Activating All Powers in Sri Lanka Agriculture
G.K. Upawansa and Rukman Wagachchi
The Buddhist priest was just about leaving the temple of Kataragama in the south of Sri Lanka. When he learned about the aim of our visit, he decided to stay and take time for a lengthy dialogue with us. As our aim is to assist farmers to revitalise and to field test ancient knowledge, including its spiritual techniques, we wanted to ask the spiritual leaders for support. Monks and priests possess invaluable knowledge about indigenous techniques such as charming water and sand. They can also possibly train shamans and village priests and develop methods for testing and valuing traditional practices.
The priest Mabima Pangananda is knowledgeable about such agricultural rituals as seed selection, preparing land for sowing, and determining the right moments for sowing and harvesting. During our visit it became clear that he is very willing to train the village shamans. He was pleased with our interest: until recently, agriculturalists were not interested in spirituality.
In this article, we describe how agriculture in Sri Lanka was essentially an integrated system with crops, trees, livestock and fish. Animal and crop production has always been based on three aspects: the relationship with spirits and supernatural beings, astrology, and ecologically-sound practices. We will also indicate how we established a system of field experimentation to test and improve indigenous and effective traditional farming practices.
Sri Lanka is a small pear-shaped island to the south of the Indian sub-continent. Altitudes are as high as 3500 meter above sea level giving rise to a varied pattern of rainfall. The several different agro-ecological zones range from tropical forests, to highlands and semi-deserts. The south and southwest regions receive rainfall throughout the year and are referred to as the Wet Zone. The northwest province, the central province, the Uva and the north and eastern provinces make up the dry zone. The dry zone receives an average seasonal rainfall of 75 inches. The northeast monsoons which provide this rain lasts from October till January. The ancient people used the undulating topography to construct wewas or pond-like tanks. In these cascading water reservoirs, water overflows from the top most tanks to those lower down and ultimately flows into rice fields below. In some cases the chena, an agroforestry type of farm on the highlands, was located above the tanks. Cultivation usually began in the highland farms before the onset of the rains. The food security situation was such that in spite of the renovation of almost all ancient irrigation schemes and the construction of new schemes, food self-sufficiency remained a distant dream. Heavy imports were needed to meet grain requirements. This contrasts sharply with the past when the country produced all its food.
During the first phase of COMPAS, Upawansa of the NGO Ecological Conservation Organisation (ECO) and other members of the network for agricultural revival documented the importance of cosmovision for farmers in different areas of Sri Lanka. Workshops were organised in which farmers who apply traditional practices based on their cosmovision as well as other resource persons, priests and monks and NGO officials participated and shared their knowledge and experience. Written sources were also consulted. ECO's main objective is to offer Sri Lankan farmers alternatives to modern high-tech and chemical agriculture and protect them from exploitation. Training programmes in ecological farming have been conducted since 1992 for university lecturers, graduates, NGO officials, farmers and students interested in ecological agriculture. The programme deals with indigenous knowledge related to agriculture and includes astrology and the influence of supernatural beings. Most of the traditional practices are used extensively in the north central, northwestern, southern and Uva provinces. In the north and east they are used as well, but with some variations due to Tamil and Hindu influences. In the more developed provinces these practices have largely disappeared due to the extensive use of chemicals. Because of the reaction against the use of chemicals, some NGOs are trying to revive these traditional practices.
In the training sessions on eco-friendly practices, farmers bring up the spiritual practices they find effective. The aim is to have farmers testing these indigenous practices so they can be adapted and re-introduced among other farmers. The topic of cosmovision was very well received throughout the country and at present there are farmers groups experimenting with spiritual techniques in five different district of Sri Lanka. Most of them are being helped by NGOs and staff from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Sri Lankan agricultural cosmovision3>
|After the kem is performed, the chanted and energised water is sprinkled over the rice field. Rats, mice, elephants, wild boars and insects are asked to leave of only take a fair portion of the crop.|
|After a training is given by the Ecological Conservation Organisation (ECO), the farmer (centre) recalled that his father used to keep an old booklet on his attic. He traced it and found the remaining pages showing some twenty symbols and yantras for crop protection.|
The practice of kems is very widespread in rural Sri Lanka. A kem is a kind of practice, technique or custom that is followed in order to obtain some favourable effect such as relief from a specific illness. For example, washing in a pool of water immediately after a crow washes in that pool is believed to bring relief to people suffering from certain infirmities. A requirement in this kem is that the patient should wash without speaking or making much noise. The following kem is used for protection against the paddy fly.
'Go to the paddy field early in the morning, catch a fly at the entrance of the field, chant a specific mantra seven times and then release the fly'. Another one is: 'Charm some oil with a specific mantra and light an oil lamp at dusk at the farmers home and not in the field. To prevent crop damage by birds charm some sand and sprinkle it in the field'.
Some kems combine the use of astrology with the use of certain plants or herbs. Other kems depend on the use of specific plants and mantras. These traditional practices have survived because they must be effective. If these had no real effect, they would have disappeared long ago.
There are also kems that do not involve any belief in spiritual beings or gods. These kems are based on a careful observation of nature and natural phenomena. The kem practised to destroy the paddy caterpillar belongs to this category. It works as follows: milk rice is prepared and put on circular slices of banana leaves, placed on tree stumps which are located in those parts of the field where caterpillars have infested the crop.
This is done very early in the morning before the crows leave their nests. When the crows perch on the banana discs to eat the milk rice, the milk rice falls to the ground. When the crows pick up the fallen milk rice, they see the caterpillars and eat them instead of the milk rice. A variation of this practice is to keep roasted grains mixed with pieces of fruit in the evenings before sunset. This attracts carnivorous birds who destroy the caterpillars. Here, it is not the farmer who kills the caterpillars. So he does not commit any sin, which is an important consideration in Buddhism. This kem is an example of how traditional practices are based on knowledge of nature and religion.
Some kems are mechanical methods , like the lighting of fire torches. These torches are made using a piece of saffron robe for the wick and sticks of trees wara (Calatropis gigantea), kadura (Pagiantha dichotoma) or gurula (Leea indica) for the handle. The wick is dipped in butter oil or fat. A number of these torches are lighted and kept burning for about two hours at dusk. Most pests and insects are destroyed in this way. This is really a light trap. But the colouring used for the robe and the chemical properties of the selected sticks give extra effect. Today, some farmers may even use engine oil and cotton waste to make these torches. It is also believed that the torches will drive away evil spirits such as demons and pretas.
There are various conditions that have to be met to make the working of kems successful. For example, the farmer should not visit the field being treated for a specific period. This period of prohibition may be one, three or seven days. With some kems, women are prohibited from entering the field altogether, while other kems have to be performed by women only or even by pregnant women only. The effectiveness of a kem can be nullified if the person is exposed to a killa or impurity caused by eating certain food (especially meat). Attending a funeral also causes impurities. Another major impurity is associated with women's menstruation.
Indigenous knowledge associated with the practice of agriculture and irrigation survived for over 2000 years due to the unique institutional system that supported it. This institutional system was made up of many components and organised as a hierarchy. At the base, there was the village - the smallest unit. Each village was under a gamsabha or village council. Each village also had a village chief. A number of villages formed a korale which was the next higher level. Next came ratay mahattayas and even larger divisions were called disawas. At the apex of this pyramid was the king who possessed unlimited power. Any problem that could not be resolved at the local level was referred to the higher levels. Village temples and devales with their priests also enjoyed a certain degree of power. Then there were practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine.
The pirivena was the only formal education institute. This is a school attached to a Buddhist temple of worship. While religion was taught by Buddhist priests, the other three sections of the indigenous knowledge system, namely medicine, astrology and ritualism were taught by masters (gurus). In the passing down of this knowledge from master to pupil, some important sections were deliberately kept back without being passed down to the pupils. This practice of retaining some knowledge was referred to as guru mushtiya. The knowledge was hidden for the pupil and only given when the master died. In many instances, knowledge retained by the master in this way was lost forever.
This entire knowledge system is written in ola scripts. Young leaves of palmyrah trees are treated and seasoned in a particular way to produce a writing surface. The teachings of Lord Buddha are also written on these ola scripts. These writings can be categorised into four main fields: Dhamma, medicine, astrology and the category dealing with spirits, yantras and mantras. The Dhamma books also contain remedies for crop damage, pest attacks, damage from wild animals and also advice for improving yields. The medical book contained methods of treatment for crops. These remedies are described as Vrkshayurveda: Vrksha means trees and Ayurveda means treating sicknesses and physical disorders. A large number of remedies, rituals, and the use of spirits can be found in the section covering astrology and spirits. These prescriptions have been safeguarded as secrets and some have been passed down orally.
These indigenous systems began to disappear with the advent of westerners. The gamsabha was abolished in 1832. The gamarala was replaced by an officer called the velvidane in the 1860s. The velvidane's functions related only to the cultivation of paddy. Other components of the farming system such as highland and livestock farming were neglected. Agriculture in the villages came more and more under the influence of bureaucrats who were outsiders. Then modern technology entered village agriculture.
The Waste Lands Ordinance was an enormous blow to indigenous agriculture. This law introduced by the British, enabled them to buy up land at very low prices. Coffee plantations were established and later tea and cocoa were planted. Natives lost access to the land and this destroyed village agriculture. Christian missionaries came from an entirely different socio-cultural and religious background and did not appreciate the value of indigenous practices or beliefs. Some of them deliberately suppressed and ridiculed them in order to introduce their own beliefs and practices. The present institutional arrangements favour individual activity rather than communal or cooperative efforts. Paid labour was introduced into village agriculture that until then had depended on the mutual exchange of labour. Agriculture became an economic pursuit, and no longer a way of life. As a result, human values, respect for nature and cultural considerations all began to disappear.
The introduction of science-based education accelerated this process further. Modern science has not seriously studied indigenous knowledge. Instead of subjecting it to scientific study to test its validity, scientists tend to dismiss it as a myth. Agricultural scientists do not seem to have much faith in indigenous knowledge. Yet, the rejection of indigenous knowledge has led to the disturbance of the ecosystem. Crop failures are frequent due to non-adherence to cultivation time schedules.
One can also observe a revival of the interest of agricultural scientists in traditional practices, including their spiritual aspects. One promising feature is that Integrated Pest Management methods in agriculture are likely to gain popularity over chemical methods in the next few years. Many traditional methods are now included in IPM of rice pests in Sri Lanka.
In the north, central and the northwest Province, although certain changes have occurred in the practices, methods and techniques related to agriculture, by and large the traditional way of farming has been preserved. Many farmers use both modern as well as traditional methods. Almost all farmers use fertilisers and agro-chemicals. At the same time they adhere to traditional practices such as making a vow to gods when cultivation begins. They fulfill this vow at the end of the season. This also takes place in the colonization schemes established by the government. More farmers are now using modern pesticides rather than indigenous techniques. This is due to the propaganda carried out by agricultural officers and chemical companies. In some places, for example, conditions favour the adoption of traditional techniques. The availability of practitioners of ancient techniques helps to get them adopted in some areas. Many farmers have now realised the serious negative consequences of modern methods.
It has to be accepted that a large section of the farmer population has more or less abandoned most indigenous practices and techniques and adopted modern technologies that are often directly antagonistic to astrology, supernatural beings and the ecosystem. However, the number of individuals or formal institutions interested in indigenous knowledge is gradually on the increase. Ecological Conservation Organisation is experimenting with farmers on both eco-friendly practices, kems, rituals and poojas to the gods. We follow the technique of observation and experimentation by several farmers and then meetings are organised where farmers share their experiences. Almost every phenomenon that was subjected to testing has produced satisfactory results. The re-introduction of indigenous practices needs careful planning. Such a plan should have the following steps:
The above programme was implemented in Polonnaruwa District and generated a lot of interest among the farmers. Many more farmers will participate, as over 100 demonstrations are now being planned. These demonstrations will show the farmers how the application of cosmovision-based technologies can help them solve the problem of low yields, persistent losses and damage to the environment. Most of these techniques, practices and methods are environment friendly, do not involve high costs and are also culturally accepted. Fortunately many participants have offered to train selected youths from different parts of the country to use these techniques, practices and methods. There has also been a suggestion that a private library be organised that would be accessible to recognised practitioners.
The next step is testing on a small scale. Small plots are selected for this process. Observations are made and tests carried out in these plots. Since these tests are duplicated in a large number of plots, the results are acceptable. Successful techniques are immediately adopted by farmers in the neighbourhood. This ensures that successful techniques spread to other areas . Buddhist temples are important places with respect to indigenous knowledge, because priests in charge carry out indigenous practices such as charming water and sand. The close relationship that exists between the rural people and the Buddhist temples are a great help in popularising indigenous knowledge. Buddhist priests have close contact with farmers and moreover they command respect among the farming community.
When we organised workshops in the context of this study, the participants became so interested, that one of the NGOs - Janodaya - offered to organise a workshop in a temple so as to provide practitioners with the opportunity of contributing more towards popularising indigenous knowledge and cosmovision. The chief incumbent of this temple was himself a resource person. Another workshop was held in Kaudulla, in the Polonnaruwa district and was attended by resource persons, NGO officials and practitioners. This workshop too was very successful and many participants revealed the effective techniques they used. The meeting ended with a resolution to apply indigenous methods in agriculture together with certain modern ones. The success of this workshop led to the organisation of two more similar workshops that received assistance from the local agricultural society. Now the farmers themselves have organised another workshop and have even undertaken to provide its participants with lunch and refreshments. Since farmers have now realised that farming is not profitable with modern technology, they are looking for alternatives. There is clearly scope for the popularisation of indigenous knowledge and cosmovision.
The Ministry of Agriculture is also now involved in experiments with cosmovision - based practices. At the end of 1997, a series of farmers exchange meetings were organised for their staff. Kalyani Palangasinghe, one of the Sri Lankan COMPAS partners, describes how such a meeting was organised. 'With the help of farmer leaders, I identified key people: those who have a spiritual function, knowledgeable farmers, Ayurvedic doctors. Also people with an interest in the subject were invited. Farmer leaders are respected in the community and know their own culture well. The objectives of the meeting were discussed with the resource persons: to present to farmers the spiritual practices that are being used in the tradition and specifically how they should carry out their roles. In Sri Lanka, shamans carry out rituals to influence the good growth of the crops by enhancing the powers of sound (mantras) and symbols (yantras).
These rituals have to be performed at auspicious times, to be determined by astrologers. The shamans undergo extensive apprenticeships, have to be inaugurated and should live a pious life. These shamans were asked to reveal the mantras they are using, show some of the yantras and make a demonstration of a certain ritual. Other shamans were asked to make a drawing of the ritual they generally perform on a piece of paper of a size large enough to be presented to the meeting. My role was to pre pare and facilitate the meeting.
We made use of traditional symbols and ceremonies to introduce the meeting. An oil lamp was lightened and mantras were intoned. There was a demonstration of a ritual in the farmers' meeting. It is very important to search for the right resource persons. We also made a kind of healthy curative oil, and gave a small demonstration which immediately shows its applicability. The farmers were very enthusiastic. They sensed that in this way their knowledge, their culture and their spirituality was respected. The meeting lasted longer than usual. Even after the meeting farmers continued discussions. Most of the participants wrote down the mantras, and in some cases they recognised them from the time their parents had used them.
During the meeting drawings of spiritual practices were shown. They provoked so much reactions that we only needed to ask: 'What do you see in this poster, and do you think it is useful?' to get a very lively discussion going. At the end of the meeting we as ked which farmers were interested in experimenting with some of the traditional practices that had been presented. We got more than twenty volunteers and I promised that I would help them in carrying out the experiments. I now need to define the methods for field experiments. My colleagues of the Ministry of Agriculture were surprised about the degree of participation and the self-respect shown by the leaders. Nobody said it was nonsense. Apparently the idea was well received and the idea to start testing them appealed to both the farmers and professional scientists.'
The results of the work by COMPAS further helped build the network and different organisations, farmer groups and individuals in different parts of the country are now working on cosmovision. The most important lesson was that during sharing workshops, farmers readily accepted the idea of testing, experimenting and further validating the methods. The involvement of officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, and various other government departments and research institutions, and district administrative officials in various capacities needs to be further strengthened so that use can be made of their capacities in order to further understand and develop cosmovision-based ecological agriculture.
In the coming years, we will engage in a number of activities. First of all, we will reinforce the interest among farmers in experimentation in order to test and improve indigenous and effective traditional farming techniques. Farmers will be the main actors, but we will also intensify the relations with support organisations. Possibly, collaborative experiments will be executed with other national and international research institutes. We also hope to contribute to building theory to explain the results.
We also intend to continue collecting and documenting information on indigenous knowledge and cosmovision, their concepts of life, and indigenous institutions. Key persons, both men and women, will be interviewed, life histories will be studied and village workshops will be organised to study and discuss the topic and share information with other traditional farming systems. Participation in village festivals, rituals and other important events will be central. The documentation will not only be in written form, but also in audio and video records, slides and photos, and also through indigenous expressions with local media, local symbols, music, songs and designs. It will be interesting and challenging to conduct exchange visits between villagers, village leaders and spiritual leaders. In order to present the information to a wider audience, we also intend to conduct national and international seminars and workshops.
The author, G.K. Upawansa
tel +94 8 223012 / 054-22580
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Field staff will be further trained and supported in order to assist field staff implement these activities with farmers. We hope to establish clusters of traditional leaders and farmer groups, in which the methods used by the various farmer groups will be documented, discussed and their effectiveness assessed. In order to exchange and agree on the approaches to be used, national, regional and village level working groups will be established. We also intend to do intense networking with governmental and nongovernmental institutions, but the farmer groups who intend to continue with indigenous practices will have most of our attention.
To meet the demand of partner organisations that are working with farmers and are interested in this approach, we offer support with documentation, testing and the improvement of traditional techniques themselves. We hope to establish a field laboratory where we can also do some of the testing ourselves and strengthen our cooperation with Buddhist priests and traditional shamans.
Other articles by G.K. Upawansa:
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