Tanah Lot is no doubt a tourist magnet, and it is easy to be discouraged by the swarming crowds. However the number of engagement and bridal photos shoots taking place there are a testament to the beauty of this part of Bali, especially at dusk.
When I was a youngster, my grandmother had two old children’s books on her shelf from which I could select short stories to be read at bedtime. I had my favourites and one in particular was about a secret tropical islet with a single palm tree, inhabitated by a cheeky monkey. The tiny island was disguised by a nearby larger island, so that it could only be found under the right conditions. One day a pirate stumbled across the islet and buried his treasure there for safe keeping, but once he set sail he could never find the location again.
I loved the mystery of this story and probably drove my grandmother nuts asking to be read the same narrative night after night. When I was in my teens, my mum told me about her visit to Mont Saint Michel in France. Though somewhat less mysterious than my favourite fictional isle, I gravitated toward the idea of an island sometimes challenging accessibility, apart from its obvious beauty. Although I very much plan to see Mont Saint Michel one day, in the meantime I had to settle for a popular Balinese tourist attraction: Tanah Lot meaning “small island floating on the sea”. Tanah Lot is a rocky, part-time island located on the south west coast of Bali, approximately 30km northwest of Denpasar City. The rocky outcrop is accessible from the mainland during low tide, and the location was chosen for the temple known as Pura Tanah Lot. The temple is one of a series, each located within sight of the next along the coastline, forming a spiritual guard between the coast and the spirits of the sea. Black and white striped sea snakes are common in this area, and are thought to be guardians of the temple.
Fake or fabulous?
As Lonely Planet points out Tanah Lot “has all the authenticity of a stage set – even the tower of rock that the temple sits upon is an artful reconstruction (the entire structure was crumbling) and over one-third of the rock is artificial.” While the rock may have needed a little patchwork over time, it is understandable given its age and the battering it receives from wind and water. Where Tanah Lot is thoroughly authentic, is in its sacredness to the local Balinese people.
Indonesia is a predominantly Islamic nation, however the island of Bali is home to a mostly Hindu population. The story goes that the a 16th century C.E. Hindu priest named Dang Hyang Nirartha travelled to Bali to share Hinduism with the locals. Along the voyage, Nirartha’s boast sprung a leak and local islanders patched it with pumpkin leaves. Nirartha left his family to travel in the repaired boat and went ahead himself on a pumpkin. How very Cinderella-esque!
Upon reaching Bali Nirartha began to spread the word of Hindusim. He was teaching villagers in the town of Beraban when the village chief, who had doubts about Niratha and his new religion, made and objection and attempted to expel the priest from the town. Nirartha stood his ground and demonstrated the use of his meditative powers by shifting an enormous rock out to sea. His robes miracuously transformed into sea snakes around its base and the rock was named Tengah Lod ‘in the sea.’
Converted into a believer, the village chief pledged faithfulness to Niratha’s and Hinduism, and in return Nirartha gifted the chief a kris dagger, which is a weapon thought to possess magical powers. That very kris dagger is said to be amongst the relics of the Kediri royal palace. The blade is paraded from its regular keeping place, along an 11km pilgrimage to Nirartha’s former meditation site upon each Kuningan Day. Falling every 210 days, Kuningan marks the end of the Gaungan holiday during which ancestor’s spirits temporarily roam the earth again. Kuningan Day farewells the spirits for their return journey back to heaven.
Nirartha was responsible for introducing the padmasana “lotus seat” architecture to the Hindu temples of Bali such as Pura Tanah Lot. The style typically incorporates a padmasana which is a raised dais that is created as a resting place for gods attending a temple festival. In the Shaivism branch of Hinduism practised in Bali, the padmasana would be intended as the seat of Shiva, the supreme god. The padmasana is generally accompanied by a meru, a wooden building on a stone base, with a tiered roof.
If you decide to take in a Tanah Lot sunset, be prepared that there will be plenty of fellow tourists who share your interest. I found when the tide is low, that the combined space of the rocky shores and well groomed coastal park offers plenty of space to find your own vantage point. You will not be able to enter the temple, as this is a local worshipper’s only privilege, but at low tide you may walk out to its base and explore the surrounding rock pools. I wouldn’t recommend the onsite restaurants, but the park is a great spot for a picnic. Take your mosquito repellent if you plan to be there at twilight, and be patient, exiting the car park may require a long wait. The reward is a stunning tropical sunset over a signature silhouette of Bali.