Tirta Gangga: Restoring Indonesia’s most popular royal water garden. Part I: The synergy

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View of Tirta Gangga with cliff and banyan trees in the background behind the puri, Tirta Gangga’s iconic fountain, the Mahabharata pool and boat pond. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

IO – The Tirta Gangga royal water garden in Bali’s eastern regency of Karangasam is not only a beautiful garden laid out in a manner reflecting the Balinese Hindu Buddhist religious philosophy. It is also a charming place where visitors enjoy themselves immensely. Tripadvisors of­fers a section where viewers of their site can vote for their favorite monument or site in Indonesia. In 2018 the site with the highest number of votes was of course, the Borobodur temple but sur­prisingly second in popularity was the Tirta Gangga royal water garden – de­feating the famous Prambanan temple with its Ramayana dance performance and other more well-known national sites. Tirta Gangga is a success story and the credit for Tirta Gangga’s suc­cess may in large measure be credited to the synergy and vision of four men: Dr Anak Agung Made Djelantik, his son, Anak Agung Gede Dharma Wido­ere Djelantik, Emerald Starr and Mi­chael Honack.

Anak Agung Angloerah Ketut Karangasem (1887 – 1966) who was one of the most progressive rajahs in Indonesia created Tirta Gangga in 1948. (photo: www.tirtagangga.com)

Tirta Gangga was created by Karan­gasam’s last king, Anak Agung Angloer­ah Ketut Karangasem in 1948. He was a king who very much supported mod­ernization for Karangasam from irriga­tion systems, electricity and telephones to macadamized roads. He also believed in education and not only for boys – Ka­rangasam was the first Balinese king­dom to allow education for girls. The king was also a very creative man who loved creating gardens, especially wa­ter-gardens. His grandson Prince Wi­doere Djelantik disclosed, “We know of four royal pleasure gardens in Karangasam. They are: Tirta Gangga, Ujung Sukasada, Seku­ta and Padangkerta. They were created by my grandfather except for Sekuta which was established by his uncle. I am hoping one day to restore Sekuta and Padangkerta – and even Tirta Gangga is not entire­ly finished yet. However, there are in fact more gar­dens that my grandfather created only many have become neglected or were damaged by the eruption of Gunung Agung (Bali’s highest mountain) in 1963. Sometimes when I am roaming the coun­tryside and come across a fountain or wall an old farmer will tell me that it is the remains of yet an­other garden created by my grandfather. I would like to find them all and restore them.”

Tirta Gangga in 1955. (photo: www.tirtagangga.nl)

Tirta means “bless­ed water” and “Gangga” refers to the Ganges, the holist river in India. The name was given because of a holy spring on the grounds of the one and a half hectar gardens. Its clear waters have always been used for ceremonies in the temples of the surrounding ar­eas. It was because of this also that Widoere’s grandfather, Anak Agung Angloerah Ketut Karangasem created the gardens. In 1963 however, Mount Agung erupted and its lava and hot ash killed all the vegetation in the gardens. At the same time, the earthquakes that accompanied the volcanic eruption de­stroyed most of the buildings and stat­uary at Tirtagangga. The royal family were forced to abandon Tirtagangga, and much looting occurred by people who had to flee the eruption with no food and who had to leave all their possessions behind. Ten months later, when the royal family returned the gardens were in ruins.

Prince Widoere’s father Dr Anak Agung Made Djelantik, Bali’s most famous physician began to restore Tirta Gangga in 1978. (photo: www.tirtagangga.com)

For a long time not much could be done to restore the gardens belonging to the royal family as the government land reforms left it without the income needed for the restoration and mainte­nance needed for Tirtagangga. In 1979 Prince Widoere’s father Dr Anak Agung Made Djelantik, Bali’s most famous physician and cultural savant returned from abroad after working with the World Health Organization. As head of the Karangasam extended royal family he began work on restoring Tirta Gang­ga. It was only by raising the price of entrance tickets slightly and later with a little funding from the local govern­ment that Dr Djelantik could begin res­toration work of the gardens. He began by restoring the higher swimming pool. However, he lacked sufficient funds for a larger restoration and by the 1990s as Dr Djelantik grew older he also began to run out of energy to supervise the gardens. By then however, two Americans who were to help the restoration had  appeared on the scene.

Dr Djelantik first restored the higher swimming pool. The public enjoys very much the Tirta Gangga swimming pools. There is no entrance fee for people from the surrounding villages. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

Emerald Starr was born in New York but has lived in Bali for the last 30 years. His father was the well-known textile designer, Paul Charry who de­signed textiles for the great fashion de­signers of the time which included such names as Christian Dior and Emilio Puci. In 1962 India’s prime minster, Jawaharlal Nehru invited Emerald’s father to India to help create designs for the Khadi textiles that were Gand­hi’s legacy so that they could be sold on the international market to help bring in foreign reserves for India. Lat­er Emerald of course, also went to In­dia and for a while he was involved in the textile business. He loved India

Emerald Starr who is extremely empathetic towards others became the official liaison for the project. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

but when he went to Bali he was drawn to it even more deeply and after exploring all nine regencies of Bali, he ended up living in Karangasam at a beautiful place by the sea surrounded by Mount Agung, Mount Soraya and across the small strip of sea in front of his cottag­es, Mount Rinjani on Lombok. There he set up Jasri Bay Hideaway with four wooden cottages on stilts, an organic vegetable garden and a small boutique chocolate factory. He describes himself as an environmentalist, designer and architect.

“Karangasam is the most beautiful regency in Bali with its white and black sandy beaches and healing spring wa­ters. It also has beautiful culture and crafts. Tirtagangga with its wonderful healing spring waters attracted me pro­foundly. The waters are clean and min­eral rich and at full moon ceremonies are performed here for their healing and youth giving powers. I used to stay at Tirta Gangga at least once a month and would see Dr Djelantik who was my doctor and my friend. Sometimes, I would go to see him in Denpasar,” re­marked Emerald.

Emerald wanted to see Tirta Gang­ga restored and to help Dr Djelantik in doing so. In the 1990s his former brother-in-law, Michael Honack came to visit Bali and he brought him to see Tirtagangga.

Michael Honack in a relaxed moment. His foundation provided the first and largest donation for Tirta Gangga’s restoration. (photo: Michael Honack)

“Michael was immediately drawn to the gardens and saw their potential,” explained Emerald. “He has a love for restoration and together with his for­mer wife, Wendy Grace he established a foundation, the Arimathea Foundation to help restore old buildings and gar­dens and in 2000 he returned to Bali because he wanted to contribute to the restoration of Tirta Gangga.”

Michael Honack was born in Santa Cruz, California. He is a philosopher who created 10 patents for electronic watches and sold his tech company in 1991 and with the proceeds be­came free to do whatever he pleased at the age of 42. Inspired by the Blair brothers’ book “Ring of Fire” one of the first things he did was to go to Bali . There he met his former brother-in-law Em­erald and it was as he says, a case of souls well met. Together, they traveled around in Emerald’s Volkswagen Safa­ri which looked like General Rommel’s military vehicle in North Africa – and it all felt like a great adventure or film.

“Bali,” declares Michael firmly, “is tropical beach meets last Baroque world class civilization. It is a society living its life informed by its spiritual reality, like Europe at the time of Bach where prayer, worship and art are at one for God. In the end it was the arts and crafts that drew me to Bali; that great density of creative capacity.”

The lily pond at Tirta Gangga. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

They drove to Tirtagangga and Mi­chael was impressed with all the wa­ter coming from what he suspects is a fissure in Mount Agung where the rainwater collects and then emerges in the springs and pools of Tirtagangga. He and Emerald leased land there and built places to stay in the form of po­lygonal structures. In his book on Tirta Gangga Michael writes that “In all, the water palace exuded an enchanting presence, a sense of history and de­cline. It charmed me completely.”

In 1998 Michael went to Tibet. Chi­na had destroyed 6600 monasteries in Tibet within 5 years but in the king­dom of Mustang there were still some monasteries untouched and Michael had visions of Mustang, as though a higher power were drawing him to go there and present the king with a spe­cial knife that he had made. To reach the monasteries Michael walked for six days into the deepest gorge in the world surrounded by some of the high­est mountains on earth. Here he found magnificent monasteries with the finest Tibetan temple art in pigments made from lapis lazuli, gold, malachite and other semi-precious stones covered in 500 years of black butter fat oil de­posits. In the monasteries were altars covered in treasures of ancient kings and queens in terracotta, statues of Buddha, tankha paintings of Buddhist saints etc. Nevertheless, the monaster­ies themslves were broken down and impoverished. It was only then that he understood that he was not drawn to Mustang to present the king with a knife but to restore those precious re­maining monasteries.

Michael established the Ari­mathea Foundation for monument restoration and finished the resto­ration of the monasteries in Mustang in 2015. Meanwhile, he continued to visit Tirta Gangga and during his visits he came to know Dr Djelantik and his wisdom. He found him always centered like a Buddha. Not all the royal fam­ily appreciated having two Americans living in Tirta Gangga and it was Dr Djelantik who interceded so that they were accepted. He probably also told his son Prince Widoere about Michael’s restoration work in Tibet. Michael told Dr Djelantik that if support were ever needed for restoring the Tirta Gangga water gardens he would gladly give it.

The elegant Mahabharata pool where the Kurawas and Pandawas face each other is in this day and age of selfies the most popular feature amongst visitors who vie to have their photographs taken here. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

Dr Djelantik’s son Prince Widoere lives in Holland. He was named after one of the Kurawas in the Mahabharata epic. Dr Djelantik taught him that although the figure of Widura was on the wrong side in the great war he tried to advise his brothers to do good and to bring about peace between the cousins. In the same way a person can always try to right a situation from within.

Prince Widoere. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Prince Widoere studied informa­tion technology and architecture and trained as an artist at the Royal Acad­emy of Art in the Hague. In the late 1990s Widoere saw that the gardens at Tirta Gangga were beginning to become neglected and that his father was find­ing it increasingly difficult to manage the gardens as he became older. He de­scribes how, “During a walk in 1999, while overwhelmed by the majestic Banyan trees of the garden, I received a vision to transform the distressing state into one of splendor. This vision was the reason why I created a foundation, drew up a master plan incorporating the Balinese Hindu-Buddhist religious concept, built a website, sought donations and designed the buildings, bridges and sculptures.”

In 2000 Emerald drove Michael to Tirta Gangga and as he parked his car, Dr Djelantik’s car drew up with Prince Widoere. Michael and Widoere began to speak. Prince Widoere recalls that, “Two people who loved the gardens and wanted to see them restored met that day and spoke. By the time we reached the gardens from the car park we knew already that we were in agreement.”

A meeting in 2000 between (left to right) Marike Reijntjes (Prince Widoere’s wife), Emerald Starr, Michael Hanock and Prince Widoere. (photo: www.tirtagangga.com)

Although many people and orga­nizations later contributed to the res­toration Michael’s foundation was the first to do so and also contributed the most to the restoration. Emerald was officially designated the liaison between Michael’s foundation and the royal family and Prince Widoere created the master plan for the restoration of the gardens.

A moss covered stone lion wearing a red poleng guards the entrance to Tirta Gangga. (photo: IO/Tamalia)

When Dr Djelantik, Michael, Em­erald and Widoere met, a synergy was created by their common vision and love for Tirta Gangga. They were driv­en by the belief that the preservation of certain monuments around the world should occur as a legacy for future generations of all peoples – and Tirta Gangga was one of those monuments.
(Tamalia Alisjahbana)