Tirta Gangga: Restoring Indonesia’s most popular royal water garden. Part II: The creation

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The main fountain and buildings at Tirta Gangga.(photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – Anak Agung Angloerah Ketut Karangasem, the last rajah of Ka­rangasam finished creating the roy­al water gardens of Tirta Gangga in 1948. The gardens were later heavily damaged by the volcanic eruption of Gunung Agung in 1963 and for years afterwards remained in a neglected state through lack of funds. Four people brought about the present restoration of the gardens. They were Dr Djelantik the son of the last rajah who most likely would have succeed­ed him if Indonesia had not become a republic, his son Prince Widoere who is an architect, information technol­ogists and artist, Michael Honack an American philanthropist and philos­opher, and fourth environmentalist and designer Emerald Starr. The four men had several important things in common. In fact, Anak Agung Anglo­erah who created the gardens could be added to this special group and what we would find is a group of ex­tremely intelligent, spiritual men who while appreciating and understand­ing their own cultures were also able to transcend their societies and em­brace the best in other cultures. A new gentle breed of heroes for a mod­ern world.

Plaque erected in 1948 when the gardens were opened. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

There is a plaque near the main fountain at Tirta Gangga which states that “The King of Karangasam, Anak Agung Angloerah Ketut Karangasam began work on these gardens on the 2nd of January 1948 in order to bring pleasure to people of all na­tions who visit them. Hopefully, the gardens are satisfactory. I would not wish to forget to also thank the peo­ple of Karangasam who free willingly helped to create these gardens. I also thank all officials involved especially P.T.H. Snelleman, district officer and government advisor for Karangasam who provided counsel in the creation of the gardens.”

Anak Agung Angloerah built palac­es and temples but also loved to cre­ate gardens. Although, he built Tirta Gangga in part to ensure and improve the holiness of an already sacred place, his gardens were in general not religious places but rather more in the style of royal pleasure gar­dens. He was very modern and cre­ating gardens was what enlightened kings did. Prince Widoere explained, “He no doubt, saw and heard of the gardens that other kings built such as the pleasure gardens in Lombok (also under Karangasam rule) which were already in existence – though now neglected – and the gardens of the Javanese and European kings. He realized that this is what kings the world over do: they create won­derful gardens at first for themselves but in the end also for their people to enjoy and this is also what happened at Tirta Gangga. At first the gardens and swimming pools were for the king and the royal family but it did not take long before they were also open to the public. Anak Agung Angloer­ah saw pictures of Versailles and was inspired. So much so, that he was moved to create a pool of four foun­tains just as in Versailles. It is why that pool has always been referred to as the Versailles pool.”

A photograph of Anak Agung Angloerah Ketut Karangasam who first created Tirta Gangga. (photo: WWW.TIRTAGANGGA.COM)

He chose Tirta Gangga as the place for his water garden because one of the most important springs in Karangasam is located here. Em­erald Starr conducted a rough mea­surement of the waters emerging from Tirta Gangga’s spring, “I measured the volume of the ponds and the time it took to fill them after being emptied and calculated 10,000 liters of water per minute.”

This calculation may not be com­pletely accurate but Karangasam water department has calculated that there is a water surplus (water not used in Tirta Gangga) of 50 liters every second. The waters of Tirta Gangga feed all the pools and swim­ming pools in the gardens, the excess water then continues on to supply the people of Amlapura, the capital of Karangasam with pipped water and from there goes further to the farm­ers of a segment of Karangasam. The waters are indeed life giving just as the waters in the old Hindu legends of Tirta Amerta.

The enclosure for the holy spring with a statue of Vishnu who stole the amerta from the demons for the gods. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Tirta means “blessed waters” and Amerta means “life giving”. Accord­ing to the Hindu legends the gods of Aditya churned the great milk sea together with the demons of Detya to look for Tirta Amerta, the waters that would give a being eternal life. Many things emerged from the milk sea as it was churned and they were nearly all taken by the gods. When Amerta finally rose to the surface the demons claimed it saying that the gods had already received too much. In fairness the gods let them have the amerta. The god Vishnu however wanted amerta for the gods and told them he would steal the amerta from the demons which he did in the form of a beautiful maiden called Mohini which means “jasmine blossom”. In Tirta Gangga stands a small temple complex where the spring is located. A small structure was built over the spring with two dragons guarding it. They represent balance. At the top of the structure is a small carving of Vishnu sitting astride the holy bird Garuda for without Vishnu there would have been no Amerta. The spring with its temple structure then is the pulsating, life-giving heart of Tirta Gangga.

In recognition of the importance and lifegiving powers of the waters of Tirta Gangga the royal family of Ka­rangasam chose as its royal emblem a water container with wings and the motto Amerta Jiwa which means the “waters of eternal life for the soul”. The emblem appears on some of the fences of the enclosures at Tirta Gangga. Nearby temples use waters from the spring as holy water.

View of the layout of Tirta Gangga in about 1955 from the upper swimming pool. (photo: WWW.TIRTAGANGGA.COM)

Prince Widoere’s work with the gardens was to restore the parts of it that were still there but damaged and to continue to further design and develop the gardens. In doing so he tried to reflect more strongly Bali’s Hindu Buddhist religious philosophy. He created a master plan and from 2000 till 2018 he was in charge of managing the gardens. For him the gardens do not just contain beauty and history but are also a place to learn morals and the Hindu Buddhist philosophy. Creating the master plan was not just an architectural task but also a spiritual one. In creating it he tried to draw Taksu into the gardens. Taksu is a Balinese word which is de­fined as the creative energy needed for a creation to be good. If for exam­ple a dancer dances with Taksu, that Taksu will emerge from the depths of her spirit and the resulting dance will be superb. It means “essence of spirit,” or “divine inspiration.” It is more than passion or talent. When a dancer fasts and prays before danc­ing an important dance or a kris maker places offerings near the fires of his smithy before starting, they are trying to draw Taksu to them. In cre­ating the master plan Widoere was in search of Taksu.

Prince Widoere’s masterplan for the garden with its 3 levels for the gods, for people and for the demons. (photo: WWW.TIRTAGANGGA.COM)

Tirtagangga is divided into three levels or terraces which Prince Wido­ere tried to design into the state of being which the Balinese refer to as Triloka. The three levels are as fol­lows:

The highest north facing level closest to Mount Agung is referred to as the Swah level and this is for the gods. Here under the banyan trees, are the spring, the upper swimming pool, the Versailles pool and the pool with the Vctoria Regina water lilies.

The Nawa Sanga fountain is in the form of a lingga for Shiva. It has an octagonal pool with a side for each of the eight gods representing different cardinal points. There is a statue for each god. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The second level is known as the Bwah level and is for people. Here is the famous Nawa Sanga or Sanga Mandala fountain which was origi­nally created by Anak Agung Anglo­erah and rises in eleven tiers like a giant lingga for Shiva. This is because the waters flowing from Tirta Gangga’s spring come from Mount Agung the highest and most sa­cred mountain in Bali and Mount Agung belongs to Shiva. The fountain is oc­tagonal in shape and represents the nine gods who are the guardians of the nine cardinal points in ancient Javanese and Balinese Hin­duism (Shiva at the centre is the ninth god). On each side of the octagon stands a statue of one of the gods. The Nawa Sangga was also repre­sented in an­cient Majaphit’s sun symbol. It is a manifesta­tion of the nev­er-ending quest for order and harmony . T o the west of the fountain is the lower swimming pool and to the east of the fountain is what is probably the most popular feature of the gardens: the Mahabharata pool.

The famous Mahabharata pool is on the Bwah or human level of the Triloka. It is irresistible for visitors taking selfies. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
Saraswati. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The Mahabharata pool is a stroke of genius. Originally, on the pond were the four swans of Saraswati who represents creativity and the arts. On an island as creative as Bali she is extremely venerated. Prince Wido­ere however, transformed the pond into the Mahabharata pool with the Pandavas facing the Kurawas. Saras­wati meanwhile was given a pond to herself with a statue of her from Mi­chael Honack. The stroke of genius was that Prince Widoere placed small stone slabs resembling lily pads in the pool beside the statues where visitors to the gardens can stand. In this day and age of selfies this is the most popular item in the garden with visitors vying to take photographs of themselves on the pond. Apparently, no one can resist being photographed walking on water.

A demon with a crown of flames. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
A demon with a trunk like Ganesha. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The lowest level of the gardens is the Bhur level which is dominated by the South pool with its demon island in the middle. In Balinese belief not all gods are good and not all demons are bad. Amongst the demons some appear to be a sort of looking glass image of some of the gods. There are some for example who resemble distorted images of Ganesha the ele­phant god or Surya the sun god.

The meditation circle for the ordinary man and woman with their choice of moving towards the gods or the demons. Note the lotus, ying yang motifs and poleng design on the floor representing dark and light and the need to find balance. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
The statue of the ordinary man at the meditation circle. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
The design on the floor of the meditation circle. There is a lotus for balance at its center with outer rings of poleng and then the ying yang motif representing dark and light. (photo: WWW.TIRTAGANGGA.COM)

One of the most beautiful features of the gardens created by Prince Wi­doere is the meditation circle under the banyan trees. It is a peaceful place where once the Rajah meditat­ed. Now, it is a meditation spot for the ordinary person and its 8 sculptures are used to express the transition between the Triloka worlds. It forms a circle where to the west stands a sculpture of the ordinary man and across from him towards the east is a statue of the ordinary woman. To the north stands the statue of a god and to the south a demon. On the ground at the center of the circle is the picture of a lotus symbolizing balance, around this are circles with the black and white poleng cloth and the symbols of ying and yang. In life a person has free choice. A man may try to be good and move closer to the gods and become a good man. Be­tween the statue of the ordinary man and the statue of the god stands the statue of a good man. The same ap­plies towards moving in the direction of demons. Between the ordinary man and the demon stands the stat­ue of an evil man. It is the same for the statue of the ordinary woman.

Prince Widoere stands at the Versailles pool. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

For 18 years Prince Widoere planned and managed the gardens and then as families do the royal family appointed a new manager. On the 30th of April 2018 Prince Widoere wrote in the Tirta Gangga website that he managed for 18 years: Please, note that after managing for 18 years in joy, I am no longer responsible for Tirtagangga. It means that the ren­ovation according to the Masterplan that brings Tirtagangga to prosperity, is also completed.”

The ordinary woman at the stands at the meditation circle. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Is it truly completed? Michael Honack and Emerald Starr would still like to see Tirta Gangga turned into the most spectacular botanical garden in Indonesia. Then again there is no statue for the Goddess of the Ganges who is the main god for Tirta Gangga. When asked Prince Wi­doere said that the statues of the god­desses for the Swah level were not yet complete. The feminine energy is not yet in balance with the male energy at Tirta Gangga. One could say that that is a problem not only in Tirta Gangga but all over Indonesia and perhaps even the world. So, it may well be that the work of the three gentlemen is not quite over yet at Tirta Gangga. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Candi bentur entrance to Tirta Gangga. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

To read Part I of this article please go to: https://observerid.com/tirta-gangga-restoring-indonesias-most-popular-royal-water-garden-part-i-the-synergy/