Gunung Kawi Temple, Bali

At the bottom of a lush green river valley lays one of Bali’s oldest and largest ancient monuments. Gunung Kawi consists of 10 temple (shrines) – memorials cut out of the rock face in imitation of actual statues. They stand in awe-inspiring 8m-high sheltered niches cut into the sheer cliff face. On the northern outskirts of Tampaksiring, a sign points east off the main road to Gunung Kawi. The views as you walk through ancient terraced rice fields are as fine as any in Bali.

Gunung Kawi Temple complex, locally referred to as Pura Gunung Kawi, is one of Bali’s most unique archaeological sites, comprising a collection of ancient shrine reliefs carved into the face of a rock cliff. The main site overlooks the sacred Pakerisan River, which also flows by the Tirta Empul Temple a kilometre up north. Across the river from the ancient reliefs is a temple courtyard featuring old Hindu shrines in a more contemporary architectural style, which is attended by pilgrims especially during its ‘piodalan’ temple anniversaries.

Bali’s Pejeng region is famous for its rich collection of archaeological sites, and Gunung Kawi Temple is a popular stopover on itineraries through the central uplands of the Gianyar regency. The temple complex is easily located, only a few hundred meters east from the Jalan Raya Tampaksiring main route, from where you continue down on foot to a paved walkway that is lined with art shops and small local warungs. Along the further 300 steps towards the river, lush paddy terraces and gorgeously green valley go together to transport you back in time away from modernity.

Each temple is believed to be a memorial to a member of the 11th-century Balinese royalty, but little is known for certain. Legends relate that the whole group of memorials was carved out of the rock face in one hard-working night by the mighty fingernails of Kebo Iwa.

The five monuments on the eastern bank are probably dedicated to King Udayana, Queen Mahendradatta and their sons Airlangga, Anak Wungsu and Marakata. While Airlangga ruled eastern Java, Anak Wungsu ruled Bali. The four monuments on the western side are, by this theory, to Anak Wungsu’s chief concubines. Another theory is that the whole complex is dedicated to Anak Wungsu, his wives, concubines and, in the case of the remote 10th temple, to a royal minister.

As you wander between monuments, temples, offerings, streams and fountains, you can’t help but feel a certain ancient majesty here. From the end of the access road, a steep, stone stairway leads down to the river, at one point cutting through an embankment of solid rock. Be prepared for long climbs – there are more than 270 steps. The sarong is necessary as parts of the site are considered holy.

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