Rice is the staple food of nearly 3 billion people, about half the world's population. No wonder it symbolizes abundance, as do most grains -- plant one seed, harvest many.
Kept dry, rice can be stored almost indefinitely. Therefore, it also symbolizes security, providing a hedge against future hunger. In Asian traditional cultures, it is rice that is the standard of wealth rather than gold or money.
Like any agricultural crop, rice is closely related to human fertility. In fact, the two are still thought by millions of people to be directly linked in a powerful yet mysterious way. Sympathetic magic has always played an important role in human affairs. Until direct observation and reason replaced reliance on tradition, it was believed possible to influence nature by imitating it. That is, you could try to make it rain by urinating on a special spot, but also perhaps by chanting the correct words while drizzling sand out of a clenched fist.
Sex and the fertility of the earth were especially thought to be related in these magical ways. There is, of course, an actual relationship between them, since women do not ovulate when their body fat falls below around 10%, which it will surely do if the fields do not yield.
In ancient times, an active sexual life was thought to induce fertility, rather than the other way around. Chinese farmers were known to copulate in the rice paddies to induce the rice plants to sprout. Among the Hmong (also known as K'mu,) tribal people of Southeast Asia, the primal pair conceive before the plants do:
Rice in Everyday Speech
In Bangladesh, China and Thailand, instead of "How are
you?" they say, "Have you eaten your rice today?"
Also in China, people do not say, "Happy New Year!" but "May
your rice never burn!"
In traditional Japan, people do not think in terms of breakfast,
lunch, and dinner, rice means meal. They say: morning
rice (asa gohan), afternoon rice (hiru gohan), and evening rice (ban
In Singapore, a steady job is "an iron rice bowl",
so being out of a job is, "a broken rice bowl".
A Dog's Tail
Chinese myth recounts how, when the land finally drained after an especially severe period of floods, the people came down from the hills where they had taken refuge. They were dismayed to find that the plants had been destroyed and there was very little to eat. They survived through hunting, but it was very difficult because animals were scarce.
Sacred explanation says that when the Kachin people of northern Myanmar (Burma) were sent forth from the center of the Earth, they were given seeds of rice and directed to a wondrous Country of Perfection where rice grew well.
In Bali, Indonesia, where Hinduism still flourishes, it is believed that Lord Vishnu caused the Earth to give birth to rice and that Indra, king of the gods taught people how to grow it. Since rice is considered a gift of the gods, it is even today treated with reverence and its cultivation is tied to elaborate ritual. In fact, the ritual and symbolism of planting, maintaining, irrigating, and harvesting rice infuses Bali probably more than any staple in any other culture.
Once the water buffalo have trampled the rice paddies several times to till and muddy them, ceremonies are held to transport the shoots that were germinated from seed in a special nursery.
In each paddy, the corner closest to Bali's highest volcanic mountain, Gunung Agung, receives the honour of being the first to receive the new plants.
The water level in each section is a perfect pool resulting from a system of streams descending from the highest terraces to those lower on the hillside. Irrigation and planting are arranged through the subak system tying cultivation to a temple-administered arrangement dating to the year 1071. The yield per acre in Bali is still among the highest in the world. Unfortunately, as a consequence of tourism, this remarkable co-op system and the rice land it manages is being lost.
White or Brown?
Paddy is actually a Malaysian word meaning the wet field where rice is planted, but in South Asia it is used to refer to the rice itself. Brown rice and rice gruel, considered by some to be fit only for poor people, is called by the Chinese word, congee.
The Female Grain
Rabinowitz tells us that in much of Asia, rice is viewed as the embodiment of a tender, beautiful, timid woman who dislikes being man-handled. Men can prepare the land but women have to plant, weed, winnow, and cook rice. At harvest time, the pregnant earth mother is delivered. The soft white grains are treated gently like a shy young girl, so rice is not to be thrown on the floor or squandered.
Rice is also the prototype for acceptable human behavior -- unassuming, sensitive and gentle. At a fundamental level, consuming rice is not just the eating of a meal; it is an act of bonding with the earth.
In India, ritual offerings are presented to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice before planting, throughout the growing season, and again at harvest time. In the middle of rice fields far from any village, there are pura bedugul: shrines with neatly arranged flowers and fruit offerings to Dewi Sri [Shri Devi], another name for Laxmi (or, Lakshmi) the Hindu goddess of prosperity whose name actually derives from the Sanskrit word meaning goal or objective. She is the wife of Lord Vishnu.
Lakshmi's vehicle is the heavenly white elephant that is also associated with rain clouds, which enable crops to grow. This animal is familiar to Buddhists as the symbol of the impregnation of Buddha's mother.
The Indonesian (Sundanese) deity called Dewi Nawang Sasih is the celestial nymph credited with teaching people how to cook rice.
Rice is Power
In Japan, according to Shinto belief, the Emperor is the living embodiment of Ninigo-no-mikoto, god of the ripened rice plant. In the Japanese Buddhist world view, there are 10 categories of existence: Rice is second only to the Emperor.
The god of Rice called Inari is usually depicted as a bearded old man, but he can transform himself into Wakasaname-no-Kami [Young Rice-Planting Maiden]. In one account Inari killed the Moon Goddess Tsuki-yomi and it is her corpse that gives birth to food plants, cattle and silkworms. This is the spirit whose alter ego, ally or vehicle is the fox. And a fox is believed to be able to transform itself into the rice spirit, too. Inari is the patron of swordsmiths and nowadays, of trades-people in general.
In Korea, though rice is only one of the "five grains," the Guardian of the Home is Toju, represented by a jar full of rice covered by a white piece of paper and a sheaf of straw.
In Vietnam, special rice cakes, one round and one square, are prepared for the three-day Tet ( New Year) celebration.
In northern Europe and in America, handfuls of rice are tossed at a newly-married couple as a symbol of prospective fertility and hence, joy. The custom is thought to have originated in Roman times. It may be a substitute for the earliest blessing which was probably a generous sprinkling of water, which was later replaced with a northern grain such as barley.
Rice then, is the prototype of confetti: tiny paper bits that are thrown at any joyous occasion, as a result of the identification in people's minds between weddings and happiness.
The belief in the power of rice to enhance fertility was extended to include the restoration of strength and health, in general. Roman soldiers upon their return to camp after battle, ate a rice confection made with honey thought to heal their bodies and to restore their vigor.
In Asia, where it probably originated, rice is an ancient, reliable staple food. It stands for the primordial generosity of the gods and of the animal protectors. Proof of the fertility of the land, it is associated with sex and fertility in people. It is the favourite and essential food representing all security and therefore, all abundance and wealth. Therefore, it is most suitable as a ritual offering
Rice, a perfect and complete food offering, is placed in a bowl on Hindu and animist altars, and also on Buddhist shrines. In some traditions, rice ash is used to support incense sticks; in others the food and incense offering are combined, so the burning incense stick is placed upright in a bowl of rice.
Examples of Hindu Ritual Use
Called Deva Dhanya (gift of the gods,) in Hindu worship rice symbolizes steadfastness and dedication. It also stands for peace. Akshata is the unbroken and uncooked rice that is used in an offering-worship or puja. It is colored with red chandan or kumkum [vermillion,] saffron, or turmeric, and a very little water is added. Enough is prepared for a week's use and it is kept handy near the shrine or altar.
Men apply a tiny bit of the offering -- the bindi, a.k.a. tilak -- to the mid-forehead or brow with the thumb; women usually use the ring-finger. It is also applied by the priest when a puja at a shrine or temple is completed.
In the Hindu Namakarana Samskara or naming sacrament, the priest writes the new name into a rice-covered tray or bowl. By this action, the new identity is at once marked into the physical world and offered to the deities.
Rice-paste Hindu rangoli wedding decoration (U. Penn.)
At a Buddhist empowerment or wang, the offering of rice (or another of the 5 grains) plays an important role. After the explanation or teaching part, a symbolic gift of the universe and its contents is made to the deity or the being from whom the practice originated. This first rice-offering is done by the person assisting the lama. Three prostrations may be made, and then the attendant begins to heap rice upon a triya or mandala platter.
The ones attending the initiation will follow by using the ritual sign or mudra for that same gesture; the fingertips are brought together palms upwards, and the ring fingers are placed side by side so they form a tower pointing up. The indexes and pointers are crisscrossed and the thumbs are joined to the opposing little fingers. This simulates the arrangement of continents around the central Mt. Meru of ancient Indian cosmology. We offer this to the lama for the empowerment he is bestowing.
When the monk assisting the lama concludes the
mandala-offering verses, he will throw some rice into the air. We do
likewise, using a forward movement from the heart outwards. A pinch
of rice grains may be tossed in the six directions [E, W, N, S, up and down] at
other appropriate moments during the ritual as indicated by the text, the
officiating lama, or his helper. Save a bit for the end, to again
throw from the heart in an expression of joyous
gratitude as a final mandala offering.
Personal Mandala Offering
Rice is commonly used for the mandala offering in the Vajrayana preliminaries called, in Tibetan, ngondro, though barley or another grain may also be used.
On a metal tray supported on one hand, rice is heaped in an arrangement and an order that represents the Buddhist [and ancient Hindu] cosmological system -- the continents surrounding Mt. Meru. Graduated metal hoops are then placed so that the rice is supported as it piles up to finally resemble a copper- or silver-and-rice wedding cake. It is topped with a finial in the shape of a flaming jewel.
This mandala offering with its attendant visualizations and accompanying mantra is intended to perfect the ideal of generosity. The rice stands for all and any material goods. The mandala may also contain semi-precious, even rare, gems and jewels, as well as coins and other valued objects. In the ngondro offering, as soon as the structure is completed, it is disassembled, and the bottom layer of rice is swept away with the back of the free hand. Impermanence, death and rebirth, dissolution of universes. Like the other practices, this procedure is repeated over a hundred thousand times.
When the practice is done over a clean sheet, the grains can be collected and re-used.
Other Ritual Uses of Rice
Rice, the ancient, almost perfect food that epitomizes the earth's generosity, is offered daily to Buddhist monks on their daily rounds in the countries of South Asia, such as Thailand. There it forms the basis of a combined donation-offering: Rice to be presented to a monk is poured into a cone of white paper in which is planted a small unlit candle, some sticks of incense and a few flowers. A thin white cotton blessing string may be wound around the candle for the recipient to tie around the donor's wrist in return. While the bracelet is being attached, the donor says, in Pali, the "refuge in the sangha" formula.
Unless you are intentionally trying to get a soupy, soggy or sticky result such as is preferred for Italian risotto, this is the way to produce the ideal:
As a side dish, a cup of rice will feed more than 2 people. To one measure of clean [picked over and rinsed] white rice, add a measure and a half of cold water. (Brown rice needs 2 cups of water to every cup of rice.)
Cover the pot well and heat to boiling.
When you can see steam escaping, immediately reduce the heat to the very lowest setting or just turn it off and let the pot sit while the rice absorbs the steam. In 15 to 20 minutes, the rice is done.
Rice is a complete food only when eaten with small amounts of protein as found in meat or fish, or in combination with beans or lentils. In southern China, fan [rice] is the prestigious main dish which is only complemented by the tsai [relish], bits of meat. And fan is the most important of the yang or eaten things [cf. yin = substances to be drunk] which embody the element Earth. The tsai is a Fire-element substance. To serve the food correctly respecting the balance of the 5 elements [the others are Water, Wood and Metal,] it was thought that tsai should only be served in wooden or basketry containers, though the fan could be served in a metal dish.
White rice may be either polished or parboiled. In its polished state it may be sold with a little talc and glucose added to enhance its whiteness. However, when it has been milled, people who eat it as their mainstay, may suffer from beriberi a serious even fatal condition of general weakness including the inability to walk, to stand the slightest weight without feeling pain, and problems involving the heart which is the result of a deficiency of thiamine, a B vitamin. Parboiled rice, invented in India hundreds of years ago, is actually healthier since in the processing which allows it to be stored safely for years, the thiamine is absorbed into the grain even though the brown husk is removed.
By the way, the brown rice generally available today has had only 8% of the hull retained. It seems that true brown or unhulled rice is not desirable; it can cause serious digestive problems, as well as become rancid over time.
The colour of white rice seems to stand for purity, but unpolished rice is not white in its natural state. It ranges in color from dark brown through beige to a golden yellow. The golden color is considered auspicious since it represents the precious metal. There are pink, blue, purple and striped varieties, too.
Domestication of Rice
The domestication of rice was the most important aspect of the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago, since this grain has fed more people over a longer period than any other single crop. Nowadays, it is estimated that 65 kilos [145 lbs.] are milled for each human being every single year.
It may be that the first gatherers of true wild rice [not the river grass called "wild rice" whose thin, dark seeds are harvested in North America by people in boats] were the Neolithic people of what is now North Vietnam, known as the Hoabin culture.
Earliest agriculture focused on plants that reproduce naturally,
and the seeds of loosely attached grains of a wild rice such as Oryza fatua
may have found their way to gardens at a very early date. It is thought
that planting developed as a result of people's noticing that the mix of
plants around the midden [compost/garbage heap] contained many more edible kinds
than anywhere else.
Today, more than 20 species of wild rice are found from tropical Asia through Africa, to Latin America and the Caribbean. Since wild rices grow in many different habitats from sunny open land, to shady forests, breeders use wild species to introduce traits not found in cultivated rice. Altogether, it is estimated that now there are more than 140,000 varieties.
Farmers plant only two species of Oryza: the O. sativa that originated in Asia and which is grown worldwide, and O. glaberrima, which is grown in West Africa. Oryza sativa is a complex group composed of two forms found wild all over Africa but not cultivated there, and a third form, O. rufipogon, with distinctive South Asian, Chinese, New Guinean, Australian, and American varieties.
Divergence between the South Asian and Chinese forms, that is, ancestors of indica rice, and japonica (or sinica) rice, is believed to have started 2-3 million years ago. At the time, the climate was suitable for rice even in Central Asia, but northern China had almost ideal conditions. Animals could still cross the proto-Himalaya then, and with them, in their bellies and on their fur, went the grains of wild rice.
Basmati ("perfumed") rice is a nutritious, specially aged rice that, until 1997, was produced solely in the north of the Indian subcontinent. It could be considered the Champagne of rice. While France has managed to protect its product via "appellation controllee," India is having to sue the USA for permitting infringement on its cultural property by RiceTec of California, whose perfumed rice is a hybrid formerly known as Texmati:
Bali, Indonesia. http://www.indo.com/culture/rice.html
Greetings. <http://www.asiarice.org/ricewords.html> Apr.17/00
Khoua Neng Yang. Hmong Myth.
Korea & Toju. http://www.ktnet.co.kr/enghome/culture/faith.html Apr.17/00
Rabinowitz, Alan. Beyond the Last Village. London: Island Press, 2001.
Subak system. Communal irrigation in Bali. <http://www.icsea.or.id/sea-span/1099/AP1130LL.htm> No longer available.
Tilaka/bindi. Seal of Hindu worship. http://www.trinihindu.faithweb.com/tilak.htm
Visser, Margaret. Much Depends On Dinner. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart,1987.
Williams, W.W. "From Asia’s Good Earth," Hemispheres.