hinduism

The Legend of Rangda, Bali’s Queen of the Demons

The origin of the queen who became a child-eating witch goddess fated to battle Barong, the King of the Spirits, for eternity.

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

When my husband, the king, died, his people began to call me Rangda, which means “widow.” As if my entire life should be reduced to the loss of a single thing, namely a feckless spouse.

It’s ironic that my name would be tied to him for eternity, for he cast me aside to marry another woman. Was I even still officially his wife?

Ours had been a strategic alliance to unite two kingdoms. I was born Mahendradatta, princess of Java, and when I came of age, my father arranged for my marriage to King Udayana and shipped me off to the neighboring isle of Bali.

I never let silly romantic fantasies enter my mind. As a royal, I had a job to do, a responsibility to my people.

As a queen, though, I didn’t have much power. My marriage would politically tie Java to Bali, and that was all that was required of me, aside from making sure I provided heirs.

All over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them.

Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy.

(That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

But I craved power; I yearned to be strong. Hindus have hundreds of deities, but the one I focused my prayers on was the goddess Durga, whom I had always emulated. Such a strong woman, a fierce warrior, her many arms clutching weapons, riding upon a snarling tiger. Yes, this was who I wanted to be.

I had few options. With little power of my own, I decided to harness the strength of others. I turned to witchcraft, learning how to control demons, those dim-witted ground-dwellers, to do what I demanded of them. If someone displeased me, I would inflict a horrific illness upon them.

At last, power coursed through my veins, an intense, almost orgasmic feeling.

But secrets never last long in a palace. Someone, hoping to gain favor with the king, told my husband what I was up to at night in my open-air chamber that faced the graveyard at the edge of the sea. Udayana called the court together and stood upon the sacred platform and shouted, “Mahendradatta, you have brought shame upon this kingdom. You have let evil into Bali. You are no longer my queen! I exile you!”

And before I knew what was happening, his guards had grabbed me and dragged me out of the palace, abandoning me in the dark jungle amidst the screeching of monkeys. I had only the clothes on my back. No food or supplies. A woman left exposed in the wild — Udayana assumed I would soon die, and everyone could forget all about me and the shameful fact that I had corrupted this island with the introduction of witchcraft.

The nocturnal sounds of the jungle filled my ears. I could hear animals moving stealthily through the foliage, stalking their prey. But I was no weak woman. I called upon Durga and the demons to protect me.

After a week or so, some villagers had learned of my exile and went into the jungle to seek me out. They heeded the alluring call of the dark arts; they wanted me to teach them how to enslave demons. Bitter souls who wanted to curse others, who wanted to spread sickness among their enemies.

These were my first students, my first leyaks, or witches. No longer the Queen of Bali, I became Queen of the Leyaks, and eventually, Queen of Demons.

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

A Son’s Betrayal, A Daughter’s Shame

One of the demons I used to spy on the court returned one evening, slithering along the ground to inform me that my husband planned to remarry.

Fury filled my breast. Who was Udayana to replace me, the mother of his children, the woman who brought his son, Erlangga, the king-to-be, into the world?

I screamed in rage, a horrific cry that wilted the plants around me and sent the animals scurrying away in fright.Trembling with anger, I sent a message to Erlangga to meet me at the edge of the jungle.

I saw the prince sneaking down the path for our illicit rendezvous, his eyes darting in every direction, worried he might be seen.

“My son, my son,” I called, a whisper that carried on the wind to his ears.

“Mother,” he said, looking at the ground. He would not meet my eyes.

“I have called you here to request a favor. Convince your father that he must not remarry. I will not be replaced.”

“I cannot,” he said after a time. “I cannot.” Erlangga turned from me and fled back to the palace.

If he had looked upon me — by this time I was a rather frightening sight, unbathed, my clothes in tatters, my hair matted — things might have turned out differently.

But it seemed Erlangga feared his father more than he feared me. That would be the biggest mistake of his life.

On top of my firstborn’s betrayal, I learned that my daughter, Princess Ratna Menggali, a young maiden known for her loveliness (this is not just a mother’s pride speaking), couldn’t find a single suitor. No one of high caste wanted to marry a daughter of mine. My association with witchcraft had tainted my poor daughter.

I found Ratna running through the jungle in tears, not seeming to notice or care about the branches that scratched her beautiful face.

I gathered her to me and held her against my chest.

“Come, daughter,” I told her. “You have a place here. Your life is not over, but just beginning.”

Ratna became my pupil, one of my most powerful leyaks.

“We shall make them pay,” I told her, seething at the wrong we had both suffered.

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

A young girl from the village wandered too far into the jungle one misty morning, and Ratna snatched her and brought her to me. While the child trembled and sobbed in fear, I dragged my claw-like nails across her throat.

“Take this innocent blood as an offering, Durga, O Invincible One!” we chanted.

The goddess heeded our call. The sea rose in a rush of water, a black tide that flooded the entire village. The crops became unharvestable, homes destroyed.

The success of the sacrifice sparked an idea. On Bali, babies are holy, for they have only recently left the spirit realm. In fact, for months, the Balinese do not let their newborns even so much as touch the ground. For that, you see, is where my minions must stay. Demons are relegated to the dirty, profane earth, where only the filthiest of body parts, the feet, should touch.

Whenever we learned of a child’s death, I would send Ratna and the other leyaks on a mission to dig up and steal the tiny corpse for our black rituals.

Even today, all over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them. Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy. (That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

My patron deity Durga, pleased with my drive and my devotion, granted me immortality and full dominion over the demons. I felt as if I were on fire, as my mortal essence burned away. I had become a goddess.

Erlangga Enlists the Aid of Barong

One day, years later, I learned that Udayana had died and Erlangga was now king. I refused to forgive him for not defending my honor. He had abandoned his own mother and he would pay the price.

Erlangga knew of the danger of my wrath. Reports of desecrated graves had spread, of a wild woman of the jungle and her pet demons, which wreaked havoc on the people of Bali.

While my son mustered an army to fight me, I sent a foul plague creeping throughout the kingdom. Within days, half of the population lay dead.

Erlangga fretted. What chance would mortal men have against a goddess and her army of witches and demons?

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

My son called upon Empu Pradah, a legendary holy man, and asked him how to defeat me. He was told to seek the aid of another god, Barong, the King of the Spirits, a mighty shape-shifting beast. He sometimes takes the form of a boar, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a tiger — though the lion guise is his favorite.

Barong ambles along clumsily. But don’t let that fool you — when it comes time to fight, he becomes as fierce as any of my demons. People don’t like to think of him as a monster, but that’s what he is.

Erlangga’s army approached, carrying wavy silver knives called keris, the tips coated with poison.

Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine, I thought.

All of the soldiers were suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to turn the keris upon themselves, to commit suicide by stabbing the toxic blades into their own hearts.

But just as the daggers were about to pierce their skin and become inflamed with the poison the soldiers meant for me and my demons to suffer, Barong reared up and cast a counterspell. Instantly, the skin of Erlangga’s soldiers became impenetrable. The keris were deflected. The army was saved.

My frustrated shriek caused the men to cover their ears, to tremble in fear. But I had gone.

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

The Balance of Good and Evil

For, you see, a realization had dawned on me, like a bright light piercing the darkness. This was my role for eternity: Barong and I were to engage in a never-ending battle. Neither good nor evil could win.

Of course, Barong’s battle is seen as necessary. The Balinese love him. He is their benevolent hero. His violence is forgiven, while mine is reviled. So be it. The minute we are done battling, Barong is back to his docile self, lumbering along like a puppy dog. He knows how to play to his audience.

By the time I had gained immortality, I had become an old woman. I let my hair grow long and wild; it became a mass of tangled white strands, some matted into dreadlocks. For the most part, I stopped bothering to wear clothes — what was the point? I was a fearsome deity. My breasts drooped farther and farther, until they swung across my stomach when I snarled. My teeth continued to grow as well, forming fangs that curved outward like a boar’s. I let my fingernails lengthen until they were razor-sharp claws. And I stretched out my tongue to demonstrate my insatiable hunger. A sense horror overwhelms all who see me.

People call the spirits over which I reign “evil.” But do you feel evil when you are consumed by grief or pain? Is it evil to feel fear or hopelessness? To be sick? Unloved?

I quickly realized that without my army of so-called evil demons, people would not realize the joy brought about by my counterpart, Barong, and his legion of spirits.

The world must remain in balance, and I must do my part. Do not wish for a paradise. Utopias are dull places, for how can you know what happiness is if that’s all there is? How would you know peace without there being stress to escape from? Paradise, as humans naïvely imagine it, is the epitome of boredom, not pleasure.

Does this sound strange to you? It is no more strange than the fact that Christians pray to a demigod dying in agony. There, too, you have the balance of good and evil.

Perhaps I am wrong about the Balinese. Perhaps they do realize I have an essential part to play.

I, too, crave worship. The usual fruit and flowers will do. But sacrifice a rooster if you want me to ensure your fertility. And once you conceive, maybe, just maybe, I’ll keep away from that tasty little morsel. –Wally

Barong, King of the Spirits on Bali

What is Barong? Or should we say, who is Barong? The Balinese personification of good fights an eternal battle with the demon queen Rangda.

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world


I fell in love with Barong the first time I saw him. And really, who could resist his charm? He’s most often depicted as a bright red, playful creature who gallops along good-naturedly like a playful Labrador retriever. Somehow his bug eyes and fangs don’t detract from his cuteness.

While Barong’s name supposedly comes from a word meaning “bear,” it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what type of creature he is. He looks a lot like a Chinese fu dog, which to me has always seemed a muddling of a lion and a Pekingese.

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

If an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace.
A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

The Barong Ket, or Lion Barong, is the most popular, though the creature sometimes takes other forms:

  • Barong Celeng: Boar

  • Barong Macan: Tiger

  • Barong Naga: Dragon or Serpent

  • Barong Gajah: Elephant

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

It helps that Barong is essentially all that is good in the world. He protects the Balinese in their villages. Barong is represented by a mask, its dark beard usually made of human hair. The mask is often kept in the village’s pura dalem, the temple of death, or in a small shrine near the bale banjar, the meeting hall.

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

If, for instance, an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace. Oil dripping from the mask’s eyes has even been said to cure scabies.


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His worship predates Hinduism and is a relic of animism, the belief that animals have supernatural protective powers.

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

Galungan Guise

When I first visited Bali, we arrived in September during the Galungan Festival. It struck us the Balinese version of Halloween. All through the town of Ubud, we’d hear the clanging of metal percussion instruments, and would gawk as a strange creature approached. This was Barong, its wooden jaw opening and closing with a loud thok. One boy worked the mask, with its golden, mirrored crown, while others hid under a sheet to form the bumpy body that moved jerkily along the street. The kids, in their Barong costume, would stop at various business and receive sweets or coins. We later learned that Galungan was the most holy of holidays for the Hindus of Bali.

During the galungan holidays, the island was suddenly filled with magnificent masked beasts. With glaring eyes and snapping jaws, with elaborate golden crowns, great hairy bodies bedecked with little mirrors, and tails that rose high in the air to end in a tassel of tiny bells, they pranced and champed up and down the roads from village to village to the sound of cymbals and gongs, as though they had newly emerged, like awakened dragons, from caves and crevices in which for months they had been lying dormant.

This was the barong, a beautiful composite animal, lion, said some, bear, said others, Ruler of the Demons, said still others. …

These creatures were high-spirited and full of whims, dancing a strange ballet, coquettish and playful one moment, rolling on the ground like a puppy, and suddenly and unaccountably ferocious the next, snapping and stamping in fine fury as the two dancers within the body synchronized their steps and movements with beautiful coordination.

–Colin McPhee, A House in Bali


Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong vs. Rangda, the Battle Between Good and Evil

As the king of the good spirits, Barong fights a never-ending battle with the demon queen Rangda.

His nemesis is more human-like, a hideous half-nude witch with sagging breasts, disheveled hair and a long tongue lolling out of her fanged mouth. Barong and Rangda, like yin and yang, cannot exist with the other; there is no good without evil. Unlike in our Western lore, where people often tend to live happily ever after, in Balinese legend, neither Barong nor Rangda ever truly win. Their battle is the subject of a favorite dance on Bali. The forces of good and evil, of order and chaos, must remain in balance. –Wally


More Myths From Bali and Java

The Legend of Bandung Bondowoso and the Slender Virgin of Prambanan

Princess Loro Jonggrang didn’t want to marry the magician who killed her father. So she came up with a clever plan to deceive his demon helpers.

An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

The massive towers and reliefs of the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan in Java, Indonesia flourished in the late 9th century. A marvel of ancient engineering, the dark volcanic stone structures took decades to complete — though local lore holds that the complex was built in single night by nocturnal spirits.

The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

According to a stone tablet found while excavating the ruins of Prambanan, the temple was built to honor Lord Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. The compound’s original name was Shivgarh, the House of Shiva, when it was constructed around 850 CE by Rakai Pikatan, a king of the Sanjaya dynasty. It later took the name Prambanan, after the village where it’s located.

The princess’ deceit angered the magician, and he cursed her.

She was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga and remains enshrined in the central spire of Prambanan.

Although the temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, they were never completely forgotten. The origin myth popular among the Javanese tells of the story of the Slender Virgin, Roro or Loro Jonggrang, which is set in Prambanan. Like most stories told in the oral tradition, many variations exist, but its conclusion is generally the same.

Bandung Bondowoso and Loro Jonggrang

Long ago, in feudal Java, there were two neighboring kingdoms, Pengging and Prambanan. The kingdom of Pengging was prosperous and wisely ruled by Prabu Damar Maya. The other, Prambanan, fell under the reign of a wrathful and wicked half-demon king named Prabu Ratu Boko. Although he lived in a massive stone palace, he grew envious and devised a plan to take the kingdom of Pengging by force.  

Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

The troops of Damar Maya put up a good fight, but were no match for the supernatural armies of Ratu Boko. Fearing he would lose his kingdom, Damar Maya consulted his chief brahmin priest, whose nephew, Bandung Bondowoso, was skilled in dark magic and was able to summon demons. Bondowoso created a supernatural arrow and climbed to the highest vantage point in Pengging to assess the enemy. When he saw Ratu Boko, he drew his bow back and shot the arrow straight through the demon king’s heart, killing him instantly.

Ratu Boko’s army retreated to Prambanan and delivered the news of the king’s death to his daughter, Princess Loro Jonggrang, whose name translates as “Slender Virgin.” Her beauty was known throughout the land, and like her father, she was willful and arrogant. The princess asked who had slain Ratu Boko and was told that it was a man named Bandung Bondowoso.

Loro Jonggrang arranged an elaborate ceremony to cremate the remains of her father on the palace grounds and extended an invitation to Bondowoso. Not only was she slender and beautiful, but she was also a graceful dancer. At the ceremony, accompanied by her court dancers, Loro Jonggrang glided out into the audience hall to perform a dance in homage to her father. Grief made her even more striking, and Bondowoso fell under her spell, determined to marry her.

Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Some days after, he sent a small delegation to request her hand in marriage. The princess reluctantly agreed, but set a seemingly impossible challenge: She would only marry Bondowoso if he were able to build 1,000 temples in a single night. The magician accepted her unusual request, and as the sun set, summoned an army of nocturnal spirits and demons. They worked tirelessly and quickly.

As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

Not wanting to marry the man who had killed her father, Loro Jonggrang conceived of a plan to trick the supernatural beings. She enlisted the help of her servants and ordered the women of the village to fill their stone mortars with dried rice stalks and pound the grains from their stems, a task performed daily at dawn. The princess then sent her servants out to the east to burn the dried paddies. The combination of noise and firelight prompted the confused roosters to crow. Alarmed, the spirits fled back to the underworld, thinking the sun was rising and leaving the final temple incomplete.

The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

Loro Jonggrang’s deceit angered Bondowoso, and he cursed her, uttering the words, “There’s only one temple left — let you be the one to complete it!” The princess was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga the Inaccessible, now known as the Slender Virgin. The statue remains enshrined in the north chamber of the central spire of Prambanan, presumably the 1,000th temple. –Duke

Prambanan: A Towering Tribute to the Hindu Trinity

If you’re in Indonesia, add Java to your itinerary and see this stunning temple complex that plays second fiddle to Borobudur.

Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Our main reason for visiting the island of Java, Indonesia was to see the spectacular ancient temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan. Given the importance of religion in ancient Java, it’s not surprising that both of these attractions are imposing in scale and have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Plus, the opportunity to stay in a private villa that came with an infinity plunge pool at the Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa and a view of Borobudur in the distance was one Wally and I simply couldn’t pass up.

The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The Prambanan Temple Compounds were located about a hour and a half northwest from where we were staying, and having a private driver provided by the resort made the journey getting there stress-free.

Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Many Priests and Ladies-in-Waiting

Shortly after we arrived at the temple complex, we were introduced to our guide, Dwi, who wore a shirt embroidered with the Wonderful Indonesia logo. As Dwi led us past the main entrance, he explained that the three concentric courtyards are laid out in the geometric form of a mandala and follow the concept of vastu shastra, an ancient Indian method of architecture and construction to enhance prosperity.

The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

Some of the ruins are intricately carved

Some of the ruins are intricately carved

The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

Dwi added that the name Prambanan means “Many Priests,” quite possibly in reference to the outermost courtyard, which was once encircled by a wall. The original function is unknown but it may have served as a monastic community and included lodging for hundreds of brahmin priests and their disciples. As these buildings were most likely built of wood and brick, nothing remains of them.

The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

Directly in front of us was another large courtyard with hundreds of small shrines called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting,” organized in concentric squares four rows deep. Almost all of these temples had been reduced to rubble. We asked Dwi if there are plans to reconstruct them, and he explained that this was not likely, as much of the original stonework has been destroyed by erosion, earthquakes or looting. Like Borobudur, at least 70% of the original material must be used in restoration to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

The Main Temples

At the heart of the complex stand the most sacred and well-preserved temples, the scale and detail of which can only be appreciated when you are standing in front of them. Three of the main shrines are dedicated to the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer (to whom the largest central temple is dedicated) and Vishnu the Preserver. The smaller vahana shrines are for the deity’s respective animal mounts: Hamsa the Swan, Nandi the Bull and Garuda the Eagle. There are also two small temples between the rows of Trimurti and vahana shrines, although the function of these remains unclear.

Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

The initial construction of Prambanan began around the middle of the 9th century during the reign of Rakai Pikatan and served as the royal temple of the kingdom of Mataram. Additional structures were added by the successive Kings Rakai Kayuwangi and Balitung Maha Sambu.

Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Dwi suggested that Prambanan was built as a political and religious response to mark the return of the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty after decades of Buddhist-led Sailendra rule.

The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple

Not to be outdone by Borobudur, the central Shiva temple is the tallest. At 154 feet, it’s 41 feet higher than the triple-tiered stone umbrella chatra that once served as the pinnacle of its rival complex. The temple is embellished with a series of elegant carvings along the inner wall, depicting scenes from the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana.

Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

Wally and I followed our guide and made the ascent up the steep stone steps before reaching the eastern sanctuary chamber of Shiva. We passed through a portico with the monstrous gaping half-mouth of Kala leering at us from its lintel. Wally asked Dwi what this creature was. He replied by saying that if you’re a bad person, the mouth will close down upon you!

The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

The east chamber contains a four-armed 10-foot-tall statue of Shiva, standing erect atop a blooming lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. Some historians believe this rare depiction may be due to the union between Hindu Prince Rakai Pikatan and Buddhist Princess Pramodhawardhani. However, it is also thought that the statue was made in the likeness of King Mataram Balitung, who considered himself the divine manifestation of Shiva.

The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

A nearby chamber contains a statue of his portly son Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Dwi regaled us with an interesting tale of how Ganesha broke off a tusk and used it as a pen to transcribe the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. The tip of his trunk dips into a bowl of sweets, of which he is very fond.

Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

In the northern chamber is a statue of Shiva’s consort Durga, also referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang, the Slender Virgin. The protective mother goddess of the Hindu universe is depicted standing in a relaxed pose, her right leg slightly bent and her hip jutting out to the left. Six of her eight arms hold weapons. She stands on the back of the asura Mahisa, a demon in the form of a buffalo. Durga holds his tail in one hand, while another touches the top of a dwarf’s head — a taboo gesture in Hinduism, as the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body.

A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

The south-facing chamber has a statue of the hermit Agastya, one of the most venerated sages in Hinduism, portrayed as a dwarf with a long beard. He has a fan on his left shoulder and a trident on his right.

The bas-relief panels of the Shiva Temple depict the epic love story of Rama and Sita:

The statue of Brahma the Creator

The statue of Brahma the Creator

You can’t sneak up on this guy!

You can’t sneak up on this guy!

The Brahma Temple

A single chamber inside the temple contains a statue of Brahma, depicted with his four faces and four arms. The four faces symbolize the four cardinal directions as well as the four Vedas, the most sacred Hindu scriptures: The Rig Veda, Yajur, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.

The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Vishnu Temple

Like the temple dedicated to Brahma, a single interior chamber holds a statue of the deity. Vishnu wears a tall crown upon his head. He has four limbs, two of which are raised up and the other two down. His upper right hand holds a discus and the left holds a conch shell.

Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The Nandi Temple

All gods need transport, and at Prambanan, they have their own smaller temples. Nandi is the only statue of the vahanas that has survived.

Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

The temple for Nandi the Bull sits in front of the Shiva Temple. In the inner chamber of this shrine, the humped reclining statue of Nandi rests on a raised platform facing the entrance door so it may perpetually gaze on Shiva. Sadly, its left horn has broken off and is missing. To the left is a statue of Surya, the Hindu god of the sun, standing atop seven horses.

Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

The Paparazzi Descends Upon Us

After our guide Dwi bade us adieu, we continued to explore the complex. Local students who were also visiting Prambanan excitedly approached, asking if if it would be OK to take a picture with us. At first it was fun and we were flattered, but after 10 or so photos, we had to politely say no with a smile and fled the complex.

The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

At first we were amused by all the attention

At first we were amused by all the attention

The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

We recommend visiting Borobudur and Prambanan on different days. Each complex is completely different, and I honestly feel that we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of each site if we crammed them into a single day. –Duke

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan
Kranggan
Bokoharjo
Prambanan
Sleman Regency
Special Region of Yogyakarta
Indonesia

The Mysterious Cliff Shrines of Candi Gunung Kawi

Make the long trek down to the enigmatic “Valley of the Kings” in Tampaksiring on Bali.

When the king died, his wives were ceremoniously killed — and they were all honored with these memorial shrines

When the king died, his wives were ceremoniously killed — and they were all honored with these memorial shrines

After paying the admission fee of 15,000 rupiah (just $1), Wally and I made our way down the hundreds of steep stone steps leading to the 11th century funerary complex of Gunung Kawi. Its name literally translates as Mountain of the Poets, taken from an ancient literary language used by poets and Brahmin high priests.

When we finally arrived at the the river valley below, after a long walk through the sweltering heat, we entered a lush, green oasis — the colors all the more vibrant against the contrast of the gray basalt cliffs.

A mighty giant warrior named Kebo Iwa is said to have carved out the entire group of shrines in one night with his fingernails.
A typical split gate found at many Balinese temples

A typical split gate found at many Balinese temples

The 10 memorials were created for royal family members — and their concubines

The 10 memorials were created for royal family members — and their concubines

The complex consists of 10 slender 23-foot-high memorials shaped like candi, ancient burial towers, which have been carved directly into the igneous rock face. Each temple façade is framed within an arched niche: Four stand on the west side and five on the east, separated by the sacred Pakerisan River.

An interesting Balinese folktale attributes the entire group to a mighty, mythical giant warrior named Kebo Iwa, who, according to legend, carved out the entire group in one night with his fingernails. He’s also credited with the creative of the monster mouth cave of Goa Gajah. In reality, these magnificent structures were sculpted from the top down by hand, most likely using only pickaxes, hammers and chisels.

The shrines were carved right into the cliffs

The shrines were carved right into the cliffs

Candi Land

Although the monuments remain a mystery, it has been speculated that they were built to honor King Anak Wungsu, who ruled in Tampaksiring from 1049 to 1077. An inscription found above the central shrine on the east side mentions that the king, whose name isn’t given, made a temple here. The additional shrines were for his favorite wives, who would have ceremonially committed suicide after his death.

Another theory amongst historians is that the candi were commissioned by Anak Wungsu to honor his father, King Udayana, his mother, Queen Mahendradatta, and his brothers Airlangga and Marakata (along with himself), with the remaining four dedicated to his concubines.

The other side of the river can be seen through curtains of banyan roots

The other side of the river can be seen through curtains of banyan roots

When so little is known for certain, anything is possible. In any event, the candi at Gunung Kawi resemble the free-standing shrines of East Java and were built as an abode for the souls of deceased royalty. Their residences have steps leading to false doors. To the right of the monuments are five cells carved into the rock, where the caretakers formerly stayed.

The caretakers didn’t get the best digs — they lived in these caves

The caretakers didn’t get the best digs — they lived in these caves

Eye Candi

Wally and I followed the stone bridge across the Pakerisan River, which gurgles and flows through the center of the complex. The five main funerary monuments remained partly obscured by a copse of trees and gradually came into full view.

A river separates the two sides of Gunung Kawi

A river separates the two sides of Gunung Kawi

The Pakerisan River is considered sacred on Bali

The Pakerisan River is considered sacred on Bali

The location felt like the setting for an Indiana Jones adventure. Whatever its origin, I found myself gazing up at the five rock-hewn memorial shrines before us, taken in by the mystical atmosphere of ancient legends and long-lost tales of forgotten Balinese kings.

Behind Duke is the waterfall that’s across the river at one end of the complex

Behind Duke is the waterfall that’s across the river at one end of the complex

Wally takes a break on all those damn stairs!

Wally takes a break on all those damn stairs!

What was not so magnificent was the brutal climb back up to the parking lot. Suffice to say, that it would not be accessible to anyone who is mobility impaired.

Because this is a sacred site, be sure to bring a sarong. If you don’t have one, they’re available for rent at the ticket kiosk. –Duke

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Candi Gunung Kawi
Banjar Penaka
Tampaksiring
Gianyar, Bali 80552
Indonesia

Goa Gajah: An Easy Ubud Day Trip

The so-called Elephant Cave has an iconic and demonic gaping cave mouth.

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah

Balinese words can be so fun to pronounce. You’ve got the water palaces of Klungkung and Tirta Gangga. And just outside of Ubud is a small temple complex called Goa Gajah that dates from the 9th to 11th centuries.

Turns out Goa Gajah has been mistranslated to Elephant Cave, but you won’t find even the remotest hint of a pachyderm anywhere on the small temple complex — aside from a stone statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh inside the cave. And, perhaps, the tusk-like fangs that adorn the demonic mouth that forms the cave entrance.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture.
Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

Goa Gajah’s a good stopover to pair with other sites. Excavated in 1954, there are a few buildings in the complex, but it’s really all about the giant mouth cave. Wait for the tourists to clear out, snap the money shot — and you’ll be good to go.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth stretching into an entrance are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture. As scary as they look, they’re depictions of Bhoma, a nature god who symbolically cleanses visitors as they enter the most sacred part of holy sites.

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

Inside the cave, a narrow T-shaped passageway forks to the left and right, the walls blackened from incense smoke. You can make out small niches in the darkness, some with worn-away statues, including a trio of phallic linga wearing black, white and red skirts. The adorable palm-woven square offering baskets I love so much are placed at the base of the statues.

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

It’s thought that Buddhist monks would meditate in the quiet confines of the cave.

The other notable site at Goa Gajah is the bathing pool, where water pours from the urns held by statues of busty Hindu divine spirits. The holy site was chosen because it’s the spot where two rivers converge.

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Wally bathes in the holy water

Wally bathes in the holy water

Get to Goa Gajah as early as possible to avoid the inevitable tourist buses that show up later in the day. It’s a fun place to visit, and you can be in and out in about half an hour. –Wally

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Goa Gajah
Ubud, Bedulu
Blahbatuh
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali, Indonesia

Klungkung, the Hellish Comic-Paneled Water Palace of Bali

Head to Semarapura to see a monument to a mass suicide and illustrated ceilings that depict gruesome demons.

Monstrous statues, lily-covered pools of water and pavilions filled with comic book-like artwork come together at Klungkung

Monstrous statues, lily-covered pools of water and pavilions filled with comic book-like artwork come together at Klungkung

A mythic creature watches over the pavilion

A mythic creature watches over the pavilion

The Hall of Justice depicts various torments — like having your nether regions scorched

The Hall of Justice depicts various torments — like having your nether regions scorched

I had always been intrigued by one of the photos Wally had taken when he first visited Bali 17 years ago. The image is a detail shot of a small naked one-eyed male creature with a high ponytail. 

I later discovered that he took this photo at the Klungkung Palace. This was my first time to Bali, but Wally’s second and I was truly excited to have found more than a few places he hadn’t been to. Klungkung wasn’t one of those places, but was so different from the other sites in our itinerary that we simply had to visit. Of course Wally didn't mind, which is one of the many reasons we make a great couple — we’re both drawn to the unusual and fantastic mythology of other cultures.

The panels portray the various forms of hellish punishment awaiting those who are found guilty in the afterlife.

We arrived in Semarapura, the capital of the Klungkung Regency and purchased our tickets to enter across the busy thoroughfare from the pavilions.

If the Puputan monument looks like a giant phallus, that’s because it kinda is! This memorial is a linga-yoni, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva’s, er, divine energy

If the Puputan monument looks like a giant phallus, that’s because it kinda is! This memorial is a linga-yoni, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva’s, er, divine energy

Overlooking the town’s main intersection is a towering memorial resembling an upside-down cannon barrel constructed of black volcanic stone. The monument is known as the Puputan Klungkung and commemorates the ceremonial mass ritual suicides known as puputan. The word comes from the Balinese puput, meaning “to finish” or “end.” And that’s exactly what occurred when the Dutch invaded Semarapura in 1908 and brought the entire island of Bali under colonial domination. Miniature dioramas inside the memorial depict scenes from historic local events, including the battles with the Dutch.

Two pavilions and a ceremonial gate are all that remain of a former palace in Semarapura

Two pavilions and a ceremonial gate are all that remain of a former palace in Semarapura

Klungkung Royal Palace

Across the street from the Puputan monument are what remains of the former royal palace complex of Puri Agung Semarapura. Built at the end of the 17th century, sadly many of its structures were destroyed during the Dutch conquest.

A brick path forms a bridge to access the Floating Pavilion

A brick path forms a bridge to access the Floating Pavilion

Wally and I entered the Klungkung grounds through a side gate where a group of three women, ready to pounce upon unsuspecting tourists, were attempting to sell a variety of clothing, from sarongs to short-sleeved men’s dress shirts. We politely told them we weren’t interested and walked to the restroom located on the opposite side of the complex. When we emerged, one of the women who had split from the group awaited us and followed us around, trying to sell us an extra-large men’s batik shirt. Honestly, it was a cool shirt and we would have bought it from her if she had the right size.

The Hall of Justice is literally covered with illustrated panels

The Hall of Justice is literally covered with illustrated panels

Justice was once meted out from this table

Justice was once meted out from this table

The Kertha Gosa Hall of Justice: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Among the few buildings that remain is the Kertha Gosa. Situated in the northeast corner of the compound, the raised pavilion served as the kingdom’s Hall of Justice. Inside sits a table and six elaborately carved wooden chairs. Painted in red and gold, the raja’s chair features the image of a lion, symbolizing his position as chief of court. A second has a cow image and was used by a Brahman priest who served as both lawyer and advisor to the raja. A third chair bearing a dragon, was for the secretary.

A lion, dragon and cow decorate the chairs in the Hall of Justice

A lion, dragon and cow decorate the chairs in the Hall of Justice

Here, the raja met visiting dignitaries and presided over a court comprised of himself and three Brahman priests. Disputes that could not be reconciled at the village level were heard and mediated within the Kertha Gosa Pavilion.

Looking up, the vaulted ceiling is covered with highly detailed narrative stories painted on wood panels, many of which are popular tales from shadow puppet theater. Their traditional style of visual storytelling is known as Kamasan or Wayang painting and were produced by generations of artists from the nearby village of Kamasan, who served as artisans to the royal court.

The ceiling is covered with illustrations — it’s like a Balinese comic book about a trip to Hell

The ceiling is covered with illustrations — it’s like a Balinese comic book about a trip to Hell

Highly detailed images of gods, humans and demons rendered in red, indigo, ochre and white are arranged to illustrate the coexistence of the natural and supernatural.

The main subject of the paintings is Bima, a strong warrior from the Mahabharata, who journeys to the underworld to save the souls of his parents. Scenes portrayed in these panels are associated with the various forms of hellish punishment awaiting those who are found guilty in the afterlife.

Klungkung consists of two main structures, but golly, they’re fun to visit

Klungkung consists of two main structures, but golly, they’re fun to visit

The Floating Pavilion of Bale Kembang

After gawking at the ceiling and taking numerous photos, Wally and I continued on to the Floating Pavilion of Bale Kembang. Surrounded by guardian statues, the structure rises from the middle of a pond in the center of the complex. The pavilion was greatly expanded by the Dutch in the 1940s and was originally a smaller, lower structure which served as the base for the raja’s guards.

One of the guardians of Klungkung. Too bad they couldn’t have saved the local kingdom from colonization by the Dutch

One of the guardians of Klungkung. Too bad they couldn’t have saved the local kingdom from colonization by the Dutch

Lichen covers many of the statues on Bali, lending an ancient otherworldly air to them

Lichen covers many of the statues on Bali, lending an ancient otherworldly air to them

One of the narratives within the Bale Kembang depicts episodes from the story of the Buddhist king Sutasoma, who defeated his enemies through passive resistance. Also portrayed is the rags-to-riches folktale of the humble Pen and Men Brayut and their 18 children, who through their tireless labor, no pun-intended, achieve wealth. Bordering these panels is the palindon, an earthquake calendar foretelling the indirect effects of divine power should seismic activity occur during the corresponding month.

Overwhelmed by the variety of demon and exotic fauna before me, I barely noticed the male and female artists seated on the floor of the pavilion who were putting the finishing touches on single-scene Kamasan paintings. The man was doing the drawing and the woman filling in the color with a small brush. Stacks of these paintings and hand-painted fans, for sale as souvenirs were placed nearby.

Two artists create Kamasan style paintings, fans and Balinese calendars

Two artists create Kamasan style paintings, fans and Balinese calendars

In a bit of a daze by what we had just seen (or perhaps it was just hunger and the heat), Wally and I left the Floating Pavilion. One of the aforementioned women we had passed upon entering the complex approached us, delicately extracting several hand-painted eggs from a white plastic bag. Our resistance worn down, we purchased a few as gifts, agreeing to keep one for ourselves. We were glad we did, as we now have a souvenir of our experience at this magical place. –Duke

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Klungkung Royal Palace
Jalan Diponegoro
Semarapura Kangin
Central Semarapura
Klungkung Sub-District
Klungkung Regency
Bali 80761
Indonesia

Pura Kehen: The Fire Temple of Bali

The parts of a Bali temple explained, from the bentar to padmasana to kulkul, in this most sacred of temples, which sports a truly giant banyan.

Pura Kehen is dedicated to the Hindu god of fire

Pura Kehen is dedicated to the Hindu god of fire

On our fourth day in Bali, we arrived at Pura Kehen, an impressive state temple located in the village of Cempaga in the Bangli Regency. Although it’s the largest and most sacred of the region, the temple was blissfully beyond the tourist radar and appealed to our desire to experience the quieter side of Bali.

A glimpse of the village down the hill through the main entrance of Pura Kehen

A glimpse of the village down the hill through the main entrance of Pura Kehen

Smaller shrines on the temple complex are resting places for ancestral spirits during temple ceremonies

Smaller shrines on the temple complex are resting places for ancestral spirits during temple ceremonies

You have to wear a sarong like Duke when visiting a temple on Bali

You have to wear a sarong like Duke when visiting a temple on Bali

The ancient temple compound was erected during the 9th century and was known as Pura Hyang Api, dedicated to the supreme being Agni, the Hindu god of fire. When sages moved from one ashram to another, it was customary to carry fire along. A couple of centuries later, the temple was renamed Pura Hyang Kehen, derived from the Balinese word keren, which translates to “flame.”

The bug-eyed, fang-baring disembodied head of Bhoma prevents malevolent spirits from entering the temple grounds.
The main staircase of Pura Kehen features frightening guardian statues from the Hindu epic, the  Ramayana

The main staircase of Pura Kehen features frightening guardian statues from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana

Duke was enamored with Pura Kehen, though Wally would say it’s B-list

Duke was enamored with Pura Kehen, though Wally would say it’s B-list

Built upon the slope of a hill, the temple is reached from the street by a steep 38-step staircase flanked by a pantheon of stone guardian statues from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. At the top, overlooking the grand gateway, is the bug-eyed, fang-baring disembodied head of Bhoma, whose purpose is to prevent malevolent spirits from entering the temple grounds. We were sure to follow proper etiquette and wore our sarongs, which our driver Made (Mah-deh) expertly tied for us several times throughout our trip.

We loved spotting Bhoma’s head at temples. He’s the offspring of the deity Vishnu as Vahana, a wild boar, and Dewi Pertiwi, the Earth goddess

We loved spotting Bhoma’s head at temples. He’s the offspring of the deity Vishnu as Vahana, a wild boar, and Dewi Pertiwi, the Earth goddess

Bhoma, with only his head left, guards temple entrances

Bhoma, with only his head left, guards temple entrances

Smaller candi bentar gates divide courtyards on the temple complex

Smaller candi bentar gates divide courtyards on the temple complex

Weather-worn statues, ornate detailing and lichen-covered stone are typical at Balinese temples

Weather-worn statues, ornate detailing and lichen-covered stone are typical at Balinese temples

Just beyond the entrance, you’ll find an assortment of blue and white Dutch Delftware pottery, including plates and bowls, embedded in the exterior walls surrounding the second courtyard — a relic of the Dutch occupation of the island. I paused to admire one that depicted an idyllic farm scene, including a watermill, ducks and oak tree.

This wall, like the main gate, is designed to deter menacing ground-dwelling spirits from gaining entry. The enclosed courtyard beyond includes a pavilion for gamelan musicians and is used for traditional dance, feasts and puppet performances during festivals.

We entered the third and most sacred courtyard through an elaborate symmetrically split gate known as a candi bentar. The gate resembles a jagged triangle separated vertically and split in two. Its sides symbolize the balance between the positive and negative forces of the universe. There’s no decoration on the inner parts of the gate.

Candi bentars are dramatic features of many Balinese temples, and represent the split halves of Mount Meru

Candi bentars are dramatic features of many Balinese temples, and represent the split halves of Mount Meru

Candi bentars are, not surprisingly, also called split gates

Candi bentars are, not surprisingly, also called split gates

There’s no ornamentation on the interior of these gates

There’s no ornamentation on the interior of these gates

The gateway is flanked by fearsome sword-bearing bedogol, the Balinese name for the guardian statues standing on either side of the entrance. Of course Wally was immediately drawn to these diabolical figures. I later learned that the pair are typically characters that complement each other, such as younger and older brothers.

The impressive principal shrine of Pura Kehen is located here. Known as a Meru tower, the elaborate 11-tiered pagoda symbolizes the mythical Mount Meru, the Hindu holy mountain where the gods dwell. The number of levels are always odd, three, five, seven, nine or 11, and reflect the importance of the patron deity. Eleven is associated with the highest order or supreme being. Mountain gods enter and inhabit the Meru through an opening in the top when visiting the Earth during temple ceremonies. Each tier is covered with thatched black hair-like fibers obtained from the trunks of arena palms. According to Indonesian folklore, the spirit known as Wewe Gombel nests in this type of palm, where she keeps children she has stolen away from neglectful parents.

The taller the Meru, the more significant the deity

The taller the Meru, the more significant the deity

Adjacent to the Meru tower in the northeastern corner of Pura Kehen is another sacred monument known as a padmasana, dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The uppermost feature is an empty stone throne, known as a lotus throne, which reminded me of a holy version of the plastic booster seats used to elevate small children at a restaurant table. This seat is reserved for the immeasurable and formless Widhi Wasa, the All-in-One God. The entire structure is covered with bas-relief and rests atop the stone shell of a cosmic world-carrying tortoise, Bedawang Nala, whose perpetual movement is thought to be the cause of the island’s frequent earthquakes. A pair of snakes coiled around the turtle’s body represent our earthly needs: safety, food, shelter and clothing.

This intricately carved padmasana shrine, or lotus throne, is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

This intricately carved padmasana shrine, or lotus throne, is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

The door detail on the entrance gate shows the god Vishnu, riding his eagle mount Garuda and battling a pair of  rakshasa  demons

The door detail on the entrance gate shows the god Vishnu, riding his eagle mount Garuda and battling a pair of rakshasa demons

A curious feature of the pura is its unusual drum tower. The kulkul, a slit, hollowed log that resonates like a drum when struck, is suspended high upon a platform amongst the intertwined branches of the largest ancient banyan tree we’ve ever seen.

Wally climbs in the roots of the largest banyan tree he’s ever seen

Wally climbs in the roots of the largest banyan tree he’s ever seen

This no-longer-working fountain might bear the icon of Dewi Sri, the Balinese rice goddess

This no-longer-working fountain might bear the icon of Dewi Sri, the Balinese rice goddess

A shrine surrounded by bidadari, celestial female spirits, emerging from clusters of lotus flowers

A shrine surrounded by bidadari, celestial female spirits, emerging from clusters of lotus flowers

One of the most beautiful temples of our visit, it’s well worth venturing out to. We arrived about an hour before Pura Kehen closed, and we were alone, aside from two other foreign couples wandering through — and an elderly local woman whose insistent calls tried, unsuccessfully, to draw us over to see what she was selling. –Duke

The spirit Wewe Gombel nests in arena palms, where she keeps children she has stolen away from neglectful parents.
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Pura Kehen
Cempaga
Bangli Sub-District
Bangli Regency
Bali 80613
Indonesia

Witnessing a Hindu Festival at Pura Samuan Tiga

We stumbled upon a full moon festival of Siat Sampian at a local temple near Goa Gajah, Bali — glimpsing a fascinating ritual but missing the big fight.

Pura Samuan Tiga, during the precursors to the Siat Sampian festival

Pura Samuan Tiga, during the precursors to the Siat Sampian festival

Our driver seemed to be trying to dissuade us from visiting Pura Samuan Tiga.

“It will be very, very crowded,” he told us, “because of the festival for the full moon. Not a good time to go.”

But hearing there was a festival only made us want to visit all the more.

Temples popular on the tourist trail are always worth seeing, but we recommend finding at least one local temple on every trip. It’s a fascinating glimpse into another religion — especially when it’s the ever-enigmatic Hinduism, the major world religion I understand the least.

A man and his children pause under the elaborate temple offerings

A man and his children pause under the elaborate temple offerings

Fences close off areas of worship at Samuan Tiga

Fences close off areas of worship at Samuan Tiga

Duke, a total Ravenclaw when it comes to research, will spend hours poring over websites and books when building out our itineraries for a trip. He found Samuan Tiga and suggested a stopover en route to the nearby giant mouth cave of Goa Gajah. Located in the village of Bedulu in the Gianyar regency, the temple is about a 20-minute drive from Ubud, where we based ourselves.

Pura Samuan Tiga might not be one of the most visited temples on the island — but it gives you a great feel for what these sprawling Hindu temple complexes are like. Especially if you’re lucky enough to happen upon it during a festival.

Bhoma guards the temple from malevolent spirits

Bhoma guards the temple from malevolent spirits

The statuary in the temple was originally carved from volcanic rock

The statuary in the temple was originally carved from volcanic rock

One of the outer courtyards at Samuan Tiga, which was much less crowded than those within

One of the outer courtyards at Samuan Tiga, which was much less crowded than those within

The vast, bustling temple complex evokes the feel of a village market

The vast, bustling temple complex evokes the feel of a village market

Built between 988 and 1011,  the temple sports typical Balinese religious architectural design, with its soaring orange brick gates, weathered teak open-air pavilions, volcanic stone carvings of bulging-eyed monsters and thatched triangular rooftops. While most temples on Bali (pura in the local tongue) have three courtyards, Samuan Tiga is much larger, with seven.

There’s some debate around the reason for the temple’s name, which translates to “the meeting of the three.” Local lore holds that three warring Hindu sects came together to resolve their issues. The royal priest decreed that each kingdom would have three main temples, which represented not only the Hindu trilogy of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva but the mountain, village and sea as well.

One area of the temple was filled with offering baskets

One area of the temple was filled with offering baskets

Like a National Geographic Article Come to Life

We had stumbled upon one of the oldest Hindu rituals on Bali: Siat Sampian (War of the Offerings), which takes place every 10th full moon. While we saw many crowds praying in the various courtyards, apparently we missed the battle that would take place later, when hundreds of pilgrims playfully “attack” each other, throwing arrangements called sampian, which consist of woven palm fronds pointing out like the rays of the sun.

That’s the trouble with knowledge sharing, even in this age of the internet. It was tough even discovering the name of the temple — and we didn’t learn about the details of the festival until we were back home. I wish our driver or another local had known more about Siat Sampian, and we could have tried to time our visit with the frenzied fake fight. Sigh.

There was still much to see, though. Women carried stacked woven baskets atop their heads, all dressed in long-sleeved lace tops, most of them white, paired with brightly colored sashes around their waists and ankle-length floral sarongs. Children, also in vibrant sarongs, munched on snacks.

Women carry their loads in woven containers atop their heads

Women carry their loads in woven containers atop their heads

Some of the men have adopted this means of carrying offerings

Some of the men have adopted this means of carrying offerings

Children probably spend hours at the temple during the festival and snack throughout the day

Children probably spend hours at the temple during the festival and snack throughout the day

Samuan Tiga sports seven courtyards — more than your typical Balinese temple — and they were all quite crowded

Samuan Tiga sports seven courtyards — more than your typical Balinese temple — and they were all quite crowded

In certain parts of the temple, facing raised platforms, people crowded into tight spaces, sitting down to pray — a vast sea of worshippers, most of whom wore white shirts, the men also in white headbands with a sort of bow in front. Everyone sat quietly, arms extended in front of their faces, their hands pressed together. This is the purification process before the comedic war to come.

The crowds got downright claustrophobic in quite a few areas

The crowds got downright claustrophobic in quite a few areas

People worshipped in different courtyards

People worshipped in different courtyards

This area was right off of the Barong pavilion

This area was right off of the Barong pavilion

Offering baskets were everywhere, small square trays woven from palm fronds and filled with rice, flowers and fruit.

An elaborate floral offering

An elaborate floral offering

Beautiful offerings for the gods

Beautiful offerings for the gods

Fruit is a popular offering

Fruit is a popular offering

Worshippers create small offering dishes filled with flowers and food

Worshippers create small offering dishes filled with flowers and food

An entire pavilion was filled with masks of Barong, who, despite his sharp fangs and wide eyes, is actually the personification of good.

Barong masks receive offerings 

Barong masks receive offerings 

As frightening as he looks, Barong is actually reprepsentative of all that is good

As frightening as he looks, Barong is actually reprepsentative of all that is good

Masks of Barong lined an entire pavilion at Samuan Tiga

Masks of Barong lined an entire pavilion at Samuan Tiga

In one corner of the temple complex, we stopped to listen to an entirely female gamelan troupe. I had always heard of the percussion-heavy, xylophone-like instruments being played by men and wondered if this was a new phenomenon.

An all-female gamelan band

An all-female gamelan band

As they played their jarring and discordant yet strangely hypnotic tunes, a man in costume approached for a dance. Covered in layers of colorful fabric with shimmering gold designs, barefoot, boasting long nails like claws, he descended the stairs. As he got closer, what caught my eye most was his frightening visage: a wide, wrinkled brown mask with a sweeping black mustache. Its features seemed pinched from the nose, lending an overall appearance of a rodent, not softened by the floral headband framing his face. If anything, it looked like foliage that had caught as he burrowed in the dirt. He made slow, sweeping movements, only his hands twitching rapidly, like the fluttering wings of a raven.

We think the character might be Topeng Bujuh, a comic figure in Balinese performances.

A creepy costumed character danced to the gamelan music

A creepy costumed character danced to the gamelan music

As we wandered through the courtyards, most people were extremely happy to see us. They grinned, said hello, greeting us with a sembah (a gesture of respect, similar to the Thai wai, where you place your palms together in front of your chest and bow). I took the opportunity to snap quick photos of the worshippers and almost every time, they smiled back at me, unoffended, much to my relief. It seemed they were happy to share their experience, that they were glad a couple of Western tourists had felt their sacred festival worthy of a visit. –Wally

Pura Samuan Tiga is one of the largest Hindu temples in central Bali

Pura Samuan Tiga is one of the largest Hindu temples in central Bali

Pura Samuan Tiga
Jalan Pura Samuan Tiga
Bedulu
Blahbatuh
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali 80581
Indonesia

Pura Dalem Ubud: The Temple of Death

Looking for things to do in Ubud? Wander among the demons — and attend a kecak dance — at Desa Pakraman Ubud.

The Pura Dalem lies on the outskirts of Ubud

The Pura Dalem lies on the outskirts of Ubud

NSFW: The temple is covered with depictions of bare-breasted demonic women

NSFW: The temple is covered with depictions of bare-breasted demonic women

As we drove out of town our last evening on Bali, I glimpsed a temple atop a hill on the outskirts of Ubud. There was something that called to me, and I made a note to investigate it the next morning. So after we had packed up our bags and our driver Made (pronounced Mah-day) picked us up, I directed him to the temple.

Duke and I were delighted to discover that it was a pura dalem, or temple of death. These temples always have the craziest statues and carvings depicting Balinese demons out front, menacing visitors with bulging bug eyes, fangs, long tongues and breasts that sag down to their stomachs.

These dramatically sliced gates are common at Balinese temples

These dramatically sliced gates are common at Balinese temples

Motorbikes are ubiquitious on Bali

Motorbikes are ubiquitious on Bali

Many Hindu temples have balustrades that run the length of staircases in the shape of snakelike naga

Many Hindu temples have balustrades that run the length of staircases in the shape of snakelike naga

Snarling lions and hosts of demons line the entrance stairs. Duke and I couldn’t help smiling.

This is our Disneyland.

Pura dalems are dedicated to Rangda, the Demon Queen. She is the personification of evil, often depicted with pendulous breastes, fangs and unkempt hair. We passed a statue of her holding a baby in her arms — her favorite snack.

Rangda, the Demon Queen, loves to snack on innocent babes

Rangda, the Demon Queen, loves to snack on innocent babes

Many creatures in Balinese mythology — good and evil — have bulging bug eyes

Many creatures in Balinese mythology — good and evil — have bulging bug eyes

Balinese temples are composed of numerous open-air shrines

Balinese temples are composed of numerous open-air shrines

This was pretty much the only statue at the Pura Dalem Ubud that wasn’t monstrous

This was pretty much the only statue at the Pura Dalem Ubud that wasn’t monstrous

Monkeys, skulls and babies, oh my!

Monkeys, skulls and babies, oh my!

The entrance to the pura dalem has creepy creatures everywhere you look

The entrance to the pura dalem has creepy creatures everywhere you look

I’ve read that pura dalems are usually built at the lowest part of a village, as demons are associated with bhur, the underworld (some elements are consistent across religions). But this temple rises on a hill above Ubud. Maybe the Great Temple of Death in the Monkey Forest is the one situated at the lowest point.

Snarling lions and hosts of demons line the entrance stairs. Duke and I couldn't help smiling. This is our Disneyland.

Parts of the façade were being renovated when we visited

Parts of the façade were being renovated when we visited

Pura dalems are associated with bhur, the underworld, where demons reside

Pura dalems are associated with bhur, the underworld, where demons reside

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that this is a temple of death

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that this is a temple of death

Ferocious beasts populate the entrance to the temple

Ferocious beasts populate the entrance to the temple

Wally loves himself a lion

Wally loves himself a lion

Downward-facing demon: a new yoga pose?

Downward-facing demon: a new yoga pose?

Sneaking Into the Temple of Death

We wandered around the temple complex, and I was surprised to see a large courtyard off to the left, for dancing. I wondered what kind of performances would take place at a temple of death.

After a bit of research, I learned that this temple hosts the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance, which sounds like an intense experience I’m bummed we didn’t see. I’d like to imagine the environment becomes charged with a mystical energy as the flames dance to  the dissonance of the native music. Perhaps the statues themselves come to life to join the dance.

The music pavilion near the dance performance space

The music pavilion near the dance performance space

Balinese musical ensembles are called gamelans

Balinese musical ensembles are called gamelans

Wood and bronze xylophone-like instruments are common on Bali

Wood and bronze xylophone-like instruments are common on Bali

The instruments are intricately carved with creatures from Balinese mythology

The instruments are intricately carved with creatures from Balinese mythology

At the back of the dance area is a pavilion filled with row after row of the bronze instruments, many resembling xylophones, that comprise a gamelan ensemble.

Which is Garuda and which is Duke?

Which is Garuda and which is Duke?

Mischievous Wally likes sneaking into temples

Mischievous Wally likes sneaking into temples

The interior of the temple was gated off, but Duke and I skirted around it until we found a gate we could stick our hand through and unlock from the other side. We opened it as quietly as possible, trying not to capture the attention of the construction workers nearby. The gate let out painfully loud squeal, and Duke and I slipped in quickly.

Lichen covers Balinese temples, lending an ancient air to even the newer ones

Lichen covers Balinese temples, lending an ancient air to even the newer ones

Maybe this is where you sacrifice your babies to Rangda

Maybe this is where you sacrifice your babies to Rangda

The interior courtyard of the pura dalem was locked — but that didn’t stop us from finding a way in

The interior courtyard of the pura dalem was locked — but that didn’t stop us from finding a way in

Shrine towers in the most sacred space of the temple

Shrine towers in the most sacred space of the temple

These woven baskets contain offerings to the gods

These woven baskets contain offerings to the gods

Various shrines rise jaggedly skyward in the interior courtyard, bright orange brick and pale stone carved into monstrous creatures. The ground, like many temples on the island, is striped, alternating bands of stone and grass, a dichotomy I imagine symbolizes the balance of good and evil so prevalent in the Balinese religion.

Like many temples in Bali, the interior courtyard features rows of grass and stone

Like many temples in Bali, the interior courtyard features rows of grass and stone

Could the alternating stripes on the temple floor symbolize good vs. evil?

Could the alternating stripes on the temple floor symbolize good vs. evil?

A holy banyan tree grows off to one side, its roots dangling in clumps like Rangda’s matted dreadlocks.

Banyan trees, with their roots that grow from above, are amazing works of nature

Banyan trees, with their roots that grow from above, are amazing works of nature

Many offering tables are covered with black and white checkered cloths

Many offering tables are covered with black and white checkered cloths

The gnarled roots of banyans pair nicely with demonic depictions

The gnarled roots of banyans pair nicely with demonic depictions

When someone dies on Bali, they’re temporarily buried, and their spirit resides in the pura dalem, according to Murni’s in Bali. It’s not until a cremation ceremony has taken place that the person is free to be reincarnated.

Despite the demonic depictions scattered throughout the pura dalem, I wondered if death isn’t something to be afraid of, amongst a people who believe in reincarnation. –Wally

Many temple statues get adorned in sarongs

Many temple statues get adorned in sarongs

A bit of heavenly light shines upon one of the demons of death

A bit of heavenly light shines upon one of the demons of death

Pura Dalem Ubud

Jalan Raya Ubud, No.23
Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali 80571, Indonesia