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Harvest Festivals: The myths and science of RICE, Asia's golden crop

Gawai for Sarawak's rural agrarian-based population is intimately connected with rice cultivation. But cultures all over the world also celebrate this life-giving grain, and the scientific community is helping ensure that the rice they venerate so much just gets better, writes LIVAN TAJANG.

Gawai, Sarawak's very own harvesting festival, is held to celebrate the end of the rice planting cycle, and is also closely associated with religion, culture and social order. Also known as Ledoh among the Kayans, celebrants gather on ruais in longhouses throughout Sarawak to thank the spirits for a good harvest and pray for blessings for a better harvest the following year.

The life of a rice-farmer is a hard one. If you ask a person from the longhouse what their job is, their answer is likely to be, "I'm only a rice farmer."

This is because the work is back-breaking and the rewards aren't very high. You can't plant padi one year and take the next two off. Aside from the period between harvesting and planting, the work is continuous.

But it isn't just the labour-intensive nature of rice-cultivation that has caused such veneration for the cereal. In our longhouse cultures, if you don't have enough rice to last you the year, you're in a famine situation. Superstitions and taboos have sprung up around the farming of this crop and no one thanks God for rice more gratefully than the humble farmer.

But this reverence for the grain of the gods is not unique to Sarawak. After all, ninety percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia. Most of the largest continent's cultures show the same respect for the key cereal, while its cultivation is tied to some very elaborate rituals.

MARKING OF A LIFE CYCLE... The Bidayuhs celebrate Gawai Sowa to mark the beginning of the new padi life cycle.


Each rice-growing culture has its own take on the origin of rice. The Kachins of northern Myanmar (Burma) believed that when they sprang from the centre of the Earth, they were given the seeds of rice before being directed to a wondrous country where everything was perfect and the rice grew well.

On the Hindu island of Bali, famous for its beautiful emerald padi terraces, the people believe that the Lord Vishnu caused the Earth to give birth to rice, and the God Indra taught the people how to raise it.

One really interesting legend comes from our neighbours, the Kadazans of Sabah. In ancient times, man had to live on wild fruits and animals. Rice was just plain grass by the wayside, with empty hulls. One day, Bambarazon, the Goddess of Mercy saw how difficult people's lives were and her compassionate heart touched, she decided to help the impoverished hunter-gatherers.

One evening, she secretly slipped into the fields, and pressed her breasts with one hand until her milk flowed into the barren stalks. Although she squeezed until her breasts almosts ran dry, it wasn't enough to make all the grains full; so she pressed once more with all her might, and a mixture of blood and milk came out. Man forever had rice to eat; able to choose from the white grains made from Bambarazon's pure milk or the ruby red ones formed out of the mixture of her milk and blood.

So up to today, every Dusun or Kadazan celebrates the "Modsurung", which is known as the Harvest Festival, in memory of the Goddess of Mercy.

But when it comes to real veneration, none can beat the Japanese. According to Shinto belief, the Emperor of Japan is the living embodiment of Ninigo-no-mikoto, the god of the ripened rice plant and the Emperor personally conducts the rituals every year before the new planting season.

But the origin of rice for the world's most populous country, China, is rather less mystical, being a gift of animals rather than gods. The story is that once, the crops of China were devastated from an onslaught of severe floods. When the waters finally receded, people came down from the hills where they had taken refuge, only to discover that all plants had been destroyed and there was little to eat.

They survived through hunting, but even the animals were scarce. One day, the people saw a dog coming across a field, and hanging on its tail were stalks of long, yellow seeds.

The people planted these seeds, rice grew and hunger disappeared. And today, throughout China, tradition holds that "the precious things are not pearls and jade but the five grains", of which rice is first.

Even today, many cultures re-enact traditions which uphold the sacredness of rice. During the Gawai Sowa, the dayung borihs of the Bidayuh people will perform elaborate rituals and are rewarded by several grains of rice which appear from nowhere as if by magic. The two-day affair then marks the beginning of a new year.

And while many modern rice-eating Asians may dismiss the myths associated with this cereal, they cannot deny the enormous importance of the crop.

Its cultivation is arguably the single most important economic activity on the planet. More than half the world consume it daily as their staple, and asking them to imagine a life without rice is impossible. Rice provides up to 80 percent of the daily calorie intake in Asia and is also the single most important source of employment and income for rural people.

But how so many places around the world came to cultivate rice is indeed interesting, and quite a few claim scientific proof to show rice originated from their country.

Kadazandusun mark the end of their harvest with their celebrations. Lihing is the name of their rice wine, known in Sarawak as tuak.


The origins of rice have been debated by the scientific community for some time, but the plant is of such antiquity that the precise time and place of its first development will perhaps never be known.

Cultivated rice belongs to two species, Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima with the former, the most widely cultivated. Of sativa's seven forms, two endemic to Africa are not cultivated, and a third, from O. rufipogon, has distinctive partitions.

These subdivisions - into South Asian, Chinese, New Guinean, Australian and American forms - came about largely as a result of major teutonic events and world climatic changes.

The Australian form of O. sativa began to diverge from the main forms about 15 million years ago when a land-bridge(through which rice first migrated to Australia) disappeared, leaving it free to follow a different evolutionary path from the mainland variety. In contrast, the divergence between the South Asian and Chinese forms is believed to have begun only 2-3 million years ago.

The monsoon regions, from eastern India through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, northern Vietnam and into southern China, is home to the greatest variety of rice. This supports the South East Asian argument, that this very diversity of species means the region is the heartland of rice cultivation.

But linguistic evidence also points to the early origin of cultivated rice in this same Asian arc. In many regional languages, the general terms for rice and food, or rice and agriculture are the same. Religious writings and practises, such as in the Hindu and Buddhist scripture, makes frequent reference to rice as the main offerings to the gods.

Actually archaeological evidence for domestication of rice in Southeast Asia goes back 6,000 years. Pottery shards with the imprint of both grains and husks of O. sativa were found in Non Nok Tha in the Korat of Thailand. Tests show that cultivation of rice began as early as 4000 B.C., pushing back back the documented origin of cultivated rice.

When viewed in conjunction with plant remains from 10,000B.C. discovered in Spirit Cave on the Thailand-Myanmar border, suggests that agriculture itself maybe older than was previously thought.

But for all the socio-cultural, economic and dietary importance of the ancient crop and the billions of people it has fed, for many throughout Asia and here in Sarawak, it is still a cereal grown by poor farmers who grow enough for that year in the meanest way to earn a living - subsistence farming.

While better yield is possible through good padi strains and mechanised farming, only government help can make this available to poor farmers. This is also restricted to areas where the land is fertile or flat enough for machine-cultivation. In Sarawak, where the fragrance of our rice is due to the fact tht we plant hill padi, to mechanise might mean compromising on taste. An idea impossible to sell to the discerning farmer with a connoisseur's pride in his crop.


But the recent unravelling of the rice genome by Swiss agrichemical giant Syngenta - the first crop plant to have its DNA code deciphered following the headline-grabbing human genome mapping - may change the fate of poor rice farmers everywhere.

The implications are enormous, with plant breeders expected to develop hardier, higher yielding strains of rice within four to five years.

In a plus for farmers (and a departure from the image of profit hungry corporate giants) Syngenta has said that it has agreed to share technology with research organisations working with subsistence farmers (defined as those earning less than 10,000 dollars a year) free of royalty or technology fees.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, is worried that poor rice farmers will miss out on new technologies if patent protection becomes a favoured tool of the private sector.

IRRI Director General Ronald P. Cantrell said poor rice farmers needed and deserved the best science had to offer, and that included technologies developed by the private sector.

"However, while we want to encourage the private sector to invest in research that will help rice farmers and consumers, patent protection should not be allowed to deny poor people access to such much-needed modern technologies," he added.

IRRI spokesman Duncan Macintosh said the institute accepted the fact the private companies had to recapture their investments ploughed in research but "we want to tell them that rice is not like wheat and maize.

"Rice is special. Rice farmers are just so poor. Rice is a culture, rice is a religion in some countries. But most importantly people depend on it to feed their families literally every day," Macintosh explained.

It is in recognition of this that festivals such as Gawai and Modsurong are celebrated. Rice is the globe-spanning giver of life, and Gawai is a day to give thanks, no matter what your religion, for its existence.

Source: Sarawak Tribune

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