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The Waterpalaces of Bali  

by on Saturday, 14 April 2007One Comment | 5,064 views

Holy water and veiled green

The last king of East Bali had two beautiful water-palaces layed out during his reigning period. By the eruption of the Gunung Agung in 1963, which involved earthquakes throughout the east region, the palaces were largely destroyed. In recent years however, they both have been renovated and rebuilt.

Tirtagangga Water Garden

On the slope of the Gunung Agung amidst ricefields you will find Tirtagangga. The water-palace is situated around a natural well of which the water is held to be holy. Five water-basins, fountains and statues from hindu-culture rend the gardens the atmosphere of an open air museum. And whether it is on the account of the water or not, with an abundance of veiled green and blossom the gardens breathe a serene quietness that borders upon spirituality.

A gate in the corner of the gardens gives access to the country house of doctor Madé Djelantik, second son of the last king. The nameplate is withdrawn from view by an offering, of which the flowers have already faded. Behind the gate a path alongside a green lawn leads up to a veranda. There, sitting in one of the cane chairs, a slightly built man is reading a newspaper.

So as not to walk up to him unawares we call out “good morning” from afar, but he does not respond. At the steps we hesitate for an instant, for you do not enter the apartment of a prince uninvited.

Then a young woman enters from the back of the house and says close to his ear: “Dad, visitors!” He straightens up, puts away the newspaper and walks towards us with his hands stretched out. “Come on in, come on in”. He wears a linen pair of trousers and a printed t-shirt. No sign of kingly decorum anywhere.

Six years ago doctor Djelantik (87) has made a start renovating Tirtagangga. His father, I Gusti Bagus Djelantik, who had been appointed “stedehouder” by the Dutch administration in 1908, was a great fancier of Balinese art and culture and thus enjoyed himself in his hobby of gardening by laying out water-palaces.

Taman Ujung

His first project was the water-palace near Ujung, a far but lovely point in East Bali, where mountains meet the ocean. It consists of several lakes and pavilions, skirted by lawns with blooming plants and trees.

Taman Ujung

On the east side stairs lead to a pagoda, the only remains after the eruption. The intentions of the king, to combine art and nature with geometrical forms from both Balinese spiritual symbolism and European court-culture, become clear when looking at the gardens from this high point. A few years ago Taman Ujung has been re-opened for the general public, but the desolation of the big new car park shows that this information has not yet found its way into all the handbooks for tourism.

As for numbers of acres the water-palace of Tirtagangga is much smaller than Taman Ujung, but it is better known by far. After the eruption this water-palace was neglected for many years, pieces of ruined statues had been taken away by the local people. Only two enormous pigs at the entrance have outlived the earthquakes undamaged and it is only for their weight that today they are the solemn weathered reminders of the origins of these gardens.

Tirtagangga Water Garden

The entrance bears resemblance to a temple-gate: a few steps, flanked by two columns that slant on the outsides like two folding hands. They symbolise a divided mountain. There are three large water-basins, in which piers and stones lead along statues. The basins represent three stages from Hinduism: underworld, earth and heaven.

The statues in the basin of the underworld look quite aggressively at the visitor, trying to address the less positive sides of his character, for many a tourist better known as ‘the seven deadly sins’: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

The stepping stones in the basin of the earth is made like a chess game, life portrayed as a continuing confrontation between two parties. Big lotus leafs float in the basin of the gods, only accessible for insects and little frogs.

A large veranda is built at the far side of the gardens, a high thatched roof over de stone floor, where one can rest and enjoy the views in breathless admiration. But the calm can easily be disturbed, when a touring car pulls up at the entrance and a crowd of excited tourists pour into the gardens. Then the spirits swiftly withdraw beneath the age-old waringin tree north of the palace.

As tea is brought in, doctor Djelantik starts to tell his story. Slowly and with a soft voice, his eyes alert to perceive what his ears no longer hear. In real life doctor Djelantik is as amiable as the selfimage he evokes in his book “The Birth Mark, memories of a Balinese Prince”. A life full of dangers was foretold when a balian, a traditional medical man, saw the birthmark on his chest at age of seven.

Apart from being a biography the book is a valuable time document due to the detailed descriptions of the courtlife, that gradually became oppressed under the colonial government, and the changes that modern times brought about.

The old royal palace in Amlapura, where doctor Djelantik spent his childhood, currently serves as a museum. After the last king died, the family moved away to a new building on the other side of the road. Dwelling through the rooms the visitor is introduced to a bygone history, that only still exists in photographs and words.

“I could never have guessed that so many people would read my book”, he now says. “The other day I got a letter from a woman who lives in China. She was a niece of mr. Tan, the violin-teacher during my studies in Yogyakarta”.

In his youth Madé Djelantik enjoyed all the privileges that come with the life of a prince. Devotion and respect of the population, Dutch education at colleges on Java and universities in Holland. Unlike his brother Gedé, who for the sake of being a heir to the throne had to study administration and economics, Madé was free to choose a subject.

He went for medical studies. In print that may predict a safe and secure future, but reality was very different. While settling in a little topfloor apartment in Amsterdam the bombs of the second World War started falling. The hostile situation could however not keep him from falling in love. Her name was Astri Zwart and he brought her home with him when returning to Bali after the war.

First he worked as a managing director of the main hospital and then was appointed head of the medical service of Bali in 1956. Specializing in tropical diseases later on he was sent abroad by the WHO as a malaria doctor to several countries in Africa and the Middle East, usually places where human drama and deprivation ruled every day life.

Two figurations carved in stone decorate the walls on the veranda of his country house. They tell the story of his life.


With a cane walking stick he points out several episodes. “Look, there the bombs fall in Kabul. We were evacuated just in time.”

He smiles at the memory. A man who has lived through the many dangers as told in his book, is not easily scared. Moreover, he found Astri at his side, a nurse by profession who did not like nonsense.

“She was a very determined woman”, says Djelantik. “Without her I would never have written a book at all”.

He recalls the request of a Dutch publisher, who knew about his interests in art and culture, to make a compilation when he was retired.

“The very idea!, I thought, and put the letter aside. Half a year later the request was repeated, but this time my wife found the letter first. “How could you be so rude not to answer this man?” she wanted to know. So I sat down obedient and wrote a confirming answer. Within a month I received back a contract. Of course I signed. What else could I do?”

He laughs, but from the right hand corner of his eye a tear trickles down. Astri passed away in 1997, the love of his life is no longer with him.

“I never seeked those situations myself”, he says, returning to the stone carvings, “they just happened upon me. The narrow escapes are probably due to the power of my birthmark, don’t you think?”

At the very bottom the last picture shows a man behind his typewriter. Even if his stature becomes frail with age, the spirit never rests. Membaca buku membuka dunia, read the big letters on his t-shirt. Reading books opens up the world.

Written by Ann Bouwma.

Ann Bouwma works as a journalist (culture and art, social issues, travel) and writer (novel: De Aarzeling, 2006) in Amsterdam. Pictures are courtesy of Roy Tee

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