Health, Heritage and Tourism | Sunday Observer

Health, Heritage and Tourism

28 June, 2020

Today we focus on the link between tourism and our heritage consciousness which encompasses our actual respect, understanding and most importantly the practice of our culture. Tourism is not so much about luxury hotels than it is about people, their traditions and the safeguarding of these traditions. Tourism, a key revenue earner for us as a nation becomes more valid and authentic when we consider the importance of inculcating in ourselves the actual use of our culture, primarily for our wellbeing and that of the country.

Then there is no mismatch between what is marketed and what actually is. Without such a genuine absorption of our culture within us, tourism can become an artificial exercise where there is little difference between us and a tourist.

There are many aspects of culture, indigenous knowledge and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). Today we focus on two related to the concept of wellbeing; food and medicine.

Food is an intrinsic part of the cultural identity of a nation and there has been almost no divide between food and medicine. Much of our herbs, fruits and vegetables have medicinal value and many of these are used in our traditional medicine.

However, today it has become a sign of affluence for the wealthy to consume processed, imported, packaged substance that pass off as food. We by rote and without questioning consume imported seed varieties and chemical fertilizer, pesticide and weedicide induced produce that is dished out to us by the food ‘industry.’

Although there are many scattered individual initiatives, we do not have a large enough national movement to safeguard indigenous seed varieties (desheeya beeja). As a result many varieties are extinct. Few of us may have seen a native tomato plant, native karawila or the native bean. Few may use in their daily cuisine the highly nutritious varieties of native potato such as kiri ala or angili ala which is easy to cultivate even in pots.

Reviving tourism

In this age of pandemics, nutrition, diet, immunity, well-being and preventive as well as curative care hold within them a great value. Thus in a time when there are many debates and discussions on reviving tourism we have to focus on the above, more as a service to humanity than a commercial aspect.

Food is a part of national identity and because of this it is part of tourism. The fruits and vegetables grown in different countries vary. The way it is cooked varies. Naturally when visitors come to a foreign country they want to eat the food of that land, grown and cooked in the manner of that culture, in a way passed down by generations.

The Chinese tourist for example may not necessarily come to Sri Lanka to eat Chinese food, although of course they would be quite intrigued as to the variation of Sri Lankan-Chinese food dotting the landscape here.

Often a foreigner can tour much of the city of Colombo for example without finding a sample of authentic Sri Lankan food (except in some luxury hotels, in five star comfort) which of course is nice, but it is not the same as eating traditional food of the country in a simple manner in a simple place.

Although there are buth kades serving the rushed office crowds it is not the same as providing an authentic Sri Lankan food experience.

This writer once travelled from Waadduwa to Polgasowita without breakfast because I was unable to find a single place serving kola kenda until I came across a woman selling five varieties of kenda by the roadside that brought to mind the experience of roadside culinary wonders that have tourists enthralled in countries such as India, Nepal and Thailand. I have come across a few family based initiatives like this, out of Colombo. But it is Colombo that desperately needs such initiatives.

Talking about post Covid-19 economy how truly visionary would it be if all relevant stakeholders could assist in using this chance to revive the Lankan economy within the framework of our culture beginning first with our food culture and encouraging small time family food businesses as a way of alleviating poverty and boosting health. For this we have to revive a robust development banking system that works hand in hand with helping people to ideate new businesses, especially related to food within a framework of health and heritage.

Looking at all the pastry shops in the country that make people eat fried food for breakfast, it is clear that the average food entrepreneur needs some enlightenment on our pre colonial food heritage as well as information on what kind of food damage the body.

Among the repository of authentic Sri Lankan food are heirloom rice varieties such as Kaluheeneti or Pachchaperumal or curry cooked with native vegetables/leaf varieties that are now found only in remote locations. Those such as, Deshabandu Dr. T Publis Silva have written many books on Sri Lanka’s food heritage and history. One just wonders if enough attention is being given in diverse hotel schools to such knowledge.

Meanwhile, with regard to medicine, the second aspect of our discussion, there has been talk about exploring the potential for medical tourism in Sri Lanka in the post Covid-19 context.

At a time when the world is struggling to return to the dregs of the natural world man has destroyed in the name of development and advancement, Sri Lanka does have much potential for a genuine promotion of our nature based medical systems.

Indigenous medicine

On this topic we focus on systems of indigenous medicine practices available in Sri Lanka under which falls Desheeya Chikitsa (Hela Wedakama), the medicine of the Sinhalese, Ayurvedha from Indian influence Siddha from Tamil Nadu influence, as practiced mainly in north-east Sri Lanka, Unani (Yunani) from the Persian- Arabic heritage of Islamic culture.

Homeopathy which is an advanced and well researched Western science based holistic form of medicine, but which treats like with like, opposite to Allopathy and does not technically fall to the category of indigenous, nevertheless can play a major role in medical tourism if an integrated medical model is pursued alongside Allopathy.

However, speaking of exploring the potential of expanding wellbeing tourism or medical tourism in post Covid-19 times, Desheeya Chikitsa (HelaWedakama) that uses every element of nature around us for curative purposes and is interwoven with the core history of Sri Lanka and is a key component of our Intangible Cultural Heritage, cannot be ignored.

To take a brief hypothetical stance, we can say that it could be, thanks to our indigenous medical tradition that lives subconsciously within most of our genes, that possibly saved the immune systems of the Sri Lankan masses from Covid-19.

Hela Wedakama

“We saw how even those unused to traditional medicine rushed to the beheth kades around the country for the kaha, kottamalli, perumkayam and stacked their houses with pas panguwa, ingredients used for the dhum hattiya and medicinal oils that aid in respiratory wellbeing.

Yet in ordinary times many, especially in Colombo, may never sight a beheth kade, preferring imported vitamins and tonics to our natural immunity boosters, and preferring Western hospitals and medical system to the Ayurvedha hospital or the humble home based treatment centre of a Hela Weda practitioner. Despite this, the fame of some of our traditional physicians has crossed the Ocean, even without formal effort by relevant authorities who have promoted tourism in the past.

This writer knows many cases where rural wedamahattayas practising the Hela Wedakam tradition have foreigners from the Western world come to them seeking treatment for complex illnesses after every form of Western treatment at well known international hospitals have failed.

In one case a physician qualified in both the Ayurvedha and Desheeya Chikitrsa tradition, specialising in bone adjustments and corrections, who I interviewed in February for the book I am writing on Hela Wedakama, had three offers to set up a Hela Wedakam curative centre in France, Canada and Germany.

The offers came from grateful patients from those countries who he had been cured of bone related ailments for which they could not get relief in the best hospitals in their own countries.

Early this year this physician had finally agreed to relocate to France by which time the Covid-19 pandemic had struck internationally and the last I heard was that his Sri Lankan patients were pressuring him to re-consider. How many more Sri Lankans who carry on the lineage of our ancestral indigenous knowledge may be leaving the shores of this country or abandoning practising their profession? Are we as a nation supporting them enough?

Thus, the argument in this article is that if we have treaded far away from our culture and embraced a sterile modernity in every aspect of our lives, from diet to medicine and the concept of happiness, then it is up to us to first seek our heritage as an everyday exercise, imbibe it fully and as a duty to this nation share it systematically with the next generation. It is then and only then that our tourism will have the greatest value - which will last the test of time, calamities and pandemics.

Related References

The writer is a curricula writer and visiting academic at a National University in Sri Lanka and a writer affiliated to several South Asian publications.