Most of us live in a concrete jungle, which is how cities are known the world over. Yet, we harbour an innate desire to get away from it all once in a while to breathe the fresh air in a village with its green paddy fields and narrow pathways. They are polar opposites - the village is an elixir for the mind, whereas the city chokes it with its hustle and bustle.
I grew up in a village off Ambalangoda where life was simply idyllic. My grandmother owned a paddy field and a vegetable garden which supplied our food. She bought fish from a fishmonger who visited the village at least twice a week on a bicycle.
There were many friends I could play with. A stream ran through the paddy fields, from where we could see the village temple. The village school had a good roll call of students. Our house bordered the village’s only road and seeing a vehicle was the highlight of a given day. It was what you would call the ‘countryside’ in the UK or US.
Unfortunately, not many people have an idea of what the countryside is all about. Many urban youngsters have no idea at all what it means to live in a village. Moreover, with many people ‘losing their roots’ in a commercialized world, they cannot visit a village they can call their own. Now, they will be able to visit an authentic village located right within the city or just outside Colombo to be precise. The Ape Gama (Our Village), a thematic concept village which showcases the lifestyle, age-old traditions and heritage of an ancient Sri Lankan village, is now open at the Folk Arts Centre premises in Pelawatta, Battaramulla.
Ape Gama shows the richness of Sri Lankan culture and the lifestyle of ancient (and not so ancient) villages comprising wattle and daub and thatched houses, a paddy field, traditional Kamatha and many other features. A house where the indigenous physician used to treat patients (Vedagedara) was also constructed. A special playground has been set for the village youth to practice traditional martial arts (Angampora). Visitors will also be get first-hand experience on how traditional industries such as pottery brass ware, batik and wood craft took shape in ancient Sri Lanka. There will also be the obligatory restaurant and food court along with the Laksala outlet which was already operational there.
This is a commendable move, because authentic villages are disappearing all over the world, not just in Sri Lanka, as urbanisation creeps in. Cities are expanding at a rapid rate, blurring the distinction between the city and the village. Furthermore, the villages (and villagers) are being assailed by the lures of the city 24/7. Almost everything that used to be exclusive to the city is now available in the villages, such as supermarkets, banks and phone kiosks.
The expansion and development of roads have anyway brought villages and cities closer together. In our connected world, it is naive to expect villages to remain isolated and untouched.
The migration of villagers to cities also continues unabated, diminishing the workforce available to the village.
Agriculture, the backbone of the village economy, faces the threat of the younger generation leaving for white collar jobs in the cities and even abroad. The latter factor has indeed altered the village economy almost beyond recognition, as at least one family in even the remotest village has a breadwinner abroad. The money he or she remits to the family usually leads to a higher standard of living for the family concerned.
Villages cannot stand still. They have to move forward with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. Development has reached even the most inaccessible villages. In this context, villagers face the challenge of maintaining their traditional agri-based lifestyles with the onset of development and technology.
Although some deride the overreaching influence of development and technology on the village, who can deny the benefits of modern technology? Developments such as mobile phones have undoubtedly revolutionised the lives of villagers who earlier had to trudge for miles to find a telephone. The tractor and other mechanised aids have made farming less of a chore. On the other hand, there are negative aspects of the city-village affinity such as the spread of vice in many villages.
Will villages disappear in the long term? It is a tough question to answer. Only time will tell whether we can preserve them in their present form. In the meantime, concepts such as Ape Gama can stress the importance of preserving our villages and village life even amidst the relentless pace of commercialisation and globalisation.