Free education is the canary in the coalmine
By Nicola Perera
In the national media of 21 August 2022, the UGC Chairman goes on record saying that, as university authorities deliberate the possibilities of bringing students back to campuses while the nation grapples with a devastating economic collapse and the pandemic, online education will continue to function as an interim measure. He said that data facilities had been provided to students and discussions have been held with telecom providers to strengthen signals, and, in the meantime, students need to find areas with stronger signals. Let me translate plainly what this means in this third year of online teaching in my classrooms.
The fundamental prerequisites for online education are a computer and a stable internet signal to minimise, as far as possible, the physical and mental disruption inherent in the transition to the virtual classroom for the student. It has become an unremarkable fact that the overwhelming majority of students, in this country, from primary to tertiary levels, since the onset of the pandemic, at some point received or, even now, are receiving an education, including sitting for examinations, via a phone screen. It should not need to be said that this represents a tremendous hardship, and no students, not in kindergarten, let alone university, should be squinting for hours and hours to learn through a phone screen.
Numerous families still cannot afford smart phones or data cards. Those with more than one child in school and/or university, and one phone between them, contend with the extreme difficulty of balancing one child’s education against another’s. The number of students dropping out has increased, mostly in schools with the least resources, and among families with the least resources, with parents usually engaged in the informal economy in menial labour jobs, as families became, and continue to become severely impoverished. Children have prematurely entered the labour force instead of continuing to learn. In my classes, I have watched attendance plummet over the last three years. Students communicate privately of being unable to join lectures because of needing to work in garment factories, in bakeries, in garages, in the sweatshops of the FTZs here, and in West Asia, to support their families instead of devoting themselves to their education.
Then take the issue of a stable internet connection. Early in the pandemic, the media spotlighted children on roofs, and trees, to tap into a signal, presumably the kind of initiative the UGC Chairman demands that students should show. My classes have been whittled down to those who live in areas with sufficient signal strength to even join a Zoom class for an uninterrupted period, in between power cuts. What happens to the rest? Have we reached the point where climbing trees and roofs and travelling distances, from home, in search of a viable mobile signal to follow online classes, or sit for an online examination, are taken for granted as a reasonable demand to be made of students? This is the situation encapsulated by that much-bandied-about and utterly execrable phrase, the “new normal.” At our wits’ end and at the very edge of desperation and despair, I have begun calling individual students to attempt to teach them over the phone, but even then, there is a significant percentage of students who will sit for examinations with little to no learning, if they do not simply abandon university altogether.
The vast majority of students in state education – from primary to tertiary, and particularly in the humanities in universities – are from socioeconomically marginalised backgrounds, and their opportunities to educate themselves, and the quality of the education they receive, are marked by their lack of privilege. Free education in this country, from primary to university levels, was envisaged at the dawn of the post-colonial nation as a measure of democratisation. The goal was to fashion citizens who would be treated as equals in a democratic society. It held out a promise of access for all—that no child would be denied education due to poverty—and through that access, socioeconomic mobility. But the pandemic, and the current economic turbulence, have only heightened the process of attrition where dwindling state, and public, commitment to free education, is leaving behind the most vulnerable of our students, those who would most benefit from free education. Amidst fatuous pronouncements by our education authorities, signaling that online education is a desirable step towards a modern technology-driven economy, there is little space to question what kind of education experience we’ve had over the last few years. It has been atomised, alienating, and psychologically draining, instead of a process or self-realisation and individual and collective empowerment, of broadening intellectual horizons. Constrained by the online format, inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, intermittent power cuts, and economic struggles, education has become little more than a hurried shoving of watered-down facts at students – not the intellectual, political, social awakening that university education in particular should be.
Where does this leave us? We, in the university community, must be sensitive to and strongly advocate for the needs and aspirations of all our students, concertedly resisting the ad hoc and unsound UGC policies promulgated with neither adequate consultation nor recognition of the glaring lack of basic facilities. State policy has consistently been, and remains, fundamentally hostile towards our most vulnerable, marginalised citizens, which, over the decades, the nation has grown indifferent to and even complicit in. Yesterday’s ingrained liberal middle- and upper-class contempt toward student protestors on the streets, struggling to protect free education, leads us directly to today’s quietism towards state repression of student activists calling for democratic revolution. Make no mistake, the state of free education is the canary in the coal mine for the health of Sri Lanka’s democracy. This is why safeguarding free education must be a central tenet of our continued struggles towards a broader, more meaningful democracy and socioeconomic justice.
The author Nicola Perera works at the University of Colombo.
(Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.)
Issues and Challenges of Humanities and Social Sciences Education in Sri Lanka
This collection has been developed as a part of the Sri Lankan universities celebrating hundred years (1921-2021) of teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and is primarily an outcome of the deliberation of conference papers presented at this national event held on 20th and 21st of December, 2021, organized by the Standing Committee of HSS, University Grants Commission (UGC). It is the third and the final volume of the series of publication brought out to mark this historical milestone of the higher education sector of Sri Lanka.
Vol. I and Vol. II focus on the historical development of Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines in our university system over the last one hundred years. Two volumes were published under the title of ‘Beyond Boundaries: One Hundred Years of Humanities and Social Sciences in Sri Lankan Universities’ which was edited by Professors Premakumara de Silva, KNO Dharmadasa, Asanga Tilakaratne, Chamalie Nahallage and Wimal Hewamanne.
The collection of papers appearing in this Volume – III addresses some of the critical issues and challenges that are quite relevant to the field of HSS. Some of the key issues and challenges highlighted in the volume are the present status of Social Science and Humanities Studies, Employability issues, Learning Environment, Language Competency of HSS graduates, University – Industry Collaboration, Teaching & Assessments, Quality Assurance of Teaching and Examination, and Issues in Publications in HSS. This volume consists of seven parts arranged according to the thematic order under which eighteen papers are presented. Part I situates the formation of higher education in the country in a historical context: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Part II carries two papers which focus on current situation of HSS education in our university system.
Part III onwards the Volume moves from more general issues and challenges to specific ones like Graduate Employability, Teaching, Learning and Assessment, English Language Skill and Research, Innovation and Publication. It concentrates on one of the pertaining issues of Employability and Unemployment of Humanities and Social Sciences Graduates in Sri Lanka. This part consists of five chapters from chapter five to nine. Part IV concentrates on teaching, learning and assessment in higher education institutes and this section has contained two chapters.
Part V is concentrated on English language issues of HSS undergraduates. Part VI focuses on Research, Innovation and Publication of Higher Education Institutes in Sri Lanka and three chapters have contributed to discuss issues and challenges in this area. The final Part is addressing the plan for future development in the field of HSS in the state universities. As solutions to some of the pressing issues highlighted in this volume, standard prescriptions have been formulated and often implemented such as strengthening university-industry collaboration, modernizing curricula to meet the needs of the labour market, public private partnerships, internationalization, promoting more marketable study programmes, encouraging universities to offer financially sustainable and self-financed study programmes, strengthening ICT, soft skills, English among graduates, and restructuring of external degree programs, expanding science and technology studies while limiting the expansion of the humanities and social sciences.
The latest UGC statistics show that Humanities and Social Sciences education is still the dominant field of university education in the country though some argue about the drastic cut down of ‘Arts’ education in our universities. This volume with the forward by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, was edited by Professors Premakumara de Silva, Wimal Hewamanne, Asha Fernando and Lalith Ananda and was published by University Grants Commission The e-versions of those volumes are available free of charge at UGC web page.
On first reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s THE LIGHT OF ASIA
By Rohana R. Wasala
Here endeth what I write
Who love the Master for his love of us.
A little knowing, little have I told
Touching the Teacher and the Ways of Peace
Forty-five rains thereafter showed he those
In many lands and many tongues, and gave
Our Asia Light, that still is beautiful,
Conquering the world with spirit of strong grace:
All which is written in the holy Books,
And where he passed, and what proud Emperors
Carved his sweet words upon the rocks and caves:
And how – in fulness of the times – it fell
The Buddha died, the great Tathagato,
Even as a man ‘mongst men, fulfilling all:
And how a thousand thousand lakhs since then
Have trod the Path which leads whither he went:
Unto NIRVANA, where the Silence lives.
AH! BLESSED LORD! OH, HIGH DELIVERER!
FORGIVE THIS FEEBLE SCRIPT, WHICH DOTH THEE WRONG
MEASURING WITH LITTLE WIT THY LOFTY LOVE.
AH! LOVER! BROTHER! GUID! LAMP OF THE LAW!
I TAKE MY REFUGE IN THY NAME AND THEE!
I TAKE MY REFUGE IN THY LAW OF GOOD!
I TAKE MY REFUGE IN THY ORDER! OM!
THE DEW IS ON THE LOTUS! – RISE GREAT SUN!
AND LIFT MY LEAF AND MIX ME WITH THE WAVE
OM MANI PADME HUM, SUNRISE COMES!
THE DEWDROP SLIPS TO THE SHINING SEA!
Edwin Arnold belonged to the group of Western intellectuals living at different times of the British Raj, who represented for us Sri Lankan islanders and Indian sub-continentals the mellowed humane face of British colonialism. They rendered yeoman service to both nations by stimulating historical and cultural awareness about themselves, which contributed to their eventual achievement of independence from foreign rule. German philologist, orientalist and great Buddhist scholar Frederick Max Muller (1823-1900), former American military officer, journalist, lawyer and theosophist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), British Pali and Oriental scholar T.W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), German orientalist and historian Wilhelm Geiger (1856-1943), German educationist Marie Museus Higgins (1855-1926), and a number of other noble men and women similarly inspired by a selfless love of humanity were of particular importance to us Sri Lankans.
Edwin Arnold, who was of the same age as Olcott, was born at Gravesend, Gravesham, Kent, England on June 10, 1832. As an undergraduate of Oxford University, he won the Newdigate prize for poetry in 1852. Having earned an MA, he left Oxford to become a school teacher at King Edwards School, Birmingham. Then, Arnold went to India in 1856 as Principal of Deccan College at Poona (Pune, today).
While working in India, he learned Sanskrit. Having lived a constantly active life of just over seventy years as poet, scholar, author, educator, and journalist, he died on March 24, 1904, in London England. Though he remained loyal to the British Empire throughout his life, he was free from the entrenched patronising or worse attitude of the average colonialist of the time towards the native imperial subjects including the Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) and treated them as equals.
The poem about ‘the life and teaching of Gautama’ (Buddha) The Light of Asia or The Great Renunciation’ that Arnold composed was first published in July 1879. In his preface to the book, he wrote that it …”is inspired by an abiding desire to aid in the better mutual knowledge of East and West. The time may come, I hope, when this book and my Indian Song of Songs, and Indian Idylls, will preserve the memory of one who loved India and the Indian peoples.” The Indian Song of Songs is the English translation of the 12th century CE Sanskrit poet Jayadeva’s epic poem Gita Govinda. Though supercharged with eroticism and replete with sensuous imagery, it is religious in terms of its central theme of Bhakti-yoga of Hinduism.
(‘Bhakti-yoga/pure devotional service to Lord Krishna as the highest and most expedient means for attaining pure love for Krishna, which is the highest end of spiritual existence’ in Hinduism, as Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada explains in his 1984 English interpretation of the Hindu sacred text the Gita: Bhagavad-gita As It Is’.) Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda describes the amorous relationship between Krishna in the form of young Govinda and the beautiful cowherdess Radha. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu (the Preserver and the Protector of the universe in the Hindu religion), so Govinda is another name for Vishnu. Hindus venerate Buddha as the ninth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. Arnold did his translation of the Gita Govinda in 1875, that is, four years before he wrote and published The Light of Asia. He also translated the Bhagavad-Gita as The Song Celestial (1885), which he dedicated to India at the opening, having written it, as he claimed, For England, O our India! as dear to me as She!”
This digression about Jayadeva is because I believe that Arnold’s experience with the Gita Govinda had a strong bearing on the literary quality of his own English epic poem The Light of Asia. I happened to read both The Light of Asia and the Sinhala version of the GitaGovinda entitled Govingu Geeya done by Sinhala scholar Arisen Ahubudu about the same time during my adolescent years. At the time I didn’t know that Arnold had translated the Sanskrit poem into English (as The Indian Song of Songs) before he crafted the English poem about the life and philosophy of the Buddha. Ahubudu provided each Sanskrit stanza in Sinhala transliteration with the Sinhala interpretation following it.
Jayadeva’s poem is rich in sensuous imagery; his frequent use of alliteration and assonance enhances its enchanting musicality. Through his rarely matched mastery of the Sinhala language Ahubudu produces an authentic translation of the original Sanskrit text. That Arnold’s familiarity with Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda influenced his composition of The Light of Asia, was something I was able to discern as a mature reader of the English poem years later. (As I write this, I have open before me a copy of The Light of Asia locally published in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by the M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd, Colombo in 1954, which my father bought for me in Kandy for two rupees in 1962. It is the very copy that I read at 15+) that I am using here now after sixty-one years!
It carries an introductory essay under the title ‘The Buddha and His Teaching’ written by Dr G.P. Malalasekera of the University of Peradeniya. But it says nothing about the story of Buddha’s life except that he ‘was a human being who found supreme Enlightenment…’. I noticed its lopsidedness as an introduction to the book even at that young age. Obviously, the professor had not written it for The Light of Asia, but the publishers must have added it to make the publication seem more appealing and more accessible to the local reader. The whole essay is about Buddha’s teaching according to the Theravada tradition. This was what we were taught at school for the Buddhism subject in the Sinhala medium.
As we were learning English as a second language then, it was a big thing for me to be able to read Dr Malalasekera’s learned writing about Buddhism and understand it just as much as Arnold’s poem. However, the phrase ‘The Buddha and his teaching’ well describes the subject of Arnold’s The Light of Asia, which is mentioned in different words in several places in the text, including the final passage of the poem quoted at the opening of this essay: ‘Touching the Teacher and the Ways of Peace’; he lived and died ‘Even as a man ‘mongst men’. Arnold says as much of the Buddha’s life as of his teaching, as truthfully as he managed to understand it, shifting through the inevitable hyperbole that traditionally embellishes the historical narration of his life story, and the deliberate mystification that distorts the meaning of his profound doctrinal concepts.
The same edition contains Arnold’s own original Preface to his poem, which starts: ‘In the following Poem I have sought, by the medium of an imaginary Buddhist votary, to depict the life and character and indicate the philosophy of that noble hero and reformer, Prince Gautama of India, the founder of Buddhism.’ According to him, though little or nothing was known in Europe of ‘this great faith of Asia’ it had existed during twenty-four centuries, and at his time, surpassed in the number of its followers and the area of its prevalence, any other form of creed. Though Buddhism had for the most part had disappeared from India, the land of its birth, ‘the mark of Gautama’s sublime teaching is stamped ineffaceably upon modern Brahmanism, and the most characteristic habits and convictions of the Hindus are clearly due to the benign influence of Buddha’s precepts’.
‘More than a third of mankind… owe their moral and religious ideas to this illustrious prince; whose personality, though imperfectly revealed in the existing sources of information, cannot but appear the highest, gentlest, holiest, and most beneficent, with one exception, in the history of Thought….’ (I could infer who Arnold meant by this exception, but I thought that in his heart of hearts, he would have avoided that reservation, for his assertion sounded like nothing more than a concession to the dominant Christian sensitivities of his society.) Arnold quite rightly points out that though Gautama has been accorded superhuman status, he disapproved of ritual and ‘declared himself, even when on the threshold of Nirvana, to be only what all other men might become – the love and gratitude of Asia, disobeying his mandate, have given him fervent worship’.
(The phrase ‘on the threshold of Nirvana’ means, in more mundane words, ‘on his deathbed’; ‘on the threshold of Parinirvana’ is the usual way to put it. To put what Arnold hints at here differently: Siddhartha Gautama did not preach a religious system of ritual worship.) But ‘Forests of flowers are daily laid upon his stainless shrines, and countless millions of lips daily repeat the formula ‘I take refuge in the Buddha!’ Arnold observes with quiet adoration for the Sage whose memory still induces feelings of such pious devotion in the hearts of his followers.
Arnold stresses the historicity of the Buddha: ‘The Buddha of this poem – if, as need not be doubted, he really existed – was born on the borders of Nepaul about 620 B.C., and died about 543 B.C. at Kusinagara in Oudh.’ (These place names respectively are: Nepal, Kushinagar and Awadh or Avadh, today.) About the timeless relevance of Buddha’s teaching, he says: ‘… this venerable religion … has in it the eternity of a universal hope, the immortality of a boundless love, an indestructible element of faith in final good, and the proudest assertion ever made of human freedom.’
What Arnold next says in his original Preface has a message of vital importance to those who are concerned about the survival of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka: ‘The extravaganzas which disfigure the record and practice of Buddhism are to be referred to that inevitable degradation which priesthoods always inflict upon great ideas committed to their charge. The power and sublimity of Gautama’s original doctrines should be estimated by their influence, not by their interpreters; nor by that innocent but lazy and ceremonious church which has arisen on the foundations of the Buddhistic Brotherhood or “Sangha”.’ Incidentally, it would be timely to consider whether or not ‘innocent but lazy and ceremonious’ is a good description of the present-day Buddhist church (= the clerical officialdom/the Mahanayake, Anunatake, Adhikarana Sangha Nayake, … system) in Sri Lanka.
Arnold has put his poem into the mouth of an imaginary Buddhist devotee ‘because, to appreciate the spirit of Asiatic thoughts, they should be regarded from the Oriental point of view; and neither miracles which consecrate this record, nor the philosophy which it embodies could have been otherwise so naturally reproduced. The doctrine of Transmigration, for instance – startling to modern minds – was established and thoroughly accepted by the Hindus of Buddha’s time….’ (Arnold is here referring to the then prevalent Western attitude to the idea of reincarnation or rebirth, which Hindus of the pre-Christian Buddha’s time took for granted, as Hindus and Buddhists still do.) He confesses that his exposition of the Buddha’s ancient doctrine is necessarily incomplete, since, in conformity with rules of poetic art, he has to pass by many philosophically most important matters developed over Gautama’s long ministry. But he would consider his purpose achieved, if he succeeded in communicating ‘any just conception ……of the lofty character of this noble prince, and of the general purport of his doctrines…’
(To be continued)
Untruths; media to be muzzled; youth bring honour
Cassandra was struck by three untruths (lies if the real term needs to be used) spluttered out this last week. The Island on Thursday June 1 carried this headline on page 1:” Aragalaya group behind project to cause religious disharmony.” That is a blatant lie for the very simple reason that one feature the Aragalaya in its true form was uniquely known for was that it fostered and demonstrated spontaneous amity among ethnic and religious groups. Innumerable photographs, media pictures, videos et al were taken then and are preserved now proving the fact stated here. So, Minister Prasanna Ranatunga is uttering a falsehood when he says that the Aragalaya induced religious conflict.
The second falsehood emanating from Prasanna R is that he “alleged that those who planned to kill the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during last year’s protest campaign are behind the ongoing efforts to cause religious disharmony.” How can he possibly say this, unless of course he takes us all Sri Lankans to be idiots and ready to accept whatever a Minister or politician says. The very slogan of the Aragalaya disproves this fact. Gota Go Home meant just that – leave your post, resign and go away. There was not the slightest thought or talk of murder, leave alone the intention even in unsavoury groups within the later Aragalaya. Cassandra believes that not even the militant groups that overran the original Aragalaya and foisted their slogans and their ruthless style of protest had murder on their minds. Gotabaya opted to leave his post and country and the PM dubbed Myna saw continuing as PM not feasible, so he vacated Temple Trees and the premiership.
Politicians spew lies left, right and center but Ministers must be circumspect because what they say is recorded and preserved. This minister has absolutely no clout with the public; in fact, the truth is he is disdained, discredited and derided by most Sri Lankans and of course wholesale overseas for being convicted of having solicited a huge bribe and continues holding a high post.
The third lie was uttered by the Katunayake Airport authorities. After grossly mishandling Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s departure after his ten days of being busy leading people here on the correct path of Buddhist thought and meditation, caused a delay of 12 hours. He, speaking from Australia, did not want enquiries to the mistake made by the airport authorities. He used the word mistake, so there it is that the airport authorities made an unpardonable mistake. Why?
They were busy bending backwards, grovelling and paying pooja to Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who was to travel in the same plane that Ajahn Brahm had a valid ticket for. The lie here was in the official statement made by the Airport and Aviation (Sri Lanka) Ltd, (AASL): “Sri Lankan Airlines would like to clarify that a story currently circulating on social media about the airline mishandling the travel of Ven Ajahn Brahm is completely false. Ven Ajahn Brahm was booked on a different airline when the unfortunate delay occurred at the BIA in the early hours of 31 May 2023.” Note the term ‘completely false.’ It is the AASL that was completely false.
Muzzling the media
The latest Bill to be presented in Parliament will be passed and made law since the majority of those seated in government comfy seats do not understand what’s what of the absolutely important issues they vote for. In the near future a vote will be taken on the government descending on broadcasting. Cass does not even want to Google and get the title of the Bill to be presented.
She is far more impressed by the symbolic portrait MTV Channel One presents when this latest issue is being reported on: a hand holding a pen tied up severely. The fingers are completely bound and immobilised. Just as apt and message-conveying are three quotes Cassandra gives below.
“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you‘re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” George R R Martin in A Clash of Kings.
When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.” Yevgeny Yevtushendko
“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.
Henry Louis Gates. Jr Cassandra finds it difficult to ascribe this latest move to Prez Ranil W. Of course, he does not like a particular media outlet, or so it is said, since that outlet did hound him and promoted a rival. But everything is fair in war (is it said thus?) or love or should be in governing a country. Ranil is educated; reads much and we trusted him to be liberal and govern fair and square.
Why does the government persist in introducing controversial issues in Parliament, them being sure fire causes of social conflagration? As Ajahn Brahm advised, do all possible, without being tangentially misled by other issues, to improve the economy of the country and thus the lives of its people. Why for goodness sake censorship of the media at this stage? Expend all energies and expertise on getting maximum compensation from the company that owned the Xpress Pearl which destroyed our ocean, our resources, our fauna and flora. With it follow all clues and leads to catch the devil or the treasonous group that supposedly got an astronomical bribe to reduce the claim and rob Sri Lanka of legitimate billions as compensation.
Extra money in the kitty to spend on another white elephant?
Cassandra means here the proposed ‘Climate Change University’. It is proposed by Ranil W and is his brainchild, Cass presumes. Has he caught another infection from his friend and recently made relative – Mahinda Rajapaksa? The latter, who sure is fated to be an Ozymandias, had four or five white elephants built at huge cost and getting this poor country colossally indebted in his claimed demesne Hambantota and a garish Lotus Tower in Colombo. There are so many environmental organisations within the country and so many tappable international ones. Additionally, environment specialists are very many in the island. So why an entire university for climate change, when most of our universities have departments, maybe not faculties, for environmental study and research?
Let’s put aside these national worries which affect each one of us and celebrate the success of our youthful athletes now giving of their best in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in South Korea. Ratnayake Central Walala runner Tharushi Karunaratne won back to back gold medals on day two of the contest. Others have also brought honour to our bankrupted (sic) little island. And note this is beating athletes from all Asian countries.
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