Reviving our traditional knowledge system | Sunday Observer

Reviving our traditional knowledge system

For a long period of time, Western nations called the eastern traditional knowledge systems a mere superstition. It was much later that the indigenous systems were recognised for their scientific values and benefits. Eastern systems evolved over a millennia as communities living in challenging environments and were able to develop suitable technologies and medicines to strengthen their survival skills.

Sri Lanka is one of those few countries that can speak of a legacy of science, technology, arts and crafts and knowledge systems going back to a period of over twenty-five centuries. However, the current situation presents a confusing scenario with respect to the future of traditional knowledge systems.

Education system

If we scrutinize the education system in Sri Lanka, from primary to secondary level, through the universities, we would find that all of them are taught and trained towards supporting the growing presence of modern Western knowledge.

This is despite the availability of a rich and diverse body of traditional knowledge and practices drawn from traditional science, technology, arts and crafts. The traditional knowledge systems receive very little support from the existing education curriculum.

However, in India, they use traditional knowledge in areas such as agriculture, natural resources management, healthcare, architecture and the Fine and Performing Arts and Crafts.Whether Indian or Sri Lankan, these traditions are rich and diverse, existing not just as folk or oral traditions but also as textual traditions, which means there are classical texts on many subjects with their own theoretical foundations and world-views.

Rich culture

Sri Lankans proudly talk of their rich culture. Yet, there is very little interaction between modern and traditional practitioners. In a sense, they run parallel to each other – maintaining a distance without constructive interaction.

For example, the North Central Province is a biodiversity hot spot. The area offers vignettes in the fields of architecture, hydraulics, ethno-medicine, ethno-botany, metallurgy and agriculture. Even today, there are many 1,000-year-old, remains of multi-storeyed buildings that have withstood the test of time and devastating climatic changes. These marvels are part of our unique architecture, where rigid joints are avoided to allow seismic energy to dissipate.

Also, in the case of traditional hydraulics - our spring wells form a wide range of irrigation channels. Over centuries, people developed these efficient water harvesting technologies to recharge underground aquifers, for which they used natural depressions near the mountain tops. The spring wells were treated as temples and several rituals performed to mark their sanctity.

This sanctity forced people to keep them clean. Local communities also cultivated lesser-known crops and medicinal plants. This biodiversity holds immense value for the future of genetics and health in the pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle. Studies reveal the region has an extensive village-level iron and copper industry utilising local ores, high-grade goethite, magnetite and pyrites, which are available in abundance.

In Sri Lanka, traditional knowledge systems are today being gradually replaced with modern lifestyle preferences and unsustainable development practices. For instance, traditional architecture is fast becoming extinct due to the emergence of concrete structures; hydraulic technologies are being replaced with a network of pipes and hand pumps; traditional medicinal systems have given way to allopathic treatment; and, traditional metallurgy has been wiped out by non-stick cookware.

At the same time, ancient medicinal plants are being patented by major drug firms, who do not share the profits with the local communities from whose habitats they source the plants. It is estimated that the medicinal plant-drug industry in Sri Lanka is worth over US$ 5 billion annually, and many firms are exploiting medicinal plants to market nutrition supplements to evade drug patent laws.

Is this not a case of biopiracy, exploiting traditional medicinal knowledge and local flora to market products under the garb of nutritional supplements at an exorbitant price? Even major cosmetic companies have patented the seeds of ginger to market anti- wrinkle creams!


Traditional knowledge systems were passed on through the oral tradition over centuries, and often through the heuristic devices of legends and myths. So, there is a need to document and patent these systems, while it is imperative to prevent over-exploitation and misuse by multinational companies. More importantly, it is vital to evolve mechanisms so that these systems benefit the community at large.

Similarly, other traditional knowledge systems can be revived. Efforts should be made to cultivate the numerous medicinal plants and herbs that dot the village landscape at a comparatively lower altitude. Such activities will create livelihood opportunities and contribute to the socio-economic development of the region.

Revitalizing and supporting indigenous knowledge is essential to addressing many of today’s challenges, including the effects of climate change. Indigenous knowledge is a key resource that needs to be promoted to support livelihoods and food security, often under threat due to climatic changes.


As the initial step, the Government along with the private sector and civil organisations could organise a national workshop on the revival of our traditional knowledge for the 21st century. The workshop can prepare a roadmap to advance the information and produce a series of publications to spread knowledge and awareness.

We must not forget how for millennia our traditional knowledge promoted equitable sharing of resources, social inclusion, sustainable use and management of scarce resources, rights and ethics.Farmers must be educated to minimise storage losses, and propagate and plant seeds and seedlings, making them more self-reliant. In addition, campaigns must be floated to popularise the demand for traditional varieties in the local market so that smallholders get an opportunity to earn a useful income.

By providing training in topics such as soil improvement, afforestation, erosion control and the use of water resources in agriculture, the farmers participating in the project would be able to withstand the negative impacts of climate change.