On our tour around Ubud we stopped at Pura Tirta Empul, one of the holiest temples in Bali that dates back to the 10th century. It sits on top of an active spring that is believed to have been created by the Hindu god Indra. According to the legend, Indra’s powers had been poisoned by Mayadanawa and he pierced the earth to create a fountain that would restore his forces and lend him immortality.
Today, worshippers come to visit the temple and take part in the ritual cleansing. The highlight of Tirta Empul is the long rectangular bath that is fed by twelve fountains, fueled with water from the holy spring. One can bring an offering to and be cleansed by each fountain.
I knew coming into the trip that I wanted to visit the temple and, moreover, that I wanted to participate in the ritual cleansing. Adam and I are not practicing Hindus, though we are actively religious people. Perhaps that makes my desire contradictory, but personally I wanted to experience a local custom while simultaneously paying reverence and respect to the tradition behind it.
Our guide, Wayan, was enthusiastic about our participation, but I have to admit that Adam was a little skeptical at first. I think he was afraid of it being a tourist trap, but in reality we were some of the only tourists who took part in the ritual. And in the end Adam was grateful for the experience, as was I.
During the cleansing you offer up a prayer and then completely submerge your head in the fountain water three times before moving on to the next fountain. It was a time of deep reflection and intention for me, a chance to reconnect with my own religious beliefs and motivations. Afterward, Wayan explained that some people might scoff him (or us) for “selling his religion” to tourists and visitors. He believes, however, that it is an opportunity for us to gain a greater understanding of the practices and traditions that make Bali special and unique. He can demonstrate his values and customs in a sacred space and offer visitors a truly special opportunity to connect with local life. It was a special morning that I will fondly think about forever.
Shortly after we finished the ritual cleansing and changed back into dry clothing a traditional celebrating began with drums, offerings and a large parade into the temple. After our participation it felt really wonderful to see the temple come to life with activity.
Traveling is, for me, about learning and exploring. I do believe, however, that there is a delicate balance involved when experiencing local customs and procedures. It is important to remember that locals are not props in a photo. They are living their everyday life and that is to be respected. We made every effort to respect the solemnity of the occasion and I think that went a long way toward ensuring we weren’t making a mockery of the ritual or doing it to satisfy a bulleted item on our bucket list. If anything I think it amounted to a fuller, richer experience.
How do you feel about this? I think it can be a bit polarizing: when to step in and when to step back.