by ASIFF HUSSEIN
The idea of a folk museum faithfully reflecting the lifestyle of the rural peasantry is a relatively new concept, especially for a country like Sri Lanka which is more or less obsessed with its archaeological monuments rather than its folk life which actually constitutes the backbone of its culture.
The traditional lifestyle of the Sinhalese peasantry of the Rajarata is today gradually undergoing a transition due to the introduction of modern machinery and new modes of living which has resulted in some of the old habits and usages receding into the background or falling into disuse. It is very timely therefore that a museum especially dedicated to the folk life of the region should have been established to preserve if not perpetuate the lifestyle of a peasant people who have contributed so much to the prosperity of the country.
The Anuradhapura Folk Museum situated in the old city of Anuradhapura displays just what one would expect of it – artefacts, so to say, revolving round the folk life of the Rajarata peasantry. The items on display are varied and cover all aspects of the life of this people, whether at home, in the fields or on social or ceremonial occasions. They reflect a lifestyle steeped in tradition and yet rich in values, evoking a nostalgia which only a rural peasant could truly appreciate.
Here one would find a good collection of items used by the farmer of old. These include implements for chena cultivation such as ketta, porava and udella, labu gediya or gourd vessel and bat malu or food baskets made of reed with which the farmer used to carry his meals to the field. One will also find an assortment of baskets including a rare old circular basket made of a creeper called etarilla. Many such baskets seem to have been employed to carry yams, grains and other crops.
Particularly interesting are the vanpatula or pair of slippers made of hide which appear to have been used by farmers when in the fields. They are rather large, square in shape and contain straps for the feet.
Also interesting are the various devices for controlling and monitoring livestock in the olden days. These include sokada or wooden clappers tied to the necks of cattle which made a noise whenever they moved. These clappers seem to have served a dual purpose, namely to alert owners as to the whereabouts of their cattle and to draw the attention of the villagers towards pack oxen carrying merchandise. Other notable items connected with livestock include a minigediya or tinkler and varamanda or skin rope probably made of elk skin and used for capturing or controlling animals.
Also noteworthy are the fishing baskets made of cane which are very much similar to those described in Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of Ceylon written in 1681. Says Knox:”They have a kind of basket made of small sticks, so close that fish cannot get thro; it is broad at bottom, and narrow at top, like a funnel, the hole big enough for a man to thrust his arm in, wide at the mouth about two or three foot; these baskets they jobb down, and the ends stick in the mud, which often happen upon a fish; when they do, they feel it by the fish beating itself against the sides. Then they put in their hands and take them out“.
One would also come across items associated with the mi-tel industry, a vegetable oil extracted from the seeds of the mi-tree (Bassia Longifolia) which was widely used for cooking purposes in the olden days.
The exhibits include pes malla or baskets made of rush (pan) or the outer cover of the kitul flower (Kitul mala kopuva) used for extracting the oil. Besides these one would find a variety of items used in the peasant kitchen including moulds for making kiribat or milk-rice in the shape of a flower and pair of elephants, as well as moulds for making kokis and jaggery. Particularly fascinating is a square-shaped jaggery mould with a floral design.
Other notable domestic items include mortars for making murukku and string-hoppers, tattu or mats for steaming string-hoppers, a kabala or pan for roasting kiri-roti, spoons for forming asmi strings, sticks for stirring talapa and kiribat and a kevum kuru used for forming the konde or knot of those delectable oil cakes known as kevum.
Articles of dress include an old golden-orange velvet jacket adorned with little red flowers, a chandrappata sarong in red and yellow, a diya-kachchiya or waist-cloth used for bathing and red disc-shaped head-dresses which were probably worn by the higher orders. Besides these, one would find an old wedding dress comprising a hetta or jacket in red and a kalaeliya or lower garment in brown.
Also interesting are an old pair of wooden slippers with soles of wood and straps of reed. It is probably this sort of slippers which were known in the olden days as mirivedi, a term derived from the Tamil maram-adi or ‘wooden foot’.
Among the items of jewellery may be included various kinds of necklaces including kara-mala, gedi-mala and eta-mala, a pair of kola or cylindrical ear-studs, tel havadiya or waist chain, sura valalla or arm ring and kumara valalu or bangles for infants.
Some of the exhibits also provide us a glimpse into the religious life of the community, among them a collection of flags used for vows including a large orange flag depicting a female figure with a halo round her head, probably some sort of divinity worshipped by the villagers in the olden days. Another notable flag contains a panegyric to the Sri Maha Bodhi in blue characters against a white background.
Medicine seems to have been well developed, for here we find a variety of indigenous medical equipment including kits for surgery, cauterizing and treatment of boils. Other interesting exhibits include some vakkamas or powder horns used by native physicians and a visha urana gala or stone used for removing poison such as snakebite.
As for entertainment, we would find that the Sinhala peasant despite his simple lifestyle was not without pastimes, for here one could come across a variety of folk games including boards for nerenchi and olinda keliya, a kumbuttan pila or wooden board with 16 holes containing large marble-like beads used in a game of some sort and a divul bambaraya or woodapple top. Among the musical items on display are a rare veena made of coconut shells, a horaneva or little trumpet and an udekkiya or hour-glass drum. Other interesting exhibits include a bed made of elk skin, a totilla or wooden cradle and a collection of stag horns.