If you’re Balinese and it’s your birthday, chances are you’ll be heading to Tirta Empul Holy Springs for a ritual purification. The baths here are Bali’s oldest and most sacred, and pilgrims flock from all over Bali for the magical curative and spiritually cleansing waters.
The Springs are the source of the Pakrisan River, which flows south passing the neighbouring antiquity of Gunung Kawi, and the surrounding temple complex here was built in the Saka (Balinese calendar) year 882 (around 960 AD) during the Warmadewa Dynasty.
Legend tells that the springs were created by the God Indra who thrust his staff into the ground to tap amerta (the elixir of life) to reincarnate his troops poisoned by the demon King Mayadanawa. The battles between Indra and Mayadanawa are the origins of many place names in Bali, Tampaksiring (the village in which both Tirta Empul and Gunung Kawi are located) translates to “oblique impression” and illustrates an episode when fleeing Mayadanawa left his footprints upon the hill.
The final battle between the two (good wins), is commemorated by the Balinese festivals of Galungan and Kuningan, and during this time the springs are particularly packed with the faithful. Along with Gunung Kawi and Taman Ayun Temple at Mengwi, Tirta Empul is integral in Bali’s subak irrigation system, granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2012.
The main attraction here is the spring-fed bathing pools whose spouts are piled high with small fragrant offerings, each waterspout having its own ritual function written in Balinese. Snaking queues of sarong-clad worshipers first pray on a raised platform in front of a small altar, then climb into the crystal clear waist-deep water. Starting with the left waterspout they dip their heads and pray, moving along to the next spout continuing the process until they have been cleansed under each in the two adjoining pools. Many collect the holy water to take home.
Visitors can join the thongs too. Bring your own sarong and sash as the one provided with your entrance tickets are not permitted to get wet (although you can rent an additional one for this purpose for 10,000 rupiah near the lockers). This is not the place for bikinis or skimpy tops.
Change rooms are available and lockers are provided for a small fee (10,000 rupiah). Many wear their sandals into the water, but if you take them off don’t place them anywhere considered sacred, as it will bring gasps from the locals. Enjoy the serene and joyous atmosphere as folk patiently await their turn.
Behind the bathing pools, the source of the spring bubbles from the depths though clouds of black volcanic sand, fringed with aquatic mosses and plants and dotted with colourful umbrellas reflecting in the pool, all enclosed within a brick temple wall. Nearby is the inner courtyard of the main temple (you can’t wear wet sarongs in this area, so change first).
Some sections are off limits to tourists, but if you go with a local to pray you are welcome. Priests are on hand to sprinkle holy water and assist with sending messages to the intended. As you enter the temple gates here, take a look behind the screening wall (aling-aling) and you will see three ancient cloth wrapped artefacts, a yoni-lingga flaked by Nadi and a statue that we were told represents Ganesh, but it is so worn looks little more than a lump of rock. Overlooking the entire complex is a rather incongruous looking modern building on a green grassy hill, this is Istana Tampaksiring, once Soekarno’s residential palace.
Several other pools pepper the complex including a large koi-filled pond. A restaurant overlooking this pool offers a pleasant stop for a cuppa.
Tirta Empul is well signposted from the main road to Mount Batur, about 40 minutes drive from central Ubud. Be sure to visit nearby Gunung Kawi too. Tirta Empul is extremely popular with Balinese and tourists alike, if you intend to partake in a ritual dip, be prepared to wait, sometimes hours, or if you’d just like a quick look half an hour is sufficient.
By Sally Arnold.
Last updated on 29th January, 2017.
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