Learning from Bali – Tri Hita Karana

This isn’t a Kuta beach cocktail or even a Bali eco hotel. Instead its an idea. At this rather momentously muddled time in our history – with politics a bit of a nightmare, with atomised communities, with continuing threats to our planetary home and resources, we are in desperate need of some simple and powerful ideas. Perhaps we can draw on the past and other places – even if not perfect – for these ideas.

Apologies in advance to all those anthropologists for this short essay based on just a cursory observation of Bali. Apologies also to all those environmentalists  (rightly) concerned about garbage, water management and traffic jams! Going back to the idea – its about harmony between people, the earth and spirits.

Subak managed paddy fields, Bali

Subak managed paddy fields, Bali

What’s the essence of Bali that makes it able to retain so much of its physical and social heritage and live in apparent harmony with nature? Despite a large population of about 4.5mill people, 730 people a square km, the negative impacts on the island are under reasonable level of control. Just compare that density with a few others: 353 in India, 121 in Indonesia as a whole, and 21 in Sweden. Social institutions also continue to operate.

Such is Bali’s appearance and order that in the past a European explorer remarked (somewhat condescendingly): “Houses and villages marked out by coconut palms, tamarind and other fruit trees are dotted about in every direction; while between them extend luxurious rice-grounds watered by an elaborate system of irrigation that would be the pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe”.

complex water management

complex water management

A key aspect is the irrigation association or “subak” system of managing rice cultivation and water continues. Villagers rather than commercial agricultural companies remain in control. The system now has UNESCO recognition as a heritage site, and I’m relying primarily on the UNESCO site and Wikipedia, though I did pick up a great book from the 1930s[1]. Considering that water for paddy fields needs to be shared carefully all those people fed – this isn’t just equal or random distribution of rain – a good governance system is needed to avoid conflict.

Kantor Desa - village office

Kantor Desa – village office

The system that has evolved is a seemingly egalitarian and communitarian system of participation – not voting but direct participation.  The governance structure goes beyond the Subaks. As you pass through each village you will see the familiar buildings – not only the temple, the Pura Bali Agung or Pura Desa, but also the Kantor Desa or Town Hall. The local Banjar or village Government has a representative from each family.  The Subaks operate alongside them, with a complex system for financial contributions and water entitlements.  The Subak commitees meet regularly with all members taking part.

As to this egalitarianism, we were told by our village guide as we walked up Mt Batur that women are involved in this village-level governance though in separate institutions. I can also see some references to women being on the “karma subak” in charge of activities in some subak.  Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear that the system is patriarchal which clearly needs to change. However, in terms of caste and class no distinctions are made, and caste seems immaterial in terms of power, perhaps a late imposition from Javanese Hinduism that didn’t accord with earlier traditions. Perhaps this egalitarianism made a shift to Islam of less interest to the Balinese population.

Ubud's Banjar Orchestra

Ubud’s Banjar Orchestra

Then there is social capital – built up not only through governance but also through ritual and work. Some of the tasks of maintaining waterways and weirs are carried out communally, in accordance with a wider “gotong royong” system of communal work. A little like the Kenyan “harambee” system, Wikipedia tells me! But its not only repairing temples but even taking part in orchestras.

Religious events and festivals combined with this practice of mutual help and co-operation appears to support and create social capital. A challenge in multi-cultural societies may be making these rituals inclusive to all – not impossible!

And finally the reverence for nature.  Bali’s underlying philosophy of Tri Hita Karana” spirits, people and the environment” described as “achieving happiness with a harmonious relationship”.  This seems real, not just talk.  Villagers give offerings to the rain goddess or earth mother, Dewi Sri. The temple on Lake Bratan is for the worship of the goddesses of lakes and rivers –Dewi Batari Ulun Danu. They make offerings to the tree on Tempek Uduh Day.  On our visit to Mr Batur good to have a walking tour of the area, hear from our local guide why the community supported the protection of the mountain forest – to protect their rainfall.


Dewi Sri - Goddess of Rain

Dewi Sri – Goddess of Rain

Architecture reinforces this connection with the past and with nature – the designs from ancient texts like the Mansara and Mayamata continue to be adhered to. Villages are not overly compact and have an order and centre to them. They often seem to infringe on natural landscapes hardly at all. Houses are built in the Balinese style with courtyards full of flowers, trees and shrines – empty of statues as the spirits live in nature. Artisanal skill and design are much valued. Natural materials or seemingly natural materials are used. The shrines for the ancestors are empty of statues and have a simple shape and style with a thatch roof.


Things are changing – local institutions are threatened in many ways: with the increase in demand for water for non-agricultural purposes, agricultural land sold for hotels. The Government is responding with a Bali-wide Water Masterplan and no doubt wider-scale thinking and management is needed too. The traffic is probably the biggest issue – gone are the bemos and mini-buses pretty much. Tourists travel in their own cars. Kids ride home from school on motorbikes aged 10+.  We talked to our taxi-drive in Ubud and he said the village council was talking about this – thinking about a park & ride system. There is talk about a rail line around the island.


It may be that combined with good infrastructure planning, with its strong system of local governance – where all take part not just some, communal work, and reverence for nature as shown in the ritual relating spirits and gods, Bali can be a model for resilient and socially connected communities.  Perhaps this local level “Tri Hita Karana” approach drawing together people, spirits/gods and the earth can help ground our own communities once again!






[1] “Bali – Studies in Life, Thought and Ritual” from the Ganesha Bookshop in Ubud, which is a detailed account from the middle of the 20th century.


End Notes