Bali, in a sense, is an interesting outlier for many special reasons. For example, Bali is the only predominately Hindu island in the Republic of Indonesia. Indonesia has more Muslim inhabitants than any other country and is the world’s largest archipelago. To understand how Bali kept its strong ties with Hinduism, we would need to start at the beginning of Bali’s history itself. Where does this history start? It is said that Bali’s history starts with Bali’s oldest temple.
Bali’s oldest temple is still one of Bali’s best-kept secrets. The temple is basically still off the beaten path, proverbially speaking. And how can this be, you wonder? Maybe it is the location? Maybe it is just too far out of reach? The too-far argument doesn’t hold much weight because the temple is only a few minutes away by car from Kintamani. Kintamani is a popular destination for day-trippers, who come to have lunch on the Batur caldera. Visitors are rewarded with outstanding views of the still-active Batur Volcano, which had its last major eruption in 1965. (If you want to impress that special someone, try having a lunch date on the outer rim of an active volcano in the middle of an exotic island. This would be a tough act to follow.) Kintamani is also well-known to visiting cycling enthusiasts. Essentially, every hotel or tour guide operator on the island that owns a bike heads up to Kintamani, as it is the starting point for Bali’s signature downhill bicycle routes.
The temple at Penulisan is the oldest and highest temple in all of Bali.
Okay, so maybe it is safe to say that we ruled out the location factor. How about the interest factor? Is it interesting enough? Did you know that the temple in reference is the oldest temple in Bali? And that this temple is the highest temple, in terms of elevation, in all of Bali? Just these points alone makes for a pretty significant sacred spot in a culture that holds mountain peaks in very ‘high’ regard. Hang on, maybe we are on the ‘cusp’ (no pun intended — again) of discovering yet another one of Bali’s many best-kept secrets. Has your interest been ‘peaked’ yet? (Alright, that was the last one … promise.) Let’s start with a little bit of background…
Puncak is the Indonesian word for mountain peak. Puncak Penulisan or Mount Penulisan stands 1,745 metres (5,725 feet — almost exactly one mile!) above sea level. You can think of it as the ‘mile-high’ city for Bali. However, Penulisan is worlds apart, as you might imagine, from the famous US ‘mile-high’ city of Denver, Colorado.
Penulisan is roughly translated as ‘where history was written’.
Penulisan is roughly translated as ‘where history was written’ — Balinese history, that is. Pura Tegeh Kahuripan, the highest temple in Bali, sits on the top of Puncak Penulisan. It is situated on the outer rim of the Batur caldera, just down the road from Kintamani.
Pura Tegeh Kahuripan (Penulisan Temple)
Apparently Pura Tegeh has several well-known meanings. One interpretation is ‘the centre of life in Bali’. Local guide Pak Mangku, says that Pura Tegeh is built upon a mixture of many beliefs, which includes animism and dynamism. Pura Tegeh is dedicated to many shapes or manifestations of God. Shiva and Vishnu deities are abound and praised strongly on the temple grounds. However, representations of Brahma, Ganesha, Buddha, and their ancestors share the same space.
Surprisingly, there is still little known about the temple’s history. The temple’s mysterious origins reinforces Bali’s magical ambience. Based on the early rock formations of the temple, it is believed to go back as far as 300 BCE. In fact, the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism states that Pura Tegeh is ‘a megalithic relic from the early Bali age’. Just to give you a reference point, 300 BCE is in the middle of the Iron Age and this period in time is way before the Majapahit Empire, the last great Hindu empire in Indonesia that ruled between 13th and 16th centuries CE.
Interesting language tidbit: If you say Pura once, it means temple. However, if you say Pura twice, as in Pura-Pura, it means pretend. So a useful and very engaging small-talk phrase you can flaunt would be ‘Saya Pura-Pura sibuk’, which means ‘I am pretending to be busy so my boss thinks I am working hard, but really I am not working hard at all’.
Not to exaggerate or anything, but observing in real life these carved megalithic stones, inscriptions and statues dating back to 10th century CE is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Take special note of the preserved foundation rocks on display inside the inner courtyard. It is a dramatic juxtaposition of a neatly cut rock next to an older megalithic rock. There is an impressive display of Shiva linggas in union with Yoni (male and female aspects of the divine — the union of consciousness and energy or Shiva and Shakti). Who says the Balinese don’t practise Yoga? Well-preserved statues of Sri Ganesha (the elephant-faced god of beginnings) and Lord Brahma (the three-headed god of creation) are also on display.
What is this ‘megalithic’ term being bandied about anyway? When you think of megalithic, picture Stonehenge. Megalithic structures are characterised by large stones thrown together without cement or mortar. Because Pura Tegeh was pre-Majapahit, it is considered to be from the ‘old Bali era’. However, just like all temples in Bali, the Pura has an open architecture (no enclosed rooms), bales (open-sided pavilions), courtyards, shrines, thrones, and split gates.
The open architecture is very representative of Balinese culture where people live in union with nature. According to some Balinese people, rain during a ceremony is considered very auspicious and gives the ceremony more oomph, so pray for rain when you are up there! You may even notice that Balinese never curse the rain when it comes, even when they were getting drenched while riding their motorbikes in the middle of a monsoon.
Sunrise over the abode of the gods
The trinity peaks
Puncak Penulisan has a commanding view of what could be called ‘the trinity peaks’ (if you have been in Bali for a while you might notice a lot of things tend to come in threes). These peaks are Gunung Agung, Gunung Abang, and Gunung Batur. In fact, the sunrise view from Penulisan is magical because the sun gloriously spreads her first rays just to the left of these three perfectly lined up peaks towering over the dawn mist. This sunrise is ‘well-framed’ and like no other on the Island of the Gods.
How high is high?
Puncak Jaya in Papua (highest in Indonesia) — 4,884 m
Gunung Agung (highest in Bali) — 3,031 m
Gunung Baktukaru — 2,276 m
Gunung Abang — 2,151 m
Puncak Penulisan — 1,745 m
Gunung Batur (active volcano) — 1,717 m
Excursions: getting into gear
The sunrise from Puncak Penulisan is like no other. Yeah, maybe the sunrise from the summit of Gunung Batur or Gunung Agung is epic. But what they don’t have is the pure magic created when you see the sunrise perfectly framed by Agung, Abang, Batur, and the Bali Sea. Waking up in the pre-dawn hours to experience this first-hand is worth it. Even though the sunrise is guaranteed, the actual viewing of the sunrise may not be. Puncak Penulisan is high enough that it may be in the clouds when you visit, especially if you are in Bali during the rainy season (typically October – March).
Be aware of the sights, sounds, even how the atmosphere embraces you.
After the sunrise (or even before the sunrise), participate in a private Balinese blessing ceremony inside the historic Pura Tegeh Kahuripan. Savour every part of this ceremony. Seriously slow down and observe every detail. Watch the guides prepare the offerings and light the incense. Observe your physical presence and your thoughts when you participate in the traditional ceremony. Be aware of the sights, sounds, even how the atmosphere embraces you. Notice how you feel when you offer your wishes to the guiding spirits of Bali.
Note: Balinese traditional clothes are required to enter the inner courtyard of a Pura.
Make sure your guide or your Mangku is comfortable with showing you what to do. Furthermore, your guide should be able to explain the symbolism of each offering, gesture, and prayer.
So, there is more: step back in history by taking a tour of the small but precious temple reliefs and statues. Be curious about this ancient and holy space that carries the stories and legends of ‘old Bali’. The relics that are preserved in the temple are historic and maybe just a tad old (some go back to the beginning of Bali history as mentioned earlier).
Soak up local coffee and your daily dose of village gossip.
Descend the steps to your transportation as your packed breakfast awaits (hopefully provided by your guide or hotel). Maybe follow your curiosity and opt to go ‘local’ by hitting up the traditional warung (food stall) across the street for some nasi and kopi. Be prepared to sit cross-legged and barefooted next to village locals of all ages, as you soak up ‘kopi Bali’ (local coffee) and your daily dose of village gossip. For many, this will beat soaking up the rays on the crowded beaches of Kuta or Seminyak, any day.
Note: Even though Kintamani is famous for its coffee (as well as its very own Kintamani dog), you won’t find Kintamani coffee served in the local shops. Hit up a barista in Ubud for a taste of this special blend.
To get a real feel for the area, shed your sarong and trade it for some biking shorts. The back roads from Puncak Penulisan are quiet and in good condition. The descent at the beginning is just steep enough that you wonder if your bicycle is gliding on air or still connected to the pavement. One of the best parts of these routes is that they offer a different view from the well-trodden routes from Kintamani. The vistas take your attention towards West Bali. Why is this so special? Because the majority of Bali’s population is in South-East Bali (pretty much the only view available when you descend from Kintamani). So the views towards West Bali are refreshing.
Don’t forget to stop and take pictures. Strike your best pose with Mount Baktukaru (the second highest peak in Bali) in the background. Or grab another photo-op at what was once Bali’s longest bridge, Jembatan Tukad Bangkung, before the fancy airport toll road was built.
Packing it all in
For a full day, continue your downhill action but stop at the Nunung Waterfall. There, give your ‘saddles’ a rest by taking a nature hike down to the waterfall for a cool-down. Before calling it a day, check out the monkey temple at Sangeh Monkey Forest.
Puncak Penulisan is in the village of Sukawana and is approximately 3 km north of Kintamani. It generally takes about 45 minutes to get to Kintamani by car from Ubud. Keep an eye out for Bali’s official local dog breed, the Kintamani dog.