The 24th death anniversary of Lt. Commander (SBS) Samantha Gallage, WWV, RWP and Bar. RSP fell on 20 oct.2020
(An extracts from book “Read Between the Lines” By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne (Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff
Twenty-seven years ago, in Fort Hammenhiel, Karainagar, two officers and 42 sailors, volunteered to undergo a special training to start a new unit in our navy known as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) or the Naval Commando Unit.
SBS was formed to fight against LTTE Sea Tigers in lagoons and waterways. I was fortunate enough to command this unit and train my men to be the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy. I was a young Lieutenant Commander at that time and my Second-in-Command was an officer more than 12 years junior to me. He was Acting Sub Lieutenant Samantha Waruna Gallage, who hailed from Dehiwala. He was an excellent swimmer and a fearless fighter. Samantha was also an excellent boat handler and a top marksman.
We trained together for three months in the Karainagar lagoon with the intention of taking over boat operations in the Jaffna lagoon from our small detachment at Nagadevannturai.
On November 2,1993, our Naval Detachment in Nagadevanthuri and the Pooneryn Army Complex came under heavy attack from the enemy. One by one, small detachments around the main Pooneryn Army Complex fell into the enemy’s hand like a house of cards and more than 700 military personnel were trapped in Poonaryn.
As there was no possibility to reinforce the besieged Army Complex from the air, Military Commanders decided to send reinforcement troops through an amphibious landing. My unit SBS, the brand-new Naval Special Force was tasked with carrying out the first wave of landing.
Landing at an enemy beach is a suicidal task. If you want to see how it looks like, please watch first half an hour of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan”. It is bloody and chaotic. There is no cover for you until you get to find some by crossing the beach area. Enemy obstacles and gun positions will be there to slow down your advance and there is a 90 percent probability of getting killed or injured during this dangerous crossing.
Orders were issued. Samantha and I were commanding two Inshore Patrol Craft (commonly known as Water Jets) which carried fifteen Commandos each, followed by fiberglass boats carrying six Commandos each. My orders were very clear to Samantha. I told him, that I would land first because I wanted to assess the situation myself.
The Navy Gunboats started bombarding the beach early morning with their 37mm guns, and we were given clearance to do the landing with a lull of heavy gunfire. Our two Water Jets raced towards the Poonaryn beach. Two machine guns of enemy started firing towards us and suddenly Samantha increased the speed of his Water Jet and landed first and neutralized the enemy machine gun position with his grenade launchers.
I was very angry with Samantha. My orders were very clear as I told him that I would be landing first. However, I was very happy that he had destroyed enemy gun positions in quick succession preventing any casualties on our side. The landing was successful and we established the beachhead for our landing craft to beach and reinforcements poured in. Poonaryn landing was a huge success. The SBS was hailed as the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy.
After accomplishing our given task successfully, we returned to Karainagar that evening to rest and relax. That night I asked Samantha why he had disobeyed my orders and landed first. He said with tears in his eyes, “Sir, I was afraid that you would be hit by enemy machine gun fire! I did not want you to get killed.” I told him that he would have had the same fate. He said, “Sir, I can die. That’s not a concern. My father and mother will cry. But, not YOU! You have a wife and a son (my son was one year old at that time). That was Samantha.
You should live Sir! I want to protect you, Sir! (Ironically, I was the only married person in the SBS at that time.)
This was the calibre of officers and men with whom we went to war. We as Commanders were fortunate to have officers like Samantha as our subordinates. They were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect us.
One day, I saw Samantha going through the Navy List, which is a book denoting the seniority and qualifications of naval officers. I asked why he was perusing the Navy List and he said as per the seniority gap between two of us when I became a Rear Admiral, he would still be a Lieutenant Commander. I promised him if I rose to the rank of Rear Admiral one day, I would take him as my Flag Lieutenant [Aide-De-Camp (ADC)]. He was very happy and he had mentioned this even to the SBS senior sailors. We wanted to be together.
In 1995, Samantha got married to Nishika, a young lady officer of the navy who was a teacher at our Naval Pre-school. Samantha took part in another difficult landing operation in Nallatantituduwai with then Commanding officer of SBS, LCdr (SSD) Piyal De Silva (who went on to become the Navy Commander). An enemy RPGs snuffed out the lives of Samantha, Lt (SBS) HKI Nishad and three Sailors. Piyal was lucky; RPGs fired at his boat did not explode. He and his boat crew were very lucky to survive on that day. Samantha made the supreme sacrifice in this SBS and Army Special Forces joint operation at Nallathannithuduvai in Chalai, Jaffna October 20 1996. His only son, Rumal was only eight months old when he sacrificed his life for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our motherland. He was awarded the Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya for his valour and bravery during this operation. His wife Nishika died in 2011, leaving young Rumal alone in this World.
Today, 24-year-old Rumal is following his higher education in Australia. He misses his parents about whom he is very proud of. Today, the SBS is his family.
Keeping my promise to Samantha, I never took a Flag Lieutenant when I became a Rear Admiral. Even though Samantha was dead, I kept my promise to him. The desk of Flag Lieutenant next to my office were kept empty as an honour to my buddy, the late Lieutenant Commander (SBS) Samantha Waruna Gallage, WWV, RWP and Bar, RSP, who was ready to sacrifice his life for my protection.
May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!
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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