In the Shade of a Tamarind Tree
It has been just over a decade since Ayesha and Nalin Perera built Tamarind Gardens— a dairy farm and guest house in the Central Province of Sri Lanka that produces scrumptious cream cheese, clotted cream, double cream, cottage cheese, Neufchatel cheese, butter and baked goods. The plentiful yields of tamarind from their property’s aged tamarind trees are also used to make chutney, juice, and soon to be launched, is their special tamarind sorbet. But the mouth-watering foods they produce come almost second to Ayesha and Nalin’s other heart-felt labours. Tamarind Gardens’ local initiatives have helped to grow the surrounding village’s means for progress, self sustenance and community development.
A promise to Return Ayesha Perera and her husband, Nalin, left Sri Lanka in 1994 and relocated to the U.K. during the country's civil war, however, their resolution to return to Sri Lanka was strong and was set in motion during one of their visits home in 2001. It was then, while visiting family and friends, that they purchased a plot of land in the rural village of Aluthwatta, Digana, just 20 kilometres from the main city of Kandy, in Sri Lanka’s Central Province.
“There was just something about the area that felt so peaceful. It was our promise that we would come back.”
Ayesha grew up in the region’s temperate hill country, in a small village called Hewaheta. Her father managed a tea plantation and she was raised in the quiet highlands, appreciating nature and simple pleasures.
“My mother grew her own vegetable garden, flower garden, and she loved to bake. She used to make hot cross buns and scones in her AGA cast iron cooking range. Materialistically, we didn’t have a lot but we had an idyllic childhood – the kind that placed me in good stead to deal with life.”
While the climate of Hewaheta is opposite to that of Digana (Digana borders the country’s dry zone, meaning hot temperatures, annual drought, and dry weather), Ayesha feels the rural backdrop in which she was raised inspired her calling in life, and commitment to environmental sustainability.
She recalls when she and Nalin first arrived to Digana, “We thought, what are we going to do here, how will we make our living?”
Their acreage happened to be home to many mature tamarind trees (fifty-years-old or more), so it was obvious their business would in some way involve the nourishing and succulent fruit pods. It was, however, Nalin’s cravings for what was not yet tangible on the land that narrowed the focus of their livelihood. Ayesha laughs as she tells me how her husband missed cream from England, “That is when we decided to do a dairy farm and guest house called, Tamarind Gardens.”
While in England, Ayesha studied hospitality management. She was confident that she would be able to use her skills to build the guest house, however, bringing their dream to fruition was far from easy. She had yet to get to know the locals, or even scratch the surface of the surrounding village of Aluthwatta. Becoming Part of the Community
Upon her arrival to Aluthwatta, Ayesha soon learned of a significant problem in the village; coupled with the region’s annual droughts, there was a severe shortage of clean potable water and a lack of safe community water storage. Ayesha and Nalin quickly worked to help the community acquire proper water storage tanks, and donated 10 (500-litre) water tanks in 2010. Over the following years, with funding support and contributions from the village and larger community, they provided 500 families with water tanks. Today, most all of the 600 families in the village have water tanks, and many have purchased extra tanks as well.
Ayesha and Nalin also learned that dolomite mining (dolomite is a mineral used in making cement and building materials), was the primary industry in the area. It being the main source of employment, there was little alternative for workers from the limited wages, hard conditions, and negative health effects.
Acting on her desire to enable and empower the women who worked in the mines, Ayesha founded a women’s empowerment cooperative called Liya Diriya to help provide alternate and sustainable sources of income and employment. Based on Ayesha and Nalin’s farm, women, young and retired, produce handicrafts, cloth bags, and repurposed bags made from scrap, and used packaging material, such as old rice and flour sacks. Most recently, they started a recycled book program where new books are produced from used school work books.
Looking to the Future
The community which Tamarind Gardens serves is like family to Ayesha and Nalin. Beyond the guest house, they have built a home, and with 25 cows, 7 goats, 6 dogs and 2 cats, there is no shortage of love. Visitors from around the world to the guest house also are encouraged to live like a local, get their hands dirty while on the farm, and give back to the community that welcomes them. Many of the former guests remain in contact with Ayesha after they leave, “We even had one visitor from Vancouver, British Columbia, reach out to place an order for cloth bags made by Liya Diriya.”
In March of 2020, Ayesha was named the 7th President of Rotary Club of Kandy Hill Capital. Unfortunately, this was around the same time the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. “COVID-19 has helped us to rethink our whole plan and what we are doing... We want to do things differently.”
In March, Tamarind Gardens hosted a farmers’ market event on their premises, and presently Ayesha is working on preparing food hampers and gift baskets with various items produced by local farmers, craftsman and artisans whose businesses are suffering from the pandemic. Some of the items featured in the baskets are cashews, Sri Lankan orange wine, hand-painted bags, bees honey, and chocolate. “The baskets are a good option also for Sri Lankans living abroad who want to give something to their families and friends in Sri Lanka,” says Ayesha.
Over the past decade, Ayesha has kept close to her heart the words of wisdom her father raised her with, “My father would say, you need a ‘bulldog’s tenacity’ … this made me never give up.”
His words may echo at the back of her mind, as she and Nalin continue to tirelessly support the many projects they believe in most, including children’s education, women’s empowerment, care of the natural environment, supporting local farms and businesses, and increasing the local food supply. Most recently, Ayesha is advocating to keep the Vidattaltivu Nature Reserve in the Mannar district protected.
She realizes the depth of her work and sense of calling, and lets out a sigh, “Some days I just want calm. Digana has changed a great deal from the place we first stepped foot on eleven years ago, to a bustling town with want of more. Maybe one day, we will leave all this. And just go somewhere, quiet …”
Somehow, I believe, she just might.~
To learn more, follow Tamarind Gardens on Instagram: @tamarindgardensfarm
Or, contact Ayesha and Nalin Perera at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All images on this page ©Tamarind Gardens
First photo: Tamarind Tree at Tamarind Gardens
Second photo: Dairy Cows, Tamarind Gardens Third photo: The Ladies of Liya Diriya boiling milk on Sri Lankan New Year's Day
Fourth photo: Preparing food hampers with local farmers
Fifth photo: Ayesha and Nalin Perera, Owners of Tamarind Gardens