Descended from wild grasses, rice is a staple food in South Asia. Historians believe that it was first domesticated in the area covering the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas (north-eastern India), and stretching through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Remains of early cultivated rice have been found in the Yangtze valley dating to about 8500 BC. From this region, it spread in all directions and human selection created numerous varieties.

Different rices cross-breed easily and there are now thousands of varieties including wild rices. The earliest remains of cultivated rice in the sub-continent have been found in the north and west and date from around 2000 BC. Perennial wild rices still grow in Assam and Nepal. It seems to have appeared around 1400 BC in southern India after its domestication in the northern plains. It then spread to all the fertile alluvial plains watered by rivers. Rice is first mentioned in the Yajur Veda (c. 1500-800 BC) and then is frequently referred to in Sanskrit texts, which distinguished summer varieties from rainy season and winter varieties. Shali or winter varieties were most highly regarded. About 2000 years ago, rice was well-established as the main cereal of the sub-continent, with barley second and wheat a barely mentioned winter food.

Greek visitors noted the popularity of rice amongst Indians. The Greek emissary Megasthenes, visiting Pataliputra (modern Patna) in 315 BC, wrote that they ate it ceremonially, boiled, placed in a bowl and then various other dishes added to it. Hundreds of years later, the Portuguese in the 15th century observed cooked rice being eaten in much the same way. The 17th century traveller Francois Bernier described fields of rice in Kashmir and Bengal, irrigated by endless channels. The Muslim rulers of India created famous rice and meat dishes such as pilafs and biriyanis. The number of dishes made with rice was by this time legion.

Types of rice

Over the centuries, three main types of rice had developed in Asia, depending on the amylose content of the grain. They were called indica (high in amylose and cooking to fluffy grains to be eaten with the fingers), japonica (low in amylase and cooking to sticky masses suitable for eating as clumps with chopsticks), and javanica (intermediate amylose content and stickiness). Rice is further divided into long, medium and short-grained varieties, and in the sub-continent different regions grow and consume different varieties. Basmati rice is probably the best-known variety of rice from the sub-continent. Basmati denotes 'queen of fragrance' and this fragrant rice is chiefly grown and exported by Pakistan and India. The dominant food crop in Bangladesh is rice which accounts for at least 70% of the land under agriculture. The best varieties are rice grown in shallow, slowly moving water and so irrigation is crucial to the success of rice-growing in the sub-continent. Slash and burn methods of creating rice fields in some parts of India have placed tremendous pressures on the environment.

Rice finds applications in the arts and crafts of India. Rice paste is employed in the resist-dyeing techniques of creating patterns on cloth. In traditional homes, decorative features frequently consist of wall paintings and floor patterns. It is usually women who paint renditions of folklore and mythology on domestic spaces, passed on from mother to daughter. In many parts of India, as part of daily ritual, ephemeral, abstract designs created by women are traced in rice powder or paste on domestic thresholds and floors. These are known by various names, alpana in Bengal, mandana in Rajasthan and kolam in South India, for instance. The designs are meant to bring good luck to the home.