A Mother’s Trouble

Asia, Indonesia

Mother Temple Besakih on the Slopes of Mount Agung

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.


A Big Family Performing Rituals


Devout Balinese Hindus


Stairway to the Central Courtyard


Kori Agung, the Main Entrance to the Central Courtyard


Intricate Carvings on A Balinese Gamelan Instrument


Going Up


Meru, the Multi-Tiered Roofs

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.


Meru-surrounded Courtyard


Hindus Gather behind A Priest…


…But There is Always Time for Some Chitchats


Sprinkling the Holy Water


Overlooking the Valley Below


Inspired by the Abode of Gods


Ornate Door Ornaments


Keeping A Section Clean


A Row of Spires

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

51 thoughts on “A Mother’s Trouble”

  1. this is such powerful, amazing post to discuss of a new culture and destination, The images and content of this story, makes me feel I am back to my former journey. Thank you for sharing it!


    • Thank you, Mihran. It is important to learn about what’s happening to places around the world, like Besakih, which are not managed as how they’re supposed to be. By doing so we can prevent the same mistakes from happening to such special sites.


  2. It’s a sad state of affairs, Bama. I think we were very lucky to have Bli Komang there – apart from that little girl the vendors seemed less interested in approaching us. Sounds like the best time to visit Besakih would be early morning, before everyone else arrives!


    • Otherwise we would have had a hard time saying no to those guys at the entrance to the temple. I remember how persistent Bli Komang was in refusing one man’s offer to become our guide. I’m even more convinced that early morning is the best time to explore a place, especially after our visit to Taman Ujung.


  3. Awesome pictures Bama, and I agree with your sentiments. I would say that the landscaping and location of Besakih is arguably the finest area of Bali on the slopes on Agung, but the touts and scammers here really annoyed me, so much so that I would say it was my least favourite travel experience anywhere. I will never go again. http://backpackerlee.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/aggressive-touts-at-pura-besakih/ What annoys me the most is the government don’t do anything to change the situation. It doesn’t deserve to be a UNESCO site until the government sort things out. If Bagan had its UNESCO status revoked due to negligence, then I don’t see why Besakih should be awarded anything.


    • The touts and scams have been around for years, but I do wonder why the government hasn’t done anything to change the situation. Such a shame, really. I would suggest traveling in group to anyone who want to visit Besakih. Plus, having an honest guide would help. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lee.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. While it’s one of most important temples in Bali, it’s sad to know that there’s way too many scams here. Not only for tourists but also happened to Balinese people from who come from different area. I avoid this place at all cost. At least until the government do something about this 😦


    • It’s really sad to see Besakih in this condition. Probably it’s comparable with encountering a lot of touts and scams in Vatican or Mecca, which is just so wrong in many ways. However, perhaps visiting Besakih very early in the morning would have provided me with a different experience.


  5. Bama as always I enjoyed your photos. I am saddened to hear of such beautiful places being mismanaged and over run with inflated prices and scams.


    • Thank you for your kind words, as always, Sue. That’s why I waited until my fifth visit to Bali to finally give Besakih a try. Our driver and guide really helped us prevent ourselves from falling victim to the touts.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thoughtful post Bama. This is so interesting – we were at Besakih just a couple of years ago and never saw any touts or scammers. Perhaps it was because it was at the time of an annual ceremony and we were being escorted by a Balinese couple who were taking part in their annual pilgrimage to the temple and invited us to participate in the ceremony with them. It was a very special experience for us. Perhaps all the touts and scammers had been ‘moved out’ during the 2 weeks of this annual ceremony. http://alisonanddon.com/2012/04/26/bali-part-4/


    • Oh Alison, it seems like your timing was so perfect when you went to Besakih. I took a look at your post and you’re right, it looks like a very big ceremony, indeed. You know, having been following your blog for more than a year I notice that there’s some sort of recurring theme on your travels: major cultural ceremonies. You seem to always know when and where to go! 🙂 I also love the fact that you and Don wore Balinese traditional costumes. As for Besakih herself, I do hope that she will see days like that time when you visited her more often than when she’s engulfed with touts and scams.


      • I think we were very lucky to have been there at that time. As for the traditional clothing – there were ‘guardians’ at every entrance making sure no one entered without traditional dress. We’d known ahead of time about this of course, and had already worn traditional dress to the temple at Mt Batur, and to some of the other sacred sights. It took so little effort to respect the local culture, and as I’m sure you know well from your own travels, it is usually rewarded with a more intimate welcome into the society.


      • I see. In our case our driver gave us two traditional cloths/sarung for us to wear, but he didn’t prepare any particular shirt or headdress. It is true, Sue, that if we take effort to respect the local culture and blend in, we’ll experience more, hear more stories, sample more local dishes, and warm local people’s hearts.


  7. Besakih is such a powerful and beautiful place, and is, it would seem, at times to be out of balance with what its intended for. Hopefully this will be noticed and attended to sensitively for all…by the guardians of this amazing place.
    I guess ive been lucky and visited Besakih at times when it wasn’t so overrun with people intent on turning it into circus fairground.
    love your photo essay a great capture : ) trims Trees


    • I felt like when I went Besakih was more like a theme park rather than a holy site, particularly at its entrance when hordes of tourists gathered. But put aside everything else, Besakih really is a magnificent temple compound — the scale is quite impressive. It’s good that you’ve had a better experience at Besakih than me, and I really hope one day the Mother Temple won’t be entirely overrun by tourists, that’s just unfathomable. Makasih Trees!


  8. Ahh nggak nyangka Besakih banyak scamnya ( belum pernah ke sana ). Pernah melihat scams di Pura Uluwatu dimana kera di sana dilatih oleh anak kecil setempat untuk belajar mengambil barang milik wisatawan ( kacamata, kamera ) untuk dibarter dengan kacang/ makanan lain milik si anak kecil. Ahh semoga ada pihak yang peduli untuk meluruskan pola pikir penduduk setempat yang semakin tak terkendali agar tidak mencemarkan nama Indonesia secara keseluruhan…


    • Iya kalo Uluwatu scam keranya udah legendaris, udah sampe di tahap gak lucu lagi. Kalo Besakih jujur aja beberapa kali kepikiran pengen ke sana tapi kalo baca ulasan orang-orang yang pernah ke sana agak bikin males karena scamnya parah banget. Pas saya tanya ke driver saya dia mengiyakan. Jadi pas akhirnya bener-bener mengunjungi Besakih saya gak mau jauh-jauh dari driver saya supaya bisa dikasih early warning kalo ada hal-hal yang mencurigakan. Sangat disayangkan memang, tapi yang bikin heran kondisi seperti ini di Besakih sepertinya sudah terjadi cukup lama. Gak habis pikir kenapa pemerintah setempat gak bisa lebih menata.


  9. lovinghealingarts says:

    Really beautiful pictures! I have dreamt of going to Bali for some time. 🙂


    • Thank you so much, Ruth. Apart from the mismanagement, Besakih was actually very picturesque and impressive. It’s still worth a visit nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Amen to your wishes that this beautiful, and sacred, site never succumbs to short sighted business interests Bama. And I do hope your government wakes up to the issues keeping it from gaining World Heritage status. Having Bli Komang with you seems to have made all the difference to your visit. Wonderful post as always.


    • We all surely hope so, Madhu. We have a new tourism minister and hopes run high for him to develop Indonesia’s tourism industry in a more sustainable way. Bli Komang not only was a good driver, but most of the times he also kept us away from touts and scams. Thank you, Madhu!


  11. I too hope this site retains its integrity and I suppose purity ~ it holds much meaning (and I have just gotten this from your post and great series of photos). Such beauty to be found, and the only worry is once they are found, will they retain that which made them special in the first place. Great post Bama.


    • What happens to Besakih is the side effect of mass tourism, a combination of local people’s inability to manage the site in a sustainable way and many visitors’ ignorance of the spiritual values of this temple. It’s really sad, indeed, but things can change if they want to. Thank you, Randall!


  12. Bama, this is such a reallybeautiful temple. I like that the local families still frequent it for worship. Apparently, it is spiritually important to them but it’s sad that UNESCO wouldn’t recognize it as a heritage treasure because of over commercialization.
    I loe your photos, especially the one of the big family walking together. It is very striking.


    • Hi Marisol. It was such a visual treat to see that big family coming down from the main courtyard just as I entered the temple compound. But another blogger was even luckier as she went to Besakih during a very rare ceremony. Despite the rampat commercialization it’s such a beautiful temple complex, indeed. Thank you, Marisol.


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  14. Terakhir kali ke tempat ini sudah lebih dari 10 tahun lalu. Sayang sekali ya banyak scam-nya kayak gitu. Pemerintah harus segera melakukan sesuatu sebelum wisatawan kapok datang lagi


    • Halo Yusmei. 10 tahun lalu ketika saya mendengar kata Besakih saya langsung terbayang pura yang sangat besar yang ada di ketinggian. Tapi sayangnya kondisi aslinya ketika saya datang sangat jauh dari kesan sakral. Mungkin wisatawan akan tetap datang, apalagi yang bepergian dalam grup besar karena Besakih tetap menjadi salah satu tempat ‘wajib’ untuk dikunjungi di Bali seperti halnya Tanah Lot. Tapi apakah mereka merasa bahwa kesakralan Besakih sudah terlalu dikompromikan adalah hal lain.


      • Perasaan yang sama saya rasakan ketika mengunjungi Badui Dalam. Entah kenapa saya merasa ada sesuatu “yang hilang” dari kampung tersebut meskipun itu baru kali pertama saya datang ke sana 🙂


      • Memang dilematis sih wisata ke masyarakat yang masih memegang teguh nilai-nilai tradisi, karena di satu sisi kondisi tersebut seringkali tercipta karena mereka membatasi kontak dengan dunia luar. Tapi dunia di sekitar mereka begitu penasaran dan terpesonanya dengan adat mereka. Mungkin sistem kuota bisa dipertimbangkan, atau malah mengadopsi apa yang dilakukan Bhutan yang mengenakan biaya yang sangat tinggi bagi wisatawan dari luar negeri sehingga hanya mereka yang benar-benar tertarik dan tidak sekedar ikut-ikutan lah yang akan datang.


      • Pas di Badui, langsung memutuskan itu kedatangan pertama dan terakhir. rasanya bersalah kalau mau datang lagi. Konsep seperti Bhutan rasanya cocok, meskipun tidak harus semahal di sana. Atau juga bisa mengadopsi sistem kuota seperti di aborigin.


    • Bali is more even more connected than before with direct flights to/from Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Europe. So, make a plan and book those flights! 🙂


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