Balinese Hindus hold sacred the four volcanic mountains that form Bali’s backbone. They believe that Agung, Batur, Abang and Batukaru are home to the gods and that Mount Agung, the highest of the four mountains at 10,308 feet, is the most sacred.
It is also the one poised to erupt.
More than 140,000 people have been living in temporary shelters provided by the Indonesian government in cooperation with local nonprofits since Sept. 23, when the Indonesian Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center raised the alert status to its maximum level.
Mount Agung (translated as “The Great Mountain”) is believed to be the home of Mahadeva, the supreme manifestation of the deity Shiva. Legend has it that the mountain was formed when the Hindu god Pashupati split Mount Meru, the Hindu axis of the universe, and created Mount Agung from a fragment.
Often dubbed as “the island of a thousand temples,” Bali has more than 10,000 of them.
Pura Besakih, known as the “Mother Temple,” is considered the most important. It is a complex of 23 temples located more than 3,000 feet high on the slopes of Mount Agung. Believed to date back to the 10th century, it has been devoted from its founding to Naga Besukianm or “Shiva’s snake,” the dragon god inhabiting Mount Agung.
Locals see a strong bond between Pura Besakih and the volcano, manifested by three sacred holes — one of which is thought to be connected directly to the crater of Mount Agung.
“These holes were not made by people but by the divine will. With the help of these three holes the pressure of the eruption can dissipate and the mountain will not erupt violently but slow and with a low pressure,” said Dewa Ketut Soma, a Pura Besakih priest.
During Mount Agung’s last eruptions — in the early 1960s, when 1,500 people died — the lava flows came within yards of Pura Besakih. Many Balinese understood this near miss as mercy from the gods, who wanted to show their power but did not want to destroy the holiest of the Balinese worship places.
Although Pura Besakih is within the 7-mile evacuation zone set around the volcano by the Indonesian government, a few priests still carry on prayer ceremonies and make offerings in the temple complex.
“We are doing rituals to pray for safety and avoid a disaster,” said Dewa Ketut Soma. “If the Balinese sincerely pray in their ritual, then Mount Agung will not erupt terribly but with a mild pressure. But if the Balinese ignore the laws of nature, then Mount Agung will be furious and can erupt causing a terrible catastrophe.”