January 31, 2023

Time for Rice. Rice Time. The Rice for Time. Timing Rice. by Vago Damitio

It is easy to forget that time is a human construction. Not to say that things didn’t happen in a way that could be described as ‘time’ before humans were measuring it, but this is a very different thing than the way we think about time. In our world, we think of time as being measured and broken into bits. It has been said by philosophers that the past is always done, the future never arrives, and in reality, all we ever have is the now. Now is also known as the present. Some people even go so far as to say it is called the present because it is a gift. What we humans do with the gift of the present depends on where we live and what we have been taught to value. Throughout the world and particularly in parts of Southeast Asia, rice is one of the most valuable aspects of life. It too, is considered a gift. It is for this reason that many rituals, festivals, activities, and belief systems in this region are connected with the planting, transplanting, tending, and harvesting of rice.

In Labor, Ritual, and the Cycle of Time, Roy W. Hamilton explores the connection between agricultural cycles, time, and cultural festivals in Southeast Asia. In the article, he uses the ethnographic present to explain how the labor intensive work of rice farming is a key element in the living of people’s lives in multiple regions of Southeast Asia. People are connected to rice farming through their community rituals, the times of the year they do certain things, and the way that they do them. Often, Hamilton explains, rice is the basis of a grand unit of time, the calendar. (Hamilton 2003: 213-214).

In The Goddess of Rice, Hamilton explains the views of the Rice Goddess and her importance throughout Asian cultures. Hamilton makes clear the connection between fertility and rice in Southeast Asian cultures throughout this article. From the white fox riding Inari of Japan to the Hindu goddesses of India and Bali he looks at rituals and myths, often violent surrounding the lady of the rice. The name of the Goddess of Rice across cultures is often derived from the Sanskrit name for rice (Hamilton 2003: 260).

A notably different sort of holy rice figure can be found throughout the mostly Christian Philippines. In The Pahiyas Festival of Lucban, Philippines, Hamilton tells of San Isidro a poor peasant farmer that is forced by a landlord to perform impossible acts of labor in a rice field and prays for help. His prayers are answered by an angel whom the landlord witnesses plowing the field. The landlord then begs San Isidro’s forgiveness. This has inspired a festival that involves people decorating their houses and doing a parade through the city of Lucban (Hamilton 2003).

Although the beliefs across Asia are often very similar with regards to rice, there are sometimes crucial differences in communities that are relatively close in terms of culture and proximity. In Rice Harvest Rituals in Two Highland Tai Communities in Vietnam, Vi Van An and Eric Crystal look at how rice beliefs in upland Northern Vietnam communities compare to rice beliefs throughout the rest of Asia. They begin with a short history of the Tai minority in Vietnam and continue to explain differences in different Tai groups, the black and the white Tai. The first village they looked at was a Black Tai village. In this village there was belief of a Rice Goddess and the use of a platform symbolizing male and female union and fertility in the fields to promote a good harvest. In the second village, a White Tai village, they witnessed a festival and feast in the field honoring the rice goddess. During this ceremony an effigy of the ‘rice mother’ was constructed and left in the field until the time of harvest. The authors conclude by showing that fertility in the fields and in humans are closely connected in the Tai communities and that this and the belief in a ‘rice mother’ or ‘rice goddess’ are common beliefs throughout rural Asia. Nonetheless, as the authors point out, the belief and ritual systems of the Black Tai and the White Tai are not the same (An and Crystal 2003).

In Rice Festivals in Northeast Thailand, Suriya Smutkupt and Pattana Kitiarsa discuss the basis of festivals that exist in Northeast Thailand as harvest, planting, fertilizing, and growing festivals. Key to this understanding is the climate and nature of the agriculture which traditionally was performed in Northeast Thailand. The festivals discussed include Songkran, the Thai water festival/New Year celebration; the skyrocket festival; plowing; transplanting of the young shoots; and the ritual of ‘calling the rice mother’s soul at the harvest time. Much of the past and present rice festivals are intended to gain merit among the rice goddess and also the Buddha in order to assure that the harvests will be good. The festivals have changed with the times and while some have changed to accommodate tourism, many have stayed true to their original purpose and intent (Smutkupt and Kitiarsa 2003).

Time does change many things, but sometimes not as much as anthropologists have expected. In Chapter 7 of Webs of Power, Evelyn Blackwood details how kinship and control of the land work among the Minangkabau of Sumatra in the production of rice, control of resources, and politics. She explains that while changes have come ith time, they have not been nearly as drastic as some anthropologists had expected. Key to this is that women have retained control of economic power as wage labor has entered the system. Blackwood explores how changes have come about in production, labor practices, and the working of farming households in general. Much of this chapter is concerned with control of labor through traditional and kinship relationships and how this has not changed as some had thought it would with the advent of wage labor. Blackwood looks at how several groups are adapting to change and at the advantages and disadvantages of working as a collective (Blackwood 2000:157-182).

In Economy, Polity, and Cosmology in the Ao Naga Mithan Feast, Mark R. Woodward takes a critical look at the work of some of his predecessors and reveals a number of methodological and cultural oversights they have made. The bulk of the article revolves around the reasons that a series of expensive feasts have cultural significance in the Ao Naga culture. These feasts generally begin with the slaughter of a Mithan which is a type of buffalo. Woodward tells of the economics of the Naga and how they revolve around rice which is not only the primary crop but also serves as currency. He explains the formal relationships that exist among the Naga and the importance of the concept of aren which comes from the sky and causes the earth to produce bountiful harvests. Woodward explores the apparent paradox of conducting expensive feasts to gain wealth and explains that the feasts act as a way to gain social status for a particular group or lineage. In his conclusion, he corrects some mistakes of methodology and recording of J. Friedman and offers some insight into how to avoid such mistakes in the future (Woodward 1989: 121-143).

While many changes have happened and will continue to happen in Southeast Asia (and in the world), perhaps one thing that can be counted on is that there are some beliefs that will not disappear. Among these we can probably expect the importance of the seasons and festivals of rice growing to remain important dates even as the methods of rice growing change. We can expect the importance of rice in Southeast Asian diets to remain primary even as the people in these cultures are exposed to widely different culinary experiences. Finally, we can expect that the connections between rice and fertility will not disappear anytime soon. After all, does anyone ever throw corn at a bride and groom as they leave the place they were just married?


Blackwood, Evelyn, 1999. Webs of Power: Women, Kin, and Community in a Sumatran Village. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hamilton, Roy W. 2003. Labor, Ritual, and the Cycle of Time. In The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, edited by R.W. Hamilton. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Hamilton, Roy W. 2003. The Goddess of Rice. . In The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, edited by R.W. Hamilton. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Hamilton, Roy W. 2003. The Pahiyas Festival of Lucban, Philippines. In The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, edited by R.W. Hamilton. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Smutkupt, Suriya and Pattana Kitiarsa. 2003. Rice Festivals in Northeast Thailand. In The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, edited by R.W. Hamilton. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Vi Van An, and Eric Crystal. 2003. Rice Harvest Rituals in Two Highland Tai Communities in Vietnam. In The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia, edited by R.W. Hamilton. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

Woodward, Mark R. 1989. Economy, Polity, and Cosmology in the Ao Naga Mithan Feast. In Ritual, Power, and Economy; Upland-Lowland Contrasts in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by S.D. Russell. DeKalb, Illonois: Center for Southeast Asian Nations, Northern Illinois University

1.) Fertility and agriculture are connected in many cultures. Can you explain why it is that South East Asian cultures have made rice such an important part of this connection? Can you explain how this connection works?

2.) Can you think of any ways that rice is connected with fertility in Hawaii? What about on the mainland?

3.) Why do you think food is such an important part of the way we measure a culture? Can you give some personal examples of how the culture you feel most connected with views specific types of food?

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