6 July 2014
Purifying body and soul, hoping for immortality
Corpses of dead babies were said to be thrown into the river. On my only visit to legendary Varanasi four years ago, I had not witnessed such a sight – but I did see bodies being cremated outdoors on top of small wooden pyres and, a few hundred metres away along the shore (called the “ghats”), many Hindus were bathing in the sacred Ganges river.
That purification of body – and supposedly of soul too – is a common sight on what I’ll call “watery” Hindu sites. In the case of Tirta Empul in central Bali, which literally means a “crystal clear stream”, the ever-replenishing fountains indeed gave an impression of freshness and regeneration. At least I’m sure the worshippers feel vividly alive when they jump in those freezing waters!
Tirta Empul is a thousand-year-old Balinese temple, with various courtyards and pools, some of them filled with “ornamental” carps called kois (it's a Japanese word). The pools’ holy water serves different purposes, from cremation to praying to “symbolic” cleaning… although some take it a step further than the pure symbolism and actually bathe.
I stayed on the side of the long rectangular pool carved of stone to enjoy the bustling activity, many Indonesians being just happy to be there and take pictures of themselves. A few New-Age Westerners didn’t resist the temptation to attempt a purifying-water salvation. And even if I’m capable of wearing boxer shorts on my forearms, I think I was still a little worried about the cleanliness of the water to dare plunging in the pool too (although, my European-weather-adapted body was probably sweating more than anyone else’s!).
Before bathing, worshippers usually give offerings placed in those very light boxes. Perhaps in a desire to feel more immersed into the relaxed environment, I stuck around for quite some time, paying attention to my surroundings and the people moving around. I immediately jumped in to help that old lady who had accidentally dropped her box – oh wait, maybe it was a clever technique on her part to approach me, just realising it now… A father noticed my camera and tried to get his daughter to look at my lens – it was a kind, silent moment. Another man then wanted to take a picture with me – that was funny too.
As is often the case, the origin of the temple is rooted in myth. King Maya Denawa forbade its people to worship gods which logically angered those very gods who mounted an army against the king. But the king hadn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention; it’s a question of timing, the king lived in the tenth century, and the treaty entered into force in 1997 – with only four states not signing it: Angola, North Korea, South Sudan, and Egypt, well done to them. So the king astutely used such weapons to poison the enemy army.
But aha the gods have more than one trick up their sleeve (hmm, wondering what kind of clothes they wear though – okay, who cares): god Indra, the god of rain and thunderstorms, picked up his pole and planted it into the earth, unleashing a spring which water resuscitated the dead soldiers (but of course). I can only imagine the rest of the story and I don’t think the king survived very long thereafter.
The fountain of immortality was thus born and the myth entertained over the centuries as the water prosperously irrigated the neighbouring rice fields. How I wish I could be immortal – I don’t have enough of one life, even if I’m lucky enough to be (physically) healthy still. Maybe I should have dared dip a toe in that pool after all… thank “god” I do own a few operational clones as consolation prize.