Candi bentar flanked by Pelinggih shrines at the main entrance – Image source: Sonne & Wolken

Unlike the indoor temples of the Indian subcontinent, Balinese temples or pura are open air places of worship within enclosed walls, connected with a series of gates between its compounds. Balinese and Javanese temples are influenced by pre-Hindu Polynesian culture, which constructed temples as open-air worship complexes which contain several shrines to different deities.

The Sanskrit term pura (-pur, -puri, -pura) means “city”, “walled city” or “palace”. In Balinese, pura refers to a religious temple complex, while puri came to refer to palace, similar to the Javanese kraton.

Tri Loka: the tripartite structure of the Universe

The Balinese and Javanese pura layout is divided into three parts (Tri Loka), following the Tri Mandala concept of traditional Indonesian space architecture:

• Nista Mandala (Jaba pisan) – The Outer Courtyard, which directly connects the pura compound with the outer realm, and the entrance to the temple. This usually takes the form of an open field or a garden that can be used for religious dances, or act as an additional space for preparations during religious festivals. The Jaba pisan is the intermediate space which acts as a bridge between the sacred space and the outside world.

• Madya Mandala (Jaba tengah) – The Middle Courtyard, where the activity of worshipers takes place, and also the location for the facilities of the temple. In this zone usually several pavilions are built, such as the bale kulkul (drum tower), bale gong (gamelan pavilion), wantilan (meeting pavilion), bale pesandekan and bale perantenan (temple kitchen).

• Utama Mandala (Jero) – The Inner Courtyard, the holiest and the most sacred area within the pura. This enclosed compound contains:

  • a padmasana, the towering lotus throne of God, Acintya (Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, or God Almighty, in modern Balinese)
  • the pelinggih meru (a multi-tiered tower-shrine)
  • several pavilions (bale).
  • In the middle of the Utama Mandala usually stands a sacred Waringin tree (Ficus benjamina) or a Frangipani tree.

Candi Bentar: Sacred Gateways to the Divine

The main entrance of the Pura is usually a split gate (candi bentar), guarded on both sides by statues of dvarapalas (temple guards).

The Candi Bentar (‘Split Gateway’) resembles a mountain that was split into two exactly even parts. It evokes Mount Meru, the mythological World mountain where the gods dwell. The two sides represent the Balinese concept of duality and the importance of maintaining a balance between dark and light forces.

The candi bentar marks the boundary between the outer world with the Nista mandala, while the paduraksa marks the boundary between the Madya mandala (‘middle sanctum’) with the innermost and the most sacred Utama mandala (‘inner sanctum’), where the shrines are located.

Paduraksa (Kori Agung)

The paduraksa or kori agung holds the inner gates of the Pura, which separate the jaba pisan from the japa tengah. The head of Bhoma is often carved over the opening, while a pair of fierce dvarapalas guard the sides of the entrance. An elaborately decorated, towering paduraksa is often the temple’s most imposing structure.

The paduraksa, a gateway covered with a towering roof, is commonly found in Indonesia in profane Hindu-Buddhist buildings. It can also mark the threshold into a cemetery or a palace. Just like the Padmasana, the paduraksa consists of 3 parts:

  • the base, where a flight of steps is located
  • the body where the entrance opening is located
  • the crown, with its stepped profile characteristic of a candi.

The entrance opening is sometimes equipped with a door made of finely carved wood. A major temple usually has triple paduraksa gates, with a main, largest and tallest door, flanked with two smaller ones. Devotees and visitors use the side doors, while the main door is kept locked, except during religious festivals.

The paduraksa is a classical Indonesian adaptation of the gopura. The Balinese paduraksa of today look identical to the ancient paduraksa of East Java, such as those found in the Singhasari and Majapahit periods.

The Paduraksa (left) marks the entrance into the main sanctum of the temple, while the candi bentar (right) marks the entrance into the outer sanctum of the temple. Paduraksa or kori agung (inner gates) separate the different areas within the temple, such as the jaba pisan from the japa tengah

Structure of the Pura

• Meru Shrines – A meru is the tiered roof structure that is found atop a little pavilion dedicated to a god or goddess. The meru shrine mirrors Mount Meru, the World Mountain at the center of the world, the home of the gods. Likewise, the meru are the homes of the gods when they visit during temple ceremonies.

The meru tower (pelinggih meru) is the principal shrine of a temple. It is a wooden structure with a masonry base, a wooden chamber and multi-tiered thatched roofs. They are always positioned in the innermost sanctum (jero) of the temple. Individual meru towers are dedicated to a god, a saint, or to a local deity of a particular location (Sthana Devata).

Merus always have an uneven number of tiers, one to eleven. The higher the meru, the higher the status of the god within the meru: 11 roofs for Shiva and 9 for Brahma and Vishnu.

You can tell the rank of a temple by the height of its merus. Dewi Sri, for example, will have eleven-tiered merus dedicated to her.

  • Meru with 3 tiered roofs are consecrated to the Trimurti. A three-tiered meru tower can also be consecrated to a spiritual master. For example, Pura Luhur Uluwatu is a three-tiered meru shrine dedicated to Dang Hyang Nirartha. The Pura Meru of Lombok contains three meru towers dedicated to the Trimurti.
  • Meru with 5 tiered roofs are dedicated to the Panca Devata such as: Ishvara, Brahma, Mahadeva, Vishnu and Shiva. A five-tiered meru tower is also dedicated to the god of Mount Agung, Bhatara Mahajaya.
  • Meru with 7 tiered roofs are consecrated to the Sapta Devata such as: Ishvara, Brahma, Mahadeva, Vishnu, Shiva, Sada Shiva and Parama Shiva.
  • Meru with 9 tiered roofs are consecrated to the Nawa Sanga Dewata (Ishvara, Maheswara, Brahma, Rudra, Mahadeva, Sangkara, Vishnu, Shambhu and Shiva).
  • Meru with 11 tiered roofs are dedicated to the Eka Dasa Rudra Dewata (Ishvara, Maheswara, Brahma, Rudra, Mahadewa, Sangkara, Vishnu, Shambhu, Shiva, Sada Siwa and Parama Siwa). Eleven-tiered meru towers are also dedicated to the highest gods.
  • A shrine with one or two-tiered roofs is not called meru but pelinggih gedong or Gedong jajar, or Gedong Sari. It is usually consecrated to the ancestors.

Meru Tower – Image source: Sonne & Wolken

The Peripih

The construction of a meru requires a special construction rite. Three peripihs must be properly placed in a meru: at the peak of the roof, in the wooden main chamber, and beneath the base. A peripih serves as a receptacle for the god’s intrinsic essence. It is prepared so that a god can lodge himself into the meru.

A peripih is basically a thin plate made of five pieces of metal (pancadhatu: iron, copper, gold, silver and lead) on which esoteric symbols (rajahan) have been inscribed. A peripih is then be wrapped up in alang-alang grass, flowers, herbs, and cotton cloth, all tied together by a tridatu string.

The peripih is more important than a statue (pratima) representing the god physical form, and for this reason a peripih is much more usual than a pratima (or murti) of a god in a meru. The peripih is fixed to a base made of small coins and placed in either a cucupu (a box made from gold, silver, or a stone) or a sangku (an earthenware vessel). This container will be placed in the meru‘s wooden chamber or buried in its base.

Another peripih is placed on the top of the meru where there is a vertical column with a cavity into which is placed a small box containing nine precious stones (navaratna). The central precious stone represents Shiva, while 8 precious stones surrounding represent the Eight Gods of the heavenly directions.

This is the exact same ritual practice that was employed employed in the construction of all great Hindu-Buddhist temples of Indonesia’s classical era for 2,000 years.

Location of the peripih in a Javanese stone meru

Bale (Pavilions)

Each courtyard may have several pavilions called bale. The most common one is the bale kulkul, a tower housing a drum that functions like a church bell to call the village community, with different rhythms of the kulkul communicating different reasons for gathering the village (for ceremonies, to announce deaths, to warn them of disasters).

During special ceremonies, when gods or spirits are believed to descend down upon the temple complex, the kulkul might be banged on to announce the deity’s arrival.

The bale kulkul is again divided into three levels from bottom to top: tepas, batur and sari:

  • The tepas level represents the underworld realm bhur (Sanskrit: bhurloka) and is decorated with figures of giant creatures.
  • The batur level represents the realm of the human bhuwah (Sanskrit: bhuvarloka) and is decorated with animals.
  • The sari level represents the realm of gods swaha (Sanskrit: svarloka) and is decorated with birds and other celestial figures. On top of the swah level is the wooden pavilion where the kulkul is kept.

There are two kinds of kulkul, the Kulkul Dewa (“kulkul of the gods”) and Kulkul Bhuta (“kulkul of the bhutas”). Kulkul Dewa is always made of the wood of jackfruit tree and is struck in a very slow rhythm to call the gods. Kulkul bhuta is made of bamboo and is struck to summon the Bhuta kala (demons).

The most famous bale kulkul is at Pura Penataran Sasih in Pejeng village and contains a 2,000 years-old bronze drum, the ‘Moon of Pejeng‘, which is the world’s largest bronze drum cast in a single piece. These drums were a unique, pre-existing Indonesian technology that was harmoniously merged into the Hindu-Buddhist culture.

Bale Kulkul (Drum Tower)

• Gedong Shrines – Among the shrines lining the mountain ward side one often finds a pair of small closed shrines (gedong). These honor the major protective deities, such Dewi Sri, goddess of rice and prosperity, and her consort Rambut Sedana, god of wealth.

The Padmasana Shrine

Between the rows of shrines, stands the Padmasana (“lotus throne”) which honors Ida Sanghyang Widhi in his manifestation as Shiva Raditya (solar manifestation of God).

Padmasana shrine

How do we represent a cosmic reality which can hardly be comprehended? This is the purpose of the padmasana, which the formless Shiva is said to sit. The padmasana is unique to Bali and you won’t find it in the rest of Asia.

The Padmasana are the exclusive throne of Shiva as God Almighty. Above even the Trimurti, Indonesian Hinduism reveres God Almighty (Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, or Parama Shiva).

Shiva sits in the center of a lotus, surrounded by symbolic petals for each the directions, with the deities Vishnu, Ishvara, Mahadeva and Brahma; and each associated with a particular color, day, part of the body, weapon, metal, magical syllable and form of supernatural power.

At the base is often found Bedawang Nala, the Turtle that supports the world with the two Nagas.

The layout of temples comprises three successive yards running along an axis of relative purity.:

  • The outer yard (jaba pisan), belongs to the profane
  • The middle (jaba tengah) is reserved to human-level activities
  • The inner yard (jeroan) is where the gods reside, with the seat of Acyntia (or Shiva, God Almighty) occupying the purest spot (kaja-kangin).

In front is a wall called the aling aling, said to prevent evil spirits entering. Private houses usually have an aling aling too.

Individual shrines are also  divided into three parts to represent the Tri Loka (‘Three Worlds’). The tripartite structure is a common theme throughout both Hindu and Buddhist temples, as can be observed at places like Borobudur.

Jero section of the temple

Jaba Pisan section of the temple


Japa Tengah section of the temple

Types of Temples

Sanggah refers to the house temples which contain shrines to the family’s ancestors (sanggah kamulan).

Pura refers to the public temples, of which there are many types:

• Kahyangan Tiga (‘Village temples’), which are always at the number of three for each village. These temples are linked with the Trimurti: the Pura Puseh with Brahma the Creator, the Pura Desa with Vishnu the Preserver, and the Pura Dalem with Shiva the Destroyer:

  • Pura Puseh (‘Temple of Origin’), at the upper end of the village. Pura Puseh is dedicated to both Vishnu and the human founders of the village. These are usually situated facing Bali’s most sacred and largest mountain, Mount Agung.
  • Pura Desa (‘Village temple’) or Pura Bale Agung (‘Great meeting hall temple’) in the village center. Pura Desa is the temple of Brahma as well as the the local spirits. These are usually located somewhere in the middle of the village.
  • Pura Dalem (‘Temple of the Mighty One’ or ‘Death Temple’) lying near the cemeter and cremation grounds at the lower or seaward end of the village. Pura Dalem is usually dedicated to Shiva or related deities like Kali and Durga, or Banaspatiraja (barong), Sang Bhuta Diyu, Sang Bhuta Garwa and others. Usually Shiva’s shakti, Durga, is venerated in this temple. This temple is connected to rituals concerning death. It is also common for a Pura Dalem to have a big tree like a banyan tree or a kepuh which is usually also used as a shrine.

• Pura Kawitan (‘Clan temples’), gathering all descendants from a same ancestor, or lineage.

• Pura dang kahyangan (‘Temples of the Holy Ones’ – Regional temples) are consecrated to spiritual masters and legendary priests, such as Pura Sakenan, Pura Tanah Lot, Pura Kehen, Pura Taman Ayun and many others.

• Main temples – Those are the ones visited by tourists, such as the Bekasi Mother Temple on Mount Agung, or Ulun Danu (Batur), Lempuyang, Gua Lawah, Ulu Watu, Batukau, Pusering Jagat (Pejeng), Andakasa and Pucak Mangu. These are mountain or sea temples, marking the landmarks sacred landscape in Bali.

• Pura kahyangan jagad – Pura that are located in the mountainous region of the island, built upon mountain or volcano slopes. The mountains are considered as the sacred magical and haunted realm, the abode of gods or hyang. The most important pura kahyangan in Bali is Mother Temple of Besakih complex on the slopes of Mount Agung. Another example is Pura Parahyangan Agung Jagatkarta on slopes of Mount Salak, West Java.

• Pura tirta (‘Water temples’) – A type of pura that other than religious function, also have water management function as part of the subak irrigation system. The priests in these temples have authority to manage the water allocation among rice paddies in the villages surrounds the temple. Some tirta temples are noted for its sacred water and having petirtaan or sacred bathing pool for cleansing ritual.

• Guilds temples – This type of temple bounds people together by ties of his workmanship for having the same profession, such as farming and trade. Such temple are present in the market for traders to worship in the market environment.

• Pura mrajapati – A type of pura to worship Prajapati, or the cosmic might. Most often, in this temple Shiva is worshiped in his form as Prajapati.

• Pura segara (‘Sea temples’) – Located by the sea to appease the sea Gods and deities. It is usually important during the Melasti ritual.

Among the thousands of temples in Bali, nine temples are particularly important. The Balinese consider these special temples to help balance out the forces of the entire island, like a giant Vastu or Feng Shui talisman.