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The Rhythms of Rice

The Rhythms of Rice

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media (11 August, 2021)

Rice (oryza sativa) is a truly amazing plant. It has been cultivated for at least 6000 years, and the area now known as Thailand is thought to be where it was first planted. After corn and wheat, it is the world's third biggest crop (over 500 million metric tons in 2021), and Thailand is one of the world's biggest exporters, accounting for 15% of world exports in 2021. Throughout Southeast Asia, it is the staple food; and yet it is more than just food – it has shaped the history, culture and economy of the entire region. Such a labour-intensive task as growing rice demands close co-operation between groups of villagers, and the rhythms of farmers' lives are controlled by the rhythms of the rice-growing season.

The start of the rice-growing year in Thailand is marked by the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, a Brahman ritual that dates back to the Sukhothai era (1257-1350) and takes place at an astrologically auspicious time, usually in May. Ceremonial bulls plough a small part of Sanam Luang on Ratanakosin Island in Bangkok, after which the Lord of the Harvest scatters seeds that have been blessed by the king and predicts the abundance of the coming season's harvest from foods the bulls select from seven troughs proffered to them. At the end of the ceremony, barriers are removed and farmers rush to grab handfuls of the scattered grain in the belief that it will guarantee them a bumper crop. The practice faded out in the early 20th century but was revived by King Bhumibol in 1960, since when it has taken place each year.

When the first rains of the monsoon season appear (May or June), farmers plough their paddies in preparation for the new crop. Seeds are planted in seedbeds, and when they are about six inches high, often in July, they are transplanted into the flooded paddies. This back-breaking work is shared by the whole community, and despite having to stand for hours with “backs to the sky, faces to the earth”, as the Thai saying goes, groups of rice planters are generally in high spirits, exchanging jokes and singing songs as they squelch through knee-deep mud and gradually cover each paddy with an emerald-green blanket. This is one of the most exciting times to be traveling around the Thai countryside, and any visitor showing an interest in the activity is likely to be invited to pitch in and lend a hand. Simple shelters dot the landscape where the farmers eat their packed lunch and snooze in the shade during the hottest time of day.

Water in the paddies keeps down the amount of weeds, but the paddies need constant attention to keep birds, rodents and insects at bay from when the rice shoots are transplanted until the harvest in November or December. When the paddies turn gold and the heads of the rice stalks bend beneath the weight of the grain, the crop is harvested, using a simple, crescent-shaped knife to scythe through the stalks. Finally, the rice is threshed to remove the chaff, a process that is still done by hand in many parts of Thailand, before it is bagged up and stored in the rice barn.

For a rice harvest to be successful, Thai farmers feel they need to venerate Mae Phosop, the goddess of rice, and they do this through several ceremonies during the growing season. At the time of sowing the rice, they build a shrine and make offerings to her, and mix new rice seeds with some of the previous year's crop to render them sacred. The goddess is then shown thanks when the grain begins to form, or the plant becomes ‘pregnant', as Thais see it, usually in September or October. At this time the women of the village take sour fruits (traditionally in Thailand pregnant women crave lime and tamarind), along with perfume, combs and mirrors to the rice paddies to present to Mae Phosop. They also erect taleo – small protective mandalas made of bamboo strips – beside the fields.

Another ritual after harvesting makes an offering of a small part of the new crop for animals, and finally the last ritual of the rice-growing season invites Mae Phosop to take up residence in the rice barn and protect the crop from disease or theft by animals such as rats. Traditionally, women perform this ritual, as it is thought that if a man were to be left alone in a rice barn with the beautiful Mae Phosop, he would not be able to control his lust for her.

Once the harvest is safely stored away, which is usually around December, rice farmers can rest from their labours for several months during the dry, cool season before it's time to prepare the fields for the next year's crop. This is the time to enjoy the fruits of their labours, and consume rice in its many forms. People from North Thailand have a preference for sticky rice over steamed rice, and eat it rolled into small balls and dipped into spicy sauces. The preparation of sticky rice is a lot more complex than that of steamed rice, requiring overnight soaking, but its supporters swear that no other type of rice can satisfy hunger pangs as well as sticky rice. It is used in several delicious Thai desserts such as khao lam, for which sticky rice is pre-soaked, mixed with sugar and coconut milk and then baked in bamboo tubes. Mango and sticky rice is another great combination of tastes and textures.

Rice is such a common feature of daily life in Thailand that we tend to take it for granted, but perhaps it's time to acknowledge this bountiful gift from nature. So next time we sit down to dinner, let's spare a thought for all the effort that went into putting the rice on our plate, and give a small nod to Mae Phosop for keeping up the rhythms of rice.

Text by Ron Emmons; Photo by Ron Emmons - CPA Media