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6.1 Traditional approaches to natural resource management

The rural settlements were developed close to the water reservoirs, which became the focal points for structuring the community and for evolving traditions and codes of conduct, to safeguard the natural resources in the vicinity of the habitations.

The common thread guiding the population was the tenets of Buddhist philosophy of ‘Maitriya’ and ‘Ahimsa’ and the knowledge of natural phenomena based on long periods of observations. Myths and legends also played an important role in guiding the behaviour pattern of the society.

The villages evolved systems for collective action to share the responsibilities to safeguard the land, water and biological resources for sustainable use. The forests covering steep slopes and the catchment areas of streams and rivers were protected, to minimise the processes of erosion and sedimentation transported into the reservoirs. The maintenance of embankments and water channels leading to paddy lands was a shared responsibility. The de-silting of canals and the village tank was done during the dry season.

6.2 Community planning for paddy cultivation during the Maha season (N.E. monsoon)

With a view anticipating the intensity and distribution pattern of the forthcoming Northeast monsoon women and men of the village community would hold discussions to make an assessment. It would be based on observations of natural symbolism related to wind speed, direction; colour and height of clouds, lightening; humidity in the air; and behaviour of plants like shedding or appearance of new leaves, hardening of bark, abnormally high or low flowering and fruiting in certain trees. For example, profuse flowering and fruit setting in two tree species ‘Palu’ (Manilkara hexandra; Sapotaceae) and ‘Weera’ (Drypetes sepiara; Euphorbiaceae), common in Anamaduwa area of Northcentral dry zone, would indicate poor rainfall amounting to drought. Tennakoon (1986) had referred to other tree species showing abnormal flowering and fruiting which would help in forecasting the forthcoming monsoon season: the flowering of ‘Tala’ tree (Corypha umbraculifera; Palmae) was considered a certain precursor of a forthcoming calamity in form of a severe drought. These tree flowers just before its death, after growing vegetatively for twenty to thirty years. The excessive bearing of fruits of the ‘wood apple’ (Limonia acidissima), ‘katukeliya’ (Erythrina fusca), ‘eraminiya’ (Ziziphus napeca), ‘damba’ (Syzigium cordifolium) and ‘mora’ (Nephalium longana; August – September) would also indicate drought after a poor Northeast monsoon. Incidentally, the drought indicator plant species also were a good source of wild edible fruits. As if, nature anticipating the coming of poor monsoon had provided some food to tide over the difficult times ahead. However, good flowering and fruiting in other tree species would indicate a normal or high monsoon spell. The flowering of Mata bimbiya (Maesa perrottetiana), a wild plant was a harbinger of a good monsoon.

The respondent narrator, a village physician, near Anamaduwa referred to the calling behaviour of certain bird species as related to rainfall. If a bird named ‘Awichhiya’, which arrives around October, makes a certain type of noise while hovering over the fields and ponds, it would indicate drought or near drought condition. But if ‘Ukussa’ bird, flying high or a ‘Wahilini’ bird flock made big noise, it would indicate that rains were imminent. Flocks of ‘Seru’ birds flying over the village tank also indicated the same feature. Small crabs (‘Kakkuta’) coming out of cracks in a dried portion of the reservoir also indicated imminent rain. In the light of these observations the village community would assess the Maha season rainfall. The time of arrival and the behaviour of the rainy spells would be considered before taking decisions about the paddy sowing, whether crop sown should be of long or short duration and how much of the land should be put under cultivation. In case a drought had set-in, the community could decide to even forego the paddy sowing, for water in the village tank would not be adequate to see the crop to maturity. Individual families would go for drought tolerant crop plants, like greengram, cowpea, chillies, ‘rata kadju’ (groundnut) and others. If highland was available some chena cultivation would be resumed for short duration drought-tolerant crop species.

6.3 Traditional rituals observed for the Maha crop season

Under the guidance of Vihara, a crop almanac was prepared, indicating the auspicious and inauspicious times for sowing and harvesting the crop. It was mainly based upon the two luminaries, the zodiacal position of Sun as related to the phases of Moon. It is a very common practice even now.

At the auspicious time (‘Nakatha’), all farmers would come to the paddy fields (‘Kaieya’), to start sowing. The Government official, head of the village (Gram Niladhari), and Bhikkus from the nearby Vihara perform ‘Perith’ i.e. Recall Buddha's teaching, and farmers would start ploughing the fields. In between, young girls holding winnows in their hands, would perform a cultural dance called ‘Kulu Natuma’ and sing traditional songs.

The Maha season paddy harvest was usually completed before the beginning of the Sinhala New Year falling on 13–14th April. The village community would offer special prayers and make symbolic food offering prepared from new rice to propitiate different Gods and Goddesses. The preparation of is a collective activity and would be distributed among relatives and friends. The recently harvested paddy would also be shared among neighbours. At harvesting time, village women would dance and make ‘Khiri Bhat’ and offer it to people working in the field. After harvest, the new rice is first offered to Lord Buddha and Lord Kataragama and to the Lord of the field, where a Buddha statue is kept in a small hut. Later on the farm families would come together and share the cooked new rice. Some quantity of paddy is given as a gift (‘Pangguwa’) to relatives and friends (Exchnage of germplasm).

The village community settled around the tank was in a way an extended family, who would cooperate and share responsibilities and assist each other, taking care of the old and infirm widows and others in distress. In such a state of communal harmony, nobody was left hungry or in want of food. The relatives and neighbour shared the moments of joys, sorrow and deprivations.

6.4 Storage of paddy seeds

The paddy seeds were stored for next year's crop in closely woven large cane baskets (Wee bissae). Storage bins called ‘Atuwa’ were made of strong hardwood obtained from Jack tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) for large quantities. In the home of a farmer (Anamaduwa area), an about three meters high traditional seed storage bin (“Bissae”) was kept in the courtyard. It was made of closely woven bamboo, with a protective cover of clay with cowdung (“Goma Meti”), to insulate it against the external temperature and humidity variations and against the growth of various saprophytic fungi and insects. The dried seeds were mixed with Neem (‘Kohamba’) leaves for added protection against harmful insects. A small thatch covered the bin, which was kept on a wooden base, about a meter high. This bin could store 85 bushels (45 bags) of paddy.

Such traditional paddy storage bins have almost gone out of use. The paddy is now kept in bags made of waterproof synthetic material, which are usually stored within the home. The paddy bags are also being stored under large tailored waterproof tarpaulin housing. The dried seeds of lesser grains, legumes, and vegetables are kept in polythene bags and stored in the kitchen. In the dry zone, the cobs with their sheath are hung on a bamboo under the shade of the trees, or were kept near the hearth in the kitchen. The female members of the family perform the task of, seed storage especially of chena crops.

6.5 Role of women in building indigenous systems of health and food security

A respondent farmer interviewed was candid in pointing out that his wife knew all that was known to him about various aspects of dry zone agriculture. Women's knowledge of traditional paddy cultivation was comprehensive. She could take charge of soaking, sowing and transplanting paddy and released men to prepare the land. While visiting the fields for weeding, she would supervise the watering and detected occurrence of any abnormal rise of pests or a developing pathogenic disease in the crop.

Women visited the nearby forests for picking buds, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds, edible yams and mushrooms for cooking purpose. Vegetables obtained from wild plants were cooked frequently. The knowledge base of the food or medicinal value of different plants had gradually been built up and was verbally passed from one generation to another. This knowledge was of immense help during periods of drought and the consequent shortage of food and family funds to buy the household supplies. Women would make ‘Anuga’ chutney by using the fruits of ‘Kone’ (Eugenia bracteata); collect copiously produced nectar in the flowers of ‘Mi’ (Madhuca longifolia) to make treacle and extract edible oil from its seeds. Its flowers were also eaten as a vegetable. With no spare money at hand to buy washing soaps, powdered seeds of ‘Penela’ (Sapindus emarginatus; soap tree) would be used. To purify the water for drinking purpose, seeds of ‘Igini’ (Strychanos potatorum) collected from the wild are used (Tennakoon, 1986).

When men had gone out to seek employment elsewhere, women would use her knowledge of medicinal plants found in the nearby forests to collect and sell them to ayurvedic drug manufacturers. Plant species such as ‘Goda Kaduru’ (Strychanos nux-vomica), ‘Bulu’ (Terminalia bellirica), ‘Aralu’ (Terminalia chebula), ‘Kaduru’ (Cerbera manghas) and other are commonly collected and sold. However, in spite of women's good knowledge of the medicinal plants, the village physicians were always men.

Women had the knowledge of plants, which could be used to preserve cooked food, for example dried fruits of ‘Goraka’ (Garcinia morella). The women collect the fruits and sell in the weekly roadside markets. For colouring food on festive occasions, and for dyeing clothes ‘Rata Kaha’ (Bixa orelana) was used. There were a number of other sources of dyes, which are obtained from various plant species.

6.6 Cultural beliefs and practices related to bio-resources

The traditions in Sri Lanka based on Bhuddist beliefs calls for respecting all forms of life. According to various cultural beliefs and practices have evolved as a symbolic gesture to respect lives of fauna and worshipping the means of sustenance. These are reviewed here as illustrations.

6.6.i Respect to wildlife

Wild animals, which would harm the crops were warded off rather than killed. Elephants were never killed or harmed for their mythical association with Buddha's birth and their place in Hindu religious traditions. The bird fauna, which would keep the insect pests under control, was given protection. Invariably a portion of the cultivated field, called “Kurulu Paluwa”, nearer to the forest, would be kept aside to feed the birds, (Weerawardana, 1994). As far as possible, people avoided killing even poisonous snakes like vipers and kraits, particularly cobras, which according to legend had shaded Lord Buddha under their hood. Certain animals like crows, monitors, and tortoises were never killed. As a method of biological pest control, Dimiya ants (Ecophylla smaragdina) were propagated in the vegetable and fruit gardens, to check any abnormal growth of pests and harmful insects. The aquatic fauna living in the paddy fields and reservoirs was protected for its beneficial role. The village pond was never completely emptied, but some amount of water was left for the survival of aquatic animals and for birds and other terrestrial animals for drinking.

As a part of a tradition, fruits from upper branches of trees were not plucked, but were left for birds and other animals to share. This practice not only gave sustenance to other wild animals, but also helped in the propagation of seeds (Weerawardana, 1994).

People believed that other animals that shared the habitat had a right to exist, and therefore, should not be intentionally harmed. This belief would prompt the chena cultivation to go around the field and shout loudly to request the birds and beasts to leave before lighting fire to the earlier slashed vegetation. He would apologise for any small animal; featherless bird or egg that were burnt, and would also welcomes them to share a part of his crop later.

Even though, the cultivators themselves managed subsistence living, often no effort was made to kill wild animals, including elephants that would invade the crops in the night. Women and men would sit the whole night and sing loudly and beat the drums, to scare away the wild animals. In later period, British officials, sportsmen brought shotguns and used the watch huts to kill animals and often induced the cultivators to use guns.

6.6.ii Thovil ceremony for good health and agriculture prosperity

Men only performed the role of ‘Gurunnanse’ for ‘Yakadura’, the master of evils. A narrator who lived in a village in Deniyaya explained the ritual; he performed the ceremony for those who would need his help. The ritual would require putting on devil masks, prepared from special wood obtained from two Apocynaceae tree species namely ‘divi kadurii’ (Pagiantha dichotoma) from the wet zone, and ‘gonkaduru’ (Cerbera odollam) coming from coastal area mangrove forests. The beard and moustaches for the mask were made from the fibres of Boehmeria malabarica (madu - diyagul). The ‘Deva-thovil’ prayer would require an offering of banana sheath, immature coconut taken from the flower bud, five types of seeds (moong, sesame, paddy, blackgram, and rattan), mature flower buds of coconut, banana, dried sea fish (sprats), dried meat of deer or goat, bones of fish (malueta), etc. The ritual of special prayers by chanting mantras was performed during the waxing phase of moon, but not at the time of full moon day (Poya). The ‘Deva-thovil’ ceremony was to propitiate ‘Yak’, for recovery from ill health, rain at proper time, and increase in the yield of crops. The ritual during the period of the waxing of the moon was to cast a bad spell, to harm the enemies.

In another ‘Thovil’ ceremony called ‘Kem’, a tree called ‘Kalaniya’ would be used against heavy infestation of insect pests. Small branches of this tree would be pulverised and put in four to six corners of the paddy field (Vitarana and Withanage, 1991).

6.6.iii Trees as abode of Gods or Demon (Yakka)

All tall and massive trees were considered to be abodes of good spirits, for example ‘Na’ (Mesua ferrea), Rukaththana (Alstonia scholaris), Bo (Ficus religiosa), Sapu (Cananga odorata) and Ehala (Cassia fistula). The flowers of Atteria (Murraya paniculata) are offered to Lord Buddha, who once had resided in an Atteria garden. The leaves of mango tree are used to worship goddess Paththini. The Katarodu creeper (Clitoria ternatea) was considered sacred, because of its blue flowers were offered for prayers to Lord Vishnu. Certain plants such as Jayapala (Ilex zelanica) have some powerful purgative properties. There is a belief that just sitting under its shade of Jayapala tree can cause diarrhoea (Vitarana and Withanage, 1991).

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