by Jehan Perera
One of the issues that has created internal division in the country is the cremation of those who have succumbed to the Covid virus. This policy of enforced cremations has been most opposed by the Muslim community for whom burial of the dead is a part of their faith. It has also brought international disapproval to the country. The UN Human Rights Commissioner’s January report on Sri Lanka states that “The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted on religious freedom and exacerbated the prevailing marginalisation and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community. The High Commissioner is concerned that the Government’s decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by COVID-19 has prevented Muslims from practicing their own burial religious rites, and has disproportionately affected religious minorities and exacerbated distress and tensions.”
The shift away from international practices with regard to the burial of Covid victims was initially justified on the basis of science. During the early part of the pandemic ,when less was known about the disease, and more stringent methods were adopted to halt its spread, such as the two-month long 24-hour curfew, practiced in Sri Lanka, there was a real fear that the coronavirus could be spread through dead bodies and water. However, when the practice of burying those who died of Covid internationally began to be better known and scientists worldwide, and in Sri Lanka, began to downplay the significance of water transmission of the virus, Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to change its policy began to take on another dimension.
Among those who most strongly opposed the burial of Covid victims have been nationalist ideologues and religious clerics with a limited knowledge of science. Many of them placed their faith in indigenous cultural practices of producing antidotes to the virus that had no basis in science. These included measures such as putting pots of water, which had been chanted over, into rivers and a concoction of honey and herbs as being efficacious in protecting against infection. There have been some amongst the scientific community itself who have identified with these positions on the grounds of belief in the efficacy of indigenous knowledge. The opposition to burial also took on an anti-Muslim sentiment that had escalated following the Easter Sunday bombings of April 2019.
Over the past 10 months the government has come under pressure from a variety of sources to change its policy with regard to enforced cremation on both political and humanitarian grounds, but to no avail. The main source of pressure has been the Muslim community, within the country and their political representatives. They have been supported by sections of the Christian community to whom burial is the traditional way of farewell to the dead. The human rights organisations in the country and internationally also have made numerous appeals including a campaign of tying white ribbons on burial grounds. A further source of pressure has been the international community with governments of Muslim countries making their own representations to the government.
However, the ramping up of local and international pressure only led the government to harden its stance. It appears that a strategy of the government when it is under pressure is to rally its nationalist voter base. The election winning platform of the government was the need to uphold national sovereignty and not to yield to either international pressure or to the ethnic and religious minorities. The electoral rejection of the leaders of the previous government who were seen as appeasing both the international community and the minorities within the country has been a lesson that has made inroads into the thinking of the main Opposition parties who have been cautious in the positions they take on controversial issues. However, when Sajith Premadasa, the main Opposition leader, led a protest against enforced cremations which was also attended by civil society groups, the prospects of a bipartisan approach to resolving the problem became possible.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration in Parliament last week that burials would be permitted even in the case of Covid victims was welcomed both locally and internationally and has not been politicized by the opposition parties. Ironically, the prime minister’s statement has been contested within the government and not been immediately operationalized. A ruling party parliamentarian had the audacity to say that the prime minister was referring to burials in general and not to Covid burials in particular. The Minister of Health has announced that the matter still needs to be assessed by a committee of experts prior to a final decision being taken. The problem is that different committees of experts have been coming to different conclusions depending on the degree of nationalism they espouse.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have informed ambassadors of Western countries who met him that the political decision regarding Covid burials had been taken and what remains is to implement the decision through the Health Ministry. The President is trying to find his way amongst contending powerful forces. The fact that the mainstream Opposition parties are also supportive of following the WHO guidelines with regard to the option of burials would be reassuring to the government that this matter would not be politicised to its disadvantage. The problem that the government faces would be confined to an internal one which can more easily be resolved as it is in the self-interest of government members to come to a unified position on this issues.
The manner in which the Covid burial issue is being addressed suggests the way forward with regard to the issue of the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of a very strong report b the UN Human Rights Commissioner which recommends that a variety of punitive sanctions be utilized against the government leaders and those accused of human rights violations. It warns of the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws. The report also has several recommendations to the Sri Lankan government. Addressing the issue of the UN report and the recommendations it makes needs to be seen as a national issue in which the government and opposition work together without politicizing the issue for their own partisan advantage.
The issues being canvassed in Geneva are primarily about matters that concern the people of Sri Lanka. The recent march by Tamil and Muslim political parties and civil society groups from east to north highlighted issues such as the takeover of land, settling of Sinhalese and construction of Buddhist temples, the neglect of families of the missing, stopping memorials to the dead, and problems faced by cattle farmers. These are matters that are in the interests of all Sri Lankans to peacefully resolve regardless of their communities and political affiliations. Just as the Opposition leadership has given its support to the practice of WHO guidelines for the disposal of Covid bodies it needs to give its support to the resolution of these issues of the past and the present. If the government and Opposition leaderships are united in their resolve to address the grievances of the ethnic and religious minorities we can be assured that the international community will seek to support Sri Lanka rather than to engage in punitive measures.
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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