The stories of rice (Part IV)

Untold secrets of our food

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Food, a significant and essential aspect of culture, brings people together and unites communities. Food is also about cultural identity and pride. A distinctive and complex culture is woven around food and that is called food culture. Food culture is a set of collective practices, myths, beliefs, values, lifestyles, and rituals centred on producing food (farming to harvesting), cooking, serving, and eating the food. These practices reflect the culture of a community. Just as the behavioural and thinking pattern of a community affects and shape food culture, food also affects and shapes the behavioural and thinking patterns of a community. 

Food brings people together. During the earliest times, our ancestors consumed their meals as a group, sitting around a fire. Later, they consumed food sitting around a table or the food kept in the centre of the gathering. It was a time when people would talk to each other, share many things about life, and enjoy food and good company. It was also a time of storytelling and various acts of performances.

As human culture evolved, complex cultural practices started to grow around food. In Sri Lanka, a complex and interesting culture grew around the staple food, rice or paddy. The food culture around rice in Sri Lanka involves not only the time the food is cooked and eaten but also from when the crop is cultivated. 

Rice: A god-given food

Many Asian cultures believe that rice is a god-given food. According to many ancient myths and folklore in Asia, rice was first the food of gods. After rice was given as a gift to humans, and in some lore, humans stole it from gods, rice was grown on Earth. Since then rice has been considered precious, holy, and valuable. 

For the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, rice is holy and precious. For thousands of years, rice sustained the nation, and rice had been the backbone of the economy of Sri Lanka during historic times. Therefore, rice is considered the ‘best’ and holiest food that should be offered to the Buddha and the gods during religious practices. Sri Lankans follow a unique set of practices and rituals before and during paddy farming as well as before, during, and after harvesting. There are also practices followed by Sri Lankans involving storing, preparing, and consuming rice.

A crop close to heart and soul of Sinhalese

The first known stupa shape in Sri Lanka is believed to be of the Dhanyakara shape or the shape of a pile of paddy. This indicates how important and how close paddy was to the hearts and souls of ancient Sinhalese. Therefore, when the time came to build a stupa in honour of the Buddha, the first example or model they could think of was the shape of a pile of paddy. 

Also, as the cow and the buffalo were an integrated and vital aspect of paddy farming. Ancient Sinhalese considered the cow and buffalo to be sacred; thus, killing cows and buffaloes and eating their meat was considered a sinful and shameful act (we shall discuss this with evidence in our future articles). 

Another reason that Sinhalese Buddhists consider offering cooked rice to the Buddha as a great meritorious act because the Buddhist literature mentions how Sujatha offered rice pudding (Kiripindu or Kshirapayasa) to the Buddha (when he was an ascetic). This rice pudding gave ascetic Siddhartha Gautama the physical strength he needed because his body was weak after six years of extreme methods of meditational practices. After consuming this meal, he was fresh and strong; soon he attained Enlightenment after meditating. Today, thousands of Sinhalese Buddhists offer rice pudding or Kshirapayasa, remembering this offering of Sujatha. 

In Sri Lanka, the Rajarata Civilisation was modelled based on the ‘Wewai Dagabai, Gamai Pansalai’ concept, which as Prof. Dananjaya Gamalath of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (Professor Gamalath is an archaeologist who has done extensive research on historical archaeology, and heritage management) says, was not just an aesthetic concept but a complex economic – political and social model that sustained Sri Lanka for thousands of years. He explained that in this economic model, the paddy field played the vital and centre role that connected the village (human settlement), with the monasteries and the country’s economy and political authority.  

There is a saying among Sri Lankans that once the farmer washes away the mud he is even suitable to be crowned as the king (Mada soda gathkala goviya rajakamatath sudusuya), which once again emphasises the significance as well as the value paddy cultivation, rice, and farmers held in the traditional Sri Lankan culture. 

Rice and paddy in Buddhist culture

Researching the Northern Buddhist (Mahayana) traditions, myths, and lore, we found out that there is a belief that rice existed in the purest of realms, which means in heaven. This was during a time when human life did not exist on Earth. Life existed in the form of a floating being, in the form of a light. As this creature grew greed and desire its body became harder and solid and the light-like form disappeared. 

Desire and greed also caused these now solid creatures attached to the Earth to consume the earth, which was like curd. During this time they discovered rice which is known as Swayanjatha Wee, which did not need human intervention at the beginning. This could be wild rice. Later, as human life formed on Earth with solid bodies, the rice also became rough, developed husks, and became tougher to farm, harvest, cook, and digest. 

There is a similar story about Swayanjatha Wee in the Southern Buddhist tradition as well. 

It is also noteworthy to mention that the robes of Buddhist monks were originally stitched with square patterns that were inspired by the square-shaped paddy fields. 

Scholar Ramesh Dutt Sharma in his book, The Story of Rice published by the National Book Trust, India writes that;

Rice has also played an important part in Buddhist culture. Gautam Buddha’s father’s name was Shudhodana, which means Pure Rice. It is said that after his long meditation under a banyan tree, the Buddha attained enlightenment after he had eaten kheer, brought by a forest-dweller Sujata. Hand in hand with the spread of Buddhism to India’s neighbours-Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, and Korea rice culture. Thus rice was a gift of India.

To be continued…

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