Pura Luhur Uluwatu is a very beautiful, very sacred temple located down south on the western part of the Bukit. The Bukit is a raised seabed of grayish, white coral rock. The name of the temple means “the Temple above the Stone”. Ulu means “head”, watu means “rock” and luhur implies “heavenly”. It is perched on a cliff overhanging the Indian Ocean 90 meters below. Its history is not well recorded.
It is difficult to date the temple, but it is old. Two famous people are associated with it.
The first is Empu (Sage) Kuturan, who came to Bali from Java in the 10th century AD riding a deer. He arrived at Padang Bai, the harbour on the east coast. He was a Siwaistic priest, but strongly influenced by Buddha. Religion had declined and he renewed customs and religious ceremonies and ethics. He also built many merus (tiered shrines) throughout Bali. When he came to Pura Uluwatu, he built the meru and added shrines. Perhaps he even built the temple.
The other is Nirartha, also a Siwaistic priest who arrived from Java in 1537 AD. He journeyed all over Bali building temples and shrines, including Tanah Lot. He incorporated some Buddhist principles into Balinese Hinduism. He added Padmasana shrines to the temples he visited, including Pura Uluwatu. These are shrines in the form of an empty chair for Sanghyang Widi Wasa, the Supreme God. Nirartha died at Pura Uluwatu and achieved moksa, which is Nirvana, eternal bliss, when the spirit is united with the spirit of God. It requires no cremation for such a pure soul to be released from its body.
The temple has several unique architectural features. Because it is built of strong coral stone, it is fairly well preserved, although the monkeys have caused some damage. It is set on a spectacular cliff. You can see the tip of Java 63 kilometers (30 miles) away on a clear day. A troupe of sacred monkeys lives in the temple stealing food and brightly coloured jewellery. You look down on magnificent cliffs and sea, where you may see sea turtles coming up for air. You will also see wide-winged white frigate birds soaring against the sky. Their nests are in the cliffs. The spectacular position is worth the visit alone.
It is part of a number of sea temples on the south coast, including Tanah Lot, Pura Sekenan, Pura Rambut Siwi and Pura Petitenget. All pay homage to the guardian spirits of the sea. This one is the most spectacular and is one of the Sad-Kahyangan group of temples of Bali.
For many years entrance was forbidden to everyone except the prince of Badung, who owned the Bukit and visited the temple right up to his death at Dutch hands in the puputan massacre of 1906. Uluwatu now belongs to the Balinese people and is administered by the royal family in Denpasar. It is sacred to fishermen, who come here to pray to Dewi Laut, the sea goddess. They believe that the temple is a ship turned to stone.
Prior to Bandung the Royal dynasty of Mengwi controlled the temple, but coastal parts of southeast Bali were lost to Bandung around 1810. You go through a simple limestone entrance and up 71 steps to the rectangular outer courtyard. The outermost gateway is a split gate, a candi bentar, exceptional in that the inner sides are not flat but end in carved wings. The front and back surfaces are decorated with stylised flying birds. They look like complicated Chinese phoenixes.
All three courtyards are surrounded by coral, which has enabled the temple to survive for centuries and gives it a brilliant white appearance. The kala or monster heads are partly one-eyed, partly two-eyed. Some support a symbolic Mount Meru, the Cosmic Mountain. Above the large head is an amerta vessel. Balinese temples – and their gateways – are often considered to represent Mount Meru. Further Mount Meru has a close connection with amerta, as Mount Meru contained the nectar of immortality.
When the demon Kala Rahu stole the water of immortality from the gods, the sun and the moon saw him. When they told Wishnu, he sent a lightning bolt to cut off Kala Rahu’s head. Kala Rahu was just about to drink the elixir when he was cut in two. He had the water in his mouth. So his head became immortal and his body died. Now he chases the sun and the moon, and when he catches them he eats them. But he has no body and when he swallows, they just come out again and get away. The Balinese bang pots and pans during a solar eclipse to frighten Kala Rahu.
The entrance to the inner courtyard is an enormous arched kala gate flanked by Ganesha guardians. Ganesha is the elephant God, the son of Siwa. At various times parts of the temple have fallen into the sea. Some new parts have been added. The candi-like building is new.
From the centre of the northwest wall is a beautiful view of the steep cliffs and ocean. Go down into the outermost courtyard and from there you can see the tip of East Java 50 kilometers away. Sunset is a beautiful time, when the temple is covered in rich golden light.
The temple has an unexplained rule that nobody can carry a red hibiscus or wear the black and white chequered poleng cloth.
Kecak and fire dance
The most compelling part of the temple complex, however, comes from its nightly kecak and fire dance performances. “Kecak” is derived from an old Balinese ritual called the sanghyang – a trance dance driven by its participants’ repetitive chanting. In its ancient form, the sanghyang communicated the wishes of the gods or of the ancestors.
In the 1930s, a German visitor reformatted the sanghyang into the more familiar kecak performance – doing away with the spiritualistic aspect of the dance and building it around the Hindu Ramayana epic.
No musical instruments are used in a kecak performance – instead, you find about thirty bare-chested men sitting in a circle, uttering “chak… chak… chak” rhythmically and repetitively. The total effect is trance-inducing – repetitive voices and outlandish costumes creating a trippy multimedia experience.
The performance plays out as the sun sets, and the culmination involves a giant fire display that is integral to the plot. (Visitors wearing flammable material may want to get a seat higher up in the stands.)
Rama and Sita
To help those unfamiliar with the Ramayana, synopsis sheets are handed out to audience members before the show.
The plot goes like this:
Rama, a wise prince and the legal heir of the throne of Ayodha, is exiled from the his father Dasarata’s realm. He is accompanied by his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Laksamana.
While crossing the enchanted forest of Dandaka, the demon king Rahwana spots Sita and lusts after her. Rahwana’s deputy Marica transforms himself into a golden deer to distract Rama and Laksamana.
Rahwana then transforms into an old man to fool Sita into stepping away from a magic circle of protection set by Laksamana – thus fooled, Sita is spirited away to Rahwana’s realm of Alengka. Rama and Laksamana discover the deception too late; lost in the forest, they encounter the monkey king Hanoman, who swears his allegiance and goes off in search of Sita.
Hanoman finds Sita in Alengka. The monkey king takes Rama’s ring to Sita as a token of his contact with her husband. Sita gives Hanoman her hairpin to give to Rama, along with a message that she is waiting for his rescue.
Hanoman marvels at the beauty of Alengka, but begins to destroy it. Rahwana’s giant servants capture Hanoman, and bind him to be burned. Hanoman uses his magical powers to escape from certain death. Here, the performance ends
Despite the historical and cultural implications of the performance, the Uluwatu kecak performance is strictly for the tourists. The fiery escape of Hanoman is played up for visual effect, and the actors who play Hanoman, Rahwana, and the giants ham it up mightily.