Posted by: lrrp | June 30, 2007

Rambuttan – Nature’s wonder

If there exists a universally loved fruit in Sri Lanka then it must be rambuttan. As cars swing by the Henry Pediris ground they are inevitably lured to the mountains of red prickly fruit piled on rickety tables. Notes exchange hands and the time has come to enjoy another one of nature’s wonders.

As I dipped into a bag and drew out a red ball with strands that made it look like some weird form of plankton I overheard the vendor extol the values of the “Malwana Rambuttan.” So how did the rambuttan find a home in Malwana?

“The Portuguese first imported rambuttan from Malaysia. They had discovered the fruit there and had grown so fond of it that they could not live without it. A Portuguese Fort was constructed by the Kelaniya River and this was where the feared “Asawedaya” the most ferocious Portuguese commander lived. Legend has it that his favorite amusement was to toss up little children and skewer them at the end of his spear. Seeing such suffering was what made him happy,” said Walgama M.D. Somathilake a retired school master and former journalist who is a known authority of, you guessed it rambuttan.

He also owns one of the larger rambuttan compounds in Malwana that was inherited from his grandfather. Named “Siriweda Nivasa” the descendant of the first trees that sprouted from the seeds that were thrown out by the Portuguese cavalry brought the delicacy to the locals. Even though the Portuguese never planted the fruit one taste of it growing in the wild was enough to drive the residents of Malwana to cultivate it for themselves. Thus began the “localizing” of rambuttan’s adopted home.

“Rasawana” (the place where the Rakshaya (demon) lived) was the original place of the Portuguese Fort. This strip of land is now occupied by a line of shops but the rock that the fort was built on can still be seen. “That is the true Malwana, from where rambuttan spread,” recalled Mr. Somathilake adding that the rumbuttan from this area is still the most delectable due to the nutrients in the soil that make it perfect for cultivation.

July and August are long awaited for months but they also bring loads of work for rambuttan farmers. Some owners prefer to lease out their rambuttan grounds but some, like Somathilake prefer to keep an eye on the process. The result is sleepless nights and once-a-year profits that need to be carefully funneled into the next year’s harvest.

“Rambuttan was only developed methodically after the government in the 1950s handed out bud rambuttan to be farmed. That was when a lot of people got interested in growing the fruit. We were given a fertilizer subsidy but that was halted in 2001. Since then we have not had any outside support. Many of us breed our own plants from older trees. Even though they do not have proper names we know from the taste what the good varieties are. Interested people can get seedlings from their local “govi samithi” but since rambuttan is such a famous fruit in Malwana that is not really necessary. Rambuttan has also expanded to areas like Pasyala but none of them have the same quality as the “Malwana rambuttan.”

It takes around 4-5 years for a rambuttan tree to mature to the point of bearing fruit. Then comes the second stage of strain. Protecting the rambuttan from bats and birds is a round the clock job that requires vigilance on par with protecting jewels. A “takaya” made of a sheet of metal attached to a bunch of iron wires and pulled by a coir rope is the most common method. Others include fluorescent bulbs perched atop bamboo sticks and luminous white flags that wave merrily in the wind over the ruby rambuttan trees. The glare of the lights frightens off would-be predators and ensures that the reverberating noise of the “takaya” gets a well-earned break.

The size of the crop is directly linked to the success rate of these imaginative schemes. Once the rambuttan has ripened buyers flock to Malwana. “We don’t pluck them till the buyers arrive. Then when they give the number we gather exactly that amount and load them into baskets woven from coconut palms. Normally one “kude” holds around 1500 rambuttans. Then we sell it according to the prevalent price. Right now the average price is around Rs.3 or Rs.3.50 but some of the special varieties can go up to as much as Rs.6 per “gediya.””

Despite conceding that business was “ok” this year Mr. Somathilake nonetheless reminisces over “great” business done when it was possible to send rambuttan to Jaffna. “From 2002 onwards when the Cease Fire Agreement was in place lorry loads of rambuttan were taken to Jaffna. It was incredible. We would load up a string of 5-6 lorries in one day and in a couple of days it would be back to take more. That was the best business that we had seen for years. Now that has stopped and the only place to send rambuttan is Colombo. This has made the prices less,” he lamented.

Malwana and rambuttan have a special kinship and this is evident for anyone who travels to the area. Generations of rambuttan lovers have passed on their expertise and the results greet you everywhere you go. Red bulbs of rambuttan peek at you from trees dotting the road side. But one would be hard pressed to find someone who loves his rambuttan more than I. Jayasena proudly maintains that he has the “authentic” Malwana rambuttan.

“I got this land from my mother and in those years it was a rubber plantation. Then I ripped out all the rubber trees and planted rambuttan. I have personally tended to these trees for over 15 years. I used to carry huge buckets on my shoulder to water them. This rambuttan “watte” is enough to keep the next generation comfortable. I’m very proud of it,” he said gazing fondly at over 140 rambuttan laden trees stretching down a steep slope that ended in a carpet of paddy fields. In spite of being idyllically set it must have been back breaking work to nurture them.

“My father treats these trees like his children. Even if we so much as break a branch he yells at us,” smiled Jeewantha Jayasena, one of three sons who are hard at work protecting the rambuttan. Half a dozen of his friends have also joined the security brigade and Mr. Jayasena pays them all at the end of the season according to the money he earns. Last year the pay check was a generous Rs.20 000 per person, which is very well earned considering that in addition to losing sleep and harvesting the fruit they also run the risk of toppling off the spindly branches when plucking rambuttan.

“He also holds an alms giving every year for all the villagers to give thanks to the gods for a bountiful harvest,” continued Jeewantha as we descended deep into the watte striding on steps roughly hewn into the hill. Thus rambuttan has also become an intrinsic part of the traditions and culture of Malwana. How many fruits can claim such an honour?

As I stripped a peel off another rambuttan, a yellow one this time,i turned to M. Karunathilake for the final episode of this tale. He is one of over twenty groups of vendors who travel to Malwana each morning to gather the fruit and bring it to be sold in Colombo. By the time it reaches the pavement each rambuttan “gediya” is Rs.5 or less but prices are kept below this ceiling as consumers are reluctant to buy for higher prices.

“Business is poor this season because there is too much competition. Even the sellers who were earlier stationed on the road around the Colombo University and Thummulla have been forced to move out for security reasons. That means the business is spread too thin and none of us make good profits. Each morning we go to Malwana in my three-wheeler and collect rambuttan to sell here. The dealers do not come to us,” he complained.

Many of the vendors also sleep on the uncomfortable strip of pavement wrapped around the Henry Pedris ground and keep this muscle cramping vigil for the entire rambuttan season. They are the essential thread that links the lu
scious rambuttan to us and makes sure that our yearly craving is satisfied. As with any story, the rambuttan legend too possesses strains of sorrow, history, hardship and triumph but more than any of this it has transformed into a truly Sri Lankan fruit that has its taste embedded in the hearts and taste buds of us all.

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