TABANAN, Indonesia – The ancient water temple of Tanah Lot, which rises out of the Indian Ocean off Bali’s southwestern coast, looms like a remnant of a lost civilization.
The impressive West Bali structure, purportedly sited in the 15th century by a Hindu priest named Niratha, is perched on a rocky outcropping just a few meters from the beach.
True to its name, Tanah Lot (which is Balinese for “land in the water”) appears as if it would be cut off from the shore at high tide. As precariously poised as it looks, Pura Tanah Lot is also endangered by the constantly churning waters. (In the 1980s, a sizeable loan from the Japanese government helped Indonesian authorities shore up the eroding rock formation that comprises its base.)
Across a narrow stretch of ocean, a cave with a sign that says “holy snake” faces the temple, though there is no such animal in sight. (An 18-foot python greeted visitors near the entrance, but it’s not clear if this is the holy one.)
Only later do I learn that the area is rumored to be guarded by poisonous sea snakes — led by one giant specimen — against evil spirits. I might have stepped more carefully had I known.
A holy spring bubbles up from the rock on which Pura Tanah Lot sits, and visitors queue up for a blessing and a dab of rice on the forehead from priests who receive donations and place a small blossom behind each person’s ear.
It’s a lovely gesture, entirely precedented by Bali’s moniker of “Island of the Gods.”