Balinese Water Temples: A Synthesis of Religion and Engineering

Winter time in the south of Australia is always a good time to escape to more tropical locations to soak up some sun. We decided to spend a week in Bali like so many Australian tourists do. I was speaking to some of the resort staff and mentioned that I am a Dutch water engineer. Admitting being Dutch is not always a good thing in Indonesia as my country did not leave a great impression during to the colonial era. The friendly resort staff told me about the water engineering projects designed by the Dutch at the start of the previous century. Even though this was a holiday, I could not resist taking a bike ride through the sawahs to view these historic works of water engineering.

What I found was more than a system of channels to divert water to rice fields. Dispersed between the engineering works I saw many Balinese water temples and votive shrines that the local farmers use to complement the rational engineering with the non-rational dimension of religion. Balinese water temples provide a fascinating insight into how the local farmers combine religion and engineering to manage their irrigation systems. This article discusses how the rational engineering dimension and the social or even spiritual aspects of water can be synthesised to optimise the way water is managed.

Balinese Water Temples: A Synthesis of Religion and Engineering

Balinese Water Temples

The Balinese irrigation system is managed through an intricate system of districts, the subaks. These are religious and social organisations that manage everything related to the cultivation of rice, including irrigation. The subak system developed over centuries, constantly evolving to deal with new circumstances. This system resulted in an intricate system, strongly interlinked with Bali’s natural and cultural environment, both at a material and at an esoteric level. ((Lansing, J. S. (1987). Balinese ‘water temples’ and the management of irrigation. American Anthropologist, 89(2), 326–341. doi: 10.1525/aa.1987.89.2.02a00030.))

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Religion plays an influential role in the management of Balinese water. Subak members collaborate to make decisions on water allocations and timing of water supply, supported by rituals mediated by priests. The performance of these rituals is of critical importance in Balinese water management, not in the sense that the system functions through divine intervention, but in the sense that the performance ritual creates a strong sense of collective purpose.

A ritual is not a useless repetitive activity, but rather a means to connect the sacred and the profane.1 The performance of ritual sacralises the natural environment, lifting it beyond the status of a resource exploited to maximise return.

The Balinese system functions optimally through this interplay between practical irrigation knowledge and esoteric rituals. When in the 1970s the Indonesian government decided to implement a Green Revolution, reducing the role of the traditional water temples, the delicate balance was disturbed, causing problems for the local farmers. Pests returned, and rice yields plummeted. The ancient knowledge was found to be more than esoteric religion and in fact encapsulated practical advice on how to manage a water system. Mythology has several levels of interpretation. On the surface, mythological stories are non-rational accounts of gods and the supernatural. Below that superficial view, myth contains practical and philosophical knowledge obtained through centuries of experience with the land. Nowadays, subaks are again an essential aspect of Balinese culture, confirmed by the island’s abundance of rice terraces and intricate patterns of canals, water temples, weirs, offer and other water infrastructure.

The Balinese Subak system is a great example how a decentralised water management approach can be instrumental in avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons, as described by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom.2 Whether such a system would work in Western culture is doubtful. Oriental cultures are more focused on society as a collective, while Occidental cultures seek to maximise benefits for the individual.3

Water Engineering and the Horizon of Reason

Combining local religion with engineering place Balinese water management on the Horizon of Reason. The Balinese water temples illustrate how managing water is more than a volume of H2O controlled by engineering. Water has an inherent social dimension that cannot be ignored by water managers. Engineers like to express water in cubic meters and milligrams per litre. For the people using the water, it has a much richer meaning that goes far beyond what we can express in numbers.

If you like to know more about customer perceptions of tap water, then read my book Customer Experience Management for Water Utilities by IWA Publishing.

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  1. Normal Habel, Michael O’Donoghue, and Marion Maddox, Myth, ritual and the sacred. Introducing the phenomena of religion, (Underdale: University of South Australia, 1993). 

  2. Ostrom, E. (1999). Revisiting the commons: Local lessons, global challenges. Science, 284(5412), 278–282. doi:10.1126/science.284.5412.278

  3. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviours, institutions, and organisations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Peter Prevos

Social scientist and engineer who dabbles in magic tricks.

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