Balinese Rice

Balinese Rice


Rice is the stable food of half the world’s population and is the world’s most important crop. Rice cultivation in Bali goes back at least 2,000 years. The current method of irrigation goes back at least 1,000 years. Sir Stamford Raffles was impressed by the rice cultivation when, as the British Lieutenant-Governor of Java and its dependencies, he visited the ruler of Buleleng in North Bali in 1815.

Words for rice

Rice is the staple diet of the Balinese. The word nasi (rice) also means “meal”. The Balinese cannot really conceive of a meal without rice and the number of words for rice indicates its importance:


rice growing in the field or rice that has been cut but not threshed, or cut and threshed, but not husked (the husk and bran are removed at the mill, or in the old days by pounding with a mortar and pestle); the English word “paddy” comes from padi.


unmilled rice that has been separated from the stems.


milled, uncooked rice.


cooked rice.

Types of rice

There are three different types of rice:


red rice.


black rice, which is in fact a dark, blackberry purple.


white sticky, glutinous rice.

There are four sacred directions, each of which has a sacred colour, red, black, white and yellow. God intended to give the Balinese rice of all these colours, but there was a problem in transmission. Siwa sent a bird to bring the rice to the Balinese but the bird ate the yellow rice – except for a little bit which it planted under the eaves of its house. From the seeds grew turmeric, kunyit. Yellow rice does not grow in Bali, but mixing white rice with turmeric can make it. This is the fourth type of rice. Offerings of yellow rice are needed for certain offerings, and especially during Kuningan: see the article entitled Balinese Ceremonies for an explanation of Kuningan.

New or miracle rice

Rice grows very well in Bali and the quality is excellent. Padi Bali is the old traditional Balinese rice, grown from time immemorial, but now largely replaced by “new” or “miracle” rice. Padi Bali takes 210 days to grow, the length of the Balinese year.

During the 1950s Indonesia was forced to import nearly one million tons of rice every year. After 1965, Suharto made self-sufficiency a major goal. Oil revenues in the late 1960s were invested in setting up bureaucracies and Bali was one of the first targets for the Green Revolution.

“New” rice was introduced in the 1970s to feed Indonesia’s increasing population. In the 1940 Indonesia held about 40 million people, only about three million fewer than Japan. Just over 50 years later, Indonesia had almost double the population of Japan, with nearly 200 million.

The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines developed a high-yield, disease and insect-resistant strain of dwarf rice, which could produce many more tons of rice per hectare than Padi Bali. This was planted from 1970 to 1979 and there was a 43 per cent. increase in production. In the 1980s Indonesia even exported a few hundred thousand tonnes of rice. This was the so-called Green Revolution. There could be three crops of new rice a year, but in fact only two were grown in order to allow the fields to rest in between.

The wholesale adoption of miracle rice in Southeast Asia has led to a rice monoculture, making crops more vulnerable to pests and disease and more dependent on pesticides. Those problems have not been lost on the activists currently arguing against genetically engineered crops.

In the well irrigated south of Bali, rice is wet rice, while in the dryer areas to the north, dry rice is grown. Dry rice produces only one rain-fed crop a year.

World market

Indonesia does not figure in the leading world rice exporters. They are Thailand, Vietnam, China, the United States, Pakistan, India and Burma – in that order. According to the year 2000 figures, annual exports by them totalled 18 million tons. Apart from the United States, they account for 70 per cent. of the world’s rice exports.

Rice cycle

Just before planting, the fields are flooded and ploughed by cows. Tractors are used in Bali, but not in these parts. The fields look like reflecting mirrors. Then they are fertilized. After planting – by hand over several days – the yellow-green shoots of young rice sprout up. The little seedlings are reflected in the silvery water. This is a dangerous time. Scarecrows, wind chimes, bamboo bird-scarers and pulleys of cloth are put up to frighten the birds. People keep watch and yell at them.

Two months later the rice will have grown taller and green. When they turn, the plants are mature and ready to harvest. It takes about five months in all. After harvesting, the stubble in the fields is burnt or alternatively flooded, so that the old rice stalks slowly decompose under the water.


The divine rice plant is considered an animated female being and is treated with particular respect. Each stage is carried out on an auspicious day, accompanied by appropriate offerings. Rites of passage, just like for a human being, are conducted.

Some of the rituals are carried out by the farmer at a small temporary shrine in the upstream corner of the field, others at the water temples. The rites include water opening, field preparations, transplanting, growth, panicle appearance, flowering and harvesting.

The upstream corner of the rice field is sacred. Here offerings are made to Dewi Sri. At harvest time a sacred image of Dewi Sri herself is made from rice that grows closest to this spot. It is not eaten but carried to the rice barn and given offerings.


Control of irrigation, which is water coming from a higher source and directed into the many terraced rice paddies, is very important to the life of the population. It requires the rice farmers to co-operate with each other in social units, as mentioned in the article entitled Balinese Organisations.

The subaks go to the regional water temples, which set the cropping patterns and irrigation schedules. They attempt, by this means, to optimise water sharing and, through co-ordinated fallow periods, reduce pests. There is a trade-off between these two constraints, water sharing and pest control.

Water temples

The powers of the water temples, and the Temple of the Crater Lake, Batur as the supreme water temple, are therefore considerable and considerably important. The Dutch didn’t understand this. They didn’t have to. They were religious matters as far as they were concerned and posed no threat to their interests. The Dutch were more concerned about collecting tax.

The Indonesian Government also didn’t understand the water temples or even know about them. They passed laws demanding constant cropping of the new rice and farmers were forced to abandon traditional cropping patterns. Soon there was chaos in water scheduling and terrible outbreaks of pests.

It was not until well into the 1980s that the role of the water temples was appreciated, thanks largely to anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has written a lucid account of his research in a book called Priests and Programmers.

Rice farmers and temple priests regard the immense fresh water Temple of the Crater Lake as the ultimate source of water for the rivers and springs that provide irrigation water for central Bali. It is seen as the centre of a sacred mandala or cosmic map of waters fed by springs lying at the wind directions points.

For more details on the Temple of the Lake see the article entitled Famous Balinese Temples.

Dewi Sri

The Rice goddess, Dewi Sri, is the favourite manifestation of God amongst the Balinese. She is male and female, as indeed are all the gods, people and things in the cosmos. At important times in the rice cycle, images of Dewi Sri, made of rice stalks, are set up in the rice fields, in the shape of two triangles, with a pinched waist. This is called a Cili.

There is a nice story of Dewi Sri’s origin. Anta, a deformed junior god was depressed by his failure to find any gift for Batara Guru’s new temple. He wept three tears, which turned into eggs. An eagle swept down and forced him to break the eggs. He smashed two of them but the third then hatched and released a beautiful baby girl. She was given to Batara Guru’s wife, Uma, to be breast-fed and was named Samyam Sri. Sri grew up to be very beautiful and Batara Guru lusted after her. This was forbidden, as she was technically his daughter.

He tried several times to rape her. This angered the other gods so much that, to rescue her, they killed her and buried her body. Plants grew from various parts of it. Sticky rice grew from her breasts and ordinary rice from her eyes. In remorse Batara Guru gave these to man as food. Sri became a goddess called Dewi Sri and became the spirit of fertility, protectress of the rice fields and guardian of rice barns.

Dewi Sri, as befits her importance, is a symbol of Bali and appears everywhere in many guises. Anthropomorphic deities, like Dewi Sri, evoke and remind us of the human presence in engineered landscapes.

Paddy fields

Rice paddies do not just produce rice. They produce a lot of protein. There are eels, frogs and fish in the paddies. There are also dragonflies. Little kids hunt the dragonflies with long, sticky rods, pull off their wings, pierce them alive on a stick, roast and eat them.

The rice paddies also provide a living for Balinese ducks, which, by the way, cannot fly. After the harvest, the duck farmer brings his flock of ducks, which spend the day clearing up old pieces of grain and eating insects, like brown planthoppers, that would destroy the next rice crop if left alone. The ducks follow the farmer home at night, keeping an eye on his piece of cloth tied to a big stick. This charming view has inspired numerous paintings.

Genetic Code of Rice

In April 2002 the genetic code of rice was published and it was discovered that rice has 15,000 more genes than humans. Further, DNA engineers have sequenced the gene in miracle rice. Miracle rice is a semi-dwarf variety called IR8 that is a cross between a tall Indonesian variety called Peta, which is resistant to insects and disease, and a short, high-yield Taiwanese variety called Dee-geo-woo-gen. IR8 worked well because it converted nitrogen fertiliser into grain, yet did not become reedy and fall over. The reason is a mutation in IR8 of a key gene called sd1 that controls height. The growth hormone called gibberellin is in effect switched off.

Balinese Rice