Heritage, the present and the future | Sunday Observer

Heritage, the present and the future

31 May, 2020

This week in our column we focus on the word heritage (Urumaya in Sinhala) and try to understand what it really means and should mean. The Cambridge dictionary explanation of this word points to the culture of a particular society (traditions, languages, buildings) created in the past and which still have historical importance. Heritage is a word often associated in Sri Lanka with tourism.

This actually means that the past actions of those who lived in this country are still reaping economic benefits for us, present day Lankans. All the monuments, historical sites and ancient irrigation feats we have today are the results of the efforts of our ancestors. If they did not do what they did we would not have a heritage.

It is the same with traditions. The monuments that are today world renowned heritage sites of Sri Lanka were created amidst a rich cultural tradition. We do not often speak of this link. Years of colonisation and globalisation have changed us. The overall Western influence, that has been and is rampant in our society, whether in the towns or villages, has alienated us from our past at a subconscious level as well. So much so that often when we speak of ‘heritage’ it is with a clinical or monetary eye. We do not look inwards into our individual consciousness to examine deeply what this should mean to each of us. The last two weeks we spoke of tangible and intangible heritage, but the question is, do we link the tangible and the intangible enough - and is this cohesion apparent in our everyday life?

This writer has spent time travelling around Sri Lanka looking for ‘mattigewal’ (clay houses), which today exists in two extremes; either as a representation of poverty or as a representation of tourism). Yes, ‘mattigewal’ was part of our traditional lifestyle. However, despite being in an impermanent world that has limited ‘sustainability’ to a mere word ( discussed within unsustainable concrete buildings), if someone wanted to build a ‘mattigedara’ (clay house) and wanted some bank support, we would be told that however small the amount that is needed, only ‘permanent’ structures’ are assisted. Yet we have ‘Ape Gama’ in Battaramulla where we encourage schoolchildren to visit and understand our traditional lifestyle.

Exercising the smallest amount of rationality we can question the purpose of understanding our past if we do not encourage the practical continuation of that legacy, in whatever way possible. Much of our intangible heritage practices could be described as a text book guide to sustainability but is mismatched with most of our everyday decision making.

When this writer visited the village of the person who carried out the role of Gamarala at the Ape Gama, Battaramulla site, some years ago, (his ancestral lineage also has that name) I was not surprised to see all the village homes built in brick (cementing much of the garden area as well).

However, in the same village there was a successful tourist ‘mini clay village’ of sorts. This ‘tourist village’ was created by the same Gamarala for a local businessman who spent much of his life abroad. Many clay houses ‘mattigewal’ and ‘wedagewal’ exist here in large clusters and include open air ‘Ambalama’ kind of structures.

There was no electricity but at night the place was well lit up with oil lamps.

Clay structures

Everyone occupying these clay structures and enjoying the coolness within them were foreigners. In fact there was not a single ‘mattigedera’ which was left unoccupied. However, those who created them, including the Gamarala, were roasting in brick buildings in arid Kurunegala! In many of the ‘clay house tourism sites’ that I visited the owner of the business is much like a Westerner in attitude and lifestyle.

He or she could never imagine living in such a house but only re-enacts a disconnected past, just to reap a monetary dividend.

Yet, almost by rote, we speak of heritage… and we speak of sustainability… It is indeed time we initiated a national discourse on making our heritage a living entity for Sri Lankans and our national policies designed in a far reaching manner so that citizens are guided to benefit from the wisdom of the lifestyle of our ancestors.

It is time our education system focused on children being encouraged to preserve, respect and conserve our heritage in its diverse forms, keeping in mind that our traditional knowledge was never detrimental to human wellbeing.

If we do so, we could be also giving authenticity to our tourism.

To look at more examples, let us take our indigenous medical heritage – the science of the Desheeya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) and Ayurveda. The Desheeya Chikitsa and Ayurvedha in Sri Lanka have sustained for thousands of years and kept our ancestors robust enough to create world marvels such as Sigiriya which mystifies the Western world.

These medical traditions were born in the laboratory of the minds of our forefathers and their deep connection to nature, guided by their intriguing cosmic knowledge, which go so far as to know how the energy of leaves in two diverging branches to the left and right, would be different, and thus the healing powers unalike.

Today, there are innumerable books authored by Western writers who have researched this vast body of knowledge.

Here, just for the record and largely as a response to an Allopathic doctor, who in a conversation with this writer commented that neither Hela Wedakama nor Ayurvedha was ‘scientific’ I quote Dr. George Clarke, M. D., M.A. of Philadelphia, who after reading the translation of the Charaka Sahita, (the Sanskrit text on Ayurveda) had this to say: “As I go through a part of Charaka, I come to the conclusion that if the present day physicians drop all modern drugs and chemicals from their Pharmacopoeia, and adopt the methods of Charaka in treating diseases, there will be less work for undertakers and fewer chronic invalids in the world.”

That was the opinion of a foreign Allopathic medical expert as quoted in the book Herbal Food and Medicines in Sri Lanka authored by Dr. Seela Fernando. But what about us? The people of Sri Lanka? How important is our traditional food and medical heritage to us? This is something we should ask, and not stop asking, especially amidst a raging pandemic which has no Allopathic cure (as in the case of Dengue), and where the recoveries are due to the strength of the immune system of the individual.

Another important tradition that was deep rooted in Sri Lanka and is a key intangible heritage of ours, was the Ath Beheth tradition (also referred to in the village as Goda Wedakama) where every grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, aunt and uncle was a physician for everyday ailments. The Ath Beheth knowledge is now almost totally out of our psyche. Today we hear the word ‘Goda Wedakama’ being used in a derogatory fashion to mean something like the wedakama of the ‘godayas’ (akin to the term village buffoon) and the once respected ‘Weda Mahattayas’ being referred to as ‘gas weddu’ (tree physicians).

The same fate has befallen the traditional knowledge of our Kem Kramaya, which extends to the healing of humans and plants and also keeping pests and animals away from crops. The Kem Kramaya as applicable to farming was once a key component of all cultivation and an integral part of the Henne Govithena. As part of my ongoing research on Sri Lanka’s diverse forms of indigenous knowledge, listening to many now middle aged persons recall the accuracy with which their grandparents carried out the many varieties of the kem kramaya has been an incredible experience. However, all these techniques and traditional expertise is now almost fully dead.

The respect we once gave it is today tarnished by our over absorption and pre-occupation with Western based knowledge where we have closed our minds to all other forms.

It is up to the discerning Sri Lankan to examine what all this means to us as a nation and our individual roles as custodians of our heritage; whether it is monuments, ancient irrigation, agro heritage, medical heritage, martial arts, dance, arts, crafts or language.

References: Herbal Food and Medicines in Sri Lanka by Dr. Seela Fernando

About the author: Frances Bulathsinghala is a curricula writer and visiting academic at a National University in Sri Lanka. As a curricula writer she is currently attempting to introduce a new subject on Indigenous Knowledge and Mass Communication, and is affiliated with several South Asian publications.