The interesting journey of rice from India to other parts of the world

By Monidipa Bose Dey

What is cooked in earth that’s nice?
Cooked in wood will fetch good price
Turns into sweetmeats if cooked thrice?

(A popular folk riddle on rice)

Rice is the staple diet of more than two billion people in Asia and many millions more in South America and Africa, and it has fed more humans and other animals than any other crop for thousands of years. The old Indian name for rice is Dhanya, which means “sustenance for the human race,” and it signifies the importance of this crop for humans from times immemorial. Especially in Asia, life without rice is beyond all imaginations, while globally rice is the 2nd largest crop in planting acreage after wheat. While there are many wild varieties, there are only 2 cultivated species of rice: Oryza sativa Linn. (Asian cultivated species), and Oryza glaberrima Steud. (West African cultivated species).

Oryza sativa, which is the more widely cultivated species, is generally associated with wet climate (though it is not a tropical crop), and is believed to be a descendent of wild grass that was once grown in the foothills of the Eastern Himalaya. There is another line of thought that believes rice plant may have originated in the southern parts of India, and later spread to the northern parts, moving further onwards to China. From China it then spread to Philippines, Korea, (around 2000 BCE), moving further eastward to Indonesia and Japan (1000 BCE), while Sri Lanka first saw rice in 543 BCE.

In the westward movement of rice, the Arab traders and travellers ferried rice from India to Iran, Egypt, and Morocco between 1st and 11th centuries; and from there across to Spain in 700 CE. From Spain the rice moved into Europe, wherein the Moors carried it to Portugal (8th century), Italy, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania (by 15th century). Interestingly rice finds no mention in the Bible, nor is it there in the early historical records of Egypt, as rice was first cultivated around the Nile Valley as late as 639 CE. Alexander carried rice with him in his return journey from India, and subsequently it was his teacher Aristotle who was the first figure from the European scientific world to mention rice, which he termed as oryzon. The Europeans as colonial conquerors (the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch) next took rice to their various colonies, and America received its first rice grains from Christopher Columbus through his infamous “Columbian Exchange” of resources; however rice cultivation in America started in 1609 (in Virginia), more than 100 years after the Columbian Exchange. The South Americans saw rice when the Spanish carried it with them in the beginning of the 17th century. Russia first saw rice during the rule of Peter I, who got it from Iran in the early 1700’s. Africa, which had a domestic strain of its own that had developed from the wild rice, started with rice cultivation around 3,500 years ago. A few centuries before the Common Era, the Asian variety of rice was carried to Africa by Javanese sailors who settled on the eastern shores of Africa (Madagascar) where they started with rice cultivation. Later south Indian sailors from the eastern coasts of India also settled in Africa bringing rice with them. The global journey of rice has been a slow one, but as it took root in various parts of the world, it slowly turned into a major agricultural and economic product.

In India, a major centre for rice cultivation, the recent finding of burnt rice near the Bhirrana archaeological site in Haryana, which date back to 4000 BCE, dispel the long held myth that cultivated rice species came from China to India sometime in 2500 BCE. Interestingly in 2011, an analysis of dinosaur dung from Pisdura village of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra has been found with remains of plants (evolved and diversified variety of the grass family Poaceae from which rice tribe Oryza originated) that show dinosaurs had been eating the staple way before humans started eating it. With this finding the origin of rice also got pushed back by 35 million years with the certainty that rice was of Indian origin, again breaking the theory that rice originated about 30 million years ago in China. Indian and Chinese archaeologists have mostly always maintained that cultivation of the domesticated rice variety (Oryza sativa) started in India, in Koldihwa and Mahagara areas (both are Neolithic sites in Uttar Pradesh) in the Ganges river valley, where remains of charred or carbonised rice were found embedded in lumps of burnt clay from the Proto-Neolithic levels of these sites (9000-8000 BP). 

Besides these two sites, in 2018 researches (Thakur, Saxena, and Singh) in the Sanai Tal (Rae Bareli) and Lahuradewa lake in Sant Kabir Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh, have revealed farming related human activities going on in the Ganga Plain from Early Palaeolithic Period (15000-10000 BP). Findings of paddy field diatoms in the Lahuradewa Lake waters (a shallow Ganga plain lake) provide clear evidence of human paddy field activities in the lake area since 9250 years BP (early Holocene), while the oldest rice field in China has been identified in the lower Yangtze valley dated about 8400 years BP.

In India archaeologists have found charred rice grains from more than thirty-seven sites. Apart from Mohenjodaro (Pakistan), rice grains have been found in Lothal (2000 -3000 BCE), Girwar (around 4000 BCE), and Rangpur in Gujarat. Excavations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Bengal have also revealed the importance of rice in Indian culture from prehistoric times, which has not lost a single grain of importance, even as it continues as the staple diet of the 21st century Indians.

(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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