Technologies of power in the engineered landscape of Bali

  • by J. Stephen Lansing

Om sarwa prani hitangkaram * May all that breathes be well, Balinese farmers' prayer

pp 6: The word “technology” derives from techne (τέχνη), a Greek word that originally referred to the labors of the smith and other craftsmen. The analogous Greek word for the labors of the farmer is erga or “work”. as in Hesiod's Works and Days. Erga could also mean farm lands: tilled fields or lands that had been worked, but not virgin fields or forests. This fishing is the erga of the sea, while in another sense, honey is the erga of bees. This distinction between techie and erga is relevant to a theory of the special characteristics of agricultural rites.

For the Greeks, the smith was a solitary figure, whose techie was a jealously guarded secret connecting him to the powers of the underworld through the god Hephaestus. In contrast, the erga, or work, of the farmer was public, involving the wohole society and most of the gods. Both activities (smithing and farming) involved ritual, but in the case of techie the rituals were secret and individuals, whereas erga are public and collective. Indeed the calendar of agricultural rites is the master social calendar for annual and agricultural cycles are one and the same.

pp10: For Marx, labor is “above all a process between man and nature, a process in which man through his own actions mediates, regulates and controls his material exchange with nature. (…) The natural world is the stage on which human history is enacted and also the storehouse of raw materials that society reshapes into a “humanized nature.”

pp 25: According to Liefrinck, ” the explanation of the amazingly high standard of rice cultivation in Bali is to be downed in Montesquieu's conclusion that ' the yield of the soil depends less on its richness than on the degree of freedom enjoyed by those who till it.'“

pp27: (Liefrinck) “The complexes of ricefields obtaining water from the one conduit, or from the one branch of a conduit are called in Balinese subak, and the owners of the ricefields making up such a complex constitute a subak association, or sekehe subak. (…) The subak consists of a stretch of ground divided into allotments sharing a single system of irrigation and drainage.”

pp 36: As for the water temples, we have already seen that there is evidence that the Dutch were aware of the existence - and even some of the practical functions-of the temples associated with farming and water control. But it appears that once the temples had been pigeonholed as religious institutions, their practical functions became invisible, Although the colonial archives provide useful observations of the workings of the water temple system, the system itself was not detected because it rested on a system of power relations so ephemeral, from the point of view of a colonial administration, as to be imperceptible -“an external whisper, a beating of wings that one has difficulty in hearing in the serious matter of history.” (M. Foucault An introduction Vol 1 of History of Sexuality)

pp 38: The oldest human settlements in Bali are concentrated on the best rice-growing areas, where it appears that some terraces have been under continuous cultivation for a millennium or more. By contrast, all other systems of irrigated agriculture are subject to a gradual decline in productivity as a consequence of salinization and loss of soil fertility.

pp39: Irrigation systems originating at different weirs are often interconnected so that unused water from the end of one irrigation system can be shunted into a different block of terraces or returned to a neighboring stream. To appreciate the level of precision required for this system to work, it is necessary to understand something about the basic dynamics of the paddy eco-system. In essence, the flow of water - the planned alteration of wet and dry phases-governs the basic biochemical process of the terrace eco-system. A general theory in ecology holds that ecosystems which are characterized by steady, unchanging nutrient flows tend to be less productive than systems with nutrient cycles or “pulses.” Rice paddies are an excellent example of this principle. Controlled changes in water levels create “pulses” in several important biochemical cycles. The cycle of wet and dry phases alters the soil Ph; induces a cycle of aerobic and anaerobic conditions in the soil that determines the activity of microorganisms; circulates mineral nutrients; fosters the growth of nitrogen-fixing algae; excludes weeds; stabilizes soil temperature; and over the long term governs the formation of a plough pan that prevents nutrients from being leached into the subsoil. Potassium for example is needed for rice growth and depends largely on drainage. Phosphorus is also essential and may be increased more than tenfold by submergence.

The main crop produced is, of course, rice. But in addition, the paddy also produces important sources of animal protein, such as eels, frogs and fish. Even the dragon-flies that gather over the rice to hunt insects are themselves hunted by little boys, who roast and eat them. Most paddies support a large population of ducks (…) Traditional harvesting techniques remove only the seed-bearing tassel, leaving the rest of the stalk to decompose in the water, returning most of its nutrients to the system.

pp 46: All three groups plant rice at least once a year in the rainy season. During the dry season, there is a rotational system. One group is guaranteed water for a second planting of rice, and one group plants a vegetable crop, receiving water once every five days. The third group will plant either rice or vegetables, depending upon whether the amount of irrigation water is judged adequate for rice. By setting the cropping pattern and irrigation schedule, the Masceti temple attempts to optimize water sharing while establishing a widespread fallow period to reduce pest infestations.

pp 51: Throughout the colonial era, the missionaries had little success with Sang Hyang Widi as a vehicle for Christianity. But after Indonesian independence in 1947, it became politically important for the Balinese to define their religion as monotheistic. In the effort to stave off Islamic proselytizers, Balinese theologians brought Sang Hyang Widi to the fore, this time as a Balinese equivalent of Allah. It was at this stage that shrines to Sang Hyang Widi began to be attached to new buildings, from tourist hotels, to banks and government offices. These new temples may be best described as shrines to divinity in the abstract.

By contrast, all traditional Balinese temples consist of a collection of altars and shrines for specific deities, which express in a well defined symbolic vocabulary the social role of a temple. For example, all Balinese markets have temples. The principal deity enshrined is Maya Sih, mistress of illusions, but there are also small shrines to other deities like the Rice Goddess. These shrines help situate markets in the meaningful context of Balinese cosmology, partly by articulating the link between the market temple and other temples elsewhere. (…)

pp52: In time, perhaps, Maya Sih or some other deity may find a new niche in the temples for banks or hotels. But for the present, banks remain unconnected to society- as it is defined by the symbolism of temple rituals.

I draw attention to this contrast because it helps to define what I would like to call the sociogenic aspects of water temple rituals. By this I meant that rituals at a water temple provide a deep reading of what the institution is about -its specific relationship to the social microcosm. Temple rituals literally call into existence the task groups that manage the terraces for economic production. These groups have no separate existence apart from the water temple system. In this sense, the temples provide a vehicle to achieve voluntary social cooperation in the management of the irrigation on which each village- and the society as a whole- is utterly dependent. Each village obtains their water from a fragile weir and irrigation works that lie in the territory of other villages upstream. In the absence of a “hydraulic bureaucracy” to manage irrigation, the temple system itself must maintain a kind of “hydraulic solidarity”. by persuasively articulating the common interest in watershed management.

pp54 & 55: If one looks at the system from the bottom up, each farmer has a small shrine (bedugul) located at the spot where irrigation water first enters his fields. This “upstream” corner of his fields is considered sacred; it is here that he makes offerings to the Rice Goddess incarnate in his crop. At harvest time, the rice that grows closest to the water inlet is used to create a sacred image of the Rice Goddess herself, which is not eaten, but carried to the rice barn and given offerings. Upstream from the farmer's field shrine, the next water temple is usually the subak temple, representing a block of irrigated terraces with a common water source. Several subak's make up the congregation of a Ulun Swi temple, associated with a large canal and a weir or spring shrine. Several weirs typically form the congregation of a Masceti regional water temple. Finally, each spring, lake and the headwaters of each river have shrines or temples. The largest water temple is furthest upstream - the Teple of the Crater Lake, associated with Lake Batur, which is considered to be the source of all irrigation waters within its river boundaries. At the downstream terminus of irrigation systems, important temples are located, which are classified as Masceti regional water temples. Upstream and downstream temples have very different functions associated with the two different symbolic properties of water. Upstream water is associated with the nourishing, or life-giving effects of water and is reframed as a gift from the Goddess of the Lake. In contrast, downstream water is cleansing water-water used to purify, to wash away the pollution. It is not collected in sacred vessels, like upstream water, but is left running in the rivers. Impurities such as the ashes from sacrifices are thrown directly into the rivers, which bear them to the sea. This is the basis of a powerful symbolic contrast: whereas the waters high above in the crater lake represent the mystery of water as life giver, the waters of the sea are associated with the equally potent mysteries of dissolution and regeneration. Downstream Masceti temples are located at the downstream edge of the last block of rice terraces irrigated by major rivers, along the sea coast. By the time they reach the sea, the rivers are considered to ve brimming with impurities - the ashes of burnt sacrifices, the discharge from village and fields. The sea dissolves them all, removing their human content as impurities, and returning them to a wild, elemental, natural state.


Holy water fuses the symbolic qualities of upstream and downstream: it is at once a blessing and a purification. The sacredness recognized in these properties of water-its ability to cause growth and to purify and cleanse-derives in part from the human uses of water. It is only controlled water that can cause growth or bear away impurities.

pp 56: To create “holy water” at the weir, a cup of water taken from the main canal at the weir is set at the foot of the weir shrine and offerings are made to the weir god, who is asked to sanctify the water. Although the water is physically removed from the canal, its upstream quality-its ability to signify the collective-remains intact, for it is now holy water. The ritual simply abstracts the qualities associated with the upstream flow of the weir-the association of the water with the social unity that originates from it.

pp 59: (…) we have seen that ritual symbolism is deeply concerned with relationships between temples. We might, therefore, conclude that the proper level of analysis is not the individual temple or subak, but the system of temples along a river. (…) the regional water temples do not define themselves as local branches of a wider system. Instead, each temple is at the center of its own microcosm. Surrounded by different constellations of social institutions, each temple honors its own specific collection of gods.

pp 67: The structure of temple hierarchy is embedded in these calendrical cycles (“these” being individual, subak, Ulun Swi and Masceti temples), which equate longer cycles with larger and more comprehensive productive units. The concept of large cycles encompassing many smaller ones has an interesting analogy in the composition of Balinese music. In a Balinese gamelan orchestra, small instruments play short, repetitive cyclical patterns. Larger instruments play at longer intervals, defining the beginnings and endings of melodies. All musical compositions are based on interlocking cyclical patterns, with long sections defined by the sounding of large gongs. In a similar way, high-ranking water temples are thought to encompass the activities of smaller ones, meshing many separate cycles into a single productive sequence.

pp70: The tike is a powerful instrument for calculating the orderly patterns of temporal succession. The social and natural world are defined as composed of many parts, all of which may be growing or changing at different rates. In the water temples, the uses of the tike extend beyond the synchronization of productive schedules, to structure the hierarchy of productive relationships. The personal growing cycles of individual farmers are aggregated into the cycles of the subak, weir, Ulun Swi and Masceti temples, and ultimately into the annual cycles of the Temple of the Crater Lake. In this way, the productive process is defined as a hierarchical structure that emerges through the synchronization of the farmer's labors.

pp73: From anywhere in central Bali, farmers need only glance up to the clouds around Mount Batur to be reminded of the ultimate origin of the water flowing into their fields. In the crater of the volcano, at an elevation high above the height at which rice may be grown, is an immense freshwater lake, stretching over 1,718 hectares. This reservoir is regarded as the ultimate source of fresh water for the rivers and springs that provide irrigation water for the whole of central Bali. (…) The steam from the caldera of Mount Batur represents the zenith of the mandala; the nadir is found in the depths of the lake. Each of the springs around the lake is regarded as the origin of waters for a particular hydrological region of central Bali. (…) The entire mandala of the lake forms the center of a much larger mandala, consisting of the island of Bali and the seas that surround it. Priests describe the lake as a freshwater ocean, filled with life-giving water, which contrasts with the salt ocean that encircles it far below. The lake is the home of one of the two supreme deities of Bali, the “Goddess of the Lake”, Dewi Danu. (…) According to legend, the goddess and her male counterpart, the God of Mount Agung, emerged from an erupting volcano in the Icaka year of 310. Together with other, lesser gods, they took possession of the land and waters of Bali. The goddess rules the lake and Mount Batur, the second highest peak in Bali, whereas the god rules Mount Agung.

pp93: Just as the holy water of a subak temple signifies the subak, the holy water of Panca Wali Krama (Island-wide ritual of purification at the Temple of the Crater Lake) signifies the totality of subaks dependent on Lake Batur-a concept almost indistinguishable from that of society itself. Mythically, the idea of Batur as origin is replicated in the chronicles, which trace the creation of human society on Bali to the arrival of the gods at the mountaintops of Batur and Besakih. The myth of origins is also recast, in slightly different form, in the chronicle of the Paseks of the Black Wood, which identifies the Jero Gde with the first human created from the Black Wood atop Mount Batur and gifted by the gods. This both the chronicles and the ritual symbolism of the holy water identify the Jero Gde (high priest of the Temple of the Crater Lake) with the origins of society, the essential mystery of the transformation of nature into humanity.

pp 110: As one of the major rice-producing regions in indonesia, Bali was one of the first targets of the Green Revolution. (…) the major purpose was to boost total rice production, converting rice from a subsistence to a cash crop. (…) If the powers of the water temples were rather hazy for the Dutch, they were entirely invisible to the planners involved in promoting the Green Revolution, who regarded agriculture as a purely technical process.

pp 113: Balinese farmers were forbidden to plant native varieties, which take much longer to mature, are less responsive to fertilizers, and produce less grain. Instead double-cropping or triple-cropping of IR-36 (or other high-yielding rice varieties) was legally mandated. Farmers were instructed to abandon the traditional cropping patterns and to plant high-yielding varieties as often as possible. The second step was taken as a result of a series of studies by foreign consultants on ways to improve the performance of Balinese irrigation systems. These studies culminated in Bali Irrigation Project (BIP), a major engineering project launched in 1979 by the Asian Development Bank.

pp 115: by the mid 1980s, Balinese farmers had become locked into a struggle to stay one step ahead of the next rice pest by planting the latest resistant variety of Green revolution rive. Despite the cash profits from the new rice, many farmers were pressing for a return to irrigation scheduling by the water temples, to bring down the pest populations. But to foreign consultants at the Bali Irrigation Project, the proposal to return the control of irrigation to water temples was interpreted as religious conservatism and resistance to change. The answer to pests was pesticides, not prayers of priests.

pp 116: (…) I tried to show that the rituals of the water temples were not a template from an outmoded cultivation system, but a system of ecological management with deep historical roots in Balinese culture. Agriculture was a social as well as a technical process, dependent on the “hydraulic solidarity” achieved by the temple system. Continuous rice croppings threatened both the ecology of the terraces and the social infrastructure of production. But these arguments failed to make much impression on the bank officials.

pp117: Balinese temple priests and farmers argued that the water temples were necessary to coordinate cropping patterns so that there would be enough irrigation water for everyone, and to reduce pests by coordinating fallow periods.

pp 118: (…) tradeoff between two concerns: water sharing and pest control. If everyone plants at the same time, all will also harvest at the same time, and a widespread fallow period can reduce pest populations by depriving them of food and/or habitat. On the other hand, if everyone plants the same rice variety at the same time to coordinate their harvests and fallow periods, then irrigation demand cannot be staggered. Striking an optimal balance between these two constraints is not a simple matter, because the choices made by upstream farmers have implications for their downstream neighbors, and constraints such as the amount of water available for irrigation vary by location and by season.

pp 119 -125: description of the ecological computer model

pp 123: (…) the model supports the conclusion that the social organization of cropping patterns plays and important role in the management of terrace ecology. The real productive significance of the ritual system is not in the imposition of fixed cropping patterns, but in the ability to synchronize the productive activities of large numbers of farmers. The water temples are a social system that manages production, not a ritual clockwork. For these reasons, the ecological model suggests that removing the temples from the control of production ultimately threatens the entire productive system.

pp 125: (from the project evaluation mission of the Asian Development Bank in 1988) The Project Evaluation Mission interviewed leaders of the high Water User Group at Batur who have been instrumental in the proper establishment of some 45 new subaks during the last 10 years. Apart from providing the required spiritual background, they often provided technical advice (…). In the light of the minimal success of the Project Office to develop new irrigation areas, it is suggested that there would be benefit from seeking advice from them. At the least, it is considered that this exercise would be of assistance in bringing the two parallel water development and management institutions into closer contact and could have more far-reaching impacts.

pp 127 & 128: Most Balinese rice terraces continued to produce two crops per year, as they had before the arrival of the Dutch. Because the two institutional systems were so unlike as to be unrecognizable to one another, coexistence was possible.

(…) a major social response to the problem of sustaining rice terraces as productive ecosystems is summed up in the concept of “hydraulic solidarity”. The physical facts of hydrological interconnectivity and the need to create coordinated fallow periods for pest control place a premium on cooperation. All farmers who share water from the same weir must cooperate in construction, maintenance, water allocation and the management of disputes. The are also likely to face the necessity of coordinating cropping patterns with upstream, downstream and lateral neighbors. In the absence of such coordination, there is the danger of “chaos in water distribution” and an “explosion of pest populations” as occurred in the aftermath of the Green Revolution.

pp 129: What is missing from Marx's concept of humanized nature is an appreciation of the constituting role of the symbolic system. My argument is that the ritual system of water temples defines the symbolic meaning of productive relationships. A weir is just a weir, but the concept of holy water from a weir shrine transforms the weir into the symbol of a specific social unit. It is through this symbolism that farmers acquire concepts for social units more abstract than the immediate face-to-face community of neighbors. (…) This relationship is more abstract than the relationship between farmers in a subak, because its only concrete symbol is a vial of holy water, but it is no less vital to the productive system. The ritual system is not merely a gloss on productive relationships, for in the long run it is the social relationships constructed by water temples, not the mechanics of water flow, that create and sustain the terrace ecosystem.

pp 130: But the entire system of water temples is only one component of Balinese society. There are other temple networks and other hierarchies that are not based on the logic of productive relationships. Indeed, most water temples contain shrines to deities that represent other social units, from villages to kings. These relationships ultimately define the boundaries of the powers of the water temples in the Balinese social universe.

pp 132: (…) Unlike Masceti temples, the Temple of the Crater Lake has no control over a specific irrigation system; there is no question of material logic of hydrology dictating the scope of its powers. (…) The sources of this power lie in the logic of the symbolic system, in the concepts of holy water and productive cycles. Ultimately, it is the flow of holy water that generates the flow of water through the irrigation canals.

pp 133: The image of society that the Balinese see in their terraced landscape do not reflect the progressive linear order that Marx and Hegel understood as “history”. Instead for the Balinese non linear patterns of temporal order emerge from the regular progression of natural cycles, the seasons of growth and change. When Balinese society sees itself reflected in a humanized nature, a natural world transformed by the efforts of previous generations, it sees a pattern of interlocking cycles that mimic these cycles of nature. Whereas Marx looked at nature and saw evolutionary progress, a Balinese farmer may look at nature and see the intricate patterns of the tika calendar or hear the interlocking cyclical melodies of a gamelan orchestra.

Afterword by Valerio Valeri

pp 137 The contrast between an autochtonous, popular authority connected with the fertility of the soil, the rhythms of nature and agricultural production, and female like those rhythms and the earth itself, on the one hand, and an immigrant, noble and male authority on the other hand is one that can be recognized in many societies of those areas.

pp 140: (…) there can be no form of production without a form of consciousness , that consciousness is always consubstantial with labour.

pp 142: (…)he has shown to paraphrase Kant, that production without ritual is blind and ritual without production is empty.

Lansing, J.S. (1991). Priests and programmers: Technologies of power in the engineered landscape of Bali. Princeton University Press.

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