Bali and the culture of rice: how locals find balance with nature
Updated: Apr 28
Bali is well-known for its beautiful rice terraces, of many shades of green and golden glints, postcard-worthy. A famous attraction for visitors to admire, but few take the time to wonder what lies under this scenery. How the paddy fields are the scene of one of Bali's most important and efficient activities, and not just an aesthetic setting delighting the eyes of tourists. If water is the blood of Bali, then rice is its essence.
The cultivation of rice is very hard labor, in which laziness has no place. Local people are incredibly efficient when it comes to taking care of the paddies or harvesting the rice, making Bali one of the world's most productive countries in terms of rice production per acre. It is central to the economy of Bali.
Rice is not only one of the main sources of food. It is also central to many traditions in Bali, as it is used during prayers and for offerings. Balinese agriculture is a reflection of the Hindu philosophy in the way it is managed. The irrigation system of the rice fields is linked to a water temple, in which the priest has a say on the allocation of water. This thousand years old traditional system is called the Subak irrigation. It allows agriculture to be a direct way to link people, nature and God, mapping the countryside landscape as a cultural environment.
This link between people, Nature and God is part of the Tri Harta Karana philosophy. In Hinduism, this means "the three ways to reach spiritual and physical happiness". The substance of this belief is maintaining a harmonious relationship between humans, between humans and their environment, and between humans and the gods. This is implemented in religious rituals as well as in daily activities involving plants and animals.
The Subak irrigation system has a complex physical and social organization. This ensures every rice paddy, from every farmer, will receive water fairly. The water originates from a source that is usually a river or natural spring, and is diverted in several canals, to irrigate the fields of a section. The water from this section is then diverted to another farmer's section at a specific time, to create a rotation allowing all the fields to receive water.
The Subak also has a hierarchy of social roles, where different individuals are in charge of different aspects of water irrigation. In fact, a Subak can be seen as a cooperative organization, with its own schedule and duties, differing from one village to another.
Among those duties, there is the religious one: prayers and offerings are made by the Subak organization to specific gods and goddesses (like Devi Sri), asking for a good harvest and the blessing of the fields. Each ritual is done during different seasons, targeting different agricultural concerns, in hopes of different results. The role of the Subak's water temples is then to be permanent shrines for those rituals.
In Balinese Hinduism, Devi Sri is the goddess of both rice and fertility, showing even more how rice is substantially a symbol of the abundance and health of the country, and a vital component of the economy and the religion. Nature is all the more seen as a mother, bringing food and shelter to local people.
Balance with Nature is a sacred duty for Balinese people. And this shows even for agricultural work. Working on a healthy land and being in harmony with this land is a crucial part of finding harmony within yourself. By having kept those traditions and practices for so many years, Bali sets a humble example for other South-East Asian countries of auto-sufficiency, but also of spiritual happiness.