Saturday, December 7, 2013

Apey Gama: Traditional Village Life in Sri Lanka

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
storing 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 at night. 

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
Oil Lamp
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 parents. 

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!  

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