Rice holds a special place in the heart of Indonesia. It is a staple in the Indonesian diet, making up half the calories in the average diet and contributes significantly to the livelihoods of millions of Indonesians. Indonesia is the third largest producer of rice in the world. From ancient agricultural practices to modern-day culinary traditions, the significance of rice in Indonesia is profound and deeply ingrained in its cultural fabric. 

Sake Santema from Indies Gallery delves into the history of rice in Indonesia, showcasing a few treasures from his collection.

Rice cultivation 

The cultivation of rice in Indonesia dates back at least 3,500 years, with evidence that people farmed domesticated rice in the interior of Sulawesi Island. Initially, rice was cultivated in small, family-based plots using traditional methods, such as slash-and-burn agriculture, where land was cleared for cultivation.

During the Majapahit Empire (late 13th to early 16th century), rice cultivation reached new heights. The Majapahit rulers implemented advanced agricultural techniques, including the construction of terraced fields and the use of irrigation systems. While under Dutch rule, new varieties of rice and land tenure systems were initiated. Post-independence, the Indonesian government implemented various policies to boost rice production to ensure food security for its growing population. 

Culinary traditions 

Indonesia, with its vast archipelago, is home to diverse regional cuisines, each offering unique rice preparations influenced by local ingredients, traditions, and cultural nuances. Apart from the iconic Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice), here are some regional rice preparations from different parts of Indonesia: 

Rendang with Lemang (West Sumatra): Rendang, a slow-cooked, rich, and flavourful beef dish, is often served with lemang. Lemang is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, salt, and pandan leaves, cooked inside bamboo tubes. 

Nasi Liwet (Central Java): Nasi liwet is a Central Javanese dish where rice is cooked in coconut milk, shallots, garlic, and bay leaves. It is typically served with a variety of side dishes, including fried chicken, tempeh, and a spicy coconut-based sauce. 

Nasi Kuning (Balinese and Javanese): Nasi kuning, or yellow rice, is a celebratory dish found in both Bali and Java. It is typically served with various side dishes, and its vibrant yellow color symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. 

Lontong Sayur (Jakarta and West Java): Lontong sayur is a popular dish in Jakarta and West Java. It features rice cakes (lontong) served with a savoury coconut milk-based soup, often accompanied by vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and sometimes chicken or beef. 

Bubur Manado (North Sulawesi): Bubur Manado is a rice porridge dish from North Sulawesi. It is known for its rich and spicy flavour, often made with corn, vegetables, and various proteins like fish or meat. 

Cultural Significance 

Beyond its role as a dietary staple, rice holds immense cultural significance in Indonesia. Traditional rice ceremonies, such as Seren Taun (Java) and Sesaji Raja Sedana (Bali and Java), are held by the agricultural community to give thanks and seek blessings for their harvest. 

Seren Taun comes from the Sundanese word seren meaning “to give” and taun which means “year”. In the farming community, this means giving thanks for the harvest of this year, while seeking blessings for the coming year. In the ceremony, rice that has been harvested will be handed over to the traditional leader and stored in a barn (leuit). The traditional leader blesses the mother rice / rice seeds and later distributes them to the village leaders for the next planting season. 

Sesaji Raja Sedana is a traditional Javanese ritual that seeks Dewi Sri’s (goddess of rice, fertility and prosperity) blessings for a bountiful harvest and involves offerings of agricultural products, symbolic items, and traditional performances. Dewi Sri is also often invoked during weddings and other life cycle events. Her presence is believed to bring prosperity and fertility to the newlyweds and their future generations. 

While modernisation and changes in lifestyle have occurred in Indonesia, the reverence for Dewi Sri remains strong among those who maintain traditional beliefs and practices. Dewi Sri’s imagery is also prevalent in various forms of Indonesian art, including traditional dance, wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), and visual arts, reinforcing her cultural significance. 

Subak a UNESCO World Heritage 

Subak is a traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation system that is designed to ensure that water is shared sustainably for rice cultivation and other crops. The subak system is not only about the distribution of water but also involves a complex social, religious, and spiritual framework. 

Subak is often associated with water temples that play a crucial role in managing the irrigation schedule. The temple priests, known as Pemangku, have the responsibility of overseeing water distribution based on a complex calendar system. Subak is deeply rooted in the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, which emphasises the harmonious relationship between humans, nature, and the divine. This philosophy guides the sustainable and spiritual aspects of the subak system. 

The subak system promotes cooperative farming practices. Farmers work together to ensure the fair distribution of water, coordinating planting and harvesting schedules to optimise the use of water resources. Subak systems often result in the creation of stunning rice terraces (sawah), which are not only functional for water management but also contribute to the unique and picturesque landscapes found in Bali. 

The history and importance of rice in Indonesia weave a narrative of resilience, cultural richness, and economic significance. As the nation continues to navigate the challenges of the modern world, the cultivation and consumption of rice remain integral to Indonesia’s identity, reflecting the enduring connection between its people and the bountiful landscapes that have sustained them for centuries.

The works shown in this article are offered for purchase by Indies Gallery, dealer in authentic maps, prints, books and photographs, dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Indies Gallery also offers these decorative art works as reprints.

Visit www.indiesgallery.com or www.oldeastindies.com to find out more.

Sake Santema

Sake Santema

Based in Singapore, Sake Santema from Indies Gallery is dealing in antiques, with a focus on old maps, prints, books and photographs, dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Whether you're an experienced collector or a first-time buyer, Indies Gallery offers an extensive collection in all price ranges. Visit www.indiesgallery.com for more information.