Do the Sinhalese drink milk?

by Dr. Sarath Edirisinghe, Retired Consultant Parasitologist (Island)


With apologies to Herbert White, writing to the Ceylon Antiquary (Volume V, Part 1) of 1920 questioning whether the Sinhalese drink milk, I have borrowed his caption which I think is timely amidst the raging debate on the Sri Lanka’s imported milk powder.

Let me quote his opening paragraph. “… during the residence of some 30 years in Ceylon, it always struck me as curious that the Sinhalese, meaning thereby the village class or rural Sinhalese notwithstanding a seeming abundance of cattle, both buffalo and black cattle, seldom seemed to milk their cows and rarely to drink milk”. The abstention of the Sinhalese of milk struck a similarity, he says, with a quote by an Englishman who said the abstention of the ancient Greeks from malt liquor was a curious habit on their part. White was somehow not vouching for Sinhalese abstaining from drinking milk but was curious to find out whether it was true or not. He quoted statements from various opinioned people, including medical men, to imply or insinuate that the Sinhalese were not known to drink milk. An article published in the Daily Chronicle of the 21st of 1917 by a medical man apparently intrigued White to inquire the same in books on Ceylon.

The article mentioned above suggested that drinking milk was an English custom and wherever they went other nations followed suit. This author, living most of his life in Burma could not find a Burman (Burmese man) who could milk a cow! Further, from Rangoon through Siam, Tonkin, the whole of China (excluding Tartary), all Japan and all the islands of Asia east of Ceylon thus including more than a third of the human race do not use cow’s milk or any of its derivatives as food. He, as a medical man whenever he prescribed milk diet for sick men, they spat with disgust and apparently protested that they left milk when they left their mothers’ breasts.

White notes that the countries mentioned are all Buddhist countries giving a religious connotation to the issue. White also quotes Basil Hall Chamberlain, the author of “Things Japanese” that in Japan milk is drunk only as a medicine. Mrs. Gordon Cummings who wrote “Two happy years in Ceylon” (1876) says the natives of Ceylon have an invincible objection to milking their cows even when they owned large herds. Another quotation comes from the author of “Ceylon by an Officer late of the Ceylon rifles” (1876) who says that in warm climates milk and butter are poor and very scarce, the granular form called ‘ghee’ being the only product procurable. Sir Emerson Tennent is also quoted as telling that chewing of betel by the natives with areca-nut and lime corrects the defects in their diet (probably thinking of calcium) because they do not eat flesh or seldom or never drinking milk. Tennent further said that the cows worked equally with oxen and the calves are always allowed to suck and that milk was an article that was not easily procured in a Kandyan village. The article also has quotes from Dr. Davy and Robert Knox who do not say much about the Sinhalese drinking milk

It is clear that a century ago milk was almost exclusively consumed by the English who were stationed in the crown colony. White in his paper mentions that the import of tinned milk increased as stated by E. B. Denham, Commissioner of Census in his report of 1911 and that the food habits of the nation was changing so much so that the natives now take milk with their tea in the European fashion, quite unlikely the Chinese. White says that the Sinhala writings do not mention much about milk as a beverage but may have used in the curdled form.

In the same issue of the “Ceylon Antiquary”, John. M. Seneviratna added a note refuting White’s claims and pointed out that the quotes were mainly from European sources. He gave a number of examples of milk as a beverage and quoted extensively the “Mahavansa” to prove the point. Another note by C. Batuwantudawe presented several verses from “Guttila Kavya”, “Kavyasekaraya”, “Lokopakaraya” and “Subhshithaya” as evidence for milk drinking habit of the Sinhalese. The Editor however had an addendum saying that the evidence was for milk and not for the milk drinking habit.

Nearly a century after White’s paper I started thinking and reminiscing about milk drinking (as food) in our culture and in the present social milieu. From the staggering figures of milk powder imports one is apt to think that milk is a major food item in our diet. But is it so? None in my family, my relative and all my friends and their families ever consume milk as a food item. Two or three teaspoonfuls of powdered milk in a cup or two of tea are the most we consume per day. That is the majority use it as a relish and not as food. A few may enjoy a packet of flavored milk on and off but never have I seen anyone taking the recommended 500 ml of milk a day (see The Sunday Times, March 31st 2019). I have not seen kids in real life drinking milk gleefully from pint sized tumblers while mothers brimming heavenly holding large jars filled with milk. This is how an advertisement depicts the goodness of milk. A newspaper reported recently that a staggering 1.33 million tones of milk powder had been imported to this island from the year 2000 to 2018 costing 3.9 million US$. Where has the milk gone?

Lactose the main sugar of milk is digested by an enzyme known as lactase. Lactase found in the small intestine breaks the lactose into absorbable glucose and galactose. Those who have no or only a minimal amounts of lactase show symptoms of intolerance such as bloating, gas, stomach cramps and sometimes loose stools. In the process of natural selection some communities are replete with enough lactase with milk forming a major part of the diet while communities that have low activities of lactase show minimal levels of milk consumption. Thus Caucasian North Americans, most Scandinavians and the Europeans are the ones who consume milk liberally and are blessed with high lactase activity. Many in the Scandinavian countries also receive their Vitamin D and calcium requirements from milk whereas those of us in hot climates receive our Vitamin D from sunlight via the skin. Vitamin D is the vitamin that helps absorption of calcium from the gut and the kidneys. The figure for the prevalence of lactose intolerance rises when we come to South and Southeast Asia, rate going up to 90%. Could this be a reason of traditional avoidance of liquid milk by our adult population? Milk does not keep well in hot humid tropical conditions without refrigeration. Our ancestors would have resorted to curdling the milk or making it into ghee which has better keeping qualities.

Clear, accurate and reliable statistics as to the milk drinking habits of the present day Sinhalese are lacking. What is definite and true is that we import a huge amount of powdered milk and the question posed by Herbert White almost a century ago and wondered – Do the Sinhalese drink milk?—remains unanswered. Sir Samuel Johnson’s reply to Boswell, his biographer; “Sir you may wonder” was curt and unsatisfactory. White wondered whether he would get a reply.

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