11 Feb Why We Should Treasure Subak, Bali’s Spiritual Irrigation System
A meandering footpath takes you through pristine rice paddies. Watch the farmers toil their fields and kids flying their kites. Admire the intricate terraced landscaping, its lush green fields against the bright blue sky… this is what Bali is all about. In 2014, UNESCO even decided to inscribe Bali’s rice fields on the World Heritage List. But few people know that there’s more to these fields: Bali’s subak system is the real soul of the island, a deeply spiritual community-based system to manage the island’s irrigation in harmony with the gods. Follow us to the small village of Nyuh Kuning near Ubud in the heart of Bali to learn more about subak and what makes it so special.
SPIRITUAL RICE FARMING
Subak, a unique water management system for rice fields, is at the basis of Bali’s green and lush landscape. On the Island of Gods, rice farming is a community affair. All rice farmers are obligated to join a subak association to jointly decide on matters such as planting, crops, pest control, and irrigation. What makes this system even more unique is its strong spiritual element: life in the subak revolves around the pura, a temple specially built by farmers to worship the Goddess Sri. Every rice field has a shrine, every subak a temple, and up to 15 blessing ceremonies are held per season to ensure a good harvest.
Life in the subak revolves around a temple built by farmers to worship the Goddess Sri
Kelian, the island’s Indigenous leaders, manage the water allocation among the rice paddies. The uniqueness of the subak is that it is not based on maximum efficiency but on principle, namely Tri Hati Karana, a harmonious relationship between people, god, and their environment.
“THE SUBAK SYSTEM IS THE BACKBONE OF BALINESE SOCIETY”
“The cultural and traditional values that underpin the Subak irrigation system have enabled the Balinese to become prolific rice growers despite natural challenges such as a hilly landscape,” explains Catrini Ari of the Indonesian Heritage Trust. To an outsider, it may seem strange that the gods have a say in agricultural production. But, “the subak is the backbone of Balinese society,” as Diah Kardinal from local NGO Bali Kuna puts it. This system has thrived for centuries and is a great example of sustainable agriculture.
All rice farmers are obliged to join a subak association to jointly decide on planting, crops, pest control, and irrigation
In 2014, four places on the island got selected by UNESCO as the best examples of the different subak elements. The purest source of water can be found at the volcano lake, Batur Pura, in the north, Tampak Siring, and the Royal water temple Taman Ayun in Mengwi are the most exquisite water temples. Jatuluwin in the centre of Bali has the most stunning rice terraces.
HERITAGE UNDER THREAT
But Bali’s unique subak system is now under threat. Temples at the UNESCO-listed sites are now overrun by tourists. The islands’ lush rice terraces are slowly eaten up by holiday villas and hotel owners vying for a paddy field view. Farmers are bought out by foreign investors: as long as developers are willing to pay for a photogenic backdrop, farmers are very aware that selling land makes for a quick buck compared to working the fields. But if the rice fields disappear, so do Bali’s subak rituals and the island’s deeply rooted community culture. Around Denpasar, Sanur, and Ubud, there are many subaks that no longer have rice fields, their subak temples standing as lonely reminders. As fewer young people show an interest in the profession, the island-rich heritage is slowly dying.
“BALI’S UNIQUE SUBAK SYSTEM IS UNDER THREAT. TEMPLES THAT WERE DESIGNED FOR THE GODS ARE NOW OVERRUN BY TOURISTS”
The islands’ lush rice terraces are slowly eaten up by hotels and holiday villas
But there is hope! Bali’s heritage societies have stepped up their game to make subaks attractive for the next generations. Ibu Catrini says: “We organise field schools for young people from all over Indonesia to experience local life and learn about the subak rituals.” The camps are led by academic staff and local experts from Bali, Jakarta, Kyoto, and Hong Kong. They provide a great opportunity for students to learn about farming techniques and the ceremonies aligned with the rice cultivation stages.
Then, these camps work with farmers associations and local craftsmen to suggest ways to future-proof the Subak System for the 21st century. Together, they experiment with community-based tourism initiatives on rice farms, sustainable design, walking, cycling trails, as well as to help create solutions for damaged irrigation systems. ”These field schools make young people enthusiastic about their own culture and heritage,” thus Ibu Catrini. “And we make sure to share the work that they do. We organise sessions to explain the ideas to people that can make a difference, including the local governments, irrigation associations, and travel agencies.” Maybe there has never been a better time to travel to Bali.
PLANNING ON VISITING BALI? THIS IS WHAT YOU CAN DO TO TRAVEL RESPONSIBLY:
Go to the less-visited places. Skip the UNESCO-listed sites and venture out to the lesser-known but equally stunning paddy fields around Ubud. Want to know where to find these fields and other hidden gems in Bali? Download the iDiscover Nyuh Kuning map here, which is wonderfully illustrated by Aryo, a local artist. For even easier navigation, click here to download our 100% free app for iOs or Android. It features two handcrafted walking routes through Bali’s heritage gems: the spiritual village of Nyuh Kuning and the fishing town of Sanur. These are places where the spirit of Bali is alive. The app&map is curated with love by the passionate folks from Bali Kuna, with support from Indonesia Heritage Trust and Giangyar Regency for you explore Bali through the lens of locals.
Are you interested in learning more about the subak field school? Check out the BPPI website.
Words and photos by Lee Ann Deuben
Lee Ann Deuben loves to cook, and she loves to travel. Good thing her life has turned into that of a global nomad, having lived in Oslo, Lyon, Jakarta, and now Beirut. She also is a very accomplished city planner who is passionate about building sustainable and inclusive communities.
Interviews by Diah Kardinal
Diah heads the Bali Kuna Heritage Society, a non-profit working hand-in-hand with local communities to promote, celebrate, and preserve Balinese cultural heritage.
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