Traditional knowledge for unity and nation building | Sunday Observer

Traditional knowledge for unity and nation building

5 December, 2021
Water resources-based heritage in Sri Lanka
Water resources-based heritage in Sri Lanka

The article below is a follow-up to the talk on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Lankan Unity delivered by Frances Bulathsinghala at an event on the topic: “The Geneva crisis - the way forward” recently organised by the Ambassadors’ Forum, the London Initiative and the Ontario Centre for Policy Research. The event was based on the book published by Ambassadors’ Forum titled The Geneva Crisis: The way forward in which Frances Bulathsinghala authored an article on the need to create a local heritage based model of peace building.

The article and speech focused on the use of intangible cultural heritage which encompasses traditional knowledge, beliefs, traditions and practices alongside other aspects such as natural heritage for weaving the tapestry of Sri Lanka’s unique diversity for economic prosperity, wellbeing and unity for a long lasting model of ethnic harmony.

The progressiveness of Lanka’s ancient Sinhala civilisation where the nation’s monarchy was noted for ensuring that all who arrived and inhabited the country, were considered part of Sinhale as the country was often referred to. This included Arab traders who took on the Sri Lankan cultural identity and respected the country’s traditions and Buddhist identity. The Sinhale civilisation was enriched by all the nation’s residents referred to as Helayo (citizens) who considered themselves as part of the Hela Bima (the birth land).

Missing link

The missing link of the challenges Sri Lanka is facing after the last Geneva resolution was seen as routing the roots of Sri Lanka where instead of the Western ‘carrot and stick’ agenda driven peacebuilding spearheaded often by selective elites, Sri Lanka’s ordinary citizens of the South and community leaders representing traditional knowledge drive forward an authentic national unity model. It is one that will encompass the diverse indigenous knowledge systems of the country that have survived through thousands of years. National unity as well as nation building is integrated in this peacebuilding blueprint that prioritises traditional/indigenous knowledge where the micro village economy is tied up with the macro-economic edifice.

Hence heritage crafts alongside agroheritage (which is part of the natural heritage of the nation) which brought much fame to Sri Lanka historically are re-enlivened to bring together the people and the traditional knowledge of the nation. One of Sri Lanka’s major vacuums is that for seven decades, it has neglected mainstream traditional knowledge whether it is our crafts or our medical heritage or our spiritual values, insomuch that we are today worse than tourists in our understanding of what keeping these knowledge alive would mean to us as a nation.

Using a traditional knowledge based national unity model at a policy level for the nation, (in these uncertain times where Sri Lanka is daily becoming dependent on knowledge based on so-called superior nations championing just one set of ‘science’), will need a systematic State and non-State commitment to educate government leaders and professions on our indigenous knowledge and sciences. A national level mass scale education at different levels on our wealth of intangible heritage, carried out in an ethnically inclusive manner will have far reaching impact locally and in positioning Sri Lanka internationally.

Here are the first basic categories of how a national model focusing on intangible heritage could work.

1. Health (Enabling, encouraging and enriching the traditional medical systems of Sri Lanka – the pre-Ayurveda Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama of the Sinhalese), Siddha of the Tamil tradition and Unani of the Muslim traditional medical science. Currently, these systems are struggling within the overarching dominance of the Western medical industry and its representation locally and internationally.

Sri Lanka needs to re-think why viruses such as Covid-19 are becoming deadly. As definitely the case of fast food eating and over immunised West, the general body immunity is threatened and thus diabetes, obesity and cancer are the culprits in Covid, without which this virus would be more harmless than a common cold and easily expunged from the body through the many diverse traditional wellbeing practices including vapour inhalation. Using comprehensively the Sinhala Wedakama, Unani and Siddha medical traditions that kept our nation healthy for centuries in these troubled times would mean a compulsory re-educating ourselves of our heritage we are scoffing at.

Hence, a national unity model through our medical heritage could provide a future of non-sick children and youth who know about the values of their indigenous herbs and how to use them for immunity and well-being and save hard earned money. How national unity could be weaved in for the purpose will be explained in a follow-up article.

Implications on tourism

The economy could be enriched by using all traditional medical models in different tourism resorts (as pertaining to the traditional/cultural dominance based on historic medical knowledge skills of each district or province).

It is a basic fact that over the many thousands of years of the Sinhala civilisation that ancient kings bore a high level of responsibility in passing to the next generations Sri Lanka’s unique medical system of Sinhala Wedakama were open to different forms of knowledge in health science. This is why historic records show that there were Siddha specialists and Unani specialists in different courts of different kings at different times, depending on interest and inclination of each monarch. Sri Lanka could showcase this unity to the world through the route of our medical heritage if it is used as appropriate at district level through tourism.

The importance of Sri Lanka recognising and using its gold mind of ancient medical science for its people is being tested now as never before. We collectively are fortunate to have the oldest hospital in the world in Mihinthale – a health marvel of a high civilised and medically superior nation that is linked with our Buddhist heritage. Hence, it is an abomination to allow us becoming a nation that gets poor everyday by grossly paying other nations money for one science based purported pandemic solution that is daily failing to prove its venerated scientific superiority.It is a basic fact that some of these imported medical ‘solutions’ are sent by the same countries that hound Sri Lanka for ‘war crimes.’

It is also a fact that Sri Lanka is a strategic location that has many powers wrestling for control of it. The ‘war crimes’ allegation comes with financial implications connected to handouts such as loans and grants that are tied to vested interests. Whether the exceptionally resource blessed Sri Lanka needed to get into this ‘funding trap’ that has mired us in the pit of debt from 1948 to date is a question that everybody who is in governance (whatever the political party) and every thinking citizen should ask.

Sri Lankans need to think on each and every intangible heritage based asset it has and work in unison to re-educate communities of their traditional knowledge and use it with far thinking vision for an united, healthy and happy nation.


The insecurity of a nation comes by providing ‘solutions’ without really knowing what is in them. An example is accepting with closed eyes the scientific ‘revolution’ that the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) unleashed six decades ago by supporting the poisoning of the soil of the world ‘scientifically’ and assisting the establishment of the chemical agriculture industry before declaring about six years ago that this chemical ‘scientific agriculture’ indeed poisons humankind.

The FAO, to give it the due credit, is today espousing a different line than it did six decades ago and is generally encouraging traditional farming. However, Sri Lanka is now paying for six decades or more of blindness to its traditional agricultural systems such as those practised by the Sinhalese and the Tamils in the wet and dry zones of the island.

The Tamils of the arid North of Lanka was known for holding a vast repertoire of agrarian connected knowledge such as water resource management, especially rainwater harvesting.

One of the main things that the Sinhalese were known for is its water resources based heritage, ranging from gigantic reservoirs to small and medium village tanks and small water resource networks that served humans and animals.

The Hindu and Buddhistic culture are entwined in the respect and care for all creatures of the earth; something we forgot when we destroyed ourselves and other creatures by choosing poisonous solutions for our meals. We are today groping in the dark pertaining to the issue of biodiversity based or nature based natural/organic agriculture because we have lost the basic values of our Sinhala-Buddhist and Hindu interlinked past that was part of our agrarian practices. This ignorance is costing us dollars we do not have.

Lost agrarian knowledge

There are many organisations and persons who are working to re-kindle the lost agrarian knowledge of our nation linked to our traditional ‘Dharmika Govithena’ and one such organisation is Hela Suwaya which uses pure nature grown food (using the Govithenata Aushada – (tonic for the earth concept) where diverse plants and herbs are used to create ‘tonics’ for the earth just as used by humans). This has resulted in a major progress in agrarian success in Sri Lanka, but remains stifled because those who have created industries out of sickening the earth and its creatures do not want such natural solutions to thrive.

Since the earth does not discriminate who it feeds – whether they are Sinhalese or Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims or Christians, there is ample opportunity for nature based agrarian solutions to be adopted as a national unity model that will combine nature, traditional agrarian knowledge, spirituality and humanity based ethics combining Buddhist and Hindu cultures of Sri Lanka and also Islam and remembering that all sages associated with these cultures espoused gentleness and kindness to mother earth, without which we are nothing.

A comprehensive national unity based agrarian model will include inter-community cultivation and water resource sustainability practices pertaining to paddy, potato, onion and other vegetable cultivation. This could expose the needlessness of food imports (such as potato) that has been draining our foreign exchange for 73 years. The earth needs humans to cultivate it without raping it ‘scientifically’. To carry out such cultivation as a symbol of peace, harmony and unity will complement the basic composition of mother nature.

Unity and reconciliation

Sri Lanka’s ancient pre-Buddhistic history connected with the ancient legendary ruler Ravana is connected to sun worship as well as Shiva worship – both of which many tradition minded Sinhalese associate with many beliefs related to this genius king and to-date used to bring a sense of pride to the Sinhala people. The belief that Ravana was a worshipper of Shiva is a major factor that could be used with wisdom and empathy to unite the Sinhalese and Buddhists uniting without judgement any segments that are seen as ultra Sinhala nationalistic with those in Sri Lanka who seem ultra Hindu nationalistic.

The deities associated with the Hindu pantheon such as the elephant god Ghana worshipped by the Sinhalese in farming areas to keep away elephants from attacking crops is another example where belief which is a component of intangible heritage being a spiritual bond interwoven across cultures.

This series of articles will be continued focusing on more categories of traditional knowledge and practical introduction of a national unity model for prosperity, national security and sustainability of Sri Lanka’s economy and thus ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of its people.

The basic sketch of such a model is expected to be introduced by March next year alongside the launch event of the next volume of the Ambassadors’ Forum Publication dedicated to celebrating Sri Lankan Unity. The March event will be dedicated to national unity, prosperity and heritage organised by Universal Heritage Inspire, a non-profit entity.