Questions for Thought:
How are food ways shaped by culture and religion?
What role does food play in religion and ritual?
What can we learn about people by studying the links between their food ways, arts, and religion?
Are you aware of religious rituals that are determined by gender or economic status? How might these change over time?
What factors might have influenced early people's explanations of the origins of their foods?
Are any of your family activities rooted in those of past generations? Describe.
Throughout Asia religion and ritual have been essential components in the growing of rice, as important as good seed, proper planting and vigilant care of the growing plants. Tradition names the spirit or deity of the rice as divine bestower of the plant to humans, and it follows that this spirit should be honored to ensure successful crops (fig. i.i a, b). Rites to this end are held throughout the rice cycle, and although there are facets in common, rituals are typically specific to the group practicing them. These vary from small rice offerings left in the field to elaborate ceremonies held over many days involving large groups of people who, individually and collectively, honor the rice-giving deity.
This diversity of rice rituals is partly a function of the diversity of religious traditions in Asia. All these traditions including Hinduism (in India and Bali), Buddhism (in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Japan, Korea, and China), Islam (Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and the Philippines), Taoism (China), Shinto (Japan),Roman Catholicism (Philippines), and indigenous nature-based belief systems, honor the growing of this important crop, perhaps demonstrating that many aspects of rice culture were broadly established even before the development and spread of these belief systems.
With ever-increasing technological changes in agriculture, it is to be expected that cultural traditions would change. Some have been reduced in scale and others are no longer practiced. Even today, however, many beliefs and practices continue much as they have for generations, and throughout our area of study some farmers and their families still honor the rice spirit, "rice mother," or rice goddess.
The rice deity is known by different names in different cultures. Most often, but not always, the deity is female. In Japan, the god Inari has both male and female forms. While most local communities pay homage to the goddesses, in Bengal, India particular forms of worship of Annapurna are traditions primarily of prominent land-owning families. In Northeast Thailand it is only women who perform the specific rituals aimed to please their rice mother, Mae Phosop. As in all belief systems, some individuals are more involved in the practice of their faith than others.
The Rice Goddess Dewi Sri is the most loved and worshipped deity in Java and Bali. Her image is placed in rice fields and at harvest time, in the form of Nini Pantun (Mother Rice), it oversees the harvest from its place in shrines or trees. The doll-like figures are made of a small bunch of rice stalks tied rightly around the middle forming a narrow waist. The resulting upper triangle is decorated with small pieces of coconut palm or bamboo to form facial features and the stalks below the waist form a flaring skirt. Figures called cili (fig. 1.2) have become conflated in the public imagination (of both the Balinese themselves and their many foreign visitors) with Dewi Sri, the Balinese rice goddess. Not all cili represent Dewi Sri, yet the fan-shaped headdress of the cili is widely regarded as a defining characteristic of depictions of the rice goddess.
Annapurnais the pan-Indian goddess of rice (fig. 1.3). Her very name means "never ending food" in Sanskrit and she is typically depicted with a rice pot and a spoon, dishing out rice to Shiva. Some Indian women keep an image of Annapurna in their puja (prayer) room, where they offer to her the first cooked rice of the day. Thus sanctified, the rice then becomes the family's daily food, symbolically shared with the goddess who bestowed it on both gods and humans.
Inari, a Japanese deity for rice, has both female and male representations and is one of the most popular and important deities in Japan (fig. 1.4). Inari worship is quite personalized and the deity takes many different names and forms. Perhaps the most common depiction of Inari is in the form of Dakiniten, a Buddhist bodhisattva who rides upon a fox. Other depictions show an old man bearing harvested sheaves of rice on a pole over his shoulder. In modern Japan this rice deity has also morphed into a deity for corporate success. Wealth, it seems, once measured in rice, is now measured more in corporate profits and stock profiles.
Mae Phosop, the Rice Mother, personifies the growth cycle of the rice crop in central Thailand (fig. 1.5). She becomes pregnant when the rice flowers bloom and as the rice grows women offer her fruits, clothing, baby powder, homemade perfume, a mirror and fragrant flowers. These offerings are made by "dressing" selected rice plants with the gifts. Sometimes women wrap cotton threads around plants and they comb and arrange the rice plant leaves, thought of as the Rice Mother's hair. It is said that Mae Phosop despised men and that she once flew away, leaving humans to starve for years. She returned only when people learned how to respect and worship her.
Each of the above spirits of rice is represented in the exhibition. Inari is shown as a small figure riding a fox, Dewi Sri is referenced by straw figures that are placed in fields and storage places. Annapurna stands among a group of life-size figures (which includes Shiva and attendant deities), and a popular religious poster of Mae Phosop shows her with the offerings made to her of rice cakes and incense. (ACTIVITIES i, 2,3)
In some cases today the god or goddess traditionally associated with rice becomes a symbol of more widespread prosperity, perhaps based on success in the corporate world. This is true for Inari and India's Lakshmi. In Vietnam, among the Tai people, the Rice Mother likes jewelry and textiles and she receives these offerings on a platform constructed in the middle of the rice field. The ritual structures are a demonstration of respect paid to the Rice Mother who will ensure a good crop and take care of people and animals.
Some cultures closely associate an animal with their deities. Well known is the fox upon which Inari rides—indeed some worshippers feel that Inari sometimes actually takes the form of a fox. Even when there is no commonly perceived association with a deity, animals are recognized for their contribution to the growing of rice. For example the Tamil in South India offer thanks to animals, especially cattle. The families who own cows decorate them with flower garlands, paint their horns in bright colors, and sometimes use dye to add spots or other patterns to their coats.
Thai rice farmers perform rituals to call the attendant spirit, "khwan," of their water buffalo, regarded as coworkers in the rice field. The farmers perform ceremonies at the end of the rice-harvesting season to apologize to the buffalo (fig. 1.6) for the hard work required of them.
Again in recognition of animals, Indian rice granaries are frequently painted with rows of creatures including fish, peacocks, and elephants and motifs that represent the sun and the moon. Balinese offerings often include small animal sculptures made of rice dough. In Sulawesi, specially shaped stones in the form of chickens, pigs, and water buffalo are gathered from riverbeds and placed inside granaries to ensure that the rice will remain fresh and even multiply. In Sumatra the Batak may carve a lizard, traditionally associated with prosperity, on the door of their granaries (fig. 1.7). A Batak proverb says, "A house without a lizard is a house without happiness. (ACTIVITY 4)
The spirit of rice is honored throughout the rice cycle. Homage is paid with appropriate rituals as the rice seed is blessed, as the field is prepared, during the planting, the nurturing, and the harvesting. In the past after the rice was harvested it was transported to the village where rituals welcomed the rice spirits home from the fields and the rice was put into a granary for storage. The Ifugao of the Philippines, for example, installed special guardian figures (called buluf) in the granary, which were "credited with power to protect the grain, or even make it magically increase in quantity...." (fig. 1.8) (Hamilton 2003,137). Today many of these traditions have largely disappeared.
In the lowlands of Nepal Tharu women construct a large clay granary with materials available to them: clay, dung, grasses, and timber. This six or seven foot tall vessel is constructed in place and raised about eight inches off the floor to protect the rice from rodents and moisture (fig. 1.9). Since it is too large and heavy to move, a new longhouse is constructed around it. The vessel is completely sealed except for an opening at the top through which newly harvested rice is poured. Constructed to store rice in times of plenty, it holds enough rice to feed a family for at least a year in times of drought and resultant crop failure. The granary preserves rice for up to four or five years. When a supply is needed, a small opening is broken open, through which the grain flows into baskets for use. The opening is then resealed with fresh clay.
Granaries for storing rice take many forms, varying with tradition and the materials available for their construction. In feudal Japan rectangular warehouses with plastered walls held the rice collected as taxes by feudal lords. In South Asia grain is stored in large clay containers and in China large cylindrical baskets or clay containers were once used. Still today granaries are often intricately carved or painted (fig. uo). Versions of the dwelling place of humans are built to become the dwelling place of the rice spirits and it is here that the harvested rice is kept for storage and distribution. Just as the house is the home for humans, the granary is the home of the rice spirits. (ACTIVITY 5)
Since the seed, the growing plant, and the harvested grain are all the subject of rituals and all considered sacred, it is no wonder that the food—the cooked rice—also has these elements of sacredness. In many households the daily supply of cooked rice is presented to a deity at an altar, offered to the ancestors, or in some other way blessed before it is served to the family. Some Indian women keep an image of their rice goddess Annapurna in a special place and offer to her the first cooked rice of the day. The rice is then sanctified and as the family consumes it, it is symbolically shared with the goddess who bestowed it on both gods and humans.