Besakih, The Biggest Temple In Bali

images taken from the surface of the temple
Besakih is known as the ‘Mother Temple’ in Bali. The largest and most important temple on the island, it sits on the western slopes of Gunung Agung. I visited Pura Besakih in 2003, along with 6 Balinese people and had a good experience. Visitors to Bali will be offered a trip to Besakih temple, by touts and streetside travel agents in Kuta and other places. Your experience may not turn out exactly as you had imagined though.
Besakih temple is really a collection of temples, sprawling down the hillside and its sheer size means it has become a tourist trap. When I visited with my Balinese friends, we arrived at 10pm, the touts, guides and hawkers mostly gone. During the day its a frenzy of activity. 
Balinese people often visit Besakih temple to receive blessings and lay offerings at certain shrines. Special calendar dates are more auspicious than others and during a big ceremony it can be an impressive sight. The fact that Besakih is sprawling and that so many people have attached themselves to it, for commercial reasons, often takes away from the experience, for tourists. Best times of day to visit for a real feeling of the place are early morning and late at night, when the temple is more empty and quiet.
Many local Balinese men earn their living at Besakih as ‘temple guardians’. This title is self created, and they basically want to use the place as a turnstyle, charging you money for having them walk turn round.
One aspect of a Balinese temple is that worshippers will bring offerings. Besakih gets visitors from all over the island and the temple can appear strewn with the remains of the last days offerings, plastic bags, paper and drink containers. Quite the opposite of a church or mosque.
•How to get to Besakih temple:
You can get to Besakih from Kuta, by heading to Sanur, then taking the Kusamba Bypass to Klungkung. Head north through Klungkung, taking the righthand turnoff at Menanga to Besakih. The journey fom Kuta should take about 3 hours.
•Taking a tour to Besakih:
Easily arranged from anyone of a hundred places in Kuta/Legian/Seminyak/ Sanur/ Nusa Dua. will pick you up in the morning, take you to the temple, hit a silver jewelry place on the way home (fat commissions) and back to your hotel. Prices vary, but you should be able to get this tour for something like 200,000rp.
•Doing your own tour of Besakih:
It used to be more possible, to do your own tour of Besakih. Since the ‘temple guardians’ arrived, you can only go into the 2 outer courtyards of a temple, with a temple guardian.
When visiting Besakih bring a sarong, shirt and sash. Tank tops, vest, bikinis, revealing attire, mini skirts etc are not desirable. You will be able to buy a sarong and sash outside, but bargain. Women who are menstruating are not allowed into the temple (scout’s honor).
•Opening hours:
Besakih is officially open from 8am-5pm, but I visited from 10pm-1.30am, with my Balinese friends. In this way, Besakih is basically always open.
•Entrance fee:
Entrance fee is around 4,000rp, plus another 1,500rp for a camera. The temple guardians will ask you for large sums of money, so if you can get away with something like 30,000rp you’ll be lucky.
•Food and drinks:
Outside the temple you’ll find plenty of people selling snacks.
•Telephone / Moneychanger / Tourist Info:
All available on main street to the temple. Rates are not very good so change money in Kuta area. The tourist office is open from 8.30am-3.30pm
•History of Besakih:
The history of Besakih goes way back to the megalithic times (like the donut I ate this morning). One of the temples, Pura Batu Madeg contains a central stone, which indicates that the site was important long before the temple was built.
Sri Markandeya, was a Javanese monk, who founded Besakih in the 8th century. Important ceremonies were carried out at Besakih, and the temple attracted monks form far and wide. Lontar manuscripts indicate that during the Majapahit empire in 1343, Besakih was already a very important place and became the main temple of the Gelgel and Klungkung courts.
•Touring Besakih:
When I toured Besakih the thing I noticed more than anything else was the amount of stairs leading up the mountain to more temples with more structured terraces. Sitting with my Balinese friends, I was allowed to receive blessings from a pemangku (priest). Being a part of the scene, instead of an outsider looking in was the enjoyable part for me. Getting Balinese friends to take you is the best way to go by far.
The largest temple on the grounds of the Besakih complex is Pura Penataran Agung, known as the Great Temple of State. It posseses 7 tiered terraces, and over 50 structures including bales, thronees and shrines. According to my guidebook, the entrance stairway is lined by 7 levels of carved figures. The ones on the left are featured in the Mahabharata, those to the right from the Ramayana. Assuming you choose not to enter the temple with a local, a perimeter path circles the temple.
Temples at Besakih fit into various groups, which is interesting to read about if you have the time. For example 5 temples are included in the panca dewata ( the 5 gods of the 4 directions and the center). The Trimurti (3 shapes, or 3 parts of God) are made up of 3 temples, Pura Kiduling Kreteg, representing Brahma, the Creator, Pura Batu Madeg, representing Visnu, the Preserver, and Pura Penataran Agung representing Shiva, the Destroyer.
Plenty of imagery and meaning, which would take a scholar, or local Balinese person to fully explain.
•Accommodation at Besakih temple:
Lembah Arca hotel is located on the road between Menenga and Besakih. It has 2 bungalows, moderately priced (0366) 23076.
Close to the temple on the street are a few guest houses, of low standard. You can also find a few warungs here, nothing special.
Other tips:
We camped on a part of a temple over night and froze our behinds off. Besakih temple gets cold in the evenings.
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