One of the things that struck me the most in my first visit to Bali is how pervasive religion is in Balinese society. Wherever you look, you’ll find the presence of religion, be it in the form of beautiful temples, elaborate offerings, or complex and colourful rituals and festivals. In Bali, there is a religious festival pretty much every day (literally), and the life of Balinese people seems to revolve around religion in a rather unique way.
For such a small island, Bali boasts an incredible number of temples (called pura in Balinese). This is not surprising given that every single village has at least three territorial temples where only local people are allowed to pray: one dedicated to the village ancestors, one for official/institutional functions and one for cremation ceremonies.
On top of that, all traditional Balinese family houses have a family temple, and there are other temple compounds containing temples and shrines dedicated to different Hindu deities.
Among the latter, Pura Ulun Danu Beratan (also sometimes spelled as Bratan) is one of the three most important temples in Bali. The iconic nature of Ulun Danu temple is proven by the fact that it is depicted on the reverse of the 50,000 rupiah bill. The existence of a temple in this location has been documented since the 16th century, but the current temple compound was built in the 17th century.
The temple is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the Goddess of water, lakes and rivers. Fittingly, it is located on the shores of Lake Beratan, in a beautiful spot surrounded by 1500 metre-high mountains. Although this is not very high altitude, the area feels decidedly high-mountain, with slightly colder temperatures, and a mistier, rainier climate than most of Bali.
Lake Beratan used to be the largest lake in Bali, until an earthquake split it into three smaller ones. Beratan still remains the second largest lake on the island, and its waters are a source of fertility for the numerous plantations and rice paddies in the area.
Ulun Danu Beratan is in fact a temple compound comprising four groups of shrines oriented towards the four cardinal directions. Even from outside the temple, your eyes will be attracted to the tallest structure in the compound, the 11-tier meru covering the shrine dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. There are also 7- and 3-tier shrines built to honor other deities, including the two other main deities of the Hinduist Trimurti (literally, ‘three forms’): Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer).
Merus are roofed structures that always have an odd number of levels, usually three, seven or eleven; if I understood correctly, the latter is often reserved to show the ultimate degree of respect, depending on the deity and purpose of the shrine or temple.
Even though Ulun Danu Beratan is a major tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike, when I was there the crowds were fairly spread over the compound. The ticket to visit the temple will cost you Rp 30,000 (rupiah), roughly two euros/dollars.
Like in many other Balinese temples, as well as tourists I came across what seemed to be whole families and groups of people who were there for ritual purposes. In festivals and other special days, women traditionally carry to the temple on their heads baskets full of flowers, fruit and other foods as offerings.
Colors have a symbolic use in Balinese Hinduism. Each of the main three deities has a colour: red for Brahma, black for Shiva and white for Vishnu. And yellow (or golden) represents prosperity and happiness. The black and white checkered fabric, called poleng, is used frequently in clothes and draped over trees, rocks, columns and other objects considered sacred and inhabited by a spirit (there is a strong component of animism in Balinese Hinduism).
I can’t claim to have even begun to understand the complexities of Balinese Hinduism. My gut feeling is that it demands much commitment and involvement from its adherents, but other than that is a pretty relaxed affair in terms of social issues.
There is just one thing that, even as a man, annoyed me: during menstruation, women are not allowed to go into temples, since they are traditionally considered impure during that period of time. This is not unique to Balinese Hinduism, and other major religions have similar taboos, but frankly, if I were a female tourist with just one chance to visit the temple, I’m not sure I’d abide by this rule.
Maybe Balinese people, used to seeing them often, feel otherwise, but I found that the colourful and intricate traditional Balinese dresses add great elegance and joy to the rituals. Balinese people like to wear their best clothes to go to the temple, and they often look happy to be doing so.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to Ulun Danu Beratan on the best day from a photographical point of view. The strong breeze made it impossible to capture the widely praised reflections of the temple on the surface of the lake. Even so, I found this place strikingly beautiful and hope this post will inspire you to visit it when you go to Bali.
As always, I’ll be glad to answer any questions and hear your thoughts in the comments section.