Unexpected Insight at Bali’s Rice Terraces – UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Bali’s rice terraces are more than just beautiful. They gave us an unexpected insight into Balinese culture. We learned a deeper truth from the rice terraces than from the cultural performances we saw. We loved all the shows and dances, but the rice terraces offered a living lesson on one of Bali’s core values – harmony.
Unfortunately, we didn’t really learn this lesson until we got home. At the terraces, we just appreciated their beauty. We thoroughly enjoyed the rice terraces, but we feel our visit would have been better if we’d understood more about them at the time. We wanted to share our experience so that other first-time visitors can have a richer time at Bali’s rice terraces.
We didn’t fully realize the importance of harmony at Bali’s rice terraces until we got home and read up on why they were Unesco world heritage sites. There’s so much more to them than their surface beauty.
No Hippie Talk
We know – writing about the cultural value of harmony may seem a bit fluffy and precious. We assure you that this is not new age mumbo-jumbo. The rice terraces are a practical example of harmony and an inspiring example of a culture actually practicing the values that it preaches. The concept of harmony is also a helpful framework to understand and reconcile the many and varied aspects of the rice terraces.
Unesco World Heritage Site for Good Reason
Unesco’s rationale for making Bali’s rice terraces one of the world heritage sites was illuminating for us. It gave us an understanding of the broader significance of what we saw there. Bali’s rice terraces and their watering system were added to Unesco’s world heritage sites because of the way they demonstrate Tri Hita Karana. Tri Hita Karana is the basic Balinese philosophy of life that prioritizes harmony in 3 central aspects.
- Harmony with nature
- Harmony with other humans
- Harmony with god
Sounds good. Who wouldn’t agree with these lofty values, in theory? Bali has also found a way to achieve them in practice, with their centuries-old rice terraces.
HARMONY WITH NATURE
For a mountain or a sunset, being beautiful is enough. No further inquiry required. This wasn’t quite true of Bali’s rice terraces. We found Bali’s rice terraces to be gorgeous, but their beauty was somewhat puzzling. As strolled through them, we appreciated their beauty, but we sensed a complexity that we couldn’t understand or express in the moment. They were almost like those duck – rabbit optical illusions. They were:
- Natural landscapes and Man-made constructions
- Practical farms and Masterful works of art
- Ancient tradition and Contemporary practice
- Historical relics and Models for the future
- Crowded tourist attractions and Places of deep significance
- Substantial as a mountain and Fragile as a pile of mud
- Beautiful and …More?
You know how finding the right word can really illuminate an experience and put it in perspective? Harmony did that for our memory and understanding of Bali’s rice terraces. Thanks, Unesco. It’s just an interpretation, but it gives expression to that extra “something special” that the rice terraces have. We could sense it, but couldn’t quite put our finger on it. Harmony is an important quality of the rice terraces that deserves to be recognized. The harmony is intangible but it’s real. It wasn’t enough to recognize all the disparate aspects of the rice terraces. We should have marveled at how they seamlessly blend into one amazing harmony.
If you compare the rice terraces with Tanah Lot temple, you’ll get a better sense of the harmony with nature at the terraces. Tanah Lot temple is rightly a top attraction on Bali because of the way it beautifully harmonizes with nature. It does have a great level of harmony, but you’d never mistake it for something natural. If you saw the rice terraces for the first time, you might think it was some kind of spectacular natural landscape. Even when you know what they are, it’s easy to forget their man-made quality. And the reverse is true as well, when you focus on their artistic and geometric quality, it’s easy to forget they’re also natural phenomena.
Best of all, this didn’t happen by accident. Harmony with nature is not just Unesco’s interpretation or ours. It’s the Balinese interpretation. Even many centuries ago, the goal of their rice terraces was to sustain themselves in harmony with nature.
HARMONY WITH OTHER HUMANS
This is a more hidden aspect of Bali’s rice terraces. All the harmonious beauty was created, and is sustained, by harmony between people. The whole system that created the terraces, maintains the structures, waters the paddies, farms the rice, and harvests the yield is all egalitarian and democratic.
These harmonious human relationships are even more beautiful and inspiring than the rice terraces themselves. The engineering and sheer labor involved in building the terraces pales in comparison to getting that many people to peacefully and productively work together for that long. In our experience, even getting small project teams to stay unified and on task for short periods can be almost impossible. These Balinese farmers have done it for centuries!
They share the resources, share the work, and share the reward. Why? They valued harmony in relationships, and they achieved it in a very practical way. The continued existence of the rice terraces is the proof. That’s exactly why Unesco added them to the list of world heritage sites.
This fact both impressed us and made sense of what we saw at the rice terraces. Just look at their scale and beauty. They are clearly massive amounts of work AND massive labors of love. The structures are basically just mud, and up close, their utter fragility is clear. The commitment and vigilance required to preserve the rice terraces as gorgeous and functioning farms boggles the mind. The fact that this monumental accomplishment was born and lives through an egalitarian and democratic system inspires the spirit. When you think of all the exploitative farming practices across the globe, this has to be one of the best highlights and role models for the world.
HARMONY WITH GOD
The rice terraces are dependent on the subak water system that irrigates them. The subak system is so vital that the ancients sanctified it with a series of water temples. Taman Ayun temple is the most famous of these, but numerous water temples are an intricate part of the irrigation system. The farming practices themselves have been integrated into various religious rituals and ceremonies.
It’s difficult to say whether they achieved harmony with god, but integrating the temples and the religious rituals certainly contributed to the long tradition of cooperation and solidarity. That tradition has nourished the people of Bali for centuries. And it is that solidarity that created the stunning beauty of the rice terraces.
Bali’s Not Perfect
Of course, we’re not suggesting that all of Bail is in cultural harmony. Five seconds in Bali’s notorious traffic will prove how unharmonious it can be. After all, every culture pays lip service to values that it doesn’t always live up to. Bali is no different, but the rice terraces are special. They’re more than beautiful scenery. They are an unexpected and shining example of Bali’s culture at its best.
For now, we can only appreciate this in our memories, and we have Unesco to thank for this understanding. We wish we’d had a deeper understanding in the moment, but we’re happy that we still learned something after our visit. If you’re planning to visit Bali’s rice terraces, you can enjoy the beautiful vistas and gain insight into Bali’s culture. You can have a (literally) living lesson on the cultural value of harmony. You can see harmony in the beautifully crafted land, in the flowing water, in the communal farmers, and in the temples that sanctify it all. Not just lip service to harmony, but a centuries-old tradition of harmony in action.
You can read more about why Bali’s rice terraces and watering system are Unesco World Heritage Sites here.
Beautiful rice terraces are all over Bali. According to Unesco, it is the whole rice terrace and watering system of Bali that is the world heritage site, not any particular terrace. They are all part of the same system and manifest the same cultural values. The 2 most visited are Jatiluwih and Tegalalang.
Jatiluwih is about 90 minutes drive from Ubud. It can be a challenge to find on your own, but many tours will take you there. It has fantastic terrace views with mountains in the background and typically fewer visitors than Tegalalang.
Tegalalang is a short, cheap taxi ride from Ubud. It’s convenient location comes with the price of big crowds. The main access and view points are along Jalan Raya Tegalalang (Jalan Raya just means road). There are many cafés and shops on the western ridge of the terraces. Tegalalang rice terraces cascade down the winding walls of a valley, which makes for very scenic views. You can hike the terraces on your own. Or you can take a tour through the terraces that will lead all the way to Pura Gunung Kawi water temple, as well other cool sites. We didn’t, and we regret it. Also, don’t fret the big crowds. The harmony of the rice terraces is an inherent quality. It doesn’t need to be quiet and serene to appreciate it. That would be better, but it’s not necessary.