During a recent visit to India I became intrigued with the diversity of delectable rice dishes, among other native specialities, that were enjoyed for breakfast, luncheons, dinners or snacks. Rice plays an important role in the Indian way of life, and the people excel in the art of cooking it.

This ancient grain was developed from a wild semiaquatic marsh grass native to India and Southeast Asia. It has been cultivated extensively for more than 4,000 years. There are over 1,000 varieties of Indian rice differing in size, weight, color, shape and flavor. In the markets you can see colors ranging from white to yellow and even a reddish brown. Some are fragrant, others bland. There is also pressed, puffed or ground rice. When shopping, Indian cooks specify the exact kind and quality desired for the particular manner in which it will be prepared.

Hindu weddings feature rice as a symbol of fertility and good luck. Some wedding feasts incude a solemn and significant ceremony featuring a rice dish prepared by the bride and served to the groom and his male relatives to assure her acceptance into the family. In southern India the most important annual festival is Pongal, held in January to honor the beginning of the harvest season. It is also the preferred season for marriages.

Among the festival specialties are ven pongal, a spicy rice and lentil or split-pea preparation; and sarkari pongal, a sweet delicacy made with rice, fried lentils, grated coconut, cashew nuts, seedless raisins, molasses, cardamom, saffron and a pinch of edible camphor used to heighten the flavor of the spices. There is also a potent rice wine to enhance the festival celebration.

Everyday cooking of rice takes many forms. The most common method is boiled rice, chawal, which appears in a wide range of dishes. For millions of Indian vegeterians, rice is the heart of every meal. Traditionally, a mound of boiled rice is placed in a small bowl in the center of the serving tray, thali, or sometimes, in the south, on a banana leaf that serves as a plate. A little of it is taken by the fingers with almost every mouthful of food -- perhaps a gravy of lentils, spiced vegetable combinations, curds and hot condiments. Nonvegetarians may also have chawal with spiced meat, poultry or fish mixtures which Westerners call curries.

Boiled rice is often flavored with oil or ghee (clarified butter), seasoning, vegetables and aromatic spices such as cumin seed or a combination of cardamon, cinamon, cloves, black pepper and perhaps bay leaves. Sometimes the rice is enhanced with yogurt and spices, turmeric, saffron, lime or lemon juice, or sweetened with sugar, nuts, coconut and raisins.

Steamed, baked and fried rice may also be flavored with various herbs and spices, and cooked with a wide variety of vegetables, such as peas, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and spinach or other greens. Attractive garnishes might be golden fried onions, slivered almonds, chopped green or red chilies, sliced vegetables or chopped fresh coriander.

There is a fascinating variety of breakfast and snack specialities made of ground rice combined with varying amounts of ground lentils which is fermented and made into a small, light steamed cake, idli, a plain or stuffed fried thin pancake, dosa, a deep-fried thick pancake, appam, or a stuffed cone-shaped dumpling, modak, that is eaten with hot pickles or chutneys.

A rice specialty that developed in northern India and is a traditional Hindu vegetarian specialty is called Khichi or kitcheri, meaning mixture. It is the origin of the British adaption called kedgeree. Most often the dish is a well-seasoned combination of rice and lentils in various proportions cooked with onions sauteed in butter or oil and spices. Sometimes mung beans, chick-peas or other legumes, and perhaps garlic and tomatoes, may be added; the dish is also prepared in a sweetened form.

A treasured northern dish is pulao, which Indian cooks developed from the Persian polo or pilaf into a wide variety of imaginative preparations. Basically, the dish is rice cooked in meats and spices, but the creative Indians added a new range of ingredients and have long made pulaos with poultry, mutton or lamb (in chuncks or ground and shaped into balls), seafood, legumes, eggs and especially vegetables such as peas, eggplant, mushrooms, carrots or greens, either singly or in combination.

The most highly prized Indian rice creation is biryani, which is richer and more elaborate than a pulao. The Persian word means fried or roasted and the dish is generally made with meat, usually lamb or mutton, but sometimes beef, that is prepared into a flavorful stew and arranged in layers with previously cooked top-quality rice, sprinkled with saffron soaked in milk, and baked.

American long-grain rice can be used in the following dishes. Khichri (6 to 8 servings) 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 2 garlic cloves, crushed 3 tablespoons clarified butter or margarine 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon black pepper Salt to taste 1 cup long-grain rice 1 cup dried lentils, washed 4 1/2 cups water

Saute onions and garlic in heated butter or margarine in a large saucepan until onion is tender. Add spices and cook over low heat 3 or 4 minutes, stirring often. Add rice and lentils; mix well. Pour in water; mix. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook slowly, covered, about 25 minutes, until rice and lentils are tender and water has been absorbed. Vegetable Pulao (4 servings) 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped 1/4 cup clarified butter or margarine 2 whole cloves 1/2 inch stick cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 2 bay leaves, broken 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 cup long-grain rice 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped 1 1/2 cups chopped scraped carrots 1 cup shelled green peas 2 1/2 cups chicken broth or water Salt to taste 1 or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander, parsley or mint

Saute onion in 2 tablespoons heated butter or margarine in a large saucepan until onion is tender. Add spices and bay leaves and cook 2 or 3 minutes, stirring often. Add rice and saute 1 or 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, carrots, peas, chicken broth or water and salt. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook slowly, covered, about 25 minutes, until rice is tender and liquid has been absorbed. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter or margarine and coriander, parsley or mint. BIRYANI (4 to 6 servings) 1 large onion, peeled and chopped 2 cloves garlic, crushed 2 tablespoons salad oil or clarified butter 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger 6 whole cloves 8 cardamom seeds, crushed 2 pieces (1 inch each) stick cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground coriander 2 teaspoons ground turmeric 1 1/2 pounds boneless lamb or beef, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 cup plain yogurt 3 cups water 1 1/2 cups uncooked long-grain rice 1 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/8 teaspoon saffron 1/2 cup hot milk

Saute onion and garlic in heated oil or, butter in a large deep skillet until tender. Add ginger, 3 cloves, 4 cardamon seeds, 1 stick cinnamon, coriander and turmeric. Cook 2 minutes. Add lamb or beef and yogurt. Cook slowly, covered, 1 hour. Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add rice, remaining 3 cloves, 4 cardamon seeds, 1 stick cinnamon, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and cook slowly, covered, about 12 minutes, until rice is partially cooked, and most of liquid has been absorbed. When meat is cooked, spoon it and rice in alternating layers into a 3-quart casserole, topping with a layer of rice. Mix saffron and milk and pour over rice. Bake tightly covered, in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Serve garnished with silver leaves, if desired.