Goa Gajah or “Elephant Cave” may be cave-like, but there are no pachyderms here, nor were there ever any in Bali (the ones at the elephant parks come from Sumatra). The name may refer to the elaborately carved elephant-like face over the man-made cave entrance, or perhaps the Ganesh statue within or even the Chinese-whispers of mistranslation of a nearby river. Regardless of the misnomer, Goa Gajah is a significant, yet perplexing Hindu-Buddhist archaeological site, and may well be the oldest in Bali possibly dating back to the tenth or 11th century. The complex contains the aforementioned cave, a couple of temples, ancient bathing pools and some collapsed Buddhist relics all within a stunning jungle setting. The proximity to downtown Ubud makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area.
The menacing looking facade of the cave, a magnificent bulging-eyed demon, is carved directly out of the rock face, with gaping mouth ready to swallow you into the smallish T-shaped grotto. Apparently the intention of the evil looking character was to ward off evil rather than invite it, and the interior cave may have served for meditation purposes. While the cave is plenty large enough to stand and hold a bit of a crowd, if you suffer from claustrophobia, you may want to give it a miss. Inside, to the left of the T intersection sits a small elephant-headed Ganesh statue, and to the right, an unusual triple lingga—a phallic Shaivite fertility symbol. Take a torch to have a good look as it’s poorly lit. The cave itself should see you buzzing through in about five minutes, possibly shorter than your time spent in the queue to enter.
To the left of the cave a small structure houses another ancient Ganesh statue along with a statue of Hariti and her many children, a popular fertility goddess plus a statue of a smiling crosslegged figure.The bathing pools sunken within the central courtyard were uncovered as recently as 1954, and a pile of rocks in front of these poses another puzzling jigsaw. The bathing area consists of two large pools and a smaller one in between, reached by a steep staircase. Each of the two larger pools are fed by three water pouring Apsaras and Gandharvas (a total of six), although it looks like there may have been space for a fourth on either side. The style of the carvings is similar to that of the reliefs of Borobudur in Central Java. The segregated pools would have been used separately by men and women, with women to the left and men to the right, probably in purifying rituals similar to those at the holy waters at nearby Tirta Empul. Modern-day Balinese regard these pools as having religious significance and the water as holy.
A walk down the steps towards the river gets you deeper into the forest where massive trees provide ample shade from the sun and create a stunning picture with their gnarly roots. In this area are the remnants of some Buddhist relics, but to the untrained eye they may just look like a pile of rocks. The most obvious to look for is a moss-covered carved section in the river near the stone bridge and a largish oblong grotto in the rocks above the lotus pool.