Sacred Food: Rice and Rituals

Enraptured by our last meal of rice and curries, and eagerly anticipating the next, even as we hungrily devour the rice before us, people in Kerala never get tired of eating rice. The relationship we have with rice is deep-rooted and imbued with meaning and importance; it is magical and mystical. Rice is not just the integral part of our food; it is also part of our religious rituals and celebrations as well as our social ceremonies. Centuries-old traditions dictate the manner of rice cultivation, harvesting, and consumption. As the rice cycle moves from plowing to seedlings to planting and fertilizing, to scarecrows in lush green fields as the grains ripen, and then to golden stacks of harvested rice drying in the sun, so does village life.

The cultivation of rice itself is a slow, meditative process, passed down through generations. When the soaking monsoon rains flood the baked, cracked rice terraces, they are ploughed by oxen and buffalo. When the land is ready, farmers sow the grain and wait for a few days to replant the tender new shoots. Rice is traditionally farmed by hand; under cloudy or clear skies, men and women stoop in the deep mud and plant the rice, stalk by stalk. Soon the countryside becomes dotted with bright green bristles. The green gold clings to mountainsides, cascades down valleys, meanders across flat plains, and grows even below sea level on temporarily reclaimed lands. (The seasoned farmers along the upper reaches of Kerala backwaters have developed ingenious methods to reclaim land from the lagoons and deltas in order to grow rice below sea level.) Weeks later, the land is draped in vivid emerald, speckled with pools of reflective water. Slowly, the tall sheaves ripen, hanging in golden bunches.

When the leaves of the rice stalks start to turn yellow, the rice paddies are drained and dried in preparation for the harvest. Stalks are cut with iron sickles and tied in bundles to dry in farmyards and on roadsides. Whole villages become large drying areas. There is the constant sound of pounding and threshing as the grains are separated from the dried stacks. The languid air becomes heavy with dust. After threshing, the rice is ready for milling. The dried rice grains are then packed into burlap bags and taken to storage. The rice grains are husked, either mechanically or manually. They are then sifted to separate the grains from the bran.

The antiquity and continuity of rice as a staple food in India are remarkable. It is believed that South India began cultivating rice during the first half of the second millennium BC. Countless varieties of rice are described in ancient literature, reflecting the sustained development of rice varieties in India. The Susrutha Samhita, a medical treatise written during the golden age of Indian medicine (circa 800 BC to 1000 AD), describes several varieties of rice and their effects on human body. Another ancient Sanskrit text, the Kashyapa Samhita (written around 200 BC), gives detailed accounts of every aspect of ancient rice cultivation. The significance of rice continues to survive, and its influence can be traced throughout our culture.