As we walked down 268 winding steps at the Gunung Kawi Temple we couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the landscape and location. For most Western thinkers the location could seem like a simple landmark of beauty, but for the Balinese every aspect of this sacred place has a meaning and a purpose.
Balinese Hinduism is all about balance, every positive has a negative and it is important to understand that neither can exist without the other. Similarly, there is a paradise and a hell. It is said that in ancient Bali, paradise was easy to find while you had to work to get to hell, one day God heard the people talking about the simplicity of finding paradise, and moved paradise to a hidden place. This is symbolized in the location of any Balinese Temple. The temples are always located in a hard to reach location to symbolize the notion that people need to “work hard to get the good”. This is only the beginning of the symbolism integrated into these sacred places.
As we visited the different subak systems it became evident that religion and faith was integral to their success. Every rice farm has its own temple, every subak system has another temple, and then there are multiple higher levels, representing different aspects of the subak, for a collection of subaks. While the purpose and level of each temple varies, the structure and layout of the temples is uniform. The architecture is symbolic of a human, split into three distinct parts: the head, the center, and the feet. The feet represent the open part of the temple, this is the area where people are free to socialize and eat.
The center is where you prepare to enter the head; in this area people can be seen bathing in holy water. Lastly, the head is where the deities sit, to enter this area you must free your mind of any ill notions and abide by a set of rules.
For example, before entering the head of the temple, people should wear a sarong. The sarong shows respect and presents humans in a beautiful way to the Gods. In addition, many people can be seen wearing a small sash around their waist so that it covers up the naval. The naval is considered to be a source of anger and jealousy and when you enter a temple you need to have clear and calm aura, thus the sash is worn to limit the negative energy. Women are also asked to tie their hair back. Open hair is a sign of someone who is wild and beastlike, by tying your hair back you are showing that your wildness is tamed and in control.
As you prepare to enter the head you will see a series of intricately carved statues that represent guards that protect the deities residing in the head. While these intricate statues can be seen outside the head of the temple, inside you will not find detailed carvings and statues. The Balinese believe that the deities are already sitting in the temple and therefore there doesn’t need to be a physical statue of the deity but just a symbol of their presence. Also, in older temples the entrance to the head of the temple is often low to symbolize the need for people to bow before entering the home of these deities.
As we walked through the head we saw small baskets made from leaves. These little baskets are handmade to hold the daily offerings to be presented to the deities; each basket is hand woven using banana or coconut leaves. Inside the base of the basket you will find a small piece of a betel leaf, which represents the three central Gods in Balinese Hinduism: Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. The center of the basket is filled with flowers and at times rice. Rice represents life in Balinese Hinduism.
Rice is also placed on the forehead to represent a third eye to thank the gods for the rice and life. After praying, the Balinese will additionally place rice on their forehead, their chest, and eat three grains. This represents the notion that you will live with a clean mind, soul, and always speak kindly.
After walking through the subaks and talking with the locals about the importance of faith and the essential role God plays in this farming system, it was amazing to walk through these serene locations and understand what these temples truly mean to the Balinese and understand the importance of all the small nuances of the temple which could easily be misunderstood.
Photo Credits: Namrata Garg