For the Balinese, irrigation is not simply providing water for the plants. Instead, there is a sophisticated system known as subak that incorporates many water-related components. Through this path of water, a deep connection between the spiritual, the natural and the human world is created.
From Tegalalang in Ubud to Abang village in Amlapura, the hillsides of Bali are characterized by verdant rice terraces. Some have palm trees lining the edges, while others own a majestic volcano backdrop. Yet there is one particular thing on Bali’s fields that provoked my curiosity – the shrine. Every few meters stands a black shrine adorned with colorful parasols, pieces of cloth, and offerings. At first, I thought that they are family altars. But soon I realized that these structures mark the entry of water into one’s fields. And they are parts of a large and complex irrigation system called subak.
Developed 1,000 years ago, subak is an ecological water management system for rice farming in Bali. It comprises multiple components, including terraced rice fields, an extensive network of cooperatively managed waterways, and temples of diverse sizes and importance. The water supplies and their surroundings (forest, vegetation, etc.) also belong to this ancient system. Overall, there are nearly 20,000 hectares of subak land in Bali that are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How does the subak work?
The subak works on the basis of Tri Hita Karana – a traditional belief that promotes the delicate balance between the gods, nature, and humans. First, water from springs and volcanic lakes passes through the temples on its way downhill. It will receive blessings performed by the priests through various rituals and ceremonies. The water then traverses via a network of canals, tunnels, and weirs managed by associations of farmers, before pouring out onto the paddy fields.
In total, there are about 1,200 of these collectives across Bali, with each made up of 50 to 400 people. They work together to secure the water supply from a single source and to maintain the sustainability of this artificial ecosystem. Through the flow of water, the subak system has shaped a connection between the spiritual, natural, and human worlds. All are kept in harmony so that the well-being and prosperity of the island as a whole can be achieved.
The Water Temples
Among many components of the subak, pura tirta or “water temple” is arguably the most crucial because it works like glue holding the entire system together. For instance, people learn to cooperate by attending ceremonies and preparing offerings at the temples. Additionally, the rituals always emphasize the reliance of human life upon nature and thus encourage a congenial relationship between people and their environment. A typical example of this dependency is the cleansing ritual at various petirtaan or “bathing structures”. Thanks to the holy water which gushes out from natural springs, humans are purified, both physically and spiritually.
Aside from their religious functions, the temples are involved in water management, with priests at each temple responsible for the water allocation in the surrounding fields and villages. They determine the time of opening and closing of canals, ensuring that the life-sustaining resource is distributed in the most efficient and equitable manner. The entire pura tirta system is arranged in the same way as branches and ashes growing from a tree, with the primary temple being the Pura Ulun Danu Batur located on the rim of the Batur caldera. From there, a network of regional temples spreads across the island, each controlling a segment of the irrigation system.
Pura Ulun Danu Batur
Standing high on the Batur caldera ridge, Pura Ulun Danu Batur is the most revered water temple in Bali. It is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and the local deity Dewi Danu. The latter is the goddess of Lake Batur who rules over fresh water and anything related to it, including springs, rivers, lakes, and obviously the subak system. Originally, Pura Ulun Danu Batur is located down in the caldera, right next to the lake. But an eruption in 1926 devastated most of the temple compound, except for the 11-tiered main shrine. Soon after, the temple was transported to its current location.
As the supreme water temple, Pura Ulu Danu Batur has nine different temples within its compound. Each is accompanied by a great number of shrines and pavilions devoted to spirits of water, agriculture, art, crafts, and more. All are exquisitely decorated with sculptures of mythical creatures, floral patterns, and golden-colored gates. However, as you might expect, the most impressive part of Pura Ulu Danu Batur is the miraculous 11-storied meru standing in the inner sanctum. The temple is headed by a priestess – a representative of the lake goddess.
Pura Taman Ayun
Another extraordinary water temple is Pura Taman Ayun in Mengwi, eight kilometers southwest of Ubud. This temple was constructed in 1634 under the reign of the first King of Mengwi as the final resting place of the royal family. At that time, Bali was separated into several minor kingdoms, with Mengwi being the largest among them. The subak fully covered the kingdom, making many believe the temple has been the centerpiece of this phenomenal expansion. In the past, Pura Taman Ayun was reserved for the royal family only, thus it is commonly known as the Royal Temple of Mengwi. These days, the temple welcomes everyone, locals and tourists alike.
Pura Taman Ayun is best known for its unique architecture that fuses different water features into a classic Balinese temple design. For example, a moat encircling the inner sanctum, an intricately carved fountain in the lush outer courtyard, and a vast pond surrounding the whole temple compound. Aside from the multi-tiered royal altars, there are numerous holy shrines dedicated to a wide range of deities. The Mengwi kings built them to ensure that their subjects could also enjoy peace and prosperity. For this reason, Pura Taman Ayun continues to serve as the main worship site among the Mengwis. It also symbolizes the harmony between the royals and the people.
6 thoughts on “Subak: The Path of Water in Bali”
Thank you! 🙂
An entire post about subak! Balinese will definitely appreciate this post for this is an aspect of the island often overlooked by visitors. The story and the photos really made me miss Bali, an island I love so much but haven’t seen for seven years.
I found the subak fascinating. There are rice terraces in Vietnam, China, the Philippines. But none has such a sophisticated system as in Bali. Simply brilliant!
Btw, what is the correct pronunciation? Do you say it su-pak or su-bak? 🙂 I heard both so I am not so sure.
What a delight this was. The Balinese are so sophisticated, in a way that most of the western world would not understand. Their connection with the land and with spirit is something we all need, and something they never seem to have lost. Beautiful transporting photos.
It is the work of genius! Nowhere in the world has such a unique system. They cleverly combine religious and engineering. I think the modern world should learn one or two things from the ancient Balinese. Yes, we are producing more crops than ever but we are destroying the planet and ourselves faster than ever.
Thank you for your compliment, Alison 🙂