Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Dharmaloka: A school, and a lesson


“What have they planned for us?” the boy next to me asked, bewildered, as the van we all were in drove up past the gates. He got the answer immediately: a procession of students lined up before a budu madura, boys on one side, girls on the other. It was charming, but perhaps a little too much to take in, since nothing I, or we, had done had warranted a retinue which had obviously been arranged for us. We got down clumsily, some so confused that they’d forgotten to put on their school ties, and stared. Then the bell rang, the principal and the teachers came, and there was a call to worship. Hastily putting our hands together, we obliged and prayed with them.

In most rural Sinhala villages, particularly in far-flung outposts, Buddhism is firmly linked with the education of children. There’s one school in Colombo that’s gained a reputation for its budu madura, but elsewhere it’s a norm: a school must have a shrine, and students pray before it every morning. For schoolboys from multicultural – and in my case, secular – establishments, it’s hard to come to terms with this reality, because we’re taught a very different gospel in our classrooms. The boys beside me knew their gathas and sutras, certainly more than me, but this kind of communal worship was, I could see, outside their experience: for them faith is personal, never to be invoked out loud. Here, however, one cannot whisper. One has to raise one’s voice.

Through Ratnapura, Rakwana connects Colombo to Embilipitiya, which is where the Sambaragamuwa meets the Dakuna. Pelmadulla lies between the two, and we were at present in a school there. To keep a long story short, I had written an article on a set of boys who had organised a Book Fair at their school in Colombo; their leader, who had attended the school we were at until Fifth Grade, had been asked to come with them, and me, to an otherwise innocuous ceremony: the opening of a new library.

It’s a little difficult to explain the sociological undercurrents of this phenomenon: the telescoping of mundane ceremonies to the status of profoundly significant events. But it’s a reality that’s only too pervasive outside Colombo. And in any case, it wasn’t just the library we were occupied with: the boy was being “celebrated” because he’d made it to the news years after he had aced that ultimate symbol of educational mobility, the pahe shishyathwaya. We were being celebrated with him, and also thanked for having contributed, in some small way at least, to his ascent.

The school we were at, Dharmaloka Vidyalaya, is not small, but then I realised that this was precisely the point: it’s the kind of intermediate institution which churns out most of the scholarship wallahs who end up at Royal and Ananda and Dharmaraja and Richmond. In this boy and his colleagues, who had also gone to Colombo through the shishyathwaya, the staff and the principal had thus vindicated themselves.

And in vindicating themselves, they were bending over backwards vindicating us. A procession of dancers – a Sabaragamuwa procession, the first I’d seen in years since I hardly come across the tradition outside these regions, in the classroom or elsewhere – led us to a stage from which the Assembly for the day was to be conducted. We were taken through all the preliminaries: the lamp, the incense sticks, the anthem, and the opening addresses. They read their missives to us, we read ours to them, and we were presented with the only trinkets they would have seen fit to give us: some nawarathna gems. Then there was breakfast, of course – kiribath, kavum, walithalapa – followed, finally, by the ceremony we were to grace: that library opening.

The ceremony, which included various customary exchanges between the two groups, took 40 minutes. In any case, I didn’t take part. I was busy examining the books, and more importantly, the paintings. It was then that I noticed they were everywhere, and not just them, but clay figures, mannequins, even devil masks. After we finished, and when we were taken around the school, I didn’t come across a single classroom which didn’t have mosthara or kurutu. The climax came at the Principal’s office: there, on the wall, with a poem extolling the virtues of hard work engraved lavishly on it, was the cover of the magazine which had my article on these boys. Sometimes gratitude can overreach itself. I smiled.


Dharmaloka is special, and stands out, for a reason: for the last few years and decades, the school has clinched nearly every category at national art competitions. At last year’s Interschool Art Competition, for instance, 15 of the 16 participants won awards and certificates, coming first in three categories, second in three, and third in one, with two consolation prizes. Unlike most State-sponsored cultural shows that end up being censured (like this year’s Drama Festival), the Interschool Art Competition recognises merit on a neutral criterion. Now we know “chitra kalawa” is taught inadequately in our schools. What can “explain” Dharmaloka and these victories, then?

Sri Lanka faces a peculiar problem. Despite its size, there is at present a huge gulf embedded and entrenched in its education system, and this comes out particularly strongly in the divide between science and maths on the one hand and the arts on the other. There are regional differences that can only be deplored: in poorer districts like Moneragala, the number of students engaged in science and engineering degrees are much, much less than those from the more privileged regions.

As a result you get the worst of both worlds: science subjects are concentrated in the usual privileged education zones, while because of a dearth of good science facilities the poorer zones churn out Arts graduates who swell the ranks of the unemployed. It is an uncontested fact that we have far too many graduates in the arts streams: more than 6,500 in 2016, as opposed to 1,700 for engineering. Moreover, nothing substantive has come out of these 6,500: most of them end up being lecturers themselves, at campus if not schools, and very few end up being the artists they aspire to be.

When it comes to ART or chitra kalawa another problem persists. With each passing generation, fewer and fewer children tend to paint. It’s not just that they don’t want to draw; the truth is that they CAN’T draw. Dharmaloka is in that sense an indictment on this dilemma: whereas the big schools have 10 or 15 students studying the subject for their A Levels, here there are more than 40. Yet EVEN among the 40 there is an issue: most of them prefer graphic design (mosthara) to expressive art (prakashana); digital commercial art has, sadly, gained over the hand-drawn variety.

Gamini Muhandiram, Art teacher at Dharmaloka, cogently highlighted a related problem: “There is an urban-rural gap when it comes to students who settle for this subject. Many of those who select it from these parts of the country do so because they can genuinely draw. Unfortunately, they don’t have financial strength. We have to provide for them and we have to make up for their shortfalls.” In that sense he feels that State-sponsored art festivals are to be welcomed: “The National Art Competition achieves what it aims at. Among other things, the prize money the students win goes a long way in meeting certain urgent needs.” Not that this solves the problem: the truth remains that the more talented you are, the more indigent you tend to be.

Dharmaloka has gone a long way in addressing these issues. If the students have anyone to thank for that, it’s their teacher. And he hasn’t gone unnoticed: last year, for instance, “Gamini sir” won the Teacher of the Year Award at the International Forum for Teachers organised by Gateway Graduate School. There were four other finalists, from Dehiaththakandiya, Galgamuwa, Puttalam, and Nuwara Eliya.

I suspect these teachers have the answers to the problems, and I suspect Gamini sir, given his record, can do what most others haven’t been able to. Being modest to a fault, he said nothing, but that’s not because there’s nothing to say; he himself put it best: “I’ve taught about 106 students who’ve become teachers. I am glad, but I hope that other students take up this mantle and become painters themselves.”

There was more he wanted to say. Owing to time constraints, we had to stop.

On the way back, I talked with the boy who’d wondered as to what the students had got ready for us. I looked casually at the drawings on the wall, and the poems and the (didactic) messages underlying them. I tried to think of where we came across such designs back home: certainly not the school I had been. Then it hit me: in Colombo, the poorer the pasala, the more likely its walls will have these siththam; the more enriched, conversely, the less likely. “You are too privileged,” I was tempted to say to the boys. I held back my tongue, but as we left Ratnapura behind and I watched them doze off and snore, I wondered whether it was wise to keep shut.

Photos by Manusha Lakshan

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 7 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Muslims of Sri Lanka: A quick snapshot


දොර ඇරලා බලපන්
පායයි තව මොහොතින් නව රැස්
ඉර සේවය කරමින්
සිරිපා කඳු මුදුනින්
සිවනදි පාදං
පාරාදීසය
භාවා ආදම් මලෙයි

— Mahagama Sekara, “Mak Nisada Yath”

The earliest recorded engagement of a Muslim with Samantakuta, according to Senerath Paranavitana, occurs in 851 CE in a travel account by an Arab merchant called Soleyman. However, Soleyman does not refer to it as aadam malayi, the name we see in the later Muslim reconstruction of the Peak. Instead he alludes to it as “Al-Rohoun”, a term the 9th century Indian poet Rajasekhara uses in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area surrounding the mountain belonged; it was a term apparently used by Arabs and even Indians.

Marco Polo, the merchant from the Mediterranean, does not write at length about the Peak’s religious significance, and instead reports what he heard from the inhabitants of the country. A contemporary account, written much earlier, is that of the Franciscan priest Giovanni de' Marignolli, who dwells at length on its geographic contours and cultural associations. Another contemporary, the scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta, is said to have gone on a pilgrimage under the patronage of the then King of Jaffna, after which he observed that an Imam by the name of Abu Abdallah, who died in 953 CE, was the first Muslim pilgrim to climb it. We can thus locate Muslim pilgrimages to the summit in around the 10th century CE.

Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka predates these pilgrimages, and Arab engagement predates even the coming of Islam. We know from the Mahavamsa that Pandukabaya, after winning his war against his uncles, settled the Yonas at the Western gate, and that “younna” was a term used to refer to the Moors by the Portuguese and the Dutch. But while records do sketch out the existence of pre-Islamic settlements, given that these texts were occupied more with ecclesiastical conquests than the day to day lives of the people, we can’t determine whether the yonas that Mahanama Thera refers to were the same younnas who became the Moors of Sri Lanka..

So not until the 6th century AD do we come across references to their settling in the country. From the accounts of merchants we can ascertain that there were three trade routes operating in the region: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to the influences of all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated from India. In any case, as historians like Fernand Braudel have noted, by the 7th century trade in the Far East was mainly carried on by the three economies mentioned above.

In what form did the Arabs come here, and where did they settle? We know the answer to the first question: they came as traders, and though they gained recognition from local rulers they desisted from participating in the administration of the country. To the second, however, we don’t know, since scholars are divided.

Some believe that they originally settled in the North in localities like Alupaanthi, Usaan, and Sonakan Palu, which substantiates the claim that they rapidly became a Tamil speaking community. Other scholars contend they moved further south-west; records indicate that a landing was made at Barberyn, modern day Beruwala, in 1024 AD. In fact two of the oldest Mosques in the country, Abrar and Ketchimalai, were built in Beruwela; the Abrar, the oldest, was constructed in 920 AD, indicating that a thriving Islamic community existed even back then.

Sri Lanka was not a thriving trade based civilisation, and though Fa-Hien wrote that the country was inhabited at first by yakshas and nagas who traded with merchants and sources indicate that in the pre-Vijaya era there was a firm agricultural society we cannot take these as evidence that the country was inclined towards commerce before the Indo-Aryan colonisation. In any case this was not a maritime society. Megasthenes does observe that elephants from Taprobana were superior to those from the mainland and we do come across accounts of large Sri Lankan ships conducting trade with China, which would show that we were a thriving export economy, but we don't really know whether the country developed sophisticated mercantile practices before the Arabs began settling here.

In contrast to the later Western colonial powers and the Muslims themselves in other parts of the subcontinent, the Arabs formed one of the most peaceful ethnic groups here. Records indicate that the kings reciprocated their goodwill by encouraging them to build settlements. They soon became intermediaries, exporting cinnamon and other minerals and importing fabric and luxury goods. For their practices, they gained such a reputation that the Janavamsa bestowed on them a Sinhala epithet they carry to this day: marakkalaya (“much shrewdness”).

The adroitness with which they conducted themselves must be contrasted with the almost Evangelical zeal with which they were able to colonise the other parts of the region. This does not mean that they were hostile towards the local cultures the way that later colonial powers were. Vinod Moonesinghe, for instance, tells me of having come across night time Quran reading sessions in the Maldives; these sessions could only have been a creolisation of Buddhist pirith chanting ceremonies, which would have been obliterated after the country was converted to Islam in 1193 AD. In fact the fusion of these two cultures, the indigenous and the Muslim, was seen in North India as well, though perhaps because Islamisation was never carried out as zealously here they did not come together in Sri Lanka.

We can conjecture, though we can never verify, that Buddhists were quite tolerant of the practices of the Muslims even if they ran counter to the teachings of their faith. Paul Pieris in his account of Portuguese rule, referring to two authorities, tells us that after the marauding invaders made friendly overtures to Sinhala people and the latter reciprocated them, the Sinhala people were angered by attempts to kill their cattle. We know that the Muslim population in the island predated the Portuguese by at least nine centuries. Therefore, we can speculate that their customs were tolerated as those of a community which had been absorbed to the country, while the slaughter of cattle by a foreign people was looked at as an act of disrespect, if not aggression.

The ties between the Sinhala people and Muslims of the time were tested, and then strengthened, by attacks made on both groups by the Portuguese. Fresh from their Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese tried to exclude Muslim traders from the new country the capital of which they planned to establish a Fort at. In 1518 de Albergaria, the Governor, visited the King and asked him to move the Muslims out, but having conferred with his people, the latter was advised not to accede to it, since the Portuguese were seeking to impose their rule through deception; Pieris tells us that a case for the Islamic community was made there by Buddhist monks.

By now their reputation had transcended their position as traders; in fact, they had brought with them their renowned treatises on medicine, which no doubt endeared them to the kings: not only were they allowed to practice their religion freely, but they were also often employed as royal physicians. Owing to their widespread reputation, the rulers thus accommodated them whenever they were ostracised: Senarat of Kandy, for instance, settled 4,000 Muslims in the East in 1626 AD after they had been chased by the Portuguese from the Western coast.

On their part, the Muslims responded. Here we can recount two instances.

The first. It is said that Rajasinghe II of Kandy hid himself in a large tree in the village of Pangaragammana after fleeing from a failed encounter with the Portuguese, and when the Portuguese searching for him demanded of a Moor woman (who knew of his whereabouts) as to where he was hiding, and she refused to divulge the secret, they killed her immediately and cut her to pieces.

The second. There is an account of Narendrasinghe stopping at Sellankendal on his way to Navadkadu; the Moors of Sellankendal ensured his stay was as comfortable as possible. Later, when news of a would be usurper coming to assassinate the King compelled them to raise arms against the intruding forces, those who had come to pay respects to Narendrasinghe laid down their lives to protect him. For this gesture the grateful King is said to have presented the village with his personal flag, along with a horde of other invaluable symbols and items belonging to him.

All of this shows that we have to account for our history in order to bring together the ethnic, religious, and social groups of our country. Here I quote Vinod Moonesinghe: “[W]e must adjust our exclusivist historiographies. Like our ancestors, we should both emphasise the similarities and enjoy the diversity. The first step could be, as the late Regi Siriwardena suggested, highlighting ‘the diverse ethnic strands that have gone into the making of our nationhood and the various elements that these ethnic groups have contributed to our culture, and indeed to our daily existence’.”

I agree with him there. I think we all should.

The writings of Premakumara de Silva, Megasthenes, Paul Pieris, Latheef Farook, and of course Vinod Moonesinghe were used for this article.