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Gianyar Town:
Royalty and the Sacred Banyan Tree


The bemo men on the roads from the south yell "nyar, nyar, nyar" in loud nasal tones, delighting in stretching the syllable as long as they can. Nyar is short for Gianyar, once a center of royal power, priestly learning and the arts. Today this political and administrative capital has been passed over by the tourist boom, but in one area of Creative endeavor it still reigns supreme: Gianyar has Bali's best roast pig or babi guling. This most exquisite and festive of Balinese dishes can be had in a number of stalls in the market or near the main square, though everyone you ask has their own favorite and will argue its merits against all comers.

Despite the absence of tourists, the town and its surrounding districts are full of places of interest. This can be a good place to get a feel for Balinese history and culture in a nontouristed atmosphere. The heart of Gianyar is the palace or the Puri, one of the best preserved of all Bali's royal houses, and home of Anak Agung Gede Agung - heir to the throne of Gianyar, former Foreign Minister ambassador and a prominent political leader in the 1940s and '50s.

Unfortunately, the splendors of the palace are not open to casual visitors. But from out side the walls, one can appreciate the majesty of an ornamented observation pavilion over looking the garden near the main crossroads of Gianyar. Tantri animal fables are depicted in carvings on the lower part of the outside wall at the crossroads. This palace is also one of the few in Bali to maintain the waringin or sacred banyan tree, which was the symbol of Balinese and Javanese courts. Gianyar's still stands in the open town square across from the palace, preserving the feel of a 19th century royal town.

The palace of Gianyar was founded in 18th century, but rebuilt in a more splendid style when the Gianyar dynasty was restored at the end of the 19th. The original palace was said to have been constructed on the site of a priest's house or griya. The name "Gianyar" is in fact an abbreviated form of griya anyar or "new priest's house."

Just next to the palace is the Pura Langon, the "Temple of Beauty," which is the major temple for the extended royal family, and one of the state temples of Gianyar. Further to the west is the Griya Sidawa home of the major priestly family of the area and one of Bali's most famous centers of learning and priestly tradition.

Other state temples can be found nearby, at Beng and to the south, on the coast at Lebih. The temple at Beng is for the descendents of Dewa Manggis, who founded the royal line. At Lebih, a few kilometers to the south of the town of Gianyar, is the Pura Segara or "Sea Temple," which is visited in the course of many different festivals that occur all over Gianyar. The temple is situated, where the land meets the sea, in sight of the demon's island of Nusa Penida, and is regarded as a "hot spot" a place where magical forces can be harnessed. Attempts are currently underway to promote this pleasant seaside region as a new beach resort.

On the road going south from the Gianyar town square to Lebih stands a Chinese temple, one of only a handful found on Bali. Another, smaller temple can also be seen on the road to the west of Gianyar, just past the village of Kemenuh, hidden below the road in a ravine. Nineteenth century visitors remarked on the strong Chinese presence here, stating that it was once one of the wealthiest states in Bali and a center for trade. The temples recall the strong links that once existed between the community of traders and the royal family of Gianyar who were their patrons. When the palace was rebuilt at the end of the last century, the Chinese community contributed to the work, and many of the buildings show a Chinese style of roofing.

To the northwest of the town is the adjoining village of Bitra. Here, on the southern side of the main road, is the famous Pura Dalem or death temple, beside a river and beneath a spreading banyan tree. Also on the western side of the town are the main centers of silk ikat weaving. A number of entrepreneurs have turned their traditional expertise into a thriving industry, and their workshops are open to visitors. The fine silk ikat produced here is used not only for the traditional sarung but for interior decoration as well.

Southwest of Gianyar lies the former court center of Keramas, now known for its dancers, particularly of the operetta arja. Keramas is one of many centers of theater and music in Gianyar, lesser known only because it is off the tourist path.

Gianyar town itself is also known for various performing arts, particularly the ever-popular drama gong, which is full of romantic plots, slapstick comedy and ribaldry. Kramas was a major power in the area before Gianyar, and its princes are supposedly descended from the great rebel Gusti Agung Maruti, who in the 17th century brought down the kingdom of Gelgel.

Kramas is also near another old mini-kingdom, Blahbatuh. The rulers of Blahbatuh were descendents of Gusti Ngurah Jelantik, the prime minister of Gelgel, famous for a military campaign he led against Java in the early 17th century. One of the souvenirs of that expedition was a set of masks, which are said to be the prototypes for all Balinese topeng dance-drama masks. These are still kept in a temple near the palace of Blahbatuh, the Pura Penataran Topeng. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Blahbatuh was home to some of the greatest court dancing in Bali. Bona, between Blahbatuh and Gianyar city, is still famous for its dances, especially the fire dance, sanghyang jaran, performed regularly for tourists.

On the eastern side of Gianyar lies the village of Sidan, just north of the Bangli intersection. Sidan has a famous Pura Dalem, which can be viewed from the road, featuring a series of carvings on the outer tower showing the semi-divine hero Bima fighting with the god of death.

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