The need to learn from the village and make it thrive in this pandemic era

Saturday, 21 November 2020 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Any re-connection with our ancient village concept, should also primarily enable the creation of new ideas so that it is juxtaposed with the old but where the end result would not be that the village yearns to be like the town, but rather where the soulless town aims to become as holistically vibrant as the village

By Surya Vishwa

How is our village relevant to us in the city? What can having a ‘village in the city’ mean to a people such as us, Sri Lankans who have an ancient heritage that we have distanced ourselves from?

It is few years ago, soon after its creation, that I visited the Ape Gama (Our Village), located at the Jana Kala Kendraya in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, conceptualised to be the way a village was typically before colonisation (where the houses were made of clay). 

Subsequently as part of my research in how our heritage is looked at by Sri Lankans including the younger generation, I had interviewed in-depth some of those who were recruited to play act in Ape Gama the roles of teacher and Gamarala and several other characters respectively. I went to their hometowns/villages, some of them very remote to understand how their children related to the identity of the ‘village.’ 

In one instance the villagers pointed to a youth who was the son of one of the employees of Ape Gama and joked how the 22-year-old abhorred the traditional Lankan dress for males, the sarong, along with the traditional diet and how he spent his time roaming around on a motor bike his father had bought him and searching out typical ‘Western type food.’ This is a simple example to show that we have not succeeded in making the young generation vibe with their past and where they see their parent’s association with it is ‘backward.’ This is the malady of our nation that we should seriously strive to change.

The stereotype image of the typical ancient ‘village’ consists of clay huts (although in practical reality today they are seen as symbols of either poverty or ironically as abodes made for foreigners). In our actual reality we have not made clay, one of the most sustainable elements for construction as part of our living heritage. If we are having a concept such as Ape Gama in the heart of the city, we should also have a policy where the construction of clay houses is mainstreamed and encouraged in the town, with appropriate heritage driven sustainable city planning. 

The Ape Gama concept could also be used as a strong influencer for schoolchildren to learn about their heritage in as detailed a manner as possible, systematically, in a backdrop where the school syllabus does little to contribute to this. This writer has in many instances pointed out that every child in Sri Lanka should grow up learning as basic every day knowledge their indigenous food and medicinal heritage.

Overall, what we need in Sri Lanka is to actively, consistently and innovatively project the village not as a quant, docile entity but rather as a thriving life force of a nation. It is from the village that all inventions needed sprang forth and at a time when ‘sustainability’ a Western dominated buzzword word is repeated by us without even contemplating on its true significance there is much potential to actively use a concept such as Ape Gama to promote Sri Lanka’s rural economic regeneration as well as influencing the city towards a true sustainability. 

The agrarian root of the village could be discussed at length and an endeavour such as Ape Gama should ideally explore initiatives involving conserving endemic plant varieties (Deshiya Beeja), and medicinal plants which are fast becoming extinct while encouraging the agrarian and irrigation policies of our kings to be re-enacted in real life. Related projects could be routed through the Ape Gama but initiated elsewhere in the country, especially the cultivation of trees. Such an initiative could lead to product creation for the local and export market as well, especially in times of pandemics, capitalising on the unique heritage of Sri Lanka such as the Deshiya Chikitsa medical heritage which we have totally undermined. There are also many ways in which a concept such as Ape Gama could be used to leverage Sri Lanka internationally at a time when that leveraging is desperately needed and tourism and indigenous medicinal knowledge sharing and export industry are just two of them.

A ‘living heritage’

We have to keep in mind that this endeavour to reproduce this village experience in the heart of the city was aimed at it being a ‘living heritage.’ To what extent our village is still a ‘living heritage’ in reality is debatable given that our current medicine tradition, our basic village, town and city planning policy is not even remotely connected with our heritage. We are a country who gave permission for soil destructing pine trees to be grown in the 1970s (on the advice of foreigners) and Dr. Ranil Senanayake, the man who objected to it in his capacity as an ecologist who had proposed a village based agro-medicinal reforesting model had to finally leave his job. So, in any effort to replicate the village in the city, we have to eradicate any oriental or romanticising of the rural and see it for its practical worth.

In the village kiosk at the Ape Gama that I visited four years ago I drank herbal tea in a cleaned-up coconut shell thinking of the potential for detailed research in how the coconut shell is believed to have properties that will purify water and where prolonged use of water in a coconut shell is thought of as strengthening bones. (The coconut as a whole whether it is coconut water or the kernel or shell, holds significant curative properties especially coconut milk which is known to remove poison from the body). It is a pity that the average youth of a village whose biggest dream is to get to the city (and then leave for a foreign country) would not imbibe such information such as these. The purpose of an initiative such as Ape Gama should therefore be for a re-connection with what is ours, whether it is irrigation, agriculture, forestry, craftsmanship, construction techniques and traditional immunity boosting diet and medicinal heritage. 

Any re-connection with our ancient village concept, should also primarily enable the creation of new ideas so that it is juxtaposed with the old but where the end result would not be that the village yearns to be like the town, but rather where the soulless town aims to become as holistically vibrant as the village.

How many of us drink pre-colonial herbal drinks such as Beli mal (flowers), Ranawara mal (flowers) and Polpala morning noon and evening as we drink tea introduced by the British? Despite having many indigenous herbal drinks, after 70 years of independence tea is promoted as our ‘heritage drink; and yes this is partially right – it is our colonial heritage but not representative of the thousands of years of our civilisation in which our food and drink evolved with what was endemic to our land. 

The Ape Gama concept had fitted in the typical Gurukula (a teacher’s abode) like setting with one small clay made house reminiscent of a teacher’s residence which was the pre-colonial equivalent of the modern school. In this pre-colonial education system we had, the child learnt introspection, mindfulness, some specific craft and above all qualities such as gratitude to the teacher, kindness and empathy (qualities which are sorely lacking in today’s education sector). 

Despite the British believing that they were the superior benefactors of so-called Western Science based ‘education’ it is Sri Lanka’s ancient Gurukula model that produced the architects and the engineers who designed world wonders such as Sigiriya where Western engineers (as well as Lankans who learn the Western model of engineering) are clueless as to how water flow was sent up to a high rock. 

Among other potentials, one of the strongest points of the Ape Gama concept as this writer sees it is to resurrect the Gurukula system once again to be a training hub for children on diverse aspects of heritage as highlighted and detailed above throughout this article. In these times of pandemics, we need such knowledge to be especially related to the maintaining of health and immunity through traditional medicines and imparting a wide-scaled knowledge for children on their endemic herbs.

The knowledge of our indigenous medicine was imparted to everyone as Robert Knox observed in his memoirs. Training in traditional medicine that had put Sri Lanka on the map from the ancient most times of kings had received a significant importance in the Gurukula system. Today we have to keep in mind that strategising to build up a nation’s immunity and health go hand in hand with its economy and international positioning in the short and long term.

This pandemic time gives us the opportunity to take bold steps in our policy making and emulate countries such as Bhutan who came up with their own model of Gross National Happiness. With a concept such as Ape Gama we can mould a village development policy for ourselves where the village is positioned as a centre where innovation, nature, simplicity and economic activity go hand in hand. It should be reiterated that the village was the mother of all inventions – whatever that was needed for survival was invented in the village. Sri Lankans who built the world’s first hospital in the world in Mihintale were ancient villagers. Those who crafted the hospital surgical equipment (scores of them shaped like beaks of birds for specific purpose of operations) were educated in the Gurukula tradition and yes, they too were villagers.

It is lapse of Sri Lanka that we have not looked at each village as the epicentre of humane progress, of holistic advancement and as in the days of monarchy the representation of advanced science (that could make rough stone pulp to enable engraving and create ponds and carve palaces from sky high stone such as done in Sigiriya). 

Thus, we have the potential to mould the village to be representative of our ancestors and their values and truly initiate both a training as well as research hub for retracing many of our lost heritage knowledge. Sri Lanka has many committed professionals in this regard who have spent years studying different branches of these themes. 

What is our village to us?

  • Our village is the birth place of all innovation. What we need we create. We do so with nature and without harming the natural world. 
  • Our village is where we have equilibrium between what we can create to sell to others so that we could buy what we need but we are not dominated by greed and mindlessness. Our village is a place that teaches us about life.
  • Our village is not a place which is of the distant past, it exists today and we create it and our values. We learn from it our indigenous principles of sustainability. Our Lankan village is a model to the world which can be emulated in any era.
  • Our village is not a sentimental myth which is a spectator’s novelty. Our village is the heart and soul of our tradition, of wellbeing and holding the spiritual ethic of the country.
  • Our village is the vein that connects our past with our present. In it exists our spiritual heritage, our medicinal legacy and our agrarian   tradition. 
  • Our village is not an isolated entity which is a proto type of poverty and backwardness. It is the opposite. It thrives as a hub where the world learns from Sri Lanka’s heritage knowledge whether it is our ancient Deshiya Chikitsa medical heritage or our vast knowledge in many areas that includes irrigation, ancient construction methods using rocks and clay respectively, artistry and craftsmanship.
  • Our village teaches the world by re-learning about our indigenous medicine Deshiya Chikitsa and bestows upon the world healing in uncertain times through the resurgence of an indigenous medical industry. 
  • Our village is representative of what education should truly be and gives the world an example of the Gurukula system where students first learnt introspection, mindfulness, respect and gratitude to their teacher and then to create using the bounties of nature and with the creativity of their higher consciousness. It is the Gurukula system that bears testimony to the greatest artistic feats of Sri Lanka.
  • Our village represents Sri Lanka not as a mere exhibition point for a rustic experience but an experience that will change attitudes, ideology and lives forever. Our village brings the world together especially in this time of pandemics towards a whole new order of reflection missing today in a disjointed world.
  • Our village shows the world how we looked at sustainability and humane progress.