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The Art of Rice

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

In Java they call her Dewi Sri. In Bengal, she is the Hindu goddess Annapurna, and in Japan, one out of four shrines is dedicated to her. Rituals honoring the “Rice Mother,” the goddess of the sacred grain, are prevalent throughout Asia. For centuries, rice has been more than a diet staple: it is a symbol of spirituality.

From Java to Japan, the cultivation of rice is viewed as reflecting the cycle of human life and the actions of the gods. UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History has mounted an exhibition to celebrate the importance of the grain, and to record the ancient customs before they are eroded from the modern world. “The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia,” opening October 5, brings together an international team of scholars, museums, universities, and artists to examine the role rice has played in the Pacific Rim for more than five thousand years.

Each day, more than three billion of the earth’s inhabitants seek their primary nutrition from rice’s 120,000 varieties. “Intellectually, a meal is conceived of as rice. To not eat rice is to not eat.” says Roy Hamilton, the Fowler’s curator of Asian and Pacific art. He first became aware of the central role rice plays in the region in 1970, while volunteering in Indonesia through Stanford University.

Hamilton has observed similar beliefs throughout the Pacific Rim. “In reality, it is most of what people eat in the poorer countries. But in wealthier nations like Japan, where there is much more nutritional variety, on a cultural level they maintain this ideal. I thought it would be interesting to take a pan-Asian look at this culture.”

The exhibition charts rice’s reign throughout the portion of Asia where rice-focused cultures exist. “Iran, for example, produces and consumes rice, but there’s not this idea of a sacred connection between people and plant,” says Hamilton. “We focused on the ‘rice belt,’ roughly from India through Southeast Asia to China and on to Korea and Japan.”

Three hundred and five objects from thirteen countries will be displayed in Los Angeles before embarking on a three-city tour. The exhibition includes two works of art commissioned particularly for the Fowler. A publication of twenty-seven essays by authors from the United States, India, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, France, and the Netherlands, an educational website, and a series of twenty-five public outreach programs round out the project.

The aim of “The Art of Rice” is to expose audiences to the vast and interrelated historical cultures of rice in Asia, as well as to document the ancient rituals and customs being swept away by agricultural modernity and increasing globalism.

Aurora Ammayao, a folklorist and project consultant, remembers the rice deities of her childhood. She is Ifugao, one of the peoples of the mountainous north of the Philippines. During rice rites, her father, a mumbaki or priest, used to chant the “Myth of the Origin of Rice,” a huuwa, or folk epic.

They pour the wine and
   they drink;

after a while, they pray to and

their ancestors on both sides

for the rite on the origin of rice.

They finish invoking and take out
   the chickens;

they fan-bless the seedlings
   to be transplanted;

they slit the chickens and singe

they cut them open and inspect
   the bile sacs

and the signs are good.

As an adolescent, Ammayao turned away from the rice rituals, viewing them as an excuse for the village men to get drunk on rice wine while the women and girls harvested the crop under the hot sun. “Much of it would end up as more wine to drink!” she writes. “I saw no merit or purpose in preserving such traditions.”

But forty years later, Ammayao has changed her mind. She has seen many Ifugao convert to Christianity and renounce their traditional ways, and has witnessed her father become “born again” and abandon the rice rituals. Ammayao is now trying to preserve the old ways by conducting interviews in Ifugao with members of the community where she was born, and videotaping the rituals that are still observed.

Traditionally, twelve rice rites are performed during the year to mark the phases of cultivating the Ifugao rice terraces. The terraces, which may reach an altitude of five thousand feet, employ irrigation methods that defy gravity, bringing water from distant streams and following the curvature of the terrain—a forerunner of contour farming. In 1995 UNESCO designated the terraces as a world heritage site; and in 2001, added them to the list of endangered sites on the basis of their neglect, irregular development, and erosion.

Although each society has its own beliefs and values, many common threads weave together this culture of rice. Hamilton notes the collective tenet that rice is a sacred food, divinely given, and integrally linked to human life. But the veneration of rice extends beyond its divine origins: across Asia it is said that, figuratively, human bodies and souls are made of rice, which is why rice is the only food for proper human nourishment.

In animist belief systems many objects may be thought to hold spirits, but only rice has a spirit comparable to humans. With its seasons of birth, death and rebirth, the plant’s life cycle is aligned with that of humanity. Rice becomes pregnant, gives birth, and dies. Therefore, the fertility of the crop is allied with the fertility of females. Because of this, rice is seen as female in gender.

Explicit fertility rituals and symbols are recurring motifs throughout the rice belt. In the Issan region of Thailand, village monks fire off decorated rockets to “pierce” the sky and bring the monsoon rains, which will revitalize the parched fields. In the Lao Ghost Festivals of northeast Thailand, male and female papier-mâché figures are paraded with other symbols of fecundity. Elaborate masks are a hallmark of these festivals. Ghost masks were originally made from a type of basket, called huad, which is used for steaming glutinous rice. Today the huad forms only the top, and a piece of a coconut frond stem is added to form the face. A robe, belted with cowbells, a water gourd, and a phallic-shaped sword complete out the costume. Boys join the parade at the age of puberty, when they are considered old enough to make their own masks.

From its first cultivation in the middle Yangtze River Valley some eight thousand years ago through much of the twentieth century, the cyclical work of producing the grains has been seen as the natural order of human activity. Rituals surround every aspect of the food, from the moment the seed is placed into the earth to the time the hulled grains are served at the table. Just as “to eat” translates as “to eat rice,” “to live” means “to plant, nurture, and harvest rice.”

The traditional Balinese calendar was arranged in years consisting of two hundred and ten days, the period of time of the agricultural cycle of the locally produced rice variety. One of these calendars, made of wood, is displayed in the exhibition. It is decorated with carved motifs of the Hindu deities Vasuki and Anantabhoga. A pointer is used for marking days on the grid, and religious and agricultural symbols are formed in beads, holes, and carved markings.

Today, sweeping changes in agriculture have occurred, under the rubric of the “Green Revolution.” In the 1960s, new varieties of high-yield crops, coupled with chemicals, dramatically increased agricultural production on farms around the globe. In the Japanese village of Toge, torches in the form giant insects fashioned from straw and grass are traditionally burned on New Year’s Eve. Before the harvest in Tamilnadu, rice stalks are braided into garlands and hung outside, symbolically sharing the first yield with birds and small animals. Bamboo noisemakers operated by cords allowed one farmer to ward off birds from several fields at once. Although some of these rituals are still observed, modern pesticides now take center stage. Where the pregnant Dewi Sri was once powdered and offered oranges in the fields, today chemical fertilizer is applied.

“In Java, the harvest was traditionally open to anyone who showed up to help,” says Hamilton. “They could earn a portion of the crop. This was an important safety net for poor women.” Modern labor practices now involve the hiring of men who are paid cash for their efforts. “It has helped some segments of society,” he says. “But others have paid the price for progress.” The heavy application of chemical fertilizers and insecticides in some cases poses a serious risk to water supplies and wildlife.

In East Java, Kik Soleh Adi Promono uses his shadow puppet performances to illustrate the political as well as agricultural threat of the Green Revolution. He is a dhalang, or puppet master, who acts as social critic, philosopher, and shaman in addition to providing entertainment. “The Art of Rice” exhibition contains an elaborate pair of puppets specially commissioned from Soleh. They accompany a film of a Javanese shadow puppet performance of the Dewi Sri story, which reminds audiences to be aware of the spiritual and cultural heritage of their villages.

“In the past . . . natural remedies were adequate,” says Soleh. “Then in the 1970s, there were instructions to pull out all the indigenous Javanese varieties, to change from varieties that matured in four and a half months to those that matured in three and a half.” Since maintenance of special ancestral genetic strains is commonly held to be a primary link between living humans and their ancestors, this eradication further weakens cultural ties.

In addition to protecting the harvest, granaries are seen as housing the ancestral spirits of rice and, indirectly, people. Granaries are often built to resemble small houses, and ceremonial objects are placed in the granary to accompany the rice. A number of these objects are on display in the Fowler exhibition. Balinese Grandmother Rice figures are made by the senior woman of a household. These figures watch over the harvest until they are ceremonially installed in the granary, allowing the ancestral spirits of the rice to live on until the next planting cycle.

This, too, has changed. “In the end, they can’t even bring their harvest home,” says Soleh. “It is taken directly from the field to the co-op. And then what? The earth needs to rest, but there is no time anymore.”

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Funding Information

The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History has received $250,702 in NEH support for the exhibition, which is on display from October 5 through April 2004 in Los Angeles.