Our staple food through the ages
D. C. Ranatunga
'Back to rice' is the theme these days. Did we ever think that the
Sinhalayas would have to be reminded to eat rice?! They have been
branded bath maruwo. It was an accepted fact that they relished
rice for the thun vela - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice and pol
sambol make up a lovely breakfast. Add parippu and a piece of karavala
- and it's a full meal.
It's still a
common habit in the village for the mother to have the heel bath
- previous day's rice kept overnight - for the morning meal. Often
she would mix the rice with remnants of a curry in the ethiliya
and feed the little ones.
Rice is always
prepared for the heel dane - the morning alms to the temple. The
monks are without any solids after the previous day's daval dana,
the mid-day alms. After noon, they only take gilampasa - a cup of
plain tea or a little fruit juice. The devotees feel that they should
be given a full meal in the morning.
The 'Back to
rice' advertising campaign prompted me to delve into the history
of our staple diet. According to Professor W. I. Siriweera, the
earliest people in Sri Lanka did not immediately begin wet-rice
cultivation which required a regular supply of water but resorted
to the easier chena techniques. "In this form of farming, the
adoption of rice did not need any great advance in agricultural
technology and dry paddy was grown on rotating plots. Medieval Sinhala
literature refers to rice grown under slash and burn techniques
as goda goyam. When the demographic growth necessitated an improvement
in the methods of cultivation, irrigated rice techniques became
important", he says in his book 'History of Sri Lanka'.
mentions that seed agriculture in China and North-Eastern India
dates from at least as early as the fourth millennium B.C. Wet-rice
techniques spread along the Indus Valley into the Indian peninsula
and later on to Sri Lanka. Systematic wet-rice cultivation spread
to other parts of the country and became the pivot around which
the economic life of the villager revolved.
In his Census
Report (1901), Superintendent of Census Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam
says that throughout the centuries of native rule, rice cultivation
was the principal concern of king and people and one of the noblest
of callings. To build tanks and construct watercourses were regarded
as the wisest and the beneficent acts of a good ruler. The extensive
ruins scattered in profusion in the ancient kingdoms attest to the
care of the kings and the expenditure of money and labour on the
the process of wet-rice cultivation, the Pujavaliya says that the
preliminary operation was the eradication of the rank growth in
the boundaries of the field and in the attached canal using mamoties
and hoes. Thereafter the fields were ploughed and thoroughly cleansed
The soil was
pulverized and soaked until it became a heavy mud. After ploughing,
levelling is done with a board or a plank (poruva) before seeds
are sown. After levelling either with the plough leveller (nangul
poruva) which was drawn by buffaloes or oxen, or the hand leveller
(ath poruva) which was manipulated by the farmer who stood behind
it, seed paddy was sown into the prepared paddy field. There were
different varieties of paddy - rathal, sinati, mavi, to mention
Sinhalese Art', Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy refers to the Sinhalese
society as a community based on rice. "Land was not the luxury
of a few, but the daily occupation and livelihood of the majority;
not to own land is still felt to be scarcely respectable. Every
man from the King down had an immediate interest in the cultivation
of the land; almost every man cultivated the soil with his own hands,"
the involvement of the community in paddy cultivation, he says:
"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 did not as a body rely upon their craft as a
direct means of livelihood, and used to lay aside their tools to
do a share of field work when need was, as at sowing or harvest
devotes a chapter in 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' to rice
and describes in detail the process from the time paddy is sown
In 'How to see Ceylon' (1914), Bella Sydney Woolf refers to paddy
cultivation as "one of the most interesting" and goes
on to describe how paddy is grown. Her description of the harvest
time is fascinating.
time evokes the most picturesque ceremonies", she says. "The
grain is reaped to the sound of song. It is gathered into sheaves
by the women who bind scarves round their heads and bear the sheaves
on their heads to the threshing floor. It is a feast of colour and
grace to see the women walking along the bund in the afternoon sunlight.
is an air of Biblical days about the scene which is intensified
at the threshing floor. For, as in those far-off days, the ox that
treads out the corn, or, in this case, the buffalo is not muzzled.
threshing floor, the Nekat-rala traces seven magic circles in ashes.
He divides up the circles into sections, and in each section he
draws a symbol - the sun, the moon, the plough and yoke, the laha
(a Sinhalese measure), bow and arrow, scythe, string and ilapata
(or native broom), katty (native knife), and a mammoty. In the centre
he places a piece of margosa wood, a coconut, a piece of iron, leaves
of tolabo and heressa (medicinal plants), a shell, a small jak-fruit
and an arecanut.
of the paddy then steps forward with the first sheaf on his head
and walks with stately steps three times round the magic circle.
His circuit completed, he casts the sheaf in the centre of the circles
and prostrates himself three times. The women, bearing the sheaves,
then come forward and each in turn casts down her burden. The buffaloes
are yoked together - as many as fifteen sometimes - and are driven
round and round till the last grain is trampled out of the ears.
It is a scene full of movement and excitement".
That was the
scene then. Today, the tractor has taken over and gone are the days
of the rituals at the kamata - at least not on the scale Bella Woolf