Travel anywhere in Sri Lanka, anytime of the year, and you will see the landscape striped with lush green paddy fields extending from the valleys - for rice is the principal food (staple diet) of the island nation, the food of the kings, priests and the common people alike, from time immemorial. Sri Lanka’s legendary paddy cultivation once brought it fame as the Granary of the East.
Paddy farming has been part and parcel of our village based farming community from our childhood years to adolescence, in the village. Indeed, it was with great pride that we consumed a plate of rice originating from one’s own paddy field. However, the rural culture based on paddy cultivation is now crumbling in many areas. There is a fear that the traditional farming culture could entirely vanish from our villages.
Ancient Sri Lanka had an impressive hydraulic ecosystem. Successive kings 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 in harmony with the monsoon rains: the Northeast Monsoon watered the Maha or major crop cycle, which commences with seeding in October-November for harvesting in February and March; the Southwest monsoon watered the Yala or minor crop cycle planted over April and May for harvesting in August-September. I can vividly recall nostalgic memories of my own experience in the village when I was a schoolboy at the age of twelve, four decades ago. During the paddy farming season, I used to go to the paddy field with my three brothers to help my father in our two acre paddy field in the village. During the paddy farming period, we had a “Kaiya”, a small group of village farmers voluntarily helping individual farmers to plough or sow.
To plough our paddy field, my father usually got buffaloes from one of his friends, Addo Atha, an elderly person in the village who had a herd of buffalo, around thirty, from whom my father took around 12 to plough our field.
As a schoolboy, the cries of farmers tilling our fields still reverberate in our ears. Singing, scolding and talking to Addo Atha’s buffaloes, we drive them on their monotonous round of the field: “Go to the left, my brother, Jaha Kotiya Jaha, It’s getting late, go on, Ho… Ha… Ho… Ha… We are ploughing the fields, my son”.
For breakfast in the field, my mother would prepare milk rice called ‘Embul Kiribath’ around 9 o’clock. My mother and Menike, a neighborhood woman brought breakfast to the field. For lunch, the main ingredient was rice with several curries including a delicious dried fish curry made with “Katta” dried fish.
It is fascinating to have lunch under a shady tree in an open space with a gentle breeze blowing across the fields.
After the hard work from morning to noon under the scorching sun, the weary buffaloes are given a rest by letting them immerse in the water in the paddy field. After lunch, all the farmers take a brief nap under the shady trees in the Kamatha, which is a sacred place in Sinhala folk culture: it symbolizes the climax of a whole agricultural season- ploughing the field, sowing and reaping the harvest.
In the past, buffaloes were used to plough the land, whereas today, tractors have put many of these animals out to pasture, though I have seen some farmers use buffaloes in remote villages, even today. The ritual begins with planting the seeds, the first seedling ritualistically positioned in the centre of the field by the senior most farmer.
Sections of the land at two ends of the field are left unsown for the birds and insects to enjoy. Ploughing commences, with the farmer dressed in a loincloth who leads a pair of buffaloes yoked to the plough to commence turning the soil. The other farmers follow suit. However, now, tractors are also used for this purpose, demonstrating the co-existence of modern technique with ancient traditions. Two rounds of ploughing are done before the seed paddy is sown.
The Kamatha and the rituals associated with the activity of threshing the paddy have over the generations acquired a sanctity of their own. In the evening session farmers mostly use indigenous tools such as, the mammoty and wooden ‘Poruwa’ to prepare muddy fields.
At the time when the plants bloom, weighing them down with luxuriant grain, the farmers erect dummies made of straw and rags in their fields. Called “scarecrows” (Pambaya in Sinhala) the purpose of these dummies is not so much as scaring away the birds, but diverting the attention of passes-by who might otherwise look upon the ripening crops with an “evil-eye” (Es-Waha in Sinhala).
After the second ploughing, which is done within ten days of the first, the soft earth is levelled with the aid of a Porulella, a small wooden plank that has a long wooden pole attached to serve as a handle.
The slope of the field is always set towards the water outlets since the supply and drainage of water is essential for the healthy growth of paddy which loves water.
Once the proportion of germination is calculated, bags of seed paddy are kept in a waterway with running water for germination.
The auspicious time is chosen with the consent of all the farmers involved. In certain areas germination is done by soaking in a tar barrel since the seed paddy left in waterways is sometimes stolen. The sprouted seed paddy is then thrown in a manner so as to fall at regular distances according to the required density. This is done by taking a handful of germinating paddy from a box made of rattan.
The seed is then scattered systematically in a particular direction to cover the entire field. This is the duty of the chief farmer of the field and no talking is done while this process goes on, as with each handful the farmer wishes its yield to multiply ten times.
According to paddy farmers, these traditions will ensure a bountiful harvest for their paddy fields. The first harvesting of paddy is a celebration.
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 the farming community. Portions of the first rice are offered to the Buddha and taken in procession to the temple. Another ritual is held in the temple called ‘Aluth Sahal Mangalya’ which literally means “new rice festival”. This is a precious moment that unites the land and its bounty with the hard work of the farming community and their deities.
When the young generation in villages move to the city in search of greener pastures, the traditional village based paddy farming loses their participation and the elderly farmers also give up farming due to poor health. Eventually, paddy cultivation has become an unprofitable business due to the high production cost, the shortage of workers and farmers and the prohibition of several fertilizers.
In the past two months, the price of rice has gone up due to the drought experienced in rice growing areas, especially, in the North Central Province and some parts of the Eastern Province. Once again, the farmers have turned their attention to barren paddy fields that had been neglected for many years after the Government announced that all barren paddy fields would be taken over.
During my recent visit to some of the remote areas in the island, I witnessed farmers eagerly working in their paddy fields. I captured these rare nostalgic scenes on my camera lens which hung from my neck while I traversed mud filled narrow paths called ‘Niyara’.
However, we should awaken the masses on this dying traditional custom of paddy cultivation because enthusiasm for paddy cultivation is waning in the village community. Even though we cannot compare the new technology to ancient traditions, it is our duty to preserve these age-old traditions of paddy cultivation for the benefit of the younger generation who can otherwise see these customs and rituals only through photographs or documentary films.