The Sacred Waters of Bali and the Importance of Community

The Balinese have traditionally been careful stewards of their water, with a network of temples, rice terraces, and irrigation canals connected physically, socially, and spiritually to guard the passage and use of fresh water across the island.  In the most fertile areas, the waters have become sacred, and are home to temples dedicated to Dewi Danu, the goddess of fresh water and one of the most important divinities in Balinese Hinduism.  On our day of road tripping out of the Menjangan/Pejarakan area and towards the city of Ubud, we were able to visit one of these water temples on the shores of Lake Beratan.  It was easily the most elaborate, and yet delicate, temple we encountered in Bali, and it was filled with local visitors there for prayer and tourism.

One of the smaller buildings within the temple complex of Pura Ulun Danu Beratan, the most important of the water temples of inland Bali.

This lovely site of such traditional importance was our final stop on the way to Ubud, the city that had been the home base for Elizabeth Gilbert in the “Love” part of the book Eat Pray Love, and our last major place of stay in Indonesia.  The whole day, though, was filled with water, from rain to waterfalls, from twin lakes to sacred lakes, and has since prompted me to contemplate water’s role in the Balinese cultural/natural ecosystem.  (Fair warning, the anthropologist in me had fun researching and thinking about these concepts, which means that this post is more about broader cultural patterns based on our experiences and later research, rather than just a story about our time there.  Our next post will include more details and photos of what it was like to actually visit these places in person.)

Throughout this, our host from the House of Hobbit, Sila, was our guide, bringing us from his home to our next abode.  This meant that we got the chance to chat further with Sila throughout the day of road tripping across the rainy Balinese countryside.  We covered subjects from clean energy possibilities in Indonesia to the refugee crisis in the Middle East, from the still-limited-but-growing presence of religious extremism in Indonesia, to Toby’s participation in Big Brothers, Big Sisters (BBBS) (where we made a great friend in Toby’s wonderful “Little Brother” during our time in Ithaca) and our contributions to educational programs like the SOLA school for girls in Afghanistan (whose founder is an amazing Afghan woman who attended the same college as us, Middlebury).  Given Sila’s ongoing interests in environmental protection and supporting the children of his community, he seemed particularly thoughtful about what it would take to establish some kind of mentoring program in his village like BBBS, to promote more usage of wind, tidal, solar, or geothermal energy in the region, and how difficult it must be for refugee children who are trying to find homes abroad, but are facing prejudice coming and going.

(Some final goodbye photos with our hosts, Putu and Sila, before leaving the House of Hobbit for Ubud.  Courtesy of Putu.)

Throughout these conversations and others from our time in Bali (mostly with drivers), we were struck by the importance of community and tradition to our interlocutors’ apparent culture: The tendency for families and villages to come together to help raise the children or tend to the old or support the poor.  The perceived need to protect girls by encouraging them to marry as soon as they looked like women, to protect the social structure and status of the family and village by young folk not remaining single for too long and by returning home to take care of elder relatives.  The emphasis on keeping religious practices alive and present in very overt ways throughout society, particularly if they knit together the community, the environment, and the gods.  The attention to the Hindu Balinese’s place within greater Indonesian (predominantly Muslim) culture.  The repeated references to how tourism is changing the social structure of traditional villages and encouraging more young folk to leave their family’s rice farms and fishing towns for tourism jobs in the city.  The sadness and urgency in Putu and Sila’s family over how the incredible amount of rubbish-pollution is going to severely damage the balance of the ecosystems of Bali and its seas, as well as the Balinese’s experience of the natural world.

Sila using the opportunity of bringing us to snorkel on the Menjangan reef to spend time collecting recyclable rubbish in the sea, as discussed in detail in our post Environmentalism and Snorkeling the Sacred Island of Menjangan

This common focus on supporting one’s people and environment, on keeping social systems in balance, meant that values like environmental protection and getting married young – which would not often go together in our own experiences of American culture, one considered progressive and the other conservative – were not at all contradictory here.  The contexts for these ideas and values were so different from our own, and they fit together in surprising ways, so that we were struck by how unlikely a combination these values would make in America, but how they could be totally sensible and congruous for a Balinese like Sila or Putu.

And then the idea of balanced, interdependent networks among people and the environment showed up again during our day of road tripping from Pejarakan to Ubud – in the form of water.  Without initially realizing it, we were following a major interconnected water system through central Bali, from a soaring, thunderous waterfall in the town of Munduk, back along the water source of the Tukad Mendaum towards the vast twin lakes of Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan, and finally to the lake of Danau Beratan, where we found the central water temple of Pura Ulun Danu Beratan.

The huge lakes of Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan, seen from a mountain-top lookout on the road between Munduk and Danau Beratan.

We later learned that this water system is home to the main source of the traditional irrigation networks, the subak of central Bali, which are communally managed among major groups of rice terrace farms and water temples, with Ulun Danu Beratan at their heart.  This network, its landscapes, temples, waters, and social practices have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the collective title of the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy.”  What a mouthful, eh?  The long name here makes sure to tie together how this system is one of both nature and culture, a practice of communal water management, and a symbol of one of the most important philosophies in Balinese culture, all dating back more than a millennium in age.

This Tri Hita Karana philosophy is one that strikes me as particularly emblematic of Balinese culture, and makes a lot of sense as something that would be so important there, given all that we learned and experienced during our visit.  This belief system relies on respecting the balance and interconnectedness of humans, the non-human natural world, and the gods, making overt the relationships and dependencies among them, and how humans are deeply connected to the world around them.

The “Mother Temple” of Pura Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung.  Photo from

It shows up in the offerings we saw most places in Bali, the culinary reliance on rice which in turn depends on fresh water, which in turn is managed by the temples around Lake Beratan and Lake Batur.  It shows up in a belief that Bali, with the volcanic Mount Agung and the mountain-side temple Pura Besakih at its heart, is a mandala, a microcosmic version of the universe, and that the many sacred landscapes and shrines around the island provide anchoring points for spiritual, social, and physical balance, order and protection to the Balinese people.  Fresh water is the primary medium for connecting the people, the land, and the gods, and flows among sacred points across Bali, down to the sea.  At the central sources of this fresh water live some of the most important and most benevolent gods, and where these flows mingle with the salty sea to become undrinkable, live demons.  So more temples are erected around the edge of the island to protect the people from this evil force, such as at Tanah Lot… And so on.  In the end, in Bali you find yourself surrounded by a faith devoted to the life-giving and death-bringing powers of water, marked by interconnected sacred landscapes that bring together people, the earth, and the gods.

Tanah Lot, the temple in the sea, which we had visited the week before

So what happens when the people of Bali find their lives out of balance?  How will they continue to manage the ongoing intersection of industrialized globalism, commercialism and tourism with their bountiful but fragile natural resources?  The Balinese people seem to find themselves caught in this time of great change, where there is still a significant amount of cultural capital placed on traditional places, practices, and beliefs, but simultaneously a growing dependence on goods made with industrial materials for which there isn’t enough infrastructure to dispose of safely, and a similar dependence on the money of the international tourism industry.

It is not for me, an outsider and visitor for such a short time, to speak for the Balinese.  But my impression at least was that the traditional balances of Balinese culture are under threat, as are the biodiversity and the ecosystems of the island.  The water that is so important to all life on Earth is here often becoming polluted, or made less accessible, or it carries disease.  Change is happening, more change is coming, and as the Balinese continue to globalize, to deal with the remnant repercussions of the colonial period, to face the currently unsustainable shifts in the economy and the environment – something in their traditional values of balance with the environment and the community is going to have to give.  It already has started to do so.  And we, as tourists to the island for a month, have contributed to that for good or ill.

In the meantime, it gave me hope to visit the water temple of Ulun Danu Beratan, and to witness how people are continuing in the traditional practices there to carefully steward the island’s fresh water, agricultural bounty, and religious respect for nature, and to therefore help bring people’s lives more into balance with the world around them even in this disruptive modern age.

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