Ordeal of Rice: Suspects in Ancient India Forced to Chew Rice to Determine Their Guilt
The ordeal of rice is a divine method of proof that was employed in ancient India. This ordeal involves suspects chewing on rice grains and then spitting them out. The condition of the grains is then used to determine if a person was innocent or guilty of a crime that had been committed. The bizarre part of all this, is that the efficacy of this method has actually been proven, with the science behind it explained.
The ordeal of rice is found in the Naradasmrti, which is a part of the Dharmashastra. When the British colonized India, the Dharmashastra was thought to be the law of the land of the Hindus in India , and thus connected it with Hindu Law. This Sanskrit literary genre, however, dealt not only with legal matter, but also with other aspects, including religion and ethics. The Dharmashastra contains hundreds of texts , along with commentaries and digests. The Naradasmrti is one of the major smrtis of this corpus of ancient texts .
Manuscript of the Naradasmrti which documents the ordeal of rice. (Ms Sarah Welch / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Steps of Ordeal of Rice
In the Naradasmrti, seven different types of ordeals are given, one of which being the ordeal of rice. The text states that the ordeal of rice is to be used only in cases of theft and not for any other type of crime. The text also states that only white grain of rice, and not any other grain, is to be used. The judge involved has to have cleansed himself previously before administering this ordeal. The judge would then place the rice grain in an earthen vessel before an image of the sun deity . The vessel would then be filled with water that was used to bathe the image of this deity and left overnight.
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Hindu sun deity, Surya, oversaw the ordeal of rice. ( శ్రీధర్ బబు / Public Domain )
The next day, the defendant would be given the rice grains to chew. Before undertaking the ordeal, the defendant is required to take a bath and fast. During the ordeal, the defendant has to face the east and to proclaim the charge himself. After chewing the rice, the defendant would spit out the grains onto a leaf from a sacred fig (known also as the bodhi tree). If this is unavailable, the leaf from a birch tree may be used instead. The defendant is pronounced guilty if blood is present on the grains as they are spat out, if his gums are hurt, or if his limbs were shaking during the ordeal.
A Recent Case of the Ordeal of Rice
Although the ordeal of rice dates back to ancient times, it was used even in more recent times, as evidenced in an account dating to the 19 th century. This incident involved the theft of a gold watch belonging to a man named George Christian, who was living with three other men in Calcutta. The four men set up a domestic court of inquiry but failed to catch the culprit. While the rest of the men suspected that it was one of Christian’s own servants who was behind the crime, Christian himself refused to entertain the idea.
The ordeal of rice was used to determine guilt. Source: Aerial Mike / Adobe.
In any case, one of the munshis in the employment of the men suggested that they procure the service of a ‘professor of magic’ who was working for the Calcutta police. This ‘professor of magic’ specialized in catching thieves via the use of the ordeal of rice. This was done, and the professor, along with two or three policemen, came to the house. Instead of rice grains, however, rice flour was used, and this was poured into the open mouths of the servants. They were then ordered to chew the flour and to spit it out onto a piece of plantain leaf after five minutes.
Ordeal of Rice Catches a Thief
It was through this ordeal of rice that the thief was caught. As expected, the innocent servants had no difficulty with this ordeal, and were able to spit the flour out after five minutes. It was only Abdul, Christian’s favorite servant, who failed, and therefore pronounced guilty. Abdul admitted to his crime and returned the watch to Christian. He was then brought before a domestic tribunal, and sentenced to 20 strokes of the rattan, after which he re-entered the service of his master.
The servant failed the ordeal of rice during the domestic tribunal using rice flour. ( fascinadora / Adobe)
Abdul’s inability to spit out the rice flour was due to the fact that he was nervous during the ordeal, knowing that he was the culprit, and that his crime would soon be exposed. Due to this fear, his salivary glands were not able to produce saliva that was necessary to moisten the flour, and this was taken as evidence of his guilt. It has been found that when a person is afraid, their mouth becomes dry, as fear causes the salivary glands to stop secreting saliva. While the ancient Indians might not have known of the science behind the phenomenon, they must have made enough observations to realize the phenomenon itself, and therefore designed the ordeal of rice specifically to catch thieves.
Top image: Suspects in Ancient India Forced to Chew Rice to Determine Their Guilt. (Africa Studio / Adobe)
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