The lush rice terraces set against a backdrop of looming volcanoes make Bali a picturesque and appealing location to visit. But there is something hidden within the rice terraces, and there is far more to this cultural landscape than meets the eye.
These terraces, five in all dotted with water temples and covering some 19,500 hectares (48,000 acres, roughly half the size of the island of Barbados), have been very carefully arranged. Rice is cultivated in Bali year-round on these terraced paddy fields, and the agriculture has certainly created a stunningly beautiful and truly unique landscape.
The ecologically sustainable and cooperative irrigation system that is used for watering the rice paddies in Balis is known as the Subak system, and it is inextricably intertwined with the Balinese philosophy of human life. These are not just fields, these are a statement of what the world is, and how to be.
It is used for regulating the watering systems in a traditional manner. The Subak system, the traditional irrigation pattern of the terraces, is believed to be a glue between the gods in the temples, the natural world that provides rich water and soil, and the Balinese society.
It promotes a harmonious relationship between the Balinese people and their environment. So, in this way the Subak system reflects the “Tri Hita Karana” philosophy of life of the Balinese.
The philosophy is believed to have been born as a result of the exchange between India and Bali more than 2,000 years ago. It is known to have shaped the landscape of Bali. How does it work?
The Tri Hita Karana Philosophy
The Tri Hita Karana philosophy mainly focuses on three relationships. It includes the relationship between a person and God, between a person and another person, and between humans and the natural world. In order to achieve riches and harmony, it is vital to maintain these relationships. According to the Balinese, these are the foundation of sustainable development.
- Who Built the My Son Sanctuary, and What did they Believe?
- El Gigante: Why was the Largest Moai on Easter Island Unfinished?
The first relationship within the Tri Hita Karana philosophy is the “Parhyangan”. It is the relationship between a human and God. It is at the core of all the rituals followed by Balinese. God provides bounty to humans. People express their gratitude to the gods and honor them in the form of various rituals. The people in Bali make efforts to connect with their gods through different mantras chanting, prayers, and ceremonies.
The second relationship within the Tri Hita Karana philosophy is the “Pawongan”: the relationship between humans with their relatives, neighbors, and society at large. It forms the foundation of the Balinese community.
In Bali, the smallest form of local government is the Banjar. All the villages have their own Banjar. In order to ensure prosperity, it is important to have harmonious relationships with other fellow humans. The good ties between the people in a society help in making the society more functional.
The Pawongan spirit is manifested through different activities, like helping each other in bad and good situations of life or during various ceremonies. According to this teaching, genuine and sincere communication through different acts of kindness is considered to be essential to live in Balinese society. It is one of the main reasons why one will rarely find homeless Balinese on the streets.
The third relation that exists within the Tri Hita Karana philosophy is the “Palemahan”. It is about the relationship between nature and humans. It focuses on the responsibilities of humans towards nature, and it teaches people to be more compassionate towards lesser creatures.
It reminds people that they are not the only beings on earth, but they share the earth with nature. In Bali, Palemahan forms the foundation of sustainable development. As nature provides all the essentials to humans, it is also the responsibility of humans to preserve nature.
Tri Hita Karana, Subak, and the Bali Rice Terraces
There exists a close association between the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, the Bali rice terraces, and the Subak system. The Subak system is the ecologically sustainable irrigation system that binds the agrarian society of the Balinese within the village’s Balinese temples and the Banjar communities.
In its simplest form, the Subak system regulates the watering of the rice terraces in Bali. The water management of Bali is under the authority of priests of the water temples. They are known to practice the philosophy of Tri Hita Karana philosophy which ensures that water distribution is in harmony with the landscape, and the needs of the community rather than individuals.
The Tri Hita Karana philosophy draws together the human world, the realm of spirit, and nature. The Subak system is based on this Balinese philosophical principle. The rituals in the water temples ensure a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment.
The relationship is portrayed through the active engagement of individuals in Bali in different rituals. The rituals mainly highlight the dependence on various life-sustaining forces existing in the natural world. The Subak system is an important part of the temple culture, and rice is considered to be a gift of God among the people in Bali.
In Bali, there are nearly 1,200 water collectives and as many as 400 rice farmers are collectively responsible for managing the water supply coming from one of the water sources. The terraces are spread over five sites that exemplify the interconnectedness of the religious, cultural, and natural components of the Subak system in Bali.
The sites in Bali include the Subak landscape of Catur Angga, the Supreme Water Temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur, the Subak landscape of the Pakerisan Watershed, and the Royal Water Temple of Pura Taman Ayun. None of these are ruins but instead they are ancient, yet active systems: Subak is completely functional in Bali.
It allows the farmers to grow rice in a traditional manner without the use of any pesticides, fertilizers, or other chemical components. This is doubly important as the landscapes in Bali are seen to have several sacred connotations.
The Tri Hita Karana philosophy in Bali instills an in-depth understanding among humans relating to the benefits of every aspect of life. Bali has maintained unity and harmony as its topmost priority in society. The three components of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, namely Pawongan, Palemahan, and Parhyangan, have helped in promoting sustainable development in Bali. The philosophy has also made Bali a happy place to live.
Top Image: The Subak system pf rice terraces in Bali espouses the Tri Hita Karana philosophy of balance between yourselves, with nature, and with God. Source: Pedro / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
UNESCO, 2022. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1194
Hattangadi, V. 2019. Tri Hita Karna – the Balinese Philosophy of Life. Available at: https://drvidyahattangadi.com/2019/10/10/tri-hita-karna-the-balinese-philosophy-of-life/
Our World Heritage, 2017. Rice and Subak – Bali’s world heritage. Available at: http://blog.ourworldheritage.be/2017/06/13/rice-and-subak-balis-world-heritage/