August 2013


The Rice of Life: Paddy cultivation forms the heart of Sri Lankan culture
August 2013




Across Asia, rice is the giver of life. Ever since a group of hungry hunter-gatherers discovered the first grains of paddy stuck on the coat of an animal scampering out of a flooded plain in ancient China, rice has been a sought after staple for survival. While this Chinese tale of origins may be the stuff of fantasy, paddy cultivation is an important reality of the world's agricultural traditions. There is evidence of domesticised wet-bed paddy cultivation in China dating back to 7000 BC.


Words Daleena Samara Photography Rasika Surasena


In lush tropical Sri Lanka, paddy cultivation took deep root, transforming into the lifeblood of the islanders and setting the pace for a national culture embellished with elaborate rituals centered around the preparation of the fields and the harvesting of the grain.


Sri Lanka's legendary harvests once brought it fame as the Granary of the East. Historical records tell us that paddy was cultivated in Anuradhapura in 161 BC and flourished there until 1017 AD. Today, it is cultivated across the Island. As society evolved, activities and people close to the heart of paddy cultivation rose to prominence. By keeping the Island fed, the goviyas or paddy farmers ascended the hierarchy of the Sinhalese cast system, raised by royal patronage because, after all, they satiated the people's hunger and so were deserving of respect.


Paddy cultivation was a communal collaboration involving both the land-owning farmers and the tenant farmers or ande goviyas, who worked individually and collectively, from the seeding to
the harvesting, under the guidance of wise and weather-beaten seniors. 
The cultivation cycle was a high point of their social life. Everyone pitched in. Historian, Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy writes in Medieval Sinhalese Art, "Great Chiefs were not ashamed to hold the plough in their hands. The majority of village folk were brought into close touch with the soil and with each other by working together in the fields; even the craftsmen... used to lay aside their tools to do a share of the field work when need was, as at sowing or harvest time..."


Divine intervention was sort to secure blessings for a bountiful harvest, and protection from the elements and from disease. At first, it was the gods of the folk religions of the land that the farmers turned to. After the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 250 BCE, Buddhist rituals took prominence and these folk practices were incorporated under its umbrella. The rituals differed from place to place. In the low country, for example, a ceremony was held to secure the support of the Gara Yakka, 
a demon believed to cause trouble if he is not courted.


In Anuradhapura, a ceremony was held to thank the Aiyanayaka deiyo, a diety associated with the reservoir, marking the important connection between the agrarian people and their water. Ancient Sri Lanka had an impressive hydraulic ecosystem. Successive monarchs built elaborate water systems to irrigate the land, collect rainwater, and feed the paddy fields, dotting the landscape with man made reservoirs. The rhythm of the Island's paddy cultivation cycles harmonised with the monsoon rains: the northeast monsoon watered the Maha or major crop cycle, which commences with seeding in October-November for havesting in February and March; and the southwest monsoon watered the Yala or minor crop cycle planted over April and May for harvesting in August-September. Seventy percent of the Island's rice harvest comes from the former, and the rest from the latter.


The farmers practiced two main forms of cultivation: dry seed and wet-bed, the latter being the more prevalent. One method of dry seed cultivation is known as kekulama, when the land to be cultivated was claimed from the forest, and the other as vee hena if the land was under the shifting or hena cultivation method, where the first step is the earth being ploughed, left to settle for a few days, and then seeded with dry germinated seeds. Only certain sections of land were dry seeded, and the rest of the land was prepared for wetland cultivation, to be carried out when the tanks were brimming with water.


Few events in Sri Lanka are undertaken without consulting an astrologer who determines the auspicious time for a successful outcome. Thus important activities like ploughing, seeding, threshing and harvesting were initiated at auspicious times. One of the first acts was for the farmers to clear, tidy and secure the waterways, footpaths and precincts. That completed, the blessings of the gods were secured with a vow or promise, sealed by tying up a coin in a piece of new white cloth and attaching it to the branch of a sacred nuga tree near the water source. The sluice gate was opened, releasing water into the fields, the moment announced with the lighting of fire crackers.


Then began the tilling and ploughing of the earth. In the past, buffaloes were used to plough the land, whereas today, tractors have put many of these animals out to pasture. The seedlings are then planted, with the first seedling ritualistically positioned in the centre of the field by the senior farmer. Sections of land at two ends of the field were left unsown for the birds and insects to enjoy.


Watch huts or pela are set up high above ground to keep watch over the green bounty. The watchers had a 
clear view of the entire field. Fires are created to keep destructive animals away. To stay awake, the watchers would sing pel kavi, songs of the watch hut. Slowly, the fields would turn a golden brown. Harvest time was a time of rejoicing, to be celebrated in song. 
The men cut the paddies and the women gathered them into sheaves, which they carried upon their heads to the kamatha or threshing floor. In Folk Songs of Lanka, Carlton Samarajiwa writes, "the kamatha is a sacred place in Sinhala folk culture: it symbolises the climax of a whole agricultural season - ploughing the fields, sowing the seed, weeding and transplanting, and reaping the harvest. The kamatha and the rituals associated with the activity of threshing the paddy have over the generations acquired a sanctity of their own. Naturally, there are kamath kavi, 
or threshing songs, to be 
joyously sung:


Budun vandina velaavayi
Kiri uthurana velaavayi
Kola madavana velaavayi
Kamatha pirena velaavayi


Threshing time is a holy time,
Threshing time is a bounteous time,
It's time to thresh the sheaves of paddy,
It's a time when our kamatha is full.


The first cuttings of rice are a celebration. A ceremonial pot of milk is placed on a wood fire and allowed to boil over, in a ritual called kiri itirima that symbolises abundance. Milk rice is cooked with the grains of the first harvest and offered to the Buddha and to the deities, and the remainder is shared among those present. Portions of the first rice are offered to the Buddha and taken in procession to the temples. It is a precious moment that unites the land, and its bounty with the hard work of its people and their gods.

 

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    These decorative stalks of golden rice paddy are symbols of abundance

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    Women weed the paddy fields. They break the monotony of their labour by singing goyam kavi (paddy songs).

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    A farmer prepares a mud bund in a paddy field

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    Poru dhanda, a tool used to winnow the paddy

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    The paddy is bundled by the women and taken to the kamatha. The bundles are piled into a circular heap called a kolaya.

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    Hand held tractors are used for threshing, doing the work that was previously done by buffaloes

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    Winnowing the paddy

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    Woven basket to store rice

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    Ceremonial offering of a bowl of new rice or aluth sal to the temple

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    Different varieties of rice for sale in a grocery store. Sri Lanka has about 20 different varieties of rice.

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