Thanking the gods for the spice of their lives

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A special perahera down Hikkaduwa last week featured not just the traditional drummers and dancers but freshly harvested cinnamon, to remember local cinnamon growers lost to the 2004 tsunami – Malaka Rodrigo reports
Seven years ago, the tsunami destroyed the Southern coastline killing thousands and destroying homes and livelihoods. The salt water that swept as far as three km inland also killed the cinnamon plantations destroying the local cinnamon industry.

Going back in time: A man participating in the perahera wheels the model of a ship that had docked at the Galle harbour in 1680 for cinnamon trade

Now, these small scale cinnamon farmers, some of whom lost their family members are back on their feet again. They believe the divine powers of ‘Devol Deviyo’ of Seenigama Temple also helped them rebuild their livelihood and the “Navum Kurundu Mangallaya” ( Cinnamon Thanksgiving Festival) is their way of paying tribute and seeking blessings for a better crop and protection from natural disasters.

The sixth such ‘Navum Kurundu Mangallaya’ was held on December 17 in Hikkaduwa with traditional dancers and drummers, along with the cinnamon farmers bringing their first yield from the harvest to offer to the Seenigama Devol Devalaya. Unprocessed cinnamon bark as well as virgin quills from their harvest were brought in different ways. Those who process cinnamon also brought their equipment to get it blessed at the temple. A cinnamon grower dressed in a nilame costume carrying a bunch of Cinnamon quills atop an elephant symbolized the ‘tax collector’ known in ancient times as ‘Maha Badde’ .

Many private companies in the cinnamon industry too were seen participating in the perahera.
For many in the “Kurundu Mangallaya” there were painful memories of 2004. K.P. Mahinda, now 56, who owns a four-acre cinnamon plantation in Peraliya had to run for his life on that terrible day.

His home was just about 500m away from the spot where the ill-fated train was caught up in the tsunami, but luckily he managed to flee with his family as the first wave hit. He lost his house and all his belongings. “Over 50 bodies were found in my own garden,” he says, adding that 27 unidentified bodies were cremated there.

Act of faith: Cinnamon growers carrying their first yield from the harvest to offer to the gods. Pic by Sajeewanie Kodippili

Mahinda also lost his plantation. The land was full of debris and the remaining plants too died subsequently due to the salt water in the soil. “Gahen watuna miniha ta gona anna wage,” said Mahinda recalling that losing his cinnamon plants meant losing his livelihood in addition to the personal losses.

“The cinnamon trees in my garden were fully matured – some of them over 40-50 years old planted by my grandparents and producing a good harvest. We had to start everything from scratch,” he says.

Before replanting, the contaminated soil had to be treated. The Spanish Red Cross and Department of Export Agriculture helped the farmers to prepare their lands. New cinnamon plants were distributed and planting started soon after. Mahinda’s cinnamon plot is still on the way to recovery. Before the disaster, he would get 600 kg of cinnamon from his plot, now only about quarter of this harvest, but he is positive that things will improve.

The “Navum Kurundu Mangallaya” was organized by the Galle Cinnamon Cultivators’ Association (CinCA) and the Galle office of the Department of Export Agriculture. CinCA is an umbrella organization for over a hundred small scale village level cinnamon groups or ‘Kurundu samithi’ established by the Department of Export Agriculture. CinCA’s president Geethal Wijeratne says the ‘Kurundu Mangallaya’ is organized annually to pay tribute to the divine powers while it also acts as a gathering of all those involved in the cinnamon industry.

Maha badda - the tax collector on top of elephant

Cinnamon puja to Devol Temple

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/120101/Plus/plus_02.html

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