Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Casting about Sri Lanka

Castes are perhaps best known because of the powerful influences of the Indian caste structure but they existed in other places such as Sri Lanka. Traditionally it was believed the caste system was a fairly simple structure in Sri Lanka comprising 4 classes; Raja, Bamunu (Brahmin), Velenda and Govi. There is evidence that this structure prevailed up until the 18th century when the British were able to restructure the system following the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy in 1815.

This class structure appears to have come to Sri Lanka from Northern India, with the people who move to the island millennia ago. There are similarities to the Southern Indian Jati caste structure, which may have journeyed to the country as people migrated, or it might represent an even more ancient system. With the arrival of Buddhism the importance of caste was reduced but it remained a potent force in the community and still does today. Waves of migration particularly from Southern India, some sponsored by various Kings in Sri Lanka and then the British, continued to support caste in the social structure.

The British consolidation of caste as a management tool and in particular the introduction of a new “Mudaliyar” (Gatekeeper) class, now vanished as this group was absorbed by Govigama, resulted in the progressive reduction in the number of castes. It is now estimated that more than half the Sinhalese population are of the “Govigama” (Cultivator) caste. This movement began with the Dutch who freed up land ownership and many of the then peasants became independent cultivators. This process was hastened by the British who preferred to bring Tamil workers from India for plantation work and so effectively raised the status of existing Sinhalese cultivator classes.

There remains a separation between lowland and highland (Kandyan) castes. Partly this was because Dutch influences didn’t reach the Kandy kingdom and many classes were preserved. However with the final collapse of the kingdom in 1818 and complete British control of the island the differences declined. However caste and occupation remain more closely linked in the central highlands than anywhere else.

Major differences exist between low and high country people. Aside from the importance of cultivator classes there are other groups that took advantage of colonial trading demands and their location. Karave, Durava and Salagama developed into powerful classes, though still much smaller numerically than Govigama. During the colonial period these classes accumulated wealth and influence and spread to all parts of the island.

The other factor that has had profound impact on caste was the introduction of Tamil labour. Though various kings had found Tamil mercenaries useful during family and other feuds, it was the British use of Indian labour within the plantation economy that brought most of them to Sri Lanka. Because of the nature of the work most of these people came from lower castes and were more familiar with the rigid application of class in Southern India.

However peculiarities also exist among Tamil castes. Northern Tamils have some differences to Eastern or central Tamils. Over time some of the lower cultivator castes have risen in status with support from the British while in the East fisherman castes have found prominence because of their numeric and economic significance. Central Tamils are mainly Southern Indian labour and this is reflected in the way the caste resembles a Tamil Nadu community. Overall most of these people are from the lowest castes in India and their status is the same in Sri Lanka.

There is also a small group of people called “Chetties” in and around Colombo. They had their origins in the ancient Velenda caste and are believed to be a “noble” class. Somehow they avoided, and didn’t want to be part of any evolving caste system. In effect they became a caste outside of the normal system and are given credence for being of noble origin.

The British, while keen to consolidate castes as a management tool, also recognized the separateness of Chetties and allowed them to exist as something of a subset of Govigama. In the same way Eurasians were also seen as a subset of Govigama because it would have been too unpalatable for “white” lower castes to exist. As a consequence within the Govigama caste there formed a group of “first class” families who were mixed blood people and in some ways more British than the British.

Among Tamils the religious practices and obligations demanded strong representation from among the religious castes. The result was a larger number of these castes relative to the population and while the general structure resembled a normal Tamil Nadu village, there was a noticeable imbalance of castes.
There are still 18 castes remaining in central and southern regions but of the original 24 castes only 15 remain in northern areas. This reflected changing occupational demands and the impact of British consolidation as well as post independence reorganization along socialist lines. Despite the decline in importance of caste as people become more educated it remains of significant social relevance. Every weekend adverts are placed by hopeful parents/brothers/sisters seeking marriage partners with expectations about caste and astrological forecasts. Caste remains a force in society that still guides many people’s lives.

The following table sets out current castes and the basic relationship but it is naturally a generalized interpretation. However what is clear is the dominance of Sinhala castes among land-owning/cultivating castes while Tamils are dominated by fishermen and religious castes. Of course as said earlier these castes are not numerically equal with about half the population being from the Govigama caste.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Arrack for Dummy's

When you lie on a white sand beach beneath swaying palm trees your spirits are naturally lifted as thoughts rise to the sweep and sway of the fronds overhead. Here, in these graceful tops to the Coconut palm are indeed spirits that will lift you. In elegant cascades of light orange the coconut flowers provide the basis of arrack – the nectar of Eden.

But wait; there are in fact three types of palm that produce such nectar, the Coconut, Palmyra and Kithul. Coconuts dominate the coastal plains, Kithul the hills and Palmya the dryer northern regions. Regardless the process is the same; unopened flowers are cut at the tip and a dish attached to catch the sap that flows. Normally the “Toddy Tappers” cut the flowers in the early morning and should have the toddy in collection drums within 3 to 4 hours. An average palm will produce 2 litres of sap per day.

Since these palms may easily be 20 plus metres high the job is somewhat risky. So they don’t have to climb down each palm to move to the next they string rickety rope “ladders” between the palms to allow movement. Deaths among Toddy Tappers is not an uncommon happening.

The whitish ooze that flows from the cut flower has a very high sugar and yeast content. This captured juice, Toddy, is then put into barrels for transport. Once upon a time these barrels were teak or hamilla but now the ubiquitous blue plastic drums are the common sight. Because of the yeast content it begins to ferment almost immediately it is collected. Some is drunk at this stage and it is probably best described as a slightly cidery taste with a bit of a kick, though really only very mild.

As it ferments a little more it becomes Kissapu (illegal liquor) which is more potent and more likely to be a health hazard. Kissapu is a risky drink because hygiene conditions are usually poor and the fermenting liquor becomes contaminated with a range of pathogens. It also is higher in alcohol but not necessarily the “good” ones! Kissapu may have significant amounts of ethel alcohol and methanol, guaranteed to deliver a blinder of a headache and a sensitive tummy.

The Toddy that makes it through to the distillers however enjoys some care and attention to gradually become Arrack.

In 1881 The Household Cyclopedia of General Information provided an interesting (but generally inaccurate) description of the production of Arrack reflecting the mysticism surrounding the “far east”;

“Arrack is no other than a spirit produced by distillation from a vegetable juice called toddy, which flows out of the cocoanut tree. The operator provides himself with a parcel of earthen pots, climbs up the trunk of a cocoatree; and when he comes to the boughs, he cuts off one of the small knot or buttons, and applies the mouth of a bottle to the wound, fastening it to the bough with a bandage; in the same manner he cuts off others, and proceeds till the whole number is employed; this done, he leaves them until the next morning, when he takes off the bottles, which are mostly filled, and empties the juice into the proper receptacle. When a sufficient quantity is produced, the whole put together, is left to ferment. When the fermentation is over, and the liquor is a little tart, it is put into the still, and fire being made, the still is suffered to work as long as that which comes has any considerable taste of spirit. The liquor thus procured is the low wine of arrack; and distilled again to separate some of its watery parts, and rectify it to that very weak kind of proof spirit in which state we find it."

In truth however distillation of Arrack is much more scientific. The toddy from thousands of trees arrive at collection centres is tested for quality, and taken to the distillery and poured into “wash backs” traditionally made of teak or halmilla. Wash backs are the large vats where the bulk of fermentation takes place. Ideally all this occurs within 3-4 hours of the sap being drawn from the flower; then begins the delicate process of distillation.

In the Wash Backs the natural yeast feeds on the sugars producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. After about three days the liquid has an alcohol content of 5 to 7% by volume, and is now known as wash. Up until this point the process has been quite similar to the production of beer.
The wash is then pumped into the first copper pot still, known as the wash still, to be distilled. The wash is heated, boiling off the alcohol, which is collected in a water-cooled condenser.
This spirit, known as low wine, has an alcohol content of about 20 to 40%. The low wine is pumped into a second pot still, known as the spirit still, distilled a second and sometimes a third time. The final spirit generally has an alcohol content of 60 to 70%.

The distillation process is complete within 24 hours. The extracted spirit is transferred to Halmilla timber vats. This particular timber is prized for maturing spirits as it is believe it has the ability to make the coconut spirits mellow. No artificial flavours or ingredients are added. Maturation can take 15 years, depending on flavour, texture, alcoholic strength and fragrance requirements. Once matured the Arrack is then blended by master blenders drawing on know-how passed down from generation to generation and company tradition to produce the final result.

So that all done, what does it taste like? Well it’s a bit hard to describe. Personally I’d place it somewhere between whiskey and rum. It’s neither as sweet as rum nor as peaty as whiskey. Strangely it’s not “coconut” to me but perhaps more florally (like brandy), with distinct vanilla hints. It’s also wonderful!

For your education, at great personal expense, these are tasting notes from a weekend on Trapobane Island. There were 3 participants and I’ll leave it to you to decide a) who took this seriously and b) who could hold their liquor.

Black Opal Arrack Price Rps 740/--
1. Dry, caramel overtones. Some early “chemical” impact.
2. Kerosene crap.
3. Could double as paint stripper.
DCS Double Distilled Price Rps 790/--
1. Dry, vanilla hints, complex.
2. Which one is this?
3. Not bad, smooth, drinkable.
DCS VSO Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Rum like, long body.
2. Not bad, good body, complex
3. Short legs. What?
VX Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Distinct “Cashew” flavour, dry with early alcohol on the nose.
2. Very good, nutty flavour but no length.
3. Ripsnorting hangover material.
Mendis Triple Distilled Arrack Price Rps 920/--
1. Very smooth, fruity with a “cognac” style about it.
2. Very good, almost cognac-like.
3. Grows hair on a woman’s chest.
Old Reserve Arrack Price Rps 960/--
1. Liquer style, quite “coconut” and sticky feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Will polish mahogany to a brilliant shine.
Mendis 10 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 1600/--
1. Oily, distinct “coconut” and rather overpowering mouth feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Liquid squeezed out of a Sri Lankan sarong tastes better. Who knows that sort of stuff?
Mendis 15 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 2700/--
1. Very smooth, dry finish with some body.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Didn’t like it – too expensive! Finally a meaningful comment!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Snake Bite in the Garden of Eden

Many early travelers to Sri Lanka believed they were standing in the original Garden of Eden. Among the verdant growth serpents slid; not to offer apples but to feed on the similarly abundant wildlife. But at times people and serpents would meet and usually it was to the serious disadvantage of one or the other.

Sri Lanka, though an island of relatively small size, has the richest collection of herpetological wealth in South Asia. There are around 100 amphibian and 190 reptile species of which 96 are snakes. Despite only 5 being seriously venomous the death rate in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world being 6 in 100,000 population. Australia is blessed with many more lethal snakes in the scrub but has far fewer deaths from bites.

Factors which contribute to this high incidence of death by snakebite are primarily the socio-economic condition of the people, preference among victims for seeking traditional treatment for snakebite as well as clearing natural vegetation and habitats for settlements, agriculture and plantations.

While the island possesses a rich flora of nearly 3500 species of plants it has been an agricultural economy for the past 10,000 years. As a result, over the years many natural ecosystems have been transformed into agro-ecosystems which appeal to highly venomous snakes such as Cobras, Russell's Viper and Kraits.

Sri Lanka’s has also been an hydraulic economy with over three hectares of inland waters for every square kilometer of land. This is one of the highest densities of inland lakes, ponds, man made canals and still waters in the world. Combined with the warm coastal waters around the island are many coastal lagoons and estuaries that provide engaging habitats for both people and snakes.

The snakes are responsible for most deaths can be divided into 3; big snakes (Cobra) medium snakes (Common Krait and Sri Lanka Krait) and small snakes (Russells's Viper, Saw-scale Viper, Hump-nose Viper and Green Pit Viper. Then of course there are the 13 species of wet snakes (Sea snakes) which inhabit the coastal waters and estuaries around the island.
Being cunning buggers most venomous snakes are camouflaged to blend into the environment increasing the chances of treading on them. Vipers are particularly good at this and also at not moving much so are much better represented among snakebites. The green, yellow and black colour of the Green Pit Viper merges into the foliage of the trees, shrubs and creepers on which they rest, resulting in a fair number of people being bitten (or given apples) by Green Pit Vipers while plucking tea leaves, clearing forests and weeding.

Our Driver explained happily after a snake crossed the road in front of us;
“Oh it’s not dangerous! The ones you see a never dangerous!”

But the most apparent reason for the high incidence of snakebite is the food resource humans bring to the ecosystem. Rats, which come into paddy fields to feed on grain attracts vipers, cobras and other snakes. Other creatures also take advantage of human agricultural practices including frogs, mice, house geckos, skinks, land monitor lizards, house sparrows and poultry.
Some prey animals, such as skinks which are commonly found near houses have a disturbingly curious habit of getting on to beds in the night and creeping under pillows, mattresses or bed sheets. If you have a skink under your pillow you may well have a snake!

Many species of snakes come on to roads or tracks at dusk or night and especially immediately after rain, increasing the chances of people being bitten. According to one epidemiological study “15% of snakebites had been inflicted on roads”, a seemingly strange activity for snakes to undertake and there is no information on how many roads died.
A further useful fact is that most krait bites are preceded by rain. Since Sri Lanka is either in monsoon or inter-monsoonal and it rains every month the probability of rain preceding bites is not surprising.
Since around 45% of the population is engaged agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, fishing and hunting it is similarly not surprising that 85% of snakebites occurred while people were working directly or indirectly in agricultural activities or related pursuits such as weeding, preparation of fields, harvesting, guarding fields etc. Strangely all the known sea snake bites were on fishermen during fishing related activities.

According to the Sinhala Palmleaf Manuscripts;
“Among the snakes found in Sri Lanka, the most venomous and the most feared is the cobra, popularly known as the 'naya', which is highly respected, sometimes honoured and even worshipped by those who consider cobras with high esteem. If a person were to come across a cobra by accident, he speaks to it nicely to move away from the path, and never attacks it or tries to chase it away. There is a saying that a cobra never bites a blind man, even if he were to tread upon it by accident. This is said to be a sublime quality of cobras.”

There are some other interesting facts including almost all snakebite involving the Common Krait occurred in wattle and daub huts while the Hump-nose Viper, being rather short inflicts bites only on the feet in 85% of cases. Someone’s done some serious research here!

Regardless of where you get bitten there are some local beliefs and practices that may assist the patient’s demise from snakebite:
a) Application of a cut lime or onion, (something I heard also as a child in Australia)
b) When bitten by snakes, some do not wish to speak of it, fearing that enemies might "bind the venom" (visha bandeema) resulting in difficulty of curing the condition.
c) The belief that if bitten by snakes on certain inauspicious day, time or place (for example a cemetery), it presaged a poor prognosis.
d) Seeking non-scientific first aid techniques such as cauterizing, cutting, application of snake stone, tight tourniquet, drinking alcohol or urine etc.
The reputation of Auyvedic medicine and use of snake-stones still exists. Snake stones are often nothing more than pieces of partially burnt bones, chalk or bezoars. Bezoars are stony concretions found in the stomachs of goats, antelopes, llamas, chamois, etc., and formerly esteemed as an antidote to all poisons. Many people still hold that native treatment is better than western treatment to save victims from the venomous snakebite and in most rural areas; the 'sarpa-vederala' (snake-healer) has his place as the saviour of mankind bitten by snakes and on the verge of death.

However among most victims bitten by venomous snakes, shock is believed to be the cause of death, when they become aware that their lives are at stake. This fear is followed by emotional symptoms, such as faintness, stupor, feeble pulse and shallow breathing, which are different from systemic envenoming.

In the end though, it is only a few who succumb to the serpent’s sting and taste the forbidden fruits in the Garden of Eden.