Rice - Asia's Golden Crop
Myths and Science of the Rice Harvest Festival 

by Herman (2007; this article appears also on SabahTravelGuide.com)

The Pesta Ka’amatan, Sabah's very own Harvest Festival, is held to celebrate the end of the rice planting cycle and it is closely associated with religion and culture. Every month of May, throughout Sabah Kadazandusun celebrants gather in village community halls, at the houses of affluent personalities, and even in town ‘padangs’ and community centres to thank the spirits for a good harvest and pray for blessings for a better harvest the following year.

The rural life of a rice-farmer is not an easy one. Work in the fields, under the hot sun, is back-breaking. In some areas rice farming can be mechanised, especially where there are vast expanses of flooded rice fields. But in the hilly areas of Sabah, where still many people depend on their own rice to carry them through the year this is not possible. And of course, in olden times, rice planting was all manual and the survival of a family, a clan, an entire village was largely dependent on a good harvest. It is in human nature, we strive to better our future but some factors are out of our control, such as the weather, the occurrence of certain pests etc. Naturally superstitions and taboos have sprung up around the cultivation of rice, and no one thanks nature and its creator more for a good harvest than the humble farmer whose life depends on it.

Reverence for rice, or for any staple grain for that matter, is not unique to Sabah, or Malaysia. After all, ninety percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia, and many cultures show the same respect for rice and cultivation can be tied to some very elaborate rituals.

Folklore, Myths, and Mysteries

Each rice-growing culture has its own take on the origin of rice. The Kachins of northern Myanmar (Burma) believe 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 Lord Vishnu caused the Earth to give birth to rice, and the God Indra taught the people how to raise it.

In Sabah, the Kadazans have a legend that 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 Rice Spirit) 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 almost 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. Now man could eat rice, and was even 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.

The Rungus, another Dusunic ethnic entity of Sabah have a story very much like the Chinese (see below), where a dog brought seven stalks of rice in its fur. Regardless of the origin of rice, all Kadazandusun in Sabah celebrate very elaborate harvest festivals.

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 the first.

Even today, many cultures re-enact traditions which uphold the sacredness of rice. In Sarawak, Sabah’s neighbouring state, the dayung borihs of the Bidayuh people perform elaborate rituals during the Gawai Sowa and they 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 consumes 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.

Rice Demystified

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.

Actual 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 the documented origin of cultivated rice. Viewed in conjunction with plant remains from 10,000 B.C. discovered in the Spirit Cave on the Thailand-Myanmar border one can suggest 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 Sabah, 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.

Making Rice Better though Science

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 the years to come. Duncan Macintosh, a spokesman for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines said: "Rice is special. 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." It is in the recognition of this that festivals such as the Ka’amatan in Sabah, or the Gawai in Sarawak are celebrated. Rice is the globe-spanning giver of life, and the Ka’amatan is a day to give thanks, no matter what your religion, for its existence.


Read more about the Harvest Festival on our site: Pesta Ka'amatan and Huminodun


Hill rice, Crocker Range


Manual harvesting, Crocker Range


A Lotud Tantagas (ritual specialist) preparing for a rice spirit ceremony


Rice wine drinking - integral part of the Harvest Festival...!

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