Set amidst the hills of Walapane, Sri Lanka, the Watarakgodia Temple has a long and venerable tradition. Also known as Passadeva Rajamahar Viharaya, it is believed that Passadeva, an ancient warrior, attained enlightenment here. A chaitya, a Bo tree, and some very old stones and stone receptacles, found in the upper part of the temple, are said to date from this period.
The temple is situated on ten acres of land, seven of which are forested. The forest, rich in bio-diversity, is inhabited by about five species of birds endemic to Sri Lanka, and about thirty other species. Neo Synthesis Research Centre (NSRC), a non-government organisation, selected the temple for an analog forestry project because the Temples forest habitat was threatened with area-loss and diminishing bio-diversity, according to Ajantha Palihawardena, NSRC Project Coordinator. The Temple lands had been seriously damaged by tobacco cultivation, and have lain fallow since the exit of this industry from the region.
NSRC initiated the project in 1991 by introducing local farmers to alternative home gardening systems, particularly analog forestry. The project is sponsored by the Community Environmental Initiatives Facility of the Ministry of Environment & Forestry, Sri Lanka.
"During an international workshop on analog forestry held in Sri Lanka, a field trip was conducted through the forest patch to inspect farmers lands. Coming up through the temple forest, a bio-diversity specialist suggested that we should start a project with the Temple," Mr. Palihawardena said.
Analog forestry is a method of land cultivation using three levels of mixed forest home gardens, structured analogously to natural forest. The natural forest is simulated using utility plants such as timber, fruit trees, medicinal plants and spices.
The project, designed to rehabilitate degraded forest with the help of the community and other temples, includes: training priests in environmental awareness communication; rehabilitation of degraded forests, and cultivation of medicinal plants. Remediation of the local forest is the projects priority, and the analog forestry training facility will initially cater for training up to 110 priests and farmers in developing analog forestry systems locally.
"After three years, we had a significant improvement in the soil which was enriched by compost made from tree loppings. Spices, herbs, utility crops and timber trees were cultivated," Mr. Palihawardena said.
The temple nursery, initiated by NSRC, and cared for by the temple priests and acolytes, provides a panoply of plants for local plantings, including lime, mahogany, pepper kohomba, divul, mango, pihimbiya, na, avocado, passion fruit, ice cream bean, and spices. The nursery has provided stock for thirty farmers so far.
Mr. Palihawardena traces a close connection between Buddhism and the forest eco-system:
Almost all of the important events in the life of Buddha took place under trees... In the Vanaropana Sutta of Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha preached that those who plant trees and shrubs would gather merit. He also recommended the foot of a tree as the best dwelling place for monks.
Early Buddhist monks took a keen interest in protecting the environment. From descriptions of forest temples (aranyas) in Buddhist literature, it is apparent monks had a significant influence on forest conservation, as well as competence in the production and use of medicinal plants. This tradition provided the impetus to begin medicinal plantings, as the modern priesthoods knowledge and experience in Ayurveda and herbal medicine has declined. Medicinal plants are also hard to acquire in usable quantities.
A series of environmental training sessions by Ayurveda and herbalism experts have been prepared for the local priesthoods, to provide them with the skills to prepare and administer remedies to their congregations. It is hoped that this expertise will continue to disseminate through the Buddhist temple network in Sri Lanka, and significantly contribute to both the health of the nations forests and its people.
- The Sunday Times Plus.