Subak – The Cultural Landscape of Bali

Bali is renowned for the beauty of its sculpted rice terraces. These vibrant green plantings and layered mirrors unfold like giant stairways from the mountains to the sea. Known as ‘sawah’, the padi fields of Bali are a thousand years old, and achieved through an ancient system of aquatic engineering.

Irrigation is critical to Balinese wet-rice agriculture because of the long dry season that extends from April to October, while the substance of rural life is dependent on the accuracy of the water flow as it is diverted from the rivers that gush from Bali’s crater lakes. The water is then channelled through an elaborate system of dams, canals, tunnels, aqueducts and bamboo pipes to the top of a series of terraced ricefields. From here it can flow, with gravity, from field to field. The water flows over volcanic rocks rich in minerals, such as phosphate and potassium. The wet ricefields are effectively artificial ponds, and the nutrients in the water help the rice to grow.

The construction and maintenance of the channelling system and the management of the water flow is controlled by the Balinese ‘subak’ organisation of irrigation cooperatives, which ensure the even distribution of this precious resource.  A Subak meets once a month and consists of all the landowners – or their representatives – in a particular rice production area. Each covers a few dozen hectares of farmland and sustains several hundred people. The engineering knowledge of the subak is sophisticated, and the tunnels they construct and maintain through the hills can be up to 3km long and 40m deep. The Subak also coordinates a synchronised planting and harvest pattern, as well as the organisation of ritual offerings and festivals. Water temples hold festivals every 105 days, corresponding with the 105-day rice-growing cycle. This cycle also determines the time of the opening and closing of the canal sluices, ensuring that plantings are staggered and that the water is allocated in the most efficient and equitable manner.

Bali’s famous Subak system is one of the most vital components of Balinese society; an integral part of Balinese life and a product of the island’s history and culture.

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