|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
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….
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
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
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
“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,”
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
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.
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
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.”
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.