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Spiritual Dimensions of Rice Culture in Southeast Asia

Programme Category: Sacred Universe
Type: Performance and Seminar
Date: 11-14 May 2015
Venue: Srinakharinwirot University


While traditional rituals may still be practiced in some parts of Southeast Asia, rice agriculture has become a veritable industry across the region, thus progressively losing its cultural and spiritual character and value. With Vietnam and Thailand being among the leading global exporters of rice, its cultivation is becoming increasingly dictated by mass production methods. Therefore it is important to bring to light the spiritual and cultural dimensions of rice, especially among the young and urban populations, in order to raise awareness of the rich culture that surrounds their staple food so that it may be viewed as more than mere food for consumption. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly important to document these practices and beliefs so that they may not be lost over time.

In addition, SEAMEO SPAFA recognizes the need to support the research, conservation and practices of shared heritage in the Southeast Asian region. The lack of cross-cultural understanding often results in cultural insensitivity and could lead to social conflicts. It is crucial, therefore, to promote intercultural understanding and dialogues among Southeast Asians to achieve unity, peace, and sustainable social development. Countries in Southeast Asia are working to enhance mutual understanding and respect through political, social, and, most importantly, educational means. With the ASEAN community integration under way, the Centre recognizes its role as a catalyst in promoting shared heritage and culture, and forming a stronger cultural bond within the community. Recently, SEAMEO SPAFA organized similar events on the Mak Yong spiritual dance heritage and on Panji-Inao traditions in Southeast Asia. This seminar and series of performances on the shared heritage of rice culture is thus a continuation of SEAMEO SPAFA’s endeavours to help to build cultural bridges between the countries of Southeast Asia, which is in keeping with the objectives of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

Background Information

Rice is part of everyday life in Southeast Asia. With rice being the region’s staple diet, its cultivation has even come to define the cyclic notion of time, and has developed into an entire world of ritualistic practices and traditions. Throughout the region, from the moment this special grain is planted to the time it is harvested and consumed, various traditional practices dedicated to rice – chants, prayers, songs, dances – ensure the harmonious relationship with nature and the spiritual world for prosperous planting and harvesting seasons year after year. This special grain that provides the staple diet for half of the world’s population has also been the inspiration behind various art forms, from sculpting and painting deities to erecting intricately decorated rice barns. Rice is also at the root of the creation of manmade landscapes, such as the carved rice terraces of Indonesia and the Philippine Cordilleras, the latter having been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Moreover, rice is part of the folklore of many cultures, incorporated into the region’s rich literary and oral traditions, and is sometimes seen as a deity or even a person, having both a name and a soul. Rice thus forms a living cultural landscape that is intertwined with spiritual beliefs, practices and rituals.

While rituals and beliefs surrounding rice cultivation and consumption may vary across Southeast Asia, the region shares the concept of honouring this special grain’s relationship with the spiritual world, which is often communicated and expressed through the arts, both tangible and intangible. Thus, rice culture and its strong connection to the spiritual world can be considered as part of a shared identity and heritage throughout Southeast Asia.

As the annual rice cycle begins again around May 2015, the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO SPAFA) will organize a three-day seminar in Bangkok, Thailand that will include academic presentations from experts in various fields in order to discuss the importance and role of rice in the life of the various cultures of Southeast Asia, as well as a series of performances related to the rituals, ceremonies and observances of the different rice-growing communities in the 10 SEAMEO member countries by talented artists and community groups from across the region.


  1. To impart knowledge on and understanding of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of rice, its history, cultural significance and related art forms.
  2. To raise awareness on traditional arts and practices surrounding rice culture.
  3. To advance cross-cultural understanding and mutual knowledge among Southeast Asians.
  4. To establish a network of sharing and cooperation among art historians, anthropologists and folklorists in Southeast Asia for future regional collaboration.


Seminar and Performances


  1. This multi-disciplinary seminar will demonstrate the links between art and anthropology.
  2. Participants will benefit from knowledge on the shared heritage and identity of rice in Southeast Asia and will learn to appreciate the different rituals, beliefs and art forms related to rice that are practiced across the region.
  3. A network of experts on rice culture in Southeast Asia will be established to encourage further research and collaboration.


For full set of photos from the event, please visit SEAMEO SPAFA’s Facebook page and view Photo Albums from this event. Photos are categorised by Day and Seminar or Performances.

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