Terraces of Life

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Rice Terraces at Jatiluwih

Nyiur melambai di tepi pantai ǀ Palm leaves waving on the beach
Menghias indah wajah tanah airku ǀ Adorning the beautiful face of my homeland
Siulan burung di puncak bambu ǀ Birds singing on top of bambo trees
Berirama pujaan tumpah darahku ǀ Rhyming with the adoration of my motherland

Sawah ladang luas ǀ Vast rice paddies and fields
Lenggang padi kuning berayun ǀ Yellow rice plants swaying around
Memanggil semua bertamasya ǀ Calling everyone to go on vacation
Memuja alam Indonesia ǀ Admiring the nature of Indonesia
Sungguh indah pandangan tanah airku ǀ How beautiful the landscapes of my homeland are

– Tamasya by Daljono, a song often sung in Indonesian children singing competition

Most Indonesian children are familiarized with songs about the beauty of their country since early childhood, usually describing the lush, fertile and incomparable Indonesian natural landscapes. Give them a piece of paper and crayons or colored pencils, then ask them to draw anything related to landscape. More than 90% would end up drawing mountains – usually two – with the sun peeking out from the slopes in between, a road going towards the valley overshadowed by the peaks, and a small house on one side of the road with rice paddies on the other side.

The mountains illustration – usually cone-shaped – might be inspired from the abundance of volcanoes across Indonesia, one of the most volcanically active countries in the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire. Of all Indonesian major islands, only Borneo and New Guinea lack volcanoes on their soils. They take lives, but from the ashes they spew grow multitude of tropical richness, eventually providing livelihood for the widely agrarian society.

From which grows rice, the staple for most Indonesians, with the exception of the people in Maluku and Papua who rely on sago – known as sagu to locals. So important rice is for Indonesians we have different names to call it, depending on its life stage: padi for unharvested rice, gabah for harvested rice, beras for cleaned rice seeds, and finally nasi for cooked rice.

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A Gift from the Volcanoes

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Rice Paddies near Besakih

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Rice Terraces at Jatiluwih, Living Up to Its Name

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Layers of Fecundity

In Bali, a mountainous and fertile tropical island in the archipelago, rice is as important in people’s lives as in other parts of Indonesia. In a society where agriculture remains the main subsistence despite the thriving tourism industry, well-cultivated land is crucial to ensure the rice production continuity on the island. However with a total area of less than 6,000 square km and its location within the tropics rice production on the island is very much dependent on the cycle of rainy and dry seasons. Normally farmers would start planting at the beginning of rainy season to ensure their rice paddies well-irrigated, but in Bali that is not always the case.

When James and I was in Yeh Pulu a farmer was spreading fertilizers; around Ubud paddies were all in fresh green color, starting their journey to maturity; in Jatiluwih – Bali’s most majestic rice terraces – the rice had started to turn yellow, a captivating sight amid the island’s prolific green tapestry; meanwhile near Candi Gunung Kawi local farmers had already started harvesting their rice.

The ingenious Balinese people created Subak system which not only provides irrigation to rice paddies, but also regulates the wider cultural landscape in Balinese society, which in turn enables continuous rice cultivation regardless the season. Subak’s principle in adherence to Tri Hita Karana – Balinese way of seeking harmony with gods, people and nature – means active involvement from villagers, supervised by Hindu priests, to manage weirs and canals for the benefit of all. All these efforts to preserve Balinese cultural landscape, including Subak system, resulted in its enlistment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, Indonesia’s eighth and latest.

“Jatiluwih means very beautiful,” Bli Komang told us. “The water here is so clear that people bathe in it,” he continued while pointing his finger at a canal.

“To preserve land’s fertility, farmers in Bali usually plant rice twice a year and something else after the second harvest season is over and before another cycle starts,” he recounted. “It can be long bean, soybean, or anything.”

A thin wisp of smoke rose from a small hut in the middle of the terraces. “It smells nice. What is it?” James was curious.

“It’s burned cow dung,” Bli Komang said and smiled. “They use it as fertilizer.”

As far as my eyes could see in every harvested rice paddy, a small patch of land remained untouched. “They always leave a patch of the rice paddy, roughly 50×50 square cm, for Dewi Sri, the rice goddess,” Bli Komang explained how the pre-Hindu Javanese-Balinese deity is still revered on the island.

Despite their ingenuity in irrigation system, Balinese are still deeply religious people, keen to always live with Tri Hita Karana principles, reflected from the small and colorful offerings of canang sari to the management of Subak system.

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Preparing Organic Fertilizer

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Rice in Different Stages of Its Cycle

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Beauty for Visitors, Livelihood for Locals

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Ready for Harvest

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Rice Terraces, Flanked by Tropical Plants

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Endless Terraces

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Young Rice Plants near Yeh Pulu

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Spreading Fertilizers

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Harvest Time near Candi Gunung Kawi

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Off Season for Rice, Sidemen Village