Legend has it that in 1546 a roving priest by the name of Danghyang Nirartha arrived in Bali from neighbouring Java.
Obviously ferry-adverse, it is said he crossed the water between the two islands on the leaf of a keluwih tree and landed near Negara.
From Negara he travelled over much of Bali, having temples and shrines built along the way. In the case of Tanah Lot, he spied the small rock island just off the coast, set up camp there and, after local fisherfolk brought him gifts, he suggested they build a shrine on the island — that'll teach them to give gifts to strangers!
A Hindu temple, Tanah Lot is one of the seven sea temples on Bali. All seven of these have been credited to Nirartha, and running west to east are:
Pura Pulaki (near Pemuteran), Pura Gede Perancak and Pura Rambut Siwi (both near Negara, the former being Nirartha's first effort upon arrival), Tanah Lot, Pura Luhur Uluwatu on the Bukit, Pura Mas Suka on the southernmost tip of the Bukit (near Green Bowl surfpoint) and Pura Sakenan at Serengan island between Benoa and Sanur.
To the casual visitor, what makes Tanah Lot impressive is the temple's location rather than the temple itself, and the hordes of tourists and the gauntlet of shops are a serious detraction from what should be a well worthwhile destination.
Our advice, should you decide to visit here, is to do so in the morning. While the temple won't be as photogenic as in the afternoon, the crowds are such an issue we think it is a worthwhile price to pay to enjoy a less crowded site.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.