Ancient Sri Lanka was a self-sufficient, thriving agricultural economy – the staple food, rice, was cultivated in extensive paddy fields, while vegetables, greens, grains and cereals were cultivated in rain-fed lands called ‘Chenas’.
Chena is regarded as the oldest form of cultivation in Sri Lanka, extending as far back as 5000 years in Sri Lankan history. Chena cultivation was a traditional practice and ancient Sri Lankans ensured that the environment was unharmed in the process. The techniques used to cultivate a chena depended on a range of variables including the climate, nature of soil as well as other environmental and topological factors of the area. Chena cultivation was mainly practiced by men; however, women and children also extended their aid in various ways such as protecting crops from raiding birds and animals.
Ancient, traditional Sri Lankan farmers strongly believed in many religious and spiritual rituals and practices. For instance, farmers believed that the person who begins cultivation of a Chena should be void of impurities, called ‘Kili’ in the Sinhala language. It was also customary of Chena cultivators to pray to their religious faith before they begin cultivation. A strong affinity to astrology also ensured that cultivation commenced on an auspicious day and time.
Chena was cultivated collectively; each village had one chena plot which was divided into individual shares among the villagers. The wisdom behind this collaboration was borne out of desire to protect the surrounding forest. If each villager was allowed to clear their own plot of land for cultivation, the forest would soon disappear. Thus the village would collectively select one area of land for cultivation and share the yield.
Types of Chena
There are four types of Chena: Navadali Hena, Ath Danduwa Hena, Mukulan Hena and Hen Kanaththa.
Navadali Hena is chena land created by clearing an untouched forest area, setting it on fire and cultivating it immediately after. Navadali literally translates to ‘fresh soot’, which can be found abundantly throughout the Navadali Hena. As the area has not been tilled previously, a Navadali Hena is highly fertile and brings in a high yield of crop. However, farmers refrain from cultivating too many of this type of chena as it requires clearing new forest land thus leading to reduction in forest cover. A Navadali Hena is abandoned after it is tilled for two or three seasons (kanna).
The forest begins to re-grow in the abandoned Navadali Hena land after a few months. When the trees have reached the average length of an adult persons arm, the semi-wilderness is cleared and set on fire for cultivation. This type of chena land is called ‘Ath Danduwa Hena’, Ath Dandu meaning ‘arm length’.
A forest which consists of medium-sized trees is called a ‘Mukalana’. Thus Mukalana Hena is a type of chena cultivated by clearing the medium and small sized trees of a Mukalana forest.
Once a land becomes infertile as a result of repeated tilling, it is abandoned by the farmers. This abandoned chena is still tilled by feeble, sick or old farmers who cannot extend their support to the collaborative chena cultivation as it is a strenuous activity. Hen Kanaththa does not produce an abundant crop, but it is sufficient for the survival of these farmers.
Traditionally, ancient chena cultivators collaboratively decided on the type of chena to be cultivated, whether it should be Navadali Hena, Mukalan Hena, or Ath Danduwa Hena. Once a decision is made, they would select an appropriate land area; rocky areas were often avoided and areas with a spring were preferred.
Setting the Chena on fire
Chena farmers usually begin cultivation of chena during the final days of the dry season. This meant that once trees and vines are cut down in preparation, the dry bark and leaves – a consequence of the harsh sun – they burn readily. It takes at least two to three days for the area to burn completely.
Farmers would make sure to look for and chase away hidden animals before the area is set on fire.
Tilling the Chena
The burnt trees, vines and sprigs are removed from the land before cultivation. Some of the burnt branches are used to build a sturdy wooden fence (Dandu vata) around the Chena to prevent animals from raiding the crop. Providing seeds for cultivation is a requisite that every farmer must fulfill. All farmers usually have seeds in their possession to offer for cultivation as it is customary for them to preserve seeds from previous harvests in their ‘Dum Atuwa’ (a seed store).
Safeguarding the Chena
Various measures are taken to protect crop from birds and animals. Farmers would take temporary lodge in ‘Pela’ or watch huts to watch over and chase away birds and animals during the day and night. A Dandu Vata is built around the chena to keep away larger raiding animals. A Pambaya (scarecrow) and Takeya (a bell-type metal object) are installed to scare away birds and small animals.