One of Bali’s most visited temples has a remarkable legend, where a powerful priest battles a giant serpent.
The revered Pura Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s most visited temples. Year-on-year, Tanah Lot welcomes hordes of people, be it masses of Balinese Hindu pilgrims making their annual visit and prayers here, or the many tourists looking to witness the unique temple that sits out at sea.
Located in Tabanan, west of the popular Seminyak and Canggu seaside hubs, Tanah Lot is truly a sight to behold. Its very name helps to explain why: Tanah means land and Lot means sea, thus the ‘land in the sea’, as the temple sits on a rock island that come high-tide is completely cut-off from the mainland.
It is one of seven sea temples (or pura segara) found around the Bali coastline, which together are said to form a chain of spiritual protection around the island. Thus, Tanah Lot is dedicated to the sea deities, namely Dewa Baruna, the god of the sea.
Built in the 16th century, it was the powerful travelling priest, Dang Hyang Nirartha, that built this temple. During his travels, Nirartha felt drawn to this particular coastline and upon seeing the beautiful rock formation out at sea – then called ‘Gili Beo’ – he was sure that this was a holy place.
Now, as it is with all legends, there are many versions. Like a centuries-long game of Chinese whispers, the stories told through the generations have had many iterations.
One legend says that having recognised the holiness of the area, Nirartha decided to build a temple here. So holy was this destination that Nirartha knew it would need protecting. So, he took off his sash and threw it to the ground, and with his power and magical abilities he turned the sash into a giant serpent. The snake was charged as the eternal guardian of Pura Tanah Lot, where to this very day some believe the snake still slumbers deep within the rock.
Another version of the story says something different. After deciding the rock was fit for a temple, Nirartha walked towards it, only to be ambushed by a giant, evil sea snake that burst out from the rocky island. The evil creature fervently did not want its humble abode to be made into a holy destination by this priest.
Though, determined that a temple had to be built here, the great and powerful Nirartha fought the giant snake. The two engaged in a fierce battle. As you might have guessed, the holy man won, but rather than slaying the serpent he allowed it to continue living at Tanah Lot as long as it would protect it and keep it safe.
Whatever version you prefer, both tell of Nirartha’s great powers. Both also tell of the legend of the giant sea serpent that continues to dwell deep within Tanah Lot, whether you believe it or not! Opposite the temple, in a cave by the beach, visitors can also see ‘holy snakes’, black and white sea snakes said to bring luck and prosperity – but, unless you’re an all powerful priest, perhaps you should leave these snakes alone! Even centuries later, when the sun sets magnificently behind Tanah Lot temple, as the waves crash against the rock, it’s not difficult to understand why Nirartha thought that this was a truly magical place.