Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

The Traditional Village or Puranagama

Girl bathing in wewa. Photo by Steven Champion

"To know the tradition", it is said, "you must live the tradition." That is, our ancestors' traditional wisdom is not contained in books but in the memory of traditional villagers. To understand the profundity of our traditional culture, one has to participate in the experience of living in conformity with the tradition. Most modern students of culture study cultures from outside, making it for them impossible to grasp the subtleties of oral traditions.

Development patterns advocated in Third World countries are seldom based on traditional practice. Without people's participation being at the core of all activity most programs fail. Recognizing the failures in the development process, the Living Heritage Trust has designed a program of work in the Okanda-Kudimbigala area that can only succeed if villagers are made the custodians of their resources and constituents of the decision-making process. After all, it is the villagers themselves who will save their collective heritage; we only assist them.

The Sinhala colloquial term Polo Maihi Kanthawa means Virgin Earth Mother. To the Sri Lankan from a puranagama (traditional village) background, nature and culture are one. In fact, the Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principle gives the primary definition of culture as "worship, cultivation..." and in 1510, it also came to mean "Improvement or refinement by education and training."

Surviving puranagamas in Sri Lanka still preserve this traditional perspective. Forest, water, land, agriculture, and a tree shrine to the local deity are all part of a unified whole. Ecological sustainability was achieved by maintaining the balance through submission to, respect for, and friendship with Nature. The rituals, beliefs, and cultural patterns visible in the puranagamas reflect this mentality. It is a mentality that is increasingly important to a world poised on the brink of ecological meltdown.