Hardly is there anyone traveling by road from Colombo to the hill capital Kandy, who has not heard about Pasyala Cadjugama and its claim for fame. It has almost become customary for motorists to stop here and savor the taste of delicious cashew nuts while admiring damsels who in their colorful attire sell cashew to the passersby. These girls stand by the roadside and wave at passing motorists, enticing them to stop and savor the taste of freshly roasted cashew nuts.
Located in Gampha District, Pasyala Cadjugama is a small town about 40 km from the heart of Colombo. The name Cadjugama is derived from two words cadju means cashew nut tree and gama, a Sinhala word for village. Ironically, cashew nuts are not grown here but in places about 32 km away called Kurunegala and Alauwa. Even more interesting is that Cadjugama is not the regional name of the place. A town called Iddhamalgada was named Cadjugama owing to its popularity for selling cashew nuts. Here, the main road is lined with wayside stalls where the traditional cashew girls or cadjugirls sell cashew nuts splashing the road with vibrant colors and broad smiles.
The story began in 1934, when Johnna Hamee, a resident of the town spread some cashew nuts on the roadside, placed a large coconut leaf over them and set it on fire to give the nuts a roasted flavor and texture. Her ambition was to sell the roasted cashew nuts in Colombo, as business opportunities were more in big cities than in a small town. While she was busy roasting the cashew nuts in a rather unorthodox manner, a passing motorist stopped and asked her, whether she was interested in selling her cashew nuts. Although the nuts were not ready for sale, Hamee sold a few. It then dawned on her that she need not travel to Colombo to sell cashew nuts but sell them right there in a makeshift wayside stall to local villagers and passing motorists. In a true spirit of entrepreneurship, she roasted more cashew nuts and got hold of a few girls of the neighborhood to sell them to the passers-by. And thus began the institution of Sri Lanka’s colorful “cashew girls.”
Cashew business boomed. In 1946, Hamee’s daughter, Mai Nona who was then looking after the business introduced bright colored Reddhe and hatte (Sri Lankan dress) mostly bought in Negombo for salesgirls to attract customers. This brought about a significant change in the functioning of cadjugirls.
Although conservative and shy by nature, the cashew girls soon discovered that they sold more cashew nuts than their menfolk.
Excited by the success, their attire over the years became decidedly more bright hued and attractive. Along with their attractive and eye-catching dress, their coy smiles and disarming manner boosted the sale of cashew nuts.
Alive and well at 83, Nona quietly watches from her small house, the tradition she started many years ago. Her eyes gleam with pride and her features even at this ripe old age carry the traces of beauty that would have once mesmerized her customers. The tradition, began by her mother, inspires cashew girls of today to sell their cashews with a sense of pride. It gives Nona a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. She says that as a girl, it was an honor for her to bring respect and admiration to the vocation. The credit for the innovative sale tactic goes to her mother as well as herself. Today, it has become Sri Lanka’s culture and tradition.
Seventy-two years after the first sale was made, the very hut that created Cadjugama still stands as it was then, while some others have been converted into commercial establishments. But the beautiful, elegant and colorful cashew girls continue to add dynamic energy to this sleepy little town.
Stopping by one of these little thatched stalls by the wayside for delicious cashew nuts is a tradition not to be ignored. It is a small part of the history of this island and the entrepreneurial spirit of the village women and most of all, it is a fleeting encounter with the island’s beautiful women — an encounter which will remain etched in your mind for a very long time.