Subak, an Agriculture Essential

Rice: the Lifeblood of Balinese

Rice is a staple food for most of Balinese and Indonesian, almost no food in the island served without rice. It is also seen as the gift from God through Goddess of Rice, Ida Bhatari Sri. Every Wednesday that falls on the twenty-eighth weeks of Balinese calendar is a special devotion day for Dewi Sri.

Apart from the dense of urban population and the gleam of touristic areas in South of Bali, Balinese is considered as one of the most productive rice growers in the country. The farming practice is the result of cultural exchange between local and other ethnics that have inhabited the island over the past centuries. Another secret for the excellence of Bali in producing high quality of rice is on the ancient irrigation system to water their rice fields, called Subak. Guided by the religious and cultural values; combined with the complex engineering and social principles – Subak is now one of the UNESCO World Heritage cultural landscapes.


Every after-dawn the farmers leave their house to the fields, accompanied by flocks of ducks that are brought to bathe and feed all day in the flooded paddies. The cascading formation of rice terraces is one of the keys to cultivate rice fields in high-steep area like slopes of mountains. Each plot of rice field called sawah is irrigated and contained by dikes of black earth, one flowing into the next as in a rhythmic pattern on waters glides on the bamboo sleeves. Every farmer usually owns one or more sawah, and they must join a subak community, an agricultural society that controls the distribution of irrigation water to its members.

Just like the other Balinese associations, the spirit of the subak is communal. All members abide by the same rules with each allotted work concerning the amount of water he receives. Subak helps the small agriculturalists by assuring them of water, guard irrigation channels against strangers diverting the water for their use, repair any damages in the dikes, and organize banquets at a propitious time, such as the completion of a harvest. At least once a month a general meeting is held in the small temple at the middle of the rice fields dedicated to the agricultural deities. Subak associations are essential to the prosperity of the Balinese people. The mountainous nature of the land makes irrigation extremely difficult. Only through this full cooperation among neighbouring farmers have the Balinese become famed as the most efficient rice growers in the archipelago. Before the fields are planted, offerings are made to gain the goodwill of deities who provide water and favourable conditions for a successful harvest.

The headwaters in the island’s irrigations system are lake temples dedicated to the goddess of the water, Ida Bethari Danu (Pura Ulun Danu Bratan and Pura Ulun Danu Batur). The Balinese believe that water is a divine gift. Everything that will be done in the fields are set by the temple priests, including when to start planting the seeds, harvesting, and the schedule for water allocation.

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