The Balinese seem unable to tolerate unadorned stone. With fanged, bulging-eyed
statues guarding every gate and shrine, and walls, benches and pedestals
of traffic signs carved in stone, stone-carving is so ubiquitous on Bali,
you may begin to take it for granted. Superbly crafted stonework is also
much in evidence in Bali's hotel properties—from humble homestays to luxurious
An art patronized almost exclusively by the Balinese themselves, the carvings on Bali's communal public buildings—temple walls, drum towers, gateways, public baths, hotels, courthouses—are exuberantly ornamental, a riot of swirling spirals, arabesques, intricate volutes, swastikas, leaves, rivers, tendrils, flowers, and trees.
Balinese temples are never really finished, guaranteeing that stonecarving will continue as a living art. Stonecarving has been unaffected by tourist consumerism because stone is too dear to ship home. This doesn't mean you can't slip a 10 kg stone statue in your flight bag, but be careful as the stone used, though unexpectedly light, is also fragile and easily crumbles.
Temple stonecarving reflects the creative assimilation which has been at work on Bali for 2,000 years. Elements of Chinese and Dutch decorative art, such as winged lions and floral patterns, have crept into stonecarvings, and on their temples and in many of the interior altars lightbulbs have been embedded into the intricate stone masonry, even though there's no electricity in these buildings!
The stonecarving style of southern Bali, typified by the temple architecture found in Denpasar, Tabanan, Gianyar, Bangli, and Klungkung, is more subdued than that of the north. The baroque, flame-like entranceways of northern temples stand tall and slender; their reliefs are more lavish and depict more lighthearted and comic scenes than those of the south. Since the north was occupied by the Dutch a full 60 years before the south, you'll find in Buleleng Regency's stone art more images from European magazines and movies. This is where the Balinese sense of humor and ribaldry really shows. Panels are filled with buzzing airplanes, bobbing sailing ships, car holdups by two-gunned masked bandits, bicycles made of flowers, grinning monkeys, Dutchmen drinking beer, long-bearded Arabs, and automobile breakdowns. New influences taken in without destroying the integrity of the old is a trademark of Balinese history.
The material for stonecarving is a soft, ashy, light gray volcanic sandstone (paras) quarried from the banks of rivers. When freshly dug from the river and still soft, it's roughly cut and shaped with adzes, then transported to the temple site. At first as malleable as plastic, the stone grows harder, more durable and darker with time.
The extreme softness of "new" paras, which feels almost like dried mud, accounts for the over-lavish adornment of Balinese art in stone. These flaming motifs combined with the Balinese love of loud colors, gives some of their temples the appearance of a carnival ride. The most outrageously painted temples in northern Bali are in the villages of Jagaraga, Bebetin, and Ringdikit. In the north, sandstone is more durable than in the south, and thus temple sculpture is considerably more flamboyant. Eaten away by rain and weathering, the soft volcanic tuff of southern Bali requires carvings be replaced or refurbished at least every five years. Statues only a decade old may appear to date from the Majapahit invasion.
To see a paras quarry, where rock is cut from cliffs with long knives, visit Blayu and Kukuh on the way to Marga. Climb down the hill from the stacks of paras water filters, cornerstones, and blocks on the road.
Motifs and Themes
There are as many carving styles as there are carvers. Because the Balinese believe constant maintenance of their stone temples is a moral obligation, stone sculpture survives today as the only Balinese art with a religious function.
Stone statuary were never intended as holy objects of worship, but rather were looked upon as pure embellishment or dwelling-places for invisible spirits invited down from heaven.
Stone figures (pratimas) often portray religious personages—best described as "pictures in stone." One seldom sees stone representations of such deities as Vishnu, Shiva, or Sanghyang Widhi. Demons, raksasa, giants, and evil spirits are the preferred subject matter. In the pura dalem (Temple of Death), the witch-queen Rangda is often enshrined, immobile and threatening, in her own niche.
Numerous steadfast rules must be followed when carving the final decoration for a temple. Over the entrance must always hang the face of a coarse, leering monster (Kala or Bhoma) with wicked lolling tongue, splayed hands, tusklike teeth, the lower jaws missing. It prevents evil characters from slipping into the sacred grounds. Two guardian demons almost always flank the steps to the gateway or stand guard to either side (as they do at both ends of Balinese bridges) as well. Esoteric religious symbols and grotesque mythological creatures such as one-eyed birds and heads of elephants glare out from temple friezes or adorn temple corners in mass profusion.
All around the base run carved borders (patra), frame panels portraying in stone scenes from Balinese literature: animal heroes from the Tantri tales, episodes from Arjuna Wiwaha in which heavenly nymphs attempt to seduce Arjuna while he's meditating, battle scenes from the Hindu epic poems, a pop-eye above upper canine teeth, magic birds, snorting devils, twisting serpents, and a host of other supernatural, fanciful creatures.
Besides the profusion of carved vines, leaves, and tendrils which entwine the temple, many other symbols and mythical characters populate the confines, peering out from moss-covered walls. The padmasana (lotus seat) is a small stone pillar resting on an image of a turtle and crowned with an empty stone throne. Found in temples all over Bali, the padmasana represents the entire cosmos. Swastikas adorn walls, and the lotus—the symbolic flower of the Hindu cosmos—is seen in the most common motifs. You will also spy, if you look closely enough, erotic, pornographic scenes of earthly, sensual pleasures. The master sculptors know all the themes and variations of these stone designs by heart, or as the Balinese say, "in the belly."
Where to Buy
The shops lining the main street of Batubulan, a small village northeast of Denpasar on the way to Gianyar, sell most of their carvings to locals. Bargain vigorously. These workshops will carefully pack stone sculpture in wooden frames with shredded paper so it's ready for shipping. The height of the figures vary from 20 cm to two meters. The average height of a small figure is one meter, weight around 10 kg, and cost around Rp40,000 (after bargaining).
Another stonecarving center is Karang, north of Batubulan. Open dawn to dusk, visitors are welcome to visit the workshop of the master carver where you'll see long rows of young apprentices working in small groups chiseling and chipping away at demons, turtles, orgres, nudes, frogs, and all the characters from the Balinese scriptures. For something different, Wayan Cemul, who lives just up the lane from Han Snel in Ubud, makes nontraditional, wild and wonderful paras sculptures.