Rice in Orissa - Life in Orissa

Rice in Orissa - Life in Orissa
Jagannath Chatterjee, Living Farms, Bhubaneswar

History of rice in Orissa:
Rice has been the principal food crop of Orissa much before the 14th century AD. When Wang-Ta-Yuan, the Chinese writer of the 14th century visited the State it was being grown in abundance. Other historical texts, like the Manasollasa of Somesvara and the Mahabharata of Sarala Das, too point out that paddy cultivation was the mainstay of the people of this region which was endowed with fertile land and had plenty of rivers running through it. Wild rice, it is known, was tamed by the tribals inhabiting the Jeypore tract of Orissa which is considered to be one of the secondary centers of origin of rice.

The similarity between the name Orissa and the Greek name for rice “Oryza” has led many to speculate that the name of the State derives its name from the crop known as Oryza Sativa.

Culture and festivities:
This may be speculation; historians say the term “Odra Desha” meaning land of cultivators, led to the state being named Odisha anglicized as Orissa, but with such a long history of association with this food crop it is no wonder that much of the culture of this land is woven around this crop. Proof of this is evident even today as paddy as well as rice, the finished product, forms an integral part of all rituals of Orissa. It is offered to Gods in various forms, both in grain as well as various rice preparations and cakes, and is also crushed to form a paste that is used to paint various designs that decorate places of worship, an art form called the jhoti.

Besides the crop and its first sowing, the transplanting, the fertile soil “mother”, the plough, the cattle, the reaping, the offering to Gods, separation of the grain, consumption, keeping apart as seed, storing, and even the trade of rice was occasion of celebration. Orissa is the only state in the world that believes that the “earth mother” menstruates and there is no ploughing in those days celebrated as the festival “Raja”. Rice is associated with prosperity and the name “dhana” in Orissa signifies both the crop as well as wealth. It represents Goddess Lakshmi, the harbinger of wealth and prosperity, and is also used to invoke her. Lord Baladeva, elder brother of Lord Jagannath, symbolizes the plough. The various hand made and woven articles used in such worship resulted in a flourishing artisan trade. Musical instruments were played by specialized artistes, while the Brahmins, imported from Kanauja into Orissa, performed the rituals.

Sri Ratnakar Sahu, an organic farmer from Patnagarh in Bolangir district, laments that rituals have become distorted and have lost their true relevance because the varieties of rice that were central to many of them have become extinct. Nowadays people offer any kind of rice without understanding why any particular variety was recommended, he says. It could have been that, as rice offerings were partaken by all after being offered as part of the rituals, they had a beneficial effect on health when consumed at that particular time of the year.

The farmers of Orissa both worshipped and loved the crop and never failed to improve on it. This practice to continuously improve and adapt led to the enormous diversity of rice varieties observed in Orissa since ancient times.

Reasons behind varietal selection and diversification:
Seed selection was based not just on yield but also on such other criteria as food habit; puffed rice, puffed paddy, beaten rice, beverage rice, rice cakes, rice pudding, sweets, rice milk, stale rice in water, are some of the favourite rice preparations of the Oriya’s; for ritualistic use, a variety of black rice, kalakrushna,  was partaken while mourning for the dead perhaps for its anti depressant qualities, certain varieties are grown purely for festive use and are used as offerings to God called “bhoga”; length of the stem, long stem ensures the rice survives a flood and the hay can be used for thatched houses as well as cow fodder; time taken to yield; draught resistance, a variety called Sarai can grow even in scanty rainfall.

Rice was also selected and cultivated for  medicinal value; malnutrition, asthma, arthritis, nutrition for the mother while weaning, indigestion, acidity and jaundice are conditions some native rice varieties of Orissa can help fight against; aroma, certain rice varieties of Orissa can compare with the famous Basmati for its scent and taste; resistance to pests and disease; resistance to salinity; size of the grains, small grained rice does not break but long grained rice fetches more price in the market; size of the panicles; large panicles mean more grain per panicle, colour; taste; keeping qualities; and nutritional values.

As agriculture scientists have observed even the colour of the leaves excited the farmers; a wild variety found in the Jeypore tract O. perennis is purple pigmented. Rice chaff was also used to fill up gaps in the famous Jagannath Temple without putting added load on the structure, a stroke of architectural genius according to modern engineers. Rice chaff serves as a part of cattle feed and is also consumed by the local population along with the grain in a special preparation involving a variety of rice.

Rice in Orissa is even known for the way it is stored. A particular variety of rice in South Orissa is stored in underground pits. The rice matures in the heat of the earth and does not cause discomfort to people who have the preference for raw rice but cannot digest it. This rice takes very little time to cook, just as raw rice, but tastes like boiled rice. It is known in local parlance as “Khani paka chaula” or “mined rice”.

Diverse land types and ecosystems:
Orissa, a state bordering the Indian Ocean and home to many a meandering river consists of four different ecosystems, irrigated low land, rain fed low land, deep water and flood prone land as well as up land. It is indicative of the skills mastered by the cultivators that rice was cultivated widely in all the ecosystems. Intense breeding and careful selection ensured that farmers were able to innovate and introduce varieties that had the desired qualities and which flowered and expressed themselves even under adverse circumstances.

Import of varieties:
Thanks to the maritime skills of the Oriya’s, the locals traveled by indigenously built decorated wooden ships called boita’s to far off Burma, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The rulers of Orissa repeatedly forayed down south, and also east, during their expeditions. It is during the course of such business and plundering that popular variety of rice from those lands may have been imported into the state to be later acclimatized and adapted as per local conditions. The important varieties from the neighbouring state of then undivided Bengal, home to rice eaters too may have enriched the lands of the farmers of Orissa. Being in the possession of exquisite varieties was a source of pride for the farmer as it alleviated his position in the society. Farmers often exchanged seeds just as coin collectors exchange rare coins.

Wild varieties:
Besides these cultivated varieties, wild varieties are found in the Jeypore tract, where the initial survey in the early decades of the 20th century had recorded 150 varieties, and also the Bhitarkanika coastal area where a wild variety grows abundantly in tidal mud flats based upon which many flood and salinity resistant varieties have been developed. The forest farmers of Mayurbhanj district in Orissa have helped identify many a wild variety growing in their forests. They grow a variety called Kadalikandi which is a 180 day variety.  Wild varieties are essential to improve upon cultivars and also to seek solutions for various strange diseases and pests the rice crop may suddenly succumb to.

The diversity in rice:
It is thus no wonder that Orissa once had 50,000 recorded varieties of rice. The actual number could have been more than 1,00,000 as record keeping was never the farmers forte. The Kings too were fond of rice varieties as rice is an important part of the Mahaprasad that is offered to Lord Jagannath every day. Even today there are huge stretches of land across Orissa that grow rice for the daily offering to the deity. The temple records, the Madala Panji, speak of many exquisite varieties that were regularly offered to the Lord; records that indicate a deep understanding and intimate knowledge of the then prevalent rice varieties. Myths describe how the Supreme Deity has on many occasions gone in a human form to the house of devotees to feed them offered rice with his own hand.

Rice, preferred by Gods:
Lord Krishna is fond of rice pudding, called “Kheeri” in Oriya. There is a temple devoted to Lord Krishna in Kendrapada district of Orissa. A Vaishnav saint of repute was once passing through on his way to Puri. He was hungry and asked the temple priest for Prasad. The priest was apologetic as all the Prasad, mud pots containing Kheeri, had already been distributed amongst devotees. The distraught saint lay under a tree and was sad that Krishna had denied him food that night. As he slept the Lord appeared to him in his dream and requested him to go to the priest once again and ask for Prasad. The saint dared not go against the Lord and awakened the priest. The amazed priest opened the temple and searched. He was surprised to find a pot of Kheeri that was hidden under the skirt of the deity. From that day onwards Krishna of that temple came to be known as “Kheera Chora Gopinath” or the Krishna who stole rice pudding for his devotee!

Rice fields as learning institutions:
Besides uplifting the individual and society spiritually, the rice fields were learning experiences for the entire family. Families that worked together sung various folk songs; breastfeeding mothers put to sleep their babies singing lullabies of nature, and the elements that link us to the entire natural system was conveyed and taught to the next generation. Farmers honed their skills in this hoary land and passed them on to their progeny. Ratnakar Sahu, a senior sage like and prominent organic farmer of Orissa who is so deeply entrenched in nature that poisonous snakes live as pets in his home, laments that with the rice culture fast disappearing people have become materialistic and can no longer enjoy the thrill of being a part of ones natural surroundings.

Sri Ratnakar Sahu sums up what he has learnt from the fields. He is today able to define the seven friends and the seven enemies of the farmer. The seven friends are the earth who is the mother, the cow the caretaker, the tree the life force, the water which symbolizes courage, the seed his capital, his friends and co farmers, the earthworm, micro organisms, birds, bees and the animals, whereas his strength was the farm labourers.

On the other hand the seven enemies of the farmer are loans, artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides, hybrid seeds or GM seeds, wish for a luxurious life, laziness, and depletion of natural resources.

Memories haunt:
What he says is evident to everyone today. Though living in modern cities, the Oriya is at heart still a villager and misses the familiar scents of fresh hay, boiling paddy, floating chaff and the peculiar strong odours from cattle sheds that once charmed him and soothed his nerves. It pains them that such a life, and the cultures and festivities associated with it, is gone forever and will not return as their children are selling ancestral property and buying apartments in multistoried buildings sprouting in the cities.

Cities too are affected:
It is not that the cities are shielded from the effects of reduced interest in the cultivation of rice. The city of Bhubaneswar was surrounded by low lands which fed by the rivers Daya and Kuakhai and other prominent canals like the Taladanda, were utilized by the farmers for cultivation of paddy. They served as wetlands, water reservoirs and kept temperatures within control. But now thanks to “development” these lands have been filled for residential and industrial purposes. The city is, perhaps as a consequence, witnessing abnormal increases in temperature and also water logging, phenomenon not noticed a few decades earlier.

Hoping against hope:
Even today, says Natabara Sarangi a farmer who conserves more than 300 varities of rice in his farm, one can get more than 5000 traditional varieties in Orissa if one has the patience to trace them. The Jeypore tract alone has yielded 1745 up land varieties in the survey mentioned earlier.

It is tragic that such a huge diversity will soon be a thing of the past. High yielding varieties have replaced the once popular traditional varieties. Noted only for yield these laboratory bred rice varieties produce bland rice just for filling the belly. The variety of taste that the people of Orissa enjoyed has now been replaced by the tasteless mass that passes by the name of rice today. Last year a group of journalists had visited a remote place in coastal Orissa to record the movement of turtles that had surfaced to lay eggs on the beaches. Hungry, they could only trace a farmers hut. Says Satya Prakash Naik, correspondent of Times Now, “All that the farmer could offer to us was some boiled local rice, but it tasted so wonderful we asked for more!” The farmer had cooked and served a wild variety of rice found in that area.

Whither Food Security?
Today the cultivation of paddy itself is threatened as farmers are being encouraged to go in for cash crops. The growth of paddy cultivation in the state has become almost stagnant. Farmers are dependant on the market for seeds and the supply is erratic. While the traditional varieties were pest and disease resistant, the new varieties are notorious for the same. Farmers of Orissa have now become accustomed to spraying the dreaded pesticide Endosulphan twice on the crop. With the increase in cost of chemical inputs, forced down the gullets of farmers who were used to organic cultivation and the threat of floods and erratic rainfall everywhere farmers are now abandoning agriculture. Festivals, religious and cultural, that were once vibrant exists today only as token symbols, their significance forgotten.

Government statistics amply demonstrates how farmers are being encouraged to move away from food crops. Vast stretches of rice fields in the districts of Kalahandi, Rayagada, Bolangir, Gajapati, Ganjam, Sundargarh and Phulbani have today been converted to cotton cultivation. Floriculture is spreading as is the conversion of food crop land to grow bio fuels. The farmers who grew rice in their fields have today become dependant on rice doled out under government schemes. The resultant food shortage is being politicized to usher in the biotech revolution. The rice farmer, once the pride of the state, is migrating in search of job. Cultures and festivities have given way to poverty, hunger and sorrow.

Threat from hybrids, modern agriculture:
While hybrid varieties are being introduced upon the assumption that it will feed the hungry, Orissa is in fact a rice exporting state. It always was, as Wang-Ta-Yuan recorded, but the scientists have raised the bogey of “inadequacy of subsistence farming” to do away with indigenous varieties so that the farmer becomes dependant on the market for seeds. Along with that have disappeared the scientific skills of both the farmer and his family members who were experts in choosing, storing and improving upon seeds, rues Natabara Sarangi.

The traditional varieties required very little care and yet gave high yields. A survey conducted by the CRRI in Orissa to document traditional rice varieties has revealed that while high yielding varieties could not tolerate draught conditions followed by cyclonic storms that led to considerable crop loss in a particular year in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, the native varieties were not affected. 

Mono cultures have further depleted the diversity of rice. The entire country is today ruled by a few hundred hybrid varieties against the 2, 00,000 traditional varieties endowed with several qualities that once adorned it. While once the taste and type of rice changed from village to village, food aficionados have become accustomed to the current reign of rice without taste. Orissa is no exception.

Cheap source of nutrition:
The disappearance of many traditional varieties of rice suitable for certain uses has meant that puffed rice mudhi , beaten rice chuda , puffed paddy khai, stale rice soaked in water pakhala ; which are the cheap food available to all sections of the population in Orissa and have sustained them for centuries, do not have the necessary nutrients to sustain them. Rice milk, torani, and even the left over water after boiling rice, peja, have been sources of nutrition and medicine for many an ailment. The polishing of rice in mills has resulted in the top red nutritious protein and amino acid rich layer being removed leaving only the carbohydrate containing endosperm behind. No wonder the state ranks high in the malnutrition index and has a very high rate of infant and maternal mortality.

Associated losses:
The short stems of the high yielding varieties have resulted in less hay for cattle and for compost. The hay is also used for building roofs of mud houses. With the source of easily available food gone, the farmers can no longer afford to keep cows. This has led to the loss of yet another good source of nutrition; milk. Cow dung also served as fuel and an antiseptic when mixed with cow urine and water it was used to wipe the mud floors of houses. Cow dung fed fires used to keep the mosquitoes at bay and perhaps also the dreaded disease malaria that is currently taking a heavy toll in the state. Keeping cows has always been a way of life in Orissa but this practice is fast disappearing just as the traditional rice varieties have disappeared over the years.

Can the glory be revived?
But there is still hope. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a method that has received the official nod from the Government of Orissa, and a renewed interest in organic farming amongst farmers facing the vagaries of the Green Revolution has once again rekindled the interest in rice. However the farmers must be provided with traditional varieties to reap the full benefit and make the process sustainable. Farmers owing their allegiance to various religious institutions are being encouraged to adopt organic practices so as to respect life and the ecosystem. The renewed interest in ayurveda coupled with health consciousness is ensuring an observable shift in agriculture practices. But the dominance of the market has made rice conservation, once the hallmark of a good farmer and a source of pride, a thing of the past.

Conservation Activities:
Conservation of native varities by farmers of the state is yet to be properly recorded and documented. Besides Natabara Sarangi, a retired school teacher who turned to farming as a post retirement activity and converted to organic farming after observing the adverse effects of chemical pesticides, who has taken up the arduous task of conserving 200 varieties, Siba Prasad Sahu of Gaisilat Block in Bargarh district is spearheading another movement involving 300 farmers of the region who are collectively conserving 70 varieties of rice, including various medicinal varieties. He is keen to hold a rice festival to highlight this achievement and bring more farmers into the fold.

Sri D. Narayan of Ganjam district is another organic farmer who is conserving five varieties including a medicinal variety called Karani which is capable of curing digestive problems including acidity. He is also conserving and cultivating a local variety called Boudiahunda that is in demand for being used for puffed rice mudhi. Another variety has been brought in from Chhattisgarh which has 15% protein content confirmed through laboratory tests. Conservation activities of a few varieties are also being done in Beguniapada Block as per Sri Simanchal Nayak, a farmer leader.

Sri Ratnakar Sahu of Patnagarh, Bolangir, is conserving certain varieties of rice. He is in search of certain varieties which were available in Orissa and which can still be traced. They are the Karni, a medicinal variety farmers used to treat the body pain of the farmer and his cattle after ploughing, a very fine tasty variety called the Jonyjari, another scented variety called the Hubri Mahaharaj, a variety called Gidan, which is perfect for beaten rice and a variety earlier found in Khariar of Nuapada district that served as a medicine for certain form of heart ailments.

Recently at a national level rice breeder meet held at Bhubaneswar, where rice breeders from South and East India converged, the need was felt for like minded farmers from across the country to work in tandem and give a fillip to enterprising farmers who want to take back the control of rice seeds.

People like Natabara Sarangi of Nariso, Siba Prasad Sahu of Bargarh, Narayan Reddy of Ganjam, Ratnakar Sahu of Patnagarh, Gopal Chandra Khuntia of Nayagarh, a farmer who has for many years now fully converted to organic practices, and a few other enterprising organic farmers who have courageously and stubbornly swum against the tide must be made examples for others to follow.

Rice is life:
Rice is not just food for Orissa, it is life itself. It is a complete knowledge base that was intricately woven around nature. The people’s happiness merged with it and raised the level a few notches. The rice fields were knowledge reservoirs and were a much more complex system than the current age practices of linear thinking and monocultures. This knowledge base that involved the knowledge of the weather, type of soil, type of land, and other elements of the ecosystem led to minimum intervention farming that suited all life forms which were associated with it. This knowledge has to be regenerated. The glory once associated with the cultivation of rice must be revived to inject life and energy into the fast depleting agricultural creativity and endeavour of the farmers of the State.

Say Yes to Rice, Say Yes to Life.