WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Ancient farming rituals of Sri Lanka

by Rohan Jayetilleke

The rituals and customs of any community are structured on the geography, climatic conditions and the modes of living of any given area. All rituals and customs of a primitive community, called the 'little tradition' are geared to peaceful coexistence and the continuity of each family unit. In the absence of any written laws and enactments the adherence to the rituals and customs was an implicit trust and any breach of trust resulted in the recalcitrant being either temporarily or permanently boycotted by the rest of the community, having adjudged the breach of custom adjudged by a village council called 'Rata Sabha'.

Farming rituals

In view of the fact paddy cultivation was pivotal to the survival of the community, all activities connected with paddy cultivation were treated with the highest honour and respect. The causes for floods, droughts, epidemics, crop failures and sicknesses being not aware to the people, they condescended to accept them as a wrath of an unseen god or demon and made supplications to them to safeguard them against such calamities.

These were plebian needs, that had to be found solutions to spontaneously and the cults of gods and demons (yakkha) came about. In the primitive communities of Veddahs of Sri Lanka, these omnipresent and malevolent forces were reckoned as 'Yakkha' (Herein Yakkha is derived from the word root 'yaj' meaning fit for worship and not fearful monsters), namely, 'Ne Yaka' (departed relatives reborn as Yakkhas), 'Gale Yakkha', (yakkha of the mountains) Kande Yakkha (yakkha of the hills) and 'Ruk Yakkha' (yakkha resident of trees). The Veddahs in their pursuit of games and in case of sicknesses had various rituals such as 'kiri koraha' (similar to kohomba kankariya).

With the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. a centralized government was introduced with the king as the supreme supporter of Buddhism, these rituals too underwent a complete change in its conception.

Buddhism being 'the Great Tradition'. The Buddha was placed at the apex of the hierarchy of gods and was identified as 'devatideva', god of gods. Thus all gods came to be functional under a warrant (varan) of the Buddha. Therefore, all rituals commenced with the worship of the Buddha and followed by ritual practices.

In the matter of land holdings, the farmers (share croppers or 'pangukaraya') had fields among a vast tract of fields to commensurate with his requirements for subsistence from the harvest to another. Therefore, in tilling, harvesting and other agricultural activities they had to work in unison.

In the village, there were weather beaten and well-seasoned and aged farmers who were well conversant with farming traditions and customs. One of them was referred to as 'Gama Rala' (Leader of the farmers).

Immediately after the rainy season, the farmers under the leadership of the gamarala would meet at the 'Ambalama'. Ambalamas were resting places for travellers built by the orders of the king, in a place where land was available for grazing of cattle and water, these being requirements of carters and other travellers for rest at mid-day or in the night.

The hexagonal structured roof, with a minaret at the top indicated that it was under royal protection. These ambalamas were meeting places of farmer communities and others to resolve matters connected with farming.

Having met they would decide whether to work the entire tract of fields or a part thereof depending on the availability of water. They would decide on an auspicious date and time, computed by 'Nekathirala' the astrologer. On the appointed date and time all the farmers would commence cleaning up waterways (elaweli) and he footpaths running (niyara) through the fields. Each farmer would attend to those sections adjacent to his field and finally including fences would have bene constructed encircling the entire trace in this cooperative manner.

Thereafter on an evening the gamarala would go to the bund of the tank (wewa) and tie a coin (panama) on a clean piece of white cloth and tie it to a branch of a banyan tree (nuga tree) and make a vow to the god. He would then fire a gun once, and release water into the fields from the sluice (sorowwa or bisokotuwa). This report of the gun is to communicate to all farmers, that water had been released and it is now time for them to commence tilling the fields.

The second stage is turning the sod (Heema). The govirala, takes his herd of buffaloes and commences turning the sod and the others follow suit. The farmers cooperatively construct the common fence (poduweta or aniyamveta). Then seed paddy is kept in a clean place in a tub of water. This too is done at an auspicious time with the consent of all the farmers.

During the period the seed paddy (bittarawee) is germinating, on a auspicious day and time the second tilling is done (dehiya). There is still another ritual to be followed known as 'Bittara Vadanawa), conducting seed paddy. Having made appropriate vows and supplications to gods by the gamarala, in a small place in the centre of the field (liyaddaka) the seed paddy is sown, by the gamarala.

Within three days after the 'bittara wedima' all the farmers should complete sowing the fields. In sowing, a strip of the field called 'Vagala' is left unsown to enable people and cattle to move to and fro and this strip is sowed on completion of the entire sowing of the rest of the fields.

The farmers in rotation had to perform watching duties in the night to scare away animals intruding to the fields. These watch huts (pela) were set up on wooden poles about 10 feet in height so that the watchers could survey the entire track. These huts were set up two or three number along the frontier fields (issarawal). A fire was kept alight right through the night to scare away elephants.

In case a farmer is unable to take his watching duty according to the roster he could exchange his turn of duty with another.

If in any case a farmer wilfully failed to take up his turn of watch duty, the resultant destruction of the crop became his responsibility and had to be compensated by him. In case of a sickness or any other family problem, the farmer was exempted from watching duties and others performed his turn of duty.

There was no application of artificial manures or chemicals to control pests and weeds. The manure was green leaves such as, keppettiya, titta, (wild sun flower) etc., and in order to control insects and pests certain vines and leaves of the forests were crushed and mixed with water and sprinkled on the water ways and the fields. The pungent and strong aroma and the tastes of these, convulsed the insects and they left. There was no exterminating.

Additionally there were other rituals called 'kema' such as 'dodam kema' and 'mande kema'. Another method of controlling the insects was to have a long strip of fields at the two extremities of the field called, 'kurulupaluwa' which was not harvested but allowed to be fed on by the birds, so that the birds will be ever present and would pick up flying or crawling insects in the fields.

Still another effective way of controlling insects was to prepare a good amount of milk rice and sprinkle them on the field prior to break of dawn and provide dried branches of trees (ipal) at convenient distances in the field for the birds to perch. The birds, while feeding of grains of milk rice, pick all insects too.

In the chain of rituals the last one is the harvesting ritual. In the harvesting festival not only the farmers participated but the entire village. This was a thanksgiving ritual to the gods for ensuring a rich harvest.

After the harvesting is done, the ritual held is called, 'Kiri itirima'. All the share croppers (pangukarayo) having collected rice from parade to the bund of the tank (wewa) and set up hut under a banyan tree (kirigahak). Inside the hut a stage (messa) is set up and a white clean cloth is laid over it. On the 'messa' 100 betel leaves, and 100 arecanuts are kept. Thereafter in three separate pots the fresh rice is cooked along with coconut milk and the 'kiribath' thus made is offered to the gods. Thereafter, the remaining kiribath is shared among those present. Thus the entire village having worked in unison, gets about their daily chores with no friction but based on the Buddhist four sublime states of Loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), blissful joy (muditha) and equanimity (upekkah). @Sunday Observer

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