How Rice Came to Earth: A Javanese Folktale

Another manifestation of my current fascination with food origin myths. Rice is a staple food in Indonesia and the rest of East and Southeast Asia, so a divine (if gory) origin isn’t surprising. The motifs in this tale have similarities to Indian folklore, as well.


Once upon a time, Lord Guru, the leader of all the gods, decided to build a new meetinghouse in heaven. He tasked all the lesser gods to help him. One god brought wood, another sand; one made tiles. Everyone pitched in.

Everyone, that is, except Anta (or Anantaboga), the snake god. Anta wanted very much to help — but how? He had no arms, no legs. He could neither carry anything, nor build. As Anta pondered his situation, he cried three tears. As the tears touched the ground, they turned into three large, beautiful eggs.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

Upon seeing the eggs, Lord Guru’s brother, the god Narada, suggested that Anta take the eggs as gifts to Lord Guru, as an apology for being unable to help with the building. Anta thought this was a great suggestion, so he picked up the three eggs in his mouth, and set off for Lord Guru’s palace.

Along the way, he ran into his friend, the Garuda bird.

NewImageImage of Garuda by Ida Made Tlaga, Sanur, Bali, circa 1880.
Wikipedia

“Good day, dear Anta! And how are you?” But Anta couldn’t answer, since he had a mouth full of eggs. This annoyed Garuda, but he tried again.

“I said, ‘Good day,’ Anta.” Still no answer.

Garuda tried again. And again. No answer. Finally, completely insulted, Garuda attacked Anta, shredding Anta with his claws and stabbing Anta with his sharp beak. Anta cried out in pain, and two of the eggs rolled out of his mouth and broke. From each egg, a wild pig hatched and ran away. Garuda flew off, his honor satisfied.

Anta took the remaining egg and offered it to Lord Guru, with apologies for not helping with the meetinghouse. Lord Guru accepted Anta’s apologies and asked Anta to take the remaining egg and care for it until it hatched. Anta agreed, and took the egg home. After several days, it hatched, and out came a beautiful baby girl. Anta brought the baby back to Lord Guru, who was delighted. Guru gave the baby to his wife, and instructed her to raise the child as their own. They named the baby Nji Pohatji Sang-Hyang Sri Dang-Yang Tisnawati — Sang-Hyang Sri for short.

Sang-Hyang Sri grew into a beautiful young woman — so beautiful that she even caught Lord Guru’s eye. He wanted to marry her.

NewImageStatue of Dewi Sri, Bali.
Photo: Jack Merridew, Wikipedia

This horrified the other gods — marrying his own daughter! Well his stepdaughter, really — I would call her Anta’s daughter — but still. Everyone in heaven begged Guru not to go through with this terrible act, but Guru wouldn’t budge. The other gods met to discuss the situation, and finally came to the conclusion that to prevent Guru from breaking the incest taboo, Sang-Hyang Sri had to die. Regretfully, they poisoned her, and she died immediately.

But murder is a sin, too, and Sang-Hyang Kersa, the most powerful being of all (who usually stays out of things), punished the gods by sending terrible storms to heaven. To placate Sang-Hyang Kersa (and their own guilt), the gods took Sang-Hyang Sri’s body down to earth and buried it in a remote place.

From her body sprang all the plants that feed and shelter the Indonesian people: from her head grew a coconut tree; from her nose, lips, and ears grew spices and vegetables; from her hair, grass and flowering plants; from her breasts, fruit trees; from her arms, teak and other wood trees; from her genitals, sugar palm; from her thighs, bamboo. And from her eyes (some versions say her belly button) grew the most important crop of all: rice.

NewImageImage: Wikimedia

  • This story is originally from the Wawacan Sulanjana; my retelling is based on the version in The Magic Crocodile and Other Folktales from Indonesia, by Alice M. Terada. Additional details come from Wikipedia.
  • In Hindu mythology, Ananta-Shesha, the Endless, is the king of Nagas (dragons or serpent deities). He has five (or seven, or a thousand) heads, and floats coiled up on an ocean of milk to form the bed where Vishnu lies. Shesha’s brothers were very cruel; out of shame Shesha left his family to live a life of ascetic penance. There is a story that Brahma asked Shesha to go beneath the earth and stabilize it with his hood. 

    In Javanese mythology, Anantaboga is the world serpent who has existed since the beginning of time. His name means “the food that lasts forever.” Through meditation, Anantaboga created the turtle Bedawang who carries the world on his back.

  • In Hindu mythology, Garuda is a part-man, part-eagle deity who serves as Vishnu’s mount. He is supposed to be the sworn enemy of the Nagas, which maybe explains why he got offended so easily by Anta. Garuda is the national emblem of both Indonesia and Thailand.
  • Dewi Sri (Dewi means “princess”) is the goddess of rice and fertility in Java and Bali. She is associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi (Vishnu’s consort), although her mythology predates the arrival of Hinduism in Java.
  • Remember Anta’s other two eggs? The twin boars that were hatched from the eggs were named Kalabuat and Budug Basu. After they hatched and ran away, they were adopted by Gumarang, the demon buffalo. After Kalabuat and Budug Basu grew up, they went in search of their sister. When they found her grave, they circled it three times and then died on the spot. Gumarang retrieved their bodies, which turned into a variety of animals: pigs, boars, rats, insects, and all the other pests that destroy rice crops. Nothing like a little sibling rivalry, hmmmm?

11 thoughts on “How Rice Came to Earth: A Javanese Folktale

  1. Fascinating stuff, it’s interesting that elements of Hindu mythology like the Garuda bird should stuill be current in predominently muslim Indonesia and Buddist Thailand, but then there are plenty of old pagan practices that have been adopted into Christianity and others like the legend of the Green Man, faeries and pixies that still persist in the UK today

    • I kind of thought about that as I wrote the endnotes to this — Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, isn’t it? And Garuda is their emblem.

      I’d like to find a good Christianity-based folktale to post (probably not with the food origin myth theme, though): not one from the Bible, but one that riffs on Biblical characters. It’s no challenge, I’m sure, but I’ve never thought about it that way. You never really think that way about the environment you’re raised in….

      • A lot of the ritual in Christian practices has come about as the church has absorbed pagan practices into its rituals and festivals like All Hallows riffing off the pagan harvest festival of Samhain or Easter with it’s eggs and rabbits being a festival of rebirth and fertility. An interesting person to read about this sort of thing is Ronald Hutton who lectures on early modern history at Bristol, but also has a deep interest in pagan practices and witchcraft

  2. Fascinating how similarly civilizations explain their culture and the geographic manifestations of their surroundings. I enjoyed reading the piece very much. Just trying out Twitter to see if it works for me. I look forward to more blogs from you!

  3. I am no expert on origin myths, but it seems as though they often involve violence and bad things leading to good things. Although never saying so explicitly, one way of understanding them is to believe that the means justify the ends; and, that the god or gods, despite vast powers, cannot think of better (less violent) ways of perfecting the human race. Troubling, at least to me; unless, of course, one simply understands those stories as a form of literature, not as religion.

    • That is a troubling interpretation, I agree. Maybe a more positive interpretation is to say that they are stories of gods making the best of a bad thing (similar to the “life from death/decay” idea).

      Both “means justify the ends” and “make lemonade from lemons” are common human thought processes, I suppose. For better or for worse.

  4. Pingback: Life From Death: Dema Deities | Multo (Ghost)

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