Subak Bali to UNESCO world heritage

Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophyforms acultural landscape of five rice terraces and their water temples that cover 19,500 hectares. The temples are the focus of a cooperative water management system of canals and weirs, known as subak, which dates back to the 9th century. Included in the landscape is the 18th-century Royal Temple of Pura Taman Ayun, the largest and most impressive architectural edifice of its type on the island. The subak reflects the philosophical concept of Tri Hita Karana, which brings together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. This philosophy was born of the cultural exchange between Bali and India over the past 2000 years and has shaped the landscape of Bali. The subak system of democratic and egalitarian farming practices has enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in the archipelago despite the challenge of supporting a dense population.

Visiting Bali and travel to its highlands, and you can not but be amazed by the beauty of the thousands of hectares of lush green paddy fields that cascade in terraces from the upper reaches of volcanoes down to the deep valleys below as if sculpted from the mountain side.

Indeed, Bali is blessed with 150 rivers and streams that provide water year round to irrigate this most important staple. Nonetheless, irrigation of the rice fields would not be successful unless man also has a hand in it.  Ancient inscriptions recorded the digging of an irrigation tunnel back in the year 944 AD. A network of irrigation channels that distribute the waters to each and every paddy field complements the complex irrigation system.

Travel to Tegallalang some 15 km north of Ubud, or wander to the eastern slopes of imposing Mt. Agung at Amlapura by the village of Abang, and stand in awe at the wonderful spectacle of rich green rice fields undulating over valleys and across mountains.

Uniquely, Bali’s complex irrigation system has its roots not by order of kings, but its management is very much in the hands of the villagers through village cooperatives, called “Subak”. Since farmers depend on the successful irrigation of the fields, the different Subaks form an inseparable bond that unites into a single system. This unique system has been handed down the generations for over a thousand years, whose results can be admired in the wonderful terraced ricefields of Bali.

At the lowest level, each farmer is a member of a subak, whose ricefields is fed from a single dam. The head of the Subak, called the Klian Subak is elected by its members.  In the larger subak that are fed by a canal, the lowest level is called the tempek.  The subaks, in turn are linked to mountain temples or pura masceti, which come under the sway of one of two lake temples, these are the Pura Batu Kau which coordinates irrigation in West Bali, and Pura Ulun Danau which coordinates the north, east and south of Bali.

Water temples hold festivals every 105 days, corresponding with the 105 days rice-growing season in Bali. This cycle also determines the time of opening and closing of canal sluises, ensuring that plantings are staggered and that water is allocated in the most efficient and equitable manner.

However, every decision is always discussed at members’ meetings and unanimously agreed upon then carried down to each subak. In turn the subak then call their members together so that each member can decide when to start planting. Farmers then start planting in consecutive manner after every 10 days.  (Indonesian Heritage: The Human Environment, Archipelago Press).

The Subak of course relates exclusively to irrigated ricefields, called “sawah”, other fields are rain-fed, and are known as tegalan.

In Indonesia, and especially on Java and Bali, Rice is not only a staple diet, but it stands synonymous with the word Food. No meal is complete without rice. Rice is also an essential part of social and religious ceremonies, since Rice in essence forms the lifeblood of the community.

The goddess of Rice is known as Bhatari Sri, or the mother of Rice. As the Indonesian archipelago’s staple food, Dewi Sri is not only venerated in Bali, but also on Java and other rice-producing islands.

Combining sacred traditional values and a highly organized system, therefore, the Subak, the unique Balinese rice farming culture is a manifestation of the Balinese Tri Hita Karana cosmological doctrine. It is the tangible reflection of the original Balinese ideas and beliefs that are essentially rooted in this concept, namely the awareness that human beings need to always maintain harmonious relationship between Man and God, Man and fellow humans, and between Man and Nature in one’s daily life. Such particular concept is in fact evident in the Balinese creative genius and unique cultural traditions resulting from the long human interaction, especially between the Balinese and the Hindu culture.

All the cluster sites of the Cultural Landscape also directly demonstrate the capability of the Balinese to make their unique cosmological doctrines a reality, practiced in their daily life through spatial planning and land use (cultural landscape), settlement arrangements, architecture, ceremonies and rituals, art, as well as social organization. Indeed the implementation of the concept has evidently generated a beautiful cultural landscape.

A traditional farming and irrigation system used in Bali has become world-heritage listed by UNESCO, an official revealed on Sunday.“The subak tradition of Bali has eventually been named as a UNESCO world-heritage activity,” Education and Culture Deputy Minister Windu Nuryanti said in a text message to Antara news agency on Sunday. Windu said the decision to list subak was made during a meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Sunday.

According to Windu, the Indonesian government has been undergoing a long administrative process for up to 12 years to get subak recognized. Subak has been a central pillar of Balinese society and culture. Balinese farmers succeeded in not only creating an efficient and ecologically sustainable rice-growing culture but also in producing one of the most esthetic bodies of art and culture in the world. Over the years, however, the subak system has been threatened by the rapidly growing tourism industry in the resort island.

It is estimated that up to 1,000 hectares of rice paddies are converted into housing and tourist facilities annually, while the lucrative tourism industry has risen to become the economic backbone of the island, pushing aside the once-powerful agriculture sector. Subak is the name of water management (irrigation) system for paddy fields on Bali Island, Indonesia. For Balinese, irrigation is not simply providing water for the plant’s roots, but water is used to construct a complex, pulsed artificial ecosystem.[1] Paddy fields in Bali were built around water temples and the allocation of water is made by a priest.

Clifford Geertz had described Subak, but it was J. Stephen Lansing who drew attention to the importance of the traditional system. He was studying Balinese temples, focusing on the water temples, whose importance tended to be overlooked by foreigners. In 1987 Lansing worked with Balinese farmers and agriculture officials to develop computer models of the subak, demonstrating its effectiveness. Officials finally acknowledged its importance.

On May 20, 2012 Subak has eventually been named as a UNESCO world-heritage activity. Recently, about 1,000 hectares of paddy fields are converted into tourist facilities and housing annually which threatened the Subak system.

For these reasons, UNESCO has designated the “Subak” – Bali’s Cultural Landscape – as World Heritage this year, to be officially announced in St. Petersburg, Russia on 20 June 2012.

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