Perfect Order Recognizing Complexity in Bali Review

Ni Wayan Murni
Hello Bali, September 2006

Perfect Order
Recognizing Order in Complexity
J. Stephen Lansing
Princeton University Press


Perfect Order Recognizing Complexity in Bali. If someone mentions ‘Bali’ one of the first images that will come into your mind will probably be rice terraces. The first Austronesian colonists introduced rice to the coastal regions of Bali several thousand years ago, but it was by no means certain that rice cultivation would expand into the rugged interior of the island. Ancient Balinese farmers had to find ways to move massive amounts of water through kilometres of solid rock. Water is necessary for wet rice agriculture. They had to perfect a new engineering system constructing canals, tunnels and aqueducts and they did.

Having done that they had to devise a workable and fair scheme for sharing the water. Those farmers downstream are at the mercy of the farmers upstream as they control the water flow. It was done through the subak irrigation societies, which are first mentioned in the 11th century, and the network of water temples. The subaks are very democratic societies and everyone who owns a rice paddy must belong to one.

The Dutch and their successors, the Indonesian government, did not understand the power of the water temples. It was not until well into the 1980s that the role of the water temples in setting cropping patterns and controlling irrigation was appreciated, thanks largely to the American anthropologist Stephen Lansing. The Green Revolution, which had its benefits, caused chaos in Bali as the water temples were ignored totally. Pests got out of control.

In this book Stephen Lansing describes his field research over a number of years. He and his team interviewed and videotaped many farmers in the subak organisations in the area around Pujung, which is not far from Ubud, where I live, and describes various conflicts that arose. He tested the decisions made using computer simulations and found that the decisions made were the best that could be made in the circumstances. He was intrigued, however, about the human element. After all it is very tempting for greedy farmers upsteam to keep more water for themselves and grow more rice. What is to prevent them doing that? He discovered that if they did it would result in more pests so it would not be in their interests to do so.

Stephen Lansing has a vast knowledge of Bali and has written many papers and other books about Balinese life. He writes in the clearest language and goes off on various tangents from time to time – always fascinating subjects such as human sacrifices, rat cremations, witchcraft and how they abolished caste in Pujung.

The supreme water temple is Ulun Danu Batur on the rim of Mount Batur. This is the second most important temple in Bali where Dewi Danu, the Goddess of the Lake resides. She refused to accept marriage and subordination to her brother and founded her own temple where she could be independent. It is a unique temple in many respects.

Stephen Lansing has spend a considerable time researching it and writes an intriguing chapter describing the forty-five deities of the temple, the trance mediums, who are ideally opposite-sex twins, the twenty-four male priests, half of whom are regarded as female, and the twenty village Elders, the four most senior of which may go through a ‘marriage’ ceremony to each other, but have not done so for the past century.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a good understanding of matters that are not generally apparent to the ordinary person, whether they are Balinese or just visiting Bali for a short time.

Ubud, Bali

Perfect Order Recognizing Complexity in Bali