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
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
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.
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
Hill rice, Crocker Range
Manual harvesting, Crocker Range
Tantagas (ritual specialist) preparing for a rice spirit ceremony
Rice wine drinking - integral part of the Harvest Festival...!