The Origin of the Balinese Subak System

I Gede Vibhuti Kumarananda
Penyuluh Pertanian Ahli Pertama


Subak” is an irrigation system of the Balinese people which involves customary law (Hukum Adat) and has distinctive characteristics, namely socio-agricultural-religious with high determination and enthusiasm come together to work together in an effort to obtain water with the aim of producing food crops, especially rice and secondary crops. The Subak irrigation system is also an association of farmers who manage irrigation water in rice fields. The uniqueness of the subak irrigation system is seen in terms of religious ritual activities carried out by subak members on a regular basis according to the stages of rice growth starting from processing the soil until the rice harvest is stored in the barn. Some studies conducted by experts say that the Subak irrigation system is a reflection of the Tri Hita Karana (THK).

The Tri Hita Karana (THK) philosophy teaches that humans can live happily, safely, peacefully and physically and mentally, he must maintain a harmonious relationship with God, between humans and nature. Tri Hita Karana (THK) concept which essentially consists of Parahyangan aimed at worshiping temples in the Subak area, Pawongan signifies the existence of an organization that regulates the subak irrigation system, and Palemahan indicates ownership of land or territory in each subak. These three things have a reciprocal relationship. The concept of Tri Hita Karana (THK) is very relevant to the concept of sustainable development which is now so popular and is often used as a reference by every development planner in various sectors.

Doc. Distanpangan Prov. Bali

History of Subak

Rice cultivation in irrigated rice fields is an activity that cannot be separated from the existence of subak today. From available sources, it seems that rice farming activities already existed in Bali around the year 882 AD, because the meaning of the word “Huma” which means “Sawah” (rice fields) has been mentioned in the oldest inscription in Bali, namely the Sukawana A1 inscription (Purwita, 1993: 42). The word “Sawah” can mean rice fields or rainfed, but it may also mean irrigated rice fields. The word “Huma” according to the Indonesian-English dictionary by John M. Echols and Hassan Shadily (1989) is translated as field for dry rice cultivation, which means to cultivate rice. So it can be likened to rice fields that are not irrigated but rely on rainwater only (rainfed rice fields). This means that irrigation has a very long history which has been applied by farmers in Bali since more than a thousand years ago.

The explanation of the meaning of the word huma as irrigated rice fields is evident from the word “undagi pengarung” which is written on the Bebetin A1 inscription (896 AD) which means a tunnel maker or in Balinese terms it is said to be “arungan/ aungan”. Furthermore, from the Pandak Badung inscription in 1071 AD there is also the word “Kasuwakan” which then becomes “Kasubakan” (Purwita, 1993:42). It is factually known in Bali the existence of an irrigation system called “Kasubakan” or “Subak” in 1071 AD and this is supported by the inscription Klungkung in 1072 AD. In this inscription mentioned the name a “subak”, namely “Subak Rawas” and it is written: ” …masukatang huma di kedandan di errara di kasuwakan rawas….” which means “measure rice fields in Kadandan on Yeh Aa in the Subak Rawas” (Callenfels, 1926 in Purwita, 1993: 41). Other evidence that supports that the word “Huma” doesn’t mean dry land or rainfed rice fields is the presence of the word “Parlak”which is also listed in The Sukawana Al inscription dated 882 AD which translated as “moor” (Purwita, 1993: 40).

Apart from the Panda Badung Inscription and the Klungkung Inscription above, the word “Kasuwakan” which means subak area is also found in several other inscriptions such as the Trunyan Inscription (881 AD), the Sukawana Inscription (882 AD), the Bebetin A Inscription (896 AD), the Buwahan inscription, Timpag, and Bugbug (Suadnya, 1990:2).

Meanwhile, Dinas Pekerjaan Umum Pemerintah Propinsi Daerah Tingkat I Bali (1997:4) stated that on several inscriptions (the name of the inscription is not included) written between the 10th and 11th centuries, it has been found apart from the term “Kasuwakan” (subak) as well as other terms such as “Pakaser” or “Makaser” (which means head of subak), “Petajur” or “Petajuh” (deputy head of subak), “Tembuku galeng (dam), and “Kilan” (a measure of water distribution).

The discovery in the Balinese “Lontar” Manuscript entitled “Kawit Babad Hindu Wenten Ring Bali” contains the history of the development of Hinduism in Bali when Rsi Markandeya came to Bali from Mount Rawung in East Java around the 12th century to spread Hinduism. In the “Lontar”, the words “sang mikukuhang sawah kewastanin subak, sang mikukuhang toya kewastanin pekaseh, ika mawenang mangepah toya punika“. It means, more or less “‘the people who actively work on the fields are called “Subak” members, those who regulate water distribution are called Pekaseh, they are all responsible for water distribution among Subak members”.

Based on this evidence, it is still unclear about the process of formation and when “Subak” first existed in Bali. And If seen at the topography of the ancient island of Bali, where there are still dense forests and hilly terrain and springs from rivers are far below, of course, it is very difficult for farmers to distribute water to the farmers fields above. Given extreme terrain, the founders of “Subak” in the past would have had local genius/indigenous knowledge so as to be able to produce a traditional irrigation system which is equipped with irrigation buildings which, although they look simple, can work like a modern irrigation system. For land that has a relatively large slope, terraced rice fields are made to form a landscape that can enchant anyone who looks at it. Local wisdom in building and managing the irrigation system is passed on from generation to generation so that we finally inherit the traditional “Subak” institution as it is today.

According to Sutawan (2008) in a book entitled “Organisasi dan Manajemen Subak di Bali ” there are several research reports on the formation of “Subak” which are relatively new and which need to be observed include the following. First, is the establishment of Subak Timbul Baru in Pupuan Village, Tegal Lalang District, Gianyar Regency in 1971 which utilizes the water of the Deha Suwung River, with a tunnel length of about 2 km and irrigates only 14 ha of rice fields and consists of 49 people (Sutawan, et al., 1984). ; and also Sutawan, 1992 a: 238-259). Another example is the report on the establishment of a “subak” which was inaugurated by the Governor of Bali in 1995, namely Subak Giri Mertha Yoga which is located in Mengani Village, Kintamani District, Bangli Regency, which draws water from the Bilok River. The length of the tunnel is up to 7 km and irrigates an area of ​​50 ha of rice fields, with 64 members (Sarjana, 2005: 202-215). The last is a report on the establishment of the Subak Gunung Mekar Mertasari, Bunutin Village, Kintamani District, Bangli Regency in 1979 (Jemet, 1991; Pitana, 1991: 13-20; and also Wiguna and Guntoro, 2003: 45-71). Subak Gunung Mekar Mertasari was built in stages since 1977 with an area of ​​​​in the early stages of only 25 ha using a small river called the Song River and making a 1.64 km long tunnel with an open channel length of about 1.5 km. Because the water discharge is small and in order to expand the rice field area, another source of water with a larger water discharge is sought, namely the Belong River to be connected to the Song River by digging a 3 km long tunnel. This connecting tunnel until 1991 had only been completed for about 1.75 km. Currently, Subak Gunung Mekar Mertasari is reported to have 100 members with an area of ​​100 ha of paddy fields (Wiguna and Guntoro, 2003: 68-69).

According to the “Peraturan Daerah Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Tabanan Nomor 5 Tahun 1996 Tentang Pembentukan dan Pembinaan Subak Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Tabanan, pasal 4”, the formation of a subak must meet the following requirements:

  1. Has members consisting of owners, cultivators, cultivators/tenants/landers, ponds and/or fish ponds receiving irrigation water, legal entities, business entities operating materials using irrigation water and other users of irrigation water.
  2. Has a working area in the form of an expanse of irrigated land.
  3. Has tertiary irrigation network, rural irrigation / “Subak” irrigation, pump irrigation, pond irrigation network and swamp reclamation network.
  4. Has a sacred place (temple) “Subak” and is expected to have a “Subak” hall.

The Regional Regulation also emphasizes (according to Pasal 6) that the formation of “Subak” is determined by a Decree of the Regent of the Regional Head after the “awig-awig” of “Subak” has received approval from the village head / sub-district head and sub-district head and is approved by the “Bupati”. Furthermore, the traditional water management institution (subak) that existed when this regional regulation was enacted was still recognized (Pasal 26).


Dinas Pekerjaan Umum Pemerintah Propinsi Daerah Tingkat I Bali. 1997. Subak in Bali.

Jemet, I Made. 1991. Proses pembentukan dan pembangunan Subak Gunung Mertasari, Desa Bunutin, Kecamatan Kintamani, Kabupaten Bangli. Skripsi Sarjana yang tidak dipublikasikan pada Jurusan Sosial Ekonomi Pertanian, Fakultas Pertanian, Universitas Udayana, Denpasar.

Peraturan Daerah Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Tabanan Nomor 5 Tahun 1996 Tentang Pembentukan dan Pembinaan Subak Kabupaten Daerah Tingkat II Tabanan, pasal 4 dan pasal 26.

Purwita, I.B Pt. 1993. Kajian Sejarah Subak di Bali. Dalam Pitana, I Gde (Ed), Subak: Sistem Irigasi Tradisional di Bali, Sebuah Canang Sari. Denpasar: Upada Sastra.

Sarjana, I Made. 2005. Keberdayaan masyarakat pedesaan dalam pelestarian subak di Bali: Kasus Subak Giri Mertha Yoga, Desa Mengani, Bangli. Dalam Pitana I Gde dan I Gede Setiawan Ap (Eds.), Revitalisasi Subak dalam Memasuki Era Globalisasi. Yogyakarta: Penerbit Andi.

Suadnya, 1990. Mengenal Subak. Denpasar: Dinas Pekerjaan Umum Propinsi Dati I Bali Sub Dinas Pengairan.

Sutawan, N., M. Swara, N. Sutjipta, W. Suteja dan W. Windia. 1984. Studi perbandingan subak dalam sistem irigasi non-PU dan subak dalam sistem irigasi PU: Kasus Subak Timbul Baru dan Subak Celuk Kabupaten Gianyar. Laporan Hasil Penelitian, Denpasar: Universitas Udayana.

Sutawan, N., M. Swara, W. Windia, W. Suteja, N. Arya, and W. Tjatera. 1990a. Community-based irrigation system in Bali, Indonesia. In W. Gooneratne and S. Hirashima (Eds.), Irrigation and Water Management in Asia. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited.

Sutawan, Nyoman. 2008. Organisasi dan Manajemen Subak di Bali. Denpasar: Pustaka Bali Post.

Wiguna, I Wayan Alit Artha dan Suprio Guntoro, 2003. Terowongan sebagai instrumen subak dan pengalaman seorang undhagi di Bali. Dalam Kasryno, F., E. Pasandaran, dan A.M. Fagi (Eds.), Subak dan Kerta Masa: Kearifan Lokal Mendukung Pertanian Berkelanjutan. Jakarta: Yayasan Padi Indonesia.

Click translated our below :