A big family were walking down the outer courtyard, each donning bright-colored traditional costume with some of the family members carrying ceremonial paraphernalia: small umbrellas with very long wooden handles and baskets made from woven palm fronts. As they walked further away from the candi bentar – typical split gateway found in Balinese Hindu temples – the big group of men, women and children encompassing three generations were met by hordes of tourists.
It was the peak tourist season in Bali and the relatively remote temple compound was not exempted from the influx of domestic and foreign visitors lured to come to the island for its fabled natural and cultural scenes.
The Temple of Besakih is considered the holiest and mother of all temples on the island, thanks to not only its location on the slopes of the exalted Mount Agung – the tallest and most revered peak in Bali – but also the legend of Rsi Markendya who conceived a new religion on the island after receiving revelation from the Supreme Being.
However archaeological evidences suggest that long before Hinduism spread all over the island humans had left their marks on the same place where the Mother Temple now sits. Menhirs and stepped pyramids indicate megalithic societies once flourished on this part of the island, possibly practicing animist beliefs.
Today the compound consists of one main temple – Pura Penataran Agung – and smaller temples which, according to Bli Komang, belong to different families.
“After holding a Ngaben, people come to Besakih to conduct rituals at their respective family’s temple,” Bli Komang told us referring to the Balinese elaborate cremation ceremony. “I’ll show you my family’s temple later,” he added.
As we entered the main courtyard of Pura Penataran Agung after passing by some smaller temples and walking past a big kori agung – an ornate front gate made from volcanic stones – the true scale of the entire temple compound became more palpable. Rows of meru – pagoda-like multi-tiered roofs – surrounded the courtyard of the main temple where a handful of devotees sat cross-legged on the floor, behind a priest who was leading the praying ritual under a shaded pavilion.
Then a young girl approached us and started speaking in Bahasa Indonesia, trying to sell us trinkets and souvenirs. I politely declined. Then she moved to James who was standing on my left, and tried to sell the same things to him. Due to language reason I declined her offer once again on behalf of James. But the young girl quickly replied in a firm tone. “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to him.”
Four years ago on my second trip to Bali I had already planned a visit to Besakih, but I decided to cancel it for the negative reviews I read on the internet. Touts and scams at the supposedly holy place were two issues most travelers were talking about. Bli Komang himself convinced us to stay close to him as the locals were very pushy in selling things at exorbitant prices, from guide service to souvenirs and food. “Here nasi campur can cost you up to 100,000 rupiah,” he said, almost ten times what people usually have to pay for the dish elsewhere on the island.
In 1995 the Indonesian government submitted an application to UNESCO to list the Mother Temple of Besakih as one of the World Heritage Sites. But almost two decades later it remains in the tentative list. It has the qualities of a World Heritage Site: rich archaeological artifacts, highly intricate temples with towering merus, and centuries-old structures perched on one of the most dramatic locations on the island. However rampant commercialization at the temple compound doesn’t convince UNESCO to include it in the elite group of sites deemed invaluably important for mankind.
“Bagus?” Bli Komang asked us. “Good?”
He clearly looked proud of the Mother Temple. We nodded while secretly wished this most revered site for Balinese Hindus to never succumb to short-sighted business interests.