The Subak System of Bali – Bali’s Ancient Plumbing System

The Subak System of Bali – Bali’s Ancient Plumbing System

When you drive past the swirling, seemingly endless rice paddies in Indonesia, your natural reaction is to remain awestruck by the beauty of the lush green terraced fields. Not only is this traditional Balinese system of cultivation a sight for sore eyes, but it also has a long and fascinating history! Deeply rooted in a religious and philosophical base, the Subak system of irrigation offers much more than mere beauty. There is much to learn from this practice and in 2012, the Cultural Landscape of Bali Province – The Subak System was given UNESCO World Heritage Status due to its ample benefits to the environment and community. 

What is the Subak system? 

Subak is a cooperative water management system that the Balinese developed in the 9th century. It falls in line with the Tri Hita Karana philosophy that describes the relationship between humans, nature and the Gods. As per this practice, irrigation is more than the act of watering the roots of a plant. Subak is about creating an ecosystem in the likeness of ones created by God, so as to cultivate a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. The system consists of five rice terraces and water temples, spanning 20,000 hectares. 

What is the religious context of Subak?

The religious philosophy of Tri Hita Karana is at the heart of Subak, which puts the priests in the water temples at the helm of affairs. They control the flow and distribution of water across the fields. Through deep rituals that actively engage the agrarian community with the natural world, the priests highlight our dependence on the life sustaining forces of the seed and crop. In Balinese culture, rice is seen as a gift from God, bringing the rice fields under the dominion of the temples. 

Present Day Fnfluences of Subak

The Balinese landscape has been shaped so powerfully by the Subak system in the last thousand years. Rice, the water used to cultivate it, the water temples and the cooperatives that control it have also made their mark on temple culture and the formation of village communities. Today, Bali has 1,200 water collectives across the island, each formed by 50 – 400 farmers. 

Famous Subak Lands 

Though Subak lands are spread out all over the island, there are some sites that are truly worth a visit. They are still in practice and you can have a chat with the village folk who will be happy to tell you about their ways. 

  • The Supreme Water Temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur on the edge of Mount Batur crater lake, (Lake Batur) is regarded as the ultimate origin of every spring and river. 
  • The Subak landscape of the Pakerisan river watershed is the oldest known irrigation system in Bali.
  • The Subak landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru with terraces mentioned in a 10th-century inscription making them amongst the oldest in Bali and prime examples of Classical Balinese temple architecture. 
  • The Royal Water temple of Pura Taman Ayun, the largest and most architecturally distinguished regional water temple, exemplifies the fullest expansion of the subak system under the largest Bali Kingdom of the 19th century.

FAQ: The Subak System of Bali

What is the Subak system?

The Subak system is a traditional Balinese cooperative water management system, developed in the 9th century, rooted in the Tri Hita Karana philosophy. It not only focuses on irrigation but aims at creating an ecosystem that fosters a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. The system includes five rice terraces and water temples that span 20,000 hectares.

Why was the Subak system given UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2012?

The Cultural Landscape of Bali Province – The Subak System was granted the UNESCO World Heritage Status due to its significant contributions to the environment and the community.

How does the Tri Hita Karana philosophy relate to Subak?

Tri Hita Karana describes the relationship between humans, nature, and the Gods. The philosophy is foundational to the Subak system and emphasizes harmony between these three elements. This makes irrigation more than just watering plants but about replicating ecosystems created by God.

Who controls the flow and distribution of water in the Subak system?

Priests in the water temples control the flow and distribution of water across the fields. They actively engage the agrarian community with the natural world through rituals that highlight human dependence on the seed and crop.

How does Subak influence present-day Bali?

The Subak system has profoundly shaped the Balinese landscape over the past millennium. It has influenced temple culture, the formation of village communities, and has led to the establishment of 1,200 water collectives across Bali. Each collective comprises 50 to 400 farmers.

What are some must-visit Subak lands in Bali?

Some noteworthy Subak sites include:

  • The Supreme Water Temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur by Lake Batur.
  • The Subak landscape of the Pakerisan river watershed, Bali’s oldest known irrigation system.
  • The Subak landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru with terraces from the 10th century.
  • The Royal Water temple of Pura Taman Ayun, a prime example of 19th-century Balinese temple architecture.

How is rice perceived in Balinese culture in the context of the Subak system?

In Balinese culture, rice is seen as a gift from God. Given this belief, rice fields come under the dominion of the temples, emphasizing their spiritual significance and importance.

How vast is the Subak system?

The Subak system consists of five rice terraces and water temples, collectively covering an area of 20,000 hectares.

Can tourists interact with locals in Subak lands?

Yes, many Subak sites still practice traditional methods, and local villagers are often open to sharing their knowledge and experiences with interested visitors.

Why is the Subak system considered more than just an irrigation method?

Subak is more than just irrigation because it encompasses creating an ecosystem in the likeness of ones made by God. This ecosystem promotes a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, reflecting the religious and philosophical base of the Tri Hita Karana.

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