In Bengali culture, like many other cultures in Asia, “eating rice” is synonymous with “having a meal”. The Sanskrit word “anna” and the old Bengali word “odan” mean both “rice” and “meal”. A standard Bengali expression – “Have you eaten rice?” – is a polite way to inquire, “Have you had your lunch or dinner?” This everyday language points to the overwhelming significance of rice in Bengali culture. All rites of passage in Bengali culture – from birth to death – are marked with raw rice, milled rice and cooked rice. Every traditional ceremonial feast has servings of aromatic rice delicacies such as polao (sweet pilaff) and payes (rice pudding).

Bengali nursery rhymes perpetuate memories of traditional rice varieties known for their special qualities. An old rhyme that I remember from my childhood goes:

Kalam-kathir patla chire, Hamai dhaner khoi,

Chini-atop chaler payes, khabe eso soi.

Beaten rice of Kalam kathi, puffed rice of Hamai,

rice pudding of Chini-atop – are ready for your meal, my friend.

Another old nursery rhyme describes the tale of Shib, a marine trader who is treated by his parents-in-law to the beaten rice (chireh) of Sali, the puffed rice (khoi) of the Binni variety, the Sabri variety of banana and a once famous yogurt from Kagmari. These sweet nursery rhymes are now forgotten, just as the Sabri banana and various rice varieties have disappeared from the menu of modern Bengali meals.

Erosion of Diversity

Domesticated rice cultivation in the Bengal region began about 4,000 years ago. Over a long period, ancient farmers created thousands of rice landraces, each adapted to local land and climatic conditions – a process which Charles Darwin called “artificial selection” by early cultivators. Most of these rice varieties grown in eastern India and Bangladesh belong to the Indica group of domesticated rice (Oryza sativa). A smaller number of Japonica rice is also cultivated in the region, especially in deep-water areas.

The exact number of rice varieties grown in West Bengal and Bangladesh before the advent of the Green Revolution is not definitely known. However, scientists estimate that around 15,000 folk landraces were cultivated in undivided Bengal in the 1940s. Unpublished records of the West Bengal State Research Station suggest farmers used to grow around 5,500 landraces up until the late 1960s. With the advent of India’s Green Revolution in 1965, a handful of high-yielding varieties replaced, and continue to replace, thousands of traditional landraces.

The writer with his co-worker Dulal at his farm. Photo credit: Prof Jayeeta Sharma, University of Toronto.

Bangladesh has witnessed a similar process of erosion of rice genetic diversity. In the 1970s, about 7,000 rice varieties were replaced by modern high-yielding varieties, and further hundreds disappeared in the following decades. Recent data indicates that just over 700 varieties are currently being cultivated in Bangladesh.

In short, most of the old landraces of Bengal, from both sides of the international border, are now available only in a few gene banks, not in the hands of farmers. My own collection of folk rice varieties at the Vrihi rice seed bank totals 576, which is perhaps the final number of extant rice landraces that were in cultivation in Bengal up until 2012. Many of these have disappeared from farms, and several of them are critically endangered, surviving only in single farms.

This loss of thousands of rice varieties means the erosion of a vast body of folk knowledge pertaining to the distinctive properties of different varieties. It also means food insecurity for poor and marginal farmers, who no longer have access to a stock of different rice landraces fine-tuned to local soil and climatic conditions. What I want to emphasise here, however, is the loss of unique characteristics in these forgotten rice varieties that shape local food cultures and celebrated Bengali delicacies.

Reflections in Culture

Specific rice varieties shape the food cultures of different areas and districts. Moa, the famous rice sweet of Jaynagar in the district of South 24 Parganas, bears the unique aroma of Kanakchur, an indigenous landrace. The farmers of Bankura, Puruliya, Jalpaiguri and South 24 Parganas grow Kelas, Dahar Nagra, Nalpai and Moul for their famed crisped rice (moori). Sita-sal and Banshkathi are favoured around Paschim Medinipur district for their quick cooking time, rich taste and slender grains. Ajirman, Chandrakanta and Manik Kalma are chosen for beaten rice (chireh).

The diversity of rice was crucial for common people’s food and nutritional security, and a part of folk nutraceutical knowledge. Rice contains mostly carbohydrates, and small quantities of soluble proteins and lipids. In addition, several heirloom varieties are a source of micronutrients like beta carotene (a precursor of vitamin A); B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin and niacin; and metals like iron and zinc, that are stored in the rice’s bran. At least 80 such varieties contain more than 20 mg of iron per kg of grain, with the highest levels recorded for Harin-kajli, Dudhé-bolta and Jhuli rice, which range from 131 to 140 mg/kg. Other varieties are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.

Photo credit: Prof Jayeeta Sharma, University of Toronto.

A considerable amount of metallic silver is found in the bran of Garib-sal, a medicinal landrace from Puruliya district. The presence of silver nanoparticles is known to kill pathogenic microbes. This might explain the traditional use of this rice to treat gastroenteric infections. Dudhsar (or Dudheswar) rice is believed to enhance milk production in lactating mothers. The starch of Kelas rice or Bankura and Bhut moori rice of Paschim Medinipur are said to cure anaemia in lactating women. Parmai-sal rice is believed to promote child growth, while Kabiraj-sal rice is prescribed for convalescing patients.

Complex rituals are associated with rice, from sowing to harvesting. The winter harvest is marked by the “new rice” (nabanna) festival. This festival is followed by a month-long ceremony of Poush-Parban in which several varieties of rice sweets are prepared. Freshly harvested aman rice grains are considered sacred and are a major component of votive offerings to deities. Rice grains are used to pay homage to elders and to bless the young. Several ceremonies of brata (undertaking vows) express a desire for bounteous harvests. The Toshla brata, observed in the month of Poush, requires women to visit fields to praise the deity. New brides are welcomed home with aman rice and durba grass.

Not only are ceremonies associated with specific rice varieties, but they are in turn kept alive by the continuation of the ceremonies. Jamai-nadu and Jamai-sal rice are named after the son-in-law (jamai), who is ritually pampered with a Jamai Shasthi ceremony in the month of Jyaistha, when a range of special foods are given to him. Deulabhog, Gobindabhog, Mohanbhog, Mohanras, Olee, Radha tilak and others were essential for rice pudding (payes) and other ceremonial sweets.

The nomenclature of folk rice varieties is interesting in itself. Varieties such as Subal-sal, Asit Kalma and Debdulali clearly bear the names of farmer-breeders. The panicles of Khejur chhari and Narkel chhari have clustered branches that look strikingly similar to the date palm and coconut inflorescence. Other rice varieties bear animal names, albeit without any association with those animals: Ghora-sal (horse), Hati dhan and Hati panjar (elephant), Hans guji (duck), Hanuman jata (langur), Murgi-sal (fowl), Siyal-sal and Siyal-bhomra (fox), and so on. Others commemorate mythological and historical characters: Bhim-sal, Gour-Nitai, Lakshman-sal, Meghnad-sal, Raban-sal, Radha tilak, Ram-sal, Sita-sal and others. Deity names abound: Bishnubhog, Durga-sal, Gobindabhog, Gopalbhog, Indra-sal, Kali-ashu, Kali-komad, Kartik-sal, Lakshmichura, Lakshmidighal, Lakshmi-jata, Narasingha-jata, and Thakur-sal.

Cultural Loss

Not only are such rice names and meanings embedded in folklore, but their uses are shaped by such cultural-religious ceremonies, and vice versa. The worship of Lakshmi and Narayan was considered inauspicious if the Gobindabhog or Gopalbhog rice was not used to prepare rice pudding. At weddings, aromatic rice was essential for guests. Such heirloom rice varieties have been replaced with a handful of modern non-aromatic varieties, losing the meanings of the rituals associated with them.

The writer at his farm. Photo credit: Prof Jayeeta Sharma, University of Toronto.

With the rapid advancement of industrial agriculture, the vows (brata) of Toshla and Punyipukur, Itu puja, Ind puja and Neel shasthi – rituals closely linked to a rice-growing culture – are now obsolescent. Similarly, in the absence of Jamai-nadu and Jamai-sal rice, the Jamai shasthi celebration is shorn of its agrarian context. When the prescribed rice varieties such as Gopalbhog, Gobindabhog, Mohanbhog or Thakur-sal are unavailable, the joy and solemnity of the rituals of Lakshmi and Satya Narayan puja ceremonies are lost.

Not only is the semantic significance of those rituals lost when those rice varieties are forgotten, but it is little understood that many prized foods have changed from their original flavour, historical context and social meaning. Sitabhog, a famous sweetmeat of Bardhaman district, was originally prepared from its eponymous rice variety that is now extinct. Today’s sitabhog sweet is made with some modern rice variety (such as Swarna or IET-7029), even as it bears the name of a lost rice whose original flavour is long forgotten.

Many other varieties traditionally considered to be appropriate for the taste and flavour of different rice dishes are either forgotten or extinct. For instance, the popped rice (khoi) of Kanakchur from Jaynagar area in southern Bengal used to be in demand as it retained a mild aroma even after popping. However, a drastic decline in its sown land area led to the marketing of fake ‘Jaynagarer moa’, made from non-aromatic modern cultivars.

The drastic erosion of traditional rice diversity even tarnishes the visual aesthetics of Bengali landscapes. Increasingly, the roofs of its beautiful “bungalow” huts are no longer found to be thatched with paddy straw. A major reason is because the straw from new rice varieties is too short and not durable for thatching, unlike that from heirloom varieties. The altered material culture of Bengal is thus another unnoticed consequence of the loss of rice diversity of modern Bengal.

When economists and geographers talk about land use change, they refer to a process by which human activities transform the natural landscape. The emphasis is on the functional role of land for economic activities. What we see from these few examples, however, is that the loss of genetic diversity of indigenous crops has additional consequences that are rarely discussed – namely, the alteration of local cultures associated to this diversity.

Inevitably, the insidious loss of words, phrases and oral traditions will be a sequel to the loss of thousands of rice landraces and their associated cultural idiom. Many of the traditional Bengali customs and rites have already become fossilised: devoid of the cultural meaning and socio-economic context that once defined Bengali culture.

Dr Debal Deb is a farmer-scientist and ecologist who works with traditional farmers to conserve indigenous seed diversity. He founded and runs the world-renowned Basudha research farm and Vrihi rice seed bank. His research has revealed how indigenous farmers of West Bengal and Bangladesh created a plethora of rice landraces characterised by distinct agronomic traits, cultural uses, and culinary qualities – many of which are now being lost.

The writer thanks Jayeeta Sharma and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley for the excellent editing and for supporting his work.

This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other articles in the series here.