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Eye-Features


Season of red ambrosia

It takes one bite into a ripe rambutan to be hooked for life. The plump white fruit in bright red and yellow shells litter pavements in Colombo and close to the rambutan heartland – Malwana for a few months of each year. This is rambutan season and Malwana’s orchards are heavy laden with fruit. Nation Eye visited the area to learn more about the luscious red fruit, the legends and traditions associated with its harvesting.
Along with other seasonal favourites, mangosteen and the smelly but delicious durian, rambutan gives us mere mortals a little taste of ambrosia, the food of the gods, and provides one more reason to believe that this little tropical paradise really is heaven on earth….

By Indika Sakalasooriya and Rathindra Kuruwita
From pavements to supermarkets one cannot avoid the lovely sight of rambutan at this time of the year. They come in different colours and in various sizes and Sri Lankans can’t seem to get enough of them. Though now grown in most parts of the country, for most of us, Malwana is synonymous with rambutan. So in order to get the inside story on rambutan we made a visit to Malwana at the zenith of the Rambutan season.
It is said that the Portuguese brought the first rambutan seeds to Sri Lanka from Malaysia. Although rambutan is a foreign fruit to our soil, since the day the seeds were planted in Sri Lanka it has become an exclusive aspect of the Sri Lankan culture. There is also a story about how rambutan came to the Malwana area. Legend says that the Portuguese had a fortress in Malwana and that they found that the soil in the Kelani Valley was ideal for the plant to thrive.
As we all agree, Malwana is reputed to be the heartland of the luscious rambutan fruit. If we had any doubts, they were dispelled by the sight of rambutan glistening like a million rubies spread across a green blanket from both sides of the road at Malwana.
Almost everyone in Malwana owns a rambutan tree. But we were out in search of one man, Numero Uno, when it comes to rambutan in Malwana and the Mapitigama area, Mr. Silva. Mr. Silva owns a seven acre rambutan estate and he is one of the well known rambutan farmers in the area.
There are several varieties of rambutan in Malwana. ‘Malwana Special’ is the most distinctive one. The Malaysian Yellow is the other one. As Silva said ‘Malwana Special’ is a hybrid of a foreign variety and the traditional Sri Lankan variety which we call “Val rambutan.” Malwana Special is heralded as the best variety and it is sold at the highest price. “Malawana Special has the highest demand in the local market and also in the international market,” Silva tells us.
“The ‘Malaysian Yellow” is also very sweet, sometimes tastier than the ‘Malwana Special’. But the demand is low for the yellow because the Malwana Special has a very beautiful skin and as in every other thing, people are attracted to red,” Silva says smiling.
Rambutan time normally comes once a year. But sometimes we get lucky and have a dual season. Too much rain when the trees are full of flowers really affects the final result. “The rain that fell in the month of January badly affected the production this time. What the trees have produced is almost a half when compared with last year’s crop” said one of the rambutan farmers.
“Even rambutan exports have gone down this year. Last year at this time there were several chances to export our products to some of the European countries, but this time there is none,” Silva explains.
Leasing out the trees is a system practised by owners of rambutan lands who have acres of rambutan to be plucked. But farmers like Silva say they don’t like to lease out land because the people who lease it out only think about plucking the fruit. “They don’t care about the trees and they sometimes break the branches of the trees and that badly affects the next year’s crop. Therefore I employ some of my men for the task,” Silva remarked.
Although the rambutan time comes once a year it still can make a person who is engaged in farming a wealthy man, is what we learned. The conclusion is, a reddish, perfectly ripened Malwana Special is an experience of a lifetime and a taste so close to ambrosia, that people are willing to pay the price.

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Rambutan rituals

In the past there were some unique traditions practised in the Malwana area when the harvesting times were over. A “Gam Maduwa” was organised to praise the god of Katharagama for giving them a fine crop. And some people also paid vows to the god they had promised last year, while others promised to pay vows if they obtained a good harvest in the coming year.
Ancient folktales also claim that the fruit must be picked before sunset, lest the picker is thrown down by guardian deities of the tree.
But these are old traditions, rarely practised in this modern age.
A nostalgic Silva says - “Those things scarcely happen now. As you can see this has become a somewhat large industry and that means money has a great role to play in it.”

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Watching over a precious harvest

The prime enemy of rambutan is the bat which is called “Eta Vavula” in Sinhala. “When the sun goes down hundreds of bats appear and can cause great damage if not chased away” said one of Silva’s watchmen. He adds that in the day time animals like squirrels and various kinds of birds feed on rambutan. It is a must that the guardians need to be constantly vigilant in order to save the fruit.
“In the night time we switch on all the lights which we have placed on the top branch of the tree to keep the bats away from the fruits” said another watchman of Silva. We also saw a lot of ‘tukkas’ made out of iron hung on to the branches of rambutan trees. This is one of the traditional ways the farmers practised to scare away the animals who come for the fruit.
“Looking after a rambutan plantation is very difficult and I have done this all my life,” said Chandare, a rambutan farmer we talked to. “We have to keep awake all night long and one false step could mean the end of all the hard work of weeks.
In order to be awake we used to sing folk songs. But now I hear a lot of new popular songs being sung through out the night,” said a watchman of Silva who seemed to be in his late sixties. Society is changing and it seems that the rambutan plantation also cannot escape from it.