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WOMEN, RICE, AND RITUAL

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fertility. It is during pregnancy and childbirth that women are believed to gain the ability to nurture souls in the manner that the Rice Goddess cares for rice, and during which they enter a pristine state of beauty and sensitivity that requires tending, care and respect (Howe 1991; Nakornthap 1990; Hanks 1963). The connection between women and the Rice Goddess, and its influence on gender relations, is even more viable when we consider the overwhelming importance of rice and the Rice Goddess in the history of Southeast Asia. Historically, rice has been the primary food source throughout Southeast Asia and its cultivation has had a significant influence over the lifestyles, belief systems, and social hierarchy of the region’s peasant populations. Justus M. van der Kroef noted that in Java rice was not only the most loved food, but that the “tradition, religion, and law of many ethnic groups were inextricably intertwined with it” (van der Kroef 1952, 49). Because of its revered place in Javanese life, he argues it is understandable that many Indonesians regard rice as a miraculous gift from the gods (Ibid., 49). Many researchers of Thai peasants have remarked on the fundamental beliefs among Thai citizens that rice possesses a life spirit, that man’s body is itself rice, and that eating rice directly renews the body (Hanks 1972; Goldschmidt 1971; Tambiah 1970; Hanks 1963). In addition to sowing, reaping and threshing the rice crop, the female is in control of the agricultural rites associated with the Rice Goddess (Bunlu’a Thepphayasuwan 1975, 5; Hanks 1963). Though men are required to make offerings, it is the women who are directly responsible for the khwan (soul) of the Rice Goddess (Hanks 1963). Belief in the Rice Goddess, called Me/Ma/Mae Posop (Thailand) or Dewi Sri (Indonesia), is an animist belief that originated in early Southeast Asian peasant societies before the introduction of Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim doctrines. The Rice Goddess is believed to be the guardian of mankind and one of the spirits associated with agriculture that farmers must venerate to ensure harmony and avert disaster. In both Thailand and Indonesia the Rice Goddess cares for mankind and rice alike, just as human females protect children, rice crops, and the elderly, through their nourishment, nurturance, and by recovering souls lost during times of crisis (Howe 1991; Hanks 1963). During her fieldwork in Bang Chan, Jane Hanks gathered first hand accounts documenting the link between women, the Rice Goddess and rice agriculture. In 1953-54 Bang Chan was a small rice-farming village of about 1700 people, in which Buddhism, Hindu, Islam and spiritual myths from China and India had been consistent sources of influence. One of the predominant beliefs that Hanks found in all areas of Thai life was the notion that the human body, along with every animal, plant, mineral and, therefore,

Sagar XVII — 2007  
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