Bali has justly been called the island of a thousand temples. And although this may sound a little like a travel brochure, it is not really so misleading, for the temples on Bali are of more than mere external importance.
In the first place, an examination of temples and temple customs affords one an insight into religious thought on the island. But in addition to this the temples, with their varied functions, give one an idea of the complex social conditions that prevailed on Bali, whilst the architecture and decoration of these sacred buildings is often on a most impressive scale.
The style of temple architecture is determined by ancient pre-Hindu ideas to a greater extent than is the case in eastern Java. Undoubtedly eastern Javanese influences have left a certain imprint upon the style, but they have not ousted local influences. The ornamentation and decoration, on the other hand, display marked Hindu features. The Balinese temple is a terraced building; as is the case in the temple complex of Panataran, the various buildings do not give the impression of forming a composite whole. But on Bali, to an even greater extent than in Java, one is struck by the lack of adherence to any recognizable system, either as regards design or use of material. In Balinese temples the most remarkable feature is the often profuse exuberance of ornamental decoration. PLATE P. 189
"Hindu sculpture found a favourable climate in which to develop on Bali, as it did also in Java. Already at an early date the stone terraces, sacrificial recesses, temple walls and gateways of Balinese temples were decorated with arabesques and spirals, demons' heads and images of deities. Ornamentation was at first subdued, and integrated into the buildings with fine sense of proportion, but in the course of time these tendrils and spirals became more florid and exuberant at the hands of Balinese artists. Decoration came to play an ever more important part in the design as a whole. The artist was seized with an irrepressible impulse to create a superfluity of petals and leaves, until the temples seemed almost smothered in a veritable orgy of stone flowers and garlands.
In central Bali the gateways are broader, with massive spiral ornamentation -- mighty supports for the sculpture-bedecked walls of the temples and princes' palaces. In the north of the island the slender temple gateways with their more elegant pointed antefixes tower high above the walls and sacrificial recesses." 1
Whilst the magnificent monuments erected in Java by the princes of the central Javanese period differ in style, material, and also to a certain degree in purpose, from the simple sanctuaries of the désa, the buildings of these two types on Bali remained more akin to one another. Thus the mountain sanctuary of Besakih, the temple of the kingdom of Gèlgèl on the southern slope of Gunung Agung (gunung = mountain), dating from the 14th century, has the same plan as many village temples in Bali. Besides the pura Besakih, several other sacral buildings from that era have survived. Some of these, such as Sad Kahjangan, are amongst the most majestic temples that exist. In addition to the Besakih, the mother temple or chief sanctuary, one may also mention the Panataran Sasih of Pèdjèng, where the bronze drum, the famous 'Moon of Bali' already referred to, is preserved and venerated. The layout of such a temple, pura, (its simplest form, the puradésa, is to be found in almost every village) is basically as follows:
The temple as a whole consists of three open courts, enclosed by walls and connected with one another by gates. The first one is entered by means of a 'split' gate, tjandi-bentar. It can be most easily envisaged as two halves of a small tjandi, which are so far apart that there is a wide enough passage between them. Gates of this type are also met with in eastern Java, and are also depicted on bas-reliefs found in Desa Trawulan, which is situated on the same spot where the ancient capital of Madjapahit formerly stood. Curiously enough, the old mosque at Kudus, a 16th-century Islamic building, also has a similar gate.
From this first court, in which, incidentally, the Balinese staged their popular cock-fights, one passes into the second court through a covered gateway, paduraksa. This gate is one of the most splendidly decorated structures of the whole temple complex, its plan being based on that of a tjandi. In the second court there stands the great assemblyhall, balé-agung, where the elders of the community meet, and where certain rites are also performed. Here, too, is to be found the signal drum, kulkul, made from a hollowed-out cylindrically-shaped piece of wood, split lengthwise. This court is completed by several sacrificial recesses and sheds for the slaughter of sacrificial animals.
The third court, to which one also gains access through a gateway, is the temple proper. There are no idols here. The Balinese imagine their deities as residing upon the peaks of the many volcanoes which tower up in the interior of the island. A stone seat for a deity, padmasana (padma=lotus), has indeed been erected here; this spot, for the most part lavishly decorated, is where the deity invoked is thought to be present, invisible to human eyes, during the ceremony.
In a similar way, in the neolithic era, certain megaliths served as seats of ancestors.