I spent the time between April 2010-Feb 2011 travelling and volunteering around the world. It was a year where I challenged myself to live a little differently and experience things outside my comfort zone. Since coming back, I have embarked on a Creative Journey..to share some of the experiences from my year on the road and to discover a more artistic side of myself. This blog documents my new Creative Journey...
Steve and I visited the recently constructed Apey Gama (Our
Village) project in the heart of Sri Jayewardenepura, the New Capital Territory of Sri Lanka.
The project is an attempt to re-create a traditional rural village in
the heart of the city giving both locals and foreign visitors a taste of what
life was like back then.
We walk in to find a number of daub wattled and thatched
houses scattered around a central courtyard.
Many people are engaged in various activities from cooking to arts and
crafts. There is a tank, paddy
A Traditional Village Hut
units, and houses for the village headman, the teacher etc. I don’t spot it immediately but central to
all Sri Lankan villages was of course the Buddhist Temple. The village headman comes out to greet us and
gives us a comprehensive explanation of how life functioned here. He speaks in such high-flown Sinhalese that I
struggle to understand and translate what he is saying. Many of the same principles that we have
learnt about as being vital components of a modern day eco-village were
enshrined in this ancient way of living.
He explains that a traditional village would comprise of
about 20 houses (100 people), each of which might be home to 3 generations of
one family. The houses were small with
one bedroom where often the women slept while the men sprawled outside on the
cool veranda. We noticed a long bench
built into the house, which would double up as a seat during the day and a bed
Meals were often shared between houses. He explains that each house would often cook
rice and one big curry. The curry was
always shared between neighbouring houses so when you sat down to eat you often
had a plate with 6 curries, each of which was cooked by your neighbours.
A Traditional Sun Hat
The community functioned under a strict set of rules, which
were upheld by a committee of 5 people comprising of the village headman, the
priest, the schoolteacher, the midwife and the medicine man. This is interesting to hear, as today there
has been a definite power shift from the traditional elders to the traders and
politicians who basically dictate the terms under which we live.
The community operated on a ‘3 strikes and you’re out’
directive. If you broke a rule, you were
pardoned on your first two offences with the punishment being to either supply
a hand of betel or a hand of betel and a packet of rice to each person in the
community. If you broke the rules a
third time you were basically isolated from the community because your punishment
was that you were forbidden to use the village tank. The tank was of course the place where you
bathed, you obtained water for cooking as well as for agriculture. This method of operation ensured you hardly
broke the rules and life in the village thrived under a system of
cooperation. It was a safe place to
live, where everyone knew each other and looked after each other. He explains how a woman in a village might
breastfeed about 5 others beside her own newborn child, giving new mothers who
worked in the paddy
fields the freedom to return to their work.
The village headman explains that paddy cultivation was of
course central to the inland villages and gave the community many of the rules
and rituals that governed their life. Being
mostly Buddhists they believed in the impermanence of life (and hence that we
did not own anything) as well as the need to do good deeds to accumulate
merit. We are quite interested to hear
him describe the relationship a villager would have to the natural world around
them acknowledging this inter-dependence.
This understanding of nature was so mature that a farmer would leave
part of his share of the harvest for the birds and also hang a small ornamental
harvest in his house for the sparrows. Ecological sustainability as a word did not
exist in their vocabulary yet the principles of respect for the natural world
and living in balance and harmony with it were central to their life.
Pounding Spices and Rice Flour
The village headman points out the teacher’s house to
us. Children only went to school after
they had completed their household tasks.
They were taught free of charge by the teacher who was rewarded with
various items of food such as sacks of rice and other dry goods by the
Colonisation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British,
as well as the more recent phenomenon of a global American culture as well as
modernisation have contributed to transforming the village way of life. While many Sri Lankans might idolize village
life, I am sure there were many conflicts as well. There was little privacy and perhaps little
chance for you to have individual opinions if you disagreed with the rules and
rituals that dictated life here. But it
was a way of life that very much depended on cooperation of the community
within with few ties to the world without!
We leave, thanking the village headman profusely. As always, there is much to learn from history
and to once again be reminded that we once lived in harmony with nature,
preserving a natural balance that meant we only used what we needed whether it
be space or stuff!