Culture and Nature, the Everyday and the Holy Day, Bali and Tri Hita Karana Philosophy

According to Julia Roberts in the box-office film Eat Pray Love, Bali is the best place to fall in love. I did not get the reason exactly but I believe the film suggested that a serene and calm heart opens up for love. Bali’s serenity and its sort of calmness are viral infections that ironically the human body needs, especially if one is ready to give love a chance (again). I guess this is because Bali is an entanglement of culture and nature, the secular and the sacred – as evoked in the philosophy of Tri Hita Karana.

As a theatre and performance scholar, this performance known as the kecak is also a signifiacant reason why I love Bali (Photo: SAPT)

I have always wanted to visit Bali ever since my younger years – way, way back early 1990’s. Since then, I have been considering Bali to be a very spiritual place. I remember a documentary I saw back then – sometime between 1992 and 1993 – about Balinese temples and associated rituals. I remember vividly the spectacle of the rituals. The temples were beguiling. I felt a strange call – inviting me to participate in the rituals. I felt a strange call – inviting me to keep calm and to follow the beatings of my heart. At a young age, I knew Bali embodied a kind of beauty – that beauty which intersects the natural and the artificial; the wonders of Divine Providence and human genius.

It took almost two decades before finally actualizing the visit to Bali. And just like how I was enamored by the island in the boobtube, my first visit to Bali made my enchantment a bit high – no, actually, higher!

A temple, a performance space, an altar! (Photo: SAPT)

In my college days, we discussed Tri Hita Karana in Oriental Philosophy (I was a philosophy major, Oriental Philosophy is a required module/subject). It is a Hindu belief system based on a tripartite relationship of the parhyangan (Divine), pawongan (nature) and palemahan (human). More so, it is based on a belief that these three elements are symbiotically related to each other. In a way, if we translate this philosophical worldview in the Western philosophical tradition, we can infer that Tri Hita Karana refers to the primary intermarriage of nature (cosmophosentricism), God (theophocentricism), and humans (anthropocentricism).

I Wayan Sukarna notes that:

pawongan element is the harmonious core interaction of Tri Hita Karana, due to it was once point for the basic of moral Hindu. Pawongan that wants to improve a harmonious interaction to the fellow human beings indeed needs an external support by the environment, both palemahan and parhyangan. Palemahan environment that is objective an ethical zone while providing the real object into an instrument’s behavior. Parhyangan environment that is spiritual is an ethical world-spirit those idealistic-transcendental as well as the ideals that illuminate behavior. An ethical zone is a natural law area that provides reasonable limits and reason to determine the basic principles of a good and bad. An ethical world-spirit is God’s jurisdiction presents limitations heart and conscience to determine the basic principles both. The two models of human ethical judgment are understood to be human ethical to determine the status and dignity in a great network upon the living world. It is a simple basic principle of susila as the basic of moral Hindu that rests on pawongan (85).

Sukarma, I Wayan. 2016. “Tri Hita Karana: Theoretical Basic of Moral Hindu.” In International Journal of Linguistics, Language and Culture Vol. 2 (No. 9): 84 – 96.

In a layman’s jargon, we can think of the song Colors of the Wind from the Disney animated film Pocahontas as an alternative way of identifying this Oriental Philosophy. This line, for instance: “But I know every rock, and tree, and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name”or this: “The rainstorm and the river are my brother, the heron and the otter are my friends; and we are all connected to each other, in a circle in a loop that never ends!” reflects what the philosophy is about.

In short, the philosophy refers to the drawing of human life closer to its environment (i.e. respecting it) and inscribing it as an important abode of supernatural beings (i.e. ancestors and gods). This, in my view, is the reason why Balinese people have transformed the landscape of the island into a serene, calm and more importantly aesthetically functional space connecting the natural (i.e. rivers, lakes and the sea) and the artificial (i.e. temples and canals).

In theory, the philosophy sounds amazing. In practice, it was even more wonderful! In Bali, one manifestation of the tri hita karana is the subak, the cooperative system that controls the water in Bali, and shaped the landscape over the past thousand years. The same system is an integral part of Balinese religious life.

In many Southeast Asian nations, rice is an important aspect of everyday life. More so, in Bali, rice is considered the most important gift of the gods (being the staple diet). The subak is a manifestation of how the Balinese support each other in order to produce more rice. In particular, the Balinese has devised a system through the subak that continuously transfers the water from the springs of the volcano Batur and the clean water of the lake surrounding the majestic mountain to the farmlands, to the temples and to houses.

The subak system is also part of Bali’s temple culture. Water from springs and canals flows through the temples and out onto the rice paddy fields.  Water temples are the focus of a cooperative management of water resource by a group of subaks. According to UNESCO, “since the 11th century the water temple networks have managed the ecology of rice terraces at the scale of whole watersheds. They provide a unique response to the challenge of supporting a dense population on a rugged volcanic island.”

Jatiluwih Terraces, irrigated by the Subak System (Photo: SAPT)

This water and cooperative system paved the way for the cultural landscape of Bali to be included in the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The official name in the list is: Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy. In the brief synthesis of its inclusion, it is noted that “the overall subak system exemplifies the Balinese philosophical principle of Tri Hita Karana that draws together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. Water temple rituals promote a harmonious relationship between people and their environment through the active engagement of people with ritual concepts that emphasise dependence on the life-sustaining forces of the natural world.”

This UNESCO WHS consists of the following sites that exemplify the interconnectedness of nature, religion and everyday life:

On the background is Mount Batur (Photo: SAPT)

First, the Supreme Water Temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur on the edge of Lake Batur “whose crater lake is regarded as the ultimate origin of every spring and river,” (UNESCO Website).

Tirta Empul Temple (Photo: SAPT)
People are lined up to pray and experience the holy waters of the temple (Photo: SAPT)

Second, the Subak Landscape of the Pakerisan Watershed the oldest known irrigation system in Bali. Some of the related sites include Subak Pulagan, Subak Kulub, Kulub Village, Tampaksiring Village, Manukaya Village, Pegulingan Temple, Tirta Empul Temple, Mengening Temple and Gunung Kawi Site.

At the Tegalalang Rice Terraces (Photo: SAPT)
The beautiful landscape of Tegalalang Rice Terraces (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many water systems in Jatiluwih Terraces (Photo: SAPT)
Farmers at the Jatiluwih Terraces (Photo: SAPT)
The spectacle produced by the Jatiluwih Terraces (Photo: SAPT)

Third, the Subak Landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru with terraces mentioned in a 10th century inscription making them amongst the oldest in Bali and prime examples of Classical Balinese temple architecture. A primary example is the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. However, Catur Angga Batukaru is composed of fifteen subak namely Bedugul, Jatiluwih, Kedampal, Keloncing, Penatahan, Pesagi, Piak, Puakan, Rejasa, Sangketan, Soka, Tegallinggah, Tengkudak and Wangaya Betan.

Sculptural detail at the Pura Taman Ayun (Photo: SAPT)
Majestic pagodas surrounded by a man-made canal whose water flowed from the mountains of Batur (Photo: SAPT)
Imposing but amazing pagodas inside the Pura Tama Ayun (Photo: SAPT)
A gateway to enter the innermost section of the Pura Taman Ayun (Photo: SAPT)

Fourth and finally, the Royal Water temple of Pura Taman Ayun, the largest and most architecturally distinguished regional water temple, exemplifying the fullest expansion of the subak system under the largest Balinese kingdom of the 19th century.

The Balinese farmers do not use pesticides in their farming (esp. with the rice) because the system transforms the overall landscape as a sacred space.

The temple found at Lake Beratan. It is magical and majestic in itself but it is not included in the UNESCO WHS list (Photo: SAPT)

So going back to Roberts, the film was referring to something romantic: that romance between humans. Nonetheless, Bali offers a different kind of romance that the movie failed to feature: the romance of the Bali people (representing the entire human race) with the environment and their relationship with their supernatural divine.

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