Rediscovering the richness of rice

Rice isn’t just food for Vinay; it’s an anubhavam (experience) that can build bonds.
Sheela Balaji
Sheela Balaji

CHENNAI: In India, rice is a comfort food. In Tamil Nadu, it holds a place as the staple food, deeply woven into cultural and sacred contexts. Beyond the plate, rice plays an integral role in rituals and ceremonies. The phrase Annam Parabrahma Swaroopam (Food is the embodiment of the divine) encapsulates this reverence. Countless stories and traditions celebrate rice, underscoring its profound importance in our lives.

‘Annan: Celebrating the Bounty of Rice’, a discussion by Vinay Varanasi, an artiste and storyteller, presented by Spirit of the Earth in collaboration with Aalaap Concepts at their experience store delved into the multifaceted significance of rice and its cultural ties to deities. The event offered transformative insights into rice’s cultural significance. Vinay’s engaging storytelling, infused with humour and passion, challenged conventional perceptions of rice being a mere grain for consumption.

Vinay opened his talk by underscoring the significance of rice in Indian culture. “Rice to India is what calcium is to bones,” he said. He went on to explore various rituals involving rice, emphasising the reverence rishis held for it and its symbolic connection to divinity in sustaining human life. He explained the concept of Annadhanam, the act of donating food, through the mythological tale of ‘Jagannath’. “We must recognise that the accumulation of resources breeds arrogance. Annadhanam should not be a public display but an act of love. Just to feel like giving, there should be grace within a person,” he said.

Rice isn’t just food for Vinay; it’s an anubhavam (experience) that can build bonds. He discussed how gratitude practices elevate rice beyond mere sustenance, integrating it deeply into cultural traditions. “One grain enabling a host of experiences that connect us to our divine nature is truly remarkable,” he shared. Highlighting the phrase, Annadatha Sukhibhava, paying homage to rice and its cultivators across cultures, he said, “In a country like India where rice is a social, cultural, and economic currency, it has existed for so long in this country that its presence is everywhere. So, being aware of the production chain is important as it creates gratitude around food.”

This humble grain’s importance is often unrecognised. For Sheela Balaji, founder of Spirit of the Earth, it is an ongoing trek to revive rare rice varieties through their conservation project. She envisions celebrating rice and its hidden benefits, which inspired Vinay’s talk. “We are focussed on reviving countless rice varieties, each named for their unique paddy shape, formation, colour, and aroma. For example, Anaikomban, once found in Kanniyakumari and named after the elephant’s tusk, is now extinct. Many indigenous varieties are disappearing,” she rued.

Vinay Varanasi
Vinay Varanasi

Promoting awareness of ancient rice varieties is key to their resurgence. Sheela said, “The shift towards hybrid varieties has unfortunately led to the decline of many traditional rice types. Yet, if more people opt for these ancient varieties, demand will rise. This increased demand can motivate farmers to grow these heritage grains, preserving our agricultural diversity.”

Highlighting the imbalance in cultural narratives, predominantly centered on men within Indian rituals, Vinay emphasised that it is women who truly keep these traditions alive. He aspires to extend his message about the richness of rice and its traditions to broader audiences. “What’s foremost in my mind is to bring this theme to schools and agricultural colleges, for individuals to understand how powerful of a grain it is,” he signed off.

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