Between the Petanu and Pakersian Rivers – Part 2: Bali

In the northern region, just east of Tampaksaring, is the source of the holy river Pakersian. It is in this region you will find some of the earliest traces of Hinduism on Bali.

The religion of Bali is sometimes called ‘Agama Tirta’ or the religion of holy water. The focal point of the Balinese religion can be found in this region, and many pilgrimages are made to this area during the year.


Tirta Empul: A spring, the most famous in Bali, gushes from an area in the ground which is encased by a wall inside the sanctuary. The water at Tirta Empul is considered to be the holiest on the island, and to possess ‘miracle’ healing powers. During the festival of Galungan, dance groups from all over the island come here to have their Barong masks purified with the holy water by a priest who is the only one allowed to obtain the water from the spring. A large complex and one on the ‘tourist track’, it is advised you arrive well before midday. In the early morning light, the complex has a magical and mysterious atmosphere.

History: Archaeologists have dated the founding of the site around 964 AD when two ponds were found. In a small village, Manukaya, just north of Tirta Empul an inscription was found which after being translated verified the founding of this sacred site. An archaeologist, Sutterheim, did not complete the deciphering of the inscription until 1969. The inscriptions detailed the ritual cleansing of a holy stone that for more than 1,000 years was taken to the spring for purification on the exact day of each year of the founding of Tirta Empul. The complex was completely restored in 1969.

Layout: This large temple complex is divided into three main courtyards. There is a front and middle sections as well as an inner sanctum. Two rectangular bathing pools, one for men and the other for women, back onto the outer courtyard. Spring water gushes from a line of fifteen spouts, and according to traditions, each spout has its own function. These include a spout which cleanses evil, another a poison antidote 4and yet another for spiritual cleansing and so on. At the rear of the complex is the source of the sacred water.

Directly inside the complex there are three public bathing pools. On the right hand side in the middle of the complex is the ‘holy garden’, and further towards the rear are several pavilions and bale’s each with their own function within the temple complex. A linga and a yoni are housed in a small pavilion opposite the garden.

The Legend: At one time demon set himself up as a god. He refused to let the people conduct their religious rites and this resulted in the air above Bali becoming so dirty that the true gods could not peer through it.

Eventually Indra and numerous other deities were ordered to clean the air, and upon seeing Indra and the deities, the demon fled to Tampaksaring where he poisoned the river. When the deities drank the water, they died. Indra was furious and shot an arrow into the ground to create a source of fresh and clean water. He used the water to bring his companions back to life. The spring became known as Tirta Empul.

Nearby Antiquities: Surrounded by large mossy trees Pura Gumang is an early Shivaite temple. This is located to the north near the village of Panembahan. Inside the temple you will find a huge Linga, a statue of Shiva’s bull Nandi, and several mythical Hindu-Javanese sea monsters.

Another sacred spring can be found under a large tree south of Tirta Empul at Pura Mancingan. A free standing Candi is located there. There are striking resemblances to the candi at Gunung Kawi. It is said the old Pura could have been dedicated to King Udayana.

Gunung Kawi: A breathtaking and awe-inspiring site located two kilometres south of Tampaksaring. Gunung Kawi is two rows of ancient royal tombs on the banks of the Pakerisan River deep in a ravine overlooked by terraced rice-fields. A long, steep stone stairway leads down to this ancient site.

The holy Pakersian River flows through the centre of Gunung Kawi cutting the site into two separate sections with a bridge to connect one side to the other. It is believed the holy waters of the Pakerisan sanctify Gunung Kawi, and the eerie beauty of the place is evokes a peaceful atmosphere. There is parity with the tomb of Artaxerxes II at Persipolis and the Ellora Caves in India with Gunung Kawi.

History: Inscriptions over each Candi approximate the date of construction to be in the 11th C. Gunung Kawi was discovered by H.T. Damste in 1921 although the actual Balinese knew of it well before then. It is believed that each temple served as a memorial to a deified royalty principally because they are shaped like the burial towers, or Candi’s, found throughout Central Java.

There is however a difference in the Candi in Bali to that of Java. In Java they are free standing whilst those found at Gunung Kawi are actually hewn reliefs in solid rock. Several theories prevail.

The most probable being that the main group of five candi were built for King Udayana, his queen Gunapriya, a elder son and the youngest, Anak Wungsu. Anak Wungsu is believed to have become a hermit after giving up his reign over the kingdom (1050-1077 AD). However, another theory states the whole complex is in fact a mausoleum for Anak Wungsu, his wives and favourite concubines.

Layout: In total there are ten Candi. On the east side of the river are situated five candi which constitute the main group in this complex. The candi are to the left-hand side when you descend the stairway. Across the bridge are four candi on the west side. The remaining candi at the southern end is often referred to as the ‘tenth tomb’.

It’s interesting to note that across the ravine from the stairway is located a hermitage which has long since been abandoned. At the bottom of the stairway and to your right-hand side through a small field (about one kilometre) is where the tenth tomb is located. It is regarded as a ‘priest’s house’, or gria pendana. It is believed to be the candi of a high caste official and possibly that of Anak Wungsu’s Prime Minister, Rakryan.

There is a Bhuddist monastery at the rear of the complex as you cross the bridge. There are cells hewn out of the rock around a stone pavilion within a courtyard. It is believed the monks that lived here were most probably the caretakers of Gunung Kawi. To the east of this main group of cloisters, there can be found a smaller and second group of cells and thought to be used for sleeping and partaking in meals.

The Legend: It is believed that the mythical giant Kebo Iwo carved out all of the ancient tombs in one night with his fingernails.