Rice in Orissa - History, Culture & Traditions

By Debjeet Sarangi on 14th May, 2019

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 centres of diversity for 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.       

 Import of varieties Thanks to the maritime skills of the Oriyas, the locals travelled by indigenously built decorated wooden ships called boitas to far off Burma, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. It is during the course of such business and plundering that popular varieties 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 elevated 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 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. Myths describe how the Supreme Deity has on many occasions gone in a human form to the houses of devotees to feed them offered rice with his own hand.            

Culture and festivities Paddy as well as rice, the finished product, form 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 for 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. Sri Ratnakar Sahu, an organic farmer from Patnagarh in Bolangir district, laments that rituals have become distorted and 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 a particular variety was recommended, he says. 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 practices, observed in Orissa since ancient times, leading to the enormous diversity of rice varieties.


Varietal selection and diversification Seed selection was based not just on yield but also on other criteria such 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 Oriyas; 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 address; 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.

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”. Thus rice in Orissa is associated not only with food, but also with rich history, traditions and cultural practices.