Saturday, May 18, 2024

Versatility in Indigenous Traditions of Sri Lanka


The widespread recognition of “growing limitations” in a development setting, as well as the paradox of inequality, poverty, and the loss of a harmonious living environment, has prompted the global society to seek alternative paths that integrate the traditional wisdom of our ancestry, Sri Lanka was awakened to this reality more than 2500 years ago.

By Gemunu Goonewardene
The widespread recognition of “growing limitations” in a development setting, as well as the paradox of inequality, poverty, and the loss of a harmonious living environment, has prompted the global society to seek alternative paths that integrate the traditional wisdom of our ancestry, Sri Lanka was awakened to this reality more than 2500 years ago.

Sustainability has become a prime objective of today’s society and every person and organization concerned about our world is finding ways to live in a more sustainable way. Meanwhile Sri Lankans, since the olden days, have been living a naturally sustainable life, they were cultivating home gardens with a plethora of whole, healthy and natural fruits and vegetables and turning it into delicious & healthy meals which are now renowned as one of the healthiest food in the world. They also used to create artistic items by weaving, knitting, and taking it into their own hands to innovate and build any necessities, this also meant they had a source of income to sustain themselves in their day-to-day life.

We know that when the ancient Ceylonese communities systematically organized their water reservoirs and irrigation channels to cultivate lands, they were skilfully managing resources and conserving the living environment for posterity. When farmers cultivated different varieties of rice, recognizing their specific qualities on food value, palatability, cooking properties and medicinal value, we know they were not only sustainably drawing on the gifts of nature, but were also conserving a priceless biological diversity. When multi-tiered farming systems with a multitude of crop species were raised for food, medicine, fuel and fodder, we know that they were conserving germplasm in situ and simulating a natural forest cover. These were the unrivaled features of ancient cultural traditions. We have started deviating from this sustainable lifestyle and our ancestral traditions due to modernization. Hence, starting a reversal and going back to the old ways of Sri Lankan living will ensure a naturally sustainable way of life. These old Lankan methodologies of the ancient past, coupled with the fact that Sri Lanka is located at a perfect geographical location to suit a vast biodiversity of flora and fauna is something to be appreciated and proud of.

The high diversity of plant and animal species within a limited land area, has made Sri Lanka one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Her repository of genetic biodiversity in traditional food crop varieties includes 135 in paddy, 31 grains, 73 pulses, 89 vegetables, 37 leafy vegetables, 54 banana and plantains, 62 fruits 73 yams and 22 spices (Mohotti, 2002).

It is significant to note that the unique vegetation and faunal diversity of Sri Lanka has been the subject of extensive investigations by many travelers, explorers and merchants during colonial times. For instance J.W. Bennett (1843) and Sir James Emmerson Tennett (1859) two British Civil Servants have extensively described the unique biological diversity of Sri Lanka. In fact Bennett (1843) has listed over 75 different vegetables and spices 25 types of beans and cereals, and about 20 edible root crops. In some instances he has in fact described briefly the method of preparation, culinary features, and nutritional and medicinal value of these when used as common items of indigenous food.

Another indigenous food tradition is the preservation and storage of fresh or cooked food substances. These authors have described several ways in which food had been preserved and stored. These include a variety of ways in which uncooked or partially cooked food had been dehydrated or treated with preservatives such as kitchen ash, concentrated lime juice etc., and stored without spoilage for several months.

Robert Knox (1681), the 17th Century voyager, who for nearly 20 years was held in captivity in the Kingdom of Kandy, describes in his memoirs a large number of plants that were in use in food and medicine. In some instances he had tried to explain the methods of preparation of food from leaves, roots and fruits of plants, which according to him had both nourishment and medicinal value. Describing the manner of partaking food, Knox (1681) says, “They always wash their hands and mouth both before and after they have eaten”. Symbolically this statement implies the hygiene consciousness of the Sri Lankans in partaking of food, which apparently was an unusual experience for the Englishmen of that era.

Interestingly, J. W. Bennett (1843) has in several instances tried to indicate how the Englishmen back home would have relished and enjoyed some of the local fruits and cooked foods if these could be made available to them. For instance, referring to the popular ladies finger (Sin. Bandakka) he states, “The Bandika of the Singhalese (Hybiscus esculentus, L.) is mucilaginous and wholesome; and if dried in the sun and pulverized, it may be taken to any part of the world, and made a valuable article of commerce. If once admitted to our English cookery, it would soon establish a character for itself.

Finally, there is an extraordinary reference to our indigenous food and partaking habits in Tennent’s treatise on Ceylon when he makes the following statement:

“So well have national habits conformed to instinctive promptings in this regard (over indulgence in food and intemperance in wine, a source of disease amongst Europeans in Ceylon), that the natives of hot countries have unconsciously sought to heighten the enjoyment of food by taking their principal repast after sunset; and the European in the East will speedily discover himself the prudence, not only of reducing the quantity of , but in regard to the quality of his meals, of adopting those articles which nature has bountifully supplied as best suited to the climate. With a moderate use of flesh meat, vegetables, and especially farinaceous food, are chiefly to be commended

The latter is rendered attractive by the unrivalled excellence of the Singhalese in the preparation of innumerable curries, each tempered by the delicate creamy juice expressed from the flesh of the coconut after it has been reduced to a pulp. Nothing of the same class in India can bear a comparison with the piquant delicacy of a curry in Ceylon, composed of fresh condiments and compounded by the skillful hand of a native. (Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1859)


  1. De Silva, Asoka (2008)
  2. Bennett, J.W. (1843). Ceylon and Its Capabilities Wm. H. Allen and Co., 7, Leadenhall Street, London
  3. Knox, Robert (1681). An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies. Richard Chifwell, Royal Society, London
  4. Mohotti, K. (2000). Report of the Workshop for the Development of a National Strategy for Incorporating Traditional Knowledge into Development Practices. NASTEC/IUCN, Colombo.
  5. Tennentt, J. E. (1859). Ceylon – An Account of the Island. Longman. Green, Longman, and Roberts, London V

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