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Notes on the Geography of Indonesia: Bali

Bali's main airport, at Denpasar, has a capacity of about five million international passengers annually. The tourists pretty much stick to themselves, however, in a beach-oriented enclave developed for them near the airport. The magic of Bali lies not in those beaches, however, but in the island's agricultural landscape and in the rituals associated with the rice crop that dominates it.

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A travel agency in Ubud. At least some of the tourists venture away from Denpesar on the Bukit peninsula to visit Ubud, which lies on the apron of volcanic soil that spreads south from the island's central volcanoes.

The signs are suggestive of Bali's importance in the tourism industry worldwide. Of course no American airline flies to Indonesia, although as the sign suggests Continental used to, via Guam. Among European carriers, the only one coming to Bali is KLM, which makes perfect sense, given the historical connection.

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Irrigation water is essential to the development of the island's rice crop. Not surprisingly, water is sometimes treated with veneration, as in this spring, at Pura Tirta Empul, near Tampaksiring.

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Unchecked, water on these volcanic aprons cuts precipitous channels, in this case a channel working its way upstream as a waterfall erodes headward.

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The Balinese are masters of capturing such streams and bringing them out of the ravines and onto flatter land. The work is done by villagers organized in subaks, irrigation-user organizations. There are about 1,200 subaks. On average they have about 200 members, each member with about half an acre of sawahs, or paddy land. Subak membership is compulsory for all landowners within the canal command.

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If necessary, the subaks will bring the channels through tunnels carved in the soft volcanic material.

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Finally, palm logs will be cut to control tiny flows of water, proportional to the amount of irrigated land the channel serves. To minimize conflict between water-users, the subak appoints a kelian munduk, a water-distribution overseer.

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Here, water is brought across a main road in a hollowed-out palm log, from which it cascades off into the paddies on the far side.

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Looking back from the other side of the road.

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The rice crop is begun in a nursery like this, in Bali called a pemulihan. Almost all of the island's rice today is a high-yielding variety, rather than the traditional padi bali.

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Prior to transplanting the seedlings, the paddies are puddled, so that water will not percolate through them when the paddy is flooded.

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A freshly transplanted crop, deep in muck. Assuming (pretty safely) that this is a high-yielding variety, it will grow to a maximum height of about 30 inches--just about half the height of the traditional crop. It will also mature about a month faster, say in 120 rather than 150 days.

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A canal runs along the top cultivated contour.

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A flight of terrace steps.

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Countless pictures might be taken like this, some steeper, some flatter, but all involving the careful control of irrigation water running down the volcanic slopes.

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A larger paddy, quiet enough to mirror the palms.

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The paddy fields are dotted with thousands of temples and shrines, both large and small, dedicated to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess. Fred Eiseman,Jr., writes: "No Balinese deity is better loved and more frequently and fervently worshiped than Dewi Sri."

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Different offerings are made at different times in the crop cycle, but midway through the growing season an offering called buluyag is made. It consists of rice cooked in coconut leaves, plus flowers, rice wine, and holy water.

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Another shrine.

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Yet another variant, this time an offering placed at a small dam built by the Asian Development Bank to improve water management.

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The ADB handiwork. Looks good, but the farmers say the ADB built it, so the ADB can therefore maintain it.  Bad news: maintenance isn't in the ADB budget.

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The island's most important temple complex, Pura Besakih, stands on the slope of Mt. Agung and in the face of strong winds blowing steadily from the sea.

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Close-up of the tiered roofs.

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A different style of roofing, but also at Pura Besakih.


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