During World War II, the Ahubudu family lived in Koggala, the birthplace of the celebrated author Martin Wickramasinghe. One day, an order was received from the Allied military authorities that the villagers were to quit the place within 48 hours as the Army was taking over the entire village for the construction of an airstrip and a military camp. The Koggala Oya was also considered ideal for amphibious aircraft. Arisen Ahubudu was at the time a very young man, and when the order to vacate came, he was down with a bad attack of typhoid. He was placed on a camp-cot and taken in this rather unusual ‘stretcher’ by bullock cart. Our motherland nearly lost an invaluable son in this exercise.
When the allied troops occupied Koggala and set about building the aerodrome, they blasted some of the huge rocks that dotted the village. Among these rocks was a massive one on which a crane (koka) had been carved centuries earlier. In his youthful wisdom Ahubudu had taken a picture of this rock from which Koggala derived its name (koka-gala), a few weeks earlier, before it was blasted to bits. Taken with a simple box camera, if this photograph still exists, it would surely be a museum piece.
The Koggala village also had a pre-historic Hirugal Devalaya (a place of sun-god worship) existing from the times of mighty King Ravana. It was Salman Wathugedara, Ahubudu’s maternal grandfather, who taught him the traditional first lesson at the auspicious time.
One day, the principal of his school brutally struck Ahubudu with a cane, over copying of a letter he was entrusted with. He then walked out of the school never to return.
After self-studying, Ahubudu qualified as a teacher and joined the Sariputta Vidyalaya, in Ahangama. On the very first day at school, he vowed never to cane a child. Thereafter, he entered the Nittambuwa Teachers’ Training College, where he became a brilliant pupil of guru Munidasa Kumaratunga, the proponent of the Hela School of thought (Hela Havula). Ahubudu, together with Jayantha Weerasekera, Raphael Tennekoon, Alaw Isi Sabihela, Jayamaha Wellala, Abiram Gamhewa and several other prominent scholars of that calibre, were ardent proponents of Hela-Sinhala or pure Sinhala.
His first appointment, as a trained teacher, was to the Deegala School, in the Matale District in 1942. From there he joined Mahinda College, Galle, where he spent the happiest days in his life as a teacher. His charm and charisma made him a popular, much loved and highly respected teacher. Always punctual, he had a unique style of teaching.
“Enu daruwa” (come hither child), “Asun ganna” (please take a seat), “Oba mona gollehida?” (In which class are you?), were some of his kind-hearted words. He came to school in immaculate white national dress. Some of the other teachers including the vice-principal also wore the same. He functioned as both the Sinhala language and art teacher. His pupils loved him so much that when they saw him coming to the class, there was pin-drop silence. He would stay after school, of his own volition, to coach free of charge, his more backward pupils.
On a corner of the block board in his class, he did a beautiful portrait of the Buddha, which soon spread to other classes, too, when he obliged to do so, on request.
Some of his pupils were given Hela names; Wickumsihe (Wickramasinghe), Gunawadu (Gunawardena), Hemsandu (Hemachandra), Wiruhiru (Weerasuriya), Dahamdas (Dharmadasa) and so on. My Portuguese surname, meaning spring in an arid land, was given a beautiful Hela twist. The year Sri Lanka won Independence from the British, in the surge of national awakening, Ahubudu composed the hit song, ‘Lanka Lanka Pembara Lanka’ sung so melodiously by Sunil Santha. This song first appeared in the small magazine ‘Hela Kumaruwa’ published by Ahubudu himself.
A few days later when he sent it to his good friend Sunil Santha, requesting him to sing it to a melody of his composition, Sunil discovered that a slight adjustment had to be made to the words if it was to be set to music. Sunil could have made the adjustment himself, for he too was a scholar and a lyricist, but he came all the way from Ja-Ela to Galle to get Ahubudu to do so. He felt that it would be impolite to do it himself or send the song back by post to Ahubudu, asking him to do what had to be done. When he came to Mahinda to meet Ahubudu, he introduced Sunil to us, his pupils. And I remember thinking that I had rarely seen such a dashingly handsome pair. They surely must have made many a female heart turn cart-wheels!
Ahubudu composed a special song for Galle’s Big Match, Richmond Vs Mahinda. Its chorus went:
‘Pandu gasala ada jaya ganne vidula Mihindu apey!
Ada dina tharagen mul thena ganne vidhuala Mihindu apey!
Mihindu apey! Mihindu apey! Viduhala Mihindu apey!
(Mahinda will be victorious at today’s match. Mahinda will lead all the way).
During school holidays, a small group of us, his pupils, would drop in at his modest home at Unawatuna, and we were introduced to his Hela Havula friends, the likes of Jayamaha Wellala, Kumarasihi Kitsiri, Liyanage Jinadas, Amarasiri Gunawadu and others, who were gathered there. It was an enchanting experience. For they would argue with scholarship on merits or demerits of this literary work or that, quoting chunks from the work to prove a point. Or, they would have a song session or a friendly contest of ‘Hitivana Kavi’ (impromptu verse).
Ahubudu was also an accomplished artist. On his sitting room wall was a framed painting by him, of the Buddha and below it was one of Jesus Christ. We were intrigued by it. So, one day we asked him what it was all about. He then said that Jesus was an incarnation of Maitri Buddha!
There is another story laced with humour. One day a pupil met him in Galle Town and asked him “Guruthumo beherak giyehida?” (Sir! Where have you been to?) Then Ahubudu replied, “Maa sanda salanta giyemi.” The pupil did not quite understand what he said. Back at home he thought long and hard. At last ,he remembered that it was the day of the General Election and that what Ahubudu had said was that he had gone to cast his vote.
Author Sri Charles de Silva was another member of the Hela Havula; he was on the Mahinda staff at the time. One day we heard a big argument from the direction of his class. And, during the interval we went there to find out what it was all about. We heard that one of the School Inspectors had asked Sri Charles’ class, the Sinhala word for ‘not admitting a thing’? One pupil had answered that it is ‘nopiligani’. The Inspector had then said that the correct word is ‘pilinogani’, which literally means ‘not taking clothes’.
The name of Ahubudu’s magazine, ‘Hela Kumaruwa’ was changed to ‘Ediya’ (Pride) and was published monthly instead of weekly. It was a popular magazine widely read by both children and adults. It contained very informative articles and a special feature was an entire page devoted to a glossary of widely used English terms translated into Sinhala by Ahubudu himself. This was 75 years ago and his Sinhala terms are widely used today. He was a pioneer in this field.
Also, it had a forum page where quarries from readers were answered. I remember a child asking the Sinhala term for ‘photograph’ which was given as ‘Seyaruwa’. A surveyor had asked for the correct Sinhala phrase for “the land was surveyed.” It was given as “idama miniksooye”. An adult had asked the correct Sinhala word for ‘loudspeaker’, which was given as ‘gohuwa’.
Ediya had an alliterative slogan:
Ediya vediye podiyange edi wadannatai.
(Ediya has come to increase the pride of little ones.)
One day a prankster in our class wrote on the blackboard:
Ediya vediye podiyange madi vedi vediyen kadannatai.
has come to make more and more money out of little ones).
Our guru enjoyed the joke on him more than anyone else. That was the charming man he was. Ediya was published at Ahubudu’s family press ‘Heli Paharuwa’ (Heli Press), managed by his brother Ahuthusu. Priced at 10 cents, even 10,000 copies were inadequate. Such was its demand.
One Chandra Dewalegama was a frequent contributor to Ediya. Once she wrote a poem ‘Ahimsaka Samanmalie’ (The innocuous Samanmalie). Editor Ahubudu, having published it in Ediya, was desirous of meeting this poetess. It turned out to be a Cupid’s adventure. Ahubudu’s homecoming was held at the historic Unawatuna of Ramayana fame. In this village is a mountain where rare medicinal herbs grow. It is said to be that part of the Himalayan mountain range that was wrenched off by the Monkey God, Hanuman, and brought to Sri Lanka during the Rama-Ravana war; the medical herbs, presumably, to be used in tending to the injured soldiers of the army. At the foot of this mountain is the popular sea-bathing resort of Unawatuna and the Welle Kovila.
The Unawatuna Village had an unusual signboard. It read ‘Pahina Pola’ (Post Office). Of interest, a pahinaya is a letter, while a pahina patha means a postcard. The invitation to his homecoming was couched entirely in flawless ‘Hela-basa’. It was short, simple, sweet and novel and may have been incomprehensible to some.
The two-liner read:
‘Arisen Ahubudu themey may masa
10 weni dina Sanda samaga siya deveni diviya arambai).
Edina pevethwena sadayehi hey obage hamuwa pathai.’
(On the 10th of this month Arisen Ahubudu will commence his second life with Sanda.
He cordially invites you to the reception to be held that day.)
Many newspapers published greetings befitting the occasion. I am one of the surviving few who attended his homecoming. On the 35th anniversary of his wedding, I wrote an article to The Island, which was published on August 30 and 31, 1988.
Mahinda’s loss was the gain of S. Thomas’ College. He then resided at No. 1, Fairline Road, close to the Dehiwala Railway Station. Some of his friends, well-wishers and pupils who were Colombo-bound by train, detrained at Dehiwala, to visit him.
The following two stories have an indirect relevance to Ahubudu. One day, long years ago, I was seated in the verandah of my house soon after lunch, and was almost dozing off when I heard the sound of footsteps. It was the celebrated author Martin Wickramasinghe who, like Ahubudu hailed from the village of Koggala. I warmly welcomed him. Soon our entire family gathered round him and was engaged in a lively conversation when my 80-year-old father asked him, quite agitated, why he had referred to a relative of his ‘Bandarawatta Mahattaya’, living in Koggala, in derogatory terms, in his book ‘Upandasita’ as ‘Bandarawatta vanahi ahankara modayeki’ (Bandarawatta is an arrogant blockhead). The author then maintained that it was a statement of fact. After he left, I was clueless as to why he had visited me. Neither have I ever met him nor written to him. The only possible connection I had with him was that I had donated a prize to the essay competition organised as part of his birthday celebrations held a few days before at the request of its organisers.
Another day, while travelling in the Negombo bound train to Ja-Ela, where I lived at the time, when the din of the train going over the Kelani Bridge jolted me, I recognised the passenger seated opposite me.
“Sir! Aren’t you the celebrated singer Sunil Santha?”
“I no longer sing. Now, I run a small store in my village,” he said.
Pointing to a bundle of dry fish under his seat, he added, “I went to Colombo to bring some required items for my store.” I then introduced myself as a pupil of guru Arisen Ahubudu and recalled his visit to Mahinda College, Galle, to meet Ahubudu. He was overjoyed to hear about it.
As I entrained at Ja-Ela he extended to me an invitation to visit him the following Sunday.
So, the following Sunday I visited him. Sunil warmly welcomed me. He recalled his days in Galle, where he had taught, before going to Shantiniketan of India, adding that he created the melody for the Sinhala College anthem of St. Aloysius College, Galle, composed by his illustrious maternal uncle, Rev. Father Moses Perera. Sunil told me that for eight beautiful years, after returning to Ceylon, he had been a songster and that for the sake of a principle, he set aside music. He said that some staffers at Radio Ceylon were in the habit of keeping their parcels of food on the grand piano inviting insects to destroy it and though he brought it to the notice of the authorities, it had fallen on deaf ears. With great reluctance, I took his leave. Back at home I wrote to Ahubudu about it.
On February 28, 1955, C. Vanniasingham, MP for Kopay, said in Parliament, that the government should stop Tamil names being obliterated for Sinhala names and cited the case of Kantale becoming Gantalawa. According to Ahubudu it is the Sinhala village ‘Govi Paya’ which became his electorate Kopay. Deeply shaken by it, Ahubudu wrote the book ‘Lanka Gam Nam Vahara’, a monograph on place names of Sri Lanka, which provided a dependable source of information. Writing to me on February 11, 1984, he lamented that unfortunately for our Motherland, he had still not been able to get it published. It ultimately saw the light of day only in 1987.
I kept in touch with him with infrequent correspondence. Usually his letters begin: Asiri (With blessings to you!)
Labanda Wiruhiruweni (Dear Weerasuriya) (Assumed name)
And ends thus: Sema Setha Pathami (Wishing you all the best)
Signed ‘Arisen Ahubudu’. His signature was beautiful, impressive and artistic.
My last letter to him was regarding the query of a lady living about 16 miles from Galle, who wanted to know how her village name ‘Nakiyadeniya’ originated. Ahubudu replied that it meant ‘Nakiyagath deniya’. (A ‘deniya’ is a land area with semi-hard soil and a high-water table, used for bathing and other similar purposes.) I met him last when he visited me in Galle. Guru Arisen Ahbudu will eternally live in our hearts!
A devils’ drama in power politics
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did say with pride the government’s decision to set up 100 new police stations, at his inaugural speech at the opening of the new session of Parliament.
There may be cause for presidential pride in having many more police stations, but the recent records of police activity, especially on matters relating to public security, does leave much to be desired of the Police.
The reports flowing in about the hand grenade found at All Saints’ Church, Borella – Colombo, do raise many questions about police activity: Is it inactivity or directed activity on this matter? The limited time it took to search for the person who placed this grenade, the first arrest in this regard – the sanchristian of the same church; the Church’s own revelation of the longer CCTV on the same day, with a different player in this grenade match, and the police arrest of that person too; and the stories of weapons or fire-toys found in the home of a retired doctor, who is now said to be the brain or strategist behind this grenade match, is rapidly unfolding into a drama of political direction, where the police is playing more than a lead role!
The All Saints’ Church is considered a holy shrine by those who attend religious services there, and those who come there to appeal for the blessings of saints, and God, too. But who would ever have thought that such a place of worship would be the defining authority on how many matchsticks a box of matches would or should have?
The Cabinet Minister in charge of Police was also heavily involved in this All Saints’ show piece – from matchsticks to joss-sticks and sellotape – and the ethnicity of the first suspect, too. As the country moves into the coming disasters on the economic and service fronts, as the dollar disaster keeps rising with Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s blessings, we may well see the All Saints being moved into an All Devils drama, with whatever dramatic expertise that key politico-police authorities possess!
President Gotabaya certainly has a way of his own. He is so fully supportive of his green agriculture programme. His desire for green is certainly not to do with his liking the UNP, although Ranil W may be supportive of any such moves. But his continued support for green agriculture does raise questions about his memory capacity. Has he forgotten all the problems and the near disastrous situations that his green-agro policy did push this country into?
Does he know nothing of what his blanket ban overnight on agrochemicals did to the agricultural sector? Has he not been informed of what this country paid to the shipload of Chinese fertiliser, which our own analysts found to be contaminated? Is he not taking any action against the officers of a state bank who signed a Letter of Credit, without the necessary information on financial security?
This is certainly playing with a green ball that gathers all the dirt on the field and giving all strength of profit to the Chinese player!
The President did say he would submit to Parliament the recommendations of the Expert Committee appointed to help draft a new Constitution. That means he has some faith in the Parliament of the people. That’s good. Let’s wait and see how this goes on.
What raises many problems is that he was so uninterested in the findings of the Special Committee appointed by him to study the gas disaster, caused by the gas dealers. Was he so ignorant or uninformed of the repeated and continuing blasts of gas cylinders, the deaths caused to mothers and children, the injury to gas users, and the huge damage to homes? When will this Parliament have a proper debate on the gas catastrophe, as it may on recommendations of the Expert Committee on the new Rajapaksa Constitution?
The President’s speech was short. It was good, because the problems this government has caused to the country, since his election as President, and the huge election of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which has given more than Green Agro Power, would not be a good, lengthy exercise.
Rajapaksa Governance is certainly calling for major changes in our political thinking, and system of governance. Making it even more brief would be of more service to the country and the people, than what the Family Power nor Pavul Balaya is doing today.
Even with the many twists of the current police exercise, and the rise of the new All Devils Drama that is unfolding, let’s hope the Rajapaksa Power Play gets run down to its end very fast!
BY Srilal Miththapala
From time immemorial the female form has been exploited for diverse reasons, to achieve a wide variety of outcomes by various cultures, individuals, groups, tribes and business organisations.
At the same time, women have always been aware of the immense power of their sensuality, and how it can be subtly used to further their ambitions.
The tourism and hospitality is not an exception in this context, where a woman’s presence in the service delivery/customer contact points usually has a strong positive impact.
This discussion tries to analyse this phenomena in an objective manner, with special emphasis on how localised cultural contexts affects it, and the resulting implications
Women and sensuality
Sensuality is about ones sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions and behaviours towards other people. Sensuality is diverse and personal, and it is an important part of who you are. And manifests in various ways such as body language, tone of voice etc.
Many In today’s world believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sensuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. It can also be utilised by women to further their personal ambitions and goals.
History is full of such examples. The very origin of humanity may have been vastly different if Adan did not succumb to Eve’s ‘charms’ in enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his brute strength, at the behest of the Philistines.
Eva Duarte, was an illegitimate child with dreams of stardom. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944 and unabashedly charmed herself into his life, ending up as the First Lady of Argentina.
Cleopatra is cast as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined many a good man’s career, with she herself succumbing to the complicated web she wove.
And Harry Belafonte summed it all up in his famous song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”-
“And not me but the people they say
That the man is leading the women astray
But I say, that the women of today
Smarter than the man in every way”
All these examples are of women who have leveraged their sensuality in a rather ‘aggressive’ fashion for personal gain, which often had them labelled as promiscuous, flirty and slutty, and looked down upon.
However in todays ‘sexually liberated’ world, the feminist movements have successfully transformed this thinking by radically removing the arbitrary shackles prescribed by tradition. Today a woman who is aware of her sensuality, and confidently carries it, is considered an emancipated person.
However when a woman’s sensuality and form, is used to achieve some results by a third party, implicitly or explicitly, it could be considered a form of exploitation.
Women in Hospitality and Sensuality
‘Sexual hospitality’ was an ancient custom whereby the host provided a hostess from his household to the male guest for their pleasure.
The Himba tribe of Nigeria, are known to practice the Okujepisa Omuka tradition, which involves a man giving his wife to his visitor for sexual entertainment and pleasure.
While such actions do stem from cultural norms, there are other numerous examples where there is an aspect of domination, where women are forced or coerced to provide these services, rather than of their own free will.
However in today’s commercialised and highly competitive hospitality industry, a women’s sensuality has become a commodity employed to attract customers, although it may not be officially endorsed.
When women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualised, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.
The hospitality industry today, not only legitimises and reinforces these historical gender stereotypes to some extent, but also eroticises hospitality, albeit in a subtle manner. Almost always front-end customer contact staff are attractive, well-groomed and well attired women. An establishment will go to great efforts taken to design ‘eye-catching’ uniforms for frontline female staff. (This is more prevalent in resort hotels in the Asian region, which are seen to be more exotic destinations) .
The hospitality industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.”
There is no doubt that women in the hospitality industry do brighten up and add colour to the industry by their sensuality, charm , physical form …call it what you may. Ask any hotelier and he will conform that the charming smile of a girl at the front esk has neutralised many a guest complaint!
This in turn often attracts sexists remarks and sexual innuendo from customers, which are possibly relatively ‘mild’ and female frontsline staff usually learn to cope with. ( “The food is as good as you” and “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”)
However this environment of the hospitality industry which to a certain extent ‘accepts’ this status, could also lead to other forms of more damaging issues.
Women in Hospitality-The Sri Lankan context
Women in the industry
Women’s under -representation in the labour market is high in Sri Lanka. The population comprises of 52.8% females but when it comes to labour force participation their representation is only 35.6%, which is the lowest in South Asia (Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, 2014).
Howev, Sri Lankan females are among the most literate in South Asia, and the country tops the sub-continental rankings for female literacy. According to the University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka is the only country in the region to produce more female graduates from its local universities.
The Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) – Colombo School in 2017 had a representation of only 21% of female students, 12 % in Kandy Hotel School and only 6% in the Anuradhapura Hotel School. Similarly the three privately managed hotel schools namely Mt. Lavinia Hotel School, The Winstone Hotel School and William Angliss Hotel schools representation is 11%, 10% and 24% respectively.
Sri Lanka’s overall female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation rate is around 35% compared with male participation rate of 75%
Despite its importance to the economy (was the third largest foreign exchange earning Industry before CoVid), Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and its growth was facing several constraints, among which the lack of skilled human resources is prominent.
However, in contrast to the high levels of female participation in the tourism industry worldwide (about 54%), albeit with some regional differences, women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce.
The reasons for this are varied, and often based on cultural issues and norms. Jobs in the industry are considered to be socially unsuitable for women, especially for single females, and are often associated with
safety issues (sexual harassment),
poor prospects of career advancement
lack of job security
poor retirement benefits in relation to the public sector;
long/late working hours and shift work (no flexibility)
sub-standard working environments and facilities.
Some of these are definitely perceptions perpetuated by the media. Consequently, parents and husbands have discouraged their female children from pursuing a career in the hotel sector.
According to a World Bank study on women’s participation in the Sri Lankan labour force, 85% of the respondent stated that women are likely to leave their job in tourism after marriage.
From the aforementioned reasons that women shun the tourism industry, sexual harassment at work is perhaps the most contentious issue.
In a wide ranging study published by Hospitality Management Degrees Net, it is stated that one in every ten women in the hospitality industry in the world, has faced some form of sexual harassment, with restaurant and frontline staff reporting more incidents. The type of harassments ranges from sexist remarks (87%), sexual innuendo (84%), and inappropriate touching (69%). The larger proportion (80%) are from other male co-workers and customers (78%)
In Sri Lanka, there are no specific studies done on the sexual harassment in tourism industry, but there is considerable literature on the general female workforce in Sri Lanka.
However, the same aspects are prevalent in the local tourism scene with restaurant and the housekeeping staff most prone to such issues. The most common acts of harassment were obscene language, sexual jokes and sexually suggestive comments.
In a Sri Lankan context more women in junior positions in hospitality experience sexual harassment which indicates that it has to do with both gender and power issues. With low levels of education, they are less confident than other employees when dealing with difficult people in positions of power.
There are also instances reported of subtle ‘sexual bribery’ where certain ‘favours’ can be demanded by those in higher management positions in return for job related rewards.
However, without specific information it is difficult to comment about the Sri Lankan situation. But definitely harassment is often ignored or taken to be ‘part of the job’, by both the targets of the harassment, and the co-workers who witness it. Unfortunately in the hospitality industry it is taken as the ‘norm’ and exposure to unwanted sexually related attention is considered to be part of the job (Hoel & Einarsen, 2003).
When compared to actual number of complaints on sexual harassment from the employees of the tourism sector to other main sectors, it is seen that complaints received from tourism sector is much lower than some other sectors where the females dominate in numbersss. (such as the apparel industry)
There is no doubt that women play a vital role (knowingly or unknowingly) in marketing and promoting a hospitality establishment through their own sensuality. However this subtle ‘making use’ of women to promote the business can lead to enhanced issues related to sexual harassment to them, both from within the establishment (co-workers) and from without (customers).
This can be managed if there is a good open and transparent work ethic and culture, where professionalism and the dignity of labour is respected.
D A C S & Mendis B.A.K.M. Women in Tourism Industry – Sri Lanka Silva (2017)
Museums through Prof. Thapar’s eyes
Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Lecture:
By Uditha Devapriya
On Thursday, 27 January, Prof. Romila Thapar will deliver the Dr Roland Silva Memorial Lecture to the National Trust of Sri Lanka. Prof. Thapar will be speaking about the museums in India, charting their evolution from private collections to public displays and placing them in the context of similar institutions from other colonial societies.
Museums formed a crucial part of the colonial project, aiding administrators, officials, scholars as well as nationalist elites in their reconstructions of the countries they lived in and governed. Not surprisingly, after Independence the role of such institutions changed. Prof. Thapar would be discussing this aspect as well along with their potential to bring the historian and the social scientist together and their contribution to society.
The event will be the 141st such organised by the National Trust, as part of its Monthly Lecture Sessions. Originally held on the last Thursday of every month at the HNB Auditorium in Colombo, these lectures have brought in various scholars from fields connected to the study of history including archaeology, architecture, and ornithology. The shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic did not bring them to a halt: while the trustees held 10 online lectures in 2019, they held eight in 2020 and another 10 in 2021. Since 2015, moreover, these lectures have all been uploaded online free for everyone and anyone.
The brainchild of two of Sri Lanka’s finest archaeologists and scholars, the National Trust of Sri Lanka celebrates its 17th anniversary this year. Its objectives include the identification, documentation, protection, and conservation of the country’s heritage, defined in terms of physical objects like historic buildings, monuments, artistic and cultural works, as well as intangible artefacts like rituals, customs, and beliefs. More importantly, it seeks to inculcate an interest in these matters among ordinary people.
There it has more or less been doing what such organisations should be doing. The contemporary notion of a National Trust first came into being in late 19th century in Britain, with the establishment of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Founded as a not-for-profit association in 1895 and incorporated by an Act in 1907, it has since become the largest conservation charity in Europe. Its aim has not just been to save important sites from destruction, but also to open them up for public enjoyment. More than 125 years later, it has evolved into a fully-fledged institution, overseeing more than 500 historic sites, 250,000 hectares of land, and 780 miles of coastline.
Since then similar institutions have sprung up elsewhere. In India, a National Trust was established as a registered society, a corporate body with its legal personality, in 1984. Today that country is home to more than one such society: the International National Trusts Organisation lists three, including the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. In other countries these organisations serve different functions: the Yangon Heritage Trust, for instance, focuses on urban heritage, while the Siam Society also focuses on the natural sciences. Whatever function they serve, the International National Trusts Organisation lists more than 80 of these institutions, emphasising their common inheritance.
Though the need for a National Trust had been felt for some time in Sri Lanka, nothing was done about it until Roland Silva and Senake Bandaranayake intervened in 2004. The concept papers reveal that a great deal of thought went into the founding of the organisation. Initially conceived as the “Sri Lanka National Heritage Trust”, it later transformed into the National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage. The concept papers tell us that from its inception, much emphasis was placed on the notion of intangible cultural heritage, based on UNESCO’s classification of customs, traditions, and beliefs as enshrined in a landmark treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, in 2003.
At its inception on May 27, 2005, the National Trust counted 11 founders, including Silva and Bandaranayake as well as Ashley de Vos. To oversee its activities, seven committees were formed; another committee to oversee the management of the society, came into being in 2010. Arguably, the most important of these, the Scientific Committee, branched out to eight sub-committees, dealing with areas such as monuments and sites, architectural conservation, and industrial heritage. These, not surprisingly, reflected the expertise of its founders; since their formation, they have brought together a wide group of scholars, from art historians and architects to musicologists and archaeologists.
Today, the Trust engages in several activities, and not just lectures. In 2006 it organised an inaugural tour to the Botale Raja Maha Viharaya and other areas of historical interest in the region; due to the pandemic, it has not undertaken any historical tours since 2019, when it sponsored a visit to Jaffna. It also took up several conservation projects, one of them involving the Portuguese Fort in Malwana and another Joseph Lawton’s photographs of various national heritage sites. The latter has proved useful to the researcher and archivist of 19th century British Ceylon. These projects, in turn, led to two audio-visual productions: an exploration into the history of Sinhala music based on a lecture by Tissa Abeysekara, and a similar project about the evolution of music theatre in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps, the Trust’s most important contribution has been its publications. About 20 of these have been done so far. Foraying into different fields, they have spurred interest among scholars and readers alike.
These titles include Senake Bandaranayake’s and Albert Dharmasiri’s Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century, Neville Weeraratne’s The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, Nishan Perera’s Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka, Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne’s Birds of Sri Lanka, and Shanti Jayewardene’s Geoffrey Manning Bawa: Decolonising Architecture. Reasonably priced and available at leading bookshops, they underline the need to go beyond just coffee table publications of general interest.
Elsewhere, National Trusts have become a gauge of a society’s intellectual activity. In that regard the Sri Lankan National Trust may have much more potential. Though these tours, lectures, and publications have contributed a great deal, they have not been met with adequate levels of interest. Ambitious as these have been, they have not succeeded in gleaning a response commensurate with the Trust’s objectives.
In this, of course, the Trust is not to blame: there is just so much an institution can do. Yet when one considers that the British National Trust claims a membership exceeding 5.4 million, while its counterpart here claims fewer than 600, one realises the depths to which scholarly activity in Sri Lanka has fallen.
That tells us as much about our people as it does about our intelligentsia. Of late, one leading academic institution after another has been swept up by the rigours of politicisation. Scholars have increasingly turned into yes-men. Original research has become a thing of the past. What little intellectual activity there is now is underfunded and overstretched.
If Sri Lanka is to compete internationally, it must produce scholars capable of taking it to the world. Such individuals cannot thrive in a culture that rewards obeisance and acceptance over scrutiny and critique. This does not apply to politicians only, of course; people have contributed to such a state of affairs as well. In other countries, non-specialists rarely, if ever, have the last word over experts. In Sri Lanka, however, they exercise a more formative influence on the public than do professionals. This can only end badly, for everyone.
It’s not unfitting, then, for the National Trust to have chosen someone like Romila Thapar for this year’s inaugural lecture. Professor Thapar is not just the leading historian in India; she is also one of its most outspoken intellectuals. Of late, she has come out into the open, emphasising the need for nuance and rationality in the study of history.
There she has had to face a situation not too different to what we are facing: nationalist extremists have more or less monopolised discussions, turning the study of the country’s past into debates over who should be determining its future. Lost in such debates is the point that we are what we make of ourselves, that we invent the customs and traditions which we believe define us, and that these must always be placed in their historical context.
The National Trust obviously has a role to play in all this. We are caught in the midst of a severe crisis, and economic problems have taken precedence over everything else. Yet, there probably has been no better time to raise these concerns, to talk about them, to make it easier to understand our past. This is something the Trust’s founding members, especially Senake Bandaranayake and Roland Silva, engaged induring much of their lives. It is the legacy the Trust is heir to, the legacy it bears today. If it cannot live up to its own inheritance, no one can.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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