Buddhist Monks Cultivate Fabled Rice That They Hope Will Help in Drought-Prone Areas
GONAGALDENIYA, SRI LANKA — The serene setting of the Waharaka Ariya Chinthashramaya, a Buddhist temple, seems an unlikely setting for an agricultural revolution, but that is exactly what the priests here are trying to bring about.
Here, the priests are cultivating a rice plant that produces a grain of rice locally known as Swayanjatha El Haal. According to Buddhist texts, this variety is the first recorded rice variety.
“The cold war between the state, which does not recognize this grain as a rice variety, and the researchers, who are convinced this grain can feed the hungry, was something I gradually began to realize.” Read Inside the Story to learn more about this unique debate.
The Thripitaka, a collection of teachings of Buddha, contains a section which refers to the origins of the Swayanjatha grain, says Aththidiye Sukhithadheera Thero, a monk at the Waharaka Temple who is involved in the cultivation of the plant. The temple is located in Gonagaldeniya, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Colombo, the country’s commercial capital.
Buddhist teachings say the first grain of this type of rice self-generated in the soil, and it is named Swayanjatha, as it was born of itself and not from another plant, Sukhithadheera Thero says.
“However, as man’s greed grew, the grain lost a lot of its taste and nutrition, and grew a chaff around the grain, and became the seed that is seen today,” he says.
In 2008, the head monk of this temple said he had a vision that this rice would be revived in Sri Lanka.
And in 2012, the monks believe, that vision came to pass.
That was the year a temple devotee learned, via a newspaper article, of a rice plant being researched at the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka. According to the report, that rice had a high nutritional value and other unique characteristics.
The monks and devotees of Waharaka Temple are convinced that this re-discovered rice plant is the fabled Swayanjatha rice, and will help improve the nutrition of Sri Lanka’s population and bless the people wherever it is grown.
They’re not alone in noting the plant’s unique traits. At least three Sri Lankan universities are studying the plant to understand how it can be cultivated more widely, especially in drought-prone areas. But the state agriculture sector remains dubious about this plant, which some experts say isn’t confirmed to be a type of rice at all.
Swayanjatha plants don’t need chemical fertilizer and require little water, says Sanka Kumarasinghe, 33, a volunteer at the Waharaka temple who helps cultivate the plants. He says some plants grow taller than six feet.
Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka produces around 2.7 million metric tons of rough rice annually, according to government data. Around 34 percent of the country’s cultivated land area is devoted to the farming of rice, in two seasons each year.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, they have approved and released into the Sri Lankan market around 68 varieties of rice up to 2009, of which only around 16 varieties are traditional rice varieties.
An analysis of the rice initiated by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s Department of Food Science and Technology has found that Swayanjatha rice is more nutritious than other rice varieties currently in use.
The origins of the new strain of rice are unclear, says Priyantha Yapa, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture Sciences of Sabaragamuwa University who is believed to be the first researcher to have cultivated and studied this plant.
While doing research in 2012, a woman in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province gave Yapa 24 grains of a seed that she claimed was drought-tolerant and easy to grow. She said her family found these seeds some years ago in a hidden treasure of ancient kings, a claim that Yapa says he could not confirm.
Yapa cultivated the seeds, entrusting some to his students living in drought-prone areas, and says the plants produced a large harvest. It was his article, published in a newspaper, that got noticed by a prelate of the Waharaka Temple. A team from the temple, led by the chief priest, visited Yapa. It was during that meeting, Yapa says, that he first learned about Swayanjatha rice, which does not have an agreed upon scientific name yet.
“The Thero said that this rice variety has lucky energy of saving people from death by hunger in any severe drought,” he says, referring to the monk. “The facts verified in my research matched with the facts the Thero outlined from the Thripitaka.”
Yapa noted other characteristics which corresponded with the Buddhist texts describing the original Swayanjatha plant.
“The major specialty of this plant is that it does not become extinct,” Yapa says. “So, I think it was hidden in the jungle for a long time without grabbing anybody’s attention.”
Unlike other rice varieties in Sri Lanka, the Swayanjatha rice plant can be grown throughout the year and without flooding the paddy fields, Yapa says. It grows with minimal care – no need for chemical fertilizer or pesticides – and usually grows into a tall plant with long stalks of rice after about six months. Some of Yapa’s plants grew as tall as six feet, he says.
Plus, Yapa says, it self-propagates, with small shoots emerging as soon as it has yielded a harvest.
Yapa gave some of the rice grains to the Waharaka Temple, and monks there planted them.
“We do not have any commercial purpose,” Sukhithadheera Thero says. “We grow it with the aim of distributing it among people for their benefit. We have now provided many households and institutes with this rice variety.”
Besides giving the rice directly to people who want to grow it themselves, the temple also gave rice to the Lanka Sekai Kyusei Foundation, a non-profit religious group. The group grows rice in a two-acre plot in Katana, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Colombo.
“We distribute the harvest among the people as much as we can, free of charge,” says Nimal Kumara, distribution officer at the foundation. “Our aim is popularizing this crop which does not contain harmful chemicals.”
But government officials are not convinced about the value of this rice plant, and some even question whether it is even rice at all.
G. Ajith Pushpa Kumara, deputy director of Natural Resource Management at the Ministry of Agriculture, says that this plant doesn’t interest them because it is not rice but another form of sorghum.
But Yapa disagrees, pointing out that Sri Lanka has a long history of considering many other types of seeds and grains as rice.
Many of the rice varieties today belong to the Oryza species and were introduced during the Green Revolution, Yapa says.
“But before the Green Revolution, our people named many other seeds which could be eaten as rice,” he says. One example is the seeds of one type of water lily plant which are even today known as rice, he points out.
The monks at the Waharaka Temple aren’t swayed by the debate over the grain. They believe this rice plant is the Swayanjatha rice and they are determined to prove the value of the rice and make it popular among farmers, Sukhithadheera Thero says.
And while they quietly go about their work, at least one researcher is preparing for a possible shift – a monumental one – in how Sri Lankans and others eat.
Rumesh Liyanage, a research assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura who was instrumental in bringing the rice to the attention of his supervising lecturers at the university, says more research is needed to better understand this plant. He says he’s optimistic about what he and others will find.
“We have a great hope that this rice can replace wheat, and that is something we want to research more,” he says in a phone interview. “If research can show Swayanjatha rice as a replacement for wheat, that will be a revolution in the food industry.”
Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe translated this article from Sinhala.
“Thero” is an honorific commonly used at the end of a Buddhist monk’s name. GPJ includes this honorific because it is considered part of a monk’s formal name.
Nirasha Piyawadani joined GPI in Sri Lanka in 2015. She has worked in Sri Lankan media from 2011 to 2015. She had given up on journalism when the opportunity to be a reporter for GPI …