At Navaly in Jaffna Peninsula is serene, pass through fields encounter vast areas of uninhabited land decorated with palmyrah trees to the oil mill. After turning into a by lane the aroma of sesame oil dominates the air. At the entrance is the owner of the oil mill Thangaratnam is 52 years old. His family has been at this location for 120 years, operating a small oil extraction mill. His grandparents ran this mill, later his father took over. Many years ago mill used the services of bulls, that worked hard. At the start hay and grass was purchased for 10 rupees a bundle, but with time and innovation were forced to let go of the bulls and today, it costs 60 rupees extra; besides bulls require much care, and need space to graze and rest.
The centre of the garden has a large ‘chekku’ or oil extraction well, built with wood. In the past this was built with solid granite that was chiseled by hand. The wood based container is buried into the ground. Within it is the main grinding apparatus of the ckekku-a thick wooden pole.
This pole is connected by a fulcrum, which then extends about seven feet and is bound to the mechanical-mini tractor. In operation the tiny tractor goes around in circulation causing the sesame seeds to be crushed at a steady rhythm, releasing virgin oil.
There are pre and post milling activities needed to get quality oil. We grow in our paddy fields as an off seson crop, after harvest it is kept in sacks for dry storage. The seeds are washed well and properly dried in hot sun for two days before milling. The main produce is sesame oil, black in colour is collected at the base in a bucket at the mill, with chunky punaku as a by-product used in cattle feed.
20 kilograms of sesame seeds after two hours of pressing, yield about 14 bottles of oil. Traditionally the oil will be stored in large earthware jars, where sediments settle at the bottom to get the nice clear brown oil. Today a bottle of sesame oil is sold here for 600 rupees, it’s more costly in Colombo.
Sustaining this century old tradition comes with many challenges. One of them is the hard and demanding physical operation. Though Thangaratnam is in his early fifties he looks much older. With the time and cost of labour he makes no big profit, but is proud to maintain this age old production. Besides, today incur diesel costs, to operate the motor; a mechanic is employed by Thangaratnam, periodically to service the motor that replaced the bulls.
In the back garden was a massive log that has been felled. This log will be chiseled by hand and made into the “grinding pin”- which can then be used for a year. Previously, these things were made with granite that lasted years, but today, there are no skilled workmen to make them.
In the North, Sesame oil is one of the earliest-known crop-based oils, the mass modern production is limited due to inefficient harvesting and processing required to extract the oil. It left one wondering if this ancient art of oil production may also fade away in the years to come!