Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2709

Under the shadow of Lakegala 6. Of Their HÄ“n Cultivation

Under the shadow of LakegalaUnder the shadow of Lakegala
By Sudath Gunasekera

Hena or Chena7 cultivation as more fashionable and anglicized people in Sri Lanka call it, is generally considered a primitive form of subsistent agriculture practiced in the tropics. It is rain-fed and offers a very practical and appropriate form of cultivation to these regions. However, most agricultural scientists the world over commonly refers to it as a backward, primitive and uneconomic form of agriculture that destroys the forest resources and degrade the land.

Local conditions without causing any serious damage to the environment, while meeting the needs of the farmers. In this village it is an integral part of the rural economy both from the point of view of employment and income.

Hen cultivation has been in practice in this village from time immemorial. Next to paddy, it is the second most important economic activity of this people. The word hena is used to denote a low patch of jungle, cleared for the cultivation of highland crops. The shrub jungle itself is also called hena. The main cereal crops cultivated are finger millet (Kurakkan), Indian corn (Bada iringu), green gram (Mung), black gram (Undu) and Kollu. Among the pulses mustard seeds (Aba) and chilies (Miris) are the two important items. They also grow a host of vegetables like pumpkin (Wattakka), Tiyambara, cowpea (Me), ash pumpkin (Puhul) and bottle gourd (Labu). Karivila and Tumba are often grown wild. Besides these some farmers also grow crops like sweet potato, manioc, potato and groundnuts. The farmland on which these crops are grown is also called hēna. Hēn is the plural of hēna.

In this village they slash their hen in late August and early September and burn them before the October rain, which comes with the onset of the North East Monsoon. Slashing is usually done 4 to 6 inches above ground level. Isolated single bushes are left out to provide the necessary supporters for the creepers like Wetakolu, Mae, Karavila and Dambala. Short stumps are called kanumandu and they are not uprooted unlike in clearings for modern highland cultivation. These stumps minimize surface erosion and they also allow the regeneration of the slashed bushes. These stumps are also made use of to lay the unburned branches in a contour form as a soil conservation measure. Hen ketiima is an exclusive job of the male folk. Slashing is done with the kaetta (ketti) and pihiya (knife). Men leave their home in the morning and come back only in the evening during slashing time. A bathmula (parcel of rice) and a Labuketaya (a dried shell of a bottle goard) to take water are the basic essentials every man has to take with him in the morning. Women folk attend to their domestic chorus while men are away busy in hen.

The first bush in the hena is cut at an auspicious time. It is marked with a simple ritual where the farmers request the presiding gods to give protection against misfortunes such as snakebites and accidents in the cause of slashing. The owner usually does hen ketiima alone but the wife, with the help of few other women, often does harvesting Kurakkan. About two weeks after slashing they set fire to the dead jungle. This is the easiest and the cheapest way of clearing the land. Besides clearing the land, burning also leaves behind a rich layer of ash that provides an excellent base for the crops to grow Setting fire is a special event in hen cultivation Fire is usually set on Sundays an Tuesdays. These two days are considered the days of the fire god. They believe that by setting fire on these two days it burns better than on other days. Superstitious as it may be the suns heat on these two days are higher than on other days.

Setting fire is always done in the afternoon when the heat is at its peak. A given Yaya is set on fire on the same day. High flames that devour everything within its grip are an interesting spectacle to watch. There is an interesting tradition they follow before they set fire, that is they make a hoo three times as a mark of warning, so that if there are any living creatures they could leave the place in time. This demonstrates their concern for the living and the environment. At the upper end of the hena there is always a stretch of un-slashed forest where the under growth gets burnt as the fire advances. This stretch is called waradamana. The waradamana is famous for its Tumbakaravila and Karavila.

Immediately after burning the farmer starts the construction of the paela. The construction of the paella is an important item in the agenda. It provides shelter for the farmer until harvesting is over in late march.

Every hena has a special location for the paela. Usually it is located in a vantage point from where one can see the whole plot. Very often it is cited at the center of the hena. The place where the paella is constructed is called pelpola. Each paelpola has two sections, namely the maedilla and the gepola. The paella is constructed on the gepola. This section lies slightly above the maedilla, which is used to dry the crops.

Paela is constructed out of jungle timber. It is a simple rectangular structure with two separate sections, the inner section and a verandah called ottappuwa. The inner room provides the living space and is used for cooking, storing and sleeping. It has a maessa (a temporary bed), a fireplace (lipa) and a smoke rack (dummessa) above it. The four sides of the paella are constructed with round timber and often covered with jungle twigs and barks. The roof is thatched with straw or illuk. The maedilla has a low bund on the lower side with an opening for the rainwater to pass through.

A well-burnt hena requires less labor for clearing. All the un-burnt twigs and branches are collected and again burned before the rains come and planting and sowing begins. This process is called maela pichchiima8. Few days after burning they plant Indian corn, and all types of vegetable seeds like Wattakka, Tiyambara, Kekiri, Wetakolu, Mae and Bandakka etc. The planting follows the first rains called akvehi. They do this with the help of a hoe or a tick. Usually Wattakka and Tiyambara are planted in heavily burnt places called Dambugoda. These places have a heavy concentration of ash. Nitrogen? Mae, Karavila and Wetakolu are planted near the left out bushes that provide the required supporters for the creepers.

The sawing of the main cereal, Kurakkan begins with the second rain. Before broadcasting, Kurakkan is mixed with Aba, Undu, Kollu, Mae and sometimes chilies seeds. Kurakkan is broadcast with the hand. After sawing the surface is weeded with a small mammoty to remove the weeds and cover the seeds. The tender bushes (panduru) so weeded provide fine mulch for the germinating seeds. The newly grown plant cover provides enough protection for he soil cover against surface erosion. In about three weeks time they do hand weeding to facilitate healthy growing of young plants. This activity is called pandurukediima and is done by women folk. It includes both the removal of tender shoots that sprout from the bushes as well as removing other weeds. Thereafter no weeding is required until harvesting. Mung bean is sawn few weeks after Kurakkan. Usually they reserve a special plot of land for this. Roasted Mun is a delicacy as a curry and it is also used to prepare sweet meets like Mun kevum.

It is very important to have a strong fence round the hena to protect the crop from wild animals. This is constructed with the round timber that is left out after setting fire to the hena. This is called danduweta. Wild boar, porcupine, sanbur and monkeys. are the common wild animals that destroy the crops?

After completing sowing they return to the village, as they have to start cultivation of maha paddy fields. However night vigil has to be kept in the hena as the plants begins to bear crops and mature. Usually men folk retreat to hena in the night after working in the field during the daytime for pelrekiima. By mid-February hen are ready for harvesting. The work of the paddy fields will also be over by this time and the fields need little attention until the harvesting season begins in May. As the crops, mature and harvesting begins both men and women go to work in the hena. Usually men stay back in the paella and the women with their children live in the village.

Unlike in the paddy fields harvesting in the hena is spread over a period of five to six weeks as different crops mature at different times. The first harvest available is green leaves. This is a mixture of wild and cultivated varieties. Some examples of wild green leaves are Galkura, Diyameneriya, Temberiya, Penala, Tumba and Kurakola The next is vegetable. They include items such as cucumber, cowpea, Wetakolu, Karavila and Wattakka. Leaves of all these cultivated verities are also consumed as vegetable. Young Indian corn will also be available by this time. Both young Indian corn (Kiri Iringu) and Thiyambara attract the young ones to the hena during this time. Thiyambara is eaten raw. Kiri Iringu is roasted in the fire before eating. Smeared with little salt water, such roasted corn forms a rare delicacy available only during this season of the year.

Kurakkan harvesting begins in late January and continues through February. Women harvest Kurakkan. The harvested Kurakkan is dried in the Maedilla and stacked in bags before brought to the village. Mun, Kollu and Undu are the last crops to harvest. Mun beans are plucked (mun kadanawa) where as the other two crops are uprooted and dried in the maedilla before the seeds are separated. Aba on the other hand is not uprooted. They are literally broken (bindinawa) and brought to the maedilla. Usually these harvested crops are spread on a mat (paedura). After drying aba is beaten with a short club to separate the seeds from the beans.

By early April all harvesting activities in the hena comes to an end and the farmers return to the village. Hen are then abandoned for the regeneration of natural jungle for a period of about 7-8 years before they are ready for the next cultivation. The abandoned hen are called Kanath ( for about one year)and the villagers continue to visit these kanath for few more months to collect after season vegetables like brinjals, Elabatu, Tibbatu (both Rata Tibbatu and Titta Tibbatu), rikili wattakka and miris etc. The low shrubs (kanath kele) grow back in to shrub jungle (Landu kele) with all the natural characteristics of the previous forest. The newly emerged low jungle forms an effective canopy against soil erosion adding sufficient litter to restore the lost soil fertility back to its original condition and forming in to a natural habitat for animals dwelling in low jungles such as rabbit, Sambur, Barking deer, Wild Boar, Porcupine, Mouse Deer (Meeminna) and birds like the Jungle Fowl and Watukurullo. These animals also provide a rich source of game for the villagers.

Hen cultivation in this village has been going on in this manner for thousands of years. If the villagers did not slash these low shrub lands in their normal cyclic turns they would have grown back in to thick jungle and converted themselves in to Mukalan long time ago. It is also interesting to note that this practice also has given rise to a unique form of vegetation called landukele. Some of the trees and bushes found in these shrub lands such as Mandu, Hinguru, Pera, Himbutu, Kahata, Damunu, Lihiniya, Liyan, Kalawel, Yakinaran (Atlantia Ceylanica), Iramusu, Katuala, Uyala, Hiritala, Amduwel, Sassanda, Kukurumahan, Niyagala, Ambitilla, Halbembiya, Seru, Kirimuduna, Naha, Eraminiya and Kudumiris are not found in the thick jungle. Most of these plants and creepers also provide a rare and rich source of medicinal plants. If one day the hen cultivation is discontinued then this unique habitat for these rare animals and plants, a by-product of hen cultivation, will disappear for good.

These hen lands are found on hill slopes right round the village in between the thick jungle on the upper side and the paddy fields and home gardens on the lower side. The thick forest above hen lands form the catchments areas of the village streams. Hen cultivation is an integral part of the agricultural system in this village. Almost all the villages on the eastern slopes of the Dumbara hills practice this form of agriculture. By way of social status hen comes second to paddy fields. But ironically it is the hena that provides almost all their annual food requirements other than rice, milk and eggs. The second most important cereal in the village economy, Kurakkan and the third Badairingu are also produced in the hena. So are their all other pulses and most vegetables like Wattakka, Tiyambara, Labu and Kekiri. During the hena season that is from November to March the hena also becomes the main source of their fresh vegetables and green leaves.

By end of March as stated before, they abandon their hen and come to the village to prepare themselves for the New Year (The Sinhala Aluth Avurudda). Again by mid August they move on to a new stretch (Yaya) of hena and the rotation cycle goes on in this manner year after year. Thus the widely accepted notion that hen cultivation gives rise to wastelands does not happen here. From an environmental point of view hen cultivation is much superior to modern dry land cultivation where all the stumps are removed and land tilled before cultivation. Dry land cultivation destroys all the natural vegetation and does not leave any room for heir regeneration either. It also causes enormous surface erosion and often gives rise to waste lands. As such we should not confuse dry land farming with traditional hen cultiation.

So long as the population pressure does not upset the balance between farmer needs and land availability, hen cultivation offers one of the best form of agricultural practices available to the people of this village. It will not pose an ecological or environmental problem as long as they are not allowed to fell the thick jungle above the village. Hen cultivation is a natural adaptation to the agro-climatic and socio-economic conditions prevailing in this part of the world. Hena forms an important component of the economic Trinity of this village, namely the paddy field, hena and the home garden. Sometimes the hena stands superior to the paddy field as the paddy fields at times fail due to drought. But the hena, being a form of highland cultivation normally never fails. What is more is hena cultivation also coincide with the northeast monsoons. as such hena in fact provides food security against a possible failure in paddy due to drought. The paddy fields are irrigated, where as hen are totally rain-fed.

The hena and kumbura are complementary, both as a source of food production as well as an avenue of rural employment. Hena is less labour intensive than paddy cultivation and therefore production cost is kept to the minimum. All produce from the hena is fresh and free from all foreign matter injurious to human health. Items such as Karavila and Mae, they dry and keep for few months. Hena also provides a range of non-perishable vegetables like Wattakka, Tiyambara and Kekiri that they could keep for seven eight months to be used for the next Maha Paddy cultivation. Their quality, nutritional value and the taste are also very high. If the paddy field is termed the right leg, then the hena could be very aptly called the left leg of the village economy.

7 Hena cultivation is the Sinhala term used for shifting cHeultivation in Sri Lanka. hena=s and hen=pl..Usually this is referred to as chena cultivation in text books. The word chena is derived from the Tamil word chenai (s) Chenaikal-pl

8 A maelaya is heap of twigs ( a goda). The spots where such twigs are bunrt are used to plant crops like Wattakka, Pipinna .

- Asian Tribune -

Also Read:

1. Under the shadow of Lakegala

2. Under the shadow of Lakegala

3. Under The Sadow of Lakegala : Meemure

4. Under the Shadow of Lakegala: Of Their Paddy Cultivation

Share this


.