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When you think of Bali, rave parties at Kuta or beautiful coastlines along Uluwatu may come to mind. But the heart and soul of this island paradise lies further up the hills in the serene jungles of Ubud, a legendary spiritual escape that offers visitors ancient wisdom and contemporary charm.
While Bali is a world-famous destination, Ubud was relatively unheard of until its appearance in Eat Pray Love. Many people first came to know Ubud as a spiritual destination through the eyes of Elizabeth Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) in Gilbert’s famed quest for self-discovery and love.
Ever since, tourists have swarmed the island, trying to experience similar spiritual journeys. Retracing Elizabeth’s steps through Ubud, tourists lined up to see the now deceased spiritual healer Ketut Liyer. They also rent houses amidst lush tropical greeneries and cycle through the villages and rice fields. Today, the locality is known for quirky yoga shalas, wellness retreats, spiritual healers, and contemporary establishments with a sophisticated natural touch for calming the eyes and mind.
But long before these new arrivals, Ubud was already a center for art, culture, and healing — spiritual or otherwise. Its lush vegetation was an abundant source of medicine, inspiring the name Ubud from the local dialect Ubad that means “medicine.”
Archaeological discoveries dating as far back as 300 BC suggest that Ubud had an organized society that participated in various customs and rituals. This recorded cultural and spiritual growth was linked to the arrival of Buddhist priest Rsi Markandeya.
After journeying through parts of Java and Bali, the priest says he received divine inspiration while praying and meditating. He saw a scenic highland with tropical jungles and serene natural surroundings — an ideal place to practice prayers, meditation, and yoga.
The priest ventured to Ubud, the “promised land” he envisioned, where he continued mastering yoga and spirituality. Markandeya and his followers built temples and spiritual centers, although unfortunately, not many of these buildings remain in Ubud today. However, newer temples and sacred places have been built here; many were even built using the foundations of older temples to retain the sacredness of each spot, as well as the priest’s wisdom.
Ubud is still home to a number of temples, sacred places, and holy springs. Tirta Empul is one of the most prominent sacred spots to receive purifying water, while Gunung Kawi temple is adored for its ornate shrines and stone-carved statues.
This spiritual scene now has a more contemporary touch. Meditation caves seem like a relic, compared to the stylishly built yoga shalas and luxurious wellness centers that visitors book appointments at each day. Ancient ashrams are now visited as cultural attractions.
Today, people and establishments have found modern ways to celebrate Ubud’s spirituality. Fresh retreats, establishments, and programs are being developed that maintain the essence of Ubud’s spiritual history. For example, the BaliSpirit Festival brings together yoga, meditation, healing, and music to promote wellness in Ubud for people across the globe.