By Surya Vishwa/DailyFT-Harmony Page
Colombo, November 28: Last week, on this page, we wrote on how the village is the nerve center of our psyche as citizens and part of our national identity. We analyzed this though the Ape Gama (Our Village) heritage concept located at the Jana Kala Kendraya in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, made to be the way a village was typically before colonization, with clay houses.
In the analysis published in this page we emphasized how such a concept should be not just a visual or romantic idealizing of the village but something that will be practically re-enacted where all the values, skills and knowledge of the village is imparted to Lankans of today.
This is especially for teachers and students. The village is the core of a nation with its many traditions, and has great potential to bring its people together, whatever ethnicity or religion, and holding an immense possibility to bring solace to a mechanized world that has lost its way.
However, although the village is the pulse of a nation, that pulse has been getting weaker each day, pressured by the imposing and mercenary bulk that is the city. What we have to resurrect urgently are the many diverse skills of the village so that the city engages with the village on the terms of the village and not the other way round.
In these pandemic times it is most important that we talk of our traditional medical skills which were rooted in the village. Yet, many of the masses have forgotten that it is the village that has had from the time of our ancestors a great healing prowess, which made, and should make even now, Sri Lanka a global medicinal hub.
It is our villages which hold a majority of traditional medical (Weda) practitioners of which there are about 25,000. At the height of COVID-19 we can see that their skills are not mainstreamed.
It is the village that still has the luxury of seeing at least more trees than the town although cutting down trees seems to have become over the past decades a national pastime. Despite our traditional medical industry being threatened by lack of herbs being grown locally, we do not seem to have any vision to mainstream the cultivation of herbs so that it becomes a common habit applicable to every child and youth and a part of what we consider ‘education’.
Focusing on the irrelevant
As a nation we have not focused on the fact that almost all our main traditional medicine-related herbs are imported. Instead we seem to somehow focus on turning green areas into concrete jungles. We seem to think that ‘concretization’ is ‘development’. We have forgotten that we indeed were a ‘developed’ civilization long before the West dominated this word. The village seems to be urbanizing at a rapid pace with trees being felled to build sleek roads and concrete structures.
The sad saga of the city imposing itself in the village is captured beautifully in the preface of the book ‘Ape Gama Saha Apa Game Aththo’ by Prof. Nimal de Silva who has authored around 14 books relating to Lankan culture and heritage, held many top-most positions, served as senior professor in the Faculty of Architecture in the University of Moratuwa, Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya and Director for the Centre for Heritage and Cultural Studies.
In the preface of his Sinhala language book published in 2016, which is an account of his childhood growing up in the south of Sri Lanka, he states: “The people of the village come to the city. After being in the city for a while they forget the village. They come to the village only for a wedding or a funeral. Children come to the village to see their grandparents only during holidays. For that too there is no time. That is because of tuition classes. Children do not have experiences of the village. They cannot communicate in the village. The parents take great effort to teach the children English. Today the city has come to the village.”
Here he cites among other appendages of modernity, the presence of imported fruits and tinned food in the village and says: “What we have today is a village that is changing. Something has happened to the quietude, values and spirituality present in the village. The skill and usage of the wangediya, ambarum gala, kulla, nembiliya, thunapahapolkatuwa has vanished. In most villages small schools are being closed. The unused water in wells is now unfit not only for drinking but also for bathing.”
In the book’s preface dated 28 January 2015, Prof. Nimal de Silva further points out how he has seen the change in ideology and attitudes of his students over four decades. “I have seen the change in the students who enter university in the past four decades. In last year’s class out of 110 students only eight had been to Anuradhapura. The student who does not know the proud legacy of his country and his mother tongue has lost his soul. The responsibility for this has to be borne by the exam-oriented education system and parents who view ‘progress’ in an upside-down manner.”
He then goes on to explain the importance of preserving the village wherever it is, whether north or south or east or west. It was really nice listening to him narrate long Sinhala poems that his mother used to recite to communicate matters pertaining to diverse everyday issues, especially relating to medical heritage.
This is what we have deprived our younger generation over the past decades; we have cut the communication line that connects us and our village and the nation.
Even the topic of heritage is now a rather elite dominated topic which has little or no practical recognition of the village. The villager no longer wishes to live out his traditional lifestyle. This writer based in a village 10 km from Kandy has to roam the countryside further and further to find medicinal leaves such as Pavatta leaves which generally grow wild. These leaves are a rarity now because every inch of land seems to be taken over for construction. The villager I get Jackfruit from, only sells them. He eats ‘town food’ because as he said, his neighbors who see him eating the Jackfruit he sells will think he has no money to buy “food”.
This writer, who has long discarded many embellishments of the ‘modern’ world, is often asked by well-meaning friends why I use village woven mats (for sleeping, eating and reading). Some who do not know me enough assume it is because I am going through a ‘rough monetary patch’ with a friend once offering to buy me a bed until I showed her the bed upon which rows of books have been arranged! Of my friends, acquaintances and scholars who borrow my books less than 10% can actually sit cross legged on a mat. But many of them pay exorbitant amounts at the gym.
This pandemic era, when even the most non-introspective mind is tempted to question the path the world has taken, is the last chance for us to work towards restoration, taking pride in the simplicity of the village. This is not for some orientalist quest but for the very survival of ourselves, our indigenous knowledge and the protection of our natural world.
The village and the natural world go hand-in-hand, and before we were monopolized by chemical agriculture, we in the villages worked with nature to grow food using many techniques due to which neither man nor plant nor animal was harmed. Today we have poisoned our villages.
It is in the village that we had ancient sciences such as Kem Wedakama (applicable to both healing of humans and plants) which we scoffed at labelling them ‘non-scientific’. However, we are quite content to get a scholarship or pay our way through to a West-based university which teaches the same Kem Krama and Kem Govithena to us cloaked in the terminology ‘Bio dynamic sciences.’ Whether it is our traditional medicine or nature-based lifestyle or ancient agro-based knowledge what is for certain is that although it is discarded by us it thrives elsewhere and this knowledge is sold back to us (just like what the colonials did with our cinnamon).
Hence, we need an urgent minds shift. But to do this, we should recognize that our minds, are colonized, globalized and subtly or overtly influenced to fall into the industrial Western cultural monopoly of today with its many tempting vicissitudes. This is not just us; this is world over.
This page some months back featured warnings given to the world by the ancient Kogi tribe which lives in the high Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. The warnings were to reverse the deathly trend of destruction of trees, forests, and eco system done in the name of ‘development.’ The Kogis particularly and other aborigines such as the Native Americans can barely keep alive their traditions as the guardians of the earth – hampered as they are by modernity’s laws.
Protection of the natural world
If we look carefully at our Lankan ancestors, their village-based knowledge is woven around the protection of the natural world which was directly or indirectly in the short or long term linked to the well-being of humans. Today humanity is perishing because the cities of the world have not realized this and greed has replaced need.
All of Sri Lanka’s arts, crafts, ancient engineering sciences, medical systems and spiritual traditions which combined great technology (such as those used in our ancient constructions) were models of genuine sustainability. Every single construction that was done in the different eras of this country’s civilization was carried out in a truly sustainable manner where all materials had reusable value. This is in sharp contrast to how we construct today following Western models of engineering where we only end up with rubble.
We mentioned last week that the village was the repository of diverse advanced forms of knowledge and one of the best examples of this is the colonial era railway construction – the viaduct nine arch ‘bridge in the sky’ in Demodara built on the advice of P.K. Appuhami, a villager who urged its construction without the use of any metal structure.
The village should not be seen as a desolate place empty of ‘educated’ people and where the ‘city educated’ come and lord it over the rural man. This has been happening for seven decades. It should change now. It should begin with not being ashamed to have the identity of the village whether in dress or lifestyle.
Here I use what was told to me by a former government service officer of the Lands Commission Department. It is on how Susil Siriwardena who has held positions such as Director, National Housing Authority and Commissioner of Janasaviya Fund, returned from Oxford in the 1960s and went to face an interview to enter Government Civil Service. He was mistaken by the interview panel to be a minor employee who they thought had come with a file to get their signatures sent by some senior officer. Why did they make this mistake? Because Susil Siriwardena, although graduated from Oxford, did not forget his roots and went dressed in national dress. So, when told by one of the panel members – ‘Go and ask Mr. Susil Siriwardena to come,’ he had replied: ‘I am Susil Siriwardena!’
Our identity is not just one thing and not the other; whatever we are is an inter-connection of many things. Hence, if there is a local concept in the city to represent the village, as ‘Ape Gama’ attempts to, then it should be done in a manner that is not merely an elitist experience but one that will restore in full measure the pre-colonial dignity and knowledge of the village in all its diversity. For decades there has been no systematic support for rural arts and crafts and many that had existed for centuries have died out.
But hope is not lost. As long as there is a vestige of rural knowledge surviving in whatever form it cannot be fully killed. We say today that important lineages of traditional medicine are lost with the death of its practitioners but we have thousands and thousands of ancient documents full of medicinal details. Why don’t we, while we are so humbly awaiting a Western country to sell us a vaccine against the latest pandemic, do something to restore our medical heritage and in doing so involve our younger generations?
Old knowledge is obsolete only when it is forgotten and trampled upon and the potential to be shaped into innovation is neglected. One cannot use old knowledge for innovation unless we have Lankans who are familiar with the indigenous. We highlighted this in the recent interview with Sri Lanka’s world-famous inventor Dr. Nandadasa Narayana and the separate invention we portrayed in this page linked with traditional vapour inhalation created by Lankan engineer Dr. Sudath Rohitha.
Both Dr. Narayana and Dr. Rohitha are currently creating in their individual capacities several inventions that link traditional medical heritage with modern invention which they are hoping will be useful for the country in these pandemic times. This is one of the best examples of the roots of the village shining in the city without being brainwashed by the city. It is this ethos of creation that we should evolve when promoting the concept of the village in the city.