There are many holy sites in Bali “The Island of the Gods” but hidden in a lush jungle filled canyon lies one of the oldest and most mysterious of all... 

IOn the edge of Tampaksiring village, about 14 kilometres north of Ubud, steep steps lead down from the busy street into a secluded river valley.

Gunung Kawi

Here, in a lush quiet world, one of Bali’s largest and most ancient holy sites has been carved from the soft volcanic rock. Gunung Kawi - known by some as Bali’s “Valley of the Kings”.

Gunung Kawi _web 04.jpg

Here, in a lush quiet world, one of Bali’s largest and most ancient holy sites has been carved from the soft volcanic rock. Gunung Kawi - known by some as Bali’s “Valley of the Kings”.

Gunung Kawi’s most spectacular features are a series of 8-metre high carvings known as “candi”.

They’re are often described as tombs but this is not correct - they have never contained human remains or ashes.


Instead it is thought they are a kind of symbolic accommodation - houses for the spirits of the Royal family to stay in when they are invited down from the spiritual realm during temple festivals.

Gunung Kawi _web 06.jpg

Above each is a carved inscription in a unique script found elsewhere in 11th century Javanese monuments.


Most have been destroyed by the elements, but one can still be read and translated as “Haji Lumahing Jalu,” meaning “the king made a temple here.”

Gunung Kawi _web 05.jpg

The legendary Balinese ruler Anak Wungsu, who died around A.D. 1077, is likely to have commissioned the entire site as a memorial to himself and his family.


Anak Wungsu’s father was the great Balinese ruler of the Warmadewa Dynasty, King Udayana. He fathered three sons with his Queen Mahendradatta.


When Udayana died his eldest son Marakata took the crown, and Anak Wungsu inherited it after that. His other brother, Airlangga, was known as the legendary king of Singosari in eastern Java.


The largest set of candi on the east side of Gunung Kawi are thought to represent the five members of the family.

Gunung Kawi _web 06.jpg

The four slightly smaller candi on the western side of Gunung Kawi are thought to be dedicated to Anak Wungsu’s chief concubines.


Another theory suggests that Gunung Kawi is not a family monument at all - instead the whole complex is dedicated to Anak Wungsu, his wives and concubines.


Locals legend also claims that the whole temple complex was carved out of the rock face in one night by the mighty fingernails of Kebo Iwa, a renowned military commander in ancient Bali who possessed supernatural powers.

Gunung Kawi _web 07.jpg

The exact significance and purpose of Gunung Kawi’s spectacular carvings still remains a mystery.

Gunung Kawi _web 08.jpg

Gunung Kawi also contains 34 small caves carved into the soft volcanic rock, thought to be used by Buddhist monks for meditation.


The largest caves are claimed to possess remarkably resonant acoustic properties which may have magnified their spiritual power.

Gunung Kawi _web 09.jpg

Within the ancient memorial complex is a younger and still functional Hindu temple known as Pura Gunung Kawi.

Gunung Kawi _web 10.jpg

Inside are what you would commonly find in any other Balinese temple courtyard, complete with various shrines surrounding the temple’s main grand pavilion or ‘bale’.

Gunung Kawi _web 11.jpg

Like most of Bali’s holy sites, Gunung Kawi is designed around the flow of water.

Gunung Kawi _web 12.jpg

It runs from the top of the ravine into the lush green Pakerisan River valley that the temple was carved into.


Many of the meditation caves were carved close to naturally flowing water to enhance their spiritual power.

Gunung Kawi _web 13.jpg

Water naturally flowing into the valley is directed and guided through the complex by a complex network of channels, pipes and culverts.


All of Gunung Kawi’s most significant locations are close to flowing water or sacred pools.


As water flows through Gunung Kawi and into the Pakerisan River it becomes blessed by the temple’s spiritual power and prayers of the monks that lived there. The river now carries that blessed holy water downstream to other areas.

Gunung Kawi _web 14.jpg

A network of water temples around Bali performs the same purpose, and further distributes the blessed water all across the island.


This is the uniquely Balinese practice of Subak - the cultural, religious, and practical tradition of irrigation which primarily revolves around rice farming.

Gunung Kawi _web 16.jpg

Democratic associations of priests and farmers practice the cultural traditions of Subak and control the allocation of water. 


There are approximately 1,200 of these associations across Bali, each made up of 50 to 400 farmers who collectively manage irrigation from a single source of water that they share.


The network of water sources, temples, artificial watercourses and rice terraces form an artificial ecosystem based around the flow of water.


In Bali humans were significantly altering and reshaping their natural environments a thousand years ago, and Gunung Kawi is one of the earliest and best preserved examples of this unique and ancient geoengineering philosophy.

Gunung Kawi _web 15.jpg

The Pakerisan Watershed , in which Gunung Kawi is situated, is the oldest known irrigation system in Bali, dating back to the 11th century. It is part of a UNESCO world Heritage site encompassing key Subak sites in Bali.

Gunung Kawi _web 17.jpg

The “Valley of the Kings” is not just an ancient monument – it is part of a sustainable, democratic, environmental engineering system over 1000 years old.

                                      - text and photographs by Quinn Berentson and GFS