Sehbatu: A visit to the waterfall temple

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

Robert, a Californian who leads tours around Bali, took us to Sehbatu – a small but enchanting waterfall temple situated just a few kilometres outside of Ubud.

The waterfall is fed by cool groundwater rushing up from deep within the Earth, where it has waited decades, perhaps centuries, to see the light of day. The Balinese, who believe that the water at this site has powerful purifying properties, have set up a modest temple next to the falls, and the entire complex – temple, waterfall and pool – is surrounded by jungle. It is a beautiful mix of the natural and the sacred.

It is not surprising to me that much of Balinese spirituality revolves around water. In many ways it is simply a reflection of how important the element is to life on Bali. The island’s hilly interior and rainy season mean that rivers abound – providing a drinking supply and irrigating the water-intensive rice fields. Water, literally and spiritually, nourishes the island.

To receive the purification powers of the waterfall, one enters the waist-deep pool at the base of the falls. An offering is made before thrusting one’s head straight under the falling stream. The waterfall is small, less than a few metres, but its power is unmistakeable. Straight away you feel the chilly bite of the ground water. On several levels, it shocks you awake. You can’t hear anything except the white noise of the crashing water and the rest of the world disappears. Breathing is possible but not easy and you have to concentrate not to panic as your lungs and senses are stressed.

The Sehbatu temple

The Sehbatu temple

But once you settle in the process can be strangely calming. It’s not unlike meditation. To keep your head under the falls you have to quieten the nerves, concentrate on the breath, and remain in the moment (you actually have no choice on that last one). Robert suggested we consciously think of something we wanted to let ago of, something that didn’t serve us anymore. On an adjacent waterfall, you can do the opposite, lie your back up against the rock, chest to the sky, water flowing right over you and open up to something new. Our small group took in turns to do this and all found it a moving experience.

While we were there Balinese locals came to the waterfall, and performed similar purifications. One of these women came to us while we were seated at the temple to provide a traditional cleansing with the altar water, guiding us through the steps of ritual, before smiling and going on her way. She wasn’t a priestess, just an ordinary Balinese woman.

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