Tanah Lot temple, Bali, is a popular sunset spot for most visitors to the Indonesian island but like any must-do attraction in a major tourist destination it can get insanely crowded. We sensibly opted for the local experience of Pura Tanah Lot instead. We suggest you do, too.
Tanah Lot Temple, Bali – Hindu Traditions and Sea Temple Ceremonies
What we loved most about our trip to Bali, Indonesia, in 2010, when we based ourselves in a serene villa in the village of Tumbak Bayuh for two weeks, was the opportunity our location gave us to get an insight into everyday life – which on Bali is imbued with Hindu traditions and rituals.
We relished the chance to witness Desak and Kuman, our villa cook and housekeeper, make their daily offerings every morning, diligently lighting incense and carefully placing small palm leaf boxes of flowers and fruit strategically around our house and garden – something that I learnt how to do in Ubud.
We got to watch each day, bewildered, as the women deciphered the complex Balinese calendar, identifying new moons and full moons, auspicious days and ceremonies, temple anniversaries and cleansing rites, festivals and celebrations.
Thanks to those lovely women and their mystifying calendar, we didn’t miss a thing. Terence even got to document a spectacular royal cremation ceremony, which he beautifully photographed – something we would have missed otherwise.
So while we didn’t have a Balinese calendar on hand during our recent September trip, nor did we appear to have anyone at our hotel who even knew what day it was, we decided to take a risk and head out to Tanah Lot temple (Pura Tanah Lot) in the early afternoon, when the sacred site attracts more locals than tourists, who hold off for sunset for their selfies.
And while we were disappointed to see the menacing clouds moving in only moments after we arrived, as we hurried around the headland to photograph the petite sea temple poised on a solid rock jutting into the sea, our spirits were lifted when we witnessed the spectacle before us.
The Indianisation of Southeast Asia and Hinduism on Bali
Bali and the island of Lombok are the only two Hindu islands of Muslim-dominated modern Indonesia. That southern Asian archipelago just north of Australia that we now know as Indonesia (which means ‘the Indian islands’) consists of 13,466 islands, the best-known being Bali, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi.
As with our home of Cambodia, where the pre-Angkorian kingdoms of Funan and then Chenla went through a process of Indianisation in the early centuries of the Current Era (CE; what we used to call AD), Indonesia simultaneously experienced the same phenomenon.
In Cambodia, Indianisation during the first 700 years CE was triggered by the arrival of Indian adventurers, traders, merchants, and holy men who settled and were absorbed into the local population over centuries – along with many elements of Indian culture.
According to David Chandler in A History of Cambodia, these included the adoption of Hinduism alongside Buddhism, Hindu mythology, the Sanskrit language, the royal courts, a political system, a complex social hierarchy (comparable but different to India’s caste system), astronomy, agriculture, and much more.
Indian culture influenced Cambodia’s aesthetics, architecture, sculpture, alphabet, manuscripts, poetry, music, dance, costumes, jewellery, customs, and food. Remnants of Indian culture survive today, setting Cambodia’s culture apart in many ways from neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand (which Cambodia’s culture would heavily influence centuries later).
Today, Cambodia’s predominantly Buddhist culture incorporates aspects of Hinduism, as well as animism. Indian spices linger in the cuisine. Indeed, old Cambodian cooks call the saraman curry an ‘Indian curry’. Visit a Cambodian village and you’re much more likely to see older people wearing turbans and sarongs than, say, the conical hats and trousers of the Vietnamese. Interestingly, some of those batik cotton sarongs are from Java.
Around the same time as Cambodia’s Indianisation, Indonesia, according to Tim Hannigan in his Brief History of Indonesia, had transformed over several centuries into a series of “mini-Indias”, thanks to wandering mystics, traders intermarrying with locals, and eventually, political convenience.
As with Cambodia’s Funan, Chenla and, later, Angkor empires, India’s more sophisticated political concepts – the idea of princely rulers called ‘rajas’ and ‘maharajas’ and a kingship system with a divine king who was an incarnation of God – was much more appealing to tribal chieftains with grand geopolitical ambitions.
Like Cambodia’s Khmer people, the different peoples of the ‘Indonesian’ archipelago also adopted ‘Hinduism’, which actually consisted of a number of sect-like faiths from the Indian subcontinent, including Brahmanism and the cults of Shiva and Vishnu. They later, in the seventh century, also adopted Buddhism from the Indians.
Shaivism, the worship of Shiva, the god of creation and fertility, known as Saivism, was the dominant form of ‘Hinduism’ and co-exited with Buddhism, until the sixteenth century and a massive sea change with the arrival of Islam. Although there had been Muslims settling on Java for a hundred years already.
Hinduism remains the main religion on Bali and the old Hindu rituals continue to be practiced, including the recitation of mantras from sacred scripts, the dousing of holy water, and the preparation of ceremonial offerings, as we’d witness at Tanah Lot temple.
The Hindu Holidays of Galungan and Kuningan Day
On the late September day that we visit Tanah Lot temple, thousands of Hindu worshippers throng the area in their finest clothes, carrying large baskets of offerings of flowers, incense and fruit. They pray at shrines, relax in the grassy grounds, shelter under a large pavilion, and, when the rain hits, will open their umbrellas or those who were unprepared will run for cover like us to the souvenir shops that line the route to the car park.
We will later learn that the colourful ceremony is to commemorate the Tanah Lot temple anniversary, which takes place every six months, four days after Kuningan day, the last day of Galungan, one of Bali’s most important religious ceremonies.
A major Balinese holiday, Galungan, similar to the Indian Hindu festival of Diwali, celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma, or good over evil. The gods and goddesses, accompanied by holy ancestral spirits, arrive on earth to bless the universe and its people. The spirits of dead ancestors return to their homes, where the current residents extend their hospitality through offerings and prayers.
The most obvious sign of the celebration of Galungan, which we had noticed by the sides of the roads, are the penjor, lofty bamboo poles with offerings suspended at their highest point.
The days before and after Galungan are dedicated to specific rituals: three days before Kuningan, on Penyekeban day, bananas are cooked as offerings; two days prior, on Penyajaan, the Balinese make fried rice cakes called jaja; and the day before, on Penampahan, they slaughter pigs and turtles for ceremonial feasts. The day after, on Manis Galungan, they visit family.
Ten days later, on Kuningan day, when the spirits return to heaven, the Balinese spend much of their time in meditation and introspection, making offerings and saying prayers.
The Tanah Lot Temple Anniversary Ceremony
Four days after Kuningan day, the three days of the Tanah Lot temple anniversary take place. Each day, from the wee hours of the morning until the evening, many thousands of Hindu worshippers, crammed in cars and packed in the back of trucks, arrive at Tanah Lot temple from all over Bali.
It turns out, without realising it, we chose a very special time to visit Tanah Lot temple, yet bewilderingly, nobody, not the staff at our hotel nor even our driver, had mentioned it.
Once at Tanah Lot, the worshippers stop at a pavilion where they leave their offerings before visiting a shrine on the shore to pray, recite sacred scripts, and receive blessings of holy water, intended to cleanse the body and soul before they head down the stairs and onto the rocky ledge to Tanah Lot temple.
One of seven sea temples off Bali’s coast, Tanah Lot Pura is enchantingly located on a stone outcrop that extends into the Indian Ocean – ‘tanah’ means ‘land’, ‘lot’ means ‘sea’ and ‘pura’ means temple. When the tide is high the petite temple, mostly obscured from the mainland by greenery, appears to be perched on a tiny rock island. But the water is low (albeit quickly rising) on the afternoon we arrive and worshippers are cautiously hopping across the highest dry bits that handily act as stepping-stones.
Tanah Lot temple was built in the 16th century by Dang Hyang Nirartha, an architect and holy man who founded the Shiva priesthood in Bali and was an advisor to the Balinese Gelgel King Dalem Baturenggong. He was responsible for the padmasana architecture of Bali’s Hindu temples.
Tanah Lot was established to worship Varuna (Baruna), the Hindu god of the sea and celestial ocean, in order to invoke prosperity and balance between ocean and earth. Yet on the day we visit there is a fearsome storm approaching.
We take in the atmosphere at a small shrine on the shore – the hum of worshippers reciting sacred texts, the aroma of incense wafting our way, the scent of frangipanis and fresh oranges and bananas that fill the baskets of offerings, the occasional droplets of holy water being flicked upon devotees that land on my arms. Or was that a drop of rain?
We hurry down the stairs to get as close as non-Hindus can to the sacred site. We watch as a wave crashes against the rocky ledge causing a volcanic-like eruption of water that sprays onto the elegantly dressed pilgrims, soaking their fine clothes, and causing a little chaos in the process. Wives hurriedly reach for husbands’ hands, adult sons firmly grab the waists of elderly parents to steady their path, and children quickly clutch for dear life to their mothers’ skirts.
Men wear crisp white shirts, neatly tied turbans, and traditional sarongs. Women dress in white or yellow fitted lace blouses, sashes wrapped around their waists, long sarongs or tight long skirts, frangipanis tucked into their neatly pulled-back hair. Everyone wears blue rubber flip-flops although some women teeter on fancy blue platform shoes – the rubber footwear a safety precaution to give extra grip while crossing the slippery rocks to the temple.
Before the ominous storm arrives, patient worshippers stand and crouch beneath the shelter of a cliff, baskets of offerings at their feet and on their heads, as they wait for family to return or pause to see what the weather will do. Will it be a short shower that will pass as quickly as it came? Or does it look like a storm that’s going to set in?
Little do we know as we observe the activity and photograph the worshippers, but we will get just half an hour more to take in the colour, sights, smells, and sounds, before the sky turns slate grey and it buckets down, drenching us and thousands of others in a downpour heavier than any we experienced during Cambodia’s heaviest monsoonal rains.
Tips for Experiencing Tanah Lot Temple Like a Local
- Unless you’re a photographer, skip sunset at Tanah Lot temple when it’s packed with tourists and visit in the morning or during the day instead.
- Ask a local to consult the 210-day Balinese pawukon calendar to determine the best day during your stay to visit. We visited on 24 September 2016, however, as Bali’s is a 210-day calendar, the ceremony we witnessed will not be on the same day in 2017.
- Show some respect and cover up – swimwear, shorts and singlets don’t belong beyond the beach. The Balinese must be some of the most tolerant on earth. Bali is conservative and Tanah Lot temple is a sacred site. Wear sleeves, long skirts and trousers, or sarongs.
Tanah Lot Temple
Beraban village, Kediri district,
South coast of Bali
Tickets: R60,000 adults, R30,000 children
This post is part of a series from Indonesia, from Bali, Yogyakarta and Borobudur. Our trip was supported by Tourism Indonesia and Skyscanner, which provided flights, accommodation and some transport. Reflections, opinions and recommendations are obviously our own.