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The rice fields of Bali, Indonesia

When you drive the back roads of Bali you cannot help but be struck by the sheer physical beauty of the place—the land that runs from the volcanoes down to the sea, thousands of swaying palms, huge ficus trees with their massive roots exposed. It is an island in a tropical climate that has been blessed with fertile volcanic soil.

Everywhere there are small working gardens filled with many different crops of all shapes and sizes. The tallest trees are generally coconuts and below them grow other fruit trees like jackfruit and mango. Between these are tall ground crops such as maize, while close to the soil such vegetables as taro and scrambling sweet potatoes along with hydrangea flowers used in Balinese offerings.

Ornamental gardens are rare in Bali, even in home and temple compounds where the landscape is kept rather empty and still, generally consisting of one or two trees, some packed earth, and perhaps a few flowers in pots. Ornamental trees and shrubs are relatively new to the country, brought here by the Dutch conquerors in the 20th century. But the gardens that are most remarkable in Bali are found everywhere, at the back of my city hotel, running alongside restaurants, climbing mountain slopes, tier after tier in a patchwork fashion. They are the rice gardens of Bali and although they are everywhere they blend into the natural landscape almost seamlessly.

Ninety-nine percent of Bali’s rice fields are watered by a wetland or sawah system of flooded fields where the water is retained by low banks.  This method of irrigation has existed in Bali for almost a thousand years but while it may be traditional it is also very sophisticated. There are volcanoes that run the length of the island from east to west and below them are coastal plains that form Bali’s rice bowl. Lake Batur is in the shadow of the highest of these volcanic peaks—Mount (Agung) Gunung—and provides the underground network of water channels that supports the whole system.

It seems rather amazing but the water is actually directed down the mountains to each individual rice field through an intricate network of channels and aqueducts. It is the farmers of Bali—all dependent on the same water supply—who organize and maintain it through local autonomous organizations called subaks. The importance of the subak system in agriculture production in Bali was greatly undervalued by Dutch colonial authorities and only recently has it been accorded its fair credit.

Each subak council is made up of neighbouring farmers and together they erect a temple in the middle of the rice fields where major ceremonies of the rice cycle are held. Even under optimum conditions, only two rice crops are grown each year in any one field. The colour of the fields will vary from green to gold depending on the stage of planting; the grass growing up the walls of the rice terraces contrasts with the ripening heads of rice so the fields can be rather colourful. After the rice has been harvested a dry land crop such as cassava is grown as part of the rotation.

Rice and its cultivation are central to the Balinese way of life for rice is more than just a staple food. It is a gift from the gods, created by the Hindu deity Wisnu. It also has a soul. Every day offerings of rice are placed in shrines and on just about all structures in Bali to keep the spirits happy.

By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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