These must-see temples in Ubud offer you a glimpse into historical Bali with ancient reliefs and classical Balinese temple architecture. They also serve as cool retreats or brief stopovers along your leisure walks through town. Some are located and easily accessible as among Ubud’s central landmarks, while others around the neighbouring villages of Tegallalang and Tampaksiring are hidden within mountain valleys, adding a bit of mystery to your adventures in this cultural heartland of Bali
1 . Pura Taman Saraswati (Central Landmark in Ubud)
The Pura Taman Saraswati is a beautiful water temple in central Ubud, accessible from the Jalan Kajeng side street off the main road of Jalan Raya Ubud. The temple is a great stopover along your leisure walks through Ubud town, offering sightseeing and photo opportunities with its classical Balinese temple architecture and a beautiful foyer featuring ponds filled with blooming pink lotuses. Entry into Pura Taman Saraswati is free but, as with any temple visit in Bali, a sash and sarong around the waist is compulsory.
You can enter the temple behind its amphitheatre at any time of the day and admire the calming atmosphere, architectural features and sandstone bas reliefs that honour the Hindu goddess of knowledge and arts, Saraswati.
2 . Goa Gajah (Historical Site)
Goa Gajah’s name is slightly misleading, lending the impression that it’s a gigantic dwelling full of elephants. Nevertheless, Goa Gajah ‘Elephant Cave’ is an archaeological site of significant historical value that makes it a special place to visit. Located on the cool western edge of Bedulu Village, six kilometres out of central Ubud, you do not need more than an hour to descend to its relic-filled courtyard and view the rock-wall carvings, a central meditational cave, bathing pools and fountains.
Goa Gajah dates back to the 11th century, built as a spiritual place for meditation. The main grounds are down a flight of steps from the roadside and parking area, which is lined with various art and souvenir shops and refreshment kiosks. Upon reaching the base you will come across a large ‘wantilan’ meeting hall and an assortment of large old stone carvings, some restored to their former full glory. The pool, excavated in 1954, features five out of supposedly seven statues depicting Hindu angels holding vases that act as waterspouts. Various structures reveal Hindu influences dating back to the 10th century, and some relics feature elements of Buddhism dating even earlier to the 8th century. The cave is shallow; inside are three stone idols each wrapped in red, yellow and black cloths. Black soot lines the cave’s walls as result from the current-day incense burning. Several indentations show where meditating priests once sat. The northern side of the complex is dominantly Buddhist while south across the river it’s mostly Shivaite. At the southern end are beautiful rice fields and small streams that lead to the Petanu River – another natural site entwined in local legends. Goa Gajah was built on a hillside and as two small streams met here forming a campuhan or ‘river junction’, the site was considered sacred and was built for hermetic meditation and prayers.
3 . Gunung Kawi (Tranquil Water Temple)
Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple, locally referred to as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu, is a special find for visitors to Central Bali. It is one of the least visited temple complexes on the island Bali, yet is one of the most beautiful and tranquil. It features verdant gardens around ponds filled with carp and blooming lotuses, and ancient shrines surrounded by crystal clear pools fed by natural springs.
Approaching the temple from the main Jalan Raya Tegallalang road, a small and winding descent approaches the temple, where you can easily have a bird’s eye view of the whole complex and its water gardens. The temple is a refreshing stopover, profuse with water features, and one of the main highlights is the tranquil setting of one of its singular shrines known as the Taman Suci, which is next to a large rectangular pond with a dense green hillside as a backdrop – perfect for photographers to grab that picture-postcard shot. But before reaching the northwest corner where Taman Suci and the main Gunung Kawi Sebatu temple grounds are located, you will have to don the customary sash around your waist which you can borrow at the ticket booth. A few steps along the cobble path you will instantly enjoy a full water garden, a large pool where golden carp are kept. A figure of the goddess Sarasvati is its centrepiece, together with a ‘floating’ Wantilan hall from which you can feed the fish.
Beside the pool there are two walled bathing sections that the locals and pilgrims to Gunung Kawi Sebatu actually use for bathing. A sign clearly reads in English and Indonesian that photography in these quarters is forbidden – obviously! Towards the north and after a green lawn are the ‘candi bentar’ temple gates that lead to the elevated main temple grounds. You will be able to see a few animals kept within the complex, such as roaming free packs of tame fowl, juvenile deer and rare chicken breeds, which all add life to the otherwise inanimate statues and towering temple structures.
Gunung Kawi Sebatu celebrates its piodalan temple anniversary every first full moon of the Balinese calendar, also referred to by the locals as ‘Purnama Sasih Kasa’. It offers a greater opportunity to witness the colourful festivities that take place at the temple, as well as the lively flow of Balinese Hindu pilgrims from all over the island.
4 . Tirta Empul Temple in Central Bali
Tirta Empul is an important temple complex and holy mountain spring, located in the village of Manukaya in central Bali. The site serves as a legendary setting of a traditional tale about good versus evil. It is also a national cultural heritage site. The complex, built circa 960 AD, is also a silent witness to the old Balinese kingdom years, particularly at the time of the Warmadewa Dynasty. Another nearby and prominent site on top of a hill is the presidential palace, Istana Tampaksiring, built during the years of the nation’s first president, Soekarno. Tirta Empul, meaning ‘holy water spring’ is actually the name of a water source located within the temple. The spring feeds various purification baths, pools and fish ponds surrounding the outer perimeter, which all flow to the Tukad Pakerisan River. Various sites throughout the region and many other archaeological relics relate to local myths and legends.
As is common with Balinese temples, the Tirta Empul Temple complex has three key divisions, namely a front, secondary and inner courtyard. Visitors to Tirta Empul first come upon the lush gardens and pathways adorned with statues and tropical plants that lead to its entrance. After stepping through this typical ‘candi bentar’ (temple gate), a vast walled courtyard welcomes visitors to the bathing pools where a large ‘wantilan’ meeting hall stands at the right. Inside the central courtyard, referred to as ‘madya mandala’ or ‘jaba tengah’, pilgrims first approach a rectangular purification bath where a total of 13 elaborately sculpted spouts that line the edge from west to east. After solemn prayers at an altar-like shrine, they proceed to enter the crystal-clear, cold mountain water. With hands pressed together, they bow under the gushing water of the first spout, carrying on to the eleventh. The water from the last two of the 13 spouts is meant for purification purposes in funerary rites. The myth behind the curative and purifying spring tells of a Balinese ruler, known by the title Mayadenawa, who is depicted to have defied the influence of Hinduism and denied his subjects religious prayers and practices. The legend goes that this eventually angered the gods, and in a campaign, god Indra sought Mayadenawa’s subdual.
Good to Know about Tirta Empul Temple
As with any Bali temple tour or a visit to a holy place, it is always important to dress respectfully. The simple Balinese temple visitor dress code is a traditional ‘kamen’ wrap around the lower body plus a sash around the waist. Women during their periods are prohibited entry to any temple or sacred site, and may enjoy the sights and attractions in the outer perimeters only. It is tempting to try out the purification bathing ritual yourself; however the formal routine is strictly meant for pilgrims and devotees. You might want to consult your guide who may ask a temple authority for further details. Far at the front of the temple complex is a large parking area with its eastern side lined with art markets and rows of shops selling various curios and souvenirs. There are also several warungs or food stalls selling local food, snacks and refreshments.
5 . Gunung Kawi Temple ( Ancient Rock Temple in Central Bali )
Gunung Kawi Temple complex, locally referred to as Pura Gunung Kawi, is one of Bali’s most unique archaeological sites, comprising a collection of ancient shrine reliefs carved into the face of a rock cliff. The main site overlooks the sacred Pakerisan River, which also flows by the Tirta Empul Temple a kilometre up north. Across the river from the ancient reliefs is a temple courtyard featuring old Hindu shrines in a more contemporary architectural style, which is attended by pilgrims especially during its ‘piodalan’ temple anniversaries. Bali’s Pejeng region is famous for its rich collection of archaeological sites, and Gunung Kawi Temple is a popular stopover on itineraries through the central uplands of the Gianyar regency. The temple complex is easily located, only a few hundred meters east from the Jalan Raya Tampaksiring main route, from where you continue down on foot to a paved walkway that is lined with art shops and small local warungs. Along the further 300 steps towards the river, lush paddy terraces and gorgeously green valley go together to transport you back in time away from modernity. There is a similarly named temple, Gunung Kawi Sebatu.
Where the stairs end, proceed through a stone archway with small pillars each holding an earthen vase filled with holy water, which you sprinkle onto yourself before further entering. Inside, the view opens to the main site with ten seven-metre-high shrines carved into the rocky hillside. There are four on the west side and another five on the eastern side of the river, while to the south across the valley hides one other. Legend goes that these are the memorials of the deified Balinese King Udayana, his concubines and family, which leads to Gunung Kawi temple being widely considered as the tomb site of the Warmadewa Dynasty.
Small stone caves that actually serve as meditation sites complement the shrines, where Buddhist monks used to sit and contemplate. Indeed, Balinese history has shown that the two religions coexisted in harmony. Across the river and beside the first rock shrine complex is the functional temple courtyard that the locals essentially refer to as Pura Gunung Kawi. Inside is what you would commonly find in any other Balinese temple courtyard, complete with various shrines surrounding the temple’s main grand pavilion or ‘bale’. As with any other temple visit in Bali, proper attire comprising a sarong cloth with a sash around the waist is required, and women during their periods are not permitted entry into the Gunung Kawi Temple complex. The sash and sarong are available for rent with the ticket purchase at a booth before the stairs down to the valley. The temple is decorated during its ‘piodalan’ temple anniversary every year following the Purnama Katiga or ‘third full moon’ on the Balinese calendar, allowing for a more festive and exotic setting for photographs.