The story behind Bali’s mythical Mount Agung you may not have heard

With the threat of Mount Agung receding and life returning to normal, it seems the main news from Bali has been about the inconveniences of disrupted holidays and cancelled flights. Many tourists had to cancel their vacation and even their honeymoons in Bali. Meanwhile almost 150,000 residents have been evacuated and moved to camps with the threat of lost livelihoods ominously lingering overhead. In parallel however, this event was also accompanied by another outburst, of the spiritual kind. One that tells a captivating story of Bali’s unique culture, history and the wrath of its sacred mountains.

As Mount Agung became more and more restless, Balinese throughout the island steadfastly sought to pacify the volcano with prayers, offerings and ceremonies. If the last eruption of 1963 is anything to go by, it at least serves as a reminder of the intricate and deep connection between the Balinese and their land, and also of an intervention that may have prevented a much more tragic ending.

The ‘mother mountain’ is the most sacred peak in Bali, the ultimate embodiment of spiritual power. Its rumblings represent a loud cry of displeasure, whose last eruption in 1963 provoked a period of immense economic, political and environmental change. The outpouring of spiritual expression these last months in response to its instability symbolizes the deep spiritual connection the Balinese have with nature, the spirits and their gods; and how a different course of events may been been prevented.

Mount Agung

Night of Purnama 

Set amongst rice terraces and bamboo thatch huts, writer Anna Matthews and her husband had made their home in the village of Iseh facing the slopes of Mount Agung in 1962. Arriving only seven months before the eruption of Mount Agung in February 1963, her book The Night of Purnama is a first hand account of the immense destruction brought by the volcano. After laying dormant for decades, the ensuing six months of lava flows, mudslides and pyroclastic bombs buried whole villages, destroyed rice fields and caused immense human loss of life. Widespread hunger and destitution followed, with the destruction of the local economy subjecting many to poverty.

Purnama, meaning full-moon, are auspicious events in Balinese spiritual life when offerings and prayers are made to the gods in order to bring peace, calm and ask for forgiveness. As hindus, the Balinese believe the mountains are the dwellings of the gods with the four large mountains in Bali considered sacred. Mount Agung is by far the largest at 3,031 meters and home to Lord Shiva, one of the most superior of all gods with immense powers of destruction and recreation. Legends also tell of the stability the mountains bring to Bali which otherwise would be an unstable island surrounded by the oceans. Put there by the gods to bring order and stability, it’s restlessness is therefore a telling sign that things are amiss.

When Mount Agung emitted its first signs of displeasure in early 1963, priests and worshippers performed ceremonies at the iconic Pura Besakih temple, presenting offerings and prayers in order to pacify the mountain. Unfortunately, the displeasure of the gods was awakened further when there was a disagreement between priests over the precise date to perform one of the most important Balinese Hindu ceremonies- the Eka Dasa Rudra. To correct such misdeeds before the gods and ask for forgiveness more prayers to bring peace to Bali were promptly performed. However, to no avail.

Mount Agung

In February 1963 Mount Agung erupted in one of the worst disasters in Balinese history. Whilst the eruption caused immense and immediate hardship it also gave rebirth to the land, providing the returning residents with some of the most fertile soils on the island and abundant rainfall for their crops as the mountain once again began dominating the surrounding climate. While the volcano unleashed its destructive fury in Bali, it also foretold of more volatility and unrest in Indonesia.

1963 was a volatile year in Indonesia’s history and began the downfall of the existing order. Under Sukarno the country had taken an increasingly authoritarian turn, the economy had been disastrously mismanaged and a lack of investment in infrastructure hampered development in a country with around 18,000 islands. Rampant printing of money to fund military campaigns led to hyperinflation wiping out savings and decimating the currency.

At the same time poor crop harvests and the collapse of export plantation sectors further increased the misery for the rural poor. Unable to provide any practical economic solutions, a purge by the military against communist factions led to mass atrocities in Java and Bali with estimates claiming about half a million were killed. Economic decline, civil strife and political turmoil had marked this period. By 1965 Sukarno had been replaced.

Lessons learned from the last eruption of Mount Agung 

When on September 22 the area was put on high alert with an eruption imminent, worshippers once again braved imminent danger and climbed the slopes of the volcano for an intricate ceremony at the iconic Pura Besakih temple. One of the holiest sites of worship in Bali, this same temple, which is situated high up on the slopes of the volcano, was magically spared during the last eruption.

It was early October, sometime after the evacuation order had ordered thousands to move out of the area, a ceremony known as the Purnama Kapat took place. It had to be on this day. The day of Purnama. It was the fourth full-moon on the Balinese calendar with worshippers asking the gods to bring peace to the area. In attendance was Bali’s governor I Made Mangku Pastika and senior priests, all in a bid to keep their island and people safe. Throughout Bali in other village temples, prayers were also held namely the Guru Piduka, asking for forgiveness, calmness and peace.

With priests standing before plumes of rising smoke and ash, and the skies filled with ominous grey clouds, serene worshippers steadfastly said their prayers and presented their offerings desperately trying to prevent a repeat of the worst disaster in living memory.

For now the rumblings have subsided and most people have returned to their homes and are getting on with their lives. The Besakih temple, an impressive complex with 18 temples, is now an even more iconic and powerful centre of worship. While we will never know how close we came to something worse or a even repeat of 1963, it reminds us to be mindful. On your next trip to Bali, should you ascend Mount Agung or any of the other sacred mountains, show the necessary respect, bring offerings and behave with deference remembering their awesome power. For in Bali, a little prayer can move mountains.

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