Gentle Reader, let us meditate upon the element of water.
We have quite a lot of raw material to consider, given the constant downpours of the past few months. Deluge follows deluge. Ponds overflow. Trees topple, landslides scar the riverbanks, roads and walkways disappear under muddy lakes. Clothes and leather sprout acrid colonies of mildew.
Being so very wet, I decided to make lemonade and explore Bali’s unique relationship with water. My guide, as so often when I have questions about Balinese culture, is Hindu scholar I Made Suryasa (Surya),
What is now known as Bali Hindu Dharma used to be called Agama Tirta, or Religion of Holy Water. Socially, agriculturally and ritually, water is central to every element of Balinese life.
Water surrounds the island, falls from the sky, courses down the riverbeds, nourishes the rice fields, springs from solid rock in deep ravines and, as holy water, blesses the rituals and offerings that are an integral part of Balinese culture.
“Building anything from a toilet to a temple involves holy water,” Surya explained. “Occupations which require the invocation of taksu (divine inspiration) such as dalang, architect, mask carver, priest, dancer, all require special rituals. Throughout life, from the specific prayers for a pregnant woman before a birth to the death ceremonies, holy water is an essential element. There are at least 19 auspicious days each month for most Balinese, requiring rituals which include holy water.”
If you’ve spent much time in Bali you’ll be familiar with the daily offerings sprinkled with holy water. If you’ve prayed Balinese-style, you have been blessed with it. If you live here, you may have a jar of it at the back of the fridge with a flower in it, beside the pickles. (Although Surya assures me that it should be in the shrine, Wayan Manis likes to keep some there.)
Holy water will be from one or more of three sources: the house of a high priest (Pedanda), a sacred spring or other natural source, or the ocean. Sea water or tirta segara is important in the Melaspas or cleansing ceremony three days before Nyepi and certain other rituals.
Early in the morning while praying to greet the sunrise and bless the world, the Pedanda starts a small, slow fire of fragrant woods in an incense burner. He or she overturns a glass or ceramic bowl over it to capture the smoke and the essence of the aromatics. When the container is full of smoke, the pedanda quickly rights it, immediately fills it with water from a sacred source and covers it so the water is infused with the smoke.
When the Pedanda or other high priest recites the mantras called mapuja, s/he invokes the energy of the five great rivers of India to enter the holy water. Then more prayers are chanted relating to the five sacred syllables (panca aksara), conjuring their power into the toya to form the Great Tirta or Mother of Holy Water. Belief in the power of harmonic energy or sound in the form of prayers and mantras transforms toya to tirta. After praying, aromatic flowers are tossed into the water; the Balinese believe that flowers are the symbols in which reside the essence of their prayers.
Holy water hums with energy. Anyone who has ever sipped it from cupped palms knows the smoky flavour, the fragrance of flowers, the cool sweetness of it.
The water from young yellow or green coconuts (bungkak) can also be consecrated by a Pedanda and used to cleanse people, objects and buildings.
There is unlikely to be a Pedanda in Toronto, Tokyo or Timbuktu. If a Balinese overseas needs holy water, ordinary people can consecrate pure water from sacred sources by intention and the harmonic power of prayer.
What alchemy turns ordinary water (toya) into holy water (tirta)?
The mystical combination of intention and ritual.
At sacred springs, the toya has special powers. The springs at Tirta Empul in Tempaksiring have been used to cleanse the living and the dead since the 10th century. There are two spigots from which people can draw water to take home. One (bersikan) is for the cleansing of the corpse. The other (pangentas) blesses the journey by water of the ashes after the cremation when they are released into a river or the sea; both are equally powerful in disseminating the spirit.
The role of water in the cultivation of rice is central to the Bali Hindu culture and pre-dates the influence of the Majapahit beginning in the 13th century. Bali has about 1,200 subak or rice farming cooperatives that manage and share irrigation water. These complex water distribution systems have been engineered over a millenia to bring water from rivers and volcanic crater lakes through mountain tunnels, canals and weirs (diversionary dams) to nurture the island’s rice terraces. Each subak has its own water temple dedicated to the rice Goddess Dewi Sri.
These days it’s hard to understand of the importance of the rice crop in Bali. Life revolved around rice, which fed the people and created wealth for the rulers. According to the book ‘Priests and Programmers’, a fascinating analysis of Bali’s engineered landscapes by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, one of the earliest known writings in the Balinese language in the 8th century referred to the builders of irrigation tunnels. The oldest human settlements in Bali are concentrated in the best rice growing areas. It was all about rice.
Before the rainy season every year, priests from each subak gather at Lake Batur Temple to pay respect to the spirit of water, Dewi Danu. These priests are very knowledgeable about rice farming and water availability.
The heads of each subak also gather here and together they discuss how the rice crops will be synchronised within subaks and from one subak to another. Every subak of between 50 and 400 rice farmers cooperates not only within itself, but with every other subak in its watershed. They must coordinate the amount of water used in each subak to ensure they all receive an equal amount according to the size of the rice fields.
This ancient cooperation around controlled irrigation created a very effective form of pest control. Since all the farmers in the same subak planted and harvested their crops at the same time and either flooded or burned the stalks, nothing was left for the rats and insects.
Cultivating the rice crop involves both toya and tirta. First the seeds are planted in a small nursery which has its own shrine where offerings are placed to ensure good germination. There are more offerings when planting the rice out in the fields and again when the rice flowers. Just before the rice is harvested, the rice goddess Dewi Sri is invoked and asked for permission to cut the rice.
The first rice to be cut is fashioned into a doll or effigy representing Dewi Sri and placed on a temple in the field until the harvest is over. When the harvested rice is carried to the house and rice barn, the effigy accompanies it. A final ritual of ‘sitting down’ the rice goddess in the lumbung with the rice closes the harvest cycle.
Like the rice, the Balinese people are nourished with toya and blessed with tirta. And the transformation of an ordinary element into a holy one is part of the everyday magic of this magical place.
Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – Free-fall .off the Tourist Trail and Retired, Rewired – Living Without Adult Supervision in Bali are available from Ganesha Books and on Kindle