In Bali, rice is synonymous with food. The word nasi (rice) also means “meal” in Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of the region.
But, rice is so much more than that: it is an integral part of the Balinese culture.
This little Indonesian island has been inhabited by Southeast Asian Austronesian people since at least 2000 BCE. From around the 1st century CE., the development of Balinese culture was strongly influenced by Indian, Chinese, and Hindu traditions. By 900 CE, Bali was an independent region with a distinct dialect, and Buddhism and Sivaism (Shaivism or Śaivism – a branch of Hinduism revering Shiva) were practiced side by side.
It was also around this time that the people developed subak, a complex cooperative irrigation system which incorporates traditional ecologically-sustainable land management under the authority of the priests in the water temples. UNESCO-listed since 2012, subak “reflects the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana,” which translates as “three causes to prosperity” or “three causes of well-being”. The three elements are: harmony among people with communal cooperation and compassion; harmony with God, expressed through rituals and offerings; and harmony with the environment, practiced by way of sustainability, conservation, and balance.
In practice, under subak, the forests which protect the water supply are themselves protected, and temples of varying importance and size mark the source or the passage of water as it flows through a managed system of canals, tunnels, and weirs, to water and irrigate the terraced subak lands. There are about 1,200 water collectives – each with between 50 and 400 farmers – managing the water supply that grows the rice – rice that is seen as the gift of God.
There is another remarkable facet to rice cultivation on Bali that struck me on our recent visit: on any given day, you can see rice at different stages of maturity. According to my 1999 edition of the Bali & Lombok Lonely Planet, there is a legend behind Bali’s continuous rice production:
A long time ago, a group of Balinese farmers promised the gods that they would sacrifice a pig if the harvest was good. The had a good season, and the rice was bountiful, but they could find no pigs. They thought they would have to sacrifice a child instead, until one resourceful farmer came up with a solution: they had promised the sacrifice after the harvest. If new rice was always growing, the harvest would never be finished, and the time for the sacrifice would never come.
To this day, Balinese farmers plant a new field before harvesting the ripening one.
Early into our January visit, we organised to go on a 25 kilometre bicycle ride through the rice fields and villages. Anyone who knows me knows that this is quiet adventurous: I have injured myself in bicycle accidents multiple times across three continents. But, the tour company promised that most of the ride would be downhill, and that the pace would be leisurely.
Our driver picked us up punctually at 7.30am and drove us the two winding hours up hill to the lookout – appropriately named Penelokan, “Place to Look” – where we stopped to admire the view over Gunung Batur before collecting our bicycle guide, and setting off through the rural villages and the many fields of rice.
We had a enjoyable morning: we got an appreciable insight into rural Balinese life; it was – as promised – a pleasant mostly downhill ride; and I didn’t fall off my bicycle!
As we ate our lunch, we had a much better understanding of the cycle of work that had gone into the rice in our nasi goreng.
We said our thanks to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice.
Until next time –