The World Food Organization in its mission declaration has pointed out that food is the prime necessity of the people of a country. Each and every country in the world cannot engage in agriculture. In the desert lands in the Middle East and in the countries like Iceland where the land is fully covered with snow, practicing agriculture is only a dream. In such a world, Sri Lanka where even a thrown out piece of stick becomes a food providing plant is an oasis on the one hand.
Beyond 12500 years, the humans who landed ‘Sinhala Dweepa’(Land of Sri Lanka) and lived by hunting, made settlement in it. The reason why they selected the areas in the river valleys for their settlement may be because they wanted to engage in agriculture. Later, they might have gradually refrained from risky hunting and became accustomed to an agriculture-centered life style and brought forth a generation depending on agro-food. This was because Sri Lanka had the factors such as soil, manure and animals in surplus which was favorable for farming.
The staple food of Sri Lankans is rice. Food prepared out of rice with curries is the most nutritious food. Because of this, an agro-culture can be seen in Sri Lanka and there is a very appropriate environment for it. The vast field where paddy is grown to supply rice known as ‘Buddha Boga’ for the country, might have been the paramount asset of the ancient Sinhalese. It is chena cultivation that supplied vegetables and fruits for a wholesome meal. In this land of Sri Lanka which was influenced by Buddhist Philosophy, people can lead an innocent life style without killing animals for food and everything needed for a vegetarian diet can be grown within the country.
The vast irrigation systems including tanks (reservoirs) and canals connected to each other erected in about 300BC prove the fact that paddy cultivation had been in Sri Lanka from the ancient times. This paddy cultivation was not only a form of sustenance but also a means of livelihood for the farmers. It is said that our forefathers had used many varieties of paddy for cultivation. Ancient Sri Lanka which was world famous for paddy production at that time was called as the ‘Granary of Eastern Asia’ and it had introduced more than 200 kinds of indigenous paddy to the world. ‘Suwandel’,’Kaluheenati’,’Maavee’, ‘Pachchaperumal’ ,’Kuruluthuda’’Rathdel’’Madathavaalu’ and ‘Hetadaavee are some of them. There were another kinds of paddy called ‘Swayanjaatha’and ‘Elvee’ which do not require much water so they can be grown on highland. This must be the secret that indigenous people did not lose rice for their consumption even in the times of severe drought.
Tanks (Reservoirs) are the pompous monuments that well illustrate the grandeur of our past. Because of the gigantic tanks built by our ancient kings we have inherited an irrigation industry which cannot be compared with anyone in the world. This clearly shows what a big patronage was given by the state to upgrade agriculture in the country. In the past, the villagers had built their own tank in every village using their collective labour power. They erected a stupa (pagoda) out of the earth that removed from the cavity which was dug for building the tank. Therefore, every village had a tank and a stupa. That was how the concept ‘wewai, daagebai, gamai, pansalai’ brought about. To offer the first part taken from the paddy harvest to Lord Buddha is a tradition practiced by farmers even today. It is said that the production of paddy in Sri Lanka was at a high level and Sri Lanka being self- sufficient in paddy, the surplus grain was exported to other counties. In the dry zone of the country where rain water was not sufficient for paddy cultivation, the‘Wewa’(Tank) was invented which was a self- creation of Sri Lankans.
According to the written history, for the first time we learn about paddy cultivation during the rule of King Panduwas Dew. The declined paddy cultivation due to various wars and battles was improved again by King Parackramabaahu the Great. In the book ‘Chulawamsha’ it is mentioned that 163 large tanks, 2376 small tanks, 3910 canals and165 dams were built during his reign. His famous saying known as ‘Even a single drop of water that falls onto the earth should not be sent to the ocean without utilizing it’ is itself an ample example for his devotion he showed to paddy cultivation.
The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English who invaded Sri Lanka took steps to gradually destroy its self-sufficient agriculture related economic system. In 1505,the Portuguese the first European nation invaded Sri Lanka. Then subsequently, in 1638 by the Dutch and in 1796 by the English Sri Lanka was invaded. During these periods, many things had happened that took the lives of people in this country into a topsy-turvy state. Many new things were added to our food pattern. One such a thing is the first bread fruit tree planted here by the Dutch. It is believed that the Dutch deliberately did this to weaken the self-sufficient, very robust and healthy Sinhala nation. But the intelligent Sinhalese used to eat bread fruit with coconut to pacify the bad effects of bread fruit. Thus, what the Dutch intended was not successful. The first bread fruit tree brought and planted as a souvenir by the Dutch can be seen inside the Galle Fort. Although it is about 350 years old it still bears well.
Though the present administrators who are making arrangements to operate an agriculture based economy in the country it is doubtful whether they study the agro- economy system of the ancient Sri Lanka. However, it is needless to say that the ancient Sri Lanka had the best agriculture based economy in the East Asia at that time. But today, Sri Lanka has fallen to the position to import rice and other kinds of grain from other countries as a result of collapsing the agriculture that we inherited from the ancient Sinhalese.