by Krishantha Prasad Cooray
One year ago, so-called astrologers took to two television stations to tell the nation what to expect in 2020. A person going by the name Chandrasiri Bandara explained that the stars were so moved by political developments in Sri Lanka that 2020 would be an extraordinarily prosperous year. At the same time, someone called Manjula Peiris was on TV explaining that the election results caused a planetary alignment that would open the floodgates of foreign investment in 2020. Indeed, Bandara was so specific as to say that that bulk of the prosperity would come after March 2020. To put it mildly, either they or their planets seem to have got their wires crossed.
There is no shame in forecasting the fate of the nation based on a political perspective or ideology. Indeed, many Sri Lankan professionals and business people also predicted that 2020 would be a good year for our country. The difference is that their conviction flowed from faith in a leader untarnished by politics who they saw as a breath of fresh air, and anticipation of a political culture that would shake up the public service.
Their miscalculation and disappointment could have been lessened if not for the pandemic, but this article is not intended to chronicle the many failures of the government. The fact is that no one could have predicted the economic devastation and paralysis that Covid-19 would cause not just in Sri Lanka but throughout the world. Success has been the exception, not the rule. Outside of Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, it is hard to find a country that has not been ground to a halt by this deadly virus.
With over 40,000 people testing positive in Sri Lanka and nearly 200 fatalities, there is no gainsaying we could have done better. However, the same could be said of nearly every country in the world. What we do know is that if not for the knowledge, courage and professionalism of our frontline workers and first responders, we could easily have had over 10 times as much suffering.
Sri Lanka is blessed with one of the finest healthcare systems in the world. Despite spending under 4% of our GDP on health, we boast some of the best health outcomes to be had, including low infant mortality, high vaccination rates and free access to healthcare as a right to all citizens. As a country we think of success and failure in terms of political parties and politicians. Partisanship aside, every government and every party has done their part to strengthen our national health service, but our healthcare system is not the making of politicians.
It is a system composed of thousands of doctors, nurses, public health inspectors (PHIs), epidemiologists and other administrators who, even before Covid-19, shunned opportunities for employment in a world short of doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals. They chose instead to remain in Sri Lanka and make its people well, for a fraction of the compensation they could earn abroad.
Long before Covid-19 struck, they were our front line of defence. The Health Service’s epidemiology unit is no stranger to fighting and eradicating deadly diseases. It worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations (UN) to eradicate polio from our island by 1993, and to rid the country of Malaria by 2016. Just as our national intelligence services stand vigilant against the resurgence of the LTTE, the professionals of the epidemiology unit have guarded the country against the resurgence of diseases that are in our past.
When the global pandemic struck, our health professionals knew what to do. They wanted to lock down the island to contain the virus and use that precious time to trace those who may have been exposed and educate the public on the essential rules for curtailing the virus: frequently wash your hands, avoid touching your face, wear face coverings and keep one and a half metres apart from others.
Sadly, the public health narrative was hijacked from all quarters, and a strong, clear message on social distancing and hygiene quickly gave way to superstition, politics, religious extremism and militarization. The result was that the front-line workers and healthcare professionals who knew how to protect us were side-lined, and yet they silently did their jobs at great risk to themselves.
PHIs worked in communities without returning home for weeks, even sleeping in their offices without overtime pay, to trace and isolate potential Covid patients. Our nurses implemented ruthlessly efficient hygiene protocols at every health facility in the country and worked tirelessly to continue administering wards even amid shortages of personal protective equipment.
Our physicians and other doctors monitored patients and those under quarantine and provided a quality of care that contributed to one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 mortality rates, at just 0.4%. Of every 1,000 people infected with Covid-19 in Sri Lanka, only four have succumbed to the virus. In Sri Lanka, whether you are a peasant, prisoner or professional, our doctors have honoured their Hippocratic oath to ensure that you receive the best possible medical outcome.
Even once the virus spread through the country, and it was not considered safe for anyone to walk the streets, our police and military personnel put their lives on line to protect the rest of us. To date, over 1,500 police officers and nearly 1,000 navy personnel have been infected with Covid-19 in the line of duty. Many of these infections could have been avoided if senior policy and military officers had bowed to health professionals, instead of making doctors and professionals bow to them.
In other countries, it was the doctors who made decisions, and the military and police who implemented those decisions. Only in Sri Lanka did we try the reverse. There is no matching the efficiency and logistical prowess of our military and police department. Against an unknown enemy like a virus, it is for their own sake that they should have been allowed to benefit from deferring to the professionals who have studied the art of medicine for even longer than most soldiers have studied the art of war.
The role of doctors in fighting the war against the LTTE was restricted to field hospitals and operating theatres. Just as surgeons had no role to play in strategizing the fall of Kilinochchi or the retaking of the Jaffna peninsula, it is futile to expect generals to learn epidemiology overnight to manage a public health crisis like the world has never seen.
But whether doctors, nurses, police officers or soldiers, it is to all these front-line workers that we should dedicate the year 2020. This was their year. If not for them, Sri Lanka would be suffering beyond comprehension today. Had we listened to the public health experts and given them a role in leading these brave men and women, perhaps we would have ranked among the countries that successfully defeated Covid-19 and prevented its resurgence. Alas, a willingness to defer to professionals over politicians and charlatans is all that separated Sri Lanka from those countries that managed to beat back the pandemic.
Covid-19 does not care what goes into a pot or who throws it into a river, nor will the virus be deterred in the slightest by any ingredient of this ridiculous ‘paniya’ that is being peddled in the halls of Parliament and receiving a shocking amount of tacit endorsement from officials and public figures who should know better. It was horrifying to watch political leaders, members of the clergy and media institutions promote a completely untested concoction and encourage people to gather in crowds at great risks to themselves and the public unchallenged, all while the police continue to arrest those who break quarantine and social distancing rules for the far more noble purpose of providing for their families.
The fact that none but a few brave doctors has stood up to condemn this charade painted a very bleak picture of not just our country but its one-of-a-kind healthcare system. Our country built this exemplary healthcare system on a foundation of science, rationalism and professionalism. It should be the pride of our people. It is the duty of all patriotic professionals to condemn and shun any swindler or witchdoctor who undermines our health services by peddling such dangerous miracle cures or concoctions. Doctors have a particular duty to speak out against such superstition when it will put the lives of their own colleagues and patients in peril.
With the new year comes new opportunities to put our past failures and mistakes behind us and chart a new course. 2021 can be a different, prosperous year, if we resolve as a country to insist that our leaders put professionals first and promote rationalism over junk science. Now that several options for Covid-19 vaccines will be available in 2021, our public health service will have an opportunity this year to flex its muscles and deploy one of the most efficient mass immunization programs in the world.
Anyone who is even contemplating taking this responsibility away from the national health service and entrusting it to some new ‘task force’ or other body should know that Sri Lanka’s national immunization program, run by the health service, has long been one of the most efficient of any country. Even if Sri Lanka is late to get stocks of the vaccine, we have an opportunity to put ‘paniyas’ behind us by efficiently immunizing every single Sri Lankan against Covid-19.
As a nation that cares for its people, wherever they may live, Sri Lanka even has an opportunity to do right by those of our countrymen stranded abroad with no way to return, by efficiently deploying vaccine stocks and coordinating the immunization of Sri Lankans worldwide through our network of embassies and consulates. It is by doing such things that the government can redeem the confidence of its people and assert a role on the world stage as a country that nurtures its citizens and takes its responsibilities seriously.
2020 was marred by deception, partisan politics and economic uncertainty on top of Covid-19, making it one of the darkest years in living memory. While the poorest of poor took the brunt of the suffering, there was no shortage of fly-by-night businessmen who lost no time in taking advantage of your suffering, to pull off quick deals and make a fast buck, whether by manipulation of tariffs, tourism or other short-sighted tomfoolery with no regard for the credibility of our country.
Hopefully, in 2021, we can look forward to a culture of business leaders who earn and grow their fortunes by investing in the country, building a product or providing a service by employing Sri Lankans, rather than running behind wheeler dealers who use political connections to manipulate markets and regulations and score a quick buck at the cost of the public coffers.
For Sri Lanka to recover and transform its economy in a post-Covid world, we need to see fewer dirty deals and conmen healers and hear fewer ‘gotcha’ soundbites from politicians. In December 2019, many professionals and business leaders expected politicians to magically turn the country around in 2020. In 2021, it is their time to step up and make it happen. If they lead, politicians and officials will follow.
Last year, our doctors, nurses and PHIs stepped up to the plate and earned their role in history by putting their professionalism and duty above all other considerations and refusing to bow to pressure from any quarter. In 2021, let us hope that all professionals and leaders, whether in business, politics, the public service, judiciary, media or prosecutors, follow the example set by our doctors and make 2021 the year for all Sri Lankan professionals.
When I am writing for January 1, 2022, I am hopeful that this year will bring so many acts of courage, professionalism, integrity, conscience and ingenuity that I will be hard pressed to single out any single class of professionals to dedicate the year 2021 to.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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