Once the seat of the powerful Karangasem court, the district capital of Amlapura at the eastern end of Bali is now a sleepy market and administrative town. Formerly known as Karangasem, the town was given its present name after the eruption of Mt Agung in 1963 nearly wiped it out; black lava flows can still be seen from the road on the way into town. There are several interesting palaces here, and the surrounding countryside contains superb scenery and some of the most interesting traditional villages in Bali.
The palaces of Karangasem
The main attraction of Amlapura is its traditional palaces or puri. There is a western, a northern, a southern and an eastern puri as well as several others - all still occupied by members of the royal family. Of these, only the Puri Kangin (the eastern palace) on the main road to the market is easily visited. This is worth a look, as it gives a vivid impression of how local royals used to live. The palace buildings themselves are in fact an eccentric blend of Chinese and European details set in what is essentially a traditional Balinese compound with several pavilions and room surrounded by pools and connected by walk ways. The main hall is called the "Bale London" and the furniture curiously bears the crest of the British royal family. One can even rent rooms here the perfect accommodation for the aspiring aristocrat.
The ruling family of Karangasem traces its ancestry back to the 14th century Hindu Javanese empire of Majapahit, claiming to be direct descendants of a certain Batan Jeruk who was Prime Minister of Bali during the 16th century. There is also a tale concerning the dynasty's divine origin.
A woman who lived near the palace was once overheard talking to a stranger in her house. When asked who it was, she replied that it was the god of Mt Agung. After some time, the woman became pregnant and not long afterwards a miraculous fire descended from the mountain to the woman's house. She soon gave birth to a son atop a hill to the east of the town this son, the "god of the eastern hill," is said to be the founder of the royal Karangasem line.
Karangasem conquered Lombok in the 17th century and in turn became a vassal of the neighboring island in the middle of 19th century. As a result, there are today several Sasak settlements in and around Amlapura, and these have had a significant influence on the culture of the area. Family and trading relations with Lombok still exit until the present day, and intermarriages are common.
When Lombok was occupied by the Dutch in 1894, Karangasem was transfered to Dutch control as well. Nevertheless, the ruler of Karangasem was kept on as "governor" of the region, and his status a, confirmed in 1938 when the Balinese kingdoms were granted partial self-rule. After independence in 1945, these princely realms vanished and were replaced by the present-day, kabupaten or regencies. Until 1979, however the regent or bupati of Karangasem was a prince of the royal house, and was still considered "raja" by most people in the area. Even today, members of the royal family participate in rituals held in the nearby villages.
Ujung and Mt Seraya
Apart from being a man well-versed in letters, tile last king of Karangasem, Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut, was also an assiduous builder of opulent pleasure palaces for his frequent excursions to the countryside with his wives and children. In fact, during his lifetime he built no less than three different "water palaces" at Ujung, Tirtagangga and Jungtitan respectively.
Ujung, 8 km to the south of Amlapura, is a small fishing village with distinct Islamic arid Hindu-Balinese quarters. The lavish palace complex here - a vast pool bordered by small pavilions with a massive stained glass and stucco bungalow in the center was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mt Agung and subsequent earthquakes. Little else but a few sculptures and portals remain, though there are plans afoot to restore the palace to its original condition as it tourist attraction.
Just before Ujung there is road to the left leading toward Bukit Kangin ("eastern hill") where there is a panoramic view of the area and a temple dedicated to the founder of the royal dynasty. On the full moon of the fifth month (usually in November) several villages with close ties to the ruling dynasty participate in a festival at this temple.
From the beach at Ujung, a new road climbs up to the village of Seraya, perched on the southern flanks of Mt Seraya Bali's easternmost peak (1175 in). This is one of the most and areas in Bali, and the road here hugs the hills high above the coast, offering splendid panoramas of the surrounding terrain and across the sea to distant Lombok. From Seraya, the road continues around the mountain and descends gradually on the northern side to the fishing and salt-making village of Amed. Though a distance of only about 30 km, the entire drive takes several hours as the road is quite steep and winding.
From Amed one can return to Amlapura or continue along the northern coastal route through the villages of Kubu and Tianyar toward Singaraja. The north coastal region suffered greatly from the eruption of Mt Agung, and was transformed into an arid wasteland with dramatic, black lava flows reaching right down to the sea. Until well into the 1980s the road was not very serviceable, but it is now in very good condition and offers beautiful views of the rugged northern slopes of Mt Agung. There is also excellent diving in the coastal reefs off Tianyar, where the sunken wreck of a WW 11 ship provides a home for a host of colorful marine life.
Refreshing pools at Tirtagangga
The cool, spring-fed pools at Tirtagangga which literally means "Ganges Water" and refers to the sacred river of the Hindus - are located some 15 km northwest of Amlapura along the main road toward Singaraja. A dip in the pools is deliciously refreshing after a long drive, and they are surrounded by a captivating landscape of terraced rice fields. The village itself is small and quiet, and is a good place to pause and rest for several hours or even several days - to take advantage of the many delightful walks from here.
One can stay overnight inside the pool complex itself, known officially as Tirta Ayu ("lovely waters"), where a son of the last king of Karangasem operates a small home stay. Another exciting possibility is to stay in a small lodging on a nearby hill with a view over the famous Tirtagangga rice terraces.
Trekking around Tirtagangga
From here there are a number of excellent treks through the surrounding countryside. One of the most spectacular begins to the north in the village of Tanaharon, quite high on the slopes of Mt Agung. One may reach it on foot or by car. To get there, follow the main road north from Tirtagangga in the direction of Singaraja for several kilometers, then turn left at Abang and follow a small climbing road up to the end. From here one may continue on foot, enjoying the broad panoramas in all directions and the thick, tree-fern vegetation. There is no short-cut back to Tirtagangga, and it is best not to get too far off the main path, as the ravines are quite steep and dangerous.
Another, less taxing trek begins in Ababi, just 2 km north of Tirtagangga on the main road. Turn left in this village and follow the road through Tanah Lengis to Budakling. On foot one can also reach this road by climbing the low hill behind the Tirtagangga spring.
Ababi is an old-fashioned village, and in the fourth Balinese month (around October) a major ritual is held in the village temple an agricultural ceremony marking the end of the dry season. In Tanah Lengis, which closely linked to Ababi, are several unusual music clubs. One is an angk1ung orchestra and the other is a so-called cekepung group.
Cekepung is a form of music known only in Karangasem and on Lombok, from where it originates. It is performed by a group of men. The leader begins by singing a text in Sasak (the language of Lombok); this is then paraphrased by another man in Balinese. After a while the other men join in, and perform a very rhythmic, interlocking song without words - imitating the interplay, rhythm and punctuation of a gamelan orchestra with their voices. Villagers drink palm-wine during and in between the singing. Both groups perform commercially, and will sometimes play for visitors in Tirtagangga.
One enters Budakling just after crossing a broad river, which is almost completely dry during the dry season. This village is well known for its Buddhist brahman priests, of whom there are only a dozen or so left in Bali (whereas their Sivaite colleagues number the hundreds). It is also a famous center for gold and silver smiting. Here are produced jewelry pieces of very high quality, which are occasionally offered for sale in Tirtagangga. It is possible to obtain or order pieces in the village, and Budakling also has several ironsmiths who produce household and agriculture tools.
To go back to Tirtagangga. from here, turn left at the first crossroads in Budakling and ask for Padangkerta, a few km south on main Amlapura-Tirtagangga road. For a longer trip, continue on to the important market village of Bebandem. Entering from this direction, the traveler encounters ironsmiths by the side of the road, which usually work in the mornings on market day (every three days), producing cheap knives keris daggers and cock fighting spurs. There is also an important cattle market here, and once back on the main road one has the choice of going back toward Tirtagangga, south to Candi Dasa, east to Amlapura or west to Besakih and Rendang.
A walk due east from Tirtagangga through the rice fields brings you to Pura Lempuyang, one of the Sad Kahyangan or six main temples of the whole of Bali, perched at the summit of Mt Lempuyang (1058 in). Pass the villages of Kuhum and Tihingtali and continue on to Basangalas. From here, it is a strenuous climb up to the temple. Basangalas can also be reached by car from a turn-off to the north of Tirtagangga at Abang.
A large temple festival takes place at Lempuyang every 210 days on Thursday of the week Dungulan. Ten days later, on Sunday of the week Kuningan, there are festivals in the temples of origin (pura puseh) in many villages around Basangalas, including Lempuyang. These feature fine rejang dances by the unmarried girls of the village accompanied by various orchestras.
Traditional villages near Amlapura
The several neighboring villages of Subagan, Jasi, Bungaya, Asak and Timbrah just to the west of Amlapura are all very traditional resembling the archaic Bali Aga village of Tenganan in many ways. Like Tenganan, Asak for instance is a caste-less village. Bungaya, on the other hand, has groups of brahmana but they do not take part in village rituals.
These villages may be reached quite easily by car or on foot. Coming from Candidasa and Bugbug in the west, turn left at the village of Perasi onto a picturesque back road leading to Bebandem via Timbrah, Asak a Bungaya. Jasi and Subagan lie on the main road between Perasi and Amlapura. There is also a lovely back road connecting Subagan with the Asak and Bungaya road.
The village of Jasi, close to the beach, is well known for its earthenware casks, bowls and pots. They may be purchased locally as well as at the Amlapura and Klungkung markets. Subagan has an Islamic quarter that was completely leveled in 1963 when Mt Agung erupted.
Asak and Bungaya are village with several fascinating festivals. The
biggest and best known is called usaba sumbu held once a year with certain
variations in all three villages (as well as in Perasi, Bugbug and Bebandem).
This is an agricultural rite in
Several exquisite dances are performed during the daytime. A rejang is performed by unmarried girls, an abuang by unmarried boys, and several different groups take part in mock-fight dances called gebug. The dancers are beautifully dressed in costly ritual costumes, and the gold headdresses of the girls in Asak and Bungaya are justifiably famous.
The dances are accompanied by some very rare and unusual music. Especially noteworthy is the sacred selunding orchestra consisting of iron-met allophones that are rarely played, and then only for specific ceremonies. A particular selunding in Bungaya, for instance, is only struck once every ten years during a huge temple festival.
In Asak, Timbrah and Bugbug, the selunding is played once every year during the usaba sumbu. Other interesting festivals are held on Galungan in Timbrah, on Kuningan in Asak and Bungaya, and during the seventh and eighth lunar months (January or February) in Asak and Subagan. New years' festivals (March or April) are worth attending in any of these villages.
Spectacular back road to Besakih
The back road leading from Amlapura up to Rendang and thence to Besakih is one of the most scenic in Bali. From Amlapura the first villages passed are Subagan and Bebandem (see above). Shortly after Bebandem there is an intersection, and a turn to the right takes You to the small village of Jungutan, site of the third famous Karangasem water palace.
Jungutan is not so much a palace, actually, as a small complex of ponds situated in a quiet and relaxing setting - a nice spot to stop and walk around. Back at the intersection, the road continues west through Sibetan, well known throughout Indonesia for its delicious salak - a crisp, tart fruit encased in a rind that has the look and feel of snakeskin. The winding road through Sibetan is lined by densely-planted salak palms and trucks may be seen loading them for market. These fruits are better here than anywhere else in Indonesia - peel the scaly skin and enjoy the thirst-quenching pulp.
Soon after the salak plantations, a road to the left leads a short distance to Putung, where there is a small bungalow hotel and restaurant with a view of the coast. The main road continues on from here to Duda, at the foot of Mt Agung. This village holds a large festival in the temple of origin on the full moon of the fourth month (around October). After Duda there is another intersection. The road to the left from here goes through Sidemen to Klungkung. The road straight ahead leads to Rendang and the turn to Besakih.
Sidemen, southwest off the road between Duda and Selat, is well worth a visit. The scenery is gorgeous, and traditional varieties of Balinese rice are grown. There is a good home stay with a magnificent view down across a valley of rice terraces to the sea and south Bali. Closeby is a weaving factory where high quality traditional textiles (endek) are produced. In Sidemen there are also several places where the costly kain songket is woven from silk, with gold and silver threads added to create the patterns.
The road onwards to Rendang leads first through the old village of Selat, an area that suffered badly from the eruption of Mt Agung. It is possible to climb the volcano - a sign reading "Gunting Agung, 10 km" marks a turn-off where a road leads a good way up the sacred mountain. Don't attempt the climb unless you are well-prepared and have a guide. If you speak Indonesian, guides are locally available but be sure to bring along food, water and warm clothing for the steep climb to the summit. At 3142 in, this is Bali's highest peak and it gets quite cold. Only to be attempted between July and October.
village just after Selat, Padangabai, is known for its gambuh association.
Gambuh is a classical dance-drama with slow and stately music that is
only irregularly performed these days. The road then continues on through
Muncan, past one of the most exciting rice field landscapes in Bali.
The terraces are at their most spectacular when flooded, just before
the young rice is transplanted. Finally at Rendang you arrive at the
main Klungkung Besakih route; a turn to the right will bring you up
to Bali's "Mother Temple."
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