One of my most memorable experiences in Bali was participating in a Hindu holy bathing ritual at Pura Tirta Empul. Bali is known as the Island of the Gods, and it’s definitely a very spiritual place. You can feel the energy in the air where there’s a bit of a magical charge in the atmosphere. So when I found a holy water purification ritual through Airbnb Experiences, I knew it would be a unique thing to do that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. Airbnb Experiences allows locals to share true real local experiences in small groups. It was my first time booking an Airbnb Experience, and it did not disappoint!
My guide, Sri, was incredibly friendly and bubbly. She was very cheerful and enthusiastic about sharing Balinese culture with us. I learned so much about the religious and spiritual side of Bali. Our main visit was to Pura Tirta Empul also known as the Temple of Holy Spring, where we would participate in this holy purification ritual. After Sri and our driver picked us up from Ubud, she explained the history and the legend of the temple during our drive to the temple.
The Legend of Pura Tirta Empul
Pura Tirta Empul is one of the largest and busiest water temples in Bali. The temple was built around 960 AD and is dedicated to Vishnu, one of the main Hindu gods. According to legend, there was a king who did not believe in Hinduism and the gods. So he denied his subjects the right to religious prayers and practices. This, of course, angered the gods especially Indra who sought to bring down this ruler. The king decided to fight the god’s troops by poisoning a spring. The troops drank from the spring and consequently died from the poison. Seeing this, Indra thrust his staff into the ground and created the holy purifying spring Tirta Empul. This magical spring then cured the troops and even brought them back to life! Witnessing the power that gods can have, the king changed his beliefs and allowed his subjects to practice Hinduism.
Now, this main water spring Tirta Empul is believed to be infused with magical curative powers from Indra for healing and spiritual well-being. Locals journey from all over Bali especially on holy days to purify themselves in the crystal clear pools of the sacred water, seeking blessing and protection to ward off evil. The holy water purification ritual is intended to clean any negative elements that exist in the human body. The Balinese people strongly believe that the ritual will also give them energy from the universe and bring spiritual wellness into their lives. The main purpose of the ritual is to receive inspiration for the mind and energy to go about their daily activities.
The Holy Water Purification Ritual
Before we began the holy water bathing ritual, we first meditated and then Sri said a prayer and blessing for us with a canang sari offering. Everywhere you go in Bali, you’re likely see these daily ceremonial offerings in front of shops, throughout hotels/villas/homes, on statues and altars, etc. These offerings are a daily Hindu Balinese ritual performed to ensure good health, happiness, and prosperity. Offerings in the morning are to the heavenly gods, and evening offerings are to the earthly gods. The offering trays are made out of woven banana leaf fronds and filled with symbolic items like flowers, incense, a coin or a small bill, a few grains of rice, and/or sweets. Each flower type and color also has a different symbolic meaning.
Sri then explained the process of what we were supposed to do. There were 3 pools with fountains, and each pool had fountains for different cleansing capabilities. The first pool was to cleanse the mind, the second for the soul, and the third to cleanse the body of illnesses. Within each pool, each fountain also had a significant meaning. For example, one of the fountains was for chasing away nightmares.
Starting from the left, at each water fountain, we would perform the purification ritual. Since this process can take some time, everyone is very patient and respectful as a queue forms for each fountain. There was no pressure to hurry. You could take your time to enjoy the experience and its full effects. Everyone was mindful of the time and space each person needed to perform the ritual.
- Start with saying a prayer, Sri encouraged us to say ‘Om’ 3 times or whatever else we felt comfortable with. ‘Om’ is a mystical syllable, considered to be the most sacred mantra in Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also thought to be the sound of the universe.
- Wash our face with water from the fountain spout 3 times.
- Bow our heads under the water spout 3 times and sweep water onto ourselves to make sure our hair gets wet.
- Gargle and spit out the water from the spout 3 times.
- Drink 3 sips of water. The water comes from a natural spring so it is safe to drink.
- Repeat at the next fountain until the last one Tirta Empul with a few exceptions.
In the first pool, there were 13 fountains total but we skipped the 11th and 12th ones. These two are used for cleansing after funeral and cremation ceremonies. In addition to Sri pointing them out, the fountain heads were different from the others so you could easily see out which ones to skip.
In the third pool, we only did the main holy fountain Tirta Empul which stems directly from the holy spring Tirta Empul itself. It is the most powerful and important one. Locals like to end the bathing ritual with this fountain. So in the last pool, they’ll do the other ones first again moving left to right before coming back to do this one last. We also saw lots of locals filling up plastic jugs, water bottles, or any container they had with water from Tirta Empul to bring home.
In each of the pools, there were live fish that you could see swimming around but I didn’t actually feel any while shuffling from fountain to fountain. Also the temple and pools are made from stone so you also had to be careful moving around since the stones were quite slippery from the moss and water.
Overall, the whole experience felt incredibly refreshing. When you put your head under the gushing water spout, it felt like putting your head under a giant running hose. It reminded me of water parks from childhood and getting dunked under water. The coldness of the water was a shock to the body and system, which lent itself to the soul cleansing feeling. I felt reborn with everything cleared away. I can now understand why Christian baptism involves the use of water.
After the whole bathing ritual ended, we meditated again to reflect on the experience we just had. Then, we went to an area of the temple that’s usually restricted to locals only. We were allowed to enter the inner courtyard of the temple to receive a prayer blessing from a holy man.
Getting Blessed from a Holy Man
We sat and kneeled while the holy man rang a bell and chanted. We presented each of our canang sari offerings with incense to the gods. While he chanted, Sri would walk us through what we needed to do. We would grab a few flowers and put them behind one ear, then the other ear, and then in our hair.
After the holy man finished chanting, he sprinkled holy water on our heads. Then he poured some holy water into our cupped hands, and we had to sip the water 3 times. Finally some grains of rice were given to us where we had to eat one, and then stick the rest on our forehead and chest. If the rice remained on your forehead for the rest of the day, it signaled that you had a clear mind and would have good fortune for the future. After doing this blessing ceremony, for the rest of my trip in Bali, I noticed when locals had rice stuck on their foreheads or flowers tucked behind their ears and knew they must have gone to the temple earlier that day.
It was a truly spiritual day! I learned so much about the Balinese religious culture that I wouldn’t have been able to learn elsewhere. Afterwards, we walked around the rest of the temple and saw the holy water spring Tirta Empul itself. It feeds into the purification pools and is the source of the Pakerisan River. You could see water bubbling from the spring and then flowing into the pools. As we exited the temple, we also passed by a very large koi pool. There were a lot of fat koi fish lazily swimming around the pond. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such large koi before!
Visiting a Local Balinese Healer
To wrap up our spiritual journey, we visited a local Balinese healer in his home at his family compound for a spiritual consultation. I expected him to be an elderly man with a grey beard but he actually turned out to be quite young. For the Balinese, not everyone can become a healer. You need to be born with a special gift and undergo a lot of training in order to become one.
We provided the healer with our birth dates and then had the opportunity to ask him for advice about careers, personal relationships, family or whatever else was on your mind. With our birth date, he consulted an astrological chart to determine what 2 elements formed the base foundation of your personality. Elements included water, earth, fire, air, space, fog, ice, volcano, and smoke. I was earth and fire. Based on our elements, he discussed our strengths, potential weaknesses, and how to overcome them. Afterwards, he also performed a palm reading and explained things like your life line, love line, and how many children you would have (3 for me apparently!). I learned a lot about myself that day and what an appropriate way to wrap up a very spiritual day!
How to Visit Pura Tirta Empul
If you book the Airbnb Experience I did, you’ll get picked up and dropped off from where you’re staying in Ubud. In addition to the temple and healer visits, the experience also included lunch and a stop at a tea and coffee plantation. There, you could sample many different types of herbal teas (mangosteen, lemongrass, ginger, etc.) and coffees including kopi luwak (luwak coffee or civet coffee – also known as cat poo coffee). Check out my post on must-try Indonesian foods and drinks to learn more about kopi luwak!
Otherwise, you can visit Pura Tirta Empul on your own. It is close to the town of Tampaksiring, roughly 30 minutes north of Ubud. You can reach it by car or motorbike. I recommend going earlier in the day for fewer people and crowds especially in the pools. We arrived around 8:30 am. When we finished the holy bathing ritual, there was already a long line of people for the first water fountain. Also check with locals if it’s a special religious holy day or a full or new moon which means the temple would also be even more crowded than usual.
Note that women are not allowed to enter the temple during menstruation, which is a common restriction for most of the temples in Bali.
In order to enter the temple, you will also need to wear a sarong. This is common at most temples in Bali. Sri provided sarongs for us to use. Otherwise you can borrow one for a small donation at the entrance. If you would like to go into the bathing pools, you need to change into a different sarong specifically to use only in the pools. You can get the bathing sarong when you rent a locker to store your things. There’s also a changing area by the lockers where you can change into a bathing suit before wearing the bathing sarong. If you don’t plan to go into the water, you don’t need to change sarongs.