Rice: Our staple food through the ages

by 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'.

Professor Siriweera 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 national industry.

Describing 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 of weeds.

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 a few.

In 'Medieval 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," he says.

Explaining 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 time...

Robert Knox devotes a chapter in 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' to rice and describes in detail the process from the time paddy is sown until harvesting.

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.

"The harvest 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.

"There 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.

"On the 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.

"The owner 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 describes.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times Plus (Colombo) of 28 September 2003

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