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A Sleepy District Capital

Bangli is a small, sleepy town lying on the border between central and eastern Bali. It seems at first to contain nothing but concrete buildings and empty streets, which only become crowded on market and festival days. But Bangli is an old city, which may have been founded as early as A.D. 1204, judging from a stele in the famous Pura Kehen temple.

The market lies at the center of the town, partly obscured by shops. On market days, the stalls spill into the street and customers flock here from the surrounding area to buy produce and manufactured goods. Opposite is the bus station, flanked by a row of shops owned by Chinese and Balinese merchants.

For most Balinese, Bangli is in fact the object of some ridicule; when someone says "I come from Bangli," everyone immediately bursts into laughter. The reason is that Bali's only mental hospital is located here - a pleasantly-situated institution with beautiful grounds that was started by the Dutch.

Physically and socially, the town is dominated by the puri or palaces of the royal family. The Bangli courts established their independence from Klungkung in the 19th century and played an influential role in Balinese politics through to the post-independence era. Eight royal households spread around the main crossroads. The most prominent is the Puri Denpasar, the palace of the last raja of Bangli, who died three decades ago. Much of the palace has been restored by his descendants, and there is now a small hotel in the pavilions run by the raja's grandson. The royal ancestral temple lies just to the north of the crossroads, on the western side. Huge ceremonies are held here, attended by all descendants of the royal house, including many who live in other parts of Indonesia.

Temple of the hearth

Kehen TempleOne of Bali's most beautiful temples, Pura Kehen, stands at the northeastern boundary of the town, seemingly erected in the midst of the forest long before the town itself. Three copper steles testify to its antiquity and importance. The earliest one, Sanskrit, seems to date to the 9th century and mentions the deity Hyang Api (the, "God of Fire"). The second is in old Balinese, and the third is in old Javanese, the latter already mentioning Hyang Kehen and indicating eight villages around Bangli that worship the deity.

The name Kehen is actually a variant of kuren, which means "household" or "hearth". The reference to Hyang Api as a symbol of Brahma may mean that there once was a cult to that god here worshipping him with a rite called homa, in which offerings are burned on a small hearth. At some point, it seem that Hyang Api became Hyang Kehen the "God of the Hearth."

Pura Kehen is the state temple of the old kingdom. It is constructed on a number of levels, after the manner of ancient animistic sanctuaries, that are built into the southern slope of a hill - much like Besakih. There are eight terraces: the first five are jabaan or outer courtyards, the sixth and seventh once are lower and upper middle courts or jaba tengah, and the eighth one is the sacred inner jeroan. A flight of 38 stairs adorned with wayang statues on either side leads to the main entrance, and a frightening kala makara demon guardian is carved on the gateway.

In the outer courtyard, a huge old banyan tree with a kulkul drum inside can be seen, as well as a flat stone for offerings. The walls are inlaid with Chinese porcelain - a common feature of ancient temples and palaces. The temple has 43 altars, including one 11-roofed meru to Hyang Api. Several are dedicated to the ancestors of sudra commoner clans such as the Ratu Pasek and Pande - which means that worshippers from all over Bali come to pray here, especially on its odalan or anniversary. The huge three-compartment, Padmasana throne in the north easternmost corner has beautiful carvings at the back.

Warriors of the mountain

Not far from Pura Kehen, the Sasana Budaya Art Center is one of the largest in Bali. Exhibitions and kecak or wayang performances are held there. In the Bangli area, various types of ritual baris dances have developed that are typical of mountain regions, such as the baris Jojor (eight men in a line with spears), baris presi or tamiang (eight men in a circle with leather shields) and baris dadap (men in pairs with bat shaped curled shields made from holy dadap wood), They are performed especially at odalans. One of the biggest gamelan orchestras in Bali can also be found in the Bangli region. It was captured from the Klungkung dynasty by the Dutch, who gave it to Bangli.

The natural scenery around Bangli is worth admiring. Cool air and quiet paths lead to breathtaking panoramas. About one km west of the town on the road toward Tampaksiring is a huge ravine with springs and a number of bathing pools and irrigation works sponsored by the former mayor of Bangli. Bathers and visitors must descend a long flight of steps to reach the springs, but the beauty of the spot warrants the effort. This is a favorite meeting spot for flirtatious young locals.

Bukit Demulih, literally the "hill of no return," is located farther west, about an hour's walk from Bangli on the southern side of the road. A small temple stands atop the hill, offering a magnificent vista to the west. On the way, in a landscape of bamboo clusters and farmland, there is a holy waterfall.

To the east of Bangli, there is another lovely road meandering through spectacular rice terraces and across deep ravines. It emerges finally on the main road to Besakih, just near Rendang. This road runs just south of the transitional zone between wet-rice and dry-rice cultivation, which form the two main ecological specializations in Bangli.


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