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Ruminations on Rice

Srini and I went to an organic fair this Saturday, organised by the Safe Food alliance. There was a stall in the mela by the Sirgazhi traditional farmers co-operative on the bio diversity of rice.
The information available at the stall was extremely thought provoking.
For instance, did you know that 4, 00,000 varieties of rice existed in India during the Vedic period?
Even today nearly half this number is found in India, which is staggering.
Unfortunately, despite having so many varieties of rice, ( even if you ate a new variety a day, it would take you 500 years to exhaust the whole list), our consumption of rice in India is limited to 10 varieties on the outside.
How did we end up consuming such a small variety of rice?
When the Green revolution started in India, a small number of paddy varieties were selected for their capacity to give high yields in response to high doses of fertilizer. As a result, the genetic base of the rice we eat today has narrowed down considerably.
Also, industrial agriculture, promotes plantation style monoculture cropping, which we had written about here.  Monoculture cropping produces high yields in the short term, but severely degrades the quality of the soil and the resultant strains of rice over time. Genetic uniformity of the crop also makes it susceptible to pest or virus attacks wiping out several years of crops in difficult times.
Why is it important to increase our base of rice consumption and support indigenous varieties of rice?
1. Indigenous rice is naturally hardy and pest resistant reducing the dependence on pesticides

  • A case in point: In the 1970s, a virus called the Grassy Stunt virus decimated rice cultivation from Indonesia to India. The rice cultivation at that time in Asia, had been sparked off by the Green revolution, supported by the efforts of the International Rice research Institute. The IRRI bred and developed the paddy varieties used across Asia during the Green revolution to give high yields.These paddy varieties were then called ‘miracle rice’.
  • None of these miracle rices could withstand the attack of the virus. After a 4 year search, researchers found one indigenous variety of Oryza nivara, growing near Gonda, in Uttar Pradesh that could resist the virus’ attack.  Today rice hybrids have been bred that contain this wild Indian gene; these hybrids are grown across Asia. Bred rice is vulnerable to pests; indigenous rice is not.

2. Indigenous rice is not needy; different varieties have adapted themselves to different land conditions from alkaline soil to saline soils, and in drought prone areas and water logged areas.
3. Growing Indigenous rice adds to our food security as a nation. If we used only commercial High yield Hybrids, we are vulnerable to a single pest wiping out our entire rice production.

  • A case in point: The Irish potato famine was a period of mass starvation and immigration from 1842 – 1845. This was caused by a potato disease called the potato blight.
  • Potato blight is caused by Phytopthora infestans which probably arrived in Ireland from the Andes through guano carried in ships. Guano was in demand as a fertilizer in Europe.
  • Nearly 1 million people died as a result of the famine, wiping out 25% of Ireland’s population, changing the course of Ireland for ever.

4. As indigenous rice has already adapted itself to grow in different local conditions, rice can be grown in non-traditional rice areas, reducing the pressure on ‘rice bowl areas’.
5. Indigenous varieties of rice are naturally suited for organic farming, as they need fewer inputs in the form of fertilizers or support in the form of pesticides and herbicides.
6. They are valuable in the agriculture eco system, as they yield straw that is valuable to farmers as cattle feed as well as roofing material.
7. They are inexpensive to cultivate and promote self sufficiency in the farming community
8.There is no need to buy seeds or inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) from anyone.  The farmer saves seeds from every year’s crop and uses it in the next season. Seeds are also swapped between farmers, giving everyone access to a larger gene pool.
Interesting varieties of indigenous rice found in Tamilnadu and their health benefits
1. Thanga Samba (Golden Samba)

  • The golden colour of the matured grains, gives this variety its name. This rice is extremely fine and long, and it is believed that long term consumption of this rice keeps you young and healthy.

2.Neelan Samba

  • A variety of rice suitable to areas that experience water logging as it can be cultivated in the vicinity of lakes. It is resistant to pests like the brown yield hopper and ear head bug and is recommended for lactating mothers to increase their milk yield. Also, as its straw is very long, it is well suited to use as roofing material.

3. Mapillai Samba (The Bridegroom’s Samba)

  • Many indigenous varieties are rice are known to increase the energy of the eater. In folklore, a bridegroom once had to display his strength by lifting a heavy stone called the Mapillai Kallu (The Bridegroom’s Stone). Eating the Mapillai Samba rice gave him enough energy to lift the stone and presumably win the fair maiden.

4. Kurangu Samba (Monkey samba)

  • The ear heads of the grain are very long, with 267 grains per ear head. It is a versatile variety that grows both in dry areas and areas prone to water logging. It is highly resistant to pests and diseases.

5. Kalarpalai

  • The 2004 Tsunami caused a lot of damage to the agricultural lands of the Nagapattinam coast. The land became unfit for cultivation because of the inflow of sea water. The Kalarpalai rice came to the rescue of the farmers as it was tolerant to salinity and could be grown in saline soil, unlike most modern varieties.

6. Seeraga samba (Jeera samba)

  • This rice resembles the shape of the Jeera or cumin seed. The rice is extremely fine and aromatic, and though it has a lower yield compared to modern varieties, it is prized in Tamilnadu to make aromatic rice dishes like biryani. This rice fetches a high price because of its aromatic quality.

7. Kullakar Rice

  • This rice is suitable to make idly, dosas and porridge. Its growing duration is short, and can therefore be grown throughout the year in all 3 seasons. Kullakar is also highly resistant to pests and disease.

8. Samba Mosanam rice

  • This rice is good for preparing dosa and poha (aval), and idly. As it is suitable for growing near the vicinity of lakes, it has been used successfully by farmers whose land gets waterlogged in the monsoon. The stalks of Samba Mosanam remain unaffected despite having nearly 4 ½ feet of water stagnation in the land. But stalks of high yield varieties like Ponni rice, germinate in this water, resulting in crop loss.

9. Thooyamalee rice (Pure Jasmine rice)

  • As the rice is white in colour, and as the ear heads of this rice look like flowers in the flowering stage, this rice is called the ‘Pure Jasmine’ in Tamil. It is a fine rice that is highly resistant to pests and disease.

10. Kalanamak (Black Basmati)

  • Kalanamak rice, is one of the most important scented rices of India, and gets its name from the black colour of its husk and its tolerance to saline soils. It is said to be better than Basmati in all aspects except grain length, and is considered the finest quality of rice in international trade.

11. Kouni Nel (For the baby in the womb)

  • Kouni Nel is used in ceremonies like the Seemantham, performed when a woman is pregnant. It is believed that consumption of this variety of rice provides specific nutrients required for during pregnancy.

Srini and I are committed to organic food, and have been eating organic for a year now. Visiting the Rice bio-diversity stall added another element to our food choices – look for local, indigenous crop wherever possible.
After some investigation, we have found that local grocers in Chennai stock indigenous varieties of rice like Jeeraga Samba, and Kitchli samba, which are available on request.
Consuming locally produced food has always been a carbon friendly habit because of the savings in transportation and storage of the food. It is great to explore it from another aspect and see how well it fits in with sustainability, self sufficiency and good health.

  1. Seerkazhi Organic farmers association stall at Semmozhi Poonga, Chennai
  2. Material on Rice Bio-diversity – Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Systems:


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srinivas krishnaswamy
srinivas krishnaswamy

Srinivas is Krya's Co-Founder. He brings in a unique perspective to Krya with his dual Masters in Physics & Management.

At Krya, Srinivas is motivated by the challenges of crafting the company's DNA - products that delight consumers, manufacturing excellence, a winning team and sustainable profitable growth.

He is deeply committed to defining the first principles of Dharmic Entrepreneurship in order to build a world class organisation rooted in Indian Knowledge Systems.

Articles: 173


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful article! It is an eye opener. Why did we never learn much about rice strains other then basmati in school? The nomenclature is as interesting. Wonderful article. Already waiting for the next post!

    • Thanks for that Harini. It was an eye opener to us as well. You’re right about the educational system – i learned the areas which cultivated rice and a few names, but really nothing about the process or the number of varieties that do exist – perhaps the education system needs to change..

    • Hey thank you for that Susmitha. I am glad you found the post useful – I am so thrilled that you dropped in. I am a huge fan of your blog.

  2. I have read a similar article somewhere where it was stated that the indigenous varieties of the crop are being wiped out due to the hybrid ones. But, on the contrary, the reason why farmers prefer hybrid variety(say Basmati Rice in North India)is because of the demand from the consumers. A middle class consumer will always relish tasty food before anything else. It’s the demand for hybrid varieties that is driving the market for hybrid rice varieties rather than the Green Revolution.
    Let me know your thoughts on this proposition.

    • Ankit: Thank you for dropping in and taking the time to comment.
      The answer to why hybrid varieties are now grown, is much more complex than that. Most middle class Indians like myself, have not had the opportunity to taste anything beyond the 10 available varieties of rice. Basmati rice which is a scented rice has several indigenous alternatives like the dehradun basmati rice, and other local scented varieties like Kalanamak which I’ve referred to in the post. Thos who have tasted them fall in love with them. If we went by taste alone, we would have far more native varieties of rice available in stores today.
      Most farms, with the dependence on inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, grow rice which grows well in that system. Availability of seeds of traditional rice is also an issue. NGOs and local groups are working to conserve the seeds, but we have nowhere close to the 4 lakh varieties of rice that were available a few thousand years ago.
      Like I said, the problem and its answers are complex; At an individual level, it would help if each of us asked for and supported and were indeed even aware of the many diverse types of grains available. Of course, it would also help to source these grains for our use, and support producer groups and stores who try hard to conserve them.

  3. very interesting information here in north America 95% of our food are genetically modified and processed in factory.At some point of time I would come back to tamilnadu to start my own organic farming.

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