The vanishing wattle and daub homes | Sunday Observer

The vanishing wattle and daub homes

7 October, 2018
A SAGA OF EVOLUTION:A traditional home in Ehetuwewa village. The wattle and daub walls have been whitewashed with lime
A SAGA OF EVOLUTION:A traditional home in Ehetuwewa village. The wattle and daub walls have been whitewashed with lime

The story of ancient Sri Lanka begins in the Stone Age. It is during this period that we find the early man who lived in caves with family members, eating fruits, yams and bush meat. Many of these characteristics have survived among the Aadivasi community today, and it is widely supposed that the people of the Stone Age bear a close resemblance to them. The rocky caves became their homes, where they lived in small family groups.

Around 1,000 BC, there was a new generation in the island. A great transformation and rapid development showed in culture and technology. Although hunting still formed an important part of people’s daily lives, they lived in villages in the open. Agriculture became steadily more important and animals were tamed and harnessed on a much bigger scale. People cultivated rice, built houses and small tanks to irrigate the fields and buried their dead in cemeteries. Within the space of a few hundred years, society had evolved into a sophisticated and literate urban civilisation.

Homes were made of earth, and inhabited by folk who worked with the Earth for a living, moulding their lives into natural rhythms of Nature 

In most remote parts of the country, particularly, in Nuwara Kalaviya, in the Dry Zone of the North Central Province, there still exist many scattered traditional village settlements of the Gam Karayo or the Purana (ancient) villagers. These villages which retained the main symbols of traditional culture, namely, the tank, dagoba and rice fields, survived through the centuries amid many a catastrophe and calamity. When these villages were absorbed into the general settlement plan of the Accelerated Mahaweli Development program in the early ‘80s, many families had to shift their homes to new locations, creating much heartburn and nostalgia for the days gone by. Among the groups of people who had to leave their traditional homes, the Aadivasi have attracted a great deal of attention. There are a few places in and around the Mahaweli area where their settlements are still scattered. They are mainly found in Kotabakiniya, Dambana, their traditional homeland. They prefer to live in eco-friendly wattle and daub houses, which can be spotted in Dambana even today, in the forest.

Following the tradition of the Aadivasi clan, the present Aadivasi chieftain, Uruwarige Wanniyalatho is perhaps, the only chieftain who lives in a wattle and daub house in the world, today. When I visited Dambana a few months ago, he was sitting comfortably on a mat in his mud house and said, as his forefathers did, he has been practising his ancestor’s customs. “I will live under this roof until I die,” he said.

In ancient times, wattle and daub dwellings were the norm. These houses are quaint, attractive and fascinating, especially, because they resonate a time when people lived close to Mother Earth and Nature. It is a time when sustainability was the norm and not an option.

Homes were made of earth, and inhabited by folk who worked with the Earth for a living, moulding their lives into the natural rhythms of Nature. Even though these homes were not as strong as brick houses, they were welcome because the raw materials were from the immediate environment, construction was simple, and the process of building was a family bonding or even a communal event.

Wattle and daub itself is a timeless technology that has undergone very little change over the years. The wattle refers to the arrangement of timber in the frame, while the daub refers to the moist earthen balls that are pressed into and around the wattle to form a surface. The first step is to build a foundation, a raised damp-resistant podium out of rubble and soft clay soil. The height serves to keep termites at bay. Sometimes, stone slabs are placed along the perimeter, with holes for wedging in timber poles.

The floor is built, followed by the timber framework and the roof is often thatched with paddy straw, Illuk and cadjan. When laid on the roof, one sheet laps over the other, and this kind of thatch makes a house cooler, and excludes rain water better than any other material used within the tropics.

It is only after that, the walls are built and the doors and windows fixed. The sequence of work protects the new walls from the elements, and the workers from the heat of the sun. The floors are of clay, and occasionally covered with a diluted mixture of fresh cow-dung with water, which keeps insects away.

The peasant family lives in a room a little more than 12 by 10 feet. The interior of the room is dark, as very rarely is a window provided. The thatched area at the back of the dwelling serves as the kitchen. The fireplace or Lipa (hearth), where cooking is done, consists of three stones on which the clay cooking pot, the mati muttiya, is placed and the fire kindled under it. All work in the kitchen is undertaken by the women in the family. One can still find this kind of firewood stove in many rural homes.

During my visit to the North Central Province, I came across original villages, (Puranagama) of Ehetuwewa, Divulgane and Meegalewa off Galgamuwa where villagers engage in chena cultivation. They sell chena produce like cowpea and wanni miris (wild chilies) at the village fair.

The villagers of Diulgane like all the old villagers of this vast wilderness are a hospitable lot who would welcome any stranger with open arms. The village is part of an ancient heritage as we found the ruins of a dagoba atop a small hillock.

When I visited this village in early 2000, it was an original village (Purana Gama) cut off from the whirl of civilisation as found in other parts. I visited this village with much interest, met the old villagers and studied their way of life. I was surprised to see an original Wee Bissa (paddy container) in front of each cadjan thatched traditional wattle and daub house in the village. These sights have disappeared now and are replaced with new concrete houses. Unfortunately, these quaint, old structures can only be seen in pictures and are a nostalgic memory, today.

However, in line with the present trend towards small houses, wattle and daub dwellings offers a charming simplicity in an eco-friendly atmosphere.