Culture and Geology of Bali’s Mountains and Lakes

Why are mountains and mountain lakes so important to the Balinese? Simon introduces us to the cultural and religious significance of the geological landscapes of Bali in the first of a two-part series. 

Simon Pridmore is a frequent contributor to Gaia Discovery. He is based in Bali, Indonesia and is the author of a number of books on travel and scuba diving. His latest book, Under the Flight Path: 15,000 kms overland across Russia, Mongolia & China is now available on Amazon in paperback and e-book versions.

Bali, 8 March 2017. When you ask people what attracts them to Bali, you will get a number of different answers. Some people will say they love Bali’s long sandy beaches and its almost endless waves. Others may point to the island’s generous, warm, friendly people and its unique, fascinating and colourful ceremonies. Many folks come to Bali simply for its very special ambience, its melange of East and West.

But few visitors will mention Bali’s mountains and mountain lakes or geotourism, despite the fact that, in many respects, the island is defined by its imposing chain of volcanoes. The mountains are also the primary focus for the Balinese people and their religion.

For much of the year, the peaks are invisible from the southern coastal plain. They emerge in the early morning then retreat into the haze as the day warms up, only to reappear after a rain shower. From the northern coastal strip, however, the mountains are ever-present, a green and tan curtain acting as a backdrop to the stage of life.

Mount Agung is central to Bali's cultural and religious beliefs.

Mount Agung is central to Bali's cultural and religious beliefs.

Bali owes its very existence to its volcanoes. They stretch across the island from west to east and from sea to sea. They are the primary source of the island’s natural wealth. It is the volcanic soil that makes Bali so fertile and fecund, the magic ingredient that produces multiple annual rice harvests, lush forests and beautiful gardens. They also attract the clouds that produce the life-giving rainfall that courses down their slopes via the streams and rivulets of the unique, thousand-year-old Balinese water management system called subak.

The Mother Mountain

Bali’s most famous peak is the mother mountain, Agung. Its summit is the highest point on the island and this is the place where Bali’s day begins, as the rising sun spreads its conical shadow over the plain below. Agung is an active volcano and a highlight of Bali's geotourism. It rises over 3000 metres above the sea and is currently the largest of the string of mountains on Bali’s spine.

The attractions of geotourism in Bali is clear: mountainous spine of Mts Agung, Abang and Batur stand tall and beyond that Mt Batukaru in the hazy distance.

The attractions of geotourism in Bali is clear: mountainous spine of Mts Agung, Abang and Batur stand tall and beyond that Mt Batukaru in the hazy distance.

Seat of the Gods

The mountain’s physical presence, albeit imposing, is nevertheless far exceeded by its symbolic importance to the people of Bali. For the Balinese, Agung is a representation of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe in Hindu mythology. It is the home of Shiva, (written as Siwa in Bali,) and the central link in a trio of huge peaks transplanted by Shiva from the Himalayas to stabilise what is now the Indonesian archipelago. The other two mountains are Semeru on Java and Rinjani on Lombok, the latter visible from the slopes of Agung across the Lombok Strait.

The view of Mount Agung from Lembangan Island.

The view of Mount Agung from Lembangan Island.

A Point on the Balinese Compass

Agung does not only have religious significance. In Bali, the spiritual world is closely entwined with daily life. Here, people do not talk of north, south, east and west. They refer instead to kaja, kelod, kangin, and kauh. Wherever you are in Bali the direction facing Mount Agung is kaja and this is the most sacred and pure point on the compass. Generally speaking, if you live in the south, kaja is northeast: if you live in the north, kaja is southeast. The opposite and most impure direction is kelod; that is facing away from Mount Agung and towards the sea. Kangin means facing the rising sun that evokes birth and beginning. Kauh is the direction looking west towards the setting sun, a symbol of ending and death.

The most important parts of a Balinese house, the temple and the bale daja, the raised pavilion where the family’s most precious possessions are kept, are always located on the kaja side of the compound. Beds are positioned so that the occupants will sleep with their heads pointing towards the volcano so to benefit from the beneficial forces emanating from Agung. Facilities such as toilets and pigpens are situated on the kelod side of the house.

Ancient Giants

Agung is currently the highest mountain on Bali but that has not always been the case. The island is home to three separate huge volcanic systems and two relatively minor systems, whose growth over eons has given Bali its current shape and geology.

The island consists essentially of the slopes and lowlands of the three major peaks, with massed sand and silt (alluvial) deposits in the north of the island and in the southwest, where the main tourist areas of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, Canggu and Sanur are situated. A large elevated limestone island in the deep south called the Bukit Badung is joined to mainland Bali by an alluvial causeway and this is where Nusa Dua and Uluwatu are located. Other islands offshore, Lembongan, Ceningan and Nusa Penida are also elevated reefs, the visible part of a submerged shelf extending from the tip of neighbouring Lombok.

The shape of Bali is like a chicken laying an egg!To put it another way: the map of Bali looks like a chicken facing west and laying an egg. The volcanic range is the chicken’s backbone, the fertile lowlands are the chicken’s belly, the alluvial deposits are the chicken’s legs and Bukit Badung is the chicken’s feet. The three islands off shore, of course, are the egg!

There's no simpler way to outline Bali's geology.

To be continued in part two of Culture and Geology of Bali's Mountains and Lakes.

Photos by Simon Pridmore.

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