Saturday, May 18, 2024

Reviving traditional knowledge


For anyone keenly observing a discussion based on public events organised (especially online, given the circumstances) there is a marked rise on themes pertaining to traditional knowledge connected with traditional medicine and native farming.

In the past one week alone this writer took part in three such events; two held via zoom technology and one organised at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Training Institute.

Let us begin with the zoom events. One was titled Ape Jana Sanskrutiya ha Wedakama (Our traditional culture and traditional medicine) organised by the Sri Lanka Haritha organisation as the third event of a discussion series Aluthin Hithana Api) – (We who think anew).


Since what was discussed pertained to traditional knowledge, attitudes, wisdom and education, this writer came to the conclusion that by using the term ‘thinking anew’ meant breaking the ‘modern brainwashing’ rut and thinking ‘anew’ actually indicated a reverting to understanding the ‘old’ ways of living.

Among the speakers in this discussion were the Ven. Gampaha Samiddhi Thera, Suranjith Kodithuwakku, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Haritha organisation. Nuwan Gammanpila associated with the talk series who acted as moderator.

The main theme of the discussion was the core philosophy of traditional models of wellbeing. As the Thera, the Ven. Samiddhi Thera said Sri Lanka was historically not a country that separated health from food or had a medical system solely existing for profit making by ‘maintaining’ ailments.

The Thera said, “Traditional medicine and traditional farming went hand in hand. For the traditional physician it would be incongruous to suggest that food be separated from medicine. Or that poison be added to soil to aid food growth and then separately treat the ensuing ‘sickness’.”

“Our traditional food was our medicine and our farming which was one of the purest nature based connections was part of the lifetime process of keeping the nation healthy and productive. All these were connected with the Buddhist ethic as part of the culture of the country,” the Ven. Thera said.

He said that the main wish of the traditional physician would be to cure the patient in as short a time as possible and thereby accrue the related good karma. It was noted that although current terms such as viruses were not used in the linguistics of traditional medicine that the physician connected the whole of the body when assessing the ailment and providing treatment and knew to navigate the human system through the most complex of health onslaughts.

The fact that our traditional knowledge united humans with nature and did not create a stark separation was highlighted.

The vast range of the traditional medical science of Sri Lanka was discussed ranging from Beheth Oru (traditional medicinal storing shaped like a boat catering to specific ailments) and the Vidum Pillisum wedakama that was associated with the blacksmiths and particularly practised in the Nawanthenna village. Although this point was not discussed at length the pathetic situation is that this country has not bothered to conserve such knowledge for future generations and as far as this writer is aware the Vidum Pillissum technique unique to Sri Lanka has died with the last aged practitioner two years or so ago although it is believed by some that there could be surviving others who no one knows about. This method of curing burns and eliminating all proof of scarring was an ancient Sri Lankan expertise to treat burns.

Among those taking part in the zoom event were veteran artiste and Vice President of World Crafts Council Asia Pacific Sub Region, Sudath Abeysekera and the now Canada based writer Sumana Wijerathne, author of the book Katha Karana Maha Wewa.

The book is based on village life during the mid 20th century revolving around the irrigation culture that this nation and its ancestors are famed for.


In what was one an excellently moderated event, all participants were encouraged to share their views and a recurring point made by some academically associated persons was the need to include the teaching of traditional knowledge to the school and university system.

During the time allocated for the discussion, being the only person associated with the English language media and having a rather conspicuous first name it was opined that having someone associated with the English based communication attending the discussion was useful because of the potential to take Sri Lankan traditional medicine to the world. There was serious time limitation and I could not emphasise the point that what was solely needed for Sri Lanka now was not to take traditional medicine to the world but to use it in its own country in this time of pandemics. It should indeed be recommended for Government Ministries to allocate somebody to take part in such individually organised events so as to ensure that local policy making and attending to national crisis situations are in line with the pulse of our people and the nation’s heritage.

There is currently much talk of reshaping tourism in a post lockdown situation. We are as a nation idling on the very goldmine that could have prevented this Covid-19 economic catastrophe and given global dignity to this country provided we used our traditional medical science with confidence and within a coherent and unified system to overcome this health crisis.

Had we done this with the utmost confidence in our science that treated health calamities of the past we could have stunned a vaccine fatigued world and we would not have had to spend a single cent on our tourism promotion.


Hence, an overall need is to revise urgently as possible our education system so that from our infancy to adulthood our children will grow up familiarising themselves with the intangible cultural heritage of the land and the associated values.

It is such an education that will solidly bind the heart and the cognitive consciousness with the vast domain of local indigenous knowledge (which we have lost connection with). It is such a connection which will produce for this nation policy makers who take decisions based on a clear non doubting understanding or our heritage knowledge.

Without this we will eternally be mere mouthpieces of tradition while being overawed by Western knowledge and trying to mimic other nations.

Another zoom discussion on herb based traditional agriculture was carried out last week by the Hela Suwaya organisation that focuses on a deep meditative nila wedakam system that uses pure nature based foods as curatives.

A hallmark of Hela Suwaya is the incorporation of a deep spiritual aspect borne of stringent meditative striving as achieved by sages of yore in the identification of the Nila and thus goes beyond the general Nila wedakam tradition.

However this discussion was primarily on its Govithenata Aushada concept which looks at treating the chemically destroyed soil.

As an institution working with relevant government ministries to cultivate hundreds of acres by healing the soil with specifically made ‘Aushada’ as per the ancient Lankan agrarian farming knowledge, much information was shared how the nutrition of school children were catered to during the past years with traditional food from the produce grown.


The stark comparisons of how the agrarian fields were prior to this traditional farming method and thereafter were shown in authentic photographs and details provided for any follow up verification.

What was especially heartwarming was proving that Buddhist culture could be used for connecting all Sri Lankans; photographs were shown of Buddhist children practicing meditation as per their tradition in a popular boys school in Colombo and with similar supporting photographs showing how soon after non Buddhists – Tamils, Muslims and Christian parents voluntarily getting their children too to be exposed to this method of silencing the mind. In a day and age where spirituality, health of the mind, body and health of the earth are all fragmented into different entities, that there are attempts to combine these as one holistic reality is encouraging.

The importance of reverting to this holistic tradition – in agriculture – practised in Sri Lanka was raised in a yet another discussion organized by a partnership between government and non government entities primarily for the media at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Training Institute.

Among the main speakers at the event was the Minister for Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage and State Minister of Paddy and Cereals, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onions and Potatoes, Seed Production and High Tech Agriculture, Shasheendra Rajapaksa.

Both the ministers insisted that the recent decision to stop chemical fertilizer was part of the vision of the current regime and not a hasty decision and that there was no fear of crop failure in the next upcoming harvest season.

The support of the nation was sought for this making this decision a success. It was stated that compilations are being done on the different natural methods of cultivation practiced in Sri Lanka.

Some academics present stated that the difference between definitions of nature based agriculture is being drafted for better functional clarity and to dispel the confusion.

One such common confusion was cited as ‘compost’ and ‘organic’ often used interchangeably although the difference is that organic soil is based on interconnected plant life support nurturing and facilitating nature components that include wildlife, soil, food and insects while ‘compost’ is about a specific process that solely focuses on enriching the soil as a segmented entity which of course will end up used for supporting plant life.


One of the key speakers at the event was Professor of food science and technology, K. K. D. S. Ranaweera of Sri Jayewardenapura University whose research areas are functional foods, nutrition and biochemistry.

Highlighting that his areas of interests tracks food from the journey it takes from the soil to the plate, he reminded the audience that organic agriculture was not something ‘new’ and that it was what our parents knew as ‘agriculture’ to be.

“When I was young there was nothing called ‘organic.’ Everything was ‘organic.’ Nature looked after much of tasks associated with our farming.” He detailed out the excruciating financial loss we have been willingly indulging in running into hundreds of billions of rupees as fertiliser import, food imports and health based costs that include treatments and the construction of hospitals.”

In a sad backdrop of some agriculture professors backing the chemical industry Prof. Ranaweera did not mince his words when he spoke of Sri Lanka’s agrarian culture and that this has been turned on its head with the killing off of the eco system by the poisonous agrarian culture we have adopted for the past sixty years. He explained how untold disasters can take place when the eco system is tampered with. All that humans have to do to examine this statement is to look back at how climatic disasters have increased in the past years.

Prof. Ranaweera said that within the new organic framework the agriculture value chain has to be carefully studied so as to ensure that the farmer gets access to markets without middleman exploitation.

The speakers at this event unanimously agreed that the spearheading of natural agriculture has already kicked off a demand for nature based produce such as grass and dung. Some alarm was sounded by some alleged intriguing mass collections of dung from across the country.

There was also a call to formally ban the slaughter of cattle so as to instill the due traditional place of these animals in the agrarian process and enable the nation better access to cow dung for soil fertilising.

In conclusion what could be said as a sum up of the three discussions is that for a country such as Sri Lanka which has a stupendous array of knowledge on farming including bio dynamic farming, all we need is to retrace our steps and become Sri Lankans in practice as well as name.

Merely talking about our heritage is not going to enrich our lives but rather the practice of it as our ancestors did so that we create productive, healthy and able citizens to serve the country.


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