The significance of rice in Thailand

The significance of rice in Thailand

In Thailand, as in other Asian countries, rice plays a significant role in the country’s identity. Rice (khao) is not simply food. It represents an entire culture. There are historical, social, agricultural, economic and spiritual roots attached to this tiny grain. In Thailand, the day begins with “morning rice” and ends with “evening rice”.

The theme of rice exists in folk music, poetry, paintings, and sculptures and even permeates the language. When saying, “Go eat”, translated from the Thai language, it means, “Eat rice”. A common greeting translates as, “Have you consumed rice yet?”

Agricultural History of Rice

Archeological evidence from Ampur Non Nok Tha in Korn Kaen Province shows that rice was planted prior to 5,500 years ago. Drawings from Pha Taem in Ubon Rajathanee Province date back 6,000 years ago and depict farmers planting rice. Findings indicate that rice was planted in Thailand more than a thousand years before it appeared in China or India.

From the archeological findings, experts believe Thais were the first to cultivate rice. They are likely responsible for the spread of rice cultivation as they migrated throughout Asia, carrying it with them wherever they traveled. It appears that where they chose to settle was dependent upon the water supply, ensuring that rice would grow.

With its enormous river valleys and deltas attracting so many people, they finally organized into a country now known as Thailand. Ever since the 1960s, Thailand, the rice bowl of Asia, has led the world in rice production.

Rituals and Celebrations Associated with Rice

Because so much depends upon a good rice harvest, many rituals have evolved. The rice is blessed at every stage – from planting to harvesting.

  • Rainmaking rituals include asking the high powers to bless rice farmers so they will be free from ill health or any dangers, while also asking for rain throughout the growing season.
  • Rituals for protecting the crop comes after the rice has been planted. Offerings are given to ancient spirits asking for their protection during the growing season. They also pay homage to Mae Posop, the Rice Mother (in which the spirit of rice resides), for her protection.
  • Rituals for a bountiful harvest include a thanksgiving ceremony to Mae Posop, and an apology should any of the planting and harvesting procedures disturbed her in any way.
  • Each year, for the past 700 years, there is an event called the “Royal Plowing Ceremony” held in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok in the sixth lunar month (usually around May). The ceremony centers on creating a future bountiful crop and giving a morale boost to rice farmers. His Majesty the King has attended this ceremony annually, and has recently delegated the royal presence at the event to his son, the Crown Prince.

The Thai Rice Foundation based in Bangkok is responsible for the preservation of Thailand’s rice culture. It is feared that modern times will dilute the understanding of the significance rice has played in Thai life for so many centuries. The Foundation holds workshops, creates exhibits, and educates the public to keep alive the importance of Thailand’s rice culture.

Source: RICE, THE GRAIN OF CULTURE, by Dr. Kwanchai A. Gomez, Board Member and Secretary of the Thai Rice Foundation, at the Siam Society Lecture Series, The Siam Society, Bangkok, Thailand, 20 September 2001.