My favourite place: Bali, Indonesia

For the latest in our historical holidays series, Arthur Cotterell explores a rare Hindu enclave in Indonesia, a tropical idyll studded with gem-like temples

Bali, Indonesia

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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My first visit to Bali five years ago was a huge culture shock. Though I had explored other Indonesian islands, nothing could prepare me for such a unique culture.

This beautiful island has weathered the storm of modern times rather well, and remains a cultural gem with an idyllic landscape.

International tourism has certainly had an impact, but the Balinese people are infallibly friendly, and there is always something new to discover.

The beliefs of maritime south-east Asia find their focus in Bali. The island is known as a Hindu enclave in largely Muslim Indonesia, but the Balinese also piously respect their ancestors and carefully placate the indigenous spirits dwelling in the island. Nothing is considered to be inanimate, be it a stone, a tree or a motorcar. During the Hindu new year festival, reverence for machines is shown by adorning the bonnets of vehicles with the sacred cloth usually wrapped around the trunks of trees and prominent rocks.

Small offerings are placed outside doorways to divert the attention of malignant spirits. In paddy fields, similar offerings lie on the ground next to shrines dedicated to Dewi Sri, the indigenous rice goddess, who long pre-dates the arrival of Hinduism. Along with the water goddess Dewi Danu, she guarantees prosperity and receives the gratitude of farmers.

In gardens, special altars are used for the worship of ancestors, believed to descend from Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest volcano. From its summit gods and goddesses also come down to unroofed temples where, during festivals, they are fed and entertained by music and dance-drama. A Balinese temple has no forbidding rooms, blackened with incense and occupied by awe-inspiring images: in fact, they tend to avoid representations altogether.

Visitors to Bali are often baffled by the apparent absence of religious formality. Yet hardly anywhere is without a temple or shrine, since few places lack divine significance. Indeed, this island barely 20 times larger than the Isle of Wight is dotted with more than 20,000 temples.

Some originated before the arrival of Hinduism. The 11th-century Pura Tegeh Koripan is the highest temple in Bali, near the summit of the extinct volcano Gunung Penulisan. Actually a hilltop complex of five temples now dedicated to Shiva, its original foundation certainly precedes the triumph of the Hindu faith, its altars displaying carved figures and even unhewn rock.

Bali’s culture has been influenced by its larger neighbour to the west, Java, for over 10 centuries, since King Udayana married a Javan princess in the late 10th century. Her son Erlangga became king of eastern Java, and Balinese courts adopted the Javanese language. The architectural influences show in the 10th-century ‘elephant cave’ Goa Gajah, and the rock-hewn royal monuments at Gunung Kawi dating from 1080, both near Ubud in south-central Bali.

Three centuries later, in 1343, Java’s dominance was cemented when Gajah Mada of the Javanese Majapahit dynasty conquered Bali. The island’s capital moved to Gelgel and later to Klungkung in modern Semarapura, where the remains of the Kerta Gosa palace complex – built in the early 18th century and largely destroyed by the Dutch in 1908 – provide absorbing wandering.

Hindus fleeing the rise of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago in the 15th century flooded into Bali, and several of its most iconic temples date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Like Pura Tegeh Koripan, Pura Besakih, on the slopes of Gunung Agung, probably dates from prehistoric times, but has served as a Hindu temple since the Javan invasion of 1284; by the 15th century it was established as a major place of worship and is now the holiest Hindu temple on the island.

Pura Tanah Lot, a 16th-century temple perched on a rocky outcrop off the south-west coast, is arguably Bali’s most famous temple – as much for its visual appeal as its history. It was reputedly founded by Javanese saint Danghyang Nirartha, who is said to have achieved complete enlightenment at Pura Uluwatu in the southernmost peninsula. Watching the waves crash onto the rocks at the foot of this clifftop temple at sunset is a memorable way to end a day.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited the island in the 1950s, called Bali “the morning of the world”. To me, it is the last paradise.


Advice for travellers

Best time to go

Bali’s dry season falls between April and September, when temperatures average around 27°C. Major Hindu rituals and festivals take place throughout the year, with additional street processions and offerings a regular occurrence.

Getting there

Bali’s only airport is Ngurah Rai International Airport (also known as Denpasar) but there is currently no direct flight to Bali from Europe. UK travellers can reach Bali via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Bangkok.

What to pack

The sun can be fierce, so it’s sensible to carry a wide-brimmed hat or a parasol. Sunscreen is also a must, and insect repellent is useful.

What to bring back

Beautiful wooden carvings and ikat, a woven silk or cotton cloth of dyed threads

Readers’ views

I would definitely recommend the sacred monkey forest in Ubud – just don’t hide your bananas from the monkeys!
Demi Pebbles Sarah Burkin

Visit the water gardens at Tirta Gangga and Pura Ulun Danu temple, Beratan Lake – both interesting and in beautiful locations
Lee Morton

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Arthur Cotterell is author of Bali: A Cultural History (Signal, 2015). Read more about Arthur’s experiences in Bali at historyextra.com/bbchistorymagazine/bali