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Eastern Eden: the gardens of Karangasem

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Bama was convinced. After five visits to Bali, he had just found his favourite place on the island. At a quarter to eight we were among a small handful of visitors in the grounds of Taman Sukasada Ujung, a water palace and pleasure garden once built for the local king.

Beyond the trees and manicured lawns we laid eyes on the sumptuous bale kambang, a ‘floating pavilion’ perched in the middle of a man-made pool. Here the morning light cast fluid, dappled shadows as it bounced off the water and flickered in the eaves.

Ujung is the Indonesian word for ‘end’ or ‘extremity’, and the water palace shares its name with an adjacent black sand beach, which lies just down the coast from Bali’s easternmost tip. Today ujung is not only descriptive of a geographic location; in its solitude the palace grounds are far removed from the madness and traffic jams of Kuta.

Although the oldest pool dates from 1901, the foundations of Taman Ujung were laid in 1919 during the reign of I Gusti Bagus Jelantik, better known by his noble title Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut Karangasem. The monarch enlisted the services of one Dutch and one Chinese architect, alongside an undagi, a traditional Balinese designer and architect whose role was held to be sacred. It was the undagi who was believed to have taksu, or divine inspiration, ensuring that Taman Ujung would adhere to the principles of Tri Hita Karana – harmony between humans, God and the environment.

And so the royal retreat took on a distinct fusion of European and Balinese styles. Inside the austere rooms of the bale kambang, we discovered old family photos, a traditional altar and several items of European furniture painted in white and gold.

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Taman Ujung’s main ‘bale kambang’ (floating pavilion)

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Inside out

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A blend of Balinese and European styles

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Bridge from the ‘bale kambang’

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Reconstructed finery

But the glory of Karangasem’s garden palace was short-lived. In World War II the occupying Japanese dismantled its iron bars to create weapons. After Indonesia’s independence Taman Ujung was brought to its knees by the 1963 eruption of nearby Mount Agung, which rained showers of hot ash on the complex. What was not destroyed by the volcano was leveled in a powerful earthquake that struck eastern Bali in 1979.

For several decades the descendants of the royal family struggled to raise money for its reconstruction, until the World Bank and the Indonesian government stepped in. Taman Ujung was faithfully rebuilt over a period of four years, finally reopening to the public in 2004.

Although the restoration is more or less complete, part of Taman Ujung’s appeal lies in the fact that much is still left to the imagination. Up the slope from the bale kambang stands a roofless stone pavilion, left in its original ruined state. Looking out over the palace grounds, it’s not hard to envision how it all was in its heyday. The laughter of royal children playing hide-and-seek among the trees, a ring of lanterns decorating each of the three pools, and the sound of a gamelan orchestra emanating from a secluded pavilion as the eroded ridge of Mount Lempuyang rose into dusky violet skies… in the east, the darkening sky over an endless sea, and to the northwest, as ever, the mighty presence of Agung.

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Morning on the edge of Bali

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The unrestored ‘bale kapal’, for watching ships coming to shore

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Ruined reflections

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A view of Taman Ujung, with Mount Lempuyang in the distance

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A wooden ‘bale’ amid the trees

On the volcano’s southeastern slopes, less than nine kilometres from Taman Ujung, the same king built another set of gardens around a spring beneath a majestic banyan tree. The spring was venerated for its medicinal properties – it was believed that bathing in these waters on the full moon would cure sickness and grant the bather lasting youth. For this reason the monarch named the holy spring Tirta Gangga, or ‘Blessed Water of the Ganges’.

Inspired by a tour of Versailles, construction of the water palace began in 1937, but was soon interrupted by war and only finished in 1948. 15 years later the water palace was almost completely destroyed by the same eruption that ravaged its counterpart at Taman Ujung. But a series of restorations have since recovered much of its former glory.

The lush gardens are dominated by the eleven-tiered Nawa Sanga fountain, 10 metres high and shaped like a lotus, its spray breaking into thousands of iridescent beads as the sun’s rays pierced the clear morning sky. We were drawn to the Mahabharata pond, decorated with a grid of guardians from the great Hindu epic, each one holding a cudgel to symbolise the struggle of men between Gods and demons. Bama and I ambled along the stepping stones threading between the statues, as golden carp darted in the shallow waters beneath our feet.

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Mount Agung, Bali’s slumbering giant

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A sculptural fountain in the form of Garuda, a mythical bird

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The Mahabharata pond at Tirta Gangga

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Frozen in time at the Nawa Sanga fountain

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Dancing water

Despite its French inspiration, Tirta Gangga is a classic expression of Balinese Hinduism with a highly symbolic layout. The gardens are divided into three levels according to the concept of Triloka, which orders the cosmos into Swah, the upper world of Gods; Bwah, the middle world of men; and Bhur, the lower world of demons. Sculptures in each section correspond to their status within the cosmos, while the forces of good and evil – represented by Barong and Rangda – are placed at opposite ends of the main fish ponds.

The water palace was not only a recreational space for royalty, but it served a religious function, supplying holy water for ceremonies, and its spring was also a source of drinking water for the local populace. Meanwhile the royal ponds were used as reservoirs to irrigate the surrounding rice paddies. Two of its pools are now open for public bathing; even today, Tirta Gangga is a wonderful example of Tri Hita Karana in action.

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Bridge of dragons (known as ‘naga’)

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An island in the lower level, or ‘Bhur’

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The towering Nawa Sanga

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Fountains of plenty

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Tirta Gangga, a highland retreat

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lovely photos James. What a beautiful places. I never heard of them when we were in Bali – I think we’d better go back 🙂

    May 31, 2014
    • You and Don would love them, Alison! I remember you went snorkelling near Padang Bai – both these gardens are in the same area, just further up the coast. We based ourselves out of Candidasa for two nights, which was a good choice as it cut down the driving times to either one. 🙂

      May 31, 2014
  2. What an amazing place, magical! And great photos, thanks!

    May 31, 2014
    • You’re welcome! And magical is right, it’s just the kind of place wedding photographers would love!

      May 31, 2014
  3. It is indeed my favorite place in Bali, and I should thank Bli Komang who came about 45 minutes before he was supposed to arrive that morning so we could visit Taman Ujung much earlier than other visitors did. Taman Ujung must feel like a dream palace back then; the view of ships passing through the Lombok Strait with Mount Agung and Mount Lempuyang right at the backyard, the king surely knew how to pick a perfect setting to build a palace. Beautiful captures of the two places, James! You do have sharp eyes when it comes to shadow play, and that photo of the silhouetted Nawa Sanga is a perfect example of it.

    May 31, 2014
    • Yes, it is remarkable that we toured both Taman Ujung and Tirta Gangga before breakfast! Just goes to show how much you can get done if you’re willing to wake up earlier than usual. I would love to see Taman Ujung at sunset, it must be magical when night falls!

      Thank you Bama, guess we each have our own specialties when it comes to photos – you paid much more attention to the sculptures at Tirta Gangga. 🙂

      May 31, 2014
  4. What a beautiful place !

    May 31, 2014
    • Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe it!

      May 31, 2014
  5. Ah, I can see why Taman Ujung is Bama’s favourite place. It looks magical. Such an aesthetic blending of Eastern and European elements! I am so glad I have yet to visit Bali. Now i can go armed with your fabulous reports 🙂

    May 31, 2014
    • We could have stayed there for another hour or so, on the way out we spied another pool with a floating pavilion that we didn’t reach – and a missed photo opportunity with the volcano in the background! It’s only a matter of time before you get there, Madhu… I’m sure you would love Bali as much as I did! 🙂

      May 31, 2014
  6. not only is your description of the place superb, but it makes me eager to pack my bags and head to Bali… and like Madhu said, now i can go to places, keeping in mind, your reviews.
    And also, your photos are FABULOUS! Im a bit of a photography enthusiast myself, so i would love to get some tips from you 🙂
    also, i would like to invite you to read my blog, Taking flight, and request you to leave some suggestions there..
    cheers! 🙂

    May 31, 2014
    • Thank you for the kind words, Advaita. I think photography is one of those things that just takes a lot of practice. 🙂 The first thing is to get familiar with your camera and its capabilities, and the second is simply to go out and shoot!

      Another aspect you will want to think about is how you will frame your photo. What are you choosing to focus on? And what do you want to stand out? Remember that photography is the art of capturing light, and the best time to do it is in the early morning and late afternoon (or ‘golden hour’), when the sun’s rays are low and the light not as harsh. Hope that helps!

      May 31, 2014
      • hey thanks! that does help….will try, thanks! 🙂

        May 31, 2014
  7. Magic! You know gardens are among my favourite places, James, and here we have it all – fountains, mountains, the tinkling of water, wide expanses of manicured tropical abundance, and those romantic ruins … everything to set the imagination on fire! 🙂

    May 31, 2014
    • Absolutely, Meredith! Even on such a photogenic island these two gardens were a stand-out… I honestly wonder how the king managed to do any of his administrative duties! Now that you are in Queensland, Bali may be beckoning for your return. 🙂

      May 31, 2014
  8. Oh my goodness I like to pick a favorite photo or two but they are all incredible. The fountain and bridge shots are awesome and the reflections in the completely still water are breathtaking.

    May 31, 2014
    • Thanks Sue. We couldn’t have asked for better weather conditions… everything just looked so gorgeous in the early morning sun. Definitely two places to visit when you find yourself in Bali!

      May 31, 2014
  9. Reblogged this on justclick.

    June 1, 2014
  10. Reblogged this on erhanca and commented:
    Güzel bir görüntü

    June 1, 2014
  11. Beautiful pictures!

    June 2, 2014
    • Thank you! The weather was very much on our side. 🙂

      June 5, 2014
  12. Reblogged this on Just Go Places and commented:
    Beautiful photos of a water garden palace in Bali

    June 2, 2014
  13. Lovely secluded spot in Bali. The weather looked perfect too.

    June 4, 2014
    • It was incredible, Jean – and a definite stop on cycling tours around that part of Bali.

      June 5, 2014
  14. siddharthajoshi #

    This place is magically beautiful James…love every bit bit of it!

    June 4, 2014
    • The water palaces were even better in person, Siddhartha! The sound of bubbling fountains was just so soothing.

      June 5, 2014
  15. Beautiful photos – and you do a really nice job of describing the history. I can tell you put a lot of time/work into your posts! I’m going to follow you so I can have ideas for when I make my way to Asia 🙂

    July 8, 2014
    • Thanks for the kind words. 🙂 Southeast Asia is an extraordinary part of the world – I try to go as often as I can.

      July 9, 2014

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