We didn’t go to Bali to pray and we weren’t in search of love. We hadn’t enrolled in yoga classes, nor were we planning on meditation or spa services to revive ourselves. We were just on our way to Australia, and thought we’d stop to visit a cousin in Ubud in Bali’s uplands.

Like many other visitors, though, we relaxed into the place and extended our stay. During our month in Ubud, we discovered, unexpectedly and happily, that daily life in this area is infused with quiet rituals and meaningful offerings. And we learned that Balinese Hindu temples are closely tied to water management for the surrounding rice terraces. It may sound like a religious place, then, but that’s beside the point. It’s a way of life.

Bali possesses its own form of Hinduism, incorporating millennia of animistic beliefs and ancestry worship with bits of Buddhism sprinkled in. Plants, animals, water, even inanimate objects are revered. There are plenty of gods, many representing opposite forces: destruction and creation, heaven and earth, physical and metaphysical. On equal footing, each god and element is an essential contributor to the process of life on earth.

School children's daily offering, Bali

Children carry the daily offering to their school. ©Tom Bartel, TravelPast50.com. FWT Magazine.

Daily Rituals in Bali’s Central Highlands

The city of Ubud, up in Bali’s central highlands, is mostly spared the revelry of spring break beach bums. It is known for its art and culture, and there are plenty of shops selling the local handicrafts. Traffic can be noisy, but it’s nothing like the capital city Denpasar. Stores are busy and marketplaces crowded with colors and people.

But all over town and in the surrounding rice fields, homes, stores, and restaurants, daily offerings are placed calmly in doorways or at the base of statues to gods. Freshly made every day, the offering might be a combination of food, flowers and incense laid carefully in a basket of woven palm fronds. Indoors and outdoors (don’t trip over the offering on your way into the shop) these displays affirm the relationship between people and place, work and family, this life and the next. All of which takes us back to the villages and rice terraces beyond Ubud.

subak rice growing, Ubud, Bali

Dew on rice during the ‘Golden Hour’ dawn tour with Agung Rai, beyond Ubud, Bali. ©Tom Bartel, Travelpast50.com. FWT Magazine.

The Golden Hour

To learn more, we met Agung Rai, founder and director of ARMA Museum and Resort in Ubud, for his private “Golden Hour” tour. We set out at the first light of day when the green grasses were still tinged with shadows and dew. Rai drove us around rice fields and through little villages collectively known as ‘Beyond Ubud.’

As day broke, we watched old men sweeping the front steps to their homes. Uniformed children walked to school, taking turns carry their offerings. In the rice terraces, duck eggs were collected and rice paddies inspected. A dog gave us a look, knowing we were strangers to this path at this time of day. Everyone seemed to have a role starting the community’s day.

Mr. Rai encouraged to us listen and look, pointing out some of the rhythms of the local villages and offering us long silences as we paused to listen.

“Green, upon green, upon green. We are very lucky, the light is so good,” he whispered as the sun came up. Much of Balinese art takes its inspiration from this very image of nature, in this light, chock-full of textures. Dew droplets shimmered on the tips of the grass blades. Steep hills on the far side of the valley were stacked with rice terraces, webbed with dykes, and punctuated by tall palms. The saturated colors seemed to draw the distant hill closer. A woman discretely bathed in a creek nearby. A line of ducks waddled off to catch their grub from the black muddy earth.

Beyond Ubud, we didn’t even hear machinery besides the occasional scooter passing by. The songs of nature – frogs and birds – filled the subdued morning air. “Beyond Ubud,” Rai noted, “this is what we love to share.”

Bali Subak Rice Growing

Water blessed at the headwaters is passed along in ceremonies throughout the subak rice growing system. ©Kristin Henning, TravelPast50.com. FWT Magazine.

Subak Rice Growing in Bali

During our stay, we also met J. Stephen Lansing, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and an authority on evolutionary biology. He spoke about the ancient rice terrace irrigation systems of Bali, called subak, and we could see how this agricultural system aligns with Balinese Hinduism and the ethos of cooperation and continual recycling.

The cyclical mantra of the subak system is simple: the water flows, the rice grows, and the pests move on. Once rice is harvested and the ground is being turned to prepare for the next planting, pests tend to thrive – until the next flooding of the terraces. Ducks assist the plowmen in controlling pests, and when the fields are again flooded with water, the pests evacuate. The growing season is about four months and this area sees two harvests per year.

Bali subak rice growing with ducks

Ducks headed off to work, controlling pests in Bali’s subak system rice terraces. ©Kristin Henning, TravelPast50.com. FWT Magazine.

For centuries, rice growing in Bali has been managed through water temples, organized by watershed districts. The irrigation system begins at the fresh springs and crater lakes of Mts. Batur and Batukaru and courses through rivers, irrigation ditches, and tunnels, picking up the phosphates of the volcanic rock for natural fertilization. Rain contributes along the way.

Without cooperation, this intricate system could be – and has been – quickly upset. Withholding water at the upper reaches of the system, for example, would cause an increase of pests in the lower, drier terraces. The subak system was disrupted in the 1970s with the introduction of chemicals. Trying to increase production, the fertilizers had the opposite effect. The cooperative cycle of water use and rice planting seasons was interrupted, production fell, and excess phosphates rolled into the sea and damaged coral.

So today, the coordination of the temples in managing waters is encouraged.  The various water districts meet at the headwater temple to establish the delicate timing for planting, harvesting, pest control, and flooding. Then representatives from each terrace area meet with their river partners.

Subak rice terraces, Ubud, Bali

Rice terraces outside Ubud, Bali, at sunset. ©Tom Bartel, Travelpast50.com. FWT Magazine.

In a series of blessings that spread along the water routes, holy water from the source, blessed in traditional ceremonies, is passed along and added to each terrace area. Surely, part of the delicate balance is this flow and repetition, like a fugue playing and replaying its theme.

Bali’s rice terrace region faces many challenges, as development encroaches on rice producing land and the younger workforce migrates to larger cities. But the spiritual connections playing across the subak system and the harmony we witnessed during our Golden Hour with Agung Rai, indicate how important the preservation of Bali’s culture will continue to be.

Lansing and others successfully campaigned UNESCO to designate the subak system a World Heritage Site. The cultural landscape of Bali’s subak system was inscribed in 2012.

If you go

Aging Rai’s Golden Hour tours are by appointment only, with groups of no more than six people. The price is $50 per person. Contact sales@armabali.com to inquire. For more information about Agung Rai and his museum and foundation, visit ARMA Museum and Resort.