April 12, 2011

A Rice Farmer's Spiritual Dimensions

Not everyone has seen rice still in its husk in real life!! A rice farmer knows immediately this is the small grained white rice specially grown in the northwest part of Borneo and especially in Brunei where there is more than 220 good days of sunshine for the rice to become firm and hard and yet soft when boiled. There is no sour taste in the grains when it is softened. fully mature this rice keeps longer than many other breeds. It is time to train the next generation of rice farmers.

Without rice, there is nothing doing.’

The fact that rice plays an important role in the lives of the peoples of Southeast Asia is undeniable. It is not just a form of sustenance that nourishes the body; it is also an aspect of everyday life that feeds not only the soul but the unbounded realms of the imaginative human mind. Such proverbs as above are an example of how rice is revered and incorporated in day-to-day living of the peoples in this region. Even outside the region, as in Mizumono Kuni – the Land of Luxurious Rice Crops that is Japan, the placement of rice is that of a very high level:

next to the Emperor, rice is the most sacred of all things on earth. Money can be squandered and the wastrel forgiven, but there is no forgiveness for wasting rice (Piper 1993:14).

I am dedicating this posting to all my relatives who in the past and at the present grow rice as nature would want them to so that we human beings have rice on the table........

If you ever have a chance to get close to nature do accept an offer to help harvest padi in either Brunei or Sarawak.. You will not only harvest a basket of rice grains in the day but a huge body of knowledge about rice cultivation. for the farmers will definitely introduce you to their value systems and beliefs surrounding their rice cultivation.....Amongst the many things they will tell you would be something really simple... leave behind extra seeds for the birds and the field mice. They will tell you not to take home every single grain because "others need to eat also".. Simply put...we are to share this beautiful earth with others too...be it a small bird or a little field mouse.

My friends are Catholics and they continue to revere the God who created the earth and the universe. This same God provides them with a rich soil from which grow rice. In this way these padi farmers have a lot of respect for the earth and the whole ecosystem.

Today the rice fields of my friend in Brunei have freshly "regrowing rice" in a patch amongst the dying stumps of harvested rice plants. As it happens every single cycle of rice cultivation several parts which  have been harvested continue to leave behind some newly flowering plants. These extras are growing because "we have to leave some for the others to partake of our harvest - the birds and the rats for example and other "people". They too need to benefit from our hard work..." according to her.

If you are not observant enough you might not see this little bundle in the middle of the field. This special bundle  states that the farmers here respect the powers of the higher spirits which are in control of heaven and earth and all the forces of nature. This is a symbolic gesture and prayers are said. God in all His infinite wisdom would accept this as a farmers' prayer for a good harvest.

Before their rice planting each year they put some "tokens or miring in the middle of the field" to the natural elements of heaven and earth or spirits of the farmers - a tradition their ancestors taught them before they became Catholics in the last generation. This is to appease the spirits for their use of the precious land and to ensure protection. In their hearts they pray to the God of Abraham and Jacob for help in the rice cultivation.

Some of these grains are left deliberately for the "other people" to eat.

The husband and wife team are looking for the last grains - now is the stage when they use their own hands to  pluck each and valueable stalk of grains in the hot sun.

The brown stumps at the background have already been harvested. Today she is just picking by hand some of the "remainders" of the sheaves.

Looking at my friend as I reflect on the influence of rice on our human race. As my camera shot different scenes in her rice field I wonder how little change indeed a woman rice farmer has seen in all these centuries.  Rice has been grown in Asia for the last 7,000 years. Recent findings in China indicate that this may in fact be 10,000 years. From the terraces of China to the lowlands of Sri Lanka, it is cultivated on all continents except Antarctica. About half of the world’s population, most of whom live in Asia, depends on rice as a staple food. Each woman rice farmer still carries a basket and bends her back to pluck the precious grains at harvest time.

And again she to relates to me about the respect she must give to God of the universe in her simple language. She must thank God for the bounty He has given to her and her family. She cannot explain whether there is a goddess involved in rice planting in her ancestors' oral tradition although in many communities, there is usually a goddess or mother figure associated with rice. In Bali, it is Dewi Sri or Bhatari Sri. In Thailand, rice is revered as ‘ Mother Rice’. In India, she is Annapoorna and she promises those who come to her what a mother gives naturally and freely—food. The Hindu goddess Lakshmi is usually associated with wealth and prosperity, but such prosperity is based on rice.

Different cultures have different stories about how rice came to be. The Chinese believe that rice is a gift from the animals. Once upon a time, China was hit by very bad floods. The people ran up to the hills to stay. When the floods were over, they came down and found that all the plants had died. They tried hunting but there were few animals left. One day, some people saw a dog running across a field. Around its neck were bundles of stalks with yellow seeds. They people grew these seeds and called the plants “rice”. With rice to eat, they were not hungry anymore. This is why rice is considered more precious than jewels in Chinese culture.

An ancient folk tale told by  some longhouse dwellers relate a story of how a goddess gave birth to an earth child after a relationship with a human being. Before going back to the spiritual world she gave the seeds for her husband and son to plant so that they need not depend on hunting for food.

I thank my friend and her husband for taking time from their heavy schedule of rice farming to bring me along for half a day's work. Although my basket was not 'full to the brim" as I was not used to working fast with hands amongst the heavily laden rice stalks my heart was full of happiness because "the harvest" was promising. God is indeed a great provider.

ref : PIPER, Jacqueline M.
1993 Rice in South-East Asia: Cultures and Landscapes. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.


Ann said...

did know they gow padi in Brunei. You ate Kelabit rice? They say is the best.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Yes...now lots of land under padi in Brunei with Sultan's blessings....Bario rice is too expensive...only for my mum. It is good. Kanowit is just as good if not the same...Have to ask the agronomists for more certainties.

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