addition to the Mother Temple, we visited the Monkey Forest Temple and the Water Temple. Keep checking our blog for updates!


  1. Looks like another fun trip! You guys shouldn't be allowed to have so much fun without me ... It's like baskin-robbins, all over again! j/k

  2. Ha ha! Yes, I remember that conversation! "You went to Baskin Robbins - without me!?!" You're welcome to visit anytime! We just ask that you call us before you leave the states so that we can prepare!