Graeme MacRae delves into history  to give us some perspective on the importance of food in the emergence from obscurity of the princedom of Ubud in the 20th Century.      photos ©Rio Helmi

Most people in Ubud have enough to eat. Some obviously have more than enough and how much of it is good healthy food is another matter altogether. But it was not always so. Older people remember eating mostly nasi sela(rice mixed with sweet potato [ketela]). They also remember eating it only once a day, eating meat rarely, and pork only once a (Balinese) year at Galungan. Last time Gunung Agung erupted (in 1963) rice crops failed across much of the island, partly as a result of falling ash, partly because of rat plagues. People in Ubud ate the inner pulp of banana trees to survive. In the early 1960s, the price of rice fluctuated wildly, which was one of the factors leading to the untimely demise of President Sukarno.

Ricefields below Mt Agung

His successor, Suharto introduced the package of new rice varieties driven by petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides known as the Green Revolution. This led to massive increases in production and relieved food insecurity, but at the price of damage to soils, water and ecosystems, dependence on cash and thus credit and loss of traditional varieties, methods and knowledge. Fifty years later, the problem has not gone away – Indonesia does not produce enough rice to feed itself.  Despite appearances of prosperity, and boutique menus everywhere, Ubud is as vulnerable as anywhere else to the fragility of national food security.

A hundred years ago, an earthquake destroyed the favourite palace of the ruler of Ubud, Tjokorda Gede Sukawati, and the global influenza epidemic killed millions of people across the world, including Bali. Despite these calamities the people of Ubud had food, although there were a lot less of them to feed at that time. Fifty years earlier, there were even less people, but they came in search of new land from which to feed themselves. In the space of a few years in the late nineteenth century, Ubud rose from an obscure village to become a major kingdom. The story is a complex one of political intrigue, military hardware and the ebb and flow of personal charisma and magic objects. But an important factor was a system of food security unique in Bali and perhaps in Indonesia. Balinese kingdoms were quite small (petty princedoms might be a better word) but when they expanded, usually by way of war, they acquired control over more people and more land. The usual way of managing both was a system called pecatu– allowing local people to use the land to feed themselves, but in return providing services of various kinds to the puri (palace) – mainly preparing for and participating in ritual, but also fighting their wars. But in Ubud they did it differently.

The current princes of Ubud in their Puri

What used to be only a once every 6 months indulgence is now readily available

When Ubud began to expand in the 1880s, instead of pecatu, the purirequired their subjects to bring their harvest to a central store in Ubud. This food, mostly rice, but also sweet potato (ketela), coconuts (kelapa) and kacang(beans, peanuts) was used to feed the palace, and the people who worked for it, but also any of the local population who needed it. Another function of this system was that it was also used to maintain an unusually effective military machine. There is a saying (of debated origin) that “an army marches on its stomach” and a hungry army is not an effective one. Most wars in Bali at this time were fought by ragtag bands of poorly armed, untrained and often hungry villagers, on behalf of their rulers. Ubud’s centralised provisioning system enabled it to maintain something more like a standing army. This was a major factor (the other factors are a long story) in its military takeover, during the 1890s, of most other kingdoms in the area and eventually control over a long strip of land from the mountains to the sea. This in turn provided yet more food for the central granary.

How and where was all this food stored? Well, there are (as always with history) different versions of the story, but here is my favourite so far: west of the crossroads, stood a series of huge lumbung(barns), with rice in the upper storey and other crops below. An official called sedahanwas in charge of collecting and storing it. People could ask here for raw grain, or even cooked rice at the palace kitchens.  This system survived well into the twentieth century and people old enough remember these lumbung and others opposite Puri Lempad. In the early 1940s, the occupying Japanese took over the system (they called it Rutindo – Rumah Tani Indonesia) and used it to supply their army.  From the time of independence onward, the system went into decline. People became less dependent on the puri, but in hard times they went hungry.  The barns were abandoned and in the early 1970s they were demolished and their huge timbers burnt, like the structures at a cremation. In 1976, Puri Saraswati Hotel was built on the site.  All that remains now is the memories of a few old people, the ritual workers who still eat in the purikitchens and the oft-told story that the people of Ubud don’t own much farmland because the puri told them they didn’t need it – all they had to do was ask for food at the puri.

How much food is grown or stored in Ubud today? Who owns it? Who controls it? Are the people of Ubud more food-secure now or then? Right now the rice harvest is looking very good, but sometimes it is not. Across Indonesia today, national food security is managed by a state-owned enterprise called BULog. It buys and stores rice in a network of huge warehouses across the country as a buffer against bad harvests and releases it into the market strategically to control supply and prices. Perhaps they got the idea from Ubud 100 years ago.


Anthropolgist Graeme MacRae first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual & History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997.