Tamil Diplomat

Traditional Knowledge Systems in India and Sri Lanka: Implications for the present


Among the great civilizations of the world, the Indian civilization can be ranked high in terms of its antiquity, vibrancy and continuity even to the present age. The Indian civilization consisted not only of the present day India but also neighbouring counties like Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma and especially Sri Lanka. Apart from linguistic and religious factors there were regular geographical, economic, trade, cultural interactions between Sri Lanka and India. The Indian and Sri Lankan civilization sharing a common storehouse of knowledge in various fields of life faced many challenges especially during the colonial period from early 18th century. However today there is a strong need for reviving our traditional storehouse of knowledge for a better and meaningful life for our peoples.

This article discusses the pinnacles of achievement reached by India and Sri Lanka in ancient and even mediaeval times in diverse areas such as agriculture, astronomy, architecture, Ayurveda, education, sustainability of the environment and water management. It also tries to understand how the indigenous knowledge systems were not only sufficient and relevant but also helped in maintaining a balanced, healthy, social interaction and how they need to be studied and adapted to meet the present day challenges.

Today our countries are facing many similar problems of poverty, conflict, poor educational facilities, degradation of the environment, several lifestyle diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes and expensive healthcare etc. The article analyses these issues and suggests that we need to understand our traditional and indigenous systems of knowledge and suitably adapt them for addressing the common challenges we are facing.


There are several components of traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS) both in Sri Lanka and in India that this article considers. Before dwelling on these it is important to understand what we mean by TKS. There are technical and detailed definitions of traditional/indigenous systems by international bodies like World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO. Without going into those definitions, I would like to refer to Nirekha de Silva (1) who quoting Steven Munzer and Karl Rustiala (2) defines the term as:

“Understanding or skill possessed by indigenous peoples pertaining to their culture and folklore, their technologies and use of native plants for medicinal purposes. She has explained this as:

Traditional knowledge is the cumulative and dynamic body of knowledge, know-how and representations possessed by peoples with long histories of interaction with their natural milieu. It is intimately tied to language, social relations, spirituality and worldview and is generally held collectively”.

Both counties have had a long history on interaction with each other in the areas of culture, language trade, religion, medicine – in particular in Ayurveda, education, astrology, architecture etc. On the cultural front both countries are exchanging musicians and dancers who are practicing and reviving traditional forms. For instance in dance, bharatnatyam and oddisi dancers are giving performances in Sri Lanka whereas kandyan dance performances are being staged in India by Sri Lankan performers.

This article considers the following areas of the knowledge systems:

  • Ayurveda and related systems of health
  • Agriculture and traditional food
  • Astronomy and astrology
  • Education
  • Water management and Protection of the environment
  • Architecture and construction of buildings

Ayurveda and related systems of health

In India the Ayurveda system of medicine that was based on a sound knowledge of properties of herbs and plants, allowed both the prevention and curing of diseases, was very much prevalent in several parts of the country including Kerala. It is a happy sign that this system is part of the formal structure of medical studies in India with students able to pursue courses for graduate and doctoral degrees in Ayurveda.

Ayurveda treats the disease, symptoms and treatment in a holistic manner and is dependent on knowledge of trees, herbs and plants which have medicinal values. A few books like “Useful Plants of India” published by CSIR, New Delhi in 1986 (3) and a book edited by A K Kalla and P C Joshi (4) have given very useful knowledge of the properties of these plants and herbs and how they are being used for curing various diseases like diabetes etc. In the latter book (PP. 351-361) Dolly Murmu (5) has written an article “Plant use among the tribals of Jharkhand” describing the many plants, trees and herbs that have medicinal and curative properties. She provides their local and botanical names and gives the methods of preparation of medicines from these plants. She however cautions that ‘plant remedies are harmless provided they are selected carefully and taken under medical guidance’.

Efforts by the Yoga Guru Ramdev (6) and his associate Balkishan are already on to study and classify various plants in northern part of India for prevention of disease and its curing. They have written an interesting book “Ayurveda – jadi booti rahasya” (in Hindi) which was published by Divya Prakashan, Haridwar in 2008. The book is profusely illustrated and gives the properties of several herbs and plants along with their local and botanical names. Beneficial properties of some of the common trees like neem and plants like tulsi and haldi (turmeric) are well known.

Sushruta who lived about 2600 years ago wrote a book called Sushruta-Samahita’ which described over 100 surgical instruments and 300 surgical procedures that demonstrate that surgery was practiced at that time. Plastic surgery as it is called today, was practiced by Sushruta and continued in vogue even during Hyder Ali’s times in the 1770s in Mysore in South India.

Sri Lanka has its own system of traditional medicine and health. This includes Ayurveda, Keraminiya, Rasa Shastra, homeopathy and acupuncture besides the modern western system of medicine. Ayurveda is a system that has extensive knowledge of properties and usage of herbs, plants and animal products to prevent and cure disease and prolong life. It may be mentioned that certain plants like neem tree, haldi (turmeric) and tulsi plants have well established properties of preventing and curing common ailments of chest, lungs and sore throat etc. Several products made from these plants are also commonly available in markets today.

Ayurvedic tradition of Sri Lanka is a mixture of the Sinhala traditional medicine, Ayurveda and Siddha systems of India, Unani medicine of Greece brought by the Arabs, as well as the Desheeya Chikitsa, which is the indigenous medicine of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has developed its own Ayurvedic system based on a series of prescriptions handed down by Ayurvedic Vaids (medical persons) over a long period of 3,000 years. Some ancient kings, who were also prominent physicians, sustained its survival and longevity. King Buddhadasa (398 AD), the most influential of these physicians, wrote the Sarartha Sangrahaya, a comprehensive manuscript which Sri Lankan physicians still use today for reference. Ayurvedic Vaids (physicians) were respected and honored in history.

Karaminiya is another indigenous system of curing that is based on Ayurveda. A prominent medical school practicing this system is located in Mawanella. Another system that is particularly suited to present day illnesses like cancer, diabetes, skin diseases etc is called Rasa Shastra. It makes use of certain chemical elements like silver, gold and some organic compounds.

de Silva (1, op. cit.) provides further details of the Sri Lankan traditional system of health and wellbeing.

Ancient inscriptions on rocks confirm the longevity and continuity of these systems of healing for such a long period of history. In fact there a building that is now in ruins which is believed to have been a hospital for curing very sick people. It is considered to be one of the oldest hospitals in the world.


Agriculture and traditional food

In the field of agriculture, traditional systems were largely sufficient to feed the people with healthy food; today we are faced with dwindling water resources and problems of pesticide residues in our food. Populations of both countries have increased especially that of India. How to feed this large population is not being discussed in this article. But the problem of pesticides, dwindling water resources and soil degradation are severe problems of present day agriculture. How have been these addressed? In India the name of Rajendra Singh is well known for reviving agriculture in some arid parts of the state of Rajasthan. He studied the problems of declining water availability and improper utilization of scanty rainfall in farming due to building up of concrete structures near water wells and other such factors. With the cooperation of villagers, he was able to eliminate these causes leading to revival of agricultural practices and bringing dead ponds and lakes back to life. This was done by reviving vegetation on barren hill slopes and then building small water catchments in the valleys and the plains. With these efforts agriculture and animal care have both benefited.

Similarly, use of organic farming, practice of multi cropping have helped to mitigate some problems of present day agriculture and low yields. The present day Sri Lankan problems of agricultural stagnation and low yields have been discussed by K A Jayasinghe Perera (7).

He writes that as a result of colonialism many forest lands were opened up for mono cropping for commercial gains. This led to destruction of traditional flora and fauna as well as loss of traditional food varieties in certain parts of Sri Lanka. Also the introduction of ‘English vegetables’ harmed the production of several varieties of local products. However under the indigenous revitalization program, production of eco friendly fruits and vegetables is again being emphasized.


Under the revitalized program in Sri Lanka and practice of organic farming in India, the problems of degradation of soil and depletion of water resources have been largely tackled although there are still many persistent agri problems that are not being considered here. One of the sever modern problems in India is the introduction of Bt-cotton and other genetically modified plants. These are not being considered here. Use of organic manure avoiding chemical pesticides, practice of multi cropping production of eco friendly items of food have been helpful for both the production of food and vegetables as well as for protection of soil and water resources.

As already mentioned in the previous section certain plants have medicinal properties. Similarly some traditional items of food were known in Sri Lanka to possess medicinal properties. Traditional medical practitioners in Sri Lanka prescribed some such food items for curing diseases like rheumatism and bile/phlegm related disorders.

A method for distributing the work of maintaining and repairing small-scale irrigation systems in Sri Lanka is called Pangu. The method is traditional one for cleaning and maintenance of the irrigation systems. It involves digging, desilting the reservoir, and carrying out repairs if needed. Workers also have to clear out bushes and weeds for proper irrigation. The workers are either paid in cash or in terms of food. This is proving to be very helpful for improved agricultural production as well as for promoting community efforts.


Astronomy and Astrology

Astronomy was another area in which ancient Indian scholars were adept. Rigorous study of Astronomy begins with Sidhantas (Principles) especially that of Aryabhata (b.476 AD). Brahmagupta(b. 598 AD) is another well known astronomer. Subsequently Maharaja Jai Singh of Rajasthan had observatories like the Jantar Mantar built in Benares, Jaipur and Delhi for observing astronomical phenomena such as eclipses. Our Indian astronomers were aware much before western scholars that it was the sun that was stationary with planets, including the earth, revolving around it.

Dharampal (8) in Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century (2000) writes that a British officer Sir Robert Barker visited Benares in 1772 and saw that there was an astronomical observatory which was known as the Man Mandir near the Dasasvamedha Ghat. The observatory whose date is not fully known is the oldest one in India and one of the earliest in the world. Unfortunately it remains in a dilapidated condition.

In Sri Lanka also there was much interest in astronomical events and a healthy interaction between astronomers of both countries used to take place. Today there are several astronomical clubs and institutions where students and scholars keep busy in studying as well as analysing scientifically astronomical events. Astrology which is based on the positions of planets the sun and moon is also popular from ancient times. Called jyotishaya (science of light in Sinhalese language), it is very much prevalent just like in India especially for religious and family events like marriages, giving names to new born babies etc.


In the sphere of education there is conclusive evidence based on the writings of many scholars such as R K Mookerji (9), A S Altekar (10) and Dharampal (11) that we had a healthy educational system for children and young adults including women, in many parts of the country. This system was destroyed by the British by a systematical process of decrying what was being taught as well as by withdrawing support. In the north east Akha Mao (12) informs that a dormitory system of education that comprised teaching of certain useful skills was prevalent as late as 1950s. This system suffered the same fate as others. In higher education, there were some institutions that offered pupils learning in areas of Vedas, Sanskrit studies, linguistics and philosophy. Today with fundamental right to education in India and Sri Lanka we have a vibrant education system with literacy levels increasing and with large number of girls and women also participating in learning at school and College levels. Sri Lanka has among the highest literacy rates in Asian countries – about 92%.

The education system of Sri Lanka until colonial times was primarily designed for the elite of the society with the majority of the population being illiterate or semiliterate. There was relatively low technology in education and the concentration was on learning by heart religious texts

Colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, and was aimed at preparing students for low level positions in the colonial administration. As in India, not many women had access to European education. But today thanks to concerted efforts by the government, education is available to all people and most people are literate. Education is not only for the benefit of the individual but also helps in the development of the society and the country in different ways.


Water management and protection of the environment

Dwindling sources of water for human and animal consumption as well for agriculture has become a major concern all over the country. States like Rajasthan and Gujarat in Western India are particularly prone to this problem. The problem is taking serious turn and may lead to catastrophic situation if some remedial measures are not taken. It is easy to ascribe the scarcity to increase in population, climatic changes and resultant irregularity of rains. Although, some irregular patterns of rainfall have been observed lately, the major factor cannot be ascribed to this phenomenon alone.

Traditional methods of water conservation (harvesting is a modern term) were sufficient and flexible to meet unusual conditions of drought. They were followed by all. People were aware of the constraints in the availability of water both for domestic use and for agriculture and faithfully remained confined within these constraints. Proof of these practices can be seen easily and have also been well documented by several authors. They are recommending the adoption of these practices to face the contemporary situation that has arisen in the development paradigms being followed and the insensitivity of modern man towards this issue.

We are facing a terrible water shortage in several parts of India as well as some areas of Sri Lanka. It affects the environment as well as human, animal and plant lives and agriculture. How did the indigenous systems of water management address this problem especially in arid and semi arid areas? Reference has already been made to efforts of Rajendra Singh in India and the Pangu system in Sri Lanka for making water available for agriculture and for keeping reservoirs clean. This study is immensely interesting and useful if we are to cope up with the present day problem of clean water for drinking purposes.

Water management is one of the important concerns in the concept of environmentalism. Managing the scarcity of water and pollution of water helps in general in the problems of protection of the environment.


Architecture and construction of buildings

We are confronted with huge monoliths of buildings all steel and glass that shine invitingly on a clear day. This is the sign of urbanization. The larger the urbanization, the taller and grander are these buildings. But what happens when you step inside. These buildings will consume megawatts of electricity whether in summer or winter and are difficult to maintain.

Contrast this with what was the style of buildings whether these are individual homes or palaces or temples etc. Earlier these buildings used natural sources of light and sunshine for cooling in summer as well as for heating in winter months. In northern India both summers and winters are harsh as a result of which it was imperative to make buildings that could bear the brunt of the weather. In construction of houses and other buildings, use was made of locally available and inexpensive materials like stones, clay, timber and thatching. Coconut and paddy thatching were used in roofs over huts and houses that were able to bear extreme conditions of heat and cold and also keep away mosquitoes.

Sri Lanka has a long history of about 2500 years in the use of these natural and easily available materials for construction. These materials differed depending on the geography or terrain but were skillfully used to construct not only small huts or houses, but also bigger buildings like palaces, temples, monasteries or enormous religious edifices.

These materials were not only cheap and simple to use and were renewable but were also conditioned by what Dayaratne (13) writes gave “reverence to nature and the understanding that the earth must be treated with care and gentility because it is both fragile and exhaustible…”

Use of these materials required specialized skills and techniques that are part of our common heritage. Our culture and tradition prompts that we pass on these skills from generation to generation although we also need to adapt modern techniques for constructing huge modern day buildings.


The foregoing sections highlight the highest standards civilization our two countries achieved in various fields. But after so many centuries of this intellectual and material development and evolution, we reached a plateau and then began to decay and decline in many of these areas. It is easy to explain that this was due to European especially British imperialism. The latter resulted in not only the British becoming our masters politically, but also adversely affected our thinking, psychology and existence and approach to life and inevitably to decline in our attainments in diverse areas of learning and scholarship. This would be an easy excuse for our withering away. However even if it is largely true that with the advent of British imperialism our civilization took a downward turn, we have now to rebuild and reboot ourselves and try to acquire the strength and self confidence to develop and reach the heights that we had reached in earlier eras.

To decry colonialism for all our faults would not only be misleading, it would also hamper our efforts at restoration of our civilization. We must analyse our principal shortcomings – why we stooped so low and why we could not put up a fight against colonialism. We must also accept that the western education and imperialism despite all its drawbacks also had a positive side. It brought us several benefits like modern science and technology; it brought railways, telephones, electricity, post offices and countless other areas of our lives and society received a welcome boost.

Colonialism ended when great men in our countries Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Bandaranaike, Senanayake and other eminent persons struggled hard to free the two countries from political bandage. India became independent in 1947 followed by Sri Lanka a year later.

We cannot forget this period of subservience and overlordship of the British. We however, can pick up the best they provided us in terms of modern S&T, extensive infrastructure and a spirit of nationhood. But we must go beyond these features that they provided. We must identify our own special character or swabhav and build on it. This has been emphasized by people who were educated in the modern sense either in England or through the western system of education. Thus the western education system had the ability to identify and comprehend the ills and faultlines in our social and economic systems. Now that these and other similar faultlines are known to us – discrimination, poverty, conflict, environmental hazards, etc. and now that we are mature democratic nations that believe in justice and rule of law, we must delve deep into our social ethos, liberal religious base and a long and vibrant civilization to find out the solutions to our problems.

The study of our ancient indigenous knowledge systems can help and guide us in this lofty endeavor.


(1). Nirekha de Silva, “Sri Lanka’s Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions of Health and Wellbeing: History, Present Status and the Need for Safeguarding”, presented at the SAARC Regional Seminar on Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions in South Asia, 30 April 2013.

(2). Steven Munzer and Kal Rustiala, ‘The Uneasy Case for Intellectual Property Rights in Traditional

Knowledge’ (2009) 27 Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 37, 38.

(3). S.P. Ambasta, (ed.), The useful plants of India. CSIR, New Delhi 1986.

(4). A K Kalla, P C Joshi, Tribal Health and Medicines, Concept Publishing Company, Delhi. (2004),

(5). Dolly Murmu, “Plant use among tribals of Jharkhand” in Ed. A K Kalla and P C Joshi, Tribal Health and Medicines, Concept Publishing Company, Delhi , 2004.

(6). Ramdev, Balkishan, Ayurvedajadi booti rahasya, (in Hindi) Divya Prakashan, Haridwar (2008).

(7). K A Jayasinghe Perera, “Traditional Medicine and Food Today”, Future in Our Hands , Kanupelella , Badulla, Sri Lanka.

(8). Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century, Other India Press, Mapusa, Goa (2000).

(9). R.K. Mookerjee Ancient Indian Education, 2nd edition, Reprint 1974, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1951

(10). A. S. Altekar (1944), Education in Ancient India, fourth edition, Nand Kishore and Brothers, Benares.

(11). Dharampal (1983), The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Education in the Eighteenth Century, Biblia Impex Private Ltd., New Delhi.

(12). Akha Kaihirii Mao, (2009), “Morung/Dormitory the traditional Educational system of the Nagas: An explanatory Study among the Mao-Nagas”, M.Phil. Dissertation, Central Institute of Education (CIE), Delhi University, Delhi.

(13). Dayaratne, R,Formal Practice, in Open House International. Vol. 25, No. 03, pp. 10–15.

Dr. Ravi P Bhatia is an independent educationist and peace researcher based in Delhi. He has been a student, professor and administrator of Delhi University.