Yeh Pulu Temple: ancient carvings of the anonymous ascetics

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A centuries-old relief adorns Yeh Pulu, a humble but historically significant temple tucked away in rural darkness. Deep in a secluded Gianyar ravine, these ancient stone carvings give us a peek into the Bali of centuries ago.

Just east of Ubud is the historically rich village of Bedulu, in the Blahbatuh district of Gianyar. Best known for the famous Goa Gajah archaeological site, it is also home to other historical points of interest, including one of the oldest temples in Bali, Pura Samuan Tiga; and the nearby archaeological museum known as Gedong Ark.

Relatively off the beaten track, Yeh Pulu is located in the narrow valley between the Petanu and Pakerisan rivers, deep in rice fields and hidden under an embankment. Its hidden location explains why it was only rediscovered in 1925 since courtier of Ubud (district rulers serving under a king), who then shared their news with Dutch artist WOJ Nieuwenkamp. Only much later, in 1929, when the area was properly excavated by the Dutch Colonial Archaeological Bureau, was the significance of Yeh Pulu revealed.

A 25m long and 2m high high relief, carved deep into the river bank walls, with clear depictions of human activity and daily life. However, these carvings were unlike any style seen in Bali, and thus its origins and age became quite a mystery.

The images, running left to right (downstream), have a “wayang” (shadow puppet) quality, as the figures look along the length (x-axis) of the relief. Yet they are distinct: they are natural and realistic, the faces and bodies rounded and proportionate. Regular wayang style would be very flat and two dimensional, their depictions “supernatural”. This has caused a lot of speculation about the find: who carved it and when?

There are nine scenes showing seemingly mundane daily activities: a boy waving, two men carrying a hunted boar, while another is being attacked by a boar, and another hunting on horseback; a woman kneeling, another man carrying “tuak” (palm wine) in ceramic pots, another a garden hoe. The last carved figure is that of Ganesha, albeit with only two arms. Another theory speculates that the relief tells the story of the Hindu epic of Krishna.

Decades later further studies were conducted and the carvings were compared with temples in Central and East Java (e.g. Candi Penataran, East Java), filtering it down to an “Old Javanese period” and finally towards the end of the Majapahit Empire. This dates Yeh Pulu between the 14th and 15th centuries. But why such a distinct style? The research hypothesizes that the engravings were made by “non-palace” engravers, explaining the scarcity and verisimilitude of the images; hence it is believed that it was the same ascetics and hermits who carved this lonely rock face so many centuries ago.

This would certainly make sense, as at the far end of the carvings, the cliff has been carved into a place for meditation, similar to those found in Mount Kavi. This is a sacred place, a holy spring temple, as explained by its name: Yeh Pulu means “water” and “container” respectively, and near the three shrines at the end of the temple complex is a spring pool sacred before it opens to the river banks beyond.

This is by no means a large temple complex – a visit to Yeh Pulu grants you a viewing corridor of just 25m. However, witnessing these lifelike carvings in person, especially in a serene rural setting, ignites the imagination of what life might have been like here 600 years ago. A temple caretaker may be present during your visit, offering you a blessing of the water (for a donation) and inviting you to relive the lives of the ascetics and hermits who have visited this ancient site.

The locally owned “Yeh Pulu Cafe” near the entrance is a good place to refresh yourself while enjoying the view of the surrounding rice fields. Since Yeh Pulu is likely to be a quick visit, we suggest you also include other nearby destinations to make it worthwhile. Entrance fees: IDR 30,000 for international tourists, IDR 20,000 for domestic tourists.

Edward Speir

Edward Speir

Edward, or Eddy as he prefers to be called, is the managing editor of NOW! Bali and host of NOW! Podcast Bali. He enjoys photography, rural travel and he loves that his work introduces him to people from all walks of life.

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