Cultural and Religious Attributes of some Local Rices in West Bengal
09 / 1997
Being the main crop in several Indian states, rice has a special place in the religious and culinary traditions of India.
In Bengal, one major rite of passage in the life of a child is the taking of the ’first rice’. This event is a time of rejoicing for the entire family. Rice is also used in wedding rituals. Its white colour is a symbol of eternity and continuity. Further, in orthodox Hindu families, widows are supposed to refrain from eating rice on certain set days.
Rice - either cooked or as paddy - is an important aspect of religious festivals and daily worship. A variety of sweet preparations of rice are offered to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and to other deities such as Manasa or Vishnu, widely worshiped in the countryside. Interestingly enough, the goddess Lakshmi is always represented with a shief of rice. These rice puddings are prepared with special varieties of rices, such as Karpursal or Banapuli. Basmati rice is commonly used to make a particular Bengali paish (sweet dish). Hence, these varieties are grown by certain farmers on very small plots throughout the state. There are also family traditions associated with rice, which explains why a particular rice (Bansgajal)is still in cultivation in a particular village of Hooghly district.
Popped rice is very popular in Bengal. Its acquires a religious significance when served to celebrate the birth of Krishna Jayanti. Placed in a pan of heated sand, the soaked grains explode into crispy flakes, "like the baby God who instantly showed its divinity to his mother by opening his mouth". "Moori", which designates puffed rice in bengali language, is one of the favourite snacks of Bengalis. In the district of North 24-Parganas, the Hamai variety is grown especially to make moori. Moorgishal is another of the few varieties that can be used to prepare it.
Pressed rice, or "tchiré", also widely consumed, is also made with specific indigenous varieties.
Among the most special rices are the scented or fragrant varieties. Basmati is the most well-known of fragrant rices. It is found in pockets in West Bengal, and grown on a much larger scale in the Himalyan plians. Many other varieties of perfumed rices are cultivated in Bengal. In Bankura district, Tulsi Mukul and Danargoori are grown by small farmers to prepare a type of rice pudding. These varieties give small yields compared to other varieties. Yet scented rices are usually sold at a higher price in the market than other rices, and they are widely appreciated for their quality.
Other types of special rices include red or glutinous rices (such as Patnai in North 24-Parganas), which are not as popular in West Bengal as they are in Southern states. Boiled red rice is the staple food of peasants in various parts of Kerala. Glutinous rice, which feature a relatively high protein content, was commonly consumed in Tamil Nadu until it was replaced by non-glutinous rice several decades ago.
Cultural factors are additional incentives for the continued cultivation of indigenous varieties. Because of their use in religious festivals or their special quality and taste, certain varieties are still found in pockets. Very often, however, these factors do not weigh enough to override the incentive to grow a high yielding variety. On the scale of the entire state, the place these varieties hold in terms of rice production is practically negligible. Moreover, in the long-run, one type of scented rice - Basmati for instance - may well replace the diversity of scented rices in use today if it proves more economical to do so. Taken on their own, culinary or religious factors can not constitute the drive for the conservation of rice diversity. One way of ensuring the preservation of local fragrant rices may be through higher procurement prices for these varieties : an idea envisioned by several conservationists in India which has yet to be put to test...
See Deb, Debal, 1995, Sustainable Agriculture and Folk Rice Varieties : Agronomic, Ecological and Cultural Aspects, World Wide Fund for Nature - Eastern Region, Calcutta and Hanchett, Suzanne, 1988, Coloured Rice : Symbolic Structure in Hindu Family Festivals.
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