Traditional Agriculture in Sri Lanka

Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudyanse Tennekoon
Part 1

Ecologist Magazine Editor Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudiyanese Tennekoon
Edward Goldsmith interviews Mudiyanese Tennekoon

Primitive agriculture is frequently dismissed as primitive and unproductive. In fact, it offers the best hope for the future.

Farmer Tennekoon is a prophet, a prophet of traditional rural life in Sri Lanka. He is also a farmer and lives in a small village in the Kurenegala district of the island. In recent years he has become quite well known among those people who recognise the destructiveness and counter-productiveness of the modern system of intensive agriculture which the international institutions - FAO and the Word Bank in particular - are imposing on Sri Lanka.

I was taken to see him by two people who fall into this category, both extremely interesting and knowledgeable men; Upali Senanayake, (nephew of Dudley Senanayake, the son of the first prime minister); and Gunasekara, a civil servant who devotes his spare time to studying traditional life in Sri Lanka. I have reconstructed our conversations from my notes.

Edward Goldsmith is editor of the Ecologist magazine.

Goldsmith: What is the size of the average farm in this area?

Tennekoon: The average family has less than two acres of land

Goldsmith: Are you self-sufficient?

Tennekoon: I am afraid not. In my father's day we were very much more so. Today I must buy kerosene for our lamps as well as salt and also clothes.

Goldsmith: Did you never produce these things yourself?

Tennekoon: My grandmother used to make her own clothes and those of her family too. We grew cotton in the chenna - the wooded area behind the village used for slash and burn cultivation. We still do. Moreover, in the past there was no need for kerosene as we produced our own Mee oil, extracted from the nuts of the Mee tree (Kaly).

Goldsmith: Did you use Mee oil for cooking as well?

Tennekoon: Yes and also for medicinal purposes. We also used coconut oil.

Goldsmith: Did you have traditional bartering arrangements with local artisans as they do in India?

Tennekoon: Yes, ten years ago there was both a potter and a blacksmith in the village. We provided them with food in exchange for pots and tools; now we must buy these things from a store in the town., But we don't get the clay pots any more and they were very useful.

Goldsmith: What use did you put them to in particular?

Tennekoon: Among other things they were used for storing water. We used to fill them with the chaff from the paddy, burn it, leave the cinders there for a few hours, and then wash them out and fill the pot with water. This kept the water cool.

Goldsmith: That is remarkable; was this sort of knowledge handed down to you from father to son?

Tennekoon: Of course. Every farmer is a researcher and a teacher otherwise he could not be a farmer.

Goldsmith: How many varieties of rice did you use to grow here?

Senanayake: At one time 280 varieties were cultivated in Sri Lanka. Only 15-20 are left. As a result of government policies the others have become extinct. *

*According to D. Dreberg, (superintendent of school gardens quoted in C. Wright, Glimpses of Ceylon) 1974 three to four hundred varieties of rice were once cultivated.

Tennekoon: I can remember 123 varieties of red rice, now only three or four remain.

Goldsmith: In what way did these varieties differ from each other?

Tennekoon: First of all, we needed different varieties for the two growing seasons - the Maha season associated with the north-east monsoon and the Yala season associated with the south-west monsoon.

Sri Lanka's Goviya or ancestral rice cultivators
Sri Lanka's Goviya or ancestral rice cultivators

During the Maha season we planted what we call the "four month" varieties. As their name indicates, they take four months to grow. During the Yala season we planted the "three month" varieties. Amongst the Maha varieties, I can remember Murungakayam, which was brown and white, Wella illangaliya, Hondarawara, Gangala and Beruwee. Among the "three month" varieties I can remember, Heenati, Dahanala, Kokkali, Kanni Murunga, Pachha Perumal, Kuruwee and Suvandel. We also grew Mawee, a "six to eight" month variety.

Goldsmith: What was this for?

Tennekoon: It was for the priests, Buddhist priests don't eat after noon so they need very nutritious food to sustain them until the next morning. Mawee is very nutritious ; it has a high protein content and that is why we grew it.

Goldsmith: How about the other varieties?

Tennekoon: We grew Heenati for lactating mothers as it makes them produce more milk and also better milk with a high fat and sugar content. We tried to grown it during both seasons. Kanni Murunga we grew for the men going out to work in the paddy fields. It gave them energy as it contained a lot of carbohydrates. It was also used for making milk for traditional ceremonies. Suvandel, we grew because of its extraordinary fragrance.

Some of these varieties were specially used when there was a lot of water in the paddy fields: others when there was little water. The former we refer to as 'Goodel' (or 'Goda')., the latter as 'Madawee' (or 'Alwee'). Some varieties were grown when the fields were particularly muddy: some were more suitable to grow on high ground where there was less mud. Some of the varieties required very rich soil; others would do well in the poorest of soils. Some were more resistant than others to the paddy bug and we planted them, rather than other more desirable varieties, when traditional means of controlling the bugs failed.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

"In a Goiya's Looking Glass": Farmer-folklorist Mudyanse Tennekoon on Sri Lankan history and society