Monday, June 26, 2017

A tumultuous departure from Sri Lanka

As our time in Sri Lanka drew to a close, we were busily working to complete all the tasks we had begun, which included:
  • planting out the remaining plants that we included in our homegarden designs (785 total documented plants, plus hundreds more seeds sown)
  • labeling each plant with a metal tag number for inventory and identification purposes
  • drawing maps of the locations of all plantings with corresponding label numbers
  • completing a digital inventory of all plants with heights, numbers, scientific/English/Sinhala names, and notes
  • documenting the plantings with digital before and after photos/video in each zone
  • infrastructure improvements in zone 1, including a chili pepper bed and manioc mounds
  • mulching, composting, and weeding the plantings
  • passing on the garden care to Tillekaratne, who will be taking over the maintenance until new fellows arrive
  • saying farewell to our neighbors and friends who welcomed us into these villages as family

We were squeezing this all into our last few weeks in addition to a final trip to the ancient cities (a blog on that is forthcoming) when without warning (but with anticipation), the southwest monsoon arrived. We were pleased to see the daily rains that would ensure our homegarden's successful growth and were not surprised to experience a couple of evenings of heavy downpours in a row, as the SW monsoon season generally begins each year in May.

The anxious talk around town began, however, when one day it rained all day long with several heavy downpours. Our caretaker told us that our little bridge might be overtaken by the river and that the radio forecaster had predicted the rains to continue. With the previous rains, the ground was already fairly saturated, and with water pouring out of the mountains in Sinharaja, the river had begun to rise. By midday, on May 25, it was clear that not only was our bridge going to be topped (stranding us at the field station), but the rain was going to continue and cause flooding. It looked like we weren't going to make it out to dinner at a friend's house, like we had planned...

We went down to our nursery and witnessed the moment that the river had gained about 10 vertical feet to breach the bank and begin flooding our nursery. As we stood watching the water rise (about a foot every couple of minutes), we quickly acknowledged the need to move plants to higher ground. As we began doing this, the water rose so quickly that many of our supplies started floating in the flood water. At this point, we were still thinking the flooding was unlikely to get much higher, but we picked up our speed. During the 20 minutes that the flood water took to completely submerge our nursery, we recovered perhaps 100 plants and about half of the lumber that we had used to construct the nursery beds, while equal amounts became lost in the deep and rushing water.

The river's first breach into our nursery! The river is normally behind the pictured trees and about 9 feet lower.
Less than 10 minutes later, our lower nursery fence was half submerged, along with the small banana plants
The downpour continued and the upper nursery fence also started to be overtaken by water
As the rains increased, the flooding spread across our lower landscape and large logs started floating by!
Towards the end of the heavy rains, you can see only the partially submerged shade cloth on top of the upper nursery fence
Raging torrents poured down from our hillsides where previously no visible water had been flowing
Neighboring tea fields that spread across the lowlands were entirely submerged, surrounded by half immersed coconuts

Once our nursery was submerged and we had toured the surrounding area above flood line, there was nothing left for us to do but watch the rains come down. We weren't surprised when our cell phone service stopped working around 6 pm, but were a little surprised that the power stayed on until about 10 pm that night.

When we were able to check on the nursery after the flood water receded (late morning on May 26), we were surprised to find that although the green fence had been knocked down, the fencing material was still intact and the banana plants had survived without noticeable permanent damage. Our higher fence was fine and some of the boards had even stayed in place. Instead of repairing the lower fence and putting more energy into a nursery in this vulnerable location, we recommended that the fences be rebuilt further up the hill to avoid any future flooding.

Our nursery as the flood water receded. We were pleased to find that the bananas had survived, although entirely submerged
Our nursery after the flood water receded. The area, including our pond was buried in sand, but it was mostly recoverable.

Tying a rope across the river to serve as a temporary handrail once our bridge stopped floating
It wasn't until the next day when the flood water receded that we found out that along with the power outage, our village had experienced a major landslide, overtaking a house and killing 3 people inside it.

The Pitakele landslide poured down a large mountainside, overtaking a home

The Pitakele landslide photographed from the destroyed homesite
The woman whose house had been destroyed was considered the local Ayurvedic medicine woman. Once when Logan had stomach issues, he was escorted to her home, where she prepared him a spicy concoction full of pulverized herbs. Her remedy cured him! He also recalls fond memories of her describing her garden plants with care and enthusiasm when we interviewed her and collected plants from her garden. The evening of the landslide, a pregnant friend of hers had been visiting with her 3-year old daughter from a nearby village and were also tragically killed in the landslide.
Pitakele's much missed medicine woman died in the 2017 landslide
As time progressed, we discovered the widespread scope of this disaster. Across the country, 224 individuals were killed in the landslides and flooding that swept the country, with 78 missing, and another 72 injured, affecting almost 700,000 people in 15 districts. Over 13,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The district that we lived in, Rathnapura, was the most affected, where over 20,000 people experienced flash floods. We were told that rainfall was reported to have been as much as 24" in 24 hours!  While disasters like this are not frequent in Sri Lanka, they do occur. The last major flood in our area happened in 2003 and the flooding was higher than this year, but at that time there were no landslides, so the impacts were less significant.

In the days that followed the disaster, we found that locally all roads to our village were blocked with landslides. This was particularly unfortunate for us because the morning after the storm, Professor Mark Ashton from Yale University had arrived in Sri Lanka to survey our project firsthand. Although his driver tried several routes, they were unable to arrive and the roads were not reopened until after he was scheduled to depart the country.
The road into Kuduwa was ripped apart by a torrent of water rushing down the hillside

By foot, we visited Kuduwa, the village 45 minutes down the hill and found that the entire town had been flooded, destroying the contents of about 10 shops and even collapsing one into the river.

Kuduwa's shops were ravaged by the flood, destroying their contents and collapsing one store (right) into the river.
As if all this weren't enough, after just two days of light to medium rainfall, Cyclone Mora was forecast to hit Sri Lanka on May 28. We left the field station to stay closer to town the night before, but were relieved to find that the storm had veered east and missed the island, likely saving its people from even more landslides and fatalities.

Just 10 days prior to this disaster, another major incident had rattled life in the village. An elephant was roaming the area! When this elephant arrived, people chased it away from their houses and homegardens with loud noises, such as banging pots together and the panicked elephant became more and more destructive as it ran from home to home. Eventually, the forest department arrived in a vehicle in Kuduwa and threw firecrackers to chase the elephant back into the forest, but the elephant retaliated by destroying the vehicle with several hard blows of its trunk. This is as much of the story as we could piece together, so we assume the elephant then returned to the forest. Unfortunately, just two days later, another elephant (or perhaps the same one) arrived in another nearby village and killed two people. This was both scary and shocking for us, as we didn't really perceive elephants to be very dangerous.  Of course, we knew they are extremely strong and could do serious damage, but we didn't think they often did. We understand now that some of this aggression is a result of being frightened, but young male elephants are sometimes aggressive unprovoked as well. The Sinharaja Forest reportedly only supports 3 elephants on an intermittent basis, so these encounters were particularly alarming. While we were happy to have not personally encountered the elephant in our village, we did see it's footprints the following day. After this, we made sure to be inside at dark as a precaution to potential roaming elephants!

The front page of an area newspaper reported on the elephant and the forest dept vehicle
Although these incidents were frightening, I also want to point out that we felt safe where we were at the field station during these incidents. During the rest of our time in Sri Lanka, we felt very safe. There was virtually no crime and people were overall very honest and helpful.  

During these times, we witnessed the nearby villages come together to assist and support each other in many ways. Following the landslide, the primary task of many men in the village was to recover the bodies from the landslide and repair the bridge that led to that site, so proper funerals could be held. We attended the funeral to offer our condolences and were struck by the care of the community in helping the loved ones that were suffering for many days before and after. During this time, power and water were cut off for most people in the village, so those that had generators or mini-hydro power charged cell phones and those without water easily found neighbors willing to supply it. We were fortunate to have water stored in a tank that we used sparingly for drinking and cooking until our water lines were repaired. Of course, there was plentiful rainwater to collect for bathing!

Logan and I had our flights to the U.S. on June 3, requiring us to be in Colombo by at least the 2nd.  With so much water saturating the ground and the continued chance of rain at anytime, we were anxious to make our way to Colombo a little earlier. So, the day after the roads were repaired, we made our way up there on May 31.  After carrying our heavy bags across the now only partially repaired log bridge that separated the field station from the main road, we arrived at the little "tuk tuk" (three wheeled motorized tricycle) that would carry us and our bags down the hill. There, we were surprised to see a whole crowd of villagers gathered.  We assumed they were all waiting for the tea truck to arrive, but once that came, we realized that sweetly, they had all gathered there to see us off! We took photos with them and promised to return as we said our goodbyes and realized that while our experience of living and working in this small village had certainly made a big impact on our lives, we had also touched the hearts of many people in this community. Although our language abilities were limited and our interactions with many of the villagers were minimal, we had been accepted as part of this community with open arms, teary eyes, and many hopes of return.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Want to grow a "lovely bunch of coconuts?" It's a process...

Entry by Blair Rynearson
April 2017

Now is time to start planting what is arguably the most important part of any Sri Lankan homegarden - the coconut trees. Sri Lanka has numerous varieties of coconut, and the people consume them frequently, in almost everything. After five months of living and working in Pitakele, I can still use one hand to count the number of times I’ve had a meal without some form of coconut.

There are coconuts for drinking, and coconuts for eating. In Sri Lanka, coconuts for drinking are known as “tambili”, and there are many varieties – at least five are planted in the Pitakele area. Coconuts grown for their meat are equally diverse. There are coconuts that reach more than 60 ft in height, and dwarf coconuts that grow no taller than 10 ft. Our garden will house a mix of both locally grown varieties, and improved varieties procured from agricultural research stations. We will plant a higher than normal load of the drinking variety, as foreign researchers find them to be very refreshing on a hot day.

I assumed that planting coconuts would be the same as any other tree. How wrong I was. Spacing between coconuts needs to account for the sprawling fronds. the Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka (CRISL) recommends a spacing of twenty to twenty-five feet! And the hole excavated for planting a coconut seedling is wildly disproportionate to the size of the root mass. Most seedlings at the time of planting have a root system comprised of the intact coconut, and a few thick roots protruding from the husk. Yet, the CRISL recommends that the young coconut should be planted in a hole no smaller than 4x4x4 feet. That’s almost the size of a grave. It is rare that you don’t run into a few rocks while digging a hole of that breadth. What’s more, planting should occur at the onset of the monsoon. This means that it’s hot and humid. As I dug the holes with my friend and coworker Tilakaratne, I sweat a disgusting amount. Tilakaratne repeatedly asked if I’d been swimming, or whether it was raining, which I didn’t find to be particularly amusing. And the sweat attracted elephant flies (think horseflies on steroids), quite literally turning insult to injury.

Tillekaratne in a partially excavated coconut hole
Someratna navigates the kekila fern to locate coconut planting sites
But it doesn’t end there. The very same CRISL recommends that you line the base of the pit with two layers of coconut husks. These must be hauled to the holes, in addition to even more coconut husks that will be used as mulch when the planting is finished. So after lining the hole with a layer of husks, followed by dirt, followed by a second layer of husks, you arrive at the point where you can fill the hole with soil.

The CRISL is not happy with just any soil - they recommend mixing topsoil with 10 kg of cattle or
Compost purchased for planting
goat manure, 1 kg of dolomite and 1 kg of young palm mixture (2 parts urea, 3 parts saphos phosphate, 2 parts muriate of potash). Thankfully, things in Sri Lanka are comparatively cheap. I purchased 10 bags of “compost,” each sack weighing 20 kg, for a grand total of $23. In this case “compost,” is composted cattle and goat manure mixed with dolomite. All that was missing was the the young palm mixture, and I purchased a 20kg sack of a similar product for $10. After the truck dropped the supplies at the base of the foot bridge leading to the research station, we threw the sacks on our shoulders and carried them 200 yards to the house. Following that, we hauled the compost to the planting site, in addition to an equally large sack of topsoil taken from near the forest edge (this is to supplement the poor soils on the kekila fern slopes). At which point we mixed the soil, compost and fertilizer.

A coconut seedling ready for planting

A small hole was made in the soil mixture and the coconut and nascent root system were buried. To support the seedling, Tilakaratne buttressed it between a tripod of three sticks, secured with a vine that comes from the stem of a species of pitcher plant (Nepenthes distallatoria). Per recommendation of CRISL, coconut husks were placed around the seedling as mulch. This step differs from local tradition - people in the Pitakele area place rocks rather than coconut husks around the seedling. Tilakaratne fears that the husks might attract termites which will attack the seedling. This might have merit, we plan to plant some with rock covering and others with coconut husks as an experiment. The final step of planting involves sprinkling a bag of salt around the tree to discourage attack from termites and black beetles. 

A fully planted coconut seedling!
But it’s not over. Predation of coconut seedlings by a healthy wild boar population is a common occurrence in the Sinharaja area. The boar are attracted to the nut buried under the ground. They typically uproot the plant and eat the roots, effectively killing the young coconut seedling. To ensure maximum survival, each individual coconut tree requires fencing. This inspired a trip to the forest edge to fell a smallish alstonia tree (Alstonia macrophylla), which will be used for posts. The tree is cut in half, and the small logs hauled to the the planted coconut where it is further cut down to the size of fence posts. Four holes are dug with a rock bar, the posts placed, and PVC coated, galvanized chicken wire is strung and nailed. And that’s it. One down out of the twenty coconuts that we intend to put in the ground.

Chewing Betel

Entry by Blair Rynearson
February 2017

Before coming to Sri Lanka I knew betel only by description.  Friends that had traveled in Southeast Asia told of a nut that was chewed by locals that produced the same effect as smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco.  They said users spit a red juice that looked like blood, and many streets and sidewalks were splattered and stained.  Naturally, I wanted to try it. 

Sri Lanka afforded that opportunity. Within the first week of arriving at the research station, one of our neighbors offered up “bita”.  It was a mixture of a hard, pinkish chunk (very difficult to chew), a large and spicy leaf, a white paste resembling plaster, and a small piece of air cured tobacco.  I did not enjoy the texture, or the flavor, or my mouth immediately filling with watery saliva. But the effect was quite agreeable – I was alert, full of energy, and ready to do something. 

“Bita” – a piece of areca nut, bulat leaf, calcium carbonate & tobacco
In Pitakele, most men, and a number of the older women, spend the better part of their waking hours chewing bita.  A small plastic bag full of bulat leaves (Piper betle), puwak (Areca catechu), tobacco and calcium carbonate, is carried at all times.  This ensures that chews are continually refreshed throughout the day.  In addition to its stimulant properties, bita serves as an appetite suppressant and helps stave off thirst.  This allows users to forgo lunch and dedicate themselves entirely to the labor at hand.

In traditional preparation of bita, the areca nut (which is in fact a palm fruit and not a nut) is the most active ingredient.  It contains three alkaloids - arecolinearecaidine and guvacine - all of which posses vasoconstrictive properties.  The betel leaf, or “bulat”, is largely added for its spicy flavor, but also contains eugenol, an additional vasoconstrictor.  The calcium carbonate, typically derived from ground sea shells or coral, heightens the effect of the stimulants.  Spices are occasionally used to add flavor to the mixture and might include: turmeric, cumin, melon and cucumber seed, tamarind juice, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and grated copra.  Sun dried tobacco leaves have become a normal addition to bita.

Adding nicotine has both increased the stimulative properties and addictive effects.  Bita mixture that includes tobacco and calcium carbonate has been proven to cause dental caries, oral sepsis, dyspepsia, palpitations, neurosis and oral cancer.  And the red juice produced by the chemical reaction with the calcium carbonate often dyes a user’s lips red, and gives the teeth a reddish to black appearance (this is the only reason that I choose not to make bita an everyday habit).

In Sri Lanka, betel leaf, or “bulat” is among the most culturally significant plants.  It was customary upon receiving a guest at your home to present them with a “bulat heppuwa”, a brass tray filled with ingredients used in bita preparation.  Before a meal guests were offered a glass of water to wash out their mouths, and after the meal a replenished tray of bulat was presented.  Virtually every home had both a “padikkama”, a spittoon, and specialized areca nut cutters.  Formal greetings often involved the presentation of a sheath of bulat leaves called a “bulat atha”.   Athas are presented by patients to traditional doctors as a form of payment, by children to their teachers on the first day of school, and by devotees to chief Buddhist monks during temple visits.  Bulat continues to play a central ceremonial role in weddings, funerals and many holidays.
“Padikkama”, or a spittoon

Bulat heppawa

The bulat plant is an evergreen, perennial climber typically cultivated on poles or trellises.  There are at least twelve varieties of bulat leaves native to Sri Lanka.  It can be grown up to 1000 meters in elevation on all soil types, but typically grows best on well drained soils, at lower elevations, in the wet to intermediate zones of the country.  Though it is most productive in full sunlight, bulat produces higher quality leaves when grown under shady conditions.
Many homes in the Pitakele are adorned with wooden structures that are thickly covered in an intertwined mass of bulat leaves.  Another common planting site is the base of trees and palms, the trunks providing a live post to support the climbing bulat.  Bulat leaves are sold in two categories: large leaves for two rupees (just over a cent), and small leaves for one rupee (less than one cent).  They are cut, carried to the house, graded by class, and taken to a nearby town to be sold.
Someratane planting bulat near the field station
A local woman harvests bulat leaves from a trellis

Areca, or “puwak” as it is called in Sri Lanka, is among the most ubiquitous and abundant species in Pitakele tree gardens.  It grows best in full sunlight, but is proficient in establishing and growing under the shade of the canopy.  As a result, many homegardens with minimal management tend to develop dense stands of puwak. It is often found planted along property lines as a living demarcation of lots.

puwaks – notice the fruit below the canopy on right palm
The fruits are consumed locally or sold, and the timber is highly durable and used in construction, fencing and garden stakes.  On sunny days, most Pitakele residents spread piles of puwak over rice bags and wicker trays for drying.  The nuts are generally harvested from fallen fruits on the ground, or cut from the palm.  To prevent molding, they are laid in the sun and stored in a breathable sack. Following the initial phase of drying the outer husk is removed.  Dried and husked areca nut is sold for five hundred rupees per kilo (about $1.50/lb). 
A dense stand of puwak palms

Puwak fruits collected from the ground

top pictured puwak fruits are husked, while bottom are not
Although it is unlikely that many of the academics or students that spend time at the research station will frequently indulge in bita, we chose to include both puwak and bulat into the design of the homegarden.  If a goal of the project is creating a homegarden that embodies local traditions, these plants are indispensable.  During our many visits to Sinharaja gardens, we asked local residents about the most important species to plant at the research station – in almost every response, bulat made the short list.  And I know that our cook/housekeeper and neighbors will ensure that they are well tended and do not go to waste!!   

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tapping Kithul Palm

Entry by Blair Rynearson
April, 2017

Virtually every visit to a home in the Sinharaja area involves a cup of tea. The tea is almost always served plain, accompanied by a large, jagged brown block of kithul sugar, or kithul “hakuru” (called jaggery in English). I don’t have much of sweet tooth and the thought of eating a large white sugar cube disgusts me. But kithul hakuru is different. It’s prepared by boiling down sap from the fishtail palm (Caryota urens or "kithul" in Sinhalese) and has woody, smoky and almost savory notes. There are four varieties of hakuru in Sri Lanka: Pol hakuru - made from flower of coconut trees (Cocos nucifera), thal hakuru - made from the flower of palmyra trees (Borassus flabellifer), ukk hakuru – made from sugar cane (Saccharum spp), and kithul hakuru.  Most Sri Lankan’s acknowledge kithul hakuru as superior, and it is an essential ingredient in many local sweets and foods.

Before tea took its place as the dominant income stream in the Sinharaja area, most households earned the larger part of their income from production of kithul sugar and rubber. Women were responsible for collecting the rubber, while the men dedicated themselves to tapping kithuls. The communities surrounding the Sinharaja reserve are nationally renowned for their kithul tappers, men who make their livelihood by climbing the tall kithul palms to harvest the sap from the flowers. It is not an easy way to earn a wage.

Aside from a handful of kithul palms planted in local tree gardens, most of the trees are scattered throughout the lowland wet forest. They are typically found in the subcanopy, located along forest fringes and in gaps. This means that tappers have to walk many miles daily between their home and the location of the trees. To ensure that the flower does not heal over the incisions made for draining the sap, kithul palms must be tapped twice per day. Were the the flower to heal over the cut, the flow of sap stops. This means that rain or shine, sick or healthy, the kithul climbers must go to tap.

A young kithul palm (Caryota urens) planted in a local homegarden
Once a mature flowering kithul has been identified, it requires preparation for tapping. The first step is installing the ladder. These ladders generally consist of two large saplings running parallel to the trunk of the palm. At two to three feet intervals, the saplings are secured to the trunk with vines that serve as rungs, most commonly using the stem of a pitcher plant known locally as “bandula” (Nepenthes distallatoria). A mature kithul can reach twenty meters in height and installation of the ladders is time consuming. They are repaired and replaced when the vines dry out and start to crack.

A kithul tapper installing a ladder made from a sapling secured to the kithul by a bandula vine
A local tapper ascending the ladder on a mature kithul

Who gets to tap what tree is something of a mystery. It seems that different families have established territories. These territories existed well before the foundation of the Sinharaja reserve. And up until this year, Sinharaja has respected this tradition, allowing adjacent communities to tap trees in the reserve. I have heard that starting next year they plan to suspend this right.

After the ladder is installed, the flower is prepared for tapping. By flower, I refer to a massive inflorescence that can be up to five meters in length. The first time a kithul flowers it produces its largest inflorescence. Subsequent inflorescences decrease in size until the death of the palm. A kithul can produce up to seven inflorescences in it’s lifetime.

A kithul tapper descending a palm with a pot full of kithul ra
To prepare the flower for tapping the rachis are stacked against each other and tightly wrapped together with a vine. Some tappers make a poultice from a mixture of plants purported to stimulate production of sap that is applied before wrapping the flowers. The plant species used in this concoction is a well-kept secret. Once wrapped, the terminus of the inflorescence is situated so that sap will drain into a pot suspended below. These pots are just the right size to collect a half a day worth of sap. Twice a day the tapper then climbs the tree, barefoot and without a harness, retrieves the full pot and puts an empty one in its place. The full pot is then secured around the handle of the sheathed kithul knife, where it dangles as the tapper descends the tree. 

The knife used to tap the flower is treated as a sacred tool. It is thin, light and the razor-sharp blade is frequently honed on the branch of a hardwood tree. A tapper friend in the community has repeatedly told us a story involving a university professor using his kithul knife to cut wire! It occurred some twenty years ago, but the indignation persists. The sharpness of the blade is important for shaving razor thin pieces from the flower. Skilled cutters can prolong the duration of tapping a flower by cutting less.
Knife used to cut the kithul flowers and its sheath

Once exposed to the air, the unprocessed kithul sap starts fermentation immediately. If left for 24 hours, it turns into what is referred to as “kithul ra” in Sinhala, or “kithul toddy” in English. If I may inject my opinion into this blog – it’s delicious. Although production and sale of kithul toddy is illegal, it does occur. But most kithul sap harvested in the Sinharaja area is destined to become sugar. And this requires rapid cessation of fermentation to prevent the wild yeast from consuming the sap’s sugars.

A pot full of kithul ra

Pouring a cup full of still fermenting, fresh ra

To achieve this, the local people have discovered tree barks that arrest fermentation. The most commonly used species are two dipterocarps, Nawada (Shorea stipularis) and Hal (Vateria copalifera). Bark is stripped from the tree, and the inner layer is peeled and placed into the fermenting kithul ra. Local people say that this harvest of bark is generally non-lethal. Once the fermentation has slowed, the sap is stored until there is sufficient volume to fill a large pot specifically used in the production of kithul sugar. The sap is slowly heated over a fire, which can take more than a day and requires a great deal of firewood (this is what imparts the characteristic smoky flavor). 

Peeling bark of Nawata (Shorea stipularis) which is used to arrest fermentation of kithul sap
Slowly cooking kithul sap almost ready to become penni
The first stage of kithul sugar is reducing the watery sap to a thick brown syrup known as penni. This boiling process takes many hours, often a full day. Penni is used in many desserts and foods throughout Sri Lanka, the most ubiquitous being “kiri-penni,” creamy buffalo yogurt drizzled with kithul syrup. To obtain one liter of penni, you need roughly 8 to 10 liters of kithul sap. If penni is not the desired product, cooking is continued until the syrup reduces to a consistency suitable for making hakuru. When ready, it is poured into molds made from half coconut shells and allowed to crystallize. The result is a dome of brown kithul sugar, the unit by which hakuru is typically sold.

Hakuru is cast in a coconut shell

In the Pitakele area, kithul tapping is a dying tradition. Most of the tappers that remain in the community are men over forty years old. And many other men that formerly tapped trees now devote themselves to planting and harvesting tea, which is an undeniably safer, and more lucrative livelihood. Many people tapping trees now do so primarily for personal consumption of kithul ra, penni and hakuru. What does this mean for Sri Lanka’s future supply of kithul sugar?  Unless there’s a dramatic increase in price, supply may dwindle. People will have to start eating their buffalo yogurt with just plain sugar.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Celebrating the Sinhala New Year

Entry by Laura Luttrell
Written May 1, 2017 (sorry for the delay in posting - we had some internet challenges) 

Flower, oil, tea, and betel/bulat offerings for the New Year

In April, we celebrated the Sinhala New Year, which to our knowledge is the biggest holiday of the year. Students and teachers are off for 3 weeks at this time and the country shuts down for at least the official day while everyone spends time with their families. Typically, people go to the temple and visit their relatives - traveling to their familial village if they have moved away. In our village, we were fortunate to be invited into the families and festivities of our two closest friends here, Someratne and Tillekaratne.

The holiday, like many of ours in America, includes a mix of religious symbolism, cultural tradition, and firecrackers. The traditions in Sri Lanka are linked to astrology and most families purchase a "litha," a special calendar to inform them of the auspicious moments when they are to perform certain acts. This creates an interesting dynamic where people across the country are performing rituals at the same time throughout the course of several days. 

Coconut oil burning in Kuduwa
The first auspicious moment commences the holiday. At this time, everyone “lights the hearth” (lipa gini melavima). This is when they light both the cooking hearth and the altar that holds various religious elements, including incense, food offerings, lit coconut oil, and flowers.
A banana stem with other plants made into an altar
Next is the auspicious time of cooking a meal (ahara pisima), followed by the auspicious time of eating a meal (ahara anubhawa kirima). Since these times are early in the morning, the meal is breakfast and traditionally kiribath, a salty coconut milk rice mixture. Kiribath can be made in squares or into rolls that are filled with pol pani, a coconut mixture made with kithul honey. We enjoyed eating the later type made by Tillekaratne’s wife.

On the following day at 11:10 am, we participated in hisa tel gaema, or anointment with coconut oil. We each walked over a mound of karanda leaves (Humboldtia laurifolia) as Someratne rubbed a little oil on each of our heads while leaves of the nuga tree (Ficus benghalensis) were hanging above us. 

Anointment with Coconut Oil at the auspicious moment!
Other auspicious moments include a time to go to your place of work (this works well if you have a flexible schedule, but is not regularly practiced by those with scheduled work) and a time to bathe in order to cleanse from the old year.  

Tea and sweets at Tillekaratne's house before lunch
This was all intermingled with visiting relatives and eating lots of sweets and food… sounds familiar, right? We ate lunch on New Year’s Day, April 14th, at Tillekaratne’s, preceded by an abundance of tea and sweets. We later made our way down to Someratne’s for a virtually identical dinner, of course preceded by tea and sweets, but this time with a little betel nut chewing as well (Blair has written a blog on betel that I will post soon). The following day, we had "kiribath" for breakfast at Tillekaratne’s house (with you guessed it, more tea and sweets), on our way down to visit Someratne’s wife’s family’s house.  There, we had even more tea and sweets before we were anointed with oil and ate a big lunch. Whew! The eating really wore us out. We were exhausted.
A New Year's feast at Tillekaratne's house
In addition to the family visits, each village celebrates the New Year with a community-wide festival. We attended three! - one in Kuduwa village at the bottom of mountain where we catch the bus, one in the next village along the bus route, Weddagala, where our friend (who invited us) lives, and one in our village, Pitakele, in that order over the course of a few weeks.
Someratne's son was the MC at the Kuduwa festival
Each festival was similar in that they consisted of a stage with an announcer, who talked nearly the entire time, a ceremony with singing and dancing, snack vendors, and lots of games.

Bread-eating competition
Games were the main attraction, filling the entire day
A children's race
from morning till dark. They included races for all ages, a greasy bamboo pole climb, a frighteningly intense pillow-fight competition, a piñata type game that had milk in one of three
Draw the eye on the elephant
ceramic hanging bowls, a bread eating contest, balloon blowing contests, threading a needle relay, draw the eye on the elephant (like pin the tail on the donkey), balancing a coin while standing on one leg, egg toss, guess the number of seeds in a papaya/pumpkin, walk the bamboo plank to retrieve a flag, hot potato, three-legged race, and the obligatory tug of war contests.

greasy pole climbing contest
Piñata-type game with ceramic bowls (one filled with milk)
Standing on one foot while balancing a coin on a knee in Weddagala
Balloon blowing competition ended when someone popped their balloon

We were encouraged to participate in the games, but seeing as how we were already quite a spectacle, we didn’t choose to make ourselves anymore noticeable at the first festival. At the second festival, we were invited to sit on the stage, so we were pretty noticeable by then and we agreed to hand out some prizes. We finally gave in when we attended the festival in our own village.  In Pitakele, we played a game where the whole community went around in a circle and when the music stopped, a number was called out and we had to get together in groups of that number. If you weren’t in a group of that number, you were out. It was kind of like musical chairs. Fun and simple. We also made a guess at how many seeds were in the pumpkin (we were way off!) But the participation that will be remembered is when Logan and Blair put all their strength up against the other men of the village… For weeks before the big day, we (mostly Blair) were asked to join in on a local tug of war team.  We quickly realized that this was a really big deal in the community and eventually on the day of the event, they agreed to play. There were tug of wars for children, for women, and for men. The men had several teams and competed tournament style. It was intense! In the end, Blair and Logan’s team did great, coming in 2nd place, even pulling off an upset tiebreaker from the slippery side of the court!  The men who won were by far the burliest men of the village and we didn’t think it would be right to bring down the village confidence in their supreme strength by beating them (post-justification)… Villagers were commenting on Logan and Blair’s performance for days following the festival and we are sure that their efforts will be talked about for years to come.
Women in Pitakele participating in a tug of war competition

Visit these links to see a video of the musical game and another tug of war fight. For a higher resolution version of the above video, visit this link.

It was an exhausting time for us, but certainly the most we’ve engaged in the happenings of the community and an interesting insight to the Sri Lankan holiday season.