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Rice and Culture


Section 3 of "Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines"

Section 3 sub-sections:

Section Overview: Rice and Culture

Rice in northern Luzon is foundational to human culture and is rich in spiritual and social symbolism. Rice is the most prestigious of crops and is considered the most civilized of all foods.

Cultivating rice requires careful coordination of labor throughout the entire community, and is managed through a complex sequence of ceremonial practices with careful attention to lunar cycles. The annual ritual calendar orders the proper sequence of offerings, prayers and ritual events. In this integrated living landscape, human beings “make rice,” and rice “makes people.”


The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras have been declared National Treasures as well as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Steep hillsides, situated at 700 - 1,500 meters above sea level, are sculpted into human-constructed terraces to promote both the necessary pooling of water in each terrace as well as life-sustaining water flow into lower terraces. Individual families have rights to specific terrace sections, while the entire community maintains a complex system of dams, channels, and bamboo pipes. Pest control is managed without artificial chemicals, through natural herbs accompanied by religious rituals. Carefully maintained private forests (muyong) surround the terraces, providing necessary protection in this total ecosystem, promoting the flow of water and nutrients into this sophisticated agro-ecosystem.

Red Rice of the Cordillera

Unlike oats and wheat, rice plants can grow in standing water or in very wet soil. Rice plants develop clusters of small wind-pollinated flowers at the top of the plant called “panicles.” Once they are pollinated, the flowers develop rice grains.

The mountain rice of northern Luzon is colloquially known as “red rice,” although colors can range from a deep brownish-red to violet and purple. These hardy strains can germinate under freezing conditions at high altitudes, growing chest-high before harvesting; their “non-shattering” panicles have been bred to produce a higher grain yield. This colored glutinous rice  is of high nutritional quality and produces a nut-like aroma when cooking.  For community members, this is “the smell of home.”

Rice varieties include, mina-angan from Banaue, hungduan and diket from Ifugao, ulikan (also unoy, and ekot) red rice varieties from Kalinga, the “Mountain Violet” of Mountain Province, and tinawon, known as the “fancy rice” or “first rice” grown only once per year.  Rice is also used to create rice wines, rice cakes, and a kind of chewing gum.

Backpacks and Bags

Many steep mountain paths in the Cordillera can only be traversed on foot, with loads carried on the head or back. Woven backpacks allow people to keep their hands free for other tasks, as they ascend and descend this demanding terrain.

The strongest rattan is used for these densely woven baskets that can repel rain. Lids are secured by a loop running over the straps, held in place by the weight of the pack against the body, and straps are densely braided to provide extra padding.

Two of the backpacks here (right and left sides) are “envelope” bags, takba. The inverted V-shaped opening is kept closest towards the back when being carried, to keep contents secure and dry. The large kupit shoulder bag in the center is unusual in its size, and finely plaited design, and was surely a treasured possession to carry personal items and food.

1.  Sangi (small backpack), Bontoc.  MCE #2012.01.05

A diminutive version of the larger sang backpack, this basket would have been used to carry smaller personal items, tobacco and perhaps a pipe.

2.  Takba (“envelope” backpack), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.07

The ingenious design of this backpack, with the “envelope” opening worn closest to the back, insures that water will not enter the interior. Often used to carry clothing and possessions on journeys, these backpacks are prized personal possessions.

3.  Sangi (large backpack), Bontoc.  MCE #2012.01.01

This large and sturdy backpack, plaited with rattan, would have been used on an everyday basis to bring food and supplies out to the rice terraces.  It would be used as to carry clothing and person effects on longer journeys.

4.  Kupit (large traveling basket), Bontoc. MCE# 2012.01.19

An unusually large traveling basket this elegantly plaited kupit container has a tight fitting lid, insuring that its contents (often food and personal effects) will remain safely inside.

5.  Takba (“envelope” backpack), Ifugao.  MCE #2012.01.06

The shoulder straps on this “envelope-style” takba backpack are notable for being finely plaited in a double layer to provide extra padding

6.  Upig (flat shoulder basket), Ifugao.  MCE# 2012.01.18
A slim, finely plaited shoulder pouch that hugs the body, this pouch held small personal items, perhaps including betel nut with the necessary accessories.

7.  Takba (traveling basket, backpack), Ifugao.  MCE #2012.01.10

Perhaps this rectangular, finely plaited rattan personal backpack would have been carried on special occasions, to celebratory events and and ritual events.



RIGHT WINDOW:  Rice and the Family

Rice helps build family relationships and establishes a sense of home.  The square hū’up (cooked rice container) conveys a valued engagement gift from the groom to the bride’s family.  In turn, the round mainat (uncooked rice storage basket) with its sunburst-carved wooden lid is stored on a shelf above the cooking fire and helps mark the symbolic heart of the household.

Hū’up (cooked rice container), Ifugao.  MCE #2012.01.88  (left)

This square plaited bamboo and rattan basket with a tight fitting lid is designed to hold cooked rice for communal consumption. Used in marriage exchanges, the groom fills it with cooked rice, chicken, betel leaves, and areca nuts (and, more recently, cash) presenting it to the bride’s family at the engagement ceremony. After marriage, the basket becomes the property of the newly married couple. Note the marks carved into the bamboo rim on one side—presumably the owner’s identification.

Mainat (rice storage), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.41 (right)

This beautiful example of a round mainat rice storage basket, kept in the home near the cooking fire, has a unusual sunburst-patterned carved wooden insert on the lid, marking this as a treasured object.

CENTER WINDOW:  Guardians of Rice

Among the Ifugao, spoons used to eat rice have rich symbolic associations. Hardwood spoons often display human figurines, associated with the bulul, sacred beings who oversee rice production and who serve as guardians of rice granaries. In the two central spoons a female bulul, evoking the power of fertility, is carved into the handle. These spoons evidently pre-date the tourist or curio trade and were produced for use within the community.

LEFT WINDOW:  Ceremonial basket

Basket, unknown function—possibly ritual or shaman’s basket, Ifugao (?).  MCE #2012.01.45

This unusual rattan and bamboo basket has four carved spokes that extend beyond the rattan rim. Each spoke has repetitive notches at the top and bottom, with triangular cuts down the middle. The  visual prominence of the spokes may call attention to the basket’s  contents during the presentation of offerings.

FREE-STANDING CASE:  Winnowing and Storing Rice

These baskets are used for basic rice preparation processes, winnowing and storage of uncooked and cooked rice. Low shallow baskets (round or square) are used to toss pounded rice grains into the air, blowing chaff from heavier grains. (Note the wear patterns on the square winnowing basket.) The tall lidded baskets in the center are used to store uncooked rice, while the remaining tray is used to serve cooked rice.

1.  Liga-u (square winnowing tray), Ifugao.   MCE #2012.01.80

This winnowing basket shows clear worn areas in the central depression, where over time rice grains wore away the straight edges of the bamboo strips, giving them a gently curved shape.

2.  Ulbung (rice storage basket), Ifugao.  MCE #2012.01.38

This rice storage basket, modeled on the shape of a Chinese ceramic jar, is used for storing hulled rice. Only big enough to hold a several days worth of rice, new rice will be hulled on a weekly basis.

3.  Ulbung (rice storage basket), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.39

This rattan basket becomes narrower at the at the top. Framed by a bamboo rim, with a loosely woven lid and handle, this basket would be used to transport and store rice.

4Hū’up (cooked rice container), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.864. 

This plaited bamboo and rattan basket is designed to hold cooked rice for communal consumption.

5.  Ligo-o (round winnowing tray), Bontoc. (Private Collection) 

Look carefully at this winnowing tray’s spliced rattan rim, bound together by an intricately braided rattan join. Over time, this treasured basket absorbed the smoke of cooking fires, turning it a deep ebony color, except in the very center that was constantly worn by rice grains in the winnowing process.

Next section:  Small Prey, Big Baskets

Previous Section: To Bind Together

Exhibition Sections

    To Bind Together
    Rice and Culture
    Small Prey, Big Baskets
    Arts of the Skin: Tattooing
    The Social Skin: Weaving


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