gardens

The Splendors of the Tirta Gangga Water Gardens

Take a day trip from Ubud through Heaven and Hell and discover the enduring appeal of this royal Bali water park.

The last raja of Karangasem built these gorgeous gardens

The last raja of Karangasem built these gorgeous gardens

Our Bali itinerary was already filled with a week’s worth of activities packed into a handful of days. Then, on a whim, Wally suggested we add Taman Tirta Gangga, the lavish mid 20th century water gardens owned by the royal family of Karangasem, located two hours east of Ubud.

We had decided the night before to eliminate a few spots from our checklist, as we both quickly came to a realization from a previous day’s excursion — getting around on the two-lane roads on Bali is not the easiest, as they weren’t built for the amount of vehicles now using them.

If you bathe in the waters on a full moon, you will miraculously be blessed with youth and cured of illnesses.

We had found and hired a driver that Wally liked because he was wearing a traditional sarong. Besides being affordable, our driver Made (pronounced Meh-day) cost about $50 for the day. I was resistant to visiting Tirta Gangga at first, but in the end agreed it’d be worth making a road trip.

The stepping stones in the Mahabharata Pond at Tirta Gangga get a bit crowded

The stepping stones in the Mahabharata Pond at Tirta Gangga get a bit crowded

The Royal Water Gardens of Tirta Gangga

Tirta Gangga, whose name translates as “Blessed Water of the Ganges,” is surrounded by emerald green rice fields and rests upon a natural spring.

The enclosed recreational gardens occupy 2.5 acres and were built in 1948 by the last raja of Karangasem. An imaginative and budding architect, he was influenced by a visit to the gardens of Versailles, France.

During construction, it was a great surprise for visitors to find the raja spending his days knee-deep in the mud, steadily working alongside local craftsmen.

In this water garden, the source of its many water features is located beneath a sacred banyan tree named Rijasa by the villagers. Like the local river Ganges, it’s considered holy.

Duke and Wally on the bridge leading to Demon Island

Duke and Wally on the bridge leading to Demon Island

The waterspouts at Tirta Gangga depict various creatures

The waterspouts at Tirta Gangga depict various creatures

Local lore holds that if you bathe in the waters on a full moon, you will miraculously be blessed with youth and cured of illnesses.

When we arrived on a clear blue afternoon, the place was already a bit crowded. The gardens provided a glimpse into the Bali of old. The courtyards of Tirta Gangga are laid out on three levels, representing the Hindu concept of triloka, the mortal plane, the divine world and the lower realm of demons. Each level contains water features and sculptures that visitors can walk around and admire.

The first thing we saw when we entered was the monumental 11-tiered Nawa Sanga Fountain, which resembles a lotus and is Victorian in style. This fountain, together with the lower swimming pool and Mahabharata Pond, form the mortal bwah level of Tirta Gangga. The eight deity figures encircling the fountain represent the guardians of the cardinal directions and are positioned around the powerful central deity of Siwa, or Shiva, here represented as the fountain itself.

The 11 tiers of the Nawa Sanga Fountain were designed to resemble lotus flowers

The 11 tiers of the Nawa Sanga Fountain were designed to resemble lotus flowers

We followed the footpath leading directly to the auditorium pavilion, which is perched on the higher northern level, swah, the divine world and flanked by a pair of statues, reproductions of the original benevolent beast Barong, his humanlike feet playfully poking out in front.

Barongs, their feet sticking out in a comical manner, guard the back of the gardens

Barongs, their feet sticking out in a comical manner, guard the back of the gardens

Just beyond, in the garden’s northwest corner, lies a small meditation garden, with eight figures depicting samsara, the continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth, including three benevolent deities, a mortal man and mortal woman, and three horrifying demons.

Two Rangdas don’t make a right

Two Rangdas don’t make a right

Beware the demon queen!

Beware the demon queen!

One of the demons in the meditation area at the back of Tirta Gangga

One of the demons in the meditation area at the back of Tirta Gangga

Realizing we would most likely not attain enlightenment, at least not in this lifetime, we wandered over to the swimming pool. Wally was overheated and I agreed that it would be pretty special to cool off in a pool whose waters are considered sacred. After figuring out where the entrance was, we paid a small fee to take a plunge. Wally went in for a swim, while I dipped my toes in the bracing but refreshing spring water. Admittedly, I was a bit jealous that I hadn’t joined him, though I was amused by the antics of a group of college-age French boys.

Wally took a dip in the Lower Pool

Wally took a dip in the Lower Pool

A mythological creature spews water

A mythological creature spews water

After our swim, we visited the Mahabharata Pond. The octagonal stepping stones enabled us to walk across its surface and admire the large koi fish swimming in its crystal-clear waters. This feature is very crowded, and it’s a bit nerve-wracking letting people squeeze past you on the tiny stones as you pause for a photo. Sometimes people had to backtrack all the way to the start because they met up with someone going the opposite direction.

Duke is steppin’ out

Duke is steppin’ out

This celestial nymph is actually Wally

This celestial nymph is actually Wally

There are several stone sculptures spouting water into the pond. Other sculptures depict the mythical creatures of the Indian epic from which the pool got its name. The raja’s former country house, located just beyond the Versailles Pond, has been converted into an inn.

We eventually arrived at Tirta Gangga’s largest water feature, the South Pond, which is located to the left of the gardens’ entrance and incidentally bhur, the lower realm, where monsters reside. The pond contains the provocatively named Demon Island, which can be reached via a pair of bridges featuring ornately sculpted Balinese dragons.

Dragons perch atop the arched bridge to Demon Island

Dragons perch atop the arched bridge to Demon Island

Demon Island isn’t scary at all. It boasts a series of elegant quatrefoil-shaped fountains

Demon Island isn’t scary at all. It boasts a series of elegant quatrefoil-shaped fountains

The gardens were abandoned in 1963, when Mount Agung erupted unexpectedly after having been dormant for the past century. An ambitious restoration process began in 1979, led by the raja’s son, Anak Agung Made Djelantik, and was continued by Widoere Djelantik, the raja’s grandson, who has returned the gardens to their former glory.

Although the road trip to Tirta Gangga was a bit long, we both agreed how impressive it is and that it’s a special place worth visiting in Bali. –Duke

Tirta Gangga
Ababi
Abang
Karangasem Regency, Bali
Indonesia

Jardin Majorelle: A Moroccan Garden Oasis in Marrakech

What exactly is Majorelle Blue? What does Yves Saint Laurent have to do with the Majorelle Garden? And what’s this about a new Musée Yves Saint Laurent?

Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Escape the chaos of the medina for a calming visit to le Jardin Majorelle 

Marrakech, Morocco is famous for many things: thick, fortified ramparts of beaten red clay, the towering minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque and the vast open square Djemaa el-Fna with its network of narrow, winding market-filled alleys known as souks. Oh, and “Berber whiskey”: hot, sweet mint tea served in small glasses.

Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

Duke and Vanessa in the Majorelle Gardens

On our last full day in Marrakech, Wally, Vanessa and I walked from the medina to the Nouvelle Ville — French for New City. Our plan was to visit the Jardin Majorelle and to purchase a new memory card for our digital camera. We hoped to retrieve the images from our corrupted memory card, which had stopped working when we arrived in the Sahara, further proof that jinns exist.

We found a camera store, and Wally conversed with the shopkeeper in French, who took the card and inserted it into a reader. He looked up at us, shook his head and said, "C’est grillé.”

“I think that means it’s toast,” Wally said, sadly.

Towering palms seen through an archway

Towering palms seen through an archway

We went on with our day, happy to at least have a new memory card to start taking more pictures. As the three of us made our way around the walled enclosure surrounding the Jardin Majorelle, we became a bit concerned it wouldn’t be open. Our guide from our desert trek, Barack, had told us that the most important prayers of the week are those at noon on Friday, and because of this, Muslim cities essentially close from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We were in luck, though — the garden was open.

We entered the garden through a weathered wooden door, and although there were many people visiting that morning, I was struck by its serenity. The pebbled garden path led through a dense cluster of bamboo. Sadly, countless visitors have left their mark by carving their initials into the shafts of bamboo.

Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

Visitors past have left their mark in the bamboo section of the garden

Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

Wally loves the exquisite Moroccan detailing at the nearby villa 

The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

The villa houses a gift shop and Berber museum

True Blue: The History of the Majorelle Garden

The garden’s creator was Jacques Majorelle, a French Orientalist painter, the son of furniture designer and manufacturer Louis Majorelle. On the advice of his physician, Majorelle the junior travelled to Morocco for the sake of his health, and was immediately captivated by the vibrant colors and quality of light.

He settled in Marrakech in 1917, and in 1923 purchased four acres of land bordering a palm grove outside the city’s ancient walled medina. Eventually, Majorelle purchased an adjacent plot, expanding the property to 10 acres.

In 1931, he commissioned architect Paul Sinoir to design a Cubist villa to serve as his studio. Majorelle painted the fountains, planters and atelier a specific shade of cobalt blue, now appropriately named bleu Majorelle.

This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

This striking cobalt is known as Majorelle blue

Around his new dwelling, Majorelle, a passionate amateur botanist, cultivated the gardens, which he opened to the public in 1947 to help offset their costly maintenance. After Majorelle’s death in 1962, the gardens remained open but gradually fell into a state of disrepair, lacking the care necessary to maintain them.

The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

The designer Yves Saint Laurent saved the garden from disrepair

Yves Saint Laurent to the Rescue

Couturier Yves Saint Laurent acquired a second guesthouse, Dar Es Saada, in Marrakech in 1973 with his then-boyfriend Pierre Bergé. Arabic for the House of Happiness in Serenity, it was located near one of their favorite places, the Jardin Majorelle. When they learned seven years later that the gardens were slated for demolition to make way for a pool and bungalows. Saint Laurent and Bergé decided to purchase the 12-acre garden and villa. The couple enlisted American landscape architect Madison Cox to meticulously restore the gardens. According to Cox, Saint Laurent had the vision to have the flowerpots scattered throughout the garden painted in lemon yellow, sky blue and the famous bleu Majorelle. Saint Laurent and Bergé kept the garden open for visitors to enjoy, just as Majorelle did. 

(Bergé and Cox married in a private civil ceremony shortly before Bergé’s death in 2017. Cox is  also the director of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle, an organization that operates under the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.)

YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

YSL’s genderbending aesthetic included le smoking, a feminized take on the tux

Musée Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent often designed his collections while in Marrakech, inspired by the city’s colors and shapes. So it’s fitting, pun intended, that a museum dedicated to the influential designer’s life and legacy was built next to the Jardin Majorelle.

Although it wasn’t open when we visited, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, abbreviated as mYSLm, was spearheaded by Bergé and conceived by Studio KO architects Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty. The museum contains an extensive collection of couture garments, sketches, fashion photos and assorted objects showcasing YSL’s signature genderbending style from 1962 until his retirement in 2002.

The bamboo copse at Majorelle

The bamboo copse at Majorelle

Secret Garden

We passed through a pergola covered with bougainvillea and paused to look into a reflecting pool containing water lilies and a pair of turtles resting at its edge.

The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

The garden is mostly green with periodic bursts of pink and red

Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Drought-tolerant cacti make up the majority of plants at the Majorelle Garden

Following the garden path, we came upon a modest memorial dedicated to Saint Laurent. When he passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered amongst the garden he and Bergé so lovingly restored.

This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

This decaying column serves as Saint Laurent’s memorial 

Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

Wally and Vanessa enjoy the serenity of this oasis

Artists paint the plantlife

Artists paint the plantlife

A peek over an artist’s shoulder

A peek over an artist’s shoulder

The magnificence of this garden reminded me of the exotic Generalife gardens located beside the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The arid landscape, originally almost devoid of vegetation, like the gardens of the Alhambra, were utterly transformed by Majorelle over a span of 40 years. From what I could identify, the garden includes agave, bamboo, cacti, cypress, datura, succulents and bougainvillea.

In the Cubist villa, there’s a gift shop and a museum dedicated to artifacts from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers. Just don’t try to sneak in, or you might get kicked out, like Wally did.

Birds chirping, bamboo rustling in the breeze, and the sound of trickling fountains truly turn the garden into a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of the medina. –Duke

We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

We recommend adding le Jardin Majorelle to your Marrakech itinerary

Jardin Majorelle
Rue Yves Saint Laurent

Admission: 30 dirham, or around $3.25


Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Spinach-filled phylo puffs at the neighboring Kaowa Café

Nearby

Thirsty and hungry after visiting the gardens, we dined on the terrace of Kaowa Café, a snack and juice bar situated across the way. We ate delicious puffs filled with cheese and tried some of their signature juices.