Bali Hindu: The Religion of the Holy Water

Water symbolizes the whole of potentiality – the source of all possible existence. –Mircea Eliade

Water plays a vital role in Balinese life.  The Balinese call their flavor of the Hindu religion Agama Tirtha: “The Religion of the Holy Water.”  The Sanskrit word Tirtha means ‘holy’ or to ‘cleanse’. To the Balinese water is the foundation of prosperity, therefore an   integral participant in all ceremonies. There is also a hierarchy to water in the language: The name of everyday water is yeh, Holy Water is tirtha, and water with powers that can sometimes cure a terminal illness, amerta.  Water, represented by a circle in the Hindu tradition, symbolizes wholeness and the un-manifest.  The womb of water is our first home. Our earthly abode is composed of 70% water and all life all of arose from the earth’s  oceans.  The Balinese revere water for its mysterious potential, its power to make things grow,  and as a medium for spiritual regeneration.

Scientists have confirmed that water-the only substance that changes from liquid to gas to solid-has memory.  Water receives and makes an imprint from   any substance that enters into it.  When we walk into a river we leave an imprint of ourselves in that water. Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese entrepreneur is known for proving that water takes on the shape of thoughts, feelings, intentions and words. Dr. Emoto showed that prayer, music, intentions, feelings and placing words onto containers of water changes its molecular structure.  Love increases water’s stability, while fear fractures it. (Hmm… our human organism   responds in kind and our bodies are composed of 70% water). Austrian scientist Alois Gruber stated that “We pollute water spiritually when we   approach it with malice.”

For the Balinese Holy Water initiates and completes every ceremony.  The tirtha used for ceremony and offerings has either been infused with prayers from a Pedanda, (high priest)   received the vibrations of a God or Goddess from a particular shrine, brought from a sacred place in conjunction with a special ceremony,   or obtained from the sea, mountain or   sacred spring.    The Balinese feel that tirtha is the doorway to the adoration of God: Unless an offering, ceremony or person has been purified by tirtha, they are not able to receive God’s blessings.

The Pedanda are in charge of shape-shifting plain water into holy water. They know the exact mantras (sounds) and mudras (hand movements) to imprint the water with a specific purpose. The Pemangku priests take the tirtha to the temples, processions, and festivities to sprinkle it on the offerings and worshipers.   Tirtha is sprinkled three times to cleanse negative energies held in the body, heart and mind. 

There are many kinds of tirtha and they are classified according to its intent. Tirtha pengelukatan and pebersihan is kept in every household to be used for daily offerings. Tirtha prayascita and byokaoan, is used to purify a place, sprinkled upon worshipers before prayer, or after attending a cremation so that they to release grief. Tirtha pemelaspas, is used to initiate a new house or business. Tirtha pengentas  is sprinkled over the corpse to ensure the deceased will follow the correct path to appear before God. Tirtha pemanah, is also used for the deceased towards allowing for an easy journey towards Heaven. Tirtha pecaruan is only performed by the priest in higher purification ceremonies.  Holy Water from a puppet master (dalang wayang) serves to vanquish the negative forces acquired when a baby is born in the week of the puppet master.   Amerta  is a very special tirtha that  has the potential to heal a life threatening illness or dis-ease due to magic. A trained Balinese healer will use amerta.  

Balinese embrace the dance between the forces of opposites with the intention of creating harmony. As they daily walk in the world they understand that negative energies naturally adhere to one’s body, mind and soul.  It is for this reason  Melukat (cleansing) is performed. Balinese ritually take two baths daily to purify their etheric, emotional, mental and physical bodies. However, a melukat performed on the full moon by a Pedanda can initiate spontaneous deep purging. The ceremony is simple: The Pedanda pours tirtha upon the head of the devotee while continuously chanting.   In this type of melukat,   I have witnessed people throw up, shake with unbearable grief, and scream like banshees.  In the Agama Tirtha tradition, deep purging is essential towards clearing out inner obstacles towards living as our True Nature, Love.  When a Hindu devotee completely purifies his or her heart, and empties the mind Amerta (The Nectar of Immortality) is attained. 


A more practical application of the Balinese instinctual reverence for water is in the creation of the ‘subak’ irrigation system. The underlying philosophy guiding the subak system is Tri Hita Karana-maintaining the harmonious relationship between human, Nature and God. In the Agama Tirtha tradition Tri Hita Karana is the foundation of everlasting peace and prosperity on earth.  Water naturally flows in a serpentine path. The 1500 subaks on Bali are constructed to follow this natural path therefore maintaining the natural integrity (and happiness) of the water.

The sacred subak is a very sophisticated form of ecological management that ensures a prosperous rice yield. In the subak system, mutual community agreements (overseen by a high priest) govern planting cycles, the division of water resources, the financial contribution of members, and their rights and responsibilities.  Subak irrigation arose as the Balinese developed a reverent relationship of gratitude with the Goddess of Lake Batur, Dewi Danu. 

It is said in the Usana Bali Lontar, a sacred scripture that on the new moon of the fifth month God Siwa took the peak of the sacred Mt. Meru in India and divided it into two parts. Siwa took the pieces to Bali in his right and left hands. The piece in his right hand became Mt. Agung, the throne for his son, Mahadewa Siwa. The piece in his left hand became Mt. Batur, the throne for Dewi Danu, the Goddess of lakes, waters, fertility and prosperity. To maintain Tri Hita Karana the ancient Balinese rice farmers understood that in order to receive the prosperous gifts of the waters from Dewi Danu they must follow Her natural laws to ensure abundant harvests. Pura Ulu Danu  on Lake Batur  is the central temple of the ancient subak system. From it emerge thousands of irrigation temples and shrines that spread throughout the mid and southern region of Bali.

The subak is managed by a high priest, Jero Gde who is selected in childhood by Dewi Danu as channeled in trance through a  virgin priestess. Jero Gde’s purpose in life is to be in service to Dewi Danu.  He receives guidance from Her and represents the members of the subak.   Members of the subaks, in consultation with the village priests, are organized into a regional hierarchy of temples and terraces that are responsible for their own rice fields and water distribution under the ultimate discretion and direction of high priest Jero Gde at the Pura Ulun Danu Batur. 

Water temples are crucial to the effectiveness of the irrigation system. The water temples that you see in the rice fields serve as spiritual anchoring points.  Farmers place the smaller temples at the entry point of the irrigated water with offerings to the Dewi Sri (rice goddess). Upstream from this temple is the subak temple where sections of irrigated terraces share a water source. Several of these compose an Ulun Swi Temple with a large canal and a ‘weir’ or shrine is established.  The weirs then make up a ‘masceti’ or regional water temple. All subak ceremonies are scheduled by priests in accordance with celestial timings in relationship to the effective growing of rice.

David Zurick, in his article “A Spiritual Landscape” says   that   “The water temples thus conspicuously anchor the supernatural world of Bali within the environmental cycles of the island, and they situate the material well being of the Balinese within a larger spiritual order that defines for the entire island a sacred landscape mandala, which connects the volcanoes, mountain lakes and springs, rice fields, and ocean in a cosmic map.” However, this brilliant sacred geometrical irrigation system   is rapidly being torn apart.

Devoted rice farmers make less than Bali’s beggars, asserts   Professor Dr. I Wayan Windia, of Udayana University in the May 28th edition of   Dr. Windia claims that a beggar makes about US$217 per month compared to half that amount for a rice farmer working one hectare of land. Rice farming is hard work and   property taxes are increasing.  A rice farmer selling a few hectares to build a villa seems reasonable.  The   unleashed development on Bali, combined with the increase use of GMO altered rice that produce higher yields are poisoning the rivers and subaks with ‘malice’ and chemicals.   The iconic rice terraces inspiring world travelers to visit the island of 20,000 temples are rapidly disappearing.  The breaking apart of the subak renders adjoining tracts of land unproductive. Professor Windia estimates that in the near future, the yearly loss of agricultural land will be close to 2,000 hectares per year.

On May 20, 2012 UNESCO declared the subak a World Heritage Site. In a May 22 article in the Jakarta post,  Nyoman Sugita, a member of Subak Gunung Sari shared a desire that ‘the government can make a regulation that gives more economic benefits to the farmers, instead of only attracting more tourists, where the benefit is only enjoyed by investors or the local government.”


Unfortunately, Balinese reverence for water and its   eloquent application in the subak irrigation system does not extend into managing water for daily living. A report submitted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency states that, at the current rate of water consumption, water will cease to exist as we know it  on Bali by 2015.  The  Bali Tourism office wants  7 million visitors by 2015.  The demand for water (estimated 50,000 liters daily in a five star hotel) is outstripping the supply. This combined with climate change, land subsidence, declining quality of water, a   falling water table, and sea water intrusions contribute to the decrease in available water on Bali. The rice farmers now must   compete for the water alongside every other human on Bali.

To redirect the water crises into an affluent flow of water for all,  Suharto Sarwan of the Directorate General of Water Resources from the Ministry of Public Works, says the  government and people must come together to conserve water, repair damaged water sources and implement wide spread public information on water use. Projects are currently underway to desalinize seawater in Nusa Dua and Sanur as well as to divert water from the Unda River (Tukad Unda) in Karangasem in East Bali for use by the populations of East and South Bali.

Bali is an example of the global water crises.  The crisis is not that there is too little water in the face of a rising world population it is how we choose to manage the water we do have.  I live in a small Bali abode with gallons of rainwater running through a pipe and into a garden. I placed a huge barrel to catch the rainwater to use during the dry season. Urbanization changes our lifestyle, yet we are still the captains of the choices that we make here and now.  Our minds have the power to create enough water for everyone. In the winter of 1881 a fire broke out on a ship sailing from England to San Francisco. The captain and crew survived the  three weeks it took for their small boat to reach land by imagining the sea water turning into fresh water, enabling them to survive by drinking the sea water. The key message of the Second World Water Forum was “Water is everybody’s business”.

Om Swastyastu

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Water: The Great Mystery Part I

Balinese Cosmology and Its Role in Agricultural Practices by Julie Melowsky

A Spiritual Landscape by David Zurick

The Function of Water (Tirtha) in Balinese Hindu Rituals by Ida  Ayu Made Puspani and Ni Wayan Sukarini

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