Nanchinadu: Harbinger of Rice and Plough Culture in the Ancient World

BY: SUN STAFF

Pahari/Guler, Punjab Hills, c. 1760


Jul 26, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — Adapted from article by Dr. V. Sankaran Nair, a two-part study of brahminical prognostication, wherein oxen foretell the coming harvest and rain.

In Cambodia, the first ploughing of the year is called Raek Nakwan, and at that time a ceremony is held at the Royal Palace for forecasting the harvest and rains. Tracing a symbolic furrow at the end of the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Preah Nongkoal), The Prince (son of the King), dresses in traditional robes of the royal court and commemorates an auspicious beginning of the new rice planting season. The ceremony is thought to be based on an ancient Vedic brahminical custom comprising a procession of three royal oxen, who walk around the royal rice fields three times. The second plough in the procession is traditionally controlled by the King, and the third plough sows the seeds.

Hitched to a wooden plough, the two sacred oxen plough the ceremonial 'sacred furrow' (Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal) before the King. After that, the holy royal oxen, escorted to the centre of the field, are relieved of their harnesses and led to seven golden trays containing seven types of food, which include rice, corn, sesame seeds, soybeans, fresh-cut grass, water and rice wine. They are presented before the bulls in order to draw prognostics. This ceremony is rooted in Brahman belief.

Left free to choose what they will eat from this menu, the question of what will the pair of sacred bulls eat holds the answer to the threefold question pertaining to the land's fertility, availability of water in abundance, and prospect of a rich harvest. On the basis of the royal bull's choice of food and how much they have eaten, the Brahmin astrologers, court soothsayers, predicted every year, based on traditional astrology, the agricultural produce and abundance of particular crops in the ensuing season. This is also taken as an omen for the coming year. The rituals are therefore meticulously observed to ensure a rich harvest in the new planting season.

According to Khmer belief, the possible prediction of a range of events includes epidemics, floods, good harvests and excessive rainfall. Cambodians have attributed meaning for the forecasting of harvest, rains and floods which influence farm production and livelihoods influenced by floods and rains.

A similar ritual ploughing ceremony is held annually in Thailand (Old Siam) just before the general commencement of the ploughing season on a Crown paddy field, reserved for that purpose. In this popular rite the Minister of Agriculture, dressed as a god or temporary king, customarily guides the ceremonial plough, drawn by a pair of highly decorated oxen. Clad in ancient Siamese costume, a number of old ladies follow him, scattering from their baskets the consecrated seed rice. After three circuits of the field, the sacred bulls are halt and led unyoked back to their shed. The feast of the royal oxen commences with presenting them with seven different kinds of food and drinks in bowls, silver trays and small baskets made of banana leaves, holding rice seeds, mung bean (vigna radiata), maize (corn), hay, sesame seeds, water and rice liquor (sago, bananas, sugarcane, melons, and so on) prepared by the chief Brahmin.


Bull's Choice Determines Feast or Famine

On the day of the ploughing ceremony, the farmer finds out about the kind of weather he is going to have, and about the richest crop yielding the grain. The bulls' choice of cereals signified a good harvest, its drinking water signified abundant rain, and its eating herbs or drinking alcohol signified trouble in store. The crowd waiting nervously will assure bountiful yield of cereals and fruits if any one of the grains (rice seeds or maize), preferably rice, is eaten. A choice of water or hays predicts heavy rains and floods.

The modern version of the ceremony reflects the degeneration of the pure Vedic ritual: A choice of rice or corn would mean abundance of grains and plentiful fish; beans or sesame meant plentiful fish and meat, water or grass indicated plentiful rain, food, meat and agricultural crops; and alcohol foretold a more efficient transportation system, good trade relations with other countries, and prosperous economy. If they eat herbs, cattle diseases are to be feared. If they drink water, rain will be abundant and peace will reign; but if they drink alcohol, trouble will break out in the kingdom. Some considered wine altogether inauspicious. The oxen not drinking alcohol would signify war or turmoil in the royal kingdom.

When the oxen have eaten almost all the rice, beans and maize, prognostications that the Cambodian soothsayers declare for the year ahead are hopefully an auspicious choice assuring bountiful yield of rice, maize and bean.


Pha nun(g): Prophecy for the Cultivation

In the Ploughing Ceremony, the newly appointed Ploughing Lord along with chosen ladies arrives at Sanam Luang in a royal car from the Grand Palace. The procession of high-ranking officials proceeds to a Brahman pavilion where the Ploughing Lord lights candles and joss-sticks to pay homage to images of the Deities, and makes supplication. All the rites that follow are of great importance, as they foretell the conditions of the elements to be expected in the coming year.

On his arrival at the Pramane Ground, the Ploughing Lord performs a colorful ceremony when he is offered three pieces of the Siamese lower garment, Pha nun(g) (panungs) placed on the table and covered by other cloth. Folded up neatly and looking exactly alike, of three varied lengths namely long, medium and short (four, five and six kheub), they are worn in three different ways. The Lord of the Harvest Ceremony blindly casts lots and by picks up one. The great importance attached to this random choice of three pieces of cloth of varying lengths served as a determinant factor in the prediction of the amount of rain during the coming year. The longest cloth indicates little rain fall and poor harvest, while the shortest indicates good rainfall and a bountiful harvest.

"It was the dry season. The paddy fields were parched, and intersected with canals, well filled with water. The peasants, their brassy torsos naked to the waist, and their lower parts wrapped in the ankle-length skirts named panung, were ploughing the paddy fields with wooden ploughs drawn by buffaloes." Panung is the loin cloth the Thais wore traditionally around the hips. This national costume is a piece of cloth about I yd. wide and 3 yd. long. The middle of it, passed round the body, covers from the waist to the knees, and is hitched in front so that the two ends hang down in equal length before; these being twisted together are passed back between the legs, drawn up and tucked into the waist at the middle of the back. Though it is common to both sexes, the women supplement panung with a scarf worn round the body under the arms.

The crowds in the past, perceived in the length of the Lord of the ploughing ceremony's loin cloth an omen of the coming rains. Hence the choice of Pha Nung would be indicative of the amount of rain to be expected during the year. Based on the choice, the foresay of the soothsayers are as follows. A long loin cloth with the low hem (hem of pha-nung) nearly touching the ground, without any concern of it getting wet, is a sign of a drought. A short pha nung, worn above the knee, assures a good supply of rain, perhaps even too much for the crops. A medium-length cloth that shows an average rainfall is the most favorable omen of the three.

The selection of the shortest one, a piece of cloth measuring four palm (keub) spans, ensured a wet season with abundant water. Farming on high land would bear good yields, while farming on low land might face some damage. There would be a good harvest in high-lying land (upland areas), but a somewhat bad harvest in low-lying (lowland) areas might suffer some damage. The men who worked in the wet rice-fields would have to pull the panoong high above the knee.

If the choice falls on a medium-sized piece of cloth measuring five palms, the prophecy was that rain would be average with a balanced supply of water, water supply would be just about right, rice plantations would yield good output and food produce would also be abundant. Rice and all other grains would sprout and grow well, fruits and animal meat would be bountiful.

If the piece of cloth selected was the longest one measuring six palms, poor rain fall and water scarcity was predicted. Farming on low land would bear good yields, but farming on high land would not bring good results. Men could let the panoong drop to the ankle. It meant that the rainfall would be very little. There would be a good harvest in low-lying land but paddy in the upland areas might suffer some damage. In yet another account, the following prognostication is given: Should he choose the longest, the rainfall would be abundant; should he choose the shortest, there would be too little; while his choice was the one of medium length, it denoted that the rainfall would be average.


How Far are these Predictions Valid?

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony has been held for more than 700 years, and its duration indicates its inherent value as a prognostication method. This elaborate Brahman ritual and ceremonial provides predictions concerning the forthcoming rice harvest and allay the fears of the farmers on several questions. Will the forthcoming rice harvest be a bountiful one with enough rain? Will the coming season save the crop from drought, floods, or pests?

Usually held during the sixth lunar month (May) at the Phramane Ground, the ploughing ceremony is one of the most colorful annual events in Thailand, at which the King or a royal representative will be the first to plant. It heralds the beginning of the official commencement of the annual rice planting cycle, outside the Royal Palace. As the regular rice-growing season approaches, His Majesty the King presides over the ceremony with much pomp and splendor to produce bountiful crops and boost farmers' morale.



People in the past really believed both in the ceremony, as well as in what it was supposed to tell them. They were faithful in the acts that have been performed. Even today, we find many thousands of them. But, with the advent of education, it is feared that the belief in these quaint and picturesque ceremonies will die out.

Whatever the pair of bulls choose to eat or drink, it is thought that the bulls' choices should be plentiful during the following year. While some appreciate these forecasts, some people interpret the omen in the opposite sense.

Scientific methods to forecast the weather and to determine harvests are several in modern times. But they are uncertain. The Royal Ploughing ceremony (Pithi Chrat Preah Neangkol), ceremoniously celebrated nationwide in Cambodia since ancient times, relies on traditional rituals that often, warned them of calamities, assured good harvest and so forth. Rooted in Brahman belief, this annual event is held to ensure a good harvest, and marks the beginning of the rainy season. This ritual, a part of Cambodia's cultural history, is but one of several methods to forecast and perhaps reduce the uncertainty of the future.

As the ceremony predicts how much rain will fall and how well the crops will grow, every farmer will learn much on this day about the prospects of the coming season. The Thai farmers, gave great importance to these predictions and wait anxiously, for that day to dawn. Thronged in thousands from the provinces to Bangkok for the event in the old days, they converged to the Grand Palace on these days. The festival gave farmers the signal that it was an auspicious date to start ploughing for the new rice crop.

"The seed goes to the soil, the soil never comes to the seed" is an ancient Amhara (Ethiopia) proverb. In both farming and marriage, a man's plowing of a parcel of land, especially virgin land, gives him certain usufructuary rights over that territory.

The deep connection that the farmers had from earth to farming surfaces in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, wherein they believed through astrology that the Ox had an influence on the fate of their agricultural harvest. Closely bound with earth and agriculture, farmers anxiously await every year the predictions at the end of this ritualistic ceremony, which they observe with strong faith and belief.




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