Rice is the life-blood of Bali. It permeates every aspect of Balinese culture, and has for at least two thousand years. The current system of Subak Irrigation has been in use for at least 1000 years. This system is much more than a simple agriculture tradition, it is a tradition that is simultaneously spiritual and communal; deeply ingrained with Balinese culture. The very social structure within Bali is infused by this ancient tradition. You could even say that rice is Bali.
Rice is one of the most important crops in the world. The Balinese certainly recognize this fact. The island is famous for being a laid-back place where people work slowly, and have a tenuous relationship with time-keeping at best. This all changes when it comes to rice. When it is planting time the air is electrified with determination, everyone comes together to work in the fields and make sure that Bali sees yet another successful rice harvest. The laid back pace is replaced with speed that seems almost impossible. An entire crop can be put into the ground in just a few hours.
Growing rice is a cycle of hard work, spiritual connection, and celebration. To begin each cycle, a meeting is held by the local Subak to discuss how the irrigation should be setup, and how water should be distributed amongst the member farmers. After the planning stage is complete, all irrigation is checked to make sure water is flowing properly, followed by ploughing the fields. Many farmers still use water buffalo to plough, but motorized tools are beginning to be more commonplace. The farmers let the soil (and themselves) rest for up to a few weeks and then they make sure that the fields are flat and properly retaining water. The Balinese then wait for planting day. The day is determined by their calendar system which has been used for this purpose for more than a thousand years.
Ritual and spirituality are integral to the cycle of growing and harvesting rice. Ceremonies and offerings to Dewi Sri (the goddess of rice and fertility) are performed throughout the year. Many ceremonies are performed on the farm, others at water temples, (temples specifically dedicated to performing rituals honoring Dewi Sri so that she can bless their rice harvest). The upstream corner of every rice field is sacred. All of the offerings to Dewi Sri done on the farm are performed here. Before planting, the first stems of rice ceremonially carried and planted in the part of the field that is closest to Mount Agung—considered sacred by the Balinese. All of the rice produced from this corner of the field is also used as offerings to the goddess. When it is harvest time, the farmers create an image of the goddess out of some of this rice, and give it as an offering to her.
A part of Balinese agricultural culture is balance with nature. They consider caring for the land a sacred duty; chemical fertilizers are almost never used, they regularly survey the health of their fields, and take immediate action when any problems are identified. It’s really no surprise that Bali has one of the world’s highest rice production per acre of any other place in the world. The fact that this ancient system is so environmentally sound, and gives such high yields are some of the reasons for UNESCO adding Bali’s Subak system to their world heritage list.
Planting has just been completed at the writing of this article, and harvest will occur in several months. Harvest time will mean more hard work, more ceremonies, more community, and more celebration. In short, more Bali.