Pura Uluwatu (or Ulu Atu) is situated in the westernmost part of the Bukit (mountain) in the southern part of Bali. The Bukit is actually a raised seabed, turned into a tableland of grayish white coral rock. (karang) The same word karang happens to be used for a characteristic decorative ‘mountain’ motif in Balinese art, which is very frequent at Uluwatu. The pura stands 250 feet above the surf, recalling a ship’s stern. It is an extremely beautiful spot, especially toward sunset. Formerly difficult of access and forbidden country to outsiders, the site nowedays can be easily reached by car or bus. The Bukit is connected with Bali’s mainland by a narrow strip of land.
Uluwatu is a temple of some antiquity, difficult to date. Because very hard, dark grey coral stone was used for this construction, the sharply cut decoration is much better preserved than in most Balinese monuments. Some damage has been caused by monkeys who climb up and down the steep slopes and jump about on the walls and gates, thus loosening the stones.
The outermost gateaway is a split gate (candi bentar), exeptional in that the inner sides of the two halves were not left smooth, but end in curved wings. The front and back surfaces are decorated with stylized flying birds, a more complex version of the Chinese phoenix. The gate’s main decoration -especially in the transition to the innner courtyard- consists of various kala (monster) heads, partly one-eyed, partly two-eyed. There are also triangular ornaments ending in a bird’s beak, eihter isolated or in pairs. In short, the gateway provides a catalogue of various kala heads (similair to the ornamentation of old Balinese house posts). As celestial symbols, these kala heads support a symbolic representation of the Cosmic Mountain, Mount Meru. Above the large head near the second gate’s top, there is an ‘amrta vessel’.(Balinese as well Javanese temples are often considered replicas of Mount Meru, their central buildings as well as their gateways shaped and decorated accordingly. There is also a close connection between Meru and amrta, the former thought to contain this nectar of immortality.) The inner gatewayis flanked by a very unusual feature: Ganesha’s (elephantine gods) as guardians.
The southern part of the Bukit used to be wild, inhospitable country. Approaching Pura Uluwatu was strictly forbidden to anyone but the prince of Badung who owned it, once a year on the pura’s festive day, visited it to perform his offerings.
This procedure had been followed since Badung took over power in southeast Bali from the dynasty of Mengwi, much further upcountry in Tabanan. The State Temple at Mengwi had the same festive day as Uluwatu, and the raja of that minor kingdom claimed control over the latter. This situation may have started around 1690 and came to an end around 1810 when coastal parts of southeast Bali were lost to Badung.
Pura Uluwatu was badly damaged on various occasions. It had to be repaired several times, either after a long period of neglect, or because of natural phenomena (such as dropping into sea of part of the cliff together with a good deal of the stone structures, as happened shortly before Nieuwenkamp
visited the site early nin the century.) In the mid-19th century when the first foreign visitors reported on the situation, there had been a war (ascribed to the pura being negected) and the local people repaired some of the buildings. Half a century later, renovations had to be carried out. In 1949 further new additions took place and in the 1980’s history repeated itself. (the candi-like building actually is as new as it looks.) Uluwatu consequently presents an interesting mixture of ‘old and new’ which for various reasons is still worth visiting. After the 1906 expedition against Badung, resulting in the prince’s death, Nieuwenkamp was the first to enter the temple. A year and a half before his visit, part of the temple had fallen into the sea.
Pura Uluwatu is considered one of the so-called sadkahyangan. The use of coral stone, the decorative design and the Ganesha gate-keepers recall another pura on the opposite side of the Bukit: Pura Sakenan, on the island of Serangan.
From: A.J. Bernet Kempers, Monumental Bali.