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Rice Article: Thailand

Rice: the Grain of Culture
Bangkok Post, September 25, 2001

Rice is the staple of life in Asia and many other countries, and in Thailand the grain is not only eaten but revered by ceremony as part of culture itself.

KWANCHAI A. GOMEZ

For more than half of humanity, rice is life. It is the grain that has shaped the history, culture, diet, and economy of billions of people of Asia. Many of them sleep on rice straw, drink rice liquor and offer rice to their gods.

The growth stage of the rice crop marks the passage of time and season. In the languages of China, Japan and many others, the day begins with "morning rice" and ends with "evening rice". In this part of the world, rice is not just a cereal; it is the root of civilisation.

In Thailand, rice is the essence of life. Rice is in music, particularly folk songs. It is in various forms of the arts-from poems to paintings to sculptures. It is in tradition, folklore, ritual and even language. For most of us, life without rice is simply unthinkable. Yet rice is almost always taken for granted.

As societies become more affluent, they are becoming less attached to rice. The rich rice cultural heritage is fast disappearing, and we need to do something before there is nothing left to preserve.

Over the centuries, rice has shaped the landscape, culture and character of the Asian peoples.

Thais, thought to be the world's first rice cultivators, carried rice with them wherever they went during their early migrations throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, and China. In fact their sole concern, when choosing land on which to settle, appears to have been whether or not there was enough water to plant rice. The vast river valleys and deltas, known today as Thailand, suited this purpose so well that the Thais finally organised themselves into a single nation here nearly a thousand years ago.

RICE RITUALS

Rice is the only crop that Thai farmers arranges to give "blessings" at every stage of its life, from planting to harvesting. The various rituals of rice are closely related to both the communal way of life and religious beliefs. They emphasise the need to live together in harmony and to be mutually supportive. In addition, such rituals also play an important role on the village economy that involves rice production, distribution and exchange.

RICE GODDESSES

In most rice-growing countries of Asia, the spirit of rice resides in the Rice Mother or the Rice Goddess. In Thailand, the Rice Goddess is Mae Posop. Mae Posop and the Balinese Rice Goddess, Dewi Sri, are treated in similar ways-respectful and protective. Just as mothers give food and milk to their children, so Mae Posop gives her body and soul to everyone.

Mae Posop is the goddess who is the protector of rice. Thai people, since ancient times, believe that rice is important for their survival. Farmers in particular will hold various rituals that demonstrate their deep respect and gratitude to Mae Posop, at varying stages throughout the growing season, from land preparation to panicle initiation to harvesting. They believe this will bring them prosperity and wealth.

Whoever tills and cultivates the soil ought to worship the Rice Mother, for she will endow him/her with health and wealth. Whoever does not worship her will suffer as a consequence. He will be emaciated by hunger and sickness, and harassed by poverty.

A man who is careful, whether in reaping, threshing or pounding paddy, and does not allow any grains to be scattered over the ground, will be happy and wealthy. If no care is taken and the paddy is allowed to be trodden over or disturbed by animals, or left over in a damp place, the Mother will be angry and leave the careless owner.

At harvest time, it is traditional for Thai farmers to designate certain heads of rice as the Rice Mother. These are cut with a small knife concealed in the hand, so as not to scare the fearful rice spirit. Once this has been done, the rest of the rice can be cut with other implements, ready for a celebratory harvest dance.

At one time, reapers in the field conversed in a special form of speech that would be unintelligible to the rice spirit, so that it had no warning of the impending harvest knife. When harvest comes, Mae Posop is thanked and her pardon asked for reaping the rice.

The rice is then cut and carried to the threshing floor. A woman goes back to the stubble and collects some of the fallen rice grains and places them in a little basket. She takes some straw and makes a doll from it (no more than the size of her hand).

Settling it in among the rice grains, the woman calls to the rice soul to come and inhibit the doll. The basket is then carried back to the granary, where it is installed with ceremony.

Old people, especially country folk, used to tell their children while taking their meals of rice and condiments to give special consideration to the rice as an act of respect to Mae Posop, the Rice Mother.

When raising the hand to place a spoonful of rice into the mouth, a person must be careful not to let any rice fall on the floor as such an act is deemed bad manners.

Moreover, one must not step over any grain of boiled rice that has fallen on the floor or on the ground. At the end of the meal, young children are taught to thank the Rice Mother with a wai.

When referring to the Mother or to the paddy and rice, no impolite and obscene words are to be used. Any rice which is found wanting in boiling and deficient in quality may not be criticised unless a pardon from the Mother has been obtained beforehand.

When feeding animals either with paddy or rice, whether in a raw state or boiled, it must not be heaped or poured on the ground but be placed properly in a vessel. Failure to do so or allowing the paddy and rice to be scattered and strewn on the ground is an act of disrespect to the Mother. She will be angry and leave the person who is so disrespectful.

Stealing rice is deemed a very unlucky act that nobody should ever dare attempt.

RICE AND THE KING

The influence of rice is not only felt at the level of ordinary citizens. It also prescribes the roles and responsibilities of government leaders including the King and members of the Royal Family.

One of the most colourful annual events in Thailand is the Royal Plowing Ceremony, which has been held for more than 700 years. This ancient Brahman rite is held in the public ground in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, during the sixth lunar month (around May, as the regular rice-growing season approaches) to produce bountiful crops and boost farmers' morale.

The two main activities in the Royal Plowing Ceremony are (a) the rite to predict the amount of rainfall and the bounty of the harvest in the coming season, and (b) the actual plowing of the field by Lord of the Festival (Phraya Raek Na) with a pair of ceremonial bulls and the scattering of rice seeds from gold baskets carried by four Nang Thepi (fair ladies).

These rice seeds come from the rice crops grown in the Palace. At the end of the formal ceremony, spectators rush to the ceremonial field and pick up the sacred rice grains to take home for planting or for keeping as hallowed items.

His Majesty the King attaches great importance to the Royal Plowing ceremonies and had attended the ceremony for many years. In recent years, he has delegated the Crown Prince to attend on his behalf.

RICE AS FOOD

Rice has been the staple food of the Thai people from ancient time. Thais eat both glutinous and non-glutinous rice, prepared as meals, as snacks, as desserts and as drinks. Outlined below are the many manifestations of the importance of rice as a component of their food.

Rice is so central to Thai food culture that the most common term for "eat" is kin kao (consume rice) and one of the most common greetings is kin kao laew reu young? (have you consumed rice yet?).

Numerous ways of consuming rice have evolved over time, from the normal way of cooking rice to boiling to steaming and to grilling in bamboo. Also evolved are the many different sizes and shapes of rice pots, which are dependent on the particular way that rice is cooked.

Rice is generally eaten with varying kinds of dishes, made of meat, vegetables, and other condiments, which are appropriately and generically called khap kao (with rice). This has also resulted in having many different designs of containers where rice and the meat/vegetable dishes are placed before serving.

Since childhood, Thais are taught not to waste rice. Thus, a number of ways of cooking techniques have been designed to recycle leftover rice.

Any rice remaining after a meal must not be thrown away, but must be put on top of the newly boiled rice in the cooking pot.

As an alternative, it may be dried in the sun as dried boiled rice kao taak, which is generally used as ready food by country folk while travelling on a long journey. In former times, soldiers in the battlefield brought kao taak as provisions so they had no need to make a fire for cooking which would endanger the troop. Drinking water after a meal of kao taak also helped the soldiers feel full for a long while because the rice crackers expanded after absorbing water.

Crusts of rice sticking to the bottom of a rice pan or rice pot is eaten as kao tang. When it is fried and sprinkled with sugar and coconut flakes, it becomes a dessert (khanom) called Kao Tang Tod, a favourite family snack commonly given to the children as a reward for their help in the kitchen chores.

Kao Tu is another khanom, which is prepared by grinding dried leftover rice, mixing it with heavy syrup and ground roasted rice grains before shaping this into thick coins. Kao Tu has a very sweet smell as it is smoked with fragrant candle, kenanga and jasmine.

RICE IN MUSIC

Folk songs can be related to the stages of rice farming, from the beginning of the rice-growing season until after harvest. When rains of the wet monsoon came, plowing and sowing could get underway, but if the rains were delayed, the farm folk would put a cat in a creel and parade it around the village to ask the gods for rain.

This song is sung by a leader who is answered by a chorus, and usually begins with "Oh Mistress Cat" and ends with "and the rain comes pouring down, and the rain comes pouring down".

The lyrics contain coarse language repeated again and again, and when the parade arrives at each house in the village, the owner splashes water on the cat. It is believed that the cat, an animal that hates water, placed in a creel, a basket for aquatic animals, and the coarse language act as a secret method that will induce the gods to send the rain.

Such simple ceremonies accompanied as they were with merry making bespeak the optimistic outlook on life and the world that so typified traditional agrarian society.

And when the rice is ready for harvest, the owner of the field to be harvested first would prepare food for the neighbours, who would come to help cutting, binding, and carrying the sheaves of rice. Exchanging labour among themselves like this, the farm folk moved from field to field until they had brought in the harvest of everyone in the village.

To relieve their weariness as they bent over to cut the ears of rice, the farm folk would sing "harvest songs" back and forth to one another, and when they took a break from work or when the harvesting was done, they would sing and dance holding sheaves of rice in one hand and sickles in the other.

When the rice had been harvested, there was still the work of threshing and storing the crop. To lighten their labour on the threshing floor, farm folk would sing to one another songs in parts like "turning the straw", "sifting the rice" and "gathering the grain".

After all the work of the harvest had been completed, the farmers saw that the sweat of their brows had been transformed into rice in the granary, and with their cares and worries at an end, they gave themselves up to joyous celebration.

With the passage of time, rural life has changed just as life in all other segments of society. All sorts of machinery has appeared in the fields. And farm folk have adapted the new ways. Happily, though, despite all the changes, many Thai farmers still have a place for songs in the open fields.

PRESERVATION OF THE RICH RICE CULTURAL HERITAGE

This century has seen more changes in the world than any other time in history. The advent of electronic communications has made all geographic and cultural borders permeable, with nations eager to adopt the traits of others. In such an atmosphere Thailand's cultural past is endangered, and with it the many traditions that make the country and its people so unique.

Traditional lifestyles give way to newly introduced comforts, while Western music, food and dress mesmerise and overwhelm the Thai people, particularly the young.

There is no doubt that rice is still an integral part of the lives and well-being of Thai people. But with science and technology and globalisation becoming more and more a part of their lives, most of the rice tradition, belief, and local wisdom have already disappeared and what remains is likely to follow suit.

This is understandably so. As people have become more sophisticated over the years, they tend to shed those ancient beliefs that no longer have a place in their lives. Occasionally, when an ancient custom is remembered, it is treated as a superstition or it becomes part of an accepted ritual.

The importance of rice and its culture must remain with the Thai people. Thus, it is very important that all Thais-young and old alike-should be made aware of the history of rice and its impact on the country's economy, political, social, culture and tradition and how it has become an integral part of our lives and of the societies in which we live.

A key mandate of the Thai Rice Foundation is the preservation of the rich rice cultural heritage of Thailand. Projects and activities of the Thai Rice Foundation related to the preservation of the Thai rice culture are outlined below:

- A workshop on "Rice Culture and Thai Society in the Future" was held on February 7, 2000, involving about 40 participants who are professors of anthropology and sociology from various universities, rice scientists, and the media.

- Immediately after the end of the February 2000 Workshop, the Rice Culture Working Group, comprising rice cultural workers from such universities as Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, and Mahidol, and from the Office of the National Cultural Commission-all of whom are committed to preserving rice culture in the country-was established. One of the projects of the Rice Culture Working Group is the publication in May of the book, Rice, in Arts and Cultures. It is the first of a series of rice publications that the Working Group plans to publish.

- A Rice Garden will be established at a public park in Bangkok to educate the general public about rice and its culture. It involves a simulated rice field showing rice plants of different varieties and at different growth stages, and a Rice Information Hut where basic information and news on rice are displayed. A structured rice-walk programme will be held during weekends or upon request. Rice cultural programmes, including a demonstration of rice-based food from different regions of the country, will be arranged periodically.

- The Thai Rice Foundation, with relevant organisations in the country, will develop a Thai Rice Culture Exhibit for the Asian Rice Culture Exhibit, which will be held during the 2002 International Rice Conference in Beijing in September 2002. It will be featured along with similar exhibits from other Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, Japan, and the Philippines.

Preservation of the rice culture in Thailand is a gigantic task that no one institution can do alone. It must be undertaken as a concerted effort of both public and private organisations and also of people from all walks of life.

- Interested persons who wish to join in and/or provide support for the foundation's activities should contact:

The Thai Rice Foundation
6 Sukhumvit 12, Khlong Toey
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Tel/fax: 020 229-5197, tel. 02-229-5196
Email: ricefoundthailand@hotmail.com

- Editor's note: Dr Kwanchai A. Gomez is the Secretary General of the Thai Rice Foundation. The above is an excerpt of a talk she gave at the Siam Society last week.


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