I followed Wayan, the temple sweeper, down a crooked path. “Come this way,” he said, “I will show you a waterfall and a hidden temple”. I followed him along the jungle path with mossy overhangs towering above me and steamy, misty, jungle rice fields that dropped away below. As I negotiated the slippery, narrow path, Wayan explained, “These rice fields are very old. They are now World Heritage listed and protected. Since the 9th century, farmers have been cultivating these rice terraces, using an irrigated rice cultivation method called subak. In our village we have royal inscriptions on rocks from the old Balinese kingdom that mention the subak system of sharing water for rice growing, so we know it is very old.”
The path led to a hidden waterfall and a row of meditation caves. There was an undeniable feeling of power, and I felt a strong mystic vibe as I entered the meditation cave area, which housed ancient relics and the grand temple itself, dating back to the 10th century.
I met a coconut seller at the crossroads of this little path, and he gave us a nod of approval. He would spot us on the way out. He seemed totally content, sitting there on his lovely viewing platform, which was an extension of the rice fields, keeping company with his pile of fresh young coconuts.
Wayan told me that in high season (July and August), there is up to 1,000 people a day visiting Gunung Kawi however, rarely do visitors take this small path to the hidden waterfall and mystic caves. “Many local students come to this special place,” Wayan explained, “They come to pray to the goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning,” he continued. “Tonight will be very busy because it is a full moon. Many people will come”.
Wayan, the temple sweeper has been sweeping for nine years at Gunung Kawi Temple and was full of information and very proud to show me the little shrines along the way and share his knowledge.
The path took us through the jungle to a series of open doorways, chiseled from the rock. The caves stood in a straight line, symbolically representing an open door. “A door to the other world,” Wayan said with a smile. One of the monuments contained a large shrine, which stands as a representation of King Anak Wungsu (1050 Ad).
Jungle overhangs guide you along the small pathway to the caves and candi (temple). Make sure to stop at the waterfall, which is hidden in the jungle off to the right, by the small bridge. You can bushwhack your way a short distance to reach the base of the falls, if you like. A delicate light spray douses everything in its path, including you and the surrounding fern beds. It is a very peaceful place to take a rest and contemplate nature under this very tall wall of water.
It is best to visit Gunung Kawi around 7.00am and avoid the crowds and throng of tourists that start arriving in buses around 10.00am. These tourists only have time to visit the main temple and do not get to see the little secret side trails.
The main temple is a chiseled grand masterpiece of 10 candis, set in the cliffs. A long staircase takes you from the main gate down to the Pakerisan River, cutting through a stunning jungle- clad, vine- hugging river gorge and as you descend this steep staircase, you feel that you are really entering into the Valley of the Kings.
The towering cliffs of Gunung Kawi is a magnificent sight to behold. These chiseled candi towers rise seven metres (23 feet) into the sky, and Wayan explained they represent the King’s sons. King Anak Wungsu reigned over central and east Bali from around 1050 Ad to about 1080Ad.
On the other side of the path, another series of candi stand majestically before you. It is believed they represent the king’s senior wives and are known as the “Queens’ Tombs”. The second sets of Candi are not technically tombs because they house no human remains. They are symbols only. The inscriptions have worn away with time, so it is not exactly known for sure, but it is speculated, that the senior queen and the lesser wives, would have committed suttee by leaping into a funeral pyre, hence the magnificent stone edifice built in their honour.
Very few people know that it is possible to walk from Gunung Kawi Temple to Tirta Empul Temple, another very significant ancient temple of the Tampaksiring region. It is only two kilometers but the walk takes 1-2 hours, and it’s only for the adventurous. It is not a groomed trail and you need a guide to traverse through the jungle and rice terraces. Wayan, very kindly offered to guide me and I jumped at the chance, and this turned out to be the highlight of my day.
To access the trail, you pass a series of stone market stalls etched into the rock. Wayan explained this was a bustling market a thousand years ago. In fact, market stalls lined the entire valley, following the holy Pakerisan River to the seat of regal power, Pejeng, which was once a kingdom.
The Walk from Gunung Kawi to Tirta Empul
I followed Wayan through the thick jungle and left the cool haven of the stone market stalls. It was a bit of a scramble up a steep hill (with no cut trail) to reach a high plateau, which opened out onto a wide expanse of rice fields. I was hot and sweaty and put my balancing skills to the test doing the tightrope act tiptoeing along raised ledges between the rice terraces, which are only a foot wide. The worst you can do is fall into the rice paddy, which I managed not to do on this occasion.
After a heave-ho and slugging up the steep bank, I perched myself on the edge of a rice terrace in a pool of sweat. Out of nowhere, a friendly rice farmer appeared, and promptly took his cue and shimmied up a nearby coconut tree and presented me with a fresh young coconut. With the ease of a dexterous machete-wielding all-rounder, he carved a perfect spout, and I drank straight from the coconut, no straw required.
In the distance, across the valley, Wayan pointed out a ceremony taking place. “See that long line of people dressed in white?” he said pointing across the river gorge, “They are carrying a body and later today there will be a cremation. This is a very special cremation because the man that died is a holy human.”
This made me curious, “You mean like a priest?” I asked. “No. He is a holy human and very special. Its a bit complicated to explain. Please come back later, you will be most welcome to attend. Our cremations are a joyous affair, not sad at all. We must give a good send-off to the spirit, and our cremations are celebrations, so the atmosphere will be very festive.”
The rest of the walk was easy, and we followed a skinny concrete subak irrigation path where we passed children splashing and cavorting in the stream. It seemed to be washing day, and I chatted with the local women as they chatted amongst themselves and beat clothes at the same time on the concrete slab, happily scrubbing away with a large stone.
Approaching Pura Tirta Empul, President Sukarno’s presidential palace came into view. Sitting on top of a perfectly manicured grassy hill this stately palace is the Bali residence of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. His birthplace and resting place is Blitar in Java. However, Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, and this palace was built in 1957. The palace sits high above the holy bathing pools of Tirta Empul and commands a fine view.
Tirta means holy water and Tirta Empul translates to ‘big spring’. It is one of the most sacred places in Bali. An inscription is dated 960 Ad at Pura Sakenan Temple in the nearby village of Manuk Aya, and mentions the bathing pools.
At Tirta Empul make sure you stop at the double (bathing) pool, which has been carved out of the rock around a well, and another long pool that is full of bright orange and white koi fish.
There is always a lot of activity at Tirta Empul, and every day hundreds of visitors come. Most arrive via the huge car park area, not by foot, as I did.
On a full moon, a constant stream of people come, day and night, to partake in a purification bathing ritual, a practice that has remained unchanged for over 1,000 years. The crowd includes many local pregnant women. It is important for local Balinese women during pregnancy to partake in the purification ritual, which they believe has great benefits for the mother and the baby. The water that pours from the fountains is considered pure, sacred water.
The pools are for public use and the local Balinese love to share this place with foreigners. “We Hindus are very flexible,” Wayan told me, “If you are Christian or Muslim or whatever religion, everyone is welcome to attend a bathing purification ritual at any Balinese temple. We are very happy to show you our prayer rituals, and there is no need to bring offerings, that is our job. When you join in, we just give you a nudge and show you what to do,” he said with a big beaming smile.
There are two pools for bathing, and all you need is a sarong and sash, which you can rent at the main gate if you need to. As you make your way to each of the 15 waterspouts, you will get an explanation of what each one represents and you must pay attention because one of the spouts you have to avoid and it has to do with the deceased. When you climb into the second pool another seven spouts greets you. These symbolically represent the seven chakras. Chakra is a Sanskrit word and means wheel or disk. In yoga, meditation and Ayurveda, it refers to the wheels of energy in the body.
As well as the pools there are two beautiful pavilions located in the inner court, which are dedicated to the God Indra. There are more than 20 small shrines with intricately carved wooden doors decorated with reliefs. One of these is devoted to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess, one to the Lord of Majapahit, and one to Mt Batur.
The driver was waiting for me at Tirta Empul car park with a puzzled look on his face. “In all my years of driving in Bali I have never heard of anyone walking from Gunung Kawi to Tirta Empul,” he said. “How did you find your way through the jungle?” to which I replied, “You just need to meet a man with a broom and semua bisa di atur, everything can be arranged.”
Stephanie Brookes is the author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, Cultural journeys of discovery. Her tales from Indonesia and beyond can be viewed on www.travelwriter.ws
David Metcalf is a masterclass photographer and co-author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage, Cultural journeys of discovery. David runs half-day photography tours in Bali, and 8 days photo tour workshops in Java, Borneo and beyond.
View David’s work on www. davidmetcalfphotography.com