© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

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Rice Farming

Rice is the staple food of Sri Lanka and its cultivation is therefore of vital importance. Tradition relates that the much beloved Deity Pattini was responsible for its introduction (see Section on Deities). Rice  has certainly been cultivated for at least 2,500 years on the island and in ancient times not only was the island self sufficient in rice, historically ancient Ceylon was one of the main rice exporters and referred to as the “Barn of the East”.

At different stages rice cultivation requires a plentiful supply of water. The paddy fields are typically irrigated via channels bringing the water from the tanks (reservoirs). Various pre colonial kingdoms who ruled the island, were responsible for the development of these tremendous ancient engineering works involving huge tanks (reservoirs) and hydraulic systems bringing the necessary water over often vast distances from these large tanks  via irrigation canals, channels and ditches to the paddy field areas. These impressive works were sponsored by the Ancient Kings and many of these ancient systems remain in use today. From historic times local committees have overseen, cared  for and controlled the flow of this  water supply with a series of sluices. They also oversee the vital regular maintenance of the dams, irrigation channels, ditches and sluices through which the water flows to the paddy fields.

There are two rice crops a year. These are cultivated during the two monsoon seasons - the North East and South West Monsoons. The Maha (Great) Rice season starts in September and ends in March during the North East Monsoon. Between May and August is the Yala (Lesser) season - during the South West Monsoon. The names  Maha and Yala relate to the yields – the Maha Rice yield is greater than that of Yala Rice.

Although large commercial paddy fields were being developed from the approximately the 2000s  where the cultivation was increasingly being mechanised, many are still smaller-scale family enterprises.

Traditionally landowners owned the paddy fields. Larger landowners would hire paddy field workers to assist them to cultivate the rice in exchange for lodgings and food  and a share of the harvest. Shortly after independence there was a redistribution of land and larger landowners were limited to 6 hectares ownership. Families work these together, paternal kin often own paddy fields in the same area. However over the decades since redistribution, these 6 hectares have become subdivided amongst the original landowner’s descendants thus becoming smaller and smaller. Thus the children of traditional paddy farmers have had to seek alternative and additional employment as the land holdings became insufficient to support a family entirely from rice cultivation.

The areas where rice is grown is referred to by the Sinhala word Kumburu. Family groups often own paddy fields in one area where they live on the “islands” that are surrounded by their paddy fields. These family owned paddy fields are divided into rough squares (liyadi) surrounded by banks through which an opening is made. It is through these openings that the water to irrigate the paddy field flows from the irrigation channels. Sluice gates are fitted at intervals in the irrigation channels to regulate the flow of the water. In the upland areas mountain streams may be utilized to irrigate the paddy fields.

In some areas the rice is cultivated only utilizing rain water. As rainfall can be unpredictable, this is much less popular. I did observe this method being utilized by a Veddah group near Dambane (See Section on Veddah)

Paddy Farming can be very labour intensive. The ditches and banks require constant maintenance and repair. Once this has been done the fields and liyadi sections must be harrowed to break up the soil so that greatest advantage may be taken when the fields are flooded from the irrigation channels.  The fields must also be levelled so that the water will  flow evenly.Then the fields are sown. As they develop, the fields need weeding. Traditionally this was by hand and often done by women.

Scarecows are often placed in the fields and it is common to see small thatched huts raised on stilts  where a bird scarer will sit to reduce loss from birds. In the 1990s in the Hambanatota District where a lot of rice is grown, huge flocks of green parrots were a common site - they moved in to feed on the developing rice. These sadly are now much rarer but flocks of white egrets are still a common sight.

Customarily farmers set aside a small area either end of their paddy field for the birds to feed. This was believed to minimize loss of their main crop to birds.

The following sections and photographs illustrate the cultivation of rice.

Useful additional and more detailed information and references can be found on internet search. For example see. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paddy_field


In upland areas such as the Hill Country, the paddyfields may be much smaller and are formed in terraces on the slopes. In these areas, they are often irrigated by channels from mountain streams

Views of Paddy fields

The restored and new paddy fields along the road going East towards Batticaloa on the East Coast. Here the land like Hambantota District is much flatter. The paddy fields are much larger and these ones are on a commercial scale rather than family owned. This  development  and investment has largely taken place following the end of the Civil War in 2009.

The following sections and photographs illustrate the cultivation of rice.