Bali's Rices.


Rice is so important in Bali that there are actually four words used to describe it.


* Padi, and the Anglicised ‘paddy’, which describes rice when it is growing and is the origin of the well known term paddy field which the Balinese know as ‘sawah’ or wet-land rice growing as opposed to the dry-land fields of other islands and countries.

* Gabah is the grain after separation from the seed head but with the protective skin or ‘hull’ still attached.

* Beras is the rice grain with the hull removed and separated by winnowing and is what most westerners know as rice.

* Nasi is the cooked grain, as in Nasi Goreng, rice with a bit of vegetable in it (or Nasi Goreng ‘Special’ or  ‘Komplit’ if there is an egg on top) or just nasi putih – ‘rice white’.



 Rice is much more than just a food in Bali. It is an inseparable part of daily life as well as a part of the island’s history and religion. It is a part of the culture, a part of the mythology and a part of the pride of individuals and of the race.

 It could be said that without rice there could not be a Bali or Balinese. Something so basic and so important is worth more than a passing look.


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There are three different rices presently grown and used in Bali. They are white rice, black rice and red rice. Yellow rice, which is called ‘ketan’ and is sometimes known as the ‘fourth rice’, is significant in Balinese history/mythology (more about this later). These days, at least, yellow rice is simply white rice cooked with turmeric powder to give it the distinctive colour.

All of these rices may be eaten or used in religious ceremonies. Some are preferred over others for homage to different gods which are associated with the different colours of the grain.

They are all used to make rice tea although some are used more widely than others.

If fermented, rice becomes ‘tape’ which is sweet and often used in Balinese sweet cakes.

‘Brem’ is the wine made from fermented rice.


White rice is most commonly used for those daily offerings to the Gods which the tourist will see in homes, on streets and on beaches all over the island and it is also part of the daily ritual when it is stuck on the forehead for good luck. There seem to be two schools of thought about this. Some believe that the grains must remain on the forehead to ensure continued luck while others believe that it is simply the application of a few grains that brings luck and there is no change of fortune if they later fall off or are brushed off.

The staple food all across the island is white rice, the main ingredient of almost all meals, boiled and flavoured with a little meat, fish, vegetable or egg.

It is the most common crop and the one that we tourists love to see in the ‘sawah’, particularly in those incredible terraces that hug the curves of hills. A delight to our eyes are the endless shades of green, tan, gold and brown which seem to carpet the whole island as the grains germinate, grow to maturity, form grain ‘ears’ which ripen and are harvested before drying on any smoothish surface, even road sides.

The best of this rice is that which appears to have been flattened in the fields, perhaps by amorous bodies writhing in exotic pleasures. What really happens is that the grain heads become so heavy that the stalks cannot hold the head up and as one stalk collapses it falls onto a neighbour which in turn falls onto its neighbour and so on, like nature's giant game of toppling dominoes or incomplete ‘crop circles’.





Black rice is the second most common rice, although a long way behind white rice in volume produced. In Bali it is known as ‘injin’. Indistinguishable from white rice in the fields, it is only briefly in the ripening stage before harvest that the darker colour of the head becomes apparent. Most black rice is really a very dark grey in colour and only takes on its full black sheen when soaked in water. It always seems to have some white or light grey grains mixed in with it. The more there are of these the lower the quality of the overall product.

Black rice is a sticky rice and is the basic ingredient in that fabulous dessert, black rice pudding, served with a contrasting topping of creamy white coconut milk.

Black rice is also used to brew rice tea for special occasions and in many areas is considered an important ingredient of temple offerings on the most significant of occasions, although in small quantities because of its greater cost.


Red rice is the rice least often grown in Bali and as one the least in volume produced it has the highest price. More of a pink colour than a real red if the samples I have seen are an accurate indication of the wider picture, red rice also has a number of lighter coloured grains mixed in with it. Red rice is also eaten but not commonly or frequently. It is used mainly in special ceremonial temple offerings.

In some districts in the north of Bali I have been told that it is also used to brew a more highly regarded tea and that the remnant grains in the tea are eaten rather than going to waste.

The rice wine, ‘Brem’, is produced mainly from the fermentation of red rice. The remnant grain, I am assured by those more knowledgeable than I in the matter, is quite palatable - and highly alcoholic.


In her book, 'Fragrant Rice', Janette De Neefe relates a piece of Balinese mythology which bears repeating because of the inseparable mix of life, rice, religion and the Gods and myth in Bali. The story, with other added tinges of local colour that I have heard, concerns the bringing of rice to Bali 'in the beginning'. The task was given to 4 birds that each carried the seeds of a different coloured rice in its beak. In those times there were 4 colours, yellow being the one additional to those above. The bird carrying the yellow rice lost the precious seeds when it was attacked by another, sent by the evil witch Rangda, and was forced to fight for its life. The dropped seeds hit the ground with such force that they buried deep in the soil and these days only survive as the tubers of the turmeric plant, which today are cooked with white rice to give it a yellow colour. This 'yellow' rice is called 'ketan' and is often used for temple offerings because of its royal golden colour, as is the humble marigold flower which can be seen in many markets and is grown in fields north of Ubud. The golden yellow colour is associated with Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the supreme god in Bali.


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 Rice in the history of Bali.

The needs of rice cultivation and its development have influenced the very geography of Bali.

It must be remembered that 'Java Man', those remnant bones of one of the earliest erect humanoids so far found on this planet, was found (obviously) in Java, just west of Bali. These remnants of the single Java Man really represents a whole race of  people who most likely came when the land bridges from Cambodia, Vietnam and China, through the long peninsula of Thailand and Malaysia, into Sumatra, thence to Java and across what is now the narrow Bali Strait, allowed an easy passage of man, bird and beast. These land bridges probably stopped at the deep and dangerous Lombok Strait on the eastern end of Bali, leaving these most distant migrants to develop along their own lines without the further influence of new blood and new thought passing through.  It cannot be discounted that along this long route Java man (and 'Bali Man') may well have picked up the knowledge of rice growing and this knowledge developed to a peak in Bali, the end of this migration route. If this migration is not incredible enough consider the time frame involved - the remnants of Java Man have been dated to between 750,000 and 1,750,000 years old whereas Christian history (some might say modern western history) is just 2,000 years old. To put that another way, because the concept is so staggering, the 2000+ years since the birth of Christ seems to us a very long time but covers perhaps 100 generations. Java Man and his kin were settled in Bali 87,500 (over 87 thousand) generations ago!


The establishment of rice cultivation, particularly in the intricate terraces of the hills and mountains, was, from before the beginning of Javanese/Balinese recorded history and perhaps dating well back towards the time of Java Man, a defining force in the community life of isolated villages. In many ways even today it is still, although the nature and extent of that influence has been changing since around the late 1970's and early 1980's.

Quite simply, before the advent of ‘modern’ Bali, rice was life. If the rice crop failed life itself was at stake, sustenance being reduced to the unreliable rewards of hunting and gathering. If the rice crop was bountiful then life was easier and life was good and it is not surprising that daily life therefore revolved about the dictates of the growing cycle. Out of this constant focus grew the inclusion of rice into the religion of the people and, although that religion adapted under the influence of others as more and more off-shore traders brought competing religions to Bali’s shores, rice remained a core focus of Bali’s growing and all encompassing Hinduism.

Rice was a factor in locating the villages within an irrigation district and indeed dictated the very boundaries of the district itself. Wherever the downhill flow of water from a single source reached generally marked the extremities of a kingdom or regency. Over the hills and around another series of valleys fed by a different water source there would be a separate kingdom. These kingdoms of old are still marked by the provincial boundaries recognised by Indonesian authorities today.


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The importance of rice is reflected in the establishment, the growth and the power of the ‘Subak’, the rice-growers water  association in each district, to which every farmer belonged. A plentiful supply of controllable and controlled water is critical to the growing of rice in Bali. The Subak had the authority to decide the most important times of planting, watering and harvesting and therefore the time cycles of daily life itself. The Subak directed the construction of the irrigation dams and the channels and the terraces, tasks to which every villager was required to devote a specific number of days in each 210 day Balinese year. The Subak ruled over the management of this newly formed landscape, over the allocation of water and over the allocation of village labour. In so doing they created a rice empire which was so well understood, so carefully organised and so regulated that it gives rise to the view that the system of rice growing on Bali was the most reliable, the most efficient and the most productive in the world.

[It is typical of the Balinese sense of order in their world that the head of the Subak is almost traditionally a farmer whose fields are in the lower slopes. In this position the farmer is reliant on everything and everyone above him for his water. His power and influence, therefore, ensured that the irrigation system was without flaw and the water flowed all the way from the highest to the lowest fields without interruption.]


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The traditional rice that was grown on Bali was ‘Beris Bali’ or 'Beras Bali', literally the 'rice of Bali'.



Traditionally, small plantings of Beris Bali were planted at intervals throughout the year although each paddy produced only one crop each year. This cropping pattern meant that there seemed to always be green across the fields and also always the gold and tans of ripening grains almost ready to be harvested and being harvested, maintaining the supply of rice to the farmer and to the village with a minimal workforce, usually from within the farmer's close or extended family.


There is a lovely story that the Balinese tell related to the staggered plantings of rice. At a certain time in ancient history there was a series of drought years and crops failed to produce the quantity of grain required by the villages. Hunger was felt everywhere including the king's palace. The king called all of the villagers to assemble at the temple on a certain day to pray to the gods for rain. At the height of the elaborate ceremony the king promised the gods that he would sacrifice his only and much-loved son when the whole crop was cut and safely stored if only they would send abundant rains to ensure the harvest and save the people from starvation. Sure enough the rains fell (Well, there'd be no story if they didn't, would there?) and the crop was bountiful. The king however was cunning and had ordered his people to continually plant small areas of rice so that the 'whole crop' would never be cut and therefore he would never have to sacrifice his son.
Now in many cultures the king would be decried as a scoundrel and a cheat but in good Balinese story fashion he was seen as clever and was praised by both his people and the gods for his wisdom.

Beris Bali is a sweet grained rice with a delicate flavour, naturally resistant to infestations of diseases and parasites, ideally suited to the soils and simple practices which had developed over centuries. It is a rice which keeps in the ear for up to 12 months in the farmer’s lumbung, the small storage house on stilts with the gently curved thatched roof that can still be seen near country farmhouses. It not only sustained the farmer and his family for a year, or until the next crop was ready, but it also provided a little extra for the priest and the temple, for the fisherman the blacksmith and the duck herder and anyone else who might provide goods or services to the farmer and happily accepted payment in rice. Rice became the trade medium of the village, used as we use cash today, and this resulted in a closed economic cycle in the traditional village. Cash was not used in early Bali and indeed the first coins were introduced by Chinese traders and accepted by the Balinese as simply good luck tokens or decoration rather than as money.


‘Beris Bali’ is the rice that was so well understood by the farmers that for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years (nothing is really known with certainty of Bali’s pre-stone/bronze age history) sustaining the people with the soil remaining productive and fertile without the addition of anything external to system of its growing cycle. The rich volcanic soils needed only minimal natural fertilising provided by the ducks and ploughing buffalo and the ash from the burnt stubble of the last crop. Mixed with water, warmth and sunlight, the life of the rice crops was sustained and assured. 


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After a rice crop was harvested the sawah was allowed to dry out and the ducks brought in to clean up spilt grain and any remaining pests, leaving behind their small contributions. The remaining stubble was burnt and the ash turned into the soil with a simple plough pulled by a brace of buffalo who added their contribution to the nutrients in the growing medium. The sawah was again flooded and when the weeds germinated the plough came back to stir the watery soup and turn over the mud.

 By this time the seedlings for the new crop were growing in a small pond off to the side of the main paddy. They were planted out in orderly and regular rows spaced just so to provide optimal light and growing space. It has been suggested that the spacing is set by the width of a duck; ensuring minimal damage to the plants as these birds went about their work in the weeks ahead, foraging for worms, snails, frogs and insect pests.

When the stalks of the plants turned from green to golden yellow and tan the crop was ready to be harvested. This was a most important time and temple ceremonies picked up pace with entreaties to Dewi Sri, the rice goddess who was and is recognised by the little shrine boxes on posts around the fields of rice. Given the approval of the Subak the farmer quietly approached the field with a small knife, the ‘Ani ani’, held secretly in one hand so the rice would not be frightened. Quietly, without haste or fuss, the stalks were cut one by one, each being carefully placed alongside its neighbour in the growing sheaf, ending that cycle that would soon to be repeated again.

‘Beris Bali’ is the rice that the tourist might still sometimes see a farmer carrying home from his field, in a pile that almost covers both himself and his bicycle. It is the once-a-year crop (or at best the two-in-three- years crop) that traditionally sustained the farmer, his family, his gods his village and his culture. It is the rice that precluded the need for cash in the traditional village because it was traded for necessary goods and services within the village. It is the rice that lasts a year and is the rice that is still favoured by farmers for their own use. It is the ecologically friendly crop that established and sustained the people of Bali until comparatively recent times.


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Changes to the tradition. A new history?

This historical production of rice growing continued without a backward step until the late 1960's when farmers began to intensify their plantings to meet the growing need that resulted from a growing population of both Balinese and European migrants - the first 'tourists' after the Dutch colonisers, encouraged by the independent country's second President, General Suharto. Despite these efforts to increase Bali's rice production, in the early 80's the Indonesian Government realised that the population of Bali was outstripping its ability to produce rice and would become dependent on imports rather than enjoying a small export potential to the rest of the country.  As recently as the 5 year period to 1983 the production of rice in Bali was still on the rise, increasing by 1.6 million tons each year as larger areas were cleared and turned over to more intense rice farming. In the 5 years to 1998, however, total production increased by only 0.2 million tons. This was despite the early introduction of mechanised farming techniques, the development of new rice strains that matured more quickly and produced more grain in bigger ears, the boost to growth by the introduction of new fertilisers to enrich the  failing soil and by more common use of pesticides and fungicides to reduce losses. Particularly in the southern tourist areas farming land was built upon at an increasing rate and there were fewer farmers as more of the younger population went to serve the financially profitable tourist industry as well as the growing bureaucracy and the development of infrastructure to support tourism, to say nothing of the additional mouths to feed as 'off-islanders' flocked to Bali to grab their share of the tourist riches. The serious nature of this problem, not only for Bali but for Indonesia as a whole, becomes evident considering the Government's normally reluctant spending commitment on continuing research to develop new techniques and materials, mainly in Tabanan which is now considered to be Bali's rice basket.

Government intervention in the traditional systems of rice farming has been a mixed blessing. While government efforts had the best of intentions the results may have suffered because of insufficient testing and inevitably insufficient funds to deliver on the promises made.
With promises of financial support farmers were encouraged to adopt new rice strains that initial trials and development suggested would solve the islands growing food problem. The carrot was the idea that these new strain would allow farmers to reap three crops a year instead of the single crop that Beris Bali produced. What may not have been made clear, or perhaps was not clearly understood by farmers, was that these new strains needed the addition of expensive fertilisers and that the threefold increase in labour demands was beyond the ability of the family or indeed the village to provide. It soon became obvious that the buffalo and wooden plough needed to be replaced with petrol driven, mechanical tillers which the farmer could not afford and did not know how to run or maintain. Ploughing teams developed with government assistance and hired themselves out to villages - at a cost! Similarly the promised assistance to provide fertiliser fell short when prices rose and the quantity available fell short of the real needs or the transport provided (again at a cost) was unable to deliver on the existing roads. Again when the crops were ready for harvest the farmer with his small knife was not up to the task and reaping teams with slashing sickles formed to handle the work - again at a cost to the farmer. The farmer was caught again when he could no longer handle all the threshing involved. Again travelling teams equipped with mechanical threshing equipment came to his aid - for a price. All of these aids were really most economical if they were applied to large plantings and the small rotational cropping pattern of old began to give way to bigger fields or more of the smaller fields planted at the same time.

Despite the problems encountered, and sometimes overcome, it was some time before the promised prosperity became something of a reality. Encouraging as this may have been to the farmers their trials were not yet over. The new rices placed pressure on the soil that Beris Bali had not done. Trace elements were needed to sustain the increased plantings; wildly increased pest activity that the ducks could no longer overcome meant the addition of pesticides and fungicides to the farmer's mounting bills. On top of all these problems the farmer soon discovered that the new rices did not store or keep for 12 months and he was faced with the problem of selling his entire crop and handling larger sums of money than he had perhaps ever seen before. Saving money was not a part of the farming tradition and with a pocket full of this new cash the lure of the cock fights and other games of chance proved too attractive for some when the empty storage lumbung was temporarily forgotten.
The traditional cooperative and internal village lifestyle that bound neighbour to neighbour was, and still is, under threat. But the die had been cast and there could be no going back. The rice economy had begun to give way to the cash economy and  a new way was here to stay. Perhaps the first time a farmer realised this was when his son came home from his work at a Kuta hotel not on the bemo but on a new motorcycle.

One of the, probably unforeseen, consequences was that these changes had an effect across the economy of the whole country. The example of the son coming home on a new (or second hand) motorcycle is also an example of how goods and/or cash could now leak out of the previously closed cycle of village wealth. No longer did the farmer pay the duck herder in rice and the duck herder pay the fisherman in exchange for fish while the fisherman bought vegetables from the farmer's wife and so on in consistent circles but now the son earned cash, some of which he sent home so the farmer paid the blacksmith money for his new knife or sickle and eventually the blacksmith bought an electric blower for his forge. The blower was bought from a store in Denpasar who purchased their stock from the factory in China which built the blowers. Now there was cash money not only leaving the village but it was also leaving the country. Economist shudder at the simple solution of printing more money and prefer instead to devise a long and roundabout way for the money to be returned by the longest possible route so that more people could get a share. Their answer, in simple terms, was tourism. After all, that is where the farmer's son's money came from in the first place - wasn't it?
If you ever want to stir up an argument in Bali with economists, with tourists, even with some tourists-turned-Balinese or farmers-turned-public servants, ask them which came first - hunger then tourists? or - tourists then hunger?.


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The colours of rice.

Given the cultural importance of the elements in the daily life of the Balinese, no-one should be surprised to learn that there are religious as well as mythological significances in the colours of rice.

The unique Balinese Agama Hinduism is blend of several religions but based on one supreme God, Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the 'One Supreme Unknowable God', usually represented by a golden yellow colour and when (rarely) illustrated is a being with small flames emanating from the body joints and organs. Not too unlike western Christianity, this one supreme God has other manifestations (c.f. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost) which are more common in the rituals. These Gods are associated with aspects of life, with geographical direction, with colours and with times of the year. The three more common manifestations of Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa are the deities Wisnu, Siwa and Brahma.

Wisnu is the god in the north, his colour is black, he is associated with water and is a protector god.
Siwa is the god in the centre, his colour is a mixture of all other colours and he is a destroyer god.
Brahma is the god in the south, his colour is red and his symbol is fire. He is the creator of all things and is a protector god in the south.

This trichotomy might seem like a nice, simple, tidy, north-south axis of gods to comprehend, but it would be a mistake to think that anything Balinese is simple as the Dutch traders and then colonisers found out when they tried to impose a governing structure over traditional Balinese culture and society.

The next step in my understanding of the Balinese gods included the east-west axis also, forming something of a pyramid of power with Mahadewa in the east and Iswara in the west. Mahadewa is associated with the colour yellow and is the protector god in the west while Iswara is associated with the colour white and is the protector in the east.

Subsequently I realised that the 4 faces of the pyramid were insufficient and that the corners also had to be used to include Sangkara, green, in the north west; Sambhu, blue, in the north east; Rudra, orange, in the south west and Mahesora, pink, in the south east.

I am relieved to find that this array seems to satisfy the needs of everyone I have spoken to at this time (November 2004) but I wonder if I will, at some time, have to revise the pyramid and try to fit any others into some sort of a colour wheel of tints and shades. My uncertainty comes because of one unclear discussion that suggested an 'over' god (Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa?) might be sitting above the colour wheel or on top of the pyramid (this fits in nicely) but a balancing 'demon' or 'devil' (?) sits at the peak of an inverted pyramid below the one I have attempted to describe above. The concept of opposing forces bringing the cosmos into balance is a cornerstone of Balinese Hindu belief and the inverted pyramid idea is quite possible. The nice link that I can see is the one that would clearly tie the numbers of gods to the number of black roofs of the temple 'meru's', 3, 5, 9 and 11.
What worries me about this idea is the possibility of another eight 'black' deities around the inverted pyramid to oppose those 'white' ones arranged around the 'top' pyramid. That would throw the number idea into a loop.

Perhaps I should leave well enough alone and be satisfied with what I have discovered so far.



This essay is still being researched and written - as it has been since mid 2000. The problem is not what information could be found and included but what can be left out and still leave a credible work.
Do come back some time and see if it is any shorter or any longer. 


In researching the information that has given rise to these words I must acknowledge the help, advice and at times the encouragement freely given by so many sources.
Reference books aside but not excluded, (particularly the latest to fall into my hands, "Bali A Traveller's Companion" from Archipelago Press, reprinted 2001, ISBN 981 3018 49 6, a book of weighty proportions, suited to the role of a 'coffee table' tome but with much more internal meat than froth,  and one of the first books, many years old now but still one I turn to in times of trouble' "Bali At Cost" by Lynne Maree Smith, Little Hills Press, 1995 reprint, ISBN 1 86315 071 4.)
the following come to mind  :-
* Peter Ryan of Perth, Australia a long time traveller and student of Bali who has the advantage of being able to converse easily in Bahasa Indonesia;
* I Gusti Putu Anom Abadi of Pacung, Bali (where he might be found in the Fuji shop about halfway up that grinding hill) and periodically of Jakarta, Java, for both his own comments and for copies of the 1979 research papers of Mark Poffenberger and Mary F Zurburchen to which he directed me;
* Mimi the gleaming black Dachsund with a ball fetish who introduced me to Andrew and Kadek whom we now call friends, of Seminyak, Bali;
* their friend and relative, Ketut Keriada of the Indonesian Government's General Agriculture Department;
* I Made Dera our usual and favourite driver in Bali and
* many other drivers and casual acquaintances who, over the years, were friendly enough and proud enough of their heritage to chat away to me in our travels all over the island, unwittingly perhaps telling me many things I did not understand at the time but which made me curious.
* Bob Aston, an ancient colleague and still a friend who, into a busy schedule as a grandfather and tutor to two lively boys, fits some proof reading and spelling reviews. If you are a literary critic who wishes to take me to task please direct your criticisms to him.
I thank you all.



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