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As COVID-19 rages, Sri Lankans find solace in traditional practices

  • Self-isolation measures being adopted around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new for Sri Lanka’s indigenous communities, who have over generations developed a system of quarantine against infectious diseases.
  • Before the scientific discovery of bacteria and viruses, indigenous communities attributed infections and diseases to the power of evil spirits, and relied on herbal remedies and rituals seeking blessings from deities to prevent illness.
  • The country’s national greeting, a variant of the clasped-palms stance practiced widely across Asia, is also now being adopted in the West as a non-contact alternative to shaking hands, hugging, and kissing on the cheek.
  • Communities are being reminded of the need to align traditional practices with new scientific knowledge to fight outbreaks such as COVID-19.

COLOMBO — She’s 80 years old, but Baby Nona can still recall the day she contracted chickenpox as a teenager. Her mother spread neem leaves, from the Azadirachta indica tree, also known as Indian lilac, on her bed. She also sprayed turmeric (Curcuma longa) liquid on the floor. Her father hung neem branches on the gate and entrance to the house, and made a short leafy curtain of sorts by hanging small neem branches tied together. For the next two weeks, the family did not go out unless there was a pressing need. Neighbors brought items they required and left them at the wooden gate. The youngster was kept in a room separated from other family members, especially the old and young.

Decades later, households across Sri Lanka are under similar confinement as part of the government’s new health directives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The quarantine and self-isolation practices recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) are familiar to communities like Baby Nona’s, who for generations have combined them with traditional knowledge to prevent the spread of highly contagious deceases.

Ritual dances such as the ‘kohomba kankariya’ are performed to appeal to the better senses of deities to help protect the community from diseases. Image courtesy of Hiranya Malwatta.

Disease control at community level

“Villagers would know why neem branches are hanging from a neighbor’s gate, a practical signal to communicate that members of the household are infected with a contagious decease,” Mahinda Kumara Dalupotha, a folklore researcher studying indigenous practices, told Mongabay. “If the disease is not contained and more households in a village get affected, then neem branches are piled on access roads to the village issuing a warning about community level infestation to outsiders, a silent message that calls for maintaining healthy distance.”

Another traditional practice during a time of plague is to place a bowl of water with cut pieces of lime (Citrus aurantifolia), turmeric, charcoal and lots of crushed neem leaves at the entrance and the back door of a house. People wash their hands and feet from the bowl before entering the house and when leaving. The water is changed daily and the bowl kept in place for several more days after the disease is over, Dalupotha said — a form of herbal handwashing that predates the advent of soap in these communities.

“The medicinal properties, especially the antiseptic qualities of neem, turmeric and lime, are acknowledged by the Ayurveda system and now well accepted by science,” said Kariyakeranage Chandi Perera, sectional head of the Ayurveda division at the University of Colombo’s Institute of Indigenous Medicine. “It is remarkable that our Sri Lankan folk communities practiced these, based on their traditional knowledge systems.”

When someone contracts a disease like chickenpox or measles, there’s a home remedy: a bed of neem leaves to sooth the skin, especially if there are blisters, said Perera, who is also an Ayurvedic practitioner.

These customs are mainly practiced to contain the spread of infectious diseases that locals refer to as deiyange leda, or “diseases of the gods.” Like COVID-19, most are viral diseases: chickenpox, measles, mumps and smallpox.

“Before the scientific discovery of micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses being the reason for these sicknesses, folk communities attributed these diseases to deities,” said Mudiyanse Dissanayake, a professor at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts Sri Lanka. “So a trust system got developed, including worshiping and ritual performing to honor these deities and seek blessings to overcome diseases.

“These traditional rituals, called Shanthi Karma, or rituals of solace, are a combination of dance, chanting and the strumming of drums to invoke blessings of deities to eliminate evil spirits. There are lot of such rituals in Sri Lanka, some of them region specific, but overall … performed with the purpose of warding off diseases,” said Dissanayake, a well-known practitioner of many of these rituals.

Dummala, a powdered fragrant wood resin, burns when thrown at traditional fire torches, causing a large swirl of fire that is believed to help destroy airborne germs and disinfect public gatherings. Image courtesy of Ravi Sathyajith.

Ritual dance as a cure

Fire torches form an important part of these rituals. A powdered resin called dummala, from the Shorea oblongifolia plant, is thrown at these torches, resulting in large swirls of fire that light up the dance floor. “This is a social gathering with probably more than one patient, so the fire could actually burn some of the airborne germs,” Dalupotha said.

The indigenous people of Sri Lanka, the Veddha community, have their own methods of dealing with illness. “Veddhas believe the spirit of their dead haunt them and cause diseases, and to address this, they perform a special dance known as the Kiri Koraha to seek relief,” Dissanayake said. “They add neem leaves to a boiling pot of milk and dance around the pot, while getting the milk sprayed on their bodies using tiny neem branches.”

But do these rituals have any measureable impact on community health? “These rituals are mainly a method of psychological healing. They boost confidence in individual patients and foster the community belief that the village receives the blessings and the protection of various deities,” Dissanayake said. “Boosting inner confidence boosts the immune system, helping them fight disease with a better frame of mind.”

He also highlighted indigenous food habits that help strengthen the immune system. “Before tea was introduced to Sri Lanka, the natives consumed a variety of herbal drinks and porridges. It was normal for every home garden to have a few herbs and to regularly consume them,” he said.

Among the most popular ingredients in herbal drinks and home cures are coriander (Coriandrum sativum), ranawara (Senna auriculata), polpala (Aerva lanata), and venivel or yellow vine (Coscinium fenestratum).  

The indigenous Veddha community performs a popular ritual known as the Kiri Koraha, where community members dance together, circling a boiling pot of milk and spraying the milk on their bodies using small neem branches. Image courtesy of Hiryanya Malwatta.

Local knowledge to fight disease

According to Dissanayake, these traditional practices contain some good elements that can be particularly useful as Sri Lanka fights COVID-19.

“For example, Sri Lankans formally welcome others by pressing their palms and wishing them long life with the greeting Ayubovan,” he said.

This traditional salutation is a variant of similar greetings practices across South and East Asia. It is now being quickly adopted elsewhere as a non-contact greeting to replace hugs, kisses on cheek, and handshakes.

“It has never ever been globally more appropriate,” Dissanayake said. “It is not only a hygienic method of greeting but contains a wish for long life at a time when there is global fear of losing people to the COVID-19 pandemic.”



Banner image of neem branches hung together at the entrance to a home, conveying a silent message of a family under self-quarantine, courtesy of Mahinda Kumara Dalupotha.

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