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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

Bali Then and Now

In the post-Eat Pray Love world, Bali has lost a bit of its charm. Ubud has become a more congested tourism hotspot, but parts of the island remain a paradise on Earth.

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001  Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001

Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

We had been planning the trip to Bali for half a year. And then, less than two weeks before we were set to leave, 9/11 rocked our world. The entire country was in a daze. Americans had been living in a  bubble of isolation, of false protection, thinking that our global actions wouldn’t have severe repercussions. And the idea of an attack on our own turf was incomprehensible. But then the World Trade Center towers fell, and that bubble popped horrifically and unexpectedly that morning in September.

The United States, so often a place of optimism, had turned utterly depressing. I eagerly grasped at the chance to escape the overwhelming malaise. “I’m still going to Bali,” I told my travel companions.

“I reserve the right to back out, even up to the last minute,” my friend Christina told me. It probably didn’t help that she was unnecessarily taking malaria pills at the time, which can induce paranoia as a side effect.

We were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world.

Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

When the day came, Christina and her then-husband Malcolm joined me at O’Hare in Chicago. The airport had only recently reopened, and everyone still seemed scared to fly. The corridors were empty. I felt fatalistic, numb. It was difficult to care what happened, but I was willing to take the risk.

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

What ended up happening was that we were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I recall that trip, back in 2001, as one of the best of my life. Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

So I was eager to share the magic of Bali with my husband, Duke. We had visited other parts of Southeast Asia, our favorite region on the planet, and I decided it was time I returned to Bali.

Here are some ruminations on my experiences on this one-of-a-kind Indonesian island 17 years ago and how it differed on our recent trip.

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

For one thing, the city of Ubud has grown exponentially. When I was here before, I remember it being a sleepy little town, with one main drag. We would wander into town in the morning, find a driver parked along the side of the road, negotiate a day rate and hop in. We would say, “Take us to a cool Hindu temple and an art village.” I don’t recall us ever having a set itinerary; we put ourselves entirely in our driver’s hands.

We did take some farther-afield trips, tourist attractions two hours or so away. Of course back then it might not have taken so long because the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now.

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Speaking of traffic, there are certain stretches of the small winding two-lane roads where traffic becomes impassable. A lot of it has to do with the construction vehicles that are all over the place now as the city and the island itself gets built up more and more.

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Beggars now plead for money in parts of Ubud. We didn’t see any homeless in the streets in Ubud on our trip 17 years ago. But there were plenty of signs of poverty in the small city of Kuta, which is popular with Aussie surfers. (This was part of reason I had zero desire to go back to Kuta on this trip. If you’re going to visit a tropical paradise, why surround yourself with the filth of a city?)

You don’t see a lot of people begging for money in Ubud, but we did see about 10 the five or so days we were there. In fact, one homeless woman was holding up her young daughter as she squatted over an open sewer grate to take a dump.

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

A lot of the handicraft items were no longer anywhere to be found. When I was here before, there were certain items that lined stalls in every market you visited but had, for some reason, vanished: shadow puppets, wooden frog instruments, blow dart guns, hand-carved chess sets, colorful kites in the shape of ships and the wavy ceremonial daggers called kris.

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

Last time I was here, you literally only found Western toilets at your lodging. In fact, they had stickers on them to tell people who are unfamiliar that you shouldn’t squat on top of the seat. This time there was only one bathroom I went into where there was traditional Balinese toilet, which is really ceramic hole in the ground with treads for your feet. You “flush” your waste by dipping a plastic pot or bucket into the garbage can filled with water.

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

When I visited last time, Ubud felt more like a traditional village. One afternoon we wandered behind a temple and stumbled upon a cockfight. We had heard about this popular pastime and stopped to watch. A group of men waved bills, placing bets on their favored bird.

Each contestant held his prized cock and tied triangular razor blades to the back of its leg, just above the talons. Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust. In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

It struck us as extremely anticlimactic. I imagined the roosters circling each other like boxers or sumo wrestlers, making parries and retreats. But no. It was over in about a second.

A man told us that we the rooster would be eaten as an offering at the temple. He said this almost apologetically, I imagined, to justify this violent pastime — though I probably imposed that sense of guilt upon him. To him, it was just a way of life. –Wally

Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust.

In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

Candi Mendut: A Peaceful Borobudur Side Trip

Explore this ancient Buddhist temple and go for a swing on the massive banyan out back.

mendut.JPG

It may be small, but it’s an exquisite ancient temple. Located a short distance from Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, Candi Mendut was the third and final stop on our day’s itinerary. The clear blue sky was a stunning backdrop for the structure, composed of gray andesite volcanic rock.

We also visited the small (and rather unimpressive) Candi Pawon, where Wally and I bought a replica of the bell-shaped stupas that line Borobudur, carved of the same stone as the temple.

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, patroness of motherhood, who was once a child-eating ogress.

The Dutch discovered this sacred structure by chance in 1836, while cutting through thick foliage to clear the plot for a coffee plantation. After careful inspection, overseen by colonial engineering officer Theodore Van Erp, the ruins were eventually uncovered. Conservation efforts began in 1897 but weren’t completed until 1925.

Candi is the word for a Hindu or Buddhist temple or shrine in Bahasa, the Indonesian language. The lone structure stands atop a stone plinth and shares a peaceful green clearing with an enormous sacred banyan tree. A remnant of the Sailendra dynasty, the temple is believed to have been built sometime around 824 CE, during the reign of King Indra.

Its roof is a succession of staggered tiers, decreasing in size, with the first and second encircled by votive stupika, small dome-shaped shrines. At the summit, the central stupa is absent, most likely due to the passage of time or, perhaps damage caused by earthquakes.

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Off to the side of Mendut, a field of sculptures and fragments are laid out in the order they would fit had the missing pieces been found.

Candi Mendut is one of three temples connected along a nearly direct line, leading historians to speculate that it was part of a grand design and most likely an important pilgrimage stop en route to Borobudur. Of the three, Mendut is the oldest, having been built about 10 years before Borobudur.

On the west side, a staircase leads up to a broad terrace, designed for circumambulating or ritualistically walking clockwise around the temple. Wally and I climbed the worn stone steps, flanked by a pair of makara, mythological Buddhist sea creatures, each with lion standing within its gaping mouth. Narrative scenes from the Jataka tales, which tell of the Buddha’s previous incarnations as both humans and animals, are carved into the balustrade.

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

After we passed through the structure’s single entrance into the inner sanctuary chamber, we were greeted by three remarkably well-preserved figures. The formidable central figure is the Buddha Vairocana, depicted in a seated position, atypical for having both feet touching the ground. His hands are in Dharmachakra mudra, a gesture used by Buddha during his first sermon after enlightenment, representing the continuous flow of energy.

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

On either side sit two bodhisattvas, compassionate individuals who postpone nirvana to teach others enlightenment. To the left is Avalokitesvara, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, who represents compassion and liberates devotees from the destructive power of speech. To the right is Vajrapani, the protector and guide of the Buddha, symbolizing the energy of the enlightened mind, his right leg folded and right hand raised.

Standing in the chamber among the ancient sentinels, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead. Make sure to look closely at the feet, which are black from being touched by devotees.

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

The Legend of Hariti: From Ogress to Protectress

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, who, according to myth, was once a child-eating ogress. To feed herself and her 500 children, she took to cannibalism, snatching kids from the village of Rajagriha. This led to great fear among locals, who came to the Buddha and pleaded with him to save their children.

In one variation of the tale, the Buddha waited for Hariti to leave her dwelling and kidnapped her youngest and most beloved son, hiding him beneath his begging bowl. Upon her return home, Hariti found her son missing and searched for him in vain. Grief-stricken, the ogress in turn sought the Buddha’s aid in finding him.

The Buddha agreed to help, providing she give up her wicked ways. He explained how she was causing great suffering to the villagers. Hariti agreed to abstain from cannibalism and promised to consume only pomegranates from then on. The Buddha returned her son and ordained her the protector of children.

This statue is of particular importance to childless Javanese couples, who pray to Hariti as a symbol of fertility and patroness of motherhood.

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

The Sacred Banyan Tree

Like the witch Rangda’s mane of unkempt hair, multiple root streamers descend from the banyan behind the temple. After some minor coaxing from our driver, Wally was swinging from one. Our photos can't begin to relay the enormity of the banyan. It was the second-largest tree I’ve ever seen, the first being the ancient banyan at Pura Kehen on Bali.

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

Mendut may be less well-known and unassuming than Borobudur, but it has some beautiful bas-reliefs and stone carvings. If you are planning on visiting Borobudur, you should definitely add Candi Mendut to your visit. It’s worth walking around the complex to take in its peaceful atmosphere — and have a swing on the banyan out back. –Duke

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Mendut Temple
Jalan Magelang Sumberrejo
Mendut
Mungkid
Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56501
Indonesia

Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu Water Temple, Bali: An Off-the-Beaten-Path Oasis

Bathe in and explore this calm and cool ancient holy spring near the Tegalalang Rice Terrace.

Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Wally and I arrived at the water temple of Gunung Kawi in what seemed like a relatively short distance from the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. I’ve mentioned the traffic-choked roads we experienced during our time on Bali in previous posts, which make destinations feel farther away than they really are.

Our driver Made parked his vehicle and adjusted our sarongs before sending us off to cross the road and purchase tickets to the sacred site.

Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.
Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

The complex was established during the reign of King Udayana in the 11th century and is referred to by locals as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu. Not to be mistaken with the stone monoliths of Gunung Kawi in the neighboring town of Tampaksiring, this smaller, less-visited holy spring temple dedicated to one of the principal Hindu deities, Vishnu, is located in the highland village of Sebatu.

Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Walking alongside the road, you can take in a sweeping bird’s-eye view of its immediate surroundings. We made our way down a set of steps and arrived at a meandering path that led us past a few elegant pagoda-style cages, one of which housed a striking yellow-crested cockatoo preening itself.

Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

The aviary lines the large reflecting pool with four whimsical stone frogs peeking above the waterline, I suspect they are meant to be fountains, but were either not working, or on when we visited. Surrounding the frogs is the formal pools centerpiece, an ornamental statue of the goddess Saraswati standing atop the back of a swan. The crystal clear waters are filled with well-fed koi fish and overlooked by a grand open-air pavilion with a hipped terra cotta tiled roof.

This platform overlooks the central pool

This platform overlooks the central pool

Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Not far beyond are a series of small spring-fed pools where locals ritually bathe. Wally and I didn’t feel right entering them, so we improvised by cupping our hands to collect water, which we splashed upon our heads. It was cool and clear and felt refreshing in the early afternoon heat.

Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

While I was taking a picture of one of the lichen-covered faces spewing water from its mouth, Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a completely naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.

Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Slippery Rock: The Story Behind the Name

According to legend, there once was a man named Mayadenawa, a descendant of the powerful Daitya, a race of demons, and the primordial goddess Danu. He was a practitioner of the dark arts and possessed supernatural powers that allowed him to shapeshift.

When he ascended to the throne, King Mayadenawa regarded himself as a deity, and under this pretense, commanded his subjects to worship him. His behavior angered the storm god Indra, who watched from afar and ordered his celestial armies to attack.

Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

Statues act as guardian spirits

Statues act as guardian spirits

King Mayadenawa knew he was no match for Indra’s troops and manifested a great pool of poisonous water near their encampment. When the army woke, they drank and bathed in the pool. Hundreds fell ill. Seeing this, Indra drove a stake deep into the earth from which a sacred spring emerged. The fleet was immediately reinvigorated as the purified water touched their lips.

To avoid capture, Mayadenawa cunningly morphed into several creatures. Each time, he barely escaped. He transformed into the great bird manuk raya, immortalized in the village of Manukaya. He also appeared as a bulbous green-skinned breadfruit, buah timbul, in what became Timbul village.

Exhausted, Mayadenawa fled and transformed himself into a huge rock. Indra saw droplets of blood forming on the surface of the rock, drew his bowstring back and shot his magical arrow into the boulder. Blood flowed from the stone, forming the Petanu River, which was cursed for a period of 1,000 years.

Sebatu, the village where the temple is located, derives from the Balinese words sauh (meaning “slip”) and batu (“rocks”) or Slippery Rock. As Indra’s troops chased the king, many innocent people lost their footing, giving Sebatu its name.

A wooden effigy of a deer

A wooden effigy of a deer

A Quiet Oasis

As we wandered farther into the complex, we discovered a second rectangular pool with a small, palm-thatch roof shrine on a man-made island embellished on four sides with winged apsara. The backdrop of dense foliage lent a mystical aura to the singular structure.

The main temple was beautiful, but off limits. However, there are a few pavilions and ancillary shrines reserved for ancestral spirits worth exploring. Artisans of this village are known for their woodcarving skills and expressively painted sculptures which can be seen in the intricately carved beams and depictions of otherworldly benevolent and demonic beings.

Taking in the calm surroundings of this unusual, untouched sacred site made us feel like we were our own special world. With the exception of a few locals, Wally and I had Gunung Kawi Sebatu to ourselves. –Duke

Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pura Gunung Kawi
Sebatu
Tegallalang
Gianyar
Bali 80511
Indonesia

Weird Bali: 7 Crazy Balinese Customs

Cat poop coffee, temples of death and Balinese names are a few of the unusual aspects of Bali culture.

What makes islands so interesting is that they act as closed environments and often adopt their own distinct cultures. It’s curious that Bali is a Hindu island in the midst of the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Its unique religion permeates daily life.

Here’s a sampling of seven unusual things we observed or learned about on our trip to Bali.

The passage of the beans through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands makes the resulting coffee to die for.
Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

1. A popular coffee on Bali is made from animal poop — and it’s the most expensive coffee on Earth.

Known as kopi luwak, this is essentially coffee beans that have been eaten, digested and shat out by the palm civet, a cute animal that looks like a cross between a wild cat and a mongoose. You’ll see signs for kopi luwak all over Bali, and Duke and I were like, no thank you. The British couple next to us at dinner one night said they quite enjoyed it, though, that the beans were a honeyed color, that the coffee was smooth, and they’d have gotten some if it wasn’t so bloody expensive.

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Civets are shy, nocturnal creatures that roam coffee plantations at night, eating ripe coffee cherries. They can’t digest the pits, or beans, and poop them out. Somehow locals got it into their heads that the passage through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands, somehow makes the resulting coffee to die for.

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

What’s sad, though, is that the novelty of kopi luwak has turned into a booming industry, with many coffee farms mistreating the animals. They “suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their scats, and frequently die,” writes Tony Wild, the man who blames himself for bringing the kopi luwak craze to the West, in The Guardian. Treating an animal like that is just crappy.

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

2. All the kids have the same names, depending on their birth order.

As you become acquainted with more and more Balinese locals, you’ll notice something strange: They all seem to have the same name. And it’s not just that certain names are popular, like John and Jennifer in the States — there literally seem to be only a few names on the island to choose from. As bizarre as that seems, that is indeed the tradition on Bali.

In most cases, Balinese parents from the lower caste (that is to say, most of the population) give their children the same names, depending on their birth order — whether or not they’re boys or girls. Firstborns are named Wayan, Putu or Gede; the second-born is Made or Kadek; the third-born is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth-born is Ketut. What happens if you have five kids? The cycle repeats itself, with the addition of Balik. So the fifth-born would be Waylan Balik, which basically means Waylan Returns.

You’ll meet tons of Wayans and Mades (this last one is pronounced Mah-deh), so how do people know who’s who? Most Balinese add a nickname or middle name. Our driver, for instance, was Made Ada.

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

3. Every village has at least one temple of death.

Known as pura dalem, every village has at least one death temple, often located in the lowest part of town, facing the sea, which is considered the gateway to the underworld. Bodies are buried in the nearby cemetery, awaiting the purification of a cremation ceremony. Pura dalem, not surprisingly, are typically dedicated to the most gruesome gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon: Shiva the Destroyer, Kali, Durga or Rangda.

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Monstrous demonic statues line the entrance — many featuring bulging bug eyes, fierce fangs and large, saggy breasts. Some hold innocent babies in their arms as they stand atop a pile of skulls. These serve as a vivid reminders of what awaits the wicked.



The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

4. Wearing a skirt and tucking a flower behind your ear is thought of as the epitome of masculinity.

At temples on Bali you have to wear a sarong, wrapping these bright cloths around your waist like a long skirt. When I first visited Bali almost two decades ago, I’d wear a sarong every day, and it was common to see local men doing the same. On this visit, though, we only saw one young man wearing a sarong in Ubud (and that’s why I approached him to be our driver for the week).

I’d also pluck a flower and put it behind my ear, having seen temple priests do so. When men on Bali would see me with my sarong and flower, they’d exclaim, “Look at you! You are so masculine!” Bali has got to be the only place on Earth where a man is considered macho for wearing what’s essentially a skirt and a flower behind his ear.

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

5. Babies on Bali aren’t allowed to touch the ground for the first three months or so.

Being Hindus, Balinese believe in reincarnation — more specifically, newborns are thought to be the spirit of an ancestor returning to live another life. Because babies are still so close to the sacred realm they came from, they should be venerated. And in a culture where the ground represents all that is demonic and impure, that means newborns aren’t allowed to touch the earth for at least 105 days after birth, and up to 210 in some communities. That’s when the soul officially becomes a part of the child.

At this time, there’s a ceremony called nyabutan or nyambutin, where the baby’s hair is cut off and he or she touches the ground for the first time. It’s often at this time that the child is given its name.

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

6. In Indonesian currency, you’ll be a multimillionaire.

Literally every time we hit the ATM, we got out the maximum amount: 1.5 million rupiah, which, at the time we visited, was only about $100.

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

7. There are Ralph Lauren Polo stores everywhere.

The preppy look is huge on Bali, at least among tourists. The island is lousy with Polo stores — though they might be of dubious affiliation with the brand. Walking through Ubud, we passed at least six Polo stores. Let the buyer beware: The online consensus is that these deals are too good to be true and are most likely knock-offs. –Wally



Pura Taman Saraswati: The Heart of Ubud

You can’t miss the Saraswati Temple, famous for its lotus pond and dedicated to the Hindu goddess of learning.

The Saraswati Temple is a peaceful oasis in Ubud

The Saraswati Temple is a peaceful oasis in Ubud

On our first afternoon exploring Ubud, Wally and I decided to grab a bite at Cafe Lotus. Our table within the café’s open-air dining pavilion had a lovely view of the pond in front of the temple. There’s an undeniably magical quality to the multitudes of vibrant pink buds rising upon their stems above the murky waters, with the bricks of the temple beyond glowing orange.

Grab a bite at Cafe Lotus and admire the view

Grab a bite at Cafe Lotus and admire the view

The temple is dedicated to Saraswati, who, according to Hindu mythology, is the divine consort of Brahma, the four-faced creator deity. Her name is a combination of two Sanskrit words, “sara,” a lake or pool, and “vati,” to possess. Loosely translated, her name means She Who Has an Abundance of Water. Originally, she took the form of the sacred Saraswati River in India. That river has since dried up, and over time, she transformed to become the patroness of knowledge, literature and the arts, the creative essence flowing within the human heart and soul.

This pathway bisects the lotus pond and leads to the temple

This pathway bisects the lotus pond and leads to the temple

Who doesn’t love a lotus?

Who doesn’t love a lotus?

It is believed that Saraswati lives on the tip of the tongue and is present whenever words are spoken. She is the goddess of speech, and her blessings are invoked through the mantras written on sacred traditional palm leaf manuscripts, known as lontar. She is often depicted with four arms, seated upon a swan or lotus flower. In her hands she holds a lute, prayer beads and a lontar, representing the intellect, alertness and ego.

The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and the arts

The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and the arts

Pura Taman Saraswati

Prince Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati commissioned the temple, which was designed by the Balinese artist Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Construction began in 1951 and was completed the following year. Under patronage of the royal family, Lempad played an important role in the design and construction of palaces and temples throughout Ubud and its neighboring villages. When Lempad died in 1978, he was believed to have been 116 years old.

Wally and Duke in front of the temple and pond

Wally and Duke in front of the temple and pond

There’s a Starbucks right in front of the temple. Grab a venti iced latte on the way out!

There’s a Starbucks right in front of the temple. Grab a venti iced latte on the way out!

The temple is easy to find, sandwiched between Cafe Lotus and a Starbucks off the main thoroughfare of Ubud. To enter the grounds, cross a footbridge that bisects the scenic lotus ponds. The path is flanked by theatrical and grotesque sculptures of Hindu mythological figures, many of which are the original works of Lempad himself.

Grotesque statues like this one are characteristic of Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s style

Grotesque statues like this one are characteristic of Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s style

Lempad carved many of the statues and was the architect of the temple

Lempad carved many of the statues and was the architect of the temple

Wally and I were only able to explore the front platform of Pura Taman Saraswati, as the inner courtyard was closed to visitors. The temple exterior is a traditional assemblage of orange-red bricks embellished with gray volcanic stone ornamentation. A towering central gate known as a paduraksa stands at its center. A pair of intricately carved wooden doors functions as a symbolic boundary marker between the outer world and the temple’s sacred interior.

The central gate into the sacred interior of the temple was locked every time we visited

The central gate into the sacred interior of the temple was locked every time we visited

Gold detailing on the temple doors features heads of guardian spirits

Gold detailing on the temple doors features heads of guardian spirits

On either side of the main gate at Pura Taman Saraswati are two tall frangipani trees whose gnarled branches and dark green leaves grow outwards and upwards like a pair of wings. When in bloom, these trees produce small, fragrant white flowers with yolk-yellow centers. The flowers are called jepun in Bali and are commonly used in the daily devotional offerings to the gods known as canang sari.

People leave offerings of flowers for Saraswati

People leave offerings of flowers for Saraswati

As Saraswati is associated with the arts, it’s fitting that the courtyard serves as an open-air stage for nightly kecak performances, traditional stories depicting the constant struggle between good and evil, told through dance.

W is for Wally

W is for Wally

Duke branches out at Pura Taman Saraswati

Duke branches out at Pura Taman Saraswati

On a platform in front of the temple, a spiny-backed turtle flanked by two dragon-looking creatures emerge from below

On a platform in front of the temple, a spiny-backed turtle flanked by two dragon-looking creatures emerge from below

On the couple of occasions we visited, we entered directly from Jalan Raya, the main street that runs through the center of Ubud. The water temple is apparently also accessible from Jalan Kajeng, which runs perpendicular to Jalan Raya. No matter how you arrive there, it’s a peaceful oasis amid the throngs of tourists and worthy of a quick visit. –Duke

The Saraswati Temple in Ubud

The Saraswati Temple in Ubud

Pura Taman Saraswati
Jalan Kajeng
Ubud
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali 80571
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

gunungkawisepia.JPG

Candi Gunung Kawi
Banjar Penaka
Tampaksiring
Gianyar, Bali 80552
Indonesia