Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday in Bali #1: Temples and Subaks

If Western societies have spent the last thousand years laboriously disentangling the secular from the religious, the Balinese have spent the same period attempting to integrate them--  Stephen Lansing, The Three Worlds of Bali, 1983.

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the Balinese landscape is the ubiquitous temple.  If they seem to be everywhere it's because they are; in 1983 Stephen Lansing estimated there to be upwards of 20,000 temples on the TK square kilometer island.  The Hindu temples (pura) are one of the things that make Bali what it is.  They are also one of the main attractions responsible for the hoards of unwashed backpackers laden with Lonely Planets, pastel sets, and Bintang t-shirts that clog up the roads.  But as we'll see in this post, the function of Balinese temples are not limited to the spiritual realm; they are also an important pillar of civil society.  The temples also are aspects of a uniquely Balinese time-space geography.

Temples Temples Temples

A Balinese temple is best understood as a place where several cycles periodically coincide--cycles that connect the Upper, Middle, and Lower worlds.  Many of the most powerful forces at work in the Middle world originate outside it.  For life to continue in the Middle World, these forces must be accomodated--Lansing 1983:55.

Balinese Plintangan calendar from here.
Bali is an interesting island because it stands as a bastion of Hinduism in a sea of Islam.  Islam made its way to the archipelago in the 14th century and spread rapidly, replacing in many places the Buddhism and Hinduism that arrived more than a millennium previously (1).  Hinduism and Buddhism made strong marks in many parts of the archipelago and the legacy of these two world religions can be seen at places like Borobudor, Prambanan, and Muaro Jambi.  In Bali and parts of East Java, though, Hinduism remained strong and is the dominant religion today.  Like many of the Hindu kingdoms across Southeast Asia, society in Bali has traditionally been based on the Hindu ideal of the cosmos.  In this conception of the world, the realm of humans (the middle world) represents a sort of compromise between the world of gods (the upper world) and the world of devils (the lower world) (2).  In addition, in terms of time the universe operates in cycles rather than in a straight line from past to present to future.  Complicating this is the notion that everything in the Balinese cosmos has its own time cycle.  For example, there is a five-day week and a seven day week in common use in Bali, so when you combine these you get a "month" of 35 unique days (you can see a calendar in the picture to the right of this paragraph).  There are also longer-term cycles as well.  Ceremonies and rituals should take into account all of these various cycles, and so planning is something like finding the lowest common denominator for all the cycles involved.  The community temples represent the place in time and space when all of these cycles come together at a particular time.

Villages in Bali have three main types of temples:
  1. Pura Pusah--These are dedicated to Vishnu and are considered to be the "highest" temples.  They deal with the realm of water.
  2. Pura Desa--These are dedicated to Brahma and deal with the realm of fire.
  3. Pura Dalam--These are considered to be the "lowest" temples and deal with matters of "black and white", or cosmic balance. 
This structure of temples mirrors the political organization of the island and has roots in the old kingdoms of Bali.  Before the Dutch colonizers took over there were numerous small principalities across Bali, some controlling just a few square kilometers of paddy fields.  This fractious political reality wasn't really conducive to consolidated resource management or mobilization of labor.  However, apart from the patchwork of little kings there existed (and still exist) other structures of organization, complete with their own system of temples.

Subaks and Water Management

To get a perspective image of Balinese 'village' life one must take...a steroscopic view, looking at it on the one hand through the lens of the subak and on the other through that of the bandjar--Clifford Geertz, 1980:72.

One often-cited example of a temple network that transcended the petty principalities is the system of puras that regulates irrigation across Bali.  As you know by now, rice is the staple crop of most of Indonesia and Southeast Asia in general.  Rice is more than just food, though.  It's the foundation of society.  Think of it this way: in order to have a state or government, you need to be able to produce a surplus of rice, because you have to support people that don't work in the rice fields.  The production of agricultural surplus is probably the most important enabling factor in the rise of "civilization".  Wet rice is a good crop for producing surplus, because you can grow a lot of it in a relatively small area.  But in order to produce a surplus of rice, it's important to be able to control the flow of water, because wet rice is a fairly complex crop to grow.  Wet rice needs dry periods, but it also needs to be flooded for a good portion of the growing season.  So you have to be able to inundate and later drain the fields, and you can't always rely on the seasons for this.  Irrigation is really important but irrigation works take the cooperation and coordination of a lot of people to build and maintain.  So although it's hard to know for certain, here in Bali (and in many other places across Southeast Asia), people organized themselves to build irrigation works and terraces, and later complex government apparatuses grew out of this.

Diagram from Lansing, 1983; see references
In Bali the rice growing cycle is about 105 days.  That means you can get 3 crops of rice a year, which is a lot of rice (3).  However, since wet rice requires a lot of water it's better to stagger rice production so not every farmer is using water at the same time, and so you don't have too much rice at any one time.  This requires a high level of cooperation and coordination, and so farmers work together.  A group of farmers that draw water off the same canal is called a tempek (this refers to both the land and the association).  The members of the tempek elect a chairman, or klian.  They also cooperate on maintenance activities and rituals.  Usually it's the case that several of these canals feed off a common dam (empelan), and so all the tempeks that share a water source form a larger association called a Subak.  All people having land within the area of a particular subak are citizens of that subak (krama subak).  The subak is the primary unit of water management and is usually translated as "irrigation society", but it is more than just this; it is an agricultural planning unit, an autonomous legal corporation, and a religious community managing virtually every aspect of cultivation (Geertz, 1980).  The Subak generally has two temples: one near the dam and one near the rice fields.  The Subak coordinates planting and harvesting for all of the tempeks so that not everyone is planting or harvesting at the same time.  The Subak also manages all the rituals related to rice farming.  For some examples see the chart below.  Each year all the Subak chiefs in a given region meet at a mountain temple, or a pura masceti.  At these periodic gatherings the Subak leaders plan the ritual cycles for all the subak temples, as well as planting schedules and water allotments.  All of the pura mascetis fall under the authority of one of two lake temples, forming a coordinated system of water management that covers the entire island.  The two water temples are Pura Batu Kau in Tabanan, which has jurisdiction over western Bali, and Pura Ulun Danau, which is the master water temple for the north, south, and eastern portions of the island.

Table from Suradisastra, et al 2002; see references
The subaks have rules of management as well as a system of sanctions (sima) that keep the farmers in line.  This are codified in a compact or constitution called an awig-awig.  Subaks are very democratic and decision making is done by consensus at meetings (sangkepan) that take place every 35 days (according to the Balinese calendar).  They also coordinate collective work and religious ceremonies associated with cultivation.  Suradisastra et al (2002) describe the types of work committees (seke or seka) within the subak:
  • Seka numbeg: provides labor for land preparation
  • Seka tandur does rice transplanting
  • Seka mejukut does weeding
  • Seka merana does pest control
  • Seka manyi does harvesting
  • Seka gebros does rice selection
  • Seka sambang monitors water consumption.  
In the chart below you can see what sorts of rituals are involved in each of these tasks.
Table from Suradisastra, et al 2002; see references
A Subak Tour

Juwuk Manis Subak Map
There are subaks all over the place here, especially on the southern half of the island.  I spent a morning walking around one on the outskirts of Ubud taking pictures and talking to the farmers.  This particular subak is called Juwuk Manis, or "Sweet Orange" subak.  The subak has 97 members and consists of about 75 hectares.  The farmers I talked to told me that they only meet one or two times a year, which is consistent with the papers and books I've read (see references) about subaks.  Ubud is pretty urban, and so the social role of the subak association has weakened a little.  But in more rural areas (supposedly) the meetings are more frequent because the subak serves as a pillar of the community.  In addition I think, based on previous conversations around here, that much of the work is done by hired labor; in many cases the land owner isn't actually doing the planting, maintenance, and harvesting.  Nevertheless, it was neat to see an example of this institution I've read so much about.  Subaks are an excellent example of what geographers refer to as "community based natural resource management" or CBNRM.  We like to study CBNRM because these local systems might offer lessons or ideas for conservation in other places.  There are lots of examples of CBNRM in Indonesia; adat systems on Sumatra and other islands are instances of CBNRM.  In the future I'll write a more detailed post about adat principles and CBNRM around Kerinci Seblat National Park.  Below you can see some more pictures of Juwuk Manis subak.  In some of the pictures you can see slots in the canal wall; this is so the farmers can insert wooden slats to block one of the passages to control where the water flows.  Dig the farmer hauling off the 6-foot python I found in the last picture.  He wouldn't let me eat it, though....


(1)  This is something of a simplification.

(2)  In the Balinese conception of the cosmos, "devils" and "gods" aren't good or bad.  Rather they represent natural forces that are part of the larger cycle of existence.  According to this world view everything goes through a natural cycle of growth and decay.  The upper world represents the growth part of the cycle, whereas the lower realm represents the decay part of the cycle.

(3) Since Bali is very close to the equator, there isn't a lot of seasonal variation other than the monsoons.  This means that you can grow rice year-round.  

References and For Further Reading

Geertz, Clifford.  1980.  Organization of the Balinese Subak.  In Irrigation and Agricultural Development in Asia, Coward, E. Walter, ed.  Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.  384pp.  

Lansing, J Stephen.  1983.  The Three Worlds of Bali.  NY:Praeger.  170pp.

Suradisastra, Kedi, Wahyuning Sejati, Yana Supriatna, and Deri Hidayat.  2002.  Institutional Description of the Balinese Subak.  Jurnal Litbang Pertanian, 21:1 pp11:19

1 comment:

  1. Upon reading this blog, I did not know anything about Hinduism except that it was a religion. The upper, middle, and lower worlds seem quite similar to the Christian concepts of Heaven, earth, and Hell. Being a Catholic, I found it very interesting to discover that Hindus have some concepts that correspond to those of Christians. The 35 day “month” still confuses me a bit, though. Is this strictly a religious calendar (like the Catholic liturgical calendar)? Or are the people of Bali using a completely different calendar from the rest of the world?
    Growing up as a Filipina in Hawai’i, I understood from a very young age the “value” of rice for many Asians. However, the idea of rice being the foundation of society is new to me. I did not realize “complex government apparatuses” developed because of the cooperation that it took to produce the staple food of many Asians. Rice was not only important to biological development, but also to societal development. That's pretty notable.
    While I know that rice can be easily grown in Southeast Asia because it is near the equator, I still don’t really understand why its location relative to the equator results in the minimal seasonal variation that is important for year-round rice growing. (This may be a question that I should probably direct toward a meteorologist, but I figure I’d ask anyway because someone might actually know the answer.)