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Traditional Knowledge of Edible Wild

Mushrooms in a Village Adjacent to the


Sinharja Forest
by
Dammika Hewage
Abstract
Sinharja forest is a UNESCO-declared World Heritage
site. This forest is one of the chief sources of food for the
people of Ku awa, a village lying in its close proximity.
Among the forest products are mushrooms used for their
daily food needs from time immemorial. Although
following the introduction and expansion of tea
cultivation about three decades ago, the villagers do still
enter the jungle in search of a particular variety of
mushroom. The forest yields various kinds of
mushrooms. As there is a particular season to which the
growth of a particular variety of mushroom can
normally be ascribed, the mushroom hunt becomes a
common occurrence in the forest during that particular
season. Although the mushroom hunt has a commercial
importance for some people, the majority of gatherers
collect it for their own consumption. For this, there is a
traditional body of knowledge and beliefs connected with
the collection and cooking of various kinds of
mushrooms. The main objective of this study is the
identification, before different food cultural habits
changed, of various kinds of wild mushrooms consumed
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by the rural community and the investigation into the


corpus of traditional knowledge and beliefs connected
with it. This study is based on data collected from
interviews combined with direct observations carried out
in the field. The study finds that the community has not
altogether abandoned the consumption of mushrooms
and they still possess the attendant knowledge on
mushroom although they have deviated to some extent
from the traditional life pattern.
Edible mushrooms are among the foods traditionally
consumed by communities all over the world. Different
varieties of mushrooms are consumed in different
countries.Wild mushrooms which grow naturally are
supposed to have a better taste and nutrition than the
cultivated mushrooms. Further, mushrooms are also used
for medicinal purposes. Recently there has been an
upsurge in the importance of mushrooms. It has been
noted that cultivated mushrooms are used for several
curative purposes and there are mushrooms which are
cultivated largely for medicinal practices.
Few studies have been conducted on the
mushrooms of Sri Lanka. Berkeley and Broom have
conducted a variety of studies on mushrooms in Sri
Lanka and their use1. Petch also conducted an
investigation about a species called Termite Fungi in
Sri Lanka2. Recently, Udugama has published a book
wherein she has made a basic analysis on Sri Lankan
mushrooms3. There are several other studies mostly
focusing on cultivated mushrooms. The main aim of this
present study is to document the existing patterns of
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usage of forest-gathered mushrooms before the currently


ongoing wide social changes overcome these.
The Sinharja Forest Reserve is the first forest
complex worthy of preservation in Sri Lanka in both its
biological and ecological importance as indicated by the
UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage site. The
reserve is a tropical rain forest and is located in the
south-west part of the Island between the latitudes 6021
- 6026 north, and longitudes 80021-80034 east. The
Sinharja forest extends over an area about 11, 187
hectares and includes natural (primary) forest and
secondary forest. The village Kuava situated in the
Divisional Secretariat Division of Kalavna in Ratnapura
district borders the Sinharja Forest Reserve. The
administrative boundary of the Grma Niladhri
Division of Kuava comprises part of the cluster of
small villages of Kuava, Ketalapattala, Pitakle,
Butkanda and Petiyakanda. Though human intrusion of
the Sinharja Forest has been restricted in accordance
with the regulations of the Forest Ordinance, people
continue to use the forest to get benefits from it without
causing any harm to the forest as they did traditionally.
The community has refrained from felling the forest land
since the ban on chena (slash and burn) cultivation in
1977, other traditional uses of forest has not ceased.
Consumption of Wild Mushroom in the Village
Kuava
The village Kuava lying in the north-west slope of
Sinharja Forest would possibly not date back to more
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than three hundred years, and no earlier history of this


place has been formed. The oral tradition suggests that
the early colonists of this region chose chena cultivation
as their occupation. Subsequently, cultivated fields were
also developed, but were insignificant in number as the
majority of the population adopted chena cultivation.
With the very rapid spread of tea cultivation in the
1980s, the life style of the villagers changed and
became different and more complex. The community
which had earlier relied on chena, home garden and
forest for their daily food needs, gradually became
dependent on solely the income from tea cultivation.
With the growth of tea gardens, chena cultivation which
fulfilled their food requirements now came to a
standstill. The cultivation of tea and the policies of forest
management had drastic consequences on both chena
cultivation and visits to the forest in search of forest
products. As a result, the villagers dependence on forest
products has gradually decreased.
Edible mushroom was one of the forest products
people had gathered from the forests. When the
mushroom season commences, inhabitants entered the
forests either individually or in groups to pick the
mushrooms. They entered the forest as a group only in
search of one particulars kind of mushroom, namely the
variety called aturu hatu. Though they consume other
varieties such as rukammal hatu, kiri hatu, kanda hatu,
indalolu, vlihatu, oluvliya, lna hatu, hnvli hatu etc.,
with the exception of aturu hatu and lna hatu, the
villagers do not put much emphasis on other varieties.
Other varieties of mushrooms are often found also in
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home gardens; in addition they also grow freely in the


forest. When villagers enter the forest for other activities,
if they find mushrooms, they make it a point to pluck
them. In the Kuava village, it is impossible to find an
inhabitant who does not go to the forest searching for the
aturu hatu, during the season.
In Kuava, there is only one variety of mushrooms
that is consumed by the villagers for medicinal purposes
and it is used as a remedy for bone injuries
(k umbindum). This variety, known as behet hatu
(medicinal mushroom), grows mostly on the dry trunks
of the trees. These villagers stress the fact that the
knowledge associated with this variety was handed down
from their ancestors. The village vedamahat (traditional
medical specialist) gave the following reason:
We gained the knowledge about mushrooms by descent.
Therefore, we know which mushrooms we can eat and which
we cannot. Despite those mushrooms, there is only one which is
used for medicinal purposes and that is known as bethatu. We
use it in treating injuries such as broken arms, legs and bones4.

There may be more varieties of mushrooms in the forest


that could have medicinal value. But it is difficult to
identify whether these mushrooms contain a medicinal
value or not, due to the absence of the knowledge that
has come down through several generations.

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Consumption of Mushrooms and the Associated


Traditional Knowledge
The traditional knowledge of the villagers associated
with the consumption of mushroom is indeed very
robust. The relevant mushroom lore abounds not only in
the good and bad qualities of these fungi, but also a body
of beliefs built around those; there are a set of rites to be
observed before entering the forest to pick mushrooms
and the belief, in particular to the effect that the
consumption of mushroom by women at certain
occasions of their life namely during killa (ritual
pollution) is unwholesome. This quality of
unwholesomeness seems to differ from one variety of
mushrooms to the other.
The belief in killa (ritual pollution)
Very strong beliefs in the concept of killa exist among
the villagers. kili (plural of killa) in Sinhala village
belief, implies the existence of a large number of microorganisms, which emit a disgusting smell. This
especially becomes significant in occasions connected
with the menstrual period of women. A number of
occasions when killa occurs according to the residents
of Kuava are as follows:
Ko ahalukilla (female puberty pollution)
Mskilla (osapkilla) (menstrual pollution)
Vdumkilla( pollution at time of delivery
of babies)
Mara a killa( pollution at death)

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Though the female undergoes all these four kinds of


pollutions, the male is subject only to the death
pollution. However, every inmate of a house which is
subject to pollution (where a person affected by
contamination exists) is considered from the date of
commencement of it up to a period of three months.
Some 30 years ago when a girl had attained puberty,
they would confine her in a separate room called
kilipla (pollution hut) outside the house with effect
from the date of menstruation. But, this practice is no
longer current in the locality. Instead, they keep such a
girl now in the same house, but in a separate room in
order to put the girl in question out of sight especially
from males. Villagers believe that killa exists from the
date of puberty for three months.
As non-members of the family are thus ignorant
of who has mskilla or osapkilla - menstrual
pollution - of a woman, it is she who should actually be
careful on menstrual days. The woman on menstrual
days should keep away from consuming oily food, fried
food, meat, fish and pulu u dishes (those cooked in hot
fat). According to the villagers osapkilla lasts only
seven days. Villagers also believe that it is improper for
a person to enter the jungle after association with women
who are undergoing menstruation.
It is a general belief that when a woman gives
birth to a child, she becomes subject to killa (pollution).
This kilisamaya (period of pollution) following child
birth goes on until three months during which period the

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woman who is subject to killa is not allowed to


participate in auspicious acts of any kind.
The mara akilla (death pollution) seems to be
the worst kind among the killas. To what extent, they
fear this killa is clear from the fact that after attending a
funeral and on returning home, he or she before entering
the house invariably not only washes all the clothes worn
for the funeral, but also takes a bath applying lime so
that the killa would be removed. Village folk believe that
the mara a killa lasts a period of three months. During
this period, the occupants of that house not only refrain
from performing any auspicious act themselves in that
house, but also they are not invited by others to take part
in any auspicious act. Such a household also refrains
from taking an initiative in the auspicious acts of their
neighbours. Even at present, such beliefs connected with
the killas exist in the village. If a person has such a killa,
he or she would not to go to the forest.
The Season of Mushroom Hunting
Mushroom gathering among the people in Kuava
commences with the beginning of the rainy season. With
the commencement of rains in the month April following
the somewhat dry spell in February and March,
mushrooms begin to spring up. There are particular beds,
where aturu hatu grow with the commencement of
rain. Some mushrooms which grow on dry, rotten tree
trunks also spring up in the wet season. Mushrooms such
as kiri hatu, kanda hatu, lna hatu etc. are the varieties
which grow on dry tree trunks. Varieties of mushrooms
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which grow on the ground with the beginning of the


great downpour of rain accompanied by thunder and
lightning following a long dry spell include idalolu hatu,
ru hatu, mahavli hatu, oluvliy and hnvlihatu etc.
Women are discouraged from joining a group going
mushroom gathering because of the belief that women
are subject to kili. Further, those who gather mushrooms
must refrain from talking evil things, when visiting the
jungle. In other words, one must not commit ka a
varaddgnma the offence of displeasing the god of the
jungle. Village folk fear that if they utter evil things the
god of the jungle would be displeased and punish them.
Every member of the mushroom hunting group takes
with him a packet of lunch free from meat, fish, egg or
any other piljti (particular fish and meat) and carry a
torch in case they lose their way after sunset. They think
that meat and fish are subject to kili so that if such
polluting substances are taken to the forest, they would
be exposed to danger. To illustrate one incident:
Once we went in a group to the forest to pluck aturu hatu.
We tried hard the whole day yet could not find a single
Hatupola- mushroom bed. We were very tired and hungry.
There was nothing to be done. We went to a nearby brook. We
put our bags on a rock, untied our lunch packets and had lunch.
After spending a few minutes there we took our bags to leave.
And behold! One of the bags was tainted by flies! It was full of
worms! What next? The bag tainted by flies was one in which
flesh of the sambur deer had been carried. Then only did we
come to know what had gone wrong. Why we could not find
any aturu hatu. Now it was already the time of sunset. We
did not know what time it was. We hurried, plucked a branch,
hung up and begged the God Kohomba for forgiveness and
appealed to show us the way. How strange it was. Having
thrown away the sack in question, we resumed the walk. We did
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not proceed a long way. And behold! We found a hatupolak (a


mushroom bed)! We went on picking mushrooms. Picking,
picking, picking! There was no end to mushrooms. Before long,
two bags were already full. The quantity of mushrooms that had
been brought home in three bags by the three of us was well
over fifty kilos. We went through that earlier misfortune
because we had with us the kili (polluted) bags. The god
showed us a hatupola (mushroom bed) only after we made the
apology. Aturu hatu means something that belongs to the god.
The whole forest is full of such influence (of the god). One
must go to the forest observing good moral conduct 5.

Villagers living by the forest have a high respect


and regard for it. They also tend to fear it very much.
This fear, coupled with the feeling of loyalty towards the
forest on their part, is based on their belief in gods and
demons. The ruling god of the forest Sinharja is the god
Kohomba (Kohombadeyyo). Some people call this god
Kohombayakshay
(Kohomba
demon)
or
Kohombaya. Whatever the term used by the villagers,
they revere him and fear him extremely.
Villagers who hunt mushrooms in the season are
of two kinds, i.e. those who pick them for their own
consumption and others with the intent of selling them.
The selling price of one kilo of aturu hatu is Rs. 450-500
in the nearby Kalawana town.
Principal Kinds of Edible Mushrooms
Mushrooms are an important part of the forest products
collected for consumption in Kuava village throughout
the year. The local community consumes the following
types - aturuhatu, rukammal hatu, kiri hatu, kanda
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hatu, indalolu, vli hatu, oluvliy, lna hatu and hnvli


hatu.
Aturuhatu (Agaricus (Inocybe) fulvoalbus B & Br)
The most significant variety of mushroom found in the
Sinharja forest is aturu hatu. This appears in a certain
season of the year and is among the most delicious. It is
highly priced due to its rareness, deliciousness and the
great demand.
The places where aturu hatu grow in the forest
are called hatupola (mushroom bed), which are about
50-60 feet in extent. A large number of mushrooms can
be gathered out of such a bed. People visit deep into the
forests in search of mushrooms and do that as a group
usually comprising three or four members, which is
called aturuhatunadaya (a group of aturu hatu
hunters). Aturu hatu is treated as something strictly
belonging to the gods and those who intend to go on the
aturu hatu hunt must on the previous day observe the
higher Buddhist precepts and avoid being subject to kili.
As a gatherer informed, otherwise the person will suffer
within the forest he can become disoriented and
undergo even other difficulties6.
Aturu hatu blossoms in clusters in a spongy
mattress-like carpet some 3 to 6 inches in thickness.
Under favourable environmental conditions, this sponge
lasts a number of years. Unlike other mushrooms, aturu
hatu do not decay easily. Therefore once picked, aturu
hatu can be preserved in a good state even for a number
of days. The aturu hatu which is treated as a very hot
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dish (in the Asian hot/cold classification of food) is not


given to women subject to menstrual pollution, to girls
who recently attained puberty and to breastfeeding
mothers.
When some individuals consume aturuhatu, they
get a burning sensation in the body as well as what the
villagers called urine trouble. In some others, a large
quantity of mucus can be seen on the following day on
their faces. Villagers thus treat aturuhatu as an
extremely hot dish. No other mushroom similar to this
kind (either in its shape or taste) can be found.
rukammal Hatu (LentinusgiganteusBerk)(11)
rukammal Hatu is the largest kind of mushroom found
in Kuava village. The circumference of this variety
often exceeds one and halfor two feet and is the largest
mushroom in Sri Lanka. This variety occurs not only in
the forest, but also in gardens. If the soil is suitable, these
mushrooms grow to a very large size. It is common
during MarchApril and can occur even during other
months of the year, if rain is abundant. However, the
villagers could not definitely say whether the mushroom
can once again spring up in the same place during the
next season.
It is considered as a dish involving exceptionally
powerful kili (pollution). Some people refrain from even
taking this variety inside the house. There is a strong
belief among the villagers that the flesh of pig involves
kili. The Sinhala adjective ru (means pig) added to
the name rukammal hatu clearly means that the villager
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has an equally strong aversion for this particular variety


of mushroom. Since it is a kilihatu (polluted
mushrooms), rukammal hatu is not given to pregnant
women, mothers with breast feeding infants and girls
who have attained puberty.
Kanda Hatu (Lentinussubnudes B & Br.) and Kiri Hatu
Both varieties kirihatu and kandahatu grow on roots and
stems of decaying wood. These mu abound on decaying
stems of timber such as tamba (Mangiferazeylanica),
amba
(Mangiferaindica),
bknda
(Mallotustetracoccus), and knda (Macarangapeltata).
These varieties are very common in April and October.
The kirihatu is a small mushroom, soft and white in
colour and. It must be consumed within two or three
days from the time it appears, as it loses its softness and
becomes harder and unsuitable to be consumed after
that. kndahatu is somewhat bigger and less soft than the
kirihatu. This mushroom soon becomes unedible as it
gets matured. There are two varieties of kndahatu - a
lightly brown variety being thicker than a whitish kind,
and therefore must be eaten as soon as it is plucked. If
rain persists, this kind of mushroom persists till the trunk
is decayed.
Indalolu hatu (Termitomycesrajap/Pluteusrajap)
Indalolu is also among the most preferred mushrooms
among the people. This variety of mushroom is generally
treated as a very hot dish and not given to girls who
recently attained puberty and to pregnant women.
However, its taste and nourishing nature makes it a
favourite among the villagers.
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Indalolu is a variety which is fleshier, white and


soft, with fat stems. The upper portion of the mushroom
is just like a flower bud. The diameter of the mushroom
often reaches 6 inches. This variety occurs in SeptemberOctober and occurs in clusters. Some villagers mention
that these mushrooms blossom with the commencement
of the ilvssa (October-November showers) (K. Leysa,
March 12. 2011). In a bed where the mushrooms occur,
four to five hundred Indalolu occur and blossom for twothree days. Indalolu blossoms in the same bed often in
the next year. They occur even by termite nests.
Wli Hatu/Mvli Hatu (Termitomyces (Hygrosphorus)
alwisii B & Br)
This common kind of mushroom has a white stem, a
slightly brown head and about 10 inches in diameter. It
is grown in forest and in gardens and constitutes a
commonpart of the meal. If there is wet weather, this
variety occurs during any time of the year, but it is
common in September- October.
Oluvli Hatu/Oluvliy
luvli Hatu is smaller than Vli Hatu, but it is of the
same shape. Its head is more brownish than that of Vli
Hatu. This mushroom occurs in clusters and very
common in September-October in forest and in village.
Hnvli Hatu
(Termitomycesmicrocarpus/Entolomamicrocarpus B &
Br)

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It is a small kind of mushroom same as Vli hatu in


shape. Its head is somewhat brown and similar to a shirt
button in shape. These mushrooms occur in hundreds
and thousands. They occur during the wet season
accompanied by thunder and lightning. All these kinds
blossom in a day or two and take time to last.
Lna Hatu (Schizophyllum commune Fr.)
Lna hatu is a small variety of mushroom that occurs on
trunks in wet weather. It occurs in the jungle as well as
in village. As the mushroom shrinks with the sunlight, it
is easy to pluck this variety during the early morning. If
rain continues, Lna hatu occurs till trunk is decayed.
These various kinds of mushrooms depending on
the forest which are prepared in different ways are eaten
with rice. Curries (mluva) are prepared with extract
(milk) of coconut and the fried dish (bduma) is also a
common dish prepared with the above mentioned from
most of the above mushrooms. A dish in slightly cooked
form (mlluma) is prepared from some of these varieties
such as hiri hatu and knda hatu and lna hatu. The
latter is also eaten as a substitute for lunu-miris (the saltchilly chutney somewhat similar to Korean kimji in
taste). During the days of chena cultivation, mushrooms
such as aturu hatu and indalolu are salted, boiled and are
eaten with coconut7.

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Traditional Methods of Preserving Varieties of


Mushrooms
Every kind of mushroom cannot be preserved.
Mushrooms such as aturu hatu, lna hatu etc. are dried
and preserved and kept for a few months. This is
important when there are mushrooms in excess of
requirements. Aturu hatu is torn into pieces and dried by
means of smoke. Lna hatu are dried (without tearing
them into pieces) in full. Before consumption these
mushrooms must be put into hot water and soaked. Then
those would be cooked in the form of a vegetable curry,
bduma and mlluma and eaten with rice.
Conclusion
Though the long standing traditional consumption of
mushrooms in Kuava, exists unchanged even at present
to some extent, a decrease in annual consumption of
mushrooms can be seen. The main reason for this
decrease lies in the shifting of the economy from a
traditional livelihood towards commercial tea
cultivation. Almost all villagers are small holders of tea,
and so are busy looking after their plantations. With their
busy schedule, villagers have little time to collect forest
products. However, since mushrooms are considered
delicacies, all villagers visit the forest to pluck these at
least once during the season. Meanwhile, the gathering
of mushrooms is still the sole occupation of some of the
villagers.

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The traditional knowledge of mushroom seems to


be known even in the present generation. However, this
knowledge is dwindling fast among the children and the
youth. The consumption of mushroom is of special
importance in the food culture of villagers of Kuava.
Moreover, the traditional attitudes and beliefs connected
with the consumption of mushroom that had existed in
the past can be seen to exist even at present. An example
is the restriction of certain varieties of mushrooms for
pregnant mothers, girls who have newly attained puberty
and women who are in menstruation. Only a single
variety of mushroom known as beth hatu (medicinal
mushrooms) has been identified as having a medicinal
value.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank R.K. Sirisena and his
Family, G.W. Nandisena, M.S.M.L. Karunarathne,
Shavindra Chandradasa, J. Amarasinghe, Dhanesh
Wisumperuma for their helpful inputs to the
development and revision of this paper. The author alone
is responsible for any errors.
Figures
Photographs: Dhammika Hewage

Aturuhatu
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rukammalh
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Indalolu Hatu

Kanda Hatu

luvli Hatu /OluVliy

Vli Hatu

Lna Hatu

Endnotes
1

Berkeley M.J & Broome C. E., The Fungi of Ceylon, Journal of


the Linnean Society of London, Botany, 11,1871, pp. 494-567.
2

Petch, T., Termite Fungi: A resume, Annual Royal Botanic


Gardens. Peradeniya.1913, pp. 303-341.

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Petch, T. Revisions of Ceylon Fungi, Annals of The Royal Botanic


Gardens, Peradeniya Colombo, Government printer, Vol. iv.pt. ii,
1907.
Petch, T. and Guy Richard Bisby, The Fungi of Ceylon, Colombo,
Government publication, Peradeniya manual, no. 6, 1950.
Petch, T. Revisions of Ceylon Fungi, Annals of The Royal Botanic
Gardens, Peradeniya Colombo, Government printer, Vol. iv.pt. ii,
1907.
3

Udugama, Srimathi, Sri Lankan Mushrooms, Author publication,


Rajagiriya, 2006, pp. 9-10.
4

Sirisena and John, Personal Communication, January 18, 2015.

Gunapala, P., Personal Communication, June 15, 2011.

Ibid, May 27. 2011.

P. Themis, Personal Communication, March 11, 2011.

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