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Gunung Kawi Sebatu: Jewel Of A Spring Temple

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Gunung Kawi Sebatu reminds us of a Bali under threat. By Diana Darling. Photos by Yaeko Masuda.

Bali faces a perpetual dilemma: it depends on tourism to survive and sees its extraordinary culture as its main tourist attraction; but – as sociologists of tourism have long known – tourism disrupts the culture of host societies. In Bali this dilemma is especially visible in the problem of sharing its temples.

Bali’s temples (pura) are actively sacred places. They are essentially holy ground that is strictly delineated, with shrines that act as meeting places between humans and deities. Their architectural interest is in the gates and walls that enclose them, often richly carved, and in the beauty and variety of their shrines and pavilions. (And that is only when they are empty. During a temple’s anniversary (odalan), the space is filled with music, banners, astonishing offerings, billows of scented smoke, and a crush of people in splendid dress.)

Every temple is governed by an elaborate set of local laws that describe the ritual obligations of the particular community charged with its care. To even the most modern Balinese, temples are a part of the self, uniting a person with society and one’s spiritual origins.

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The sanctity of temples is therefore rigorously guarded with rules about how people should behave in them. It is forbidden to enter a temple without wearing a waist-sash or if you are menstruating (this is about blood, not women), or if you are recently bereaved or have given birth within the past 42 days. Neither should you have sex in a temple or climb on the shrines.

So what do you do when a busload of foreigners in shorts wants to come in and walk all over your temple? What if they need to pee? And what’s in it for your community? To address this, certain temples have been designated obyek wisata (tourism sites) and furnished with such tourism facilities as parking lots, toilets, souvenir stands, ticket kiosks with temple sashes for rent, and signboards explaining the etiquette. With these protective measures in place, tour agents ship in their customers en masse.

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Thus, despite Bali’s gazillions of temples, it’s not that easy for visitors to find a temple where they are at once welcome to explore and not likely to be mown down by gazillions of other visitors; but Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu is one.

Sebatu is an old village in the foothills of Mount Batur surrounded by exceptionally fertile rice-growing country. It has some of the oldest known irrigation systems on the island and some important springs of its own. Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu is a jewel of a spring temple (not to be confused with the monumental tombs called Gunung Kawi in Tampaksiring nor the nearby Pura Tirtha Empul spring temple).

It is about 13 km north of Ubud, up the Tegallalang road. A right turn in Pujung takes you winding through the hamlet of Talepud; after about a kilometre, you see the roofs of the temple through the trees below you on the left. Both sides of the road in front of the temple have been cleared for parking without making a big deal about it.

You buy a ticket (Rp. 6,000) and are offered a waist sash; then you breathe in the fresh air. The elevation here is significantly higher than Ubud (650 meters to Ubud’s 300) and several degrees cooler.

The layout of the temple grounds below is roughly fan-shaped, with the apex at the north in the temple’s inner courtyard, in the lee of a jungle-covered cliff. ‘Gunung Kawi’ means ‘carved from the mountain’. The modern park-like outer courtyard contains a reflecting pool with a floating pavilion and beyond that a wantilan performance pavilion.

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As you descend the steps, you pass several cages of tiny deer with the odd goose – an attempt, no doubt, to appeal to visitors under the age of nine. Animal rights advocates are further warned that here and there are bird cages on ornamental concrete stands: one holds a Japanese rooster; another a cockatoo; yet another a pair of doves.

Along the western end of the temple’s outer walls are several small bathing pools. They are clearly designated: some are only for ritual purification (malukat). None are promoted for tourists.

At the eastern end of this row is a small spring specifically for holy water; a sign in Balinese asks petitioners to check in with the temple priest. Nonetheless, visitors are welcome to enter the temple itself through the main gate.

The beauty of this small temple is its classical Balinese pavilion architecture, with its beautiful proportions and carved woodwork. Each tiny curl in the carved wood is delicately painted in red, blue, white, yellow – vivid evidence of devotional labour. There are several handsome six- and nine-poster pavilions with Sebatu’s famous painted statuary. At the centre of the elevated innermost courtyard is an imposing padmasana shrine, hairy with moss.

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East of the central courtyard is a temple belonging to the ancient Pasek Gelgel clan, where their ancestral deities are honoured in nine shrines. One of them is a menjangan saluwang, with an effigy of a deer with singular charisma.

This shrine is associated with the 11th-century Javanese sage Mpu Kuturan, who is said to have introduced to Bali much of its architectural canon, medicinal lore, and village social structure.

The most glamorous part of the temple, though, is to the west of the central courtyard. Here is a large spring pool with water so clear that you can see the sandy bottom and read the markings on the carp.  In the centre stands a splendid single shrine, its base bound by naga serpents. This is the beating heart of Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu.

Even as a jaded expatriate and lapsed Hindu, I feel that this temple achieves a remarkable balance of openness and imperturbability.

This is surely because of the wisdom of the people who take care of it, safeguarding their community by protecting the spring and its power to continually refresh the land and the soul.