Cultivation of rice

The Cultivation of Rice

The natives of Siam [Thailand] depend absolutely on rice for their very existence. It is the only necessary article of food. Should the supply fail, there is nothing to take its place. All other forms of food are, comparatively speaking, luxuries. Abundance of rice means life; scarcity of rice brings famine and death. The failure of the crops in Siam would produce a famine as far-reaching and as disastrous in its results as those of India, which have at different times evoked to such a large degree, the practical sympathies of the English people. And yet, despite the terrible nature of the disaster which would attend any sensible diminution in the supply of this all-necessary and all-sufficient article of food, the methods of cultivation are primitive to the last degree, and are carried on with agricultural implements of the rudest possible character.

THE SWINGING FESTIVAL.
THE SWINGING FESTIVAL.

When a farmer increases the area of the land under cultivation, by buying or stealing a new piece of wooded ground or jungle for the purpose of cultivating rice, he commences his farming operations by burning down the whole of the timber in order to save himself the trouble of cutting it. In this way, with the maximum of waste and the minimum of labour, the ground is cleared.

COLLECTING RIPE GRAIN.
COLLECTING RIPE GRAIN.

It is next ploughed with an instrument the total cost of which is about three shillings. Roughly speaking, the plough is merely a crooked stick with one handle. If a piece of wood or cane be bent into two portions, one longer than the other, and if the shorter portion of the cane be fastened into a heavy block of wood pointed at one end, while the longer arm is held in the hand, a rough model of aSiamese plough will be obtained. Occasionally, but by no means always, a triangular piece of iron is fitted on to the wooden foot. This, however, is never permanently fastened to the block. The plough cuts a shallow furrow about two inches deep and five or six inches wide. It is usually drawn by buffaloes, which are the chief beasts of burden in this country. The "táme" buffalo, as it is called, seems very docile with its native owners, and little children are often seen driving them about, running behind them, belabouring them with sticks, or sitting on their broad hard backs, guiding them in the desired direction by whacking them over the nose. They have, however, a strong dislike to Europeans, and will attack a white man without any provocation whatever. The natives give as the reason for his dislike, that the "smell" of the white man is offensive to the beasts. They are yoked to the plough in a manner as simple as it is inexpensive. A slightly curved wooden yoke is laid across their powerful necks. On either side of the neck a straight piece of wood passes through a hole in the yoke, hangs downwards, and so keeps the heads of the animals in the right position. From the yoke to the shorter portion of the plough, there passes a long heavy wooden beam. This is fastened into a socket in the plough, just below the handle. It is tied to the yoke with a thong of hide, or a long strip of rattan cane, and ends in a graceful curve a foot or two above the heads of the animals. The free end of the beam is often decorated with flowers, feathers, or brightly coloured ribbons. Pieces of rope passed through holes in the nostrils are the native substitute for the European bridle, harness, and reins. Thus the whole weight of the plough, the beam, and the yoke rests upon the necks of the animals. With one hand on the plough, and the other loosely grasping the reins, the field labourer toils through the broiling heat of the day, guiding the great clumsy-looking animals by an occasional tug at the reins, or urging them to greater speed with long low groan-like exclamations.

The harrow is square in shape, is made of bamboo, and bears a number of straight wooden teeth. It is drawn by buffaloes, yoked and harnessed as in the case of the plough.

As rice only grows where there is an excess of moisture, an abundant supply of water must be produced either by natural or artificial means. There is scarcely any artificial irrigation in Siam, for the peasants depend upon the chance rise of the rivers to flood the fields after the heavy rains are over. These floods not only inundate the low-lying plains, and so save the peasant the trouble of watering his fields himself, but when they subside they leave behind a deposit of mud so rich and fertile that manuring is rendered unnecessary. And as these floods are of annual occurrence, any system of rotation of crops has never been considered. Occasionally some farmer deems it advisable to adopt some artificial method of inundating his fields, and various methods of doing this are in use. In none of them, however, are pumps ever used, though considering the number of canals that thread the country from end to end, one would think that the easiest and most natural way of getting the water from the canal into the fields would be by means of pumps connected to a series of troughs that would carry the water to any point where it was required. Instead of a pump, various arrangements of baskets and buckets are employed. The baskets, which are made of cane and pitched inside and out to prevent leakage, will hold about seven or eight gallons. They are so suspended by a system of ropes, that a couple of children can easily scoop up water from the canal and pour it on to the adjacent rice-patch. When the fields in the immediate neighbourhood of the water-supply have been deluged, the water is passed over into the fields further away by means of a large wooden scoop, which takes up a few gallons at a time. This process is repeated for each successive field, and eventually the whole of the farm receives the requisite amount of water.

When buckets are used, the system of irrigation is called "watering with the foot." The buckets are small, and are linked together about twelve inches apart. They revolve on a rude wooden windlass, which is worked by two men, who place their feet on treadles fastened to the shaft round which the buckets revolve, at the same time grasping a horizontal bar for support. They run from the canal or pool, up an inclined trough, fall over the shaft, and tilt their contents into the field, pass back again under the shaft, and so return to the canal again.

A SIAMESE RICE-PLOUGH.
A SIAMESE RICE-PLOUGH.

Of the forty different kinds of rice known to agriculturists, about six varieties are grown in Siam. The natives divide these roughly into two classes, which they name respectively "Garden rice," and "Field rice." The latter kind is inferior in quality, and is scattered broadcast in the fields, where it is left to grow without any further care or attention being bestowed upon its cultivation. "Garden rice," on the other hand, is carefully sown and tended. The seeds are first sown as thickly as they can grow, in well-watered patches. They soon sprout, and the beautiful green blades grow rapidly in the hot sunshine. When they are a few inches high, they are pulled up by the roots, and bound into small bundles. These bundles are taken to the fields by men, women, and children, to be there transplanted in long straight rows. The fields have by this time been covered with water, and trampled into a thick black mud under the hoofs of the buffaloes. Everyone, to use a native expression, now "dives into the field." They push the roots of the young shoots deep down into the soft mud, with their nimble hands and feet, with amazing rapidity. A good worker will not take more than three days to plant an acre. Planting lasts from about June to October, and during that time the farm hands receive in wages from eight to twelve shillings a month.

The way in which the rice is reaped when the time for harvest has arrived, depends largely on the state of the fields. If the waters have subsided, it is reaped with the sickle, and bound into sheaves, which are first allowed to dry in the sun, and are then removed by buffalo carts or bullock waggons. But if the fields are still under water, this method is obviously impossible, and besides, there isalways a sufficiently large number of leeches, land-crabs and water-snakes moving about in the slimy mud to make the labourer cautious as to where he treads. In this case the people go to the fields in their long narrow canoes. They cut off the ripe heads with a sickle, and drop them into small baskets placed in the bottom of the boat. Great carelessness is often shown by the laughing, gossiping reapers, who drop handful after handful of ripe grain into the water.

PLANTING OUT YOUNG RICE—FOOT OF KORAT HILLS.
PLANTING OUT YOUNG RICE—FOOT OF KORAT HILLS.

When the threshing commences, the services of the ever useful buffalo are once more demanded. A threshing floor is first prepared. A piece of ground is cleared, and then covered with a plaster made of soil, cow-dung, and water. After a few days this pasty mixture sets into a hard, firm coating. A tall, straight bamboo is erected in the centre of the floor, and a few good heads of rice are fastened at the top for the birds to eat. A roughly carved figure of a man, jokingly christened "the grandfather," is added by way of decoration. Two buffaloes are used, which are yoked side by side. The inner one is loosely fastened on the inside to the central pole, and on the outside to his fellow-worker, while both are guided by a half-naked man or boy, who runs round and round behind the animals, holding on to the tail of the outer one. The threshing takes place on moonlight nights, and rarely does the moon shine on a more interesting or curious scene. The buffaloes pace on in their monotonous round, regardless of their screaming driver or of his vigorous jerking of their hindmost appendages. In the heaps of straw tumble all the merry, laughing urchins of the neighbourhood. The air resounds with the sounds of music, fiddles and tom-toms, dulcimers and drums. Joke and song pass from mouth to mouth. Here glows the red end of a cigarette; there a shiny brown back glistens in the moonlight. The large meek eyes of the animals stare through the gloom. Cocoa-nut oil lanterns vie with the ruddy flames of the fitful bonfires in lending more light to the scene, but rarely do more than tinge their own dark smoke a tawny hue. Fire-flies light up the deep shadows under the long drooping leaves of the palms, or mirror their own pale light in the bits of shiny straw that flutter in the evening breeze. Through all these varied shades of semi-darkness come laughter and song, the cry of the driver, the creaking of the pole, the firm, steady footfall of the patient beasts, the chirping of crickets, the croaking of frogs, and a million other sounds that tell of life and motion in the late hours of a tropical night.

PLOUGHING A RICE-FIELD.
PLOUGHING A RICE-FIELD.

The rice is winnowed by the wind as it is poured from one wide shallow basket to another, and as the chaff flies about in the sunlight its gilded hues mingle with the vivid green of the surrounding landscape, to form behind the well-proportioned forms of the girls and women, a background which is unique in its brilliant combinations of light and colour. The grain is stored in large baskets made of cane and plastered outside with mud. These stand on a raised platform, and are covered by a roof made of leaves. The eye of the farmer grows bright as he regards his well-filled rice-bins, for by their number and contents does he measure his wealth. The farmers live together in small villages for mutual protection; but in spite of all their precautions, those who inhabit the more remote portions of the country suffer severely from the depredations of bands of dacoits. During the night, too, the herds of cattle often break out and wander over the fields, doing irreparable damage as they wander from one plantation to another, the absence of all hedges or fences rendering their wanderings merely a matter of choice to themselves.

The rice-mills of Bangkok are constructed after European models, and contain modern machinery; but outside the capital, the primitive mill of earlier days still survives. This is simply a short, broad stump of a tree with a conical hollow inside, the apex of the cone being near the ground. A long lever carries at one end a heavy wooden hammer-head, which falls into the hollow of the stem. It is raised by placing the foot on the other end of the lever, and then jumping up so as to press upon the lever with the whole weight of the body. The women are generally employed in this work, and in any small village you can hear the steady thump, thump of the hammers from morning to night, and see the girls and young women jumping on and off the short end of the lever, with an almost painful regularity and precision.

A great deal of the rice grown in some of the northern provinces is sent to Luang Prabang, the local supply there being insufficient for the wants of the inhabitants. It is sent down the River Mekong on huge rice-rafts made of bamboo. It takes a fairly large crew to manage one of these rafts, and as several members of the party are sure to have a wife or child with them, the whole structure somewhat resembles a floating village. The most usual measurements of these rafts are one hundred and twenty feet long and about thirty feet beam. They are very difficult to manage, but so skilful are the native boatmen, that by means of a number of oars rigged fore and aft, they generally succeed in taking their cumbersome craft through the numerous rapids and eddies, with only occasional or trifling loss of their valuable cargo.

Two curious ceremonies take place each year in connection with the agricultural operations. One is held in connection with the opening of the field season, while the other is an Oriental form of "harvest-thanksgiving." The first ceremony is known as "Raakna" and is generally held about the middle of May. Until the "Ploughing Festival" is over, no one is supposed to plough or sow. On a certain day foretold by the Brahmin astrologers of the court, the Minister for Agriculture, who is always a prince, or a nobleman of high rank, goes in procession to a piece of ground some distance from the city walls. He is for the time being the King's proxy, and on that day many shopkeepers, and holders of stalls in the markets, pay their taxes to him as the representative of their sovereign. Formerly his followers were in the habit of seizing the goods of any shopkeeper which were exposed for sale along the route of the procession, but this arbitrary manner of collecting dues has, like many other harmful customs, completely disappeared during the reign of the present enlightened monarch.

On reaching the scene of the festival ceremonies, the Minister finds there a new plough with a pair of exceptionally fine buffaloes yoked to it. Both plough and buffaloes are gaily decorated with flowers and leaves. The Minister takes the plough, and for about an hour he guides it over the field, closely watched by the assembled spectators. They do not, however, concentrate their attention upon his skill as a ploughman, but on the length of the piece of silk which forms his lower garment. If, in the course of his amateur agricultural operations, the Minister should pull this garment above his knee, it is believed that excessive and therefore disastrous rains will occur during the wet season. On the other hand, should he allow it to fall to the ankle a great scarcity of rain is anticipated. A prosperous season is foretold when the folds of the garment reach midway between knee and ankle.

When a certain portion of the field has been ploughed, several old women in the King's service, strew grain of different kinds over the recently ploughed land. The animals are unyoked and led up to the scattered grain and allowed to feed upon it. Once more the crowd are on the alert, as they seek for yet other omens. That kind of grain of which the buffaloes most freely partake, will, it is expected, be scarce at the next harvest; the kind they disdain will be reaped in abundance. The ceremony over, the minister returns in procession, accompanied by soldiers and military bands; while the brightly dressed, chattering crowds return to their homes to prepare for the ploughing and the sowing, hoping for abundant rain and sunshine, and looking for a fruitful harvest, that thereby they may escape the terrible and remorseless hand of famine.

The harvest-festival ceremonies are of Brahminical origin and are known to the people under the name of "Lo Ching Cha". The first word "Lo" means "to pull"—"ching cha" is "a swing". The place where the "Swinging Festival" is held is inside the city walls. It is a small green lawn situated opposite to a very large temple, and on the edge of a very busy thoroughfare. For three hundred and sixty three days in each year, there is nothing, except the huge pillars of the swing, to draw one's attention to the spot. A few boys playing football or flying kites, a few old women squatting down for a little gossip, or a few Malay grooms with their masters' ponies are the usual everyday occupants of the spot. On the other two days of the year, when the harvest festival is held, every inch of available space is occupied. The native children, unable to see over the heads of the men and women when they are upon the ground, quickly mount the neighbouring walls, and perch themselves in the branches of the trees, or cling, like monkeys, to every lamp-post and telegraph pole within sight of the proceedings. The thoroughfares leading to the place are blocked with innumerable carriages and rickshaws. The crowd is an exceedingly good-tempered one, and brawling of any kind is very unusual. The distant sound of a military band heralds the approach of another of those processions so dear to the heart of the Siamese. The procession passes through the dense crowd without any trouble, for the people willingly fall back so as not to impede its progress. Strangely coloured banners bearing quaint devices, flutter above the heads of the crowd. A modern military band plays "Marching through Georgia," while an ancient band in tattered vermilion garments with yellow trimmings, bangs curious drums, and pierces the air with the penetrating shrieks of long brass trumpets. The tom-tom and the gong join in the general uproar. The crowd sways to and fro, striving to catch a glimpse of the barefooted soldiers in their brilliant uniforms, or of the numerous articles borne in the procession to indicate the nature and meaning of the festivities. Decorated buffaloes dragging decorated carts, bundles of rice, offerings of fruit and flowers, are all evidences of the thankfulness of the people for the safe ingathering of their harvests.

BUFFALOES RETURNING FROM THE RICE-FIELDS.
BUFFALOES RETURNING FROM THE RICE-FIELDS.

In the centre of the procession, carried in a chair of state on the shoulders of a number of strong well-built men, and shielded from the sun by a huge state umbrella, sits the Master of the Ceremonies resplendent in cloth of gold and jewelled ornaments. At one time the Minister for Agriculture officiated on these occasions, but now a different nobleman is selected each year, whose business it is to organise and superintend all the arrangements for the festival. All eyes turn towards the seated figure in his tall conical hat and jewelled robes. He is carried to a small brick platform, which is draped with the national flag and covered with flowers. He takes his seat, with two Brahmin priests on his right hand and two on his left. He places his right foot on his left knee, the left foot resting upon the ground. After having once seated himself in this position he is not allowed to remove his foot off his knee until the whole ceremony is finished. As this lasts about two hours, the presiding nobleman must be fairly uncomfortable by the time it is over. The penalty for moving the foot was, formerly, the confiscation of the culprit's property and the loss of his rank, in addition to any immediate ill-usage the attendant priests might think fit to bestow upon him; but this is now all done away with, and the only deterrent influence brought to bear upon the temporary sufferer is the opinion of the people, who would feel deeply hurt and disappointed should any detail of their well-beloved ceremony be omitted.

The attention of the crowd is next directed to the performance of the swinging games. The swing itself is like any ordinary child's swing except for its enormous size. The side pillars are about ninety feet high, and the seat of the swing is about half-way between the ornamented cross-bar and the ground. A few feet in front of the seat, on the side towards the Palace, a long bamboo-stem is fixed in the ground, and from the top is suspended a small bag of silver coins. The men who take part in the games are usually Brahmins. They are dressed in white, and wear conical hats. They swing towards the bag of money and endeavour to catch it with their teeth. There are generally three competitors; the prizes for the first being worth about fifteen shillings, while for the second and third they are worth about ten and five shillings respectively. When the winners have received their rewards they pass amongst the crowd, sprinkling the spectators with consecrated water contained in bullocks' horns. Soon afterwards the Minister returns to his home, the crowd disperses, and thus this very ancient ceremony is brought to a close.