For most people, a trip to the Southeast Asian island of Bali conjures up images of sipping cocktails at sunset after a day spent relaxing on a beach or engaging in watersports. But the island has a lot more to offer. For example, Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana in Balinese), where 27 acres of deeply forested land double as home to over a thousand Balinese long-tailed macaque monkeys and a centuries-old temple complex, is well worth a visit.
Tri Hita Karana — A Philosophy of Sustainable Development
The Sacred Monkey Sanctuary was developed based on Tri Hita Karana, the Hindu philosophy that governs life in Bali. Roughly translated as “three ways to achieve spiritual and physical wellbeing,” Tri Hita Karana is a doctrine that advocates harmonious relationships with other humans, the environment, and the Supreme God. It is manifested in compassionate communal cooperation, conservation of the island’s natural habitat, and numerous rituals and offerings to appease the deities.
The philosophy is widely used to explain the relatively high quality of life of island residents and its stable record of development. An excellent example of Tri Hita Karana in practice is the island’s natural irrigation system known as subak, which derives from a single water source. From it, a system of cooperatively managed weirs and canals ensures water is distributed fairly, sustainably, and efficiently throughout the whole of Bali.
In keeping with Tri Hita Karana, the Monkey Sanctuary has been designed as a place of peace and refuge for international visitors. It is also focused on the conservation of rare plants and those used in the spiritual rituals of the residents, forming a natural laboratory for study by educational institutions.
The Inhabitants of the Monkey Sanctuary
Visitors to the Monkey Sanctuary can observe the macaques moving freely through their forest habitat. They are considered manifestations of the Hindu monkey deities and are revered and cared for by local staff as part of the spiritual life of the temples. There are seven troops of between 110 and 220 monkeys, each made up of infants through to adults. Occasionally, clashes occur between the troops, generally when they cross into each other’s territory.
In the past, visitors were permitted to feed the monkeys; however, the animals became overweight and aggressive. So now, it is strictly forbidden for visitors to feed them, and instead, they are fed thrice daily by sanctuary staff and forage for fruit and vegetables in the forest. The forest, which consists of more than 80 species of trees, also provides sanctuary to various birds, lizards, squirrels, and the Timor rusa, a species of deer native to the island of Timor.
The Temples of the Monkey Sanctuary
Bali is home to many spiritual and religious sites and is often referred to by its other popular name, the Island of Gods. The Monkey Forest houses three temples, the earliest structures of which are thought to have been built around the middle of the 14th century under the Pejeng Dynasty and the start of the Gelgel Dynasty. They have since been revised and rebuilt many times and are now a blend of ancient and modern period construction.
In the southwest of the forest is the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal, or Padangtegal Great Temple of Death, the main temple structure. It is dedicated to the god Shiva, “the Recycler” or “the Transformer,” who judges the karma of the dead.
In the northwest is the Pura Beji, a bathing temple located along a stream that runs through the sanctuary. It honors the goddess Gangga and is used for melukat, a ritual that cleanses the spirit and body.
The Pura Prajapati is adjacent to a cemetery, and Pura Prajapati (cremation temple) is in the northeast. It honors the god Prajapati. The Balinese hold cremation festivities for their loved ones, but the dead are buried while the families save sufficient funds for their cremation. Once every five years, the bodies are disinterred and relocated to elaborate mass cremation pyres, after which the ashes are taken to family shrines for safekeeping.
Monkeys are an essential part of the Balinese mythology and art tradition, and the Monkey Sanctuary temples play an important spiritual role in the local community. The sanctuary is a sanctified area, and some parts are not open to the public. Other sacred temple areas are restricted for those wishing to pray and prepared to wear Balinese prayer attire.
The COVID pandemic and increasing evidence of climate change have awakened a new awareness of the need to live in harmony with one another and nature. So now is a good time to take advantage of the easing travel restrictions and spend time acclimatizing to Tri Hita Karana in Ubud’s Monkey Forest Sanctuary.