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Pura Tirta Empul: the sacred spring

Taking a dip, Pura Tirta Empul

Beneath the crystal clear surface, black clouds sprang from the depths, continuously spreading in small plumes over a sandy bed. The spring bubbled into a rectangular pool enclosed in walls of black volcanic stone, its perimeter fringed with tufts of aquatic moss.

Pura Tirta Empul, ‘the temple of water gushing from the earth’, is over a thousand years old. Built in 926 AD around a sacred spring, the compound is a celebration of the life-giving element and one of Bali’s holiest sites. For centuries the faithful have congregated here from across the island, coming every 15 days for a tradition that is part ritual and part social affair.

Outside the inner sanctuary, the spring fed twin bathing pools whose spouts were piled high with fragrant offerings of canang sari. On a raised stone platform four young men – presumably students – sat cross-legged in prayer, clasping a single petal between their fingers. In a nod to its mythical origins, the waters of Tirta Empul are believed to grant spiritual blessing and cure disease.

Long ago there lived Mayadenawa, a king with great spiritual powers who was something of a shapeshifter. He had the ability to transform himself into anything he pleased, and although Mayadenawa started off as a reasonable ruler, the power inevitably went to his head.

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An entrance to Tampaksiring Palace

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Balinese script

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Splashing out

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All smiles

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Ritual immersion

To stop the Balinese from worshipping their gods, he destroyed all the island’s temples, leading to crop failures, food shortages and an outbreak of plague. Mpu Kulputih, a powerful holy man, prayed for guidance at Besakih – which remains the ‘mother temple’ of Bali – and received a revelation from the earth god that help could be found in faraway India.

It is not know whether Mpu Kulputih himself went to India, but soon an army came down from the celestial realms, led by the god Indra. Although bitter fighting broke out, Mayadenawa’s troops realised the futility of the war and fled, leaving only the king and his assistant to fend for themselves. As night fell and all fighting ceased, Mayadenawa crept into his enemy’s camp, walking on the sides of his feet to leave no trace of his presence. To this day the valley where he passed is called ‘Tampaksiring’, literally ‘without imprints’ in Balinese. Legend has it that the evil king created a pool of poisoned water and left as quietly as he came.

When Indra’s troops awakened, they drank from the pool and fell violently ill. To restore his soldiers to health, Indra pierced the ground and created Tirta Empul, a spring whose waters overflowed to form the sacred Pakerisan River.

With his army revived, Indra went on hot pursuit as Mayadenawa transformed himself into a large bird, a breadfruit, a young coconut leaf and then a goddess. Each stage gave its name to several Balinese villages: Manukaya from ‘manuk raya’ (great bird), Timbul from ‘buah timbul’ (breadfruit), Busung from ‘busung’ (young coconut leaf), and Kedewata from ‘dewata’ (goddess). For his final transformation the king turned into a rock, but Indra was not impressed and killed him with an arrow. Mayadenawa’s blood formed the Petanu River, which would be cursed for a thousand years. It is said that blood and a terrible stench would come out of any rice field that used its water for irrigation. Today the death of Mayadenawa is still remembered as Galungan, held every 210 days when the Balinese celebrate the victory of goodness over evil.

But what of the cursed river? As the years passed and the curse presumably lost its power, a new crop was found that promised to bring great wealth. Rather than worry about growing fermented red rice from the Petanu, several villas and hotels were built instead…

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Canang sari

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Bathing pool

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The sacred spring

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Oreos – a worldwide phenomenon

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Kneeling in prayer

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Offering baskets

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Fishing for scraps

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Feeding frenzy

32 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great photos and interesting rituals, thank you.

    January 13, 2014
    • You’re welcome – Bali is certainly full of mystery.

      January 13, 2014
  2. My second visit to Tirta Empul was definitely a lot better than the first as there were less people and we had Bli Komang, our trusted driver turned unexpected guide. 🙂 I’m glad he also showed us the spring. For me it was quite amazing to see that much water coming out from the earth while bringing up those dark materials (minerals I assume). Nice photos James, and you managed to capture some great moments there! But I particularly love the photo of canang sari and the water spouts for its magical and serene ambiance.

    January 13, 2014
    • Thank you, Bama! The weather was also on our side… I loved how the sun broke through the clouds at just the right moment, when we were out taking photos of the bathing pool. 🙂

      January 13, 2014
  3. How did we miss this? I think we need to go back to Bali. Beautiful post James.

    January 13, 2014
    • It seemed like the kind of place you and Don would love to immerse (couldn’t resist that, sorry!) yourselves in Balinese culture and spirituality. Of all the temples we visited on the trip, this one was my favourite.

      January 13, 2014
  4. Beautifully written…and the Oreos in the middle of it all. Some things are universal. 🙂

    January 13, 2014
    • Thank you, Sue. The Oreos surprised me too, it was so strange to see them in this ritual setting! 🙂

      January 13, 2014
  5. trose1189 #

    Enjoyed reading the mythology, and beautiful pictures!

    January 13, 2014
  6. When ever I see posts on Bali, I can’t stop comparing with the corresponding rituals, festivals and landscapes here is India/Kerala.

    There are so much similarities.

    Bali has almost there at the top of my list now.

    Thanks a lot for sharing these beautiful images.

    Have a nice day.

    January 13, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Sreejith. Compared to the rest of Indonesia, Bali has clearly retained a lot of its historic influences from India. I guess it goes without saying that you would feel right at home there!

      January 13, 2014
  7. lothlauraien #

    How stunning! I plan to get to Bali in 2014- this provided inspiration for sure. Thanks for sharing!

    January 13, 2014
    • It’s my pleasure – hope you do make it there this year!

      January 14, 2014
  8. Wow, beautiful pictures and so fascinating to read all about. Would love to visit one day

    January 13, 2014
    • I think you would adore Bali – so long as you avoid the tackiness of Kuta (think traffic jams, a dirty/crowded beach and Aussie partygoers gone wild), you’ll find heaps of Balinese culture and natural beauty all across the island.

      January 14, 2014
  9. James, saya suka Oreo. And you’ve captured that Oreo moment precisely! 🙂

    Btw, like your post as usual.

    January 14, 2014
    • Makasih, Badai. Saya suka Oreo juga, although I have yet to try many Indonesian treats like martabak manis! Bama tells me I must get to Jawa Barat at some point. 🙂

      January 14, 2014
      • Yes, you must visit Jawa Barat, and perhaps come over to Bogor. I can show you around 🙂

        January 14, 2014
  10. Going to bali in a werk, and this post helps a huge deal!! Thanks

    January 14, 2014
    • You’re welcome. Hope the weather’s on your side!

      January 14, 2014
  11. Love your blog. You’re inspiring me to travel in Asia and dive deeper into photography.

    January 15, 2014
    • Thanks Terri. Hopefully you’ll get to Bali soon enough – and read some great books about it too!

      January 17, 2014
  12. Great series!

    January 24, 2014
  13. I should take note of this (and make sure I include in my Bali schedule). 🙂

    February 1, 2014
    • Yes, it is a wonderfully spiritual place. I found the combination of flowing water and incense very soothing. 🙂

      February 2, 2014
  14. A stunning gallery James! The bathing pools and the meditation shots are particularly beautiful. And yes Oreos, like cell phones are universal 🙂

    February 14, 2014
    • I loved the bathing pools, Madhu – and watching the antics of some of the faithful was priceless – it was as much a joyful social occasion as a sacred ritual. 🙂 The Oreos were an unexpected match with the black stone of the temple…

      February 15, 2014
  15. We’ve just returned from Indonesia and we also visited Pura Tirta Empul. It really is magical. Great photos!

    May 6, 2014
    • Thanks! Pura Tirta Empul was my favourite temple in Bali, hands down.

      May 8, 2014

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