Sacred Food: Rice and Rituals

Ravished by our last meal, and anticipating the next even as we hungrily devour the rice before us, people in Kerala never get tired of eating rice. There is as much pleasure in anticipating a meal, and reminiscing about it afterwards, as there is in devouring. The relationship we have with rice is magical and mystical. 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 the village life.

We celebrate and honor this grain of life from planting to harvesting to consuming. 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 buffaloes. When the land is ready they sow the grains and then wait a few days to replant the tender new shoots. Rice is traditionally farmed by hand; be it lurid or clear skies, men and women stoop in the deep mud and plant 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 for growing 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 leaves of the rice stalks start to turn yellow the paddies are drained and dried in preparation for the harvest. Stalks are cut with iron sickles and tied in bundles to dry on farm yards 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 stacks, and 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. Rice grains are husked either mechanically or manually to remove the husk from the kernel. It is then sifted to separate the grains from the bran. Wherever rice grows in Kerala, planting and harvesting cycles are celebrated with spectacle and ritual, events as old as the land itself. Ancient agrarian practices of Kerala depended solely on the movement of Sun. Cultivation begins with the onset of rainy season and with the monsoon comes a renewal of the life cycle of farming. Once the seedlings are planted, more water is needed to ensure a good harvest and the arrival of the monsoon is welcomed with many rituals and ceremonies. Harvest season is the time for the biggest celebrations.

In times past Nira and Puthiri were a big part of harvest celebrations especially in agricultural families. While Nira celebrated the bringing of the first stalks from new harvest to the house Puthiri celebrated the cooking and serving of the new rice from the first harvest. Today these festivals are observed mostly in Hindu temples. A few days later in late August or early September (depending on when the holiday comes according to lunar calendar) we celebrate four days long Thiruvonam or Onam festival, the only harvest festival that continues to be celebrated today all over Kerala. Essentially it is a harvest festival, but its origins are deeply rooted in Hindu mythology. According to mythology during Thiruvonam festival the sprit of fabled king of ancient Kerala Mahabali returns to Kerala every year to see his people enjoy life after a good harvest.

Thiruvonam is celebrated with colorful flowers, sumptuous feasts and gifts of new clothes. Spectacular boat races take place along our fabulously long coastline and crisscrossing rivers and inland water ways. Bedecked elephants sway to the tune of panchavaadyam band at the famous temple at Trikkakkara where the idol of lord Vishu as Vamana is worshipped. Early in the morning children get dressed in festive clothes and start collecting flowers to decorate the courtyard with an intricate flower design pookkalam. In the middle of the flower design they place pyramidal images of Onathappan, made of clay or wood, and decorate it with fresh flowers. Mothers light bronze oil lamps and fragrant incense sticks, and offer ripe plantains and ela ada, steamed sweet coconut and rice flat cakes, to the lord. The traditional gift on this holiday is onapudava, thin cotton fabric laced with golden borders. The big event of the day is the sadya, vegetarian feast around noon. When all the dishes are ready, a huge banana leaf is spread in front of the Onathappan and the feast is served. After this offering of food, everyone sits to enjoy the Onam sadya served on banana leaves. After the meal, young girls perform a hand clapping folk dance called kaikottikali. This precious grain is so much a part of our lives today Onam is celebrated in Kerala by all regardless of race and religion. And the cycle of rice and rituals continue from one season to another season.

In Kerala, rice is the heart of every meal. This carbohydrate rich staple is so important to our life, that it even has its own place in our language. It is not just a steaming serving of white rice around which meals are planned, but it is nellu when it is unhulled and unhusked, ari after it is husked and hulled, choru when it is cooked plain, oonu when it is consumed, palahaaram when it is made into savory breakfast dishes and paayasam when it is cooked with milk, ghee, coconut milk, and sugar or jaggery. Rice is also the main ingredient in a variety of dishes - from appetizer to main course, to snacks, to sweets. The final product depends on how the rice is processed and what type of rice is used.

Rice takes on much broader meanings in our culture and has an important place in our social as well as religious ceremonies. A traditional Kerala matrilineal wedding still takes place in front a para (old wooden measuring barrel for rice) filled with un-hulled rice and decorated with a fresh flower stack from a coconut tree. At weddings elders bless young couples by sprinkling rice on their heads. Six months after birth, babies are fed rice for the first time in a ceremony called Chooroonu. On birthdays mothers serve extra rice to their children on banana leaves signifying prosperity.

Both the sacrifice and denial of this precious grain is perceived as an act of or worship. Traditionally during certain days of religious observances in Hindu homes, no rice was cooked. While some of these observances required complete fasting others are partial fasting days - when other varieties of grains such as wheat, nivara and ragi are served. When no rice is served it is considered fasting.

Offering rice in many different ways at our temples is an indivisible part of Hindu religious rights. In ancient times many temples had huge land holdings offered by kings and devotees, the proceeds from which were used for the upkeep of the temple. Even today, several days before the major festival of the temple, the image of the temple deity is carried around on top of a decorated elephant to the homes in the village. Devotees present the deity with paras filled with un-hulled and popped rice.

The enshrined deities of our temples are faithfully fed a variety of rice dishes twice daily, a practice that continues to this day. Famous temples of Kerala have some of the very best traditional cooks who prepare these food offerings. The food offerings at temples are always the most excellent food. Hand pounded short grain rice, unakkalari, the aristocrat of rice varieties, is used for preparing temple offerings. It has a delicate flavor and a consistency that has just the right cling, and it cooks to a perfect creamy texture.

A rice offering may be plain cooked rice or rice, Paalpaayasam, rice cooked in milk and sugar or Neypaayasam, rice cooked with brown sugar and ghee or Neyyappam, rice flour and brown sugar griddlecakes. The priests or their helpers prepare the offerings every day in the temple kitchen. They are presented with great ceremony, the grander the festival, the more numerous the offerings. Once the ceremonies are completed, offerings are removed from the inner shrine and the priests and devotees share the food as blessings.

Today many of these old rituals have faded away with time. Still more than politics, religion or culture, a deep appreciation of rice truly defines Kerala. And the inherent attitude of reverence, respect and gratitude toward this simple grain still remains unshaken.

photo courtsy of Robert Soreng @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN