Anna Luna Rossi
The rituals of water purification in Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu : how water holds meaning in Bali
Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu is a century-old temple located 30 minutes away from Ubud, close to Tegallalang Rice Terraces, where locals practice purification rituals. A long name, for a place that deserves reverence. It may be close to the well-known Tirta Empul, but it has nothing to envy to the beauty of this other water temple: Sebatu is less visited, more tranquil, and absolutely beautiful. As a Holy Spring Temple, Sebatu is dedicated to Vishnu, the Hindu God ruling over Water.
In the late hours of a June morning, we are alone in the compound of Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu. The sun, not quite high in the sky, throws the shadows of the temple's walls on the soft grass. In the water garden next to the temple area, golden carps swim silently around a statue of Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and water. Everything is quiet, peaceful, but this is not new: I have grown quite accustomed to feeling at peace in Bali. We are here at Sebatu a little bit like mesmerized children who have been promised a surprise, except with more silence, more calmness washing over us. You don't really know what to expect of a Water Purification Ritual when it's your first time. Why is water such an important part of the purification rituals on the island? I ask myself this question again on my bike in Ubud as the rain has started to fall softly, and again as an old Hindu priest sprinkles incense and flowers-infused water over my head.
The role of water in Balinese Hinduism
I figured that learning and talking about Hinduism was an essential component of my adventures in Bali. Not because I describe myself as a particularly religious being, but because this religion is an integral part of the island. It is not only the official religion of Balinese people, it is the soul of Bali. Everything gravitates around Hinduism beliefs and traditions, in a luminous and colorful harmony. When you step foot on this tropical island, you immediately want to learn about what makes it shine the way it does, what gives it this special something that makes people eternally want to come back. I'm convinced that the warmth of these cultural practices is linked with the warmth of people's smiles, and even the warmth of the Bali sun.
To understand Water Purification, you have to understand first the importance of water in Hindu beliefs. It is believed that water holds purifying and cleansing powers, as in many other cultures and religions around the world. In Hinduism, water represents the basis of life: water gives life, and cleanses the body, mind and soul. In Bali, water is said to not only carry healing powers but also to carry memories. It is a part of every ceremony, whether central or not: water is often seen as a doorway for prayers and wishes to be blessed in order to reach gods and goddesses. And when you think about it, water is everywhere in Bali: from the pouring storms of the rainy season, to the foaming coasts of the Indian Ocean, the hundreds of waterfalls in luscious clearings, and the still canals of the rice terraces. It's easy to understand how closely intricated water is with local culture.
The ritual of water purification
In the middle of a pond of bright green, almost turquoise water, stands a shrine ornate with golden details. It's bright and shines against the dark emerald of the ferns and vines plunging into the water. The sight is so immaculate and imbued with natural perfection, that my heart almost beats faster in my chest. You know this feeling when you witness beauty that seems too flawless, too quintessential to be real? Yes, this one right there. The same that invades you when you step on the rocks of Kelingking Beach or through the jungle of Northern Bali. I spend a moment wandering through the many ponds before I take the path that leads to the bathing section for the ritual.
The ritual of water purification is traditionally called Melukat. There are five springs in the bathing pool at Sebatu: after stepping into the water, you need to bow with joined hands (in the traditional posture of Hindu praying) in front of each of them before submerging your head under the water. It can be done while repeating a mantra, depending on personal beliefs. The symbolism of water purification is to wash away the negative energy that doesn't serve you, and to welcome the good energy. The whole ritual is usually completed with rice being placed on the forehead, usually by a priest, as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, as well as prayers.
Melukat, the water purification, is actually one part of a bigger ritual called Tirtayatra (in Balinese, tirta means holy water) of several parts including prayers, purification and meditation. The Melukat ritual can take different forms (and different names!) whether it is performed for a baby, a newly married couple, or to treat someone's illness. And since the moon is closely linked to water in spiritual beliefs and in biological rhythms (think about tides), Balinese people also believe that one of the best times to practice a ritual of water purification is one day before or after the full moon.
Some Information about Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu:
How to get there?
Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu is located approximately 12km northeast of Ubud. I would always recommend booking a guide (and driver) to go to temples like this one, because it is incredibly valuable to learn about the History of the temple during your visit, and to be properly introduced and taught about the place and its traditions. But you can also rent a scooter and go by your own.
Entrance fees & Opening Hours
As of February 2023, Pura Sebatu is open from 8 am to 6 pm (the sun sets early in Bali!). The entrance fee is 50 000 IDR ($3.48 USD) for adults.
Important to know
When visiting a Water Temple, and any other temple in Bali, you need to wear a Sarong (traditionally called kamben) wrapped around your waist. You can buy one pretty much everywhere around Bali, or rent one at the entrance of the temple. By respect for the place, it is appropriate to cover your shoulders. I could never emphasize enough how important it is to be respectful of local culture when you travel abroad. Think as well about taking a change of clothes if you are to do the water purification ritual!
Be mindful of the signs separating the pools in Sebatu: wanita means women, and pria means men, as there are two different pools for bathing.
What else to see in the area
If you want to discover more of the beauty of Bali, make sure to check the gallery of pictures I took during my trip.