March 1, 2005
"we say the rice is pregnant"
Mae Po sop: The Rice Mother of Thailand
By Pairin Jotisakulratana
I was born and grew up in Thailand, the country where rice is the main food source. When I was young, the elders often told me to respect rice because it is not just grains but it is Mae Posop, the Rice Mother. Therefore, I must eat every grain of rice on my plate, not one grain should be thrown away. Some elders bowed to her in gratitude before and after eating. They would not step over rice grains just as they would not step over people.
People in Thailand believe that there are spirits in nature and our way of life has to be in harmony with the spirit way. If the harmony is broken, there will be a natural disaster or other dangers to humans. Therefore, in order to bring about harmony and a good yield in rice cultivation, farmers have to venerate the spirit of rice or Mae Posop, as well as other related spirits, such as Mother Earth, the Sky God, the paddy field spirits or goddesses, the spirit of the watershed, the guardian spirit of the four directions, and the ancestral grandfather and grandmother.
In one cycle of rice planting, farmers will do rituals for Mae Posop at least four times. The first time corresponds with the first plowing and sowing. which are done in May or June. Farmers have to choose an auspicious day according to Thai astrology to do the rituals. In the plowing ritual, they will build a shrine and give offering to many spirits, one of which is the Rice Mother. They will ask for protection for the paddy fields and a blessing for the coming crops. For the sowing ritual, farmers mix ordinary rice with the rice of Mae Posop, grains that are kept aside from the harvest of the previous year and ceremonially stored in the rice barn. In this way, ordinary rice will receive the spirit of Mae Posop and become sacred. Through these two rituals, it is believed that the paddy and the seeds will become alive, sacred, and ready for planting.
The second ritual for Mae Posop occurs when the rice starts to bear seeds. During this time, which is around September or October, we say that the rice is pregnant. The ritual of Tham Khwan is performed in order to strengthen the spirit of the pregnant Rice Mother. This ritual is mostly performed by women. In some areas, men are not allowed to perform this ritual because it is thought that they would scare Mae Posop. During the ritual, the women make offerings to Mae Posop. These offerings vary in different areas of the country. In general, they include sour fruits that pregnant women often crave, desserts, fragranced powder, flowers, perfume, hair oil, combs, mirrors, and sarongs. They will put these offerings in bamboo baskets, tie them with a stick from Takae trees and offer them up in the rice field. A red flag and Talaew, a small protection mandala made from bamboo, will be tied to the Takae stick. The women smear perfume on a leaf of the rice, comb the leaf, and show her the mirror as a manner of giving beauty to Mae Posop. They will also chant to ask Mae Posop to receive the offerings and bless the harvest this year. Before leaving, they will ask the Takae stick to take care of Mae Posop and chase away all harmful enemies. From then until harvest, "no men, loud noises, or talk of death and demons are permitted," because "such disturbances are thought to result in a miscarriage and crop failure" ("Thailand"). During this time of the year, which falls around October - November, the sun does not rise up in the middle of the sky as usual, but it follows a more southerly route from east to west. We say that this is because the sun respects the pregnant Mae Posop and does not want to cross over her head.
The next ritual will be performed after harvesting and before threshing. Farmers will invite Mae Posop from the paddy field to the threshing floor. They will take food offerings out into the field and gather the few stalks of rice that are left in the field. These stalks are considered to be the rice of Mae Posop. While gathering, farmers will pray, "Oh Mae Posop, you have been out in the field and burned by the sun for a long time. Please come back to the shade of our threshing floor" (Sathienkoset 159). They will leave the offerings and some of the harvest in the fields for birds and animals. During the threshing, farmers will give offerings to Mae Posop, apologize to her before threshing the grains, and ask her to stay far from the threshing floor so she will not get hurt during the process (Satsanguan 96-97).
For the last ritual, which occurs after threshing and before storing the grains in the rice barn, the farmers invite Mae Posop to the barn. Mostly, this part of the ritual is done by women. This is because, in folklore, it is said that when a man laid eyes on the beautiful Mae Posop in the rice barn, he could not control his sexual urges and raped her (Satsanguan 95). Iam Tongdee adds that the rituals related to inviting Mae Posop, opening and closing the barn doors, and measuring and fetching the rice may be done by women only (117).
This part of the ritual is combined with a Buddhist ceremony, where farmers invite Buddhist monks to chant, lead a merit-making ceremony, and bless the rice with holy water. The host will invite friends and relatives to join this ceremony. Farmers will tie the stalks of rice, that are considered the rice of Mae Posop, with straw to make a Mae Posop doll. Then they will invite Mae Posop to the barn by saying prayers such as the following:
Oh Rice Goddess, come up into the rice bin,
Sometimes the story of the origin of Mae Posop will be chanted. Farmers will once again apologize, ask for blessing, and Tham Khwan. After that, they will place the doll in the barn and store the rest of the grains. The rice from the doll will be mixed with ordinary rice in the next year's planting ritual. The barn is a resting place of Mae Posop, so it will be respected and will be opened only when necessary. In some areas, farmers have to light incense to let Mae Posop know that they are going to open the barn and apologize for disturbing her (Satsanguan 101).
After harvesting, it is the time for celebration. There will be many ceremonies during which the whole community can celebrate and have fun together after long months of heavy labor in the rice field. There are many other rituals related to Mae Posop, but these four rituals are the main ones. Farmers treat Mae Posop with so much care and respect, as her well-being and their well-being are interconnected.
When rice comes to the household, she is treated with respect as well. Traditionally, the first thing women do in the morning is to cook rice. Then, before anybody can eat, they will offer the rice to monks who go alms-round, as well as to the land spirit or the ancestor shrine first. Thai people believe that this offering of rice to the monks benefits our families as well as all other beings. This is how we start the day. As mentioned above, when consuming rice, we bow to her with gratitude and respect. We also say thanks to the farmers who provide us food out of their hard labor.
Perhaps this belief is similar to the Christian belief of receiving sacred communion. Jesus was the one who gave his life to the people and the people receive communion with great respect. Thai people also give Mae Posop so much respect because we consider her as the mother who gives life to us all. She is not a god who lives up in the faraway sky, but a goddess who is very close to us and we receive her communion three times a day.
Pairin Jotiosakulratana is a graduate student in the Women's Spirituality Program at the California Instute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco
Satheinkoset. Prapenee Betalet. [Miscellaneous Rituals] Bangkok: Siam, 2003.
Satsanguan, Ngampit. "Kwam Chua Prapanee Pithikam Lae Kathi Chao Ban Keaw Kab Khao." [Beliefs, Traditions, Rituals, and Folklore Related to Rice.] Khoa Kab Withi Cheewit Thai. Bangkok: National Cultural Committee Office, 1993. 77-102.
"Thailand." Women and Rice. 4 Mar. 2004 <http://www.riceworld.org/special/ women/html/wmnthail.html>.
Tongdee, Iam. "Watthanatham Khao: Pithikam Keae Kab Khao Lae Karn Tham Na Botbat Karn Plein Plang Lae Pol Kratop Thi Mee To Khunnapab Cheewit Sapayakorn Lae Sing Wadlom." [The Rice Culture: Rituals Related to Rice and Rice Cultivation, Roles, Changes, and Impacts on the Quality of Life and Natural Resources.] Khoa Kab Withi Cheewit Thai. Bangkok: National Cultural Committee Office, 1993. 103-128.