WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka
(@ Govia.com) Some 2,500 years ago, Lanka was composed of 24,000 villages. Even today most of it is rural. Although various doctrines have found their way to the island over the centuries, Lanka's living traditions overpowered them all. As in the beginning, even today we still worship trees, hills, rocks, springs and elephants. Traditional villagers zealously protect these ancient forms.
The elephant takes precedence in our culture since it shaped the first paths. The animal embodies wisdom and, as a spiritual authority, was elevated to a god. The lion, meanwhile, is a solar symbol and denotes kingship, virility, action and temporal power. The polarity of the two animals—wisdom and method—is evident everywhere in the traditions that sustain our culture. Their union—the Gaja-Singha — is a part of our artistic heritage, and it is the spirit of this union which pervades the puranagamas, or villages.
When our first ancestors, nomadic hunter-gatherers known as the Veddhas, settled down to practice agriculture, a village was born. Our village was our chief social unit and the focal point of our lives. Surrounded by lush tropical forests and connected to other villages by footpaths, each village played its part in maintaining the balance and harmony of Mother Lanka, also known as Dhammadeepa.
We are told that our first ancestor came down to Earth at Adam's Peak. Our poetry tells us how we followed the elephant herds down the Walawe Ganga River to settle at Gajaragama —Elephants' Village. Kataragama, as we now call it, is our first village.
On Adam's Peak, in the centre of Lanka, lies the first clue. We see the ancient Path of the Lotus. Born from the Fire of the Sun and cooled by the Fountains of Paradise, the lotus is everywhere. Red for blood, and white for virgin purity—these are the colours of the Nelum and the 0lu. The two hands of Lanka each carry a lotus—one red, one white.
All of this may sound like a fairy tale. After all, we are living in the 20th century and as William Blake wrote, "When nations grow old, the arts grow cold, and commerce settles on every tree."
I have been most fortunate. My journeys in Lanka have taken me to places and shown me things far removed from what I thought to be the truth. Only the inexperienced will give little credence to this tale.
Once upon a time in Lanka, the mountains in the centre were our natural reservoirs. Primeval forests covered this central mountain region in a panorama of green, wrapped in the eternal rhythm of rainfall, leaf-fall and regeneration. This is Skanda — the newborn.
The forests helped to condense the vapour-laden clouds and intercept the rain’s action like an umbrella. The force of the monsoon thus broken, the forest soils absorbed the moisture and slowly released a perennial flow. The life force water, having anointed Lanka’s sacred hills, journeyed down to the plains below through streams, waterfalls and rivers. This was a time when natural and man-made lakes, or wewas, dotted the sun-scorched plains to provide food for our people, who made the cultivation of rice their religion.
Sir Edmund Leach, professor of anthropology at Cambridge University in England and a leading authority on irrigation agriculture, claims that in Sri Lanka large water tanks may have been the work of a centralized bureaucracy, hut that the small village tanks were maintained by the villagers themselves.
What we today designate as a 'village" is often a product of urban planning and has hardly anything indigenous about it. Important as these communities are in ushering, us into the 'modern age," it is equally important to realize that our traditional village has a worthiness that can never be evaluated in material terms. Indeed, the spiritual principles that are operative in these traditional communities may be the only solution to a world fast being destroyed by materialism.
Puranagamas island-wide are linked by common cultural patterns based on food habits. Rice comes first. Just fifty years ago, Sri Lanka had more than 280 varieties of rice.
For example, heenati rice was grown for lactating mothers. Kanni murunga, another variety, was grown for men going out to work in the fields. Suvandel was cultivated for its extraordinary fragrance. Monks who did not eat after noon were given a special variety grown over six to eight months called mawee, which possesses a high-protein content. Today, there are 10 to 15 varieties commonly cultivated
The forests surrounding our villages were a great source of food and medicine. Foods such as bulu weera, jak, himbutu, wood apple and wild pear were some of the mouthwatering delicacies. As for medicines, every plant had its use.
A wide variety of fish provided yet another blessing. Fish are trapped in streams, wewas and in paddy fields when flooded. Fish such as the lula (snakehead), kawaiya (climbing perch), handaya (panchax) and ara have learned to live even in dried ponds. The lula is thought to help in the formation of blood, so is fed to pregnant mothers. Other wewa fish include the petiya, the hirikanaya, the walaya, the aanda and the ankutta.
The wewa is also the source of vegetable food. For instance, the white olu has seeds that are eaten as lotus rice. The green stem of the olu is also eaten. The red lotus yam is eaten in the drought, and a flour is made from the roots of the keketi.
In the gardens around our homes we cultivate papaya, mango, banana, jackfruit, pepper and vegetables such as bean sprouts and green gram. In the hills behind our village lies the jungle, which is unsuited for paddy cultivation. Here, kurakkan millet and other dry grains are grown in what are called chena lands. A chena is generally about one acre in size. Slash-and-burn methods clear the land, after which cultivation takes place. We abandon these chenas for 10 to 15 years after cultivation, permitting the forest to regenerate.
We have great respect for the forest and its functions; we do not want to alter that. By design, abandoned chenas gradually become analogous to the natural forest.
All this agricultural activity requires plenty of water, and our ancestors were ingenious in their use of this precious substance. There were, in all, five different types of wewas. First, there was the forest wewa," which was dug in the jungle above the village. It was not for irrigation but rather for the purpose of providing water for the wild creatures that lived in the jungle. They in turn did not come down into the village in search of water or to interfere with our various agricultural activities.
The second type was the 'mountain wewa'. This provided water for chena cultivation. The third kind was for erosion control and was called pota wetiya. Here the silt accumulated where it could be easily desilted. The fourth type was the 'storage wewa.' There were usually two of them. One was in use when the other was being maintained. They were connected to a large number of village wewas, which they fed and which in turn fed them when they overflowed. The village wewa" was the fifth type, and there was one for every puranagama.
Agriculture is not an occupation; it is a way of life, closely interwoven with other activities. Every stage in the cultivation cycle—from plowing and sowing, to weeding and harvesting—is accompanied by ceremonies involving song, music and dance. Kandyan dancing has its origins in the Kohomha Kankariya ritual, which is performed in the village after the harvest.
Significantly it is the goviya, or the village priest, who initiates the most important agricultural activities. When the time is auspicious, he steps into the field, singing to the buffaloes as he ploughs: Ohoooo, amma. . .ohooo appo ohooo.' Ohooo" is the sound of the ocean amma is mother, and appo the father. The chant is taken up by every goviya. The season has arrived and rural Lanka reverberates with the sound of her children making giant offerings.
As in all peasant societies, agriculture is very much a family affair. Every member of the village has specific duties. One drives marauding monkeys from the rice paddies; another looks after the cattle and water buffaloes. Some help their fathers in the fields, while others collect fire wood with their mothers. Yet others help with the cooking and milking of the cattle. Girls spend their time with their mothers and aunts helping with all the chores: the tending of the fields and the making of mats. Our mothers keep the hearth warm and this is the centre of every home. Thus, in Sri Lankan homes the mother takes first place.
Our houses are built close to each other. In this way, a minimum amount of land is wasted. This arrangement also favours the essential cooperation amongst us. Since each village community consists of relatives, one woman looks after all the children when the other adults are busy working in the fields or maintaining the wewas.
There is also the tradition of mutual help, or kaiya, within each village; we can rely upon each other to help with pressing, day-to-day chores and, more important still, with the onerous agricultural tasks.
Rajakariya, or the King's Duty, was the tie that bound us. All of us gave 40 days each year to this principle. During this period we worked for the benefit of the whole community. It was this spirit that we call Mahasammata, or the common consensus.
Yuthukarna, or duty, was also considered rajakariya. All of us were born to perform a particular function or duty. Call it karma or destiny. In puranagamas each function became the duty of a given clan. In such a manner, quality was maintained in everything we did.
Those who worked with clay and created pots lived in one village. Those who made the drums speak lived in another. Blacksmiths made our plough-shares, axes and knives. All the washing and ritual purification connected with our homes and farms were carried out by hena mama, the water farmer, and ridi nanda, the laundry woman.
There were several other needs which were provided by different groups living within a cluster of villages: astrology and the casting of horoscopes; traditional medicine and its application; providing salt, jewelery, treacle, honey, coconut toddy, reed mats and cotton cloth—are just some of those functions.
Our life in the village is an eternal puja, or offering, in which we act as the mediator in keeping nature's balance. All life is art. It was a perspective that was handed down to us from our ancestors. This wisdom we project in everything we do and through timeless motifs and ideograms that adorn our life. Our life revolves around the seasons following the majestic descent of our father the Sun from his cold Himalayan mansion in the north to the hot southern plains of our motherland.
Every puranagama has its own god or goddess who inhabits a tree, a cave, a hillock or a sacred grove. The Hill God is naturally the most popular, since life comes down as water from the hills. Nature is named, given a role and turned into a divinity. Cultivation is a sacred ritual and every peasant a priest of nature.
In the centre of our village under a tree is our dewale, or temple, in which we enshrine our wisdom—a spear, a trident, a sickle, an axe. These weapons and tools symbolize a dual function. While they take life, they also give life. They are instruments of continuity, thus fertility, hence Skanda the Hill God. Life and death become twins.
Sri Lanka's secret is her village culture. Nobody can cross this labyrinth without initiation. This is hard to attain, since Lanka clothes her secrets in hidden symbolic meaning. We call it ingiya or theravili.
The threshing floor was our school, with wisdom passing from one worker to another, one generation to another. The tractor has broken up this institution. The watch hut was another learning ground. Listening to stories near the hearth as infants, we learned survival.
The ancient cities Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are no more. They lie in ruins, largely of interest to tourists and students of monuments. However, puranagamas, composed of a cluster of womblike earthen dwellings, existed long ago and continue today as a living tradition.(@ Govia.com)
WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka