religion

The Magnificent Parroquia San Juan Bautista

Don’t miss la Iglesia de Coyoacán, a striking example of Spanish colonial history and one of the oldest surviving houses of worship in Mexico City.

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

Add la Iglesia de Coyoacán to your itinerary when exploring this boho neighborhood

After lunch at Los Danzantes, Wally and I made our way from the leafy Jardín Centenario and crossed Calle Carrillo Puerto, the street that separates the adjacent Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.

Presiding over the south side of the Plaza Hidalgo and directly in our line of vision was the Parroquia San Juan Bautista, known locally as la Iglesia de Coyoacán, the Catholic church and former mission dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The Spanish first introduced Christianity to the indigenous Nahuatl people in the early 16th century.



In front of the church entrance is a cobblestone square that originally extended into what is now Plaza Centenario. During the colonial period, the square was used to host religious one act dramatizations known as autos sacramentales. Rather than completely abandon old beliefs, the missionaries adopted a strategy to spread the new faith by incorporating indigenous ritual practices that had similarities to Christianity.

A four-story bell tower, which was added later, in the 18th century, stands to the west of the main church and was once topped by a dome, lantern and cross. Sadly, the dome collapsed during an earthquake in September 2017.

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

The church was built on the site of a school for Aztec nobles

San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister.

The relatively plain façade is in the Herrerian style, named after Spanish architect and mathematician Juan de Herrera. This architectural style is characterized by clean geometric lines and is almost entirely absent of ornamentation, with the exception of grooved classical pilasters, columns of the Ionic order set into the face of the church. An inscription in Latin above the door translates to, “There is none other but a house of God, and this a gate of the heavens.”

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

The exterior is plain, but the interior is anything but, as this ornate altar attests

Above in bas-relief, are the coat of arms of the Roman Catholic Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. The petals of the fleur-de-lis cross symbolize the 12 apostles. Another carving depicts a sort of monogram of the Virgin Mary — a crown with the intertwined letters A and M for Ave Maria.

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Gorgeous archways and ceiling frescos adorn San Juan Bautista

Construction of the church happened in fits and starts, between 1527 and 1552, on land donated to conquistador Hernan Cortés by the native Ixtolinque chief, who was baptized into the Catholic faith under the name of Juan de Guzmán. Under the direction of the Dominican order, San Juan Bautista was built upon the site of a calmecac, a school for the sons of Aztec nobility, whose ruins still exist beneath the cloister. The original structure was designed as a basilica, with a simple rectangular floor plan used in temple architecture.

In 1934, the church was declared a historic monument by the government of the republic.

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

The sides of the church’s interior are gloriously gilded

Going for Baroque

If you’re like Wally and me, you can’t go to a city without exploring a few churches, and the Parroquia San Juan Bautista did not disappoint. Stepping inside, we immediately noticed the exuberant interior, modified between 1926 and 1947 to reflect the prevailing Baroque style and reduced to a single nave flanked by seven small chapels on either side.

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

Among the most striking works are the illusion-inducing ceiling frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ by Catalan painter Juan de Fabregat. Angels perch high above the column capitals lining the walls and culminate in the magnificent Chapel of the Rosary, with its lavishly decorated high altar embellished with the glow of gold leaf.

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

The ceiling depicts scenes from the life of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

It’s certainly worth popping into Coyoacán’s main church for a quick wander

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

An angel guards over the dome at the front of the church

We paused to admire the vitrine with (the admittedly creepy) el Cristo de los Milagros, Christ of the Miracles, with a mystical assemblage of gold and pewter milagros, healing charms, pinned to a sea of red ribbons. Milagros of a specific body part, such as a leg, are used in a prayer for the improvement for some condition associated with a leg, such as arthritis or a bad knee. Some of the milagros had photos of the person to be healed.

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

The creepy, life-size Cristo de los Milagros

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

If you want to be healed of an ailment, leave a milagro of the proper body part and maybe a photo, then tie a red ribbon and pin it to the wall

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Oh, baby! One of the strange icons to offer devotions to at the Iglesia de Coyoacán

Other works were designed to appeal to the emotions of the faithful and feature biblical depictions of the lives of the saints of the Franciscan order, including the Vision of Saint Teresa, the taking of the habit of Santa Clara, and the stigmatizations of San Francisco, Saint Domingo and San Juan.

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Expect an inundation of elaborate ornamentation

Converting the infidels

Converting the infidels

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Gold-painted statuary and frills line the sides of the church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

Corpse-like mannequins can seem a strange inclusion to a church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

One of the niches on the right-hand side of the church

We passed through a doorway into a small chapel, where a small group of students was sketching. This led out to an arched arcade of Tuscan columns. This was the cloister of the convent, perhaps founded by Friar Juan de la Cruz, an indigenous man who spoke Castilian Spanish. Within the convent’s walls, Nahuatl people were baptized and taught the tenets of the Christian faith.

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

Out back you can explore the quiet cloisters

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

This might have been where indigenous people were baptized into the Catholic faith

A group of students was sketching when we visited

A group of students was sketching when we visited

Like the neighborhood itself, the church is a destination full of rich culture. So if you should find yourself in Coyoacán, make sure to spend some time exploring the Parroquia San Juan Bautista. Like us, you’ll be glad you did. –Duke

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

La Iglesia de Coyoacán

Parroquia San Juan Bautista
Plaza Centenario 8
Villa Coyoacán
04000 Coyoacán
CDMX, Mexico

The Creepy Witch’s Market at Mercado Sonora

Head to the back left corner to enter a world of magic potions, Santeria, brujeria, voodoo dolls and Santa Muerte.

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

Ever since Duke and I stumbled upon a witch’s market in a corner of the souk in Marrakech, Morocco, we’ve been addicted.

What’s a witch’s market, you ask? It’s sort of like a farmer’s market — only with a lot less local produce and more skulls and potions. Filled as they are with often disturbing items, witchcraft markets appeal to our warped sensibilities.

Our Uber dropped us off at the sprawling Mercado Sonora in Mexico City in front of a line of yellow awnings. At first we wondered if we would even be able to find the section that contained the witch’s market. Stall after stall stretched out before us, filled with brightly colored, super-sized stuffed animals like those you hope your honey will win for you at a carnival. Some stalls had lights swirling like a discotheque and housed banners and other decorations that screamed, “¡Feliz Cumpliaños!” Women sat under large cutouts of Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse and superheroes. Piñatas hung from the ceiling. Men tried to tempt us with rows of technicolor candies.

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

As we wandered toward the far right-hand corner of the massive market, we started noticing a disturbing trend: This was where live animals were sold. We witnessed a young boy dump a cardboard box of full of puppies onto the floor and hastily put them into a cage near crates packed with birds, lizards, cats, rabbits and goats.

I stopped to take a picture of a cage full of mangy-looking puppies, but a man wagged his finger at me, saying, “No fotos” in a stern voice.

“I’m not surprised,” Duke mumbled. “He doesn’t want documentation of how inhumane this is.”

It really was quite depressing. So we were relieved when, as we moved to the left, still at the back of the market, we noticed a life-size skeleton wearing a wedding dress, a string of pearls around its neck and a tiara atop its skull.

We knew we were in the right place. We had found the witch’s market.

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

Santa Muerte and Santería

The figure we happened upon is Santa Muerte, the goddess of death, a popular figure in Mexico. The stall took up a corner space, more of a small boutique. We looked around, seeing strings of beads, skeletons carved from bone (Duke still regrets not having bought one), candles in glass containers and a stone head with cowry shells for its eyes and mouth. I called Duke over. This last item was just the type of unexpected and slightly disturbing thing that he would love. We of course purchased it, for 100 pesos, or $5.

By the way, at markets in Mexico City, unlike those in Southeast Asia or Morocco, for instance, you’re not expected to bargain. The prices are set, but that’s OK, as you’ll find that most of them are quite reasonable.

The man who ran the stall was friendly, and grabbed a pen and paper when I asked him to write down what the head is called.

“Elegua,” he scribbled. I later found out he’s the god of beginnings and endings in Santería. He’s a bit of a trickster, which explains why I was so drawn to him.

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

We made our way through the labyrinth of stalls, surprised that they didn’t connect in any sort of logical manner. You would wind through a narrow space and then find yourself at a dead end, having to backtrack. The market was pretty crowded when we were there on a Sunday morning — “These are all the naughty people who should be in church,” I told Duke — and there was still a bit of jostling in the corridors as people stopped to look at goods or tried to pass by. Every now and then, a vendor would appear, carrying a stack of large boxes, and you’d have to press yourself against the wall to let them pass. It wasn’t long before Duke was feeling claustrophobic.

But I wasn’t done exploring this weird and wonderful market.

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

Brujeria Meets Catholicism

What’s strange about brujeria, or Mexican witchcraft, is that it exists alongside Catholic beliefs. Whereas the mere whiff of something witchy prompts Christians in the United States to scream, “Satan,” Mexicans are much more sanguine. In the heart of the witch’s market, you’ll find statues of saints and baby Jesus dolls, Virgins of Guadalupe and crucifixes galore right next to the scythe-wielding Santa Muerte, looking like the Grim Reaper’s soulmate.

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

As we wandered down a narrow corridor, something caught my attention: what was obviously a Barbie doll, entirely covered in red ribbon with a few nails stuck into it. The vendor told me it was a voodoo doll, but an expensive one, he said, apologetically. You see, it cost 100 pesos, or a whopping $5. He showed me a package of smaller, cheaply made dolls, pointing out how much more affordable they were. But I had to have the other one, of course.

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

At stalls in the witchcraft market, creepy dolls hung on the wall, some with their eyes and mouths sewn shut. One that immediately appealed to me had its face painted half red, half black. Sage smoke from a burning smudge stick filled the dark corridor, making me a little lightheaded. The vendor appeared intimidating — an intense young man with long hair, numerous piercings, tattoos down his arms and triangular studs in his earlobes. But he turned out to be friendly and wrote down the name of the god represented by the red-and-blacked-faced doll: Lucero Mundo, or Star of the World. He’s a deity from Palo, a Santería-like religion that originated in Cuba amongst descendants from the Congo. A god of the crossroads, Lucero witnesses everything, and without his consent, no spiritual power will flow.

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Potions and Notions

Brightly colored bottles and boxes promised the solution to any problem. Got a crush? Spray some Ven a Mi (Come to Me). Want a successful small business? Spritz some Llama Cliente (Call Customers).

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to drink these potions, but I wouldn’t put those toxic-looking, neon-colored bottles to my lips no matter how desperate I was.

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

“I was thinking there’d be more desiccated animals,” Duke sighed. These are the types of things that disappoint us. But then, as if he had conjured it by sheer willpower, we almost walked right into some sort of flayed ball of fur, which looked more like a cross between roadkill and beef jerky. It was hardly recognizable as having once been a small animal. We have a taxidermied squirrel climbing our wall, a dried-out bat in our living room and a desiccated chameleon inside our glass-topped coffee table. But this macabre monstrosity was too much, even for us. –Wally

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Mercado Sonora and the Witch’s Market
Fray Servando Teresa de Mier 419
Merced Balbuena
15810 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

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

Beyond Prambanan: The Love Temples of Plaosan

Explore the twin temples of Candi Plaosan, built by a Hindu prince for his Buddhist bride in Central Java.

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Our Borobudur guide, Wishnu, was showing us a few pictures that other tourists and guides had shared with him, when he paused to play us footage taken from a drone, soaring above a couple of stunning temples.

“What’s that?” I asked, and then, “Can we visit it?”

Wishnu replied that locals call these the Love Temples, and of course we could visit them — we just needed to let our driver for the Prambanan trip know that we’d like to add it to our itinerary.

The great love story began with an interfaith union between a Buddhist princess and a Hindu prince.
The northern complex is the one worth exploring

The northern complex is the one worth exploring

In the Name of Love

The site is officially called Candi Plaosan, a complex of Buddhist temples located in Klaten, Yogyakarta, a short distance north of the Hindu temples of Prambanan. What makes it truly unique is that both complexes were built by the same Javanese king.

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Duke on the temple complex

Duke on the temple complex

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

The great love story behind Plaosan began with an interfaith union between the two ruling dynasties of Central Java during the 9th century. Pramodhawardhani, a Buddhist princess and daughter of Samaratungga, the last known king of the Sailendra Dynasty, married Prince Rakai Pikatan, from the Hindu Sanjaya family. When Pikatan ascended to the throne, Pramodhawardhani became his queen and was given the name Sri Kuhulunan. Religious differences didn’t separate the couple, and together they played a significant role in building some of the finest Hindu and Buddhist temples of Central Java.

Plaosan is a 9th century complex built at the height of the Mataram Kingdom. Once part of a single site, Plaosan Lor, the northern main temples and the smaller Plaosan Kidul to the south are now separated by a public road.

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

A Temple for Men, A Temple for Women

One of the first things Wally and I noticed as we entered the temple grounds of Plaosan Lor were four imposing stone ogres. Known as dwarapala, the stocky and squat semi-kneeling guardians grip a short thick club in their right hand, while the other rests upon a bent left knee.

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

Like Prambanan, the sanctuary follows a square grid system with groups of smaller ancillary shrines laid out in orderly rows. The buildings were constructed without mortar, their stones quarried and precisely cut. A small number have been reconstructed, standing amongst piles of gray andesite blocks yet to undergo restoration.

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

At the center of Plaosan Lor, the two nearly identical structures were viharas, meaning they were designed as Buddhist monasteries.

Above the arched gate portal leading to the temple is a Kala head whose gaping mouth symbolically swallows our mortal impediments and permits passage into the sacred inner courtyard.

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Towering stalagmite-like spires crown the multistory vihara, rising like the jagged peaks of Mount Meru, the holy mountain abode of the gods, and a pair of mythical serpentine makara form the railings of the staircase leading to the monastery — a small Kewpie-doll like dwarf figure stands within the creature’s gaping jaws.

The monument sits on a high rectangular stone podium with an apron that extends several feet outward, forming a porch where visitors can circumambulate the structure. Its exterior walls feature false windows, an architectural element meant to maintain symmetry on the façade. These are embellished with distinctive Kala-makara ornamentation, but unlike the ones above the gateways, these depictions of include a lower jaw with a wide mischievous grin similar to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Enshrined within the central hall are a pair of headless seated Bodhisattva statues, one that is more or less a torso, presumably plundered and decapitated by relic thieves. An empty pedestal between the pair possibility held an enthroned bronze Buddha.

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Intricately detailed reliefs of various demigods and deities adorn the exterior walls. According to a theory presented by Nicholas Johannes Krom, head of the early 20th century Dutch Archeological Society, the two vihara were sponsored by influential patrons and built for male and female monastics — not as a tribute to love, as locals prefer to believe.

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

The south-facing vihara depicts male figures, while the north depicts female figures. The south temple was probably a monastery for Bhikkhu monks, while the north housed Bhikkhuni nuns.

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

In the distance, behind the vihara, a celebration complete with multicolored garlands made of balloons was taking place. We passed through a side gate in the low wall separating the two temples and explored the second vihara.

Whether or not Plaosan was constructed as a symbol of Pikatan’s devotion to Sri Kuhulunan or as a display of political reconciliation to placate the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty, it certainly makes for an interesting story. –Duke

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Candi Plaosan

Jalan Candi Plaosan
Plaosan Lor
Bugisan
Kecamatan Prambanan
Kabupaten Klaten
Jawa Tengah 57454
Indonesia

What It’s Really Like to Walk the Camino Frances

Everything you need to know about the Camino de Santiago, from the difficult first day to the frustrating ending — with all the serenity in between.

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

Walking for 35 days. A 500-mile trek through northern Spain. It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation. So what got our friend Susan to decide to take on the Camino de Santiago?

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Blame Oprah. At least in part. You see, Susan saw Winfrey’s special about spiritual belief, and was intrigued by the camino. She was going through a transition in her life and wanted to do something epic.

There are at least eight different routes to choose from, and Susan decided upon the Camino Francés, the most popular option.

Here’s what this intense pilgrimage entails.

 

Why did you decide to do the Camino de Santiago?

I had heard about the Camino de Santiago back in 2011 when I was living abroad in Ireland. I always had it in the back of my head that it sounded really cool. I was burnt out as a lawyer and wanted to do something that was completely out of my element. I decided to quit my job and go back to school. I had about five weeks from my last day of work before my master’s program started, and the camino seemed perfect because you can do it by yourself and it’s safe. You can walk alone, but there are also lots of opportunities to meet other people from all over the world. When I told everyone I was going to go to Spain to walk 500 miles, they all said it sounded crazy — but also really cool.

The first day was uphill through the Pyrénées. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!”

I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

When did you go?

There’s a ton of people in June, July and August, but not in May, when I was there. There are stretches where you don’t see anyone.

 

How long was the hike?

About five weeks. It took me a few days to get to the starting point. I flew into Biarritz, France. The walk starts in a town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The overall route took me 32 days to walk 560 miles.

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

What’s it like when you start the Camino de Santiago?

Scary. I didn’t prepare much. When I met people along the way, they had done so much research. I ordered hiking shoes and a backpack, and booked my flight. I got into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. The first day I got there, it was pouring rain. I got up at 7 a.m., put my backpack on…and just started walking.

 

How was the French leg of the journey?

You only spend about a day and a half in France. Unlike in Spain, where everything’s well marked, there are no signs in France. Within the first 500 feet, I took a wrong turn, which I’m gonna blame on this girl from Hungary. I followed her, and after a while, we were like, this doesn’t look right. So we had taken an hour-long detour.

The second half of the day was uphill through the Pyrénées, so it was very difficult. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!” I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the whole thing. And apparently, this was the easy route! We had heard horror stories from people who had done the harder route.

Things got so much easier after that. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about the huge incline ’cause I would have been really anxious about it.

 

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Was it easy to get lost on the camino?

There’s an app for the Camino de Santiago — which I didn’t realize until the third day. The app tells you all the different places you can stay, if it’s flat, if you have inclines or declines.

It’s called Buen Camino, which is what everyone says to you when you pass them. It means “good way.” You see yourself as a little yellow dot, so you can see if you’re straying off the path.

And once you get to Spain, it’s fabulous. The paths are marked with the shell that’s the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Every so often you’ll see a cement pillar with a shell on it. And when you’re in towns, there are yellow arrows.

 

What’s the terrain like?

At first it was a path through the mountains, but most of the camino is gravel. There are other days when you’re in the forest or have to walk on the street. It’s beautiful. At some points, you’re walking through vineyards. I liked the smaller towns more than the cities. It was so peaceful and nice. I tried to bond with nature and take in my surroundings.

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

Who else was on the camino?

I didn’t meet a lot of Americans — mostly Europeans, Australians and Koreans. You have all ages, women, men. Most people were by themselves, though you did have some couples. Some people did it for religious reasons, but most were doing it as a spiritual experience, trying to take a break from their lives. Some people were really fit; some people didn’t last the whole time.

People formed little groups. Most of them stayed in the albergues, the hostels.

 

How difficult was the hike?

About seven days in is a town called Logroño, and there’s a big hospital there. And that’s where they say a lot of people’s bodies break down. They have shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee injuries.

The declines are actually the worst. You’ve got a heavy backpack on, it’s gravel, and you have to support yourself and not fall forward.

Some people ended up taking shortcuts because they physically weren’t up for it. I didn’t take any shortcuts!

I was surprised I held up as well as I did. But I live in Chicago and don’t have a car. I walk a lot. I had some blisters, but that was doable — I just put some band-aids on those.

The training plans are pretty intense. They say you should walk an hour a day and then six hours a day on the weekend with your backpack. I didn’t do that.

I’m not a hiker, but I would say it’s a moderate trek. I’d say a third of it is more difficult: up or down, rocky terrain.

 

What kind of shoes did you get?

I didn’t have any light hiking shoes, so I ordered some cute pink ones. I did a lot of reading on discussion boards, and I knew I didn’t want anything too heavy. People thought they looked like running sneakers. I ordered them a month before, and wore them every time I’d go out to walk the dog to break them in.

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What was in your backpack?

They say to bring only two outfits — I brought three.

 

That would be the hardest part for us. We would’ve brought like 10 outfits.

There are services where you could have your backpack transported. I didn’t have a hiking backpack, so I bought one that was 34 liters. I brought tank tops, three pairs of stretchy yoga pants, small toiletries, a small sleeping bag — which I ended up ditching. You only need it if you’re staying at hostels. The second day I ditched a lot of stuff in my pack ’cause you just want to get it as light as possible. Bring a portable charger, just in case you’re in the middle of nowhere and your cell phone dies. I had a hat and an extra pair of shoes, one pair of pajamas, a rain jacket and a fleece, which I wore to bed a lot since I got cold. I had some pairs of thin hiking socks but ended up buying thicker ones when I got there that gave more support.

I ended up cutting two pairs of my pants and made shorts, ha ha. No shame! It’s one of those things you’d normally never do.

A lot of people that go in the summer get up early to hike before sunrise to avoid the heat. They bring headlamps to see in the dark, but I couldn’t imagine doing that on some of the terrain.

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Take us through a typical day on the camino.

I’d wake up — I’d have all my stuff laid out and I’d take a shower the night before. So I’d grab my backpack and go, around 7 or 8 a.m. The night before, I’d look at the app and all the towns and figure out how far I was gonna walk. I’d always book beforehand online. A lot of people just walked until they got tired and would find a place. I liked to have the security of knowing I had a room — a lot of these places were in the middle of nowhere.

I never ate breakfast, so I’d head out. Around 10 a.m., I’d find a place to stop and get a café con leche and a croissant. There wasn’t a lot of great food — these are tiny towns that cater to the pilgrims, as they call us. And none of the pilgrims are looking for good food; they’re looking for cheap stuff. The menu was the same at every place.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. and go right to bed. And then do the same thing the next morning.

It was kind of like “Groundhog Day” — but I loved every minute of it.

Every time you come up to someone — I’m a fast walker and would pass everybody — you would say hello, “buen camino.” If they seem like they wanted to chat, I’d walk with them for a bit. You’d see people you’d seen before, so it was very social. But I did spend a lot of the time by myself.

I would usually get to where I was going between 1 to 3 p.m. So I didn’t eat until I got there. A lot of people who stopped to eat breakfast and lunch got there much later. I liked to get there and relax — not that there was a lot to do there most of the time. But I’d walk around, and if I saw people I knew, I’d hang out with them.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. or so, and go right to bed because I was exhausted. And then do the same thing the next morning. It was kind of like Groundhog Day — but I loved every minute of it.

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Where’d you stay?

You can pay 8 euros for a bed at a hostel, and dinner was €10. You can do this super cheap — for about €30 a day. For me, getting a private room, I’d pay about €20. In a bigger city, like Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago, I’d stay at a hotel and pay up to €75 euros.

The smaller villages were very downtrodden and economically depressed. I wanted to tell these people, “You should raise your prices!”

 

How about pee breaks?

I didn’t take a lot. There’s not a lot of places to go to the bathroom. Maybe every 15 kilometers, there’ll be a small coffeeshop you could go in. I’m not a person who can pee outside. So this is going to sound weird, but I didn’t drink a lot of water during the day. I’m sure a lot of people would say that’s really bad. When I got to where I was going, I’d drink a ton of water.

 

Most people do pee outside, though?

Yes! I saw a lot of people peeing outside. It’s acceptable to do so. I saw people’s asses. I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

 

Were there differences between the French and the Spanish?

I don’t want to offend anybody. The French just weren’t as welcoming, though I was only in France for a day and a half. They don’t want to speak English to you. I don’t want to be an ignorant American saying they should speak English, ’cause I don’t think that. I felt like they were, why are you in my country? But maybe that’s not representative of everyone one else’s experience.

In Spain, everyone tried to speak English. They know what you want: You get your passport in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and you have to get it stamped at the hostels and cafés. And that’s what they inspect when you get to Santiago de Compostela to prove you did the whole thing, and then they give you a certificate called the compostela. I waited in line for two hours to get this. You have to walk at least 100 kilometers to get one — and what annoyed me is that it’s the same certificate, whether you’ve walked 100 kilometers or the entire 800 like I did.

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

Was it a spiritual journey?

It’s funny — you’re walking 15 to 20 miles a day and are in your own head. But it’s not like I had all these deep thoughts and came to these epiphanies, which I thought I might! I was hoping to find myself, ha ha. A lot of your mind is taken up with thinking about the next town you’re getting to, following the trail, talking to people. I thought I’d have a lot of time to figure things out, but I didn’t contemplate life as much as I should have, maybe. You think you’re going to work out all the things in your life and come back perfect.

 

What’s it like when you finally get to Santiago?

It’s anticlimactic. You walk into Santiago and you think there’s going to be trumpets or a parade — you just walked 500 miles! It’s so crowded; it’s so commercialized. It’s very stressful. It wasn’t a good experience. Everyone ends up going to the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral, where they say your name. But I didn’t end up going because I was in line to get my certificate.

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

What then?

I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere else after Santiago. But I ended up doing it in less time than I had planned. You can keep going another 60 miles to the coast, an extra three days. And it was absolutely beautiful, a place called Finisterre. It’s right on the ocean and they call it the End of the World. That’s where the 0 Kilometer pillar is, so that’s cool. There wasn’t a lot of people there, and there’s a lighthouse and a guy playing bagpipes. There’s a beach with seashells. It’s very peaceful. It’s a great place to reflect and feel rewarded, rather than Santiago, which was so dispiriting. I got a room at a hotel that had a beautiful view of the ocean that wasn’t that expensive. It was such a fabulous way to end the trip.

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

A lot of people, if they’re not going to walk, they’ll take a bus. I took the bus back to Santiago since I was flying out of there. I ran into the Hungarian girl I met on the first day and other people, so I went out with them.

 

What surprised you about the Camino de Santiago the most?

I’m not a huge athlete or anything, so I was surprised by how effortlessly I was able to do it — apart from that first day.

I had always heard about the culture of Spain, but I was surprised by how poor a lot of the towns were. They’re all centered around the pilgrims. The places I stayed were acceptable, but I heard a lot of stories about people staying in albergues that weren’t. But when you’re paying €8 a night…

There was a lot of dirt and stray animals — it was a lot less glamorous than I expected. I didn’t realize how economically downtrodden this part of Spain was. But at the same time, the people were very generous and welcoming.

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

Siestas were crazy, too. Everything in town closes from 2 to 5 p.m. Hotels and restaurants tended to be open, but no grocery or clothing stores. I’d go to the store when it opened and get snacks for the next day.

Sometimes restaurants would be open, but the kitchen would be closed from 6 to 9 p.m. You could get drinks, but there wasn’t any food.

Religion was everywhere. Whenever you’d come into a town, the biggest building there would be the church — the first thing you’d see is that cross. So church bells were ever-present during my trek, which I really enjoyed. People would be there, trying to get you to go into the church.

 

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

What was the laundry situation?

I did a lot of sink-washing. But a lot of the places have washing machines, but not dryers. People would hang their stuff outside. But you’d have to get there first. Most of the time, I’d wash my stuff in the bathtub with shower gel.

It was simple. You don’t have creature comforts, but you have everything you need. Normally when I go on a trip, I bring big suitcases and all this shit. It was so nice to put everything into one backpack and that was it. I survived. Now I’m just gonna bring a backpack everywhere I go.

 

Really?

We’ll see.

 

Any final advice do you have for people who want to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Don’t plan too much. Take it as it comes — don’t overcomplicate things, because it’s all going to work out totally fine. –Wally

It’s acceptable to pee outside. I saw people’s asses.

I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

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.
purakehensepia.JPG

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

The Buddhist Bas-Reliefs of Borobudur

A walk-through of the Borobudur temple carvings that depict the lives of the Buddha as told in the Jataka tales and Avadana.

The carvings on some of the levels of Borobudur tell the story of the Buddha as well as his past reincarnations

The carvings on some of the levels of Borobudur tell the story of the Buddha as well as his past reincarnations

The incomparable 9th century Mahayana Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia contains the largest collection of decorative panels recounting the life of the Buddha. The structure rests upon an oversized base, and the body of the monument is composed of six raised platforms, including five terraced galleries. They’re square in form and diminish in scale with height. The uppermost trio of circular terraces are plain in comparison, but are augmented by 72 magnificent stone lattice-work stupas rising to the stupa on the summit. Because Borobudur has no inner chambers, it is considered a pilgrimage site.

The builders of Borobudur recognized the need for a drainage system because of heavy rains that cause erosion

The builders of Borobudur recognized the need for a drainage system because of heavy rains that cause erosion

Pilgrims would have entered via the eastern stairs to ritually circumambulate (a fancy word for walking around) the sacred manmade mountain of chiseled gray andesite in quiet contemplation. It's here that the stories told in the narrative relief panels begin, with the birth of the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama. According to legend, the infant stood and took seven steps. With each step, a lotus flower appeared, to prevent his tiny feet from touching the ground.

The corridors are filled with detailed murals depicting celestial beings, guardian demons, conch shells, jewel trees, durian fruit and a menagerie of animals, including elephants, deer and tree-dwelling monkeys, to name a few.

Animals are depicted in the carvings — including many that tell of the past lives of the Buddha

Animals are depicted in the carvings — including many that tell of the past lives of the Buddha

Open to the sky, the bas-reliefs adorning the 13-foot-wide passages create a broad platform and are read from left to right, moving in a clockwise direction around the monument, twisting in right angles from one terrace to another. The galleries represent the planes of existence that must be experienced before reaching the uppermost level of spiritual perfection.

Story Time: Jataka and Avadana

The first- and second-level stone reliefs depict tales from Buddhist lore, including the Jataka and Avadana. Wally and I had first seen these stories depicted in the frescoes of the Ajanta Caves in India.

The Jataka tales are about the Buddha before he was born as Prince Siddhartha. Thematically, they illustrate lessons in morality, karma and merit that distinguished the bodhisattva from all other creatures. As a bodhisattva, the Buddha was born and reborn numerous times, alternating from human to animal form, before he finally attained enlightenment.

Avadana are similar to Jataka, but the main figure is not the Buddha himself — the saintly deeds are attributed to other legendary people.

We didn’t experience the reliefs in chronological order, as our guide, Pras, led us down from the upper terraces, after we watched the sunrise.


borobudurtemple.JPG

We paused on the stairway to admire one of the ornate archways depicting the fearsome face and open mouth of Kala.

According to folklore, Kala was created by the god Shiva to eradicate demons, though he’s sometimes identified himself as a demon named Rahu, who is said to have swallowed the universe, only to release it after being decapitated by the gods.

Be careful when crossing through arches formed by the mouth of Kala — his jaw is said to snap shut on those who have evil in their hearts

Be careful when crossing through arches formed by the mouth of Kala — his jaw is said to snap shut on those who have evil in their hearts

Locals like to joke that the stone at the top depicts the golden arches of McDonald’s

Locals like to joke that the stone at the top depicts the golden arches of McDonald’s

Why Many Buddhists Are Vegetarian

Pras pointed out a notable tale depicted in one of the panels known as The Hare’s Sacrifice. The bodhisattva was born as a hare. His closest friends were an otter, a jackal and a monkey. He continuously urged his friends to strive for right conduct and to be generous in their daily life. Wanting to put the hare to the test, the god Sakra appeared in the forest in the shape of a brahman who had lost his way and was starving. The otter brought seven fish, the jackal a lizard, and the monkey ripe fruits. The hare, however, couldn’t offer anything. The brahman lit a fire for an offering — and immediately the hare jumped in, offering himself as a meal. The king of the gods admired the saintly deed, and while resuming his own shape, he praised the hare for his self-sacrifice.

Pras explained that this was why many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they would not like to think that they are eating someone who may have been reborn as an animal. –Duke

Be sure to check out the carvings as you explore the multi-story Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia

Be sure to check out the carvings as you explore the multi-story Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia

Borobudur Temple
Jl. Badrawati
Kw. Candi Borobudur
Borobudur, Magelang
Jawa Tengah
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