Bali is about six hour’s direct flight from Sydney and Melbourne, making it one of the closest places to Australia in Asia. It is also a relatively small island, blessed with wonderful weather, miles of beaches, and a uniquely welcoming and friendly culture. Plus it is a very inexpensive place to holiday in.
Thus for the past forty years Bali has been a preferred destination for Aussie backpackers chasing cheap days on a beach and even cheaper nights in a rowdy bar. More latterly a mass-market crowd has joined them at the Bali party, to tan in the sun, drink cocktails at the pool, and get massaged in the spa. And even more latterly ultra-high-end tourists have arrived too, filling up super-deluxe hotels that provide every imaginable creature comfort in a “culturally sensitive” way. Even if the price of a single night’s stay can be more than an average Balinese worker will earn in a year.
The impact of this tourist invasion has been entirely predictable. Resorts blanket most of Bali’s popular beach-fronts. Countless mid-range hotels, backpacker hostels and private rental villas fill in every square inch of land behind. Main tourist thoroughfares have become traffic-choked nightmares, lined with oceans of souvenir stores, boutiques, restaurants and cafes. Walking down one of these jalans is akin to navigating an obstacle course, as you dodge not only vehicles but an army of touts, taxi-drivers, and vendors offering to sell you everything from sunglasses to hair braids to elephant rides.
Although don’t get me wrong: it still makes for a really excellent holiday. Bali’s recipe of sun, sand, and affordable tourist amenities is unbeatable. So like many other Aussies I have returned there again and again.
Starting with my first visit while in university, where I stayed in a $6-a-night backpacker hostel and lived for a week on little more than sunshine and fried noodles. And since then trying everything else Bali has to offer: from small family-run pensions to mid-range beach resorts; from 5-star hotels to private rental villas to a “hotel” consisting of tents in a jungle. And even once voluntarily cocooning myself in the all-you-can-eat environment of Bali’s Club-Med (I still can’t believe I did this).
All up I have made 12 visits to Bali over the course of two decades. Every one of which has been wonderful.
Yet these have always been a bit like taking a holiday in a bubble. The fact that Bali is more than just a vacation paradise, but also home to 3.5 million Balinese, seems to have largely passed me by. Like most tourists I have taken in the occasional snippet of local culture: a kecak dance performance, a puppet show, a temple tour. But I have never made any genuine attempt to connect with the place of beauty and spirituality made so famous recently in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love (and the film adaptation).
So this time round, on my 13th visit, I was determined to step outside of the holiday playground I have come to know. I wanted to do something that would bring me into contact with “the real Bali”, even if just for a day.
And really, what better way to do that than by going for a bath?
Bali is a bit of an anomaly. It is an island with a largely Hindu population, smack-bang in the middle of Indonesia, an otherwise entirely Muslim country. And it is a place that although overrun with tourists, and thus more exposed to Western modernity than almost anywhere else in Asia, has an ancient culture that still dominates every aspect of life.
The signs of this are everywhere. Bali is blanketed in temples, big and small. Almost every doorway is guarded by a stone carving of a deity, wrapped in yellow fabric and adorned with garlands of marigold. Every pavement is littered with small woven offering baskets, filled to overflowing with colorful flowers and rice and smoldering incense sticks. Even the trunks of many trees are cloaked in distinctive black-and-white gingham check, supposedly to announce the presence of a resident spirit.
More than this, the Balinese are a deeply traditional and devout people. For the majority of locals, daily life incorporates traditions and rituals that are hundreds of years old. Making offerings and visiting temples are things that everyone does, often. Mystic healers and fortune-tellers continue to command great respect. Sarongs and local garb are as prevalent as jeans and t-shirts, even among young people. Most Balinese identify strongly with their home village, and return there periodically to celebrate festivals and other important dates on the religious calendar. And from time to time, almost every Balinese will take a ritually purifying dunk in a body of sacred water.
One of the most well-known of these is at Tirta Empul, a temple in central Bali dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. For over 1,000 years people have been making the long trek into the mountains of central Bali to visit the temple’s natural spring. Here clean, cold water comes bubbling up to the surface through black volcanic sand, and is believed to have the power to cleanse and “rebirth” all those who bathe in it.
It’s an especially popular place to visit around the time of milestone life-cycle events, like births, deaths, marriages, etc. So I thought it’d be just the place for Kate and me to mark our mutual birthdays, which we celebrated together in Bali (they’re three days apart).
On arrival at the temple, we donned sarongs and yellow sashes, in accordance with local customs. A traditional Balinese prayer hat, worn only by men, was placed on my head. We were lead into the Jaba Pura (front yard) of the temple, where we were invited to sit on the cobbled stones: me cross-legged in the manner customary of men; Kate kneeling in the manner customary of women.
An offering basket was placed on the stones in front of me. As instructed I pressed my palms together, raised my hands in front of my forehead, closed my eyes, and set a mental intention for the visit. I then repeated this three more times, each time holding a different flower between my hands. On completing the offerings I placed one flower behind each ear, with the final flower going on top of my head.
We were then led into the temple’s Jaba Tengah (central yard), which consists of two rectangular pools of dark water. Both pools are filled with koi fish, and are fed constantly by “showers” – ornamental spouts of water that pour directly into the pools from the holy spring: 23 into the first pool, and 7 into the second. In front of the showers are panels of stone, and standing guard at the end of each pool are huge elephants and serpents carved from massive blocks of black stone.
I took off my shirt and sandals, and wearing only swim-shorts and a sarong I joined the queue of people waiting to enter the first of the pools. After a few minutes of shuffling forwards my turn arrived, and I slowly lowered my body into the waist-deep, and seriously cold, water.
It was time for the main event.
Let me start by describing the basic process.
Beginning at the far left of the left pool, I approached the first shower of cascading water. Once in front of it I took three sips of the water from my cupped hands (“take small sips,” our helpful guide had explained, “otherwise you will be drinking a lot of water by the end!”).
Next, I reached into the pouring stream three more times, scooping water into my hands and throwing it over me so as to symbolically wash away whatever might need washing away.
Then I lowered my whole body into the pool, up to my neck. Placing my hands on the stone wall in front of the shower I moved right under it, so that the water was pounding onto the top of my head. I stayed like this, motionless, for about twenty seconds, breathing hard as the water coursed down my face.
Finally, on completing the “dip” I’d step back in the water, stand up tall before the shower, press my palms together in front of my forehead, close my eyes, and say a prayer.
After which I’d move on to join the queue waiting patiently in the water in front of the next shower. There I’d repeat the process again; and then again at the next.
In this way I slowly moved down the length of both pools, until I’d had my turn at each individual shower: methodically sipping, washing, dunking, praying.
Some of the showers, so our helpful guide had explained, were good for very specific prayers – like asking for luck in business, or seeking guidance on initiating a difficult communication. And three of the showers we were told to specifically avoid, as they are only meant to be used by people grieving a death. But other than that it was up to me, so as I paused at each shower I cleansed and then said whatever prayer popped into my head. All the while surrounded by a throng of mainly Balinese, as well as a few other like-minded tourists, who were doing exactly the same.
Once done in the pool we replaced our soaked sarongs with dry ones before making our way into the temple’s inner courtyard (the Jeroan). Here once again we sat on the stone floor, and once again made a flower offering.
Only this time a priest of the temple, an elderly Balinese man dressed in all white, watched over us. He came to where we were sitting and proceeded to spritz holy water onto us: three times on our upturned palms, three times into our cupped hands for us to sip, and three times over our heads. Then to finish he held out a handful of raw wet rice. He indicated for me to press some onto my throat, some onto my forehead, some onto the crown of my head, and lastly he said I should eat a few of the grains.
And that was it. We were done. From beginning to end, the whole ritual took about an hour and a half. Not bad really, when you consider that in the process we had supposedly been cleansed of our worldly concerns, purified, and then “reborn”.
So what was it like?
Well, a metaphysical rebirth at a Hindu holy spring would not ordinarily be my cup of tea. I have visited a lot of temples on my travels, but I’ve never done anything as participative as this before. So I was pretty hesitant, and more than a touch skeptical.
I also felt quite self-conscious, sitting on the floor making prayer motions with flowers pressed between my hands. And there were no earth-shattering epiphanies to be had, nor any moments of lucid clarity where everything in life suddenly made sense. On leaving the temple that day all the trials and tribulations of my regular existence were still there, just as they had been before.
Even so, it was a unique and memorable experience, in many unexpected ways.
Starting with the water itself. When I first got into the pool it had felt really cold, despite the air temperature being a sweltering 33 degrees. Yet by the time I reached the 5th shower it felt really warm. Perhaps it was just basic biology at play, but I could swear the water heated up the longer I stayed in it, and the stone wall in front of the showers became hot to the touch. By the end it was like being in a bathtub. So what was initially cold and uncomfortable eventually became the exact opposite: warm and comforting.
Which, I guess, is a pretty accurate description of how I felt about the ritual as a whole. Despite initial misgivings and discomfort it grew on me as I progressed through it, and by the end it felt warm and comfortable, and had an incredibly peaceful, calming effect.
As I moved down the line of showers the sounds of talking people and birds chirping and cars beeping in the distance slowly melted away, into nothingness. I slowly stopped noticing the crowds around me. After a while it was as if I was there on my own, with nothing but the noise of the pounding water to keep me company. For the first time in a very long time I felt myself to be fully present in the moment.
More than that, against all expectation I found myself doing something I seldom do: praying. The methodical repetitive process got to me, and whilst at first I was just going through the motions, by the end I couldn’t help myself, and offered up my prayers with genuine, heartfelt intent.
As the morning progressed everything seemed to become slower and more meaningful, and despite myself I became deeply contemplative. By the time the priest pressed a few grains of rice into my hand, I was in a totally different place to where I had started. My skin felt tingly and pink, and I felt thoroughly clean – not just on the outside, but on the inside too. I also felt a touch light-headed, and for the rest of that day there was an unmistakable bounce in my step.
Mostly though, I left the temple that day with an inner feeling that is hard to describe: a sense of stillness that I don’t recall having had before. No matter how much my hyper-logical and hyper-controlling brain hates the idea, I can’t deny that I definitely felt different – both physically and mentally – as a result of dunking myself into a pool of water at a Balinese Hindu temple. Go figure.
My visit to Tirta Empul was a travel experience I won’t soon forget. Even though by the next day the calmness had faded, and the stillness had been drowned out by the endless hustle and bustle of tourist Bali, there was something very “real” about what I felt at the temple. A feeling which was, dare I say it, almost spiritual. Even if it was only for a brief moment in time, and even if I will never fully understand it.
One thing I know for sure though: I finally got to connect with more than Bali’s beaches and cocktails, so it will never be the same place for me again. And if that is all that my birthday dip in a holy spring achieved, then it was worth every moment.