Traditional (Heirloom) Rice Varieties of Sri Lanka

Rice is the staple food of Sri Lanka. The varieties of rice that is being cooked in local households have changed at an unprecedented rate over the last 4-5 decades, keeping pace with the growth of non-communicable diseases in the country, which are responsible for 50% - 60% of the deaths in Sri lanka. A few centuries back, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart and kidney diseases were rare cases among the locals to the point that diseases such as diabetes were considered to be diseases of the rich due to the sedentary lifestyle they led. The popular local sweet ‘kavum’ which is made using rice flour, coconut oil and treacle (Syrup obtained from Caryota urens or Madhuca longifolia) was a favourite among locals and was regularly consumed as a dessert regardless of the copious amount of coconut oil and treacle used in making it. This sweet was considered the best supplement to be taken to the battlefield or on strenuous journeys due to the nourishment it provides. The same nourishing sweet is considered a restricted pleasure in todays context due to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases. The shift from an organic food culture to a non-organic food culture is a key factors in this regard. What happened with the staple food is no different. It is not the same heirloom or traditional rice varieties that is being used today. All the existing mainstream varieties of rice are genetically modified, hybrid varieties.

Heirloom varieties of rice came in to being without any human intervention. Such rice varieties include Suwandel, Kaluheenati, Pachchaperumal, Kuruluthuda, Mavee, Madathawalu, Rath Al, Kahamaala, Kahawanu, Batapola Al, Hatada Vee, Masuran, Pokkali etc. It is believed that there had been close to 1500-2000 varieties of heirloom rice. As the existing varieties are genetically modified, they do not carry a natural resistance to harmful pests as heirloom varieties do. They demand artificial fertiliser to contain pests due to their inorganic origins. Such chemicals and heavy metals carried up the food chains, lead to non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and kidney diseases. Let alone the consumer, farmers themselves are suffering from kidney diseases as a result of continuous exposure to such inorganic fertilisers. Quite differently, in fertilising traditional paddy fields, an organic form of fertiliser such as a mixture of coconut charcoal and worm castings manure was used. Additionally, there were mechanical means of obtaining organic manure and controlling pests such as the plantation of Madhuca longifolia (Mee) trees which provided abodes to bats, construction of tanks with mud sluice gates and using cattle to work on the fields. Non of these practices are utilised extensively today. Therefore, it has reached a point where cultivation of rice had been made unfruitful without the use of inorganic fertilisers. 

All the aforementioned heirloom rice varieties contain close to twice the amount of protein, lesser fats and carbohydrate, more iron, and roughly 3-4 times antioxidants than mainstream varieties of rice such as BG 352 and BG 358 (two of the most popular mainstream varieties of rice). Even though such hybrid varieties offer a faster harvest, the qualitative value of the harvest is substantially lower. Heirloom rice varieties also contain more fibre and digests slowly when compared to hybrid varieties. Due to these reasons, a cup of rice porridge, a simple breakfast made with rice and pol sambol or a serving of kavum (all of which contained rice and some form of Coconut), kept the locals active for a considerable period of time. The antioxidants present in such traditional varieties of rice reduced the risk of many non-communicable diseases including diabetes, heart diseases and certain cancers. The intrinsic properties and the medicinal values of each variety were utilised in traditional medicine and wellness practices to combat and treat many ailments;

Suwandel - Improves eye sight, improves the vocal tone, controls diabetes and high blood pressure, maintains overall wellbeing.

Kaluheenati - Packs a lot of medicinal value. A porridge made using this variety is used as an antidote for snake bites and treatment for yellow fever, promotes digestion, improves physical strength, controls diabetes and high blood pressure, combats cancer. 

Pachchaperumal - Prevents the leak of nutritious elements through the urinary tract, nourishes the bone marrowtraditional rice varieties in sri lanka, improves immunity, controls diabetes and high blood pressure, combats cancer and kidney diseases. 

Kuruluthuda - Improves health of the gallbladder, helps the calcification of cartilages, nourishes the bone marrow, promotes digestion. 

Mavee - Cools the body, detoxifies the body, controls diabetes and heart diseases, relieves constipation, treats haemorrhoids, treats tuberculosis, promotes weight loss.

Madathawalu - Promotes digestion, detoxifies the body, contains a variety of vitamins, improves immunity, controls diabetes, heart diseases and cancer.  

Rath Al - Improves health of the liver, treats urologic diseases, helps ease stress, cools the body, promotes digestion, prevents the formation of bladder stones, combats viruses, treats tuberculosis and ling diseases.

Kahamaala - Combats diabetes, heart diseases, cancer and kidney diseases, nourishes the digestive tract.

Kahawanu - Combats diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer.

Batapola Al - Helps the formation of blood cells, detoxifies the body, combats diabetes and cancer. 

Hatada Vee - Treats diabetes and tuberculosis, cools the body, improves physical strength.

Masuran - Treats diabetes, promotes digestion, prevents premature ageing. 

Pokkali - Treats diabetes, cancer, nerve and skin diseases, prevents premature ageing.

Certain aforementioned benefits may generically be present in each heirloom rice variety and certain varieties are used individually to treat specific medical conditions. In general, heirloom rice varieties offer a multitude of benefits over the genetically modified rice varieties which are in use today. Sri Lanka was once referred to as the ‘granary of the east’ due to the abundance of grains and the variety of rice grains it provided to the international market. This exported surplus was after sustaining around 3 times the modern day population of Sri Lanka. It is intriguing to investigate how this happened in practice, which will be the subject of a separate discussion. Preserving and promoting these heirloom rice varieties which are endemic to Sri Lanka is a responsibility of every citizen; or else, we may soon end up losing De Beers of the grain market.  

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