By Uditha Devapriya
Photographs by Manusha Lakshan
Recalling his travels across the country, James Emerson Tennent reflects on Ambalangoda only cursorily after passing through Hikkaduwa. He writes that upon entering the area he saw, of all things, a rock python, which upon seeing the visitor uncoiled its fold and passes through the fence into the neighbouring enclosure.
Tennent recounts how, in 1587, the Portuguese, “hoping to create a diversion”, attacked several villages in this part of the coast and then shipped the peasants as slaves to India. History tells us that the residents of these areas of the country did not easily acquiesce to such treatment; so formidable were the residents of Ambalangoda that they formed the bulk of the porowakarayo or axe-wielders under the King. Paul E. Pieris tells us that these axe-wielders were so proud of their reputation that they would rather lay down their lives than abandon their stores of ammunition to the enemy.
At the turn of the 19th century, what is known today as the Galle District was made up of six divisions: Bentota-Wallawiti, Wellaboda Pattuwa, Four Gravets, Talpe Pattuwa, Gangaboda Pattuwa, and Hinidum Pattuwa. Ambalangoda belonged to the Wellaboda Pattuwa. Its reputation, as the name suggests, was for its set of ambalamas, or rest-houses: Ferguson’s Ceylon in 1913 translated this as “Rest-house village.” An alternative account relates how several fishermen, drifting in the sea after a violent storm had wrecked their sails, spotted land and shouted, “Aan balan goda!” Of course, this is highly apocryphal.
The colonial powers, especially the British, served to seal Ambalangoda’s reputation for rest-houses, so much so that every other writer from that period passing through referred to its hospitality, “excellent meals”, or “sea-bathing.” Even today, that is more or less what makes up Ambalangoda today: the people, the food, and the coast.
Though located in the South, certain accounts tell us that Ambalangoda was linked to the Kandyan kingdom. Again, these are highly apocryphal. Godwin Witane, for instance, has written of Kuda Adikaram, who during the Dutch era fell out with the Kandyan king and defected to the Maritime Provinces. Baptised as Costa Lapnot by the Dutch, he was put in charge of the development of these provinces, and wound up building roads, bridges, and buildings. Moving from one village to the other, he finally settled in Ambalangoda, where he devoted his career to the development of the Wellaboda Pattuwa.
Kuda Adikaram set about his task initially by turning the region into a centre for the salt trade and later by constructing canals and roads to Colombo. So prosperous did this part of Galle become with his efforts that by 1911 many centuries later, it had recorded the largest population growth over 10 years from any of the six divisions, at 15 percent.
E. B. Denham refers to Ambalangoda, by then converted into a Sanitary Board Town, as “a place of considerable wealth and growing importance.” At the end of the 19th century, with the Colombo Harbour replacing the Galle Harbour as the chief port in the country – a shift which led to the fall in the population growth rate from 7.9 percent in 1871-1881 to 6.3 percent in 1881-1891 – a great number of people began to leave their homes, making their way to other districts. “A comparative large number of persons from Ambalangoda” figured in this exodus, brought about by the demand for labour elsewhere, the segmentation of land in the region, and the outward migration of educated Southern youth.
It was this search for greener pastures that Martin Wickramasinghe epitomised in the character of Piyal in Gamperaliya, and it followed, as Kumari Jayawardena notes, a decline in primordial attachments to caste-based hierarchies. The South was, in other words, breaking apart, and this process of breaking apart was felt acutely in the more urbanised sections of Galle: Bentota, Balapitiya, and Ambalangoda.
Not everyone welcomed these developments. Some viewed then with alarm, since the province had by the 20th century gained a notorious reputation for lawlessness: “The growing independence of the villagers… has been accompanied by a steady decline in the power and influence of the headman” (Wright 1907: 753).
Four years later, however, the region was making a more favourable impression on outsiders, and eventually the “spirit of lawlessness” that had reigned until then all but completely disappeared. In that scheme of things the native of Galle was singled out for praise, “for his enterprise and spirit of adventure” (Denham 1912: 81).
Moreover, by now Wellaboda Pattuwa was recording a very high outward migration from any part of the Galle district. To an extent this had to do with the socioeconomic changes making themselves felt across the island. Not surprisingly, it led to the inhabitants of the Deep South to be singled out and characterised as cunning, unyielding, dubious, wherever they travelled. That reputation has a history of its own going back to the 16th century, when the southwest was turned by the Portuguese and Dutch into a cinnamon outpost, leading to some of the most aggressive rebellions ever recorded in the region.
Today the six divisions have given way to 19, with the result that what almost were constituent parts of Ambalangoda have become autonomous. Consequently, Elpitiya and Karandeniya, which are as much a part of Ambalangoda as Ambalangoda is a part of Galle, have turned into separate electoral divisions, and though they can’t be separated, they have formed an identity of their own. Four things, however, bring them together: the people, the food, the cinnamon, and of course the cultural and religious rituals.
Taking its people into consideration, the Ambalangoda identity has been, and is, caste-based. While caste is a non-entity in these regions, it is also not to be invoked or spoken of casually. In that sense, what otherwise would have unified Ambalangoda and its neighbour, Balapitiya, instead fragmented it: that is what bewildered Bryce Ryan when he observed in 1953 that while Ambalangoda-Balapitiya remained a single electoral district, it elected two people to Parliament: from Ambalangoda a karava member, from Balapitiya a salagama member (both strong leftists, since the UNP was considered to be a “Govigama club”). While Balapitiya remained the outpost of the de Zoysas, de Abrews, and Rajapakses, Ambalangoda remained a home to the Arachchiges, Hettiges, and Patabendiges.
In terms of food and cinnamon and rituals, of course, nothing much needs to be said, except that they are popular even now. The rituals continue to be as unique to the region as the rituals of the interior are to the former Kandyan provinces: with their mishmash of South Indian and folk cultures, kolam, rukada natum, and ves muhunu are the most profound and acute testament to the influence of cultural fusion in the island.
“Conspicuous by its absence in the Kandyan hill country”, kolam was associated so much with Ambalangoda that it “virtually ceased to exist” elsewhere (Raghavan 1961: 125). I have come across a kolam item once. I can’t say I understood it, but it mesmerised me: with its strongly emotional undercurrents, it is a truly rural entertainment. What, then, explains the differences between such art forms and those found higher up in Kandy?
We can only guess.
Perhaps the relatively serene life in the interior contributed to a culture of aristocratic art aimed at the invocation of beauty and prosperity, while in the Maritime Provinces, particularly in areas like Ambalangoda, the people’s harrowing encounters with colonialism turned art into a tool, not for invoking beauty, but for appeasing evil. Thus, as opposed to the daha ata vannama, the low country bred the daha ata sanniya: the one full of regal splendour, the other full of scatological farce.
All this distinguishes the people of the South from the people of Kandy: crude at one level, brutally honest at another. Perhaps this was what repelled the writers of the 20th century, and made them come up with the stereotype of the Southerner as cunning and deceitful. That in turn may have spurred officials to attribute to them a rebellious and violent streak. Whatever the reasons for it may be, the stereotype has endured to this day.
Today, of course, there are a great many people hailing from Ambalangoda and Balapitiya who have made a name for themselves. Norah Roberts writes about them in her beautiful account of the region, Galle: As Quiet As Sleep. We can add to her list. But it’s not just those famous people we know about who have found a second home among us: it’s also every other person you come across every other day, who has migrated from these corners of the South. Scratch these people and you can trace them to Galle; scratch them even harder and you can trace them to Ambalangoda and Balapitiya, well beyond Bentara.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October
Five armed Palestinian groups joined Hamas in the deadly 7 October attack on Israel after training together in military-style exercises from 2020 onwards, BBC News analysis shows.
The groups carried out joint drills in Gaza which closely resembled the tactics used during the deadly assault – including at a site less than 1km (0.6 miles) from the barrier with Israel – and posted them on social media.
They practised hostage-taking, raiding compounds and breaching Israel’s defences during these exercises, the last of which was held just 25 days before the attack.
BBC Arabic and BBC Verify have collated evidence which shows how Hamas brought together Gaza’s factions to hone their combat methods – and ultimately execute a raid into Israel which has plunged the region into war.
‘A sign of unity’
On 29 December 2020, Hamas’s overall leader Ismail Haniyeh declared the first of four drills codenamed Strong Pillar a “strong message and a sign of unity” between Gaza’s various armed factions.
As the most powerful of Gaza’s armed groups, Hamas was the dominant force in a coalition which brought together 10 other Palestinian factions in a war games-style exercise overseen by a “joint operation room”.
Prior to 2018, Hamas had formally coordinated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Gaza’s second largest armed faction and – like Hamas – a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and other countries.
Hamas had also fought alongside other groups in previous conflicts, but the 2020 drill was billed in propaganda as evidence a wider array of groups were being unified.
Hamas’s leader said the first drill reflected the “permanent readiness” of the armed factions.
The 2020 exercise was the first of four joint drills held over three years, each of which was documented in polished videos posted on public social media channels.
The BBC has visually identified 10 groups, including PIJ, by their distinctive headbands and emblems training alongside Hamas during the Strong Pillar drills in footage posted on the messaging app Telegram.
Following the 7 October attack, five of the groups went on to post videos claiming to show them taking part in the assault. Three others issued written statements on Telegram claiming to have participated.
The role of these groups has come into sharp focus as pressure builds on Hamas to find dozens of women and children believed to have been taken as captives from Israel into Gaza by other factions on 7 October. Three groups – PIJ, the Mujahideen Brigades and Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades – claim to have seized Israeli hostages on that day.
Efforts to extend the temporary truce in Gaza were said to be hinging on Hamas locating those hostages. The structure was set up in 2018 to coordinate Gaza’s armed factions under a central command.
While these groups are drawn from a broad ideological spectrum ranging from hard-line Islamist to relatively secular, all shared a willingness to use violence against Israel.
Hamas statements repeatedly stressed the theme of unity between Gaza’s disparate armed groups. The group suggested they were equal partners in the joint drills, whilst it continued to play a leading role in the plans to attack Israel. Footage from the first drill shows masked commanders in a bunker appearing to conduct the exercise, and begins with a volley of rocket fire.
It cuts to heavily armed fighters overrunning a mocked-up tank marked with an Israeli flag, detaining a crew member and dragging him away as a prisoner, as well as raiding buildings.
We know from videos and harrowing witness statements that both tactics were used to capture soldiers and target civilians on 7 October, when around 1,200 people were killed and an estimated 240 hostages were taken.
Telling the world
The second Strong Pillar drill was held almost exactly one year later.
Ayman Nofal, a commander in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades – the official name for Hamas’s armed wing – said the aim of the exercise on 26 December 2021 was to “affirm the unity of the resistance factions”.
He said the drills would “tell the enemy that the walls and engineering measures on the borders of Gaza will not protect them”.
Another Hamas statement said the “joint military manoeuvres” were designed to “simulate the liberation of settlements near Gaza” – which is how the group refers to Israeli communities.
The exercise was repeated on 28 December 2022, and propaganda images of fighters practising clearing buildings and overrunning tanks in what appears to be a replica of a military base were published to mark the event.
The exercises were reported on in Israel, so it’s inconceivable they were not being closely monitored by the country’s extensive intelligence agencies.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have previously carried out air strikes to disrupt Hamas’s training activities. In April 2023, they bombed the site used for the first Strong Pillar drill.
Weeks before the attacks, female surveillance soldiers near the Gaza border reportedly warned of unusually high drone activity and that Hamas was training to take over observation posts with replicas of their positions.
But, according to reports in the Israeli media, they say they were ignored. Brigadier General Amir Avivi, a former IDF deputy commander in Gaza, told the BBC: “There was a lot of intelligence that they were doing this training – after all, the videos are public, and this was happening just hundreds of metres from the fence (with Israel).”
But he said while the military knew about the drills, they “didn’t see what they were training for”.
The IDF said they “eliminated” Nofal on 17 October 2023, the first senior Hamas military leader to be killed during the conflict.
Hiding in plain sight
Hamas went to great lengths to make sure the drills were realistic.
In 2022, fighters practised storming a mock Israeli military base built just 2.6km (1.6 miles) from the Erez crossing, a route between Gaza and Israel controlled by the IDF.
BBC Verify has pinpointed the site in the far north of Gaza, just 800m (0.5 miles) from the barrier, by matching geographic features seen in the training footage to aerial images of the area. As of November 2023, the site was still visible on Bing Maps.
The training camp was within 1.6km (1 mile) of an Israeli observation tower and an elevated observation box, elements in a security barrier Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing.
The mock base is on land dug several metres below ground level, so it may not have been immediately visible to any nearby Israeli patrols – but the smoke rising from the explosions surely would have been, and the IDF is known to use aerial surveillance.
Hamas used this site to practise storming buildings, taking hostages at gunpoint and destroying security barriers.
BBC Verify has used publicly available information – including satellite imagery – to locate 14 training sites at nine different locations across Gaza.
They even trained twice at a site less than 1.6 km (1 mile) from the United Nations’ aid agency distribution centre, and which was visible in the background of an official video published by the agency in December 2022.
Land, sea and air
On 10 September 2023, the so-called joint committee room published images on its dedicated Telegram channel of men in military uniforms carrying out surveillance of military installations along the Gaza barrier.
Two days later, the fourth Strong Pillar military exercise was staged, and by 7 October, all the tactics that would be deployed in the unprecedented attack had been rehearsed.
Fighters were filmed riding in the same type of white Toyota pickup trucks which were seen roaming through southern Israel the following month.
The propaganda video shows gunmen raiding mock buildings and firing at dummy targets inside, as well as training to storm a beach using a boat and underwater divers. Israel has said it repelled attempted Hamas boat landings on its shores on 7 October.
However, Hamas did not publicise its training with motorcycles and paragliders as part of the Strong Pillar propaganda.
A training video posted by Hamas three days after 7 October shows fences and barriers being demolished to allow motorcycles to pass through, a tactic they used to reach communities in southern Israel. We have not identified similar earlier videos.
Footage of fighters using paragliding equipment was also not published until the 7 October attack was under way.
In a training video shared on the day of the attack, gunmen are seen landing in a mock kibbutz at an airstrip we have located to a site north of Rafah in southern Gaza.
BBC Verify established it was recorded some time before 25 August 2022, and was stored in a computer file titled Eagle Squadron, the name Hamas uses for its aerial division – suggesting the paragliders plan was in the works for over a year.
The element of surprise
Before 7 October, Hamas was thought to have about 30,000 fighters in the Gaza Strip, according to reports quoting IDF commanders. It was also thought that Hamas could draw on several thousands of fighters from smaller groups.
Hamas is by far the most powerful of the Palestinian armed groups, even without the support of other factions – suggesting its interest in galvanising the factions was driven by an attempt to secure broad support within Gaza at least as much as bolstering its own numbers.
The IDF has previously estimated 1,500 fighters joined the 7 October raids. The Times of Israel reported earlier this month the IDF now believes the number was closer to 3,000.
Whatever the true number, it means only a relatively small fraction of the total number of armed operatives in Gaza took part. It is not possible to verify precise numbers for how many fighters from smaller groups took part in the attack or the Strong Pillar drills.
While Hamas was building cross-faction support in the build-up to the attack, Hisham Jaber, a former Brigadier General in the Lebanese army who is now a security analyst at the Middle East Centre for Studies and Research, said he believed only Hamas was aware of the ultimate plan, and it was “probable they]asked other factions to join on the day”.
Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer in security studies at Kings College London, told the BBC: “While there was centralised planning, execution was de-centralised, with each squad operationalising the plan as they saw fit.”
He said he had spoken to people inside Hamas who were surprised by the weakness of Israel’s defences, and assessed militants likely bypassed Israel’s surveillance technology by communicating offline.
Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Israel would have been aware of the joint training drills but “reached the wrong conclusion”, assessing they amounted to the “standard” activity of paramilitary groups in the Palestinian territories, rather than being “indicative of a looming large-scale attack”.
Asked about the issues raised in this article, the Israel Defense Forces said it was “currently focused on eliminating the threat from the terrorist organisation Hamas” and questions about any potential failures “will be looked into in a later stage”.
It could be several years until Israel formally reckons with whether it missed opportunities to prevent the 7 October massacre. The ramifications for its military, intelligence services and government could be seismic.
Rebuild trust with people to revive economy
by Jehan Perera
The government is facing an uphill task to rebuild the country which continues to be in a state of economic and moral decline which was evident in parliamentary proceedings last week. The initial hopes of a quick transition from the economic and moral decline that accompanied the pre-Aragalaya period ended with the accession of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency. The President made skillful use of the security forces, in the first instance, and the parliamentary majority thereafter, to restore the old order, government rule and stabilise the economy, albeit at a much lower level of economic wellbeing. But this won for him and the government the support of those sections of the population who could still live their regular lives and the international community who did not want Sri Lanka to fall prey to rival powers.
The Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe has expressed confidence that Sri Lanka will receive the second tranche of the IMF loan before the end of the year. He has made this prediction despite the failure of the government to meet the basic IMF conditions, which include reducing the gap between revenues and expenditures. The ability to access IMF funds despite not conforming with its conditions is indicative of favoured status. The budget prepared by the government shows a widening of the chasm that are mitigated by optimistic predictions of increased tax revenues. The government has signally failed to deliver on the IMF’s “governance diagnostic” which highlighted the need for much greater efforts to tackle corruption and to be transparent in the signing of new contracts.
If social media reports and personal anecdotes are to be believed, corruption is thriving at all levels. Agreements with international companies continue to be entered into with little being known of the terms and conditions, and even the debt restructuring agreement with China continues to be a secret.
But there continues to be a belief amongst sections of the Sri Lankan population and international community alike that the present unsatisfactory governance needs to be tolerated until the country makes the transition to self-sustaining economic growth. There is concern that any change of government at the present time would jeopardise the economic stability that the country has achieved despite the unconvincing evidence to the contrary. The general population is expressing its lack of confidence in the future by fleeing abroad and giving votes of no-confidence in every public opinion poll they can.
Despite the government’s continued hold on undisputed power, and skillful use of its parliamentary majority and security forces to enforce governmental rule, it is not able to show that it has the backing of the majority of the general population. The government’s policies seem to have the support of the business and upper social classes whose position is that there is no better alternative at present, a view that is echoed in diplomatic circles. But this sentiment is not reflected in public opinion polls that equally consistently reveal that the government and its leadership get less than 20 percent of the support and even much less. This accounts for why the government has resolutely defied calls for the holding of local government and provincial council elections, the latter which are long overdue.
The President’s announcement that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held next year may be a recognition that the government has come to the realization that it cannot continue to justify holding on to power without obtaining a fresh people’s mandate. The proposed budget is an indication of the government’s preparation for those elections. There are efforts in it to provide benefits for different sections of the people, though whether these promises will materialize is another question due to paucity of resources. President Wickremesinghe has pledged to provide tens of thousands of farmer families with free hold title to the land they currently cultivate under state leases. The motivation to obtain the vote of people by providing them with economic benefits is one of the key features of the democratic process not only in Sri Lanka but worldwide.
However, the skillful use of state power to provide economic benefits, utilizing the parliamentary majority to come up with news laws and use of the security forces to enforce those laws are not the only ingredient for success in governance. The general population need to trust those who are in power. This trust comes from consistency in word and deed. One of the features of the present government is that deeds do not follow words. The exemplary anti-corruption legislation is being used to catch those at the lower levels of the hierarchy but those at the higher levels continue to escape. The recent Supreme Court decision that apportions blame for the economic crisis that plunged vast numbers of people into poverty has not been acted upon and there is no indication at the present time that it will be acted upon.
There are two other areas where the government needs to rebuild the trust of the people. First is to convince them that the burden of economic recovery will be apportioned justly and equitably. The restructuring of the EPF and ETF pension funds which affected the poorer sections of the people adversely while the sparing of the banking (and corporate) sector may have been motivated by the fear that the collapse of the banking sector was a real possibility. However, the evidence that is now coming out, as demonstrated in Parliament by the Opposition, that huge amounts of loans taken by companies have been absorbed by the banks is unconscionable. The government needs to promise that it will rectify this and other such inequities as soon as possible, including the tax holidays to favoured companies. The recent parliamentary debates have provided the opportunity for the Opposition to make presentations that highlight the need for consistency.
The second area that needs to be addressed is the ethnic conflict in the country. This is a problem that has receded into the background of the national discourse, due to the overwhelming nature of the economic crisis. However, one of the root causes of the country’s economic crisis is that huge amounts of resources were devoted to fighting a war that need not have taken place if there had been policies that promoted inter-ethnic justice and equity. The security forces continue to extract a large part of the budget. Sri Lanka is not a unique country when it comes to having different ethnic and religious communities. Other countries have them too, but most of those countries, especially those that are economically successful, have found ways to resolve their differences through dialogue and mutual accommodation that benefits the entire society. Provincial council elections have not been held for over five years.
There is a need to convince the ethnic and religious minorities that they are a part and parcel of the polity and treated as equal citizens. The provincial council elections cannot be postponed for another two years. There is no logical basis in the President stating they will be held in the year following the presidential and parliamentary elections. The wrong that was done to the Tamils of recent Indian origin at Independence has still not been rectified. They continue to be the poorest and most neglected community in the country. An issue that is scarring the Tamil and Muslim people at the present time is the takeover of grazing lands in the east by people from outside the area. The residents of those areas have no government to protect them. This is not the way to build trust that will unify the people with the government to uplift the economy.
Christmas and the New Year in the Seychelles…
Although the group Mirage has been relatively quiet, in the local showbiz scene, they will certainly be missed by music lovers, and their fans, during the festive period.
They leave on Sunday, the 3rd of December, for a month long stay in probably the smallest country in Africa – the Seychelles.
The group, comprising Donald Pieries (drums/vocals), Benjy Ranabahu (bass), Thushara Rajarathna (keyboards/vocals), Thilak Perera (guitar/vocals) and Dhanushka Uyanahewa (vocals), will be at the Hilton Seychelles for two major gigs – Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
They will also be entertaining guests throughout their stay at the Hilton.
The group’s male vocalist, the famous Manilal Perera, who is now very much a part of Mirage, is unable to make this trip due to prior commitments, in the local scene, as a solo artiste.
Dhanushka Uyanahewa, who is not a regular member of Mirage, replaces Manilal for this particular assignment.
Since this is their very first trip to the Seychelles, they say they are looking forward, with great excitement, to checking out that part of the world.
The Seychelles is known for its picturesque beaches, ecological diversity, dense tropical forests, and the bright blue ocean that surrounds it, all of which combine to make the archipelago world-famous.
Mirage will be back in early January, 2024, and then, a few weeks later, they will be off to Australia for a Valentine’s Day gig in Melbourne.
The band has been to Australia before but it will be the first time that the present lineup would be operating, Down Under, with Manilal Perera as their frontline vocalist.
Their female vocalist Dhanushka Uyanahewa, who will perform with Mirage in the Seychelles, will not be in the lineup to Australia.
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