By Honey Writer
One of the many highlights of a Bali cycling holiday, and a feature of the rest day on our Bali by Bike package, is a trip to the sacred waters of Pura Tirta Empul.
For more than a thousand years, Balinese worshipers have been drawn to Pura Tirta Empul, whose sacred spring is said to have magical curative properties. The tradition continues almost unchanged at the temple, even today.
While most of the population on the island of Bali are devotees of Hinduism, it’s a very relaxed and flexible amalgamation of Indian Hindu and Balinese native mythology. Which makes sense, everything is Bali is a relaxed, flexible amalgamation of cultures. What results is a mythical, magical balance between heaven and reality
As promised, following from on from the story of Nyepi, this post is dedicated to the discovery of Pura Tirta Empul and why we are so excited to bring you here as part of the Bali By Bike tour of Bali.
The History of Tirta Empul
There is a story behind every custom and movement of the Balinese, usually a sweet magical one. When you’re cycling in Bali, under the power of two wheels, with vistas of rice fields and stunning volcano backdrops, soft air and cultural vibrancy, you do start to believe in a little bit of magic. Even the names come from some exciting mythic tale. The magical waters of Tirta Empul are certainly no exception, although the water itself and the surrounding temple were never named further than ‘holy water spring’. Don’t let that lack of creativity fool you, the story is riveting.
Amazingly this 1000 year old story, and many other traditional Balinese folklores, have been recorded in palm leaf books that are hundreds of years old. I guess a bit like the Grimm Brothers, only Bali style. The Usana Bali, written in a now dead version of the Balinese language, holds a treasure trove of antique culture. It would be possible to transcribe this document to preserve and teach future generations but no one can be bothered and until very recently they have been largely ignored. If you know the Balinese people, you’ll know the feeling here is “history is history and you make your own tomorrow”. In their eyes, the stories are already preserved, in their verbal story telling, the tradition of their ceremonies, their prayer mantras and their dance performances. Who needs a book when you speak from your heart? Especially when the history of the story is not as important as the lesson it contains.
Snuggle in tight, wherever you are, and get comfy as I recount the unverified history of Tirta Empal. Our Story goes back to the time of gods. Bali of course, meaning; Land of Gods, and this is the mythic tradition that is still remembered and believed as true in Bali today and centres around many of the Balinese days of festivities.
Tirta Empul; A Captivating Story
Our tale begins long ago with a King named Maya Denawa. He had been given supernatural powers when the mountains were moved from India to Bali – (sorry, that’s another story for another bedtime) that were intended to give him long reign and good leadership. This enabled the gods to continue living their lives in the deep sky leaving earth (aka Bali) in the capable hands of Maya Denawa and the two mountains.
Unfortunately, Maya Denawa let his special powers go to his head and he became arrogant and dictatorial. He decided that gods were no longer useful, that he was, on his own, powerful enough to be the only leader the people needed. He restricted the people of Bali from worship and prayer to the Gods. Of course the Gods got angry about the restrictions, not for themselves but for the joy and wealth the people were missing out on. They appointed Indra to travel to earth with troops to dethrone Maya Denawa and restore balance to Bali.
Even though the King was outnumbered and unarmed, the countryside was so full of jungle, temples, rivers and rice fields that Maya Denawa was provided with a maze-like escape route and made good headway. Added to this was his magical abilities, he was immortal against gunfire and every drop of blood that hit the ground only made him stronger. The chase was quite a long one, covering a great distance along the fertile strip between the rivers Petanu and Pakerisan.
All sorts of locations here earned their current names from this mythical cat and mouse game, including the beautiful province of Tampak Siring where Tirta Empul is located. Tampak Siring translates to “Feet Sideways” and is a reference to the mark the Kings footprints left upon the hill as he fled.
In a bid to stop the troops the king poisoned a fountain with toxic water (or possibly got a friend to curse the river). As the thirsty army entered the water and drank, they fell sick and perished. When Indra arrived and saw his troops (possibly a possie of gods) dead and dying he pierced his staff into the ground and up sprung clean healing water. The well he created cured the sick and was even able to revive some of the dead. It is this magical healing water that still flows up to the wells of Tirta Empul today.
With the army restored Maya Danawa was caught and beheaded and his cursed blood flowed into the Patanu river, making it toxic. It is said that anyone who bathes in the water would experience pain against their skin and rice grown from this water would be foul and inedible. In keeping with balance, the waters of the river Pakerisan became one with Toya Empul (the river that flowed from the spring) thus making Pakerisan even more holy and blessed than ever before.
Bathing at Tirta Empul
Historians speculate that some parts of this story might actually be true, however, separating fact from reality would most certainly kill off all the exciting parts. Myths and legends aside, the actual temple of water was built in 960 ish, give or take a year or two. It is currently one of the most holy sites in Bali.
The grounds are set in three courtyards, representing Heaven, (Jeroan) the inner most section which is the walled source of the spring. Human (jaba tengah), the exciting bit we’ll talk about next, and the outer section, Earth, which is an abundant garden.
Obviously, the important stuff for us happens at the human level. In the middle courtyard of the three courts are the bathing pools and fountains. The main pool is a long rectangle cut of stone, filled by the sacred spring direct from the court of heaven through a series of fountains. Worshippers start by making an offering at the temple, to either Hindu gods, (such as Vishna) or to Balanise spirits of Mt. Batur and Indra.
Once done, you climb into the main pool to bathe and give offerings with prayer. As well as cleansing from immaterial dirt, plastic bottles are used to collect the holy water for daily blessings and local ceremony offerings at home.
Today, over 1000 years after the pools were constructed, people come from all over to replenish their holy water stores, cleanse and take part in prayer as to seek treatment for illness both of the body and soul. Each of the thirteen spouts serves a specific purpose, have individual names, and work in order from left of the pool across to the right. Water to be taken home can only be taken from two spouts, Pengelukatan and Pebersihan. There is even a spout for cetik, which is a man made lethal poison.
If parts of the story were indeed true the poisoning of the army would have been cetik. The water from this spout apparently reverses the effects of lethal poisoning, so if you are vomiting blood, it’s an option you are free to take. The locals will only bow under the first 11 spouts as the end two are named for death and used in cremation ceremony rituals to heal grief and show the spirit the right way to heaven.
In order to participate in the cleansing, visitors must wear a sarong and sash that you can hire from the entrance booth for a small fee along with your entrance ticket. It is important to come only with gratitude and well meaning as the water will remember your presence.
Visiting Tirta Empul
The pools get amazingly crowded so we take advantage of the Bali by Bike early morning rides and cruise the quiet and beautiful rice field roads from the villa in Ubud to Tirta Empal on this short 20 kilometre route and get in early. It’s not only quiet, but with the soft morning light it’s just magical.
Our first ever visit to Tirta Empul was early on forgiveness day, the day following Nyepi.
We researched the best place to go and this one popped up time and time again. Once we were allowed to travel, we took a 6am drive to Ubud and straight to Tirta Empul for the day of forgiveness. Forgiveness of self, forgiveness of others and a fresh start for the new year. At that time we didn’t know anything about the fountains, the legend or the reason people queued in long snaking lines at each spout.
The morning light, the calm atmosphere, wafting incense smoke and the cold water were just enchanting. We didn’t participate, we had no idea how, we sat with our legs in the pools at the quiet end (cremation end) and simply enjoyed.
If you are on our Bali by Bike tour you will love this day. It really is special no matter how religious or spiritual you are (or aren’t). Even if you just go for the cold water. The springs well up directly from underground and are crystal clear and cold. Unlike Bali swimming pools and oceans that are constantly warm, getting cold water from thighs down is heaven on your legs and will really assist with easing cramping and stiffness ahead of the final day climb to the summit of Mt Kintamani!