Woodrow W. Denham
15 February 2002
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We planned to stay in Sharjah and work during the break, but four days before it began we had to change our plans. With minutes to spare, we found a tour package to Sri Lanka. Our friends Jill and Bernie had already decided to go there, and suggested there might still be space available for us too. They were right - four days at a hotel near historical sites in the north, a couple of days at Kandy in the center, a stop at an elephant sanctuary somewhere, one night in Colombo, and five days on the beach to get restless and sunburned. Not especially interesting to me, but the alternatives were not obvious. So Miss Kitty went to the kitty hotel, Nancy finished evaluating the last of the final exams, and we were more or less packed by 2200 for an 0200 flight. Jill and Bernie went on a different flight a day later, so we didn’t travel with them but we saw them intermittently throughout the trip.
Why Sri Lanka? Perhaps because we knew very little about it. To put that a bit differently: perhaps if we had known more about it, we wouldn’t have gone there. Our most important prior linkages to the island were through Ramiya and Nanda, two housemaids who worked for us part time in Al-Ain and Fujairah. They migrated to the UAE after their husbands died in the civil war. They were bright, competent people who joined the flood of indentured servants to the Gulf in order to survive and support their families. In addition to exporting people, Sri Lanka also exports a few consumer products to the Gulf including Maliban ginger biscuits that may be the world’s finest ginger snaps, and Sri Lankan restaurants whose food may be the world’s spiciest.
When I worked in Bangladesh, I shared an apartment with David Goalstone, an economist who had worked in Sri Lanka. He had very good feelings about the island and told me about Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sarvodaya cooperative movement, rooted in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, designed to help villagers rise above their endemic poverty. We knew something about Buddhism from reading about it and seeing it in action in Thailand and Indonesia. In 1911 the Seligman’s published an important study of Sri Lanka’s Aboriginal Veddas and in 1961 Edmund Leach published a famous ethnography entitled Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon which I read so long ago I don’t remember any of it. Not exactly terra incognito, but close.
War and Threats of War We were never in any danger that we know of and we heard no shots or explosions except for a fireworks display that seemed inappropriate in these tense times, but we were constantly aware of war.
On the world scale, we expected to see economic fallout from 11 September in airports and hotels, and we did. This is peak tourist season in Sri Lanka, but Sri Lankan Airlines and all of our hotels were operating at only sixty percent of capacity. So we got bargain prices for airfares, hotels, food and ground transportation. That was good, but it makes me uncomfortable to sleep and eat very cheaply in 5-star hotels in a developing country when I know that half the normal staff have been laid off indefinitely and their kids are hungry because a madman attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At the local level, we knew that civil wars had left more than 60,000 dead in Sri Lanka since 1983, but since tourism remains important there, we didn’t expect to find cities, towns and historic sites festooned with yellow steel barricades and shiny garlands of razor wire. Perhaps most importantly we were haunted by Anil’s Ghost, the painful new novel about the Tamil Tigers’ separatist movement by Michael Ondaatja, the Sri Lankan author who won the Booker Prize a decade ago for The English Patient.
The war theme began to emerge very early in the piece. The x-ray machine in the departure terminal at Dubai International Airport detected two items that I forgot to take out of my carry-on bag: my battered old Swiss Army knife that has gone everywhere with me for twenty or thirty years, and the tiny jeweler’s screwdriver I use occasionally to tighten the screws that hold my glasses together. They were confiscated. Politely but firmly they went into an official pouch and stayed in Dubai while we flew to Colombo. I reclaimed them upon returning. The world is different now.
Sam Sam was our driver and we were fortunate to have him. His full name ran to about sixteen syllables, so we omit it here. He English was excellent and he became a valuable source of guidance and information for us, having answers to most of our questions on the tip of his tongue, and going off to do research at night when we asked something he didn’t know.
Sam worked in Dubai and Jeddah during the years when we were there, so we had a lot in common. He saved his Gulf money and bought the microbus in which he carried us around, and the shop that his wife operated in a suburb of Colombo. As a Catholic, he was a member of the small Christian minority in Sri Lanka, but he was proud and knowledgeable of the island’s Buddhist heritage. And he understood that living in the Arabian Peninsula is difficult.
As we rode with Sam during our first days in the island, we saw that the roads were crowded but the drivers were safe, cooperative and courteous, and the people were friendly and smiled often at us and at each other, all of which was vastly different from what we experience daily in Sharjah.
From asking what we thought were simple questions and receiving wide ranging, complex and perceptive answers to them, we learned a lot from Sam. For example, we saw people washing clothes at a river and Nancy asked something about the dhobi washer caste in India. That began a week-long discussion of Sam’s sister’s wedding which was scheduled to occur the day after we departed. Among many other things, he said that caste membership was important in determining one’s spouse but not one’s occupation, and that the washer caste remained especially important. Each family has a permanent dhobi who not only cares for their clothes but also is responsible for ceremonially cleansing each daughter at the time of her first menstruation so that she can formally enter her new adult status in a ritually pure state. In return the dhobi receives valuable gifts, and so on and so on.
The wars that have played key roles in Sri Lanka’s history in recent decades began to make sense to us in light of some of his comments.
The first war is the incredibly vicious conflict between the Tamil Tigers who are Hindu separatists based in northeastern Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese Buddhist central government based in Colombo on the west coast. The Tigers are not just ordinary rebels. They invented suicide bombing in the 1980s, used it to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi shortly after we left India in 1990, and have shared their invention with Palestinians, Al-Qaeda and a whole world full of other suicidal terrorists. The Tigers declared a truce two days after we arrived. Roads to the northeast were opened for the first time in years and there was some optimism that peace might actually break out. But there have been truces before and nothing has come of them. Sam was hopeful but realistic.
The second is a smaller and less well organized insurgency by unemployed Buddhist youth in southern Sri Lanka against the Buddhist central government. This one seems to have subsided somewhat, and we never quite understood it.
The third goes unreported in the media but in the long term and for the world as a whole it may be the most dangerous of the three. It is sponsored by governments awash in oil wealth that subsidize the production of babies by poor Moslem parents in Sri Lanka. As Buddhists, Hindus and Christians in the island move toward family planning and serious birth control for the benefit of themselves, their children and their island, poor Moslems are being paid to make babies at the maximum possible rate to swamp their adversaries, including you and me. And the more babies the parents make, the more firmly they are entrapped. They are free to break the bargain, but then they have to support all the babies on their own. From one perspective we see benign foreign aid with a religious spin and demographic implications; from another we see making babies as acts of war, no less so than attacking the WTC. Sam seemed to think the policy was not benign and I suspect he was right.
Our conversations with Sam continued for eight days as he accompanied us to historical sites, tea gardens and temples.
Dambulla The Kandalama Hotel near Dambulla was our home for four days in north-central Sri Lanka. Ordinarily I think of hotels as part of the background and don’t pay much attention to them, but the Kandalama, like the Mara Sopa in Kenya and the Lake Palace in Udaipur, is special. It was built as a center for nature tours seven years ago and sits on the edge of a huge reservoir built 1500 years ago. It is a minimalist gray concrete structure countersunk as far as possible into a surgical incision just above the waterline in the gray rock that forms the hillside. A kilometer long and seven stories high in the center, it has dense trees on all sides and on the roof, and giant planter boxes filled with creepers that ascend the walls and dangle from every available space. It is an austere, entirely open building virtually invisible from the outside, and silent except when someone plays Sri Lankan folk music or Indian classical music in the lounge. Located ten kilometers from the nearest village, it offers easy access to a huge diversity of birds – especially water birds - and the remains of Buddhist cities destroyed centuries ago.
Sri Lanka has been a predominantly Buddhist island for over 2000 years. It served as the religion’s primary steppingstone from India where it originated, to Southeast Asia where it flourished during and long after its demise in India. Certainly many Buddhist pilgrims flock to Varanasi and adjacent areas in India where the Buddha lived and taught 2500 years ago. But the second most important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists in Southeast Asia is Sri Lanka where the Buddha is believed to have visited three times and where the relic of the Buddha’s tooth is now enshrined in the ancient city of Kandy. On our visits to Buddhist sites in the island we encountered numerous pilgrims from Southeast Asia and Korea in addition to those from Sri Lanka. Because of the civil war, the Japanese government has long prohibited Japanese tour companies from taking groups to Sri Lanka, so the great flocks of Japanese tourists we saw at temples throughout Thailand were missing this time.
From the Kandalama, we took three daytrips to UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Dambulla, but missed some other equally important sites since our time was limited.
Anuradhapura is a great sprawling city that was established in 380 BC and persisted as the capital of the Sinhalese empire for a thousand years. It has been dead for 1400 years, and the remains of hundreds of buildings are scattered over perhaps 20 square kilometers. Much of it has been excavated but little has been restored. Except for the trimmed lawns, it still feels like it must have felt when much of it was rediscovered in the 19th century. Buddhist dagobas and stupas of every size and in every stage of repair sit in the woods, foundations of monasteries and palaces are everywhere, brilliant green moss covers ancient brick walls, several species of tall white birds prance through the grass and a few statues of the Buddha have withstood the ravages of weather and wealthy collectors who scavenge countries in the Developing World for their artistic treasures. Pul Eliya, the dry zone agricultural village where Leach did his research half a century ago is located about 20 km north of Anuradhapura.
The most important pilgrimage destination at Anuradhapura is the Bo Tree, transplanted as a slip from the Bo Tree in India where the Buddha first experienced enlightenment. It is billed as the world’s oldest “certified” living tree with a documented history that reaches back two thousand years. Monks in saffron robes as well as smiling pilgrims carrying clusters of lotus blossoms sat chanting here and there in the small temple that enclosed the Bo Tree, while bright prayer flags fluttered softly in the breeze. The quiet, joyous mood of the pilgrims contrasted sharply with the surrounding barricades, sandbagged machine gun emplacements, street diversions and long walks through perimeter areas no doubt defended by landmines.
Sigiriya is a fortified palace and is an entirely different kind of place. The small palace built in the 5 th century AD is gone now, but traces of its foundations, cisterns and gardens sit atop a 200 meter high monolith that sticks up from the plains like a finger, offering spectacular views of the green countryside all around. We could see the rock far across the reservoir from the dining room at the Kanadalama, and watch its colors change as the sun moved across the sky behind us.
In addition to building the long vanished palace on top of the rock, the king who conceived this remarkable structure also surrounded the base of the rock with a delightful formal water garden and encircled the entire area of several acres with a moat. Visitors enter through the beautifully groomed gardens that have persisted much better than the palace did, then ascend the face of the monolith via a steel stairway that is bolted to the stone. The 200 meter vertical climb up something resembling a fire escape is not for everyone.
The caves at Dambulla are marked by a huge figure of the Buddha, its golden head a beacon shining above the dark green foliage of the surrounding forest. The caves are halfway up the side of a rocky hill, not deep caverns that penetrate the hill, but rather a series of five shallow indentations extending 200 meters or more horizontally, perhaps better described as the protected area under an overhanging rock. The oldest work there probably dates from the first century BC, with additions and revisions spanning the next two millennia. During the 20th century, a wall and walkway were built across the front of the caves, so instead of seeing into the caves directly as you would have in earlier centuries, you now see something that looks like a monastery, with the treasures protected inside, where we visited them.
The treasures include a large collection of figures of the Buddha and Buddha-like bodhisattvas, figures of several Hindu deities, and paintings on the ceilings and walls. Because of the screening wall out front, the lighting inside the caves is poor and the colors that you see in real life are far less impressive than the ones you see in printed publications. In contrast with the brilliant and complex art that we came to expect and take for granted in Thailand, the work at Dambulla looks more like folk art, not inferior to that in Bangkok but a great deal more subdued and less grand. As at the Bo Tree in Anuradhapura, we found many pilgrims carrying lotus blossoms, and paused for a while to listen to their polyphonic chanting inside one of the caves.
As we traveled through the island, we often saw representatives of two species of monkeys, especially at temples: bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) with distinctive hairdos, red faces and long tails; and Hanuman langurs (Presbytis entellus) with long graceful limbs and even longer tails. Anuradhapura hosts several troops of both species, but we saw only one large troop of macaques at Dambulla. Relations between pilgrims and monkeys at historical sites were relaxed, people often gave small bites of food to the monkeys, the monkeys appeared to be in fine physical condition and there seemed to be a lot of babies in the troops. Also there seemed to be a good bit of diversity in the appearance of both the macaques and the langurs.
In addition to watching monkeys, we’ve spent a lot of time with lions this year in India, Spain and Kenya. In Northern India the name “Singh”, which means “lion”, is especially common among Sikhs and Rajputs. In Andalucia, the Lion Fountain is one of the outstanding artistic creations at the Alhambra. In Kenya, being surrounded by prides of real lions as they strolled across the savannah was a memorable experience. Early in our visit to Sri Lanka, I noticed that Lion Beer was the best selling brand, that the Lion Gate blocked access to the palace at Sigiriya, and that the name of the language of the Buddhist community was “Sinhalese”, where “Sinha-” (pronounced “sing-a-”) sounds a lot like the “lion” word among the Sikhs and Rajputs. I asked Sam whether there were any connections. He metaphorically scratched his head and said “No”, but as he thought about it more, he realized that the name of his language translates into English as “lion’s blood”, and he noticed the lion on the inspection sticker stuck to his windshield. So we concluded that I was on to something but never figured out exactly what it was. With names like Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese Lions for the opposing factions, the civil war sounds like a football game, but it is not. We have tentatively christened this “The Year of the Lion”.
Kandy The central part of the island is quite rugged and lies at higher elevations than northern and coastal regions. Kandy, near the center, was another of the island’s many royal cities. The royalty have gone now, but the city lives on, tucked into a narrow valley beside a small lake. Buildings in the business district still show much evidence of the British occupation that lasted for a century and as half, and Cargill’s Supermarket, the colonial hotel and the pub about halfway between them could have been built in any tropical city in the British Empire. A bomb blast a couple of years ago took out a chunk of the road around the lake, but the government saw the resulting destruction as an asset rather than a liability and incorporated it into the system of barricades that defends the former royal district with its temple, palace and cultural center. No doubt walking around the lake once was delightful, but the barricades, fences, armed guards, metal detectors at gates, traffic jams, sewage system repairs and air pollution have taken much of the joy out of that experience.
Just after sunset the former royal district comes to life, beginning when the cultural center hosts an hour long dance performance for visitors. We saw ten dances featuring about a dozen fine dancers, about the same number of musicians, gorgeous folk and classical costumes, skills as much athletic as musical, and a short demonstration of fire eating and fire walking. We had read about the use of masks in Sri Lankan dance and drama, but we saw no masks at the cultural center.
A short way down the promenade the evening ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth begins half an hour after the dance performance ends. Sam did a fine job of helping us to understand what we saw at the temple and the adjacent palace-cum-museum. The walls of the temple are of wood and are painted white, but the roof is plated with gold and is suspended far above the building. It is illuminated softly from below so it seems to float in the air, with a glorious effect that is utterly out of keeping with the low-key Buddhism we saw elsewhere in the island. Inside, the temple is filled with brilliant figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas and, during the evening ceremony, with incessant drumming and shrill sounds of an oboe-like nadeswaram that is just as comfortable in Hindu temples in South India as in Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. Pilgrims leave offerings on the lower level of the temple and ascend the stairs to look briefly through a small door into the central room where the relic of the Buddha’s tooth is kept within multiple layers of caskets. The preservation and sanctification of relics is common in Buddhism, but the tooth relic at Kandy is without peer.
A short flight of stairs leads from the temple courtyard to the museum where a large gold figure of the Buddha and 21 smaller figures of the bodhisattvas occupy part of the former palace. As an indication of the importance of Sri Lanka in general and the Kandy temple in particular as the spiritual home of Buddhists in Southeast Asia, the figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas were contributed by the people and government of Thailand. On the walls just above the 21 bodhisattvas are 21 paintings depicting the history of the tooth relic in Sri Lanka, painted by a Sri Lankan artist with support from the Bank of Ceylon. Suddenly the evening ceremony ended, the music stopped, the pilgrims and monks flowed out, the lights blinked off, the roof disappeared into the dark sky, and the temple and museum went to sleep for another night.
Two days after we left Kandy, newspapers reported a shootout at the Temple of the Tooth. A policeman said something rude to an army officer in a car near the barricades, and the army officer shot him. The gunshot attracted about twenty-five armed men from each side and several of them ended up in the hospital. Nobody died. The chronic warfare has everyone tense, and it doesn’t take much to push people into violent conflict even when the enemy is nowhere to be found. A few days later, the policeman and the army officer apologized to each other and the incident was forgotten.
Gardens in the vicinity of Kandy are quite diverse and we did our best to see all varieties of them. The Botanical Garden dates from the 19th century and has a fine collection of tropical plants including palms, figs, bamboos and orchids. Also it has tens of thousands of fruit bats that see the garden as a predator-free sanctuary. I think of bats as small creatures that spend most of their time hanging upside down in dark caves. With regard to the ones in Kandy, the only part I got right was “hanging upside down”. These fruit bats have bodies about the size of cats and wingspans of about three feet, and they hang upside down in trees in broad daylight, fidgeting and chirping incessantly. Perhaps editors of guidebooks feel that reports of bats don’t enhance attendance at Botanical Gardens for none of ours mentioned them. But from our perspective, the bats were by far the most interesting things there.
Highland tea gardens occupy elevations above Kandy toward the formerly British hill station of Nuwara Eliya. We spent most of a day there, driving up, up, up through gorgeous hills and gardens in every shade of green. Waterfalls tumble down through the gardens, and rest houses occasionally offer travelers opportunities to refresh and enjoy the scenery from patio restaurants. Guide books describe boys who run up and down the hillsides between switchbacks selling flowers to passengers of slow moving cars, and indeed they still ply their trade with persistence that borders on sheer madness. Few workers were visible in the fields during midday, but as we began our descent toward Kandy late in the afternoon we saw more women picking tea leaves and more men drinking at toddy shops. At tea factories here and there, the tea is dried, sorted and packaged. The technology is simple and the factories are small, quiet, subdued, unlike the huge, complex, noisy sugar factories that we know so well from the Caribbean.
Tea gardens are botanically simple – nothing but endless sloping fields of tea bushes, all about four feet high – but spice gardens are botanically complex, containing pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cocoa, coffee and all manner of other plants that made Sri Lanka one of the great “spice islands” during Europe’s age of exploration and colonization. They occur at lower elevations, appear to occupy only a few acres each and are densely planted with tall trees, short trees, intermediate trees, bushes, creepers, epiphytes and just about every other life form that you can imagine, all piled on top of each other to yield dense shade at ground level. If the plants were “weeds” we could think of these areas as jungles, but in fact they are extraordinarily productive, valuable and well tended, and resemble jungles only superficially. Individual residences often have a few spice trees growing in their back yards, so as we drove through the island we saw items like cinnamon bark and nutmegs spread on the ground or on tarps drying by the roadside. A small area just north of Dambulla is a center for the production of red chili peppers that are dried in the sun and sold in small bags that hang copiously in roadside shops. The location is called Chilibag Junction in English, and that is a literal translation of its Sinhalese name which may have been applied to that area ever since chilies reached South Asia.
Cashew gardens occur along the highway from Kandy down to Colombo on the coast. We didn’t see the gardens, but it was impossible to miss seeing the cashew sales force. Dressed in brilliant red dresses so drivers can see them better, these adolescent girls leap out into the line of traffic and try to force drivers to stop at their stands. Their mortality rate must be astronomically high.
Nancy wanted to taste some of these famous Sri Lanka cashews, so we stopped for a moment. When the young woman in red flopped down beside my car door with her arms in the window, her bountiful breasts almost hopped out of her dress and she flashed me a suggestive smile. I don’t know whether she had just finished a course in high pressure marketing, was still getting used to her newfound sexuality, or was engaging in child sex right in my face beside the highway. I’m not a prude, but that was unseemly. I almost suggested she put on a shirt.
Rice is produced primarily for domestic consumption. We saw a couple of terraced hillsides, but in the areas we visited most rice grew in river valleys or in broad irrigated paddies in flat country. Pest control is a big problem. During the day unsightly flapping plastic bags serve as scarecrows, but at night things are more complicated. As we drove through the fields, we noticed central stems from palm fronds sticking up above the rice. Sam said owls come out of the woods at night and use them as perches from which they spot and catch mice. We also saw a good many small shelters raised above the fields on stilts where farmers sit at night to frighten away elephants.
African elephants such as the ones we saw at Masai Mara are non-domesticable, intractable, wild and sometimes violent. Asian elephants such as these in Sri Lanka, the ones we saw and rode in Rajasthan, and those that work in Bangladesh and Thailand are domesticated, tame and friendly. They are numerous in the island and work at various jobs such as dragging logs out of the woods and carrying people into the woods to watch birds in silence.
Since young elephants sometimes are orphaned, the government has established an elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, between Kandy and Colombo. It’s a cross between a farm and a circus, and is an earthy sort of place. Since the orphanage has been there for a while and baby elephants tend to grow up, the population of 60+ includes a good many largish young elephants and a few young adults. Their work seems to entail moving logs from pile A to pile B for a while, then from pile B back to pile A for a while, and so on, with visitors frequently posing for photos with the elephants. You’d think somebody would come up with a more useful way to expend all of that elephant power.
In mid-morning the herd crosses the road to the river where all of them take showers. Then they continue to the other bank where they immediately plaster themselves with mud presumably for insect control. The colors of the animals and the river were striking and the photo opportunities were excellent. Clearly a lot of the money to support the operation comes from tour groups.
After living in the Arabian Peninsula for so long where almost everything occurs inside the walls of closed compounds, we were struck by the high visibility of all kinds of economic production occurring along the roadsides. In several areas where limestone is easily accessible, men were burning it in underground ovens to produce whitewash with which virtually every building in the island is painted. Logging and wood processing occur everywhere using just about every kind of tree from coconut palms to mahogany. And brick manufacture occurs wherever appropriate clay is found, in factories ranging from tiny backyard workshops to great brickyards producing huge quantities used to restore dagobas and stupas at the ancient cities.
Colombo Like most cities in the Developing World, Colombo has a terrible case of sprawls. We drove through densely packed suburbs for 45 minutes on our way into the city from Kandy, and the next day we drove through different but equally dense suburbs southbound beyond Mt. Livinia on our way to Ahungalla. Bajaj auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) from India are common now, and they generate an awesome amount of air pollution.
Our tour company created some confusion about our hotel. The travel agent in Dubai said we would stay at the Oberoi but the itinerary we received in Sri Lanka said we would stay at the Galadari. Both are recent five-star hotels located at opposite ends of Galle (sounds like Gaul) Face Green, the waterfront park in Colombo. Nancy refused to stay at the Galadari because the Tigers damaged it with a bomb blast a couple of years ago, so she reasoned that it was on somebody’s hit list and the Oberoi was safer. I argued that since the Tigers bombed the Galadari the last time, they probably would hit the Oberoi the next time, so the Galadari was safer. The Galadari was surrounded by barricades and razor wire while the Oberoi was not, but we don’t know whether that was an asset or a liability. We stayed at the Oberoi – a fine hotel, the best food we had in the island, and no bombs. But the Galadari wasn’t bombed either. A tempest in a teapot, except it says something about the mindset we developed during our tour of the war zone. That’s the first time we ever picked a hotel with its likelihood of being bombed as a prime consideration.
Galle Face Green was the center of the British Raj in Ceylon with the fort and other government buildings surrounding the park and facing the sea. A walk on the promenade at sunset gave us a brief glimpse of a bygone era and led us to the Galle Face Hotel, built in 1864, where imperial charm still lives in the open lounge beside the sea.
Not far from Galle Face Green was Odel’s, a beautiful new bazaar featuring a wide range of clothing, jewelry, china and similar products at excellent prices, made locally for Lands End, L. L. Bean and other retailers worldwide. In New Hampshire, we call such places “factory outlet stores” except that the products at Odel’s definitely were not rejects. Then there was Barefoot, a handmade fabric cooperative also featuring fine quality at reasonable prices, similar to Arang shops in Dhaka and other upscale craft shops throughout the Developing World. Such places are designed to benefit a small number of tourists and an even smaller number of outstanding local craftsmen. From a buyer’s perspective they are ideal alternatives to the very expensive craft shops located in hotels, and most of the money goes to the craftsmen instead of middlemen. But it’s a tiny niche - you probably can’t develop a national economy that way.
Both Odel’s and Barefoot had good English language bookshops where I bought two Oxford India Paperbacks: The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, a one-volume compilation of key snippets from his 90-volume collected works, and Jim Corbett’s India, a collection of his best natural history writing. And I bought Ondaatja’s Anil’s Ghost, the war story that ultimately came to dominate our thinking about the visit to Sri Lanka.
When we visit cities that are new to us, we try to place them on an imprecise quality of life scale that we carry around in our heads most of the time. It’s based on what we see and experience and feel, not on statistics or travel literature. We have different scales for different kinds of cities, so we would never try to rank Colombo on the scale we use for cities in the Arabian Peninsula. The scientific value of the scale is negligible, but using it makes us feel like we know a place better.
So where does Colombo rank relative to other cities we know in the Developing World? Since we were there for less than 24 hours and saw precious little of it, we are not sure. Far above Dhaka, probably above most Indian cities we know except for New Delhi, similar to Jogjakarta, probably below Nairobi, certainly below Bridgetown. The main problem we faced in ranking Colombo was the assortment of barricades, razor wire and armed guards that served as constant reminders of war. Ordinarily we don’t have to deal with those items.
Ahungalla The southwestern coast of the island is rightly famous for its beaches, and we spent our last five days at a fine beach hotel in Ahungalla that caters primarily to German and British tourists. The beach was broad and white, several kilometers long, backed by dense green forest and had nothing on it except for a tiny cluster of fishing boats several hundred meters away, traditional in design but made of fiberglass. Since it was a bad year for tourism, the beach boys were pretty aggressive. Arthur C. Clarke lived down the coast several kilometers at Hikkaduwa, writing science fiction and operating an underwater park. A Save the Sea Turtles campaign had made raising sea turtles along the coast into a growth industry in several senses. A good beach, a good hotel with good food, an idyllic place to lie in the sun and relax - which is exactly what Nancy wanted. I’m congenitally incapable of doing that.
On my first excursion, I found a small temple with a tiny monastery sitting among the trees on a nearby hilltop overlooking the ocean. The young monk, wearing saffron robes and carrying a black umbrella, whom I met at the bottom of the long ramp leading up to the temple, said I was welcome to visit the temple and take photographs. The two monks at the temple agreed and gave me a totally silent guided tour deep into parts of the temple that I never expected to see.
The temple was built in three sections resembling the caves at Dambulla. The first was rather narrow and contained a seated Buddha about twice life size, beautifully painted, in a chamber whose walls and ceiling were covered with paintings like those at Dambulla. The second section was much wider than the first and contained a reclining Buddha, perhaps four or five times life size, again beautifully painted with gold paint, surrounded by delicate paintings of the lotus flower motif that appears everywhere. Both chambers contained bodhisattvas and other large figures including a standing blue figure that may have represented the Hindu deity Krishna, and a seated two-headed figure that didn’t ring any bells at all. After seeing endless demons and monsters at Buddhist temples in Thailand, these were a little bit peculiar but nothing more.
The third door led into a very narrow L-shaped section that ran down the left side of the building, then made a sharp right turn and ran all the way across the back. The outside wall held a long series of skillfully executed paintings extending the full length of the L. The first couple of paintings were colorful and pleasant to see even though style and content were alien to me. The next two were in black-and-white, and were not so pleasant – nearly skeletal figures with twisted faces showing pain or anger or worse. Beyond them, the figures became increasingly grotesque, some showing diseased bodies, cannibalism, people defecating, etc. About halfway along the rear section of the L, I concluded that the series probably depicted something like a descent into hell, and decided I didn’t want to go all the way to the end since the door straight ahead of me must have opened out over the beach a hundred meters below and the two monks behind me might have been less friendly than they looked. So I turned back, smiled a lot, took several photos of paintings I had already passed and left muttering something about discretion being the better part of valor. I still have no idea what I wandered into.
The day after I visited the temple was “poya day”, when the moon is full. It is an island-wide religious holiday that occurs at least once a month and sometimes twice in a month, when people visit their temples late in the day and spend some time chanting. We could hear them softly from the hotel.
I arrived back at the gate to the hotel compound and a couple of taxi drivers addressed me.
1st: “Are you American?”
1st: “You remember Bin Ladin?”
1st: “You remember Bin Ladin?”
Me: “You mean the murderer?”
2nd: “Saddam Hussein is good man.”
Me: “May you get what you deserve.”
And I continued walking to the room. After thinking about the encounter for an hour, I reported the incident to the assistant manager of the hotel and concluded by asking: “Was that a threat?” I don’t know where his sympathies lay or what he did about my report, but he reassured me about a dozen times that taxi drivers are uneducated people with a weird sense of humor. They don’t know what they are talking about, but in any event are not a threat to guests at the hotel. They know they depend on the hotel for their livelihood and would never do anything to jeopardize it. I went to sleep that night wondering whether the assistant manager had people out working the street to quash that kind of behavior.
Nancy said I was responsible for the incident for I admitted to being from America when anybody in his right mind would have said he was from Canada. I insisted that if I had to deny my own culture and heritage to survive there, I shouldn’t be there in the first place.
The next day I decided to take a tuk-tuk to Ambalangoda, the next village, about 9 km south of the hotel. The fatalist in me said, “If today is my day to die, I’ll die regardless of what I do.” The prudent Westerner in me said, “The encounter at the gate was a warning shot which I disregard at my peril.” The stubborn bastard in me said, “I’m not about to give control of my life to a pair of Sri Lankan taxi drivers.”
So I went to Ambalangoda and had a fine time. On my way out, three taxi drivers at the gate said “American!” and shook my hand. Maybe it was a misunderstanding; maybe I’m paranoid; maybe the assistant manager put the fear of God into them; maybe it doesn’t matter. Al-hamdulillah. A pox on Osama and Saddam!
As an American in the Developing World, I’m invariably seen as a potential source of a green card hence as everyone’s best friend, and as a representative of the US government hence as everyone’s worst enemy. Often both at the same time. I’m really tired of living a life as somebody else’s stereotype.
Ambalangoda Carved wooden masks were used traditionally in Sri Lankan performances of various kinds: religious, musical, theatrical, medical; folk, classical; Buddhist, Hindu, animistic. To a large extent they have fallen out of use, but Ambalangoda was one of the major centers for their production and craftsmen there continue to produce them primarily for the international tourist trade. It’s possible to visit workshops where they are carved and painted, sales shops to buy the finished products, a small mask museum supported by a German research organization that contains a collection of masks used in a specific dramatic performance about half a century ago, and a dance school where children are taught the basics of the dance form associated with the masks. A major healing performance using medicine masks is conducted in Ambalangoda once annually, but not when we were there.
All of the masks being carved now seem to be made from the local version of balsa wood, so even the large ones are very light. Their sizes range from small replicas, to life size or face size that could have been worn in actual performances, to triple or quadruple life size that would not have been worn but look great on a huge living room wall. Current styles or design motifs seem to derive from old ones, but we can’t say how close they are to the originals. So we don’t know whether we saw an old tradition that was being continued or a new one that was being at least partially invented now.
All of the masks have a central panel with some kind of exaggerated animal face that covers the performer’s face.
“Devil masks” have large, complex side panels, one on each side, containing representations of the “eighteen demons” that seem to be key elements in healing performances. These masks have spawned at least one significant tourist variation; viz., small representations of individual demons from the side panels, which are plain, simple and inexpensive, have no moving parts and nothing to break, and are just right to stuff into a suitcase and take home to the grandchildren.
Other masks have much simpler side panels that duplicate or extend the animal motifs that appear on the central part of the mask and seem to be used with non-medicinal music, dance and theatre. Some feature the naga or multi-headed cobra which comes in an infinite number of tiny variations, while others feature the peacock which comes in two major subspecies, one with a grotesque face, the other with a simple beaked bird face.
Some have a satin matte finish, some a low gloss finish, and some a screaming high gloss finish that looks a lot like plastic. Likewise the colors range from “natural” or dark stain that shows some of the grain in the wood (but the wood has very little grain to show), to subdued colors that resemble those in the museum, to brilliant reds and yellows that will knock your eye out.
We set out to buy a mask from Ambalangoda that would comfortably join our Northwest Coast Indian mask from Ketchikan, our hanuman mask from Jogjakarta and our new monkey mask from Masai Mara. The visual cacophony was so great that we had to construct some kind of taxonomy in order to make a rational choice. In the end, the mask we bought was just right: a little smaller than life size, with a grotesque peacock design, painted with a matte finish in deep, soft blues, greens and reds.
I’ve said nothing about the meaning of the masks for we don’t have a clue what any of them mean. But a century from now the one we bought will be an antique anyway. Maybe we can figure out what it means after we retire.
We spent several unscheduled hours in the hinterland behind Ambalangoda when Nancy innocently asked Raja, our tuk-tuk driver, to take us to a shop that sold handmade fabric. He immediately headed out of town, along tiny bumpy roads, deep into the woods. For most of the afternoon we were totally disoriented, but Raja knew exactly where we were – at one point he told us the house over there belonged to his grandmother. Clearly he saw Nancy’s question as an opportunity to show us the countryside and earn some extra money to boot. Raja’s reasoning was good but I thought his English was weak; Nancy said he spoke far better than most of her college students in Sharjah.
Coconut palms are ubiquitous throughout the parts of Sri Lanka we visited. The preferred kind for drinking and eating is called king coconut, and is bright orange or yellow. The other kind, whose name I missed, is bright green and apparently is used mainly for making coir from the stiff fibers between the outer and inner shells. All of them are used for their leafy fronds that serve a multitude of purposes and for the lumber that comes from their long straight trunks. Raja showed us a homemade mill used for extracting coir fibers from the shells. Basically it resembled a cotton gin with huge steel fingers. The coconuts lie in the millpond nearby until they are softened, then are passed through the mighty fingers in their shells and are ripped apart. Since the machine has no protective guards of any kind, I’m sure it would rip apart your knee just as well as it rips apart anything else. Just down the road from the mill, we briefly visited a woman sitting outside a small cottage using coconut fibers to weave large weightless bags that women wear on their backs to collect tea leaves in the highland tea gardens.
Raja’s next stop was a moonstone mine. Gems like spices are very important to the Sri Lankan economy and have been for centuries. Moonstone is a semiprecious creamy white stone that is found in small deposits at various locations in Sri Lanka, often in association with other gems and semiprecious stones. As a tuk-tuk driver, Raja receives a commission whenever his passengers buy from certain shops, and it was clear that Raja saw extra rupees coming his way.
The mineshaft was a small hole going straight down into the ground with a roof over it. It was 15 meters deep and looked like a cistern with a two buckets and a pulley arrangement at the top for bringing up mud with moonstones in it, waste water that seeped in, the man who worked down there, the candle he used instead of a canary to keep a close check on air quality. Three men worked at the top. Two cranked the pulley to raise one bucket while simultaneously lowering the other, and one stood by with a shovel and basket to carry each load of mud to a nearby pool and wash it carefully in search of moonstones and anything else of value that might be in there.
The mine was under a cinnamon grove, so another man was working nearby removing cinnamon bark from small limbs and laying it out to dry. The bark of course becomes the spice, and the limbs are used as firewood.
At the shop down the road where the moonstone was polished and sold, I sat down outside and noticed the young man opposite me was wearing a “Jaipur leg”, a simple artificial limb now used throughout the war torn Developing World to cheaply replace legs blown off by landmines. One wonders whether arms merchants invest heavily in Jaipur leg factories.
The textile spinning and weaving mill that ostensibly was Raja’s destination finally emerged from the woods, not marked by any kind of sign but by the unmistakable clacking of ancient mechanical weaving machines audible the instant the tuk-tuk went quiet. The isolated metal building was filled with women running the machines, horribly noisy, entirely open and extremely dangerous. As at the coir mill, damage to the workers must be a common occurrence. Out back I found one small cement vat where fabrics were bleached white or dyed brilliant deep blues, purples and yellows. The shop sold excellent products at good prices, but if you didn’t know exactly where it was you’d never find it.
The impromptu tour of the hinterland was excellent so Raja got a decent tip. But having no idea where I am for hours on end really is not much fun, especially when a war is going on somewhere out there.
Anil’s Ghost The book that pulled the visit together for us is a beautifully written horror story about the Tamil Tiger separatist movement and its effects on everybody it touches including Sri Lankan expats living as far away as New Mexico. The topic is an archaeological and forensic investigation into political killings by both the rebels and the government, so it could apply to Bosnia or Afghanistan or Latin America or Uganda as well as to Sri Lanka. No doubt the Tamil Tigers are fighting for a just cause given the extent to which they have be mistreated by the majority Sinhalese, just as the Palestinians are fighting for a just cause. But do the ends justify their truly vicious means?
The mood of the book is somber and tense throughout. There is no way to know who the enemy is and acts of terror are committed anonymously. The war has become institutionalized evil in the form of a seventeen-year stalemate.
We could have followed the book’s storyline without being in Sri Lanka, but would have missed the details, the sense of place that makes the book such a rich study of life and death in the island. Everything is there. Ancient cities. The man who paints the eyes on stone figures of the Buddha. Traditional blue sarongs that the men wear. Galle Face Green. King coconuts. The wealthy and powerful Colombo 7 residential district. Mt. Livinia and its posh private schools. A moonstone mine and the man working at the bottom of it who was marked by his backbreaking posture. Jaipur legs.
Seeing the barricades, machineguns and other manifestations of war was difficult enough, but on the surface the island was entirely calm. Anil’s Ghost says if you scratch that calm the least bit, you find hideous brutality. Under these conditions it’s hard to know when you’ll scratch it without realizing it, and let some of that brutality escape.
During the first half of our stay in Sri Lanka, I finished reading Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles which I began while we were in Kenya a month earlier. It is an autobiographical novel about an ordinary person trying to navigate for 25 years through the cultural, economic, political, religious and sexual morass of Idi Amin’s Uganda. From Isegawa’s perspective the evil is packaged differently there - witchcraft, the Catholic Church, Amin and Obote, the AIDS epidemic, racist NGOs that thrive on civil war and cultural decay like vultures on road kill - but it’s the same evil.
As we traveled, we kept one eye on CNN from our hotels so we would know what was happening outside the island. Therefore we were always in the presence of Osama bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan, the chronic Pakistani-Indian conflict, Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliation, and so on ad nauseum.
Perhaps I take these things too seriously. I think of war as a terrible aberration, but in fact it is and always has been just a normal part of life. People in Sri Lanka work in their shops and gardens, and dive for cover when they hear an explosion. If it’s their day to die, they die; if a leg is blown off, they replace it; otherwise they get up and go on with their work. Perhaps peace is an aberration.
I began the trip feeling jaded – just another Buddhist temple, just another herd of elephants – but ended feeling emotionally exhausted. Sri Lanka is a lot like Bangladesh. Everybody should visit both of them once, but once may be enough.
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