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From ritual to performance: The sociology of Kohomba Kankariya



By Uditha Devapriya

Kohomba Kankariya: The Sociology of a Kandyan Ritual
, by Sarath Amunugama
Vijitha Yapa, 2021, 204 pages, Rs. 2,000

One of the oldest rituals in Sinhala culture, the Kohomba Kankariya is also the biggest. It is certainly the most expensive, requiring tremendous reserves of energy, effort, enthusiasm, and initiative. Bringing together a galaxy of deities and demons, the Kankariya has, since the late 19th century, made a slow transition from healing ritual to secular performance. Today, more than its low country counterpart, the Gammaduwa, it exists as an object of spectacle. Yet this transformation has not taken place at the cost of its cultural origins. What Sarath Amunugama has done in this book is to present a comprehensive account of the ceremony, probing into its origins, outlining its framework, and charting its influences and offshoots.

Dr Amunugama’s aim in the present work is to explore the sociology of Sinhala ritual. In doing so, he offers us an insight into the syncretism of Sinhala culture. Having described the ways in which that culture accommodated European colonialism, he provides the framework from which the Kankariya evolved into an object of spectacle. Though much slimmer than his previous work, the book delves into how a ritual conceived by an agrarian society to usher in prosperity could transform into an art form patronised by cosmopolitan elites.

The book is divided into five sections. In the first, the author describes the Kankariya, probes into its possible origins and myths, and comes up with a framework governing the totality of Sinhala healing rituals, including the Gammaduwa. In the second, he ventures into a study of ves natum, its genesis as a cosmic drama, its separation from the ritual in the age of colonial modernity and mechanical reproduction, and its later patronage by the 43 Group. He outlines the biographies of four key figures associated with these transformations in the fourth section, while in the fifth he presents a series of photographs, including those of a Kankariya that the author held in 2015 as well as of past Kankariya dancers and drummers.

What animates these forays is the author’s standing: what he has, which most other scholars on the Kankariya lacked, is not just agency in terms of capital, but access to families that have been holding the ceremony for decades, if not centuries.

One of the many concerns Dr Amunugama tackles in his book is the lack of research into Kandyan healing ceremonies. By comparison, much has been written on low country rituals, especially the Gammaduwa. Along the southern coastline, these rituals came to absorb facets of European colonialism, projecting what anthropologists like Bruce Kapferer diagnose as an aggressive streak inherent in Sinhala Buddhist culture. This is, of course, a generalisation too crass to consider seriously, but as Dr Amunugama notes, the near-absence of anthropological studies of Kandyan rituals has led to foreign scholars propagating totalising claims about that culture. Though they share a common framework, he informs us, Kandyan healing rituals are “more measured, non-aggressive, and processional” than their low country counterparts. Any study of Sinhala ritual should, therefore, take into account the “countervailing politesse of the Kankariya.” Observation must of necessity precede theorising here.

Dr Amunugama divides the Kankariya and Sinhala ritual in general into “preliminary steps” and “core rituals.” The object of the preliminary steps is three-fold: to prepare the backdrop for the ceremony, welcome gods and demons into our world, and initiate the dancers and drummers into theirs. Having set the stage, these eventually lead to interactions between the two worlds through the core rituals: the Katha Paha, Aile Yadina, Kuveni Asna (Kankariya) and Pattini Kolmura (Gammaduwa), Guruge Malawa, Kolmura Kavi and Palavela Danaya (Kankariya), Pantis Kolmura (Gammaduwa), Dunu Malappuwa, and Muva Mal Videema, all of which pit one world against the other, yet also bring them together, culminating in a grand communal feasting of a boar’s carcass; the latter, as the author wryly speculates, rebels against the popular view of Kandyan kings, nobles, and locals as vegetarians.

The lines of inquiry these open us to are many, but Dr Amunugama chooses to dwell on four themes. The first and second are to do with the core ritual: the “divi dos” ailment at the heart of the Panduwasdeva story the ceremony revolves around, and the agency of the female archetype that ceremony centres on. As with the Gammaduwa, the Kankariya is filled with sexual symbols that immediately summon associations with fertility rites: after all, the ritual begins with the boiling of milk (procreation) and ends with the shooting of a banana flower (penetration), with the dousing of a flambeau (castration) to boot.

Yet what fascinate one here aren’t so much the associations themselves as the role they assign to the female figure at the epicentre of the ritual. The Panduwasdeva story, Dr Amunugama notes, underscores the theme of betrayal. The arc of that theme bends towards no less than the founding of the country: Vijaya’s betrayal of Kuveni, which, so to speak, condemns him to failure in producing an heir. What the ritual seeks to do, in other words, is redeem an entire community from the betrayals of their ancestors. This is also what underpins the Pattini myth that undergirds many low country rituals, especially the Gammaduwa.

Far more interesting and intriguing than this, however, is the author’s exploration of the role of Brahmins in the Kankariya. Here we come to one of several distinctions that separate that Kankariya from the Gammaduwa. In the low country, encounters with communities beyond geographic borders facilitated the assimilation of certain caste groups after the 13th century. In the Kandyan kingdom, such encounters did not immediately lead to comparable processes: in fact, as the rebellions instigated by the radala aristocracy confirm, there was much hostility towards men of South Indian extraction holding the crown.

Roughly the same attitude prevailed among locals towards Brahmins: historians have noted how Buddhist monks resented their habit of smearing ash on their foreheads. It is fascinating, if not coincidental, that these attitudes are reflected in the structure of the Kankariya itself, and that they echo a popular though unflattering view of Brahmins propagated by litterateur-monks in the Kotte era. Dr Amunugama’s attempts at reconciling this with other accounts of relations between the Nayakkar kings and their radala subordinates, in particular Gananath Obeyesekere’s, make for insightful reading here.

The fourth theme occupies the rest of the book and is crucial to our understanding of Sinhala ritual: the relationship between these ceremonies and traditional dance forms. The dance form associated with the Kankariya, of course, is ves natum. The commonality linking Afro-Asian healing rituals to each other is the separation of these dance forms from their ritual origins, or the secularisation of those dance forms, under conditions of colonialism. Ves natum was by no means an exception to this rule: as the economic base sustaining the Kankariya collapsed due to the absence of royal patronage, ves natum became separated, or in Walter Benjamin’s words emancipated, from its “parasitical dependence on ritual.” In light of official disregard, therefore, indigenous art forms evolved into objects of public spectacle.

How the purveyors of ves natum survived these turbulent times is charted well by Dr Amunugama. We have been told that ves natum was first devised as a public exhibit in 1917, when P. B. Nugawela, chief lay custodian of the Dalada Maligawa, included it in the Nuwara Perahera. Dr Amunugama asserts that this followed a process that had been set in motion half a century earlier, when, during a visit by Albert Edward (later Edward VII), Kandyan nobles organised a special pageant that, as official illustrations show, featured ves natum.

Exceptional as this would have been, it laid the groundwork for the commoditisation of these art forms, when, a decade or so later, the human zoos of Hagenbeck, Marinelli, and Wallace began exhibiting Kandyan and low country rituals. Pivotal as they were to the transformation of ves natum, they were by no means an easy ordeal for ves dancers. It is to Dr Amunugama’s credit that he does not romanticise these encounters: as he admits, many local dancers, hoping for better prospects abroad, found themselves reduced to poverty.

1917, the year P. B. Nugawela included ves natum in the Perahera, marked the establishment of the Ceylon Reform League. Led by Ponnambalam Arunachalam, it was succeeded by the Ceylon National Congress two years later. Assessing these developments from the standpoint of the colonial elite, the author gives us a succinct overview of this period.

The decision of the colonial elite to remould themselves as nationalists during these years was shaped by two factors: the Indian independence struggle, and the Donoughmore reforms. The latter more or less moved politics from the elite circles to which it had been limited until then, determining the course of the Buddhist and cultural revival. Without these developments, the cultural domain, like the political, would have remained an elite preserve.

Dr Amunugama does probe well into these historical and social processes, but he does not, I think, pay enough attention to two crucial events linked to them: the resurgence of Kandyan nationalism in the form of demands for regional autonomy, and the relationship between the secularisation of local art forms and the secularisation of nationalism; as K. M. de Silva and Kumari Jayawardena have observed, after all, the years following 1915 saw the separation of political radicalism from cultural revivalism. These relate to another intriguing phenomenon: the paradox, embedded deep within European historiography, between colonial valorisation of non-Western cultures and its denial of the agency of the bearers of those cultures. Senake Bandaranayake has commented on this contradiction in his essay on Ananda Coomaraswamy; it should, I think, make for supplementary reading here.

The rest of the book is fairly straightforward, featuring a succinct overview of the 43 Group and their patronage of ves natum. Three figures stand out here: Lionel Wendt, George Keyt, and Justin Deraniyagala. If Dr Amunugama does not focus much attention on Deraniyagala, whose sister Miriam Pieris became one of the first females to don the ves thattuwa, it is only because the link between the Group and ves natum was reinforced more strongly by Wendt and Keyt. The two, of course, were close; as Wendt’s work for Chitrafoto and for the Ceylon Observer Annual shows, Keyt became his gateway to Kandyan culture.

Given this, it is not really accurate to consider Keyt as a member of the Colombo elite, as the author implies; he belonged more to the world of Malwatta than to Guildford Crescent. Yet, insofar as they were conditioned by a colonial upbringing, Keyt and Wendt shared a common ancestry and a common interest in Sinhala culture. It is from this vantage point that we ought to approach Wendt’s and Keyt’s associations with leading ves dancers, including Tittapajjala Suramba, Sri Jayana, and the incomparable Nittawela Gunaya.

Dr Amunugama’s assessment of the role played by sexuality in these encounters stands out: his description of Wendt’s photograph of Sri Jayana as “homoerotic” is provocative, as is his observation that the 43 Group were attracted to the “lithe bodies” of ves dancers. Even more insightful is the way Dr Amunugama makes clear the differences between these dancers on the basis of their cultural temperaments and approaches to art; hence, Sri Jayana’s attempts at a fusion between ves natum and Indian dance forms are portrayed as failures, while Nittawela Gunaya is depicted as more capable and restrained than his cousin, Nittawela Ukkuwa, who, we are told, “had learnt some bad elements of Western ‘show business’.”

Despite its brevity, this book is packed with details, descriptions, and insights that do not make for quick reading. It is a work of social and cultural anthropology, but because it’s not rife with academic argot, it will appeal to scholars and general readers alike. Dr Amunugama is perhaps our finest living social anthropologist after Gananath Obeyesekere, and the book, as with his previous work, makes his fascinating with Sinhala culture clear. This is, of course, not to sideline the interspersion of visuals, especially Udaya Wijesoma’s photographs, which adds up to a comprehensive portrait of the subject.

To be sure, there are certain points Dr Amunugama could have pursued more, in particular the relationship between the commoditisation of culture and the development/underdevelopment dialectic governing colonial society. His description of Hamburg, where Hagenbeck held his famous human zoos, as an industrial hub that attracted Sri Lanka’s graphite, would have been more pertinent had he dwelt on how European capital underdeveloped the economies of Asia and Africa while fuelling the transformation of their indigenous art forms.

Whether or not the author pursues these lines of inquiry in future, however, he must rectify the many punctuation mistakes and typos in the book. There is also one glaring inconsistency: while correctly dating Albert Edward’s arrival in the country to 1875, he misdates it to 1876 a few pages later. Less glaring, though no less inconsistent, is his dating of the establishment of the Ceylon National Congress to 1917, rather than to 1919.

Of course, to point these out is not to belittle the achievement of his work. It may be the best study of its kind so far, authored by a perceptive local scholar on probably the most intriguing ritual of emerge from the recesses of Sinhala culture and the Sri Lankan nation. To read it is to enter a different terrain. To enter that terrain is to rediscover our past.

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Sat Mag

Brief history of plagues and pandemics



Uditha Devapriya

By the 14th century, trade routes between the East and West had made it easier for pandemics to spread, while conquests by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries would introduce several diseases to the New World. Trade and colonialism hence became, by the end of the Renaissance, the main causes of plague, which scientific advancement did little to combat, much less eliminate: a physician in the 17th century would have been as baffled or helpless as a physician in the 14th or 15th in the face of an outbreak.

No doubt rapid urbanisation and gentrification had a prominent say in the proliferation of such outbreaks, but among more relevant reasons would have been poor sanitary conditions, lack of communication and accessibility, and class stratifications which excluded the lower orders – the working class as well as peasants in the colonies – from a healthcare system that pandered to an elite minority. By 1805, the only hospitals built in Ceylon were those serving military garrisons in places like Colombo, Galle, and Trincomalee.

Among the more virulent epidemics, of course, was the notorious plague. Various studies have tried to chart the origins and the trajectory of the disease. There were two outbreaks in Rome: the Antonine Plague in 165 AD and the Justinian Plague in 541 AD. With a lack of proper inscriptional evidence, we must look at literary sources: the physician Galen for the Antonine, and Procopius and John of Ephesus for the Justinian.

Predating both these was an outbreak reported by the historian Thucydides in 430 BC Rome, but scholars have ascertained that this was less a plague than a smallpox contagion. In any case, by 541 AD plague had become a fact of life in the region, and not only in Pagan Rome; within the next few years, it had spread to the Arabic world, where scholars, physicians, and theologians tried to diagnose it. Commentaries from this period tell us of theologians tackling a religious crisis borne out of pestilence: in the beginning, Islamic theology had laid down a prohibition against Muslims “either entering or fleeing a plague-stricken land”, and yet by the time these epidemics ravaged their land, fleeing an epidemic was reinterpreted to mean acting in line with God’s wishes: “Whichever side you let loose your camels,” Umar I, the founder of the Umayyad Caliphate, told Abu Ubaidah, “it would be the will of God.” As with all such religious injunctions, this changed in the light of an urgent material need: the prevention of an outbreak. We see similar modifications in other religious texts as well.

Plagues and pandemics also feature in the Bible. One frequently referred to story is that of the Philistines, having taken away the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites, being struck by a disease by God which “smote them with emerods” (1 Samuel 5:6). J. F. D. Shrewsbury noted down three clues for the identification of the illness: that it spread from an army in the field to a civilian population, that it involved the spread of emeroids in the “secret part” of the body, and that it compelled the making of “seats of skin.” The conventional wisdom for a long time had been that this was, as with 541 AD Rome, the outbreak of the plague, but Shrewsbury on the basis of the three clues ascertained that it was more plausibly a reference to an outbreak of haemorrhoids. On the other hand, the state of medicine being what it would have been in Philistine and Israel, lesions in the “secret part” (the anus) may have been construed as a sign of divine retribution in line with a pestilence: to a civilisation of prophets, even haemorrhoids and piles would have been comparable to plague sent from God.

Estimates for population loss from these pandemics are notoriously difficult to determine. On the one hand, being the only sources we have as of now, literary texts accurately record how civilians conducted their daily lives despite the pestilence, while on the other, writers of these texts resorted to occasional if not infrequent exaggeration to emphasise the magnitude of the disease. Both Procopius and John of Ephesus are agreed on the point, for instance, that the Justinian Plague was preceded by hallucinations, which then spread to fever, languor, and on the second or third day to bubonic swelling “in the groin or armpit, beside the ears or on the thighs.” However, there is another account, by Evagrius Scholasticus, whose record of the outbreak in his hometown Antioch was informed by a personal experience with a disease he contracted as a schoolboy and to which he later lost a wife, children, grandchildren, servants and, presumably, friends. It has been pointed out that this may have injected a subjective bias to his account, but at the same time, given that Procopius and John followed a model of the plague narrative laid down by Thucydides centuries before, we can consider Evagrius’s as a more original if not more accurate record, despite prejudices typical of writers of his time: for instance, his (unfounded) claim that the plague originated in Ethiopia.

Much water has flowed through the debate over where the plague originated. A study in 2010 concluded that the bacterium Yersinia pestis evolved in, or near, China. Historical evidence marshalled for this theory points at the fact that by the time of the Justinian plague the Roman government had solidified links with China over the trade of silk. Popular historians contend that the Silk Road, and the Zheng He expeditions, may have spread the contagion through the Middle East to southern Europe, a line of thinking even the French historian Fernand Braudel subscribed to in his work on the history of the Mediterranean. However, as Ole Benedictow in his response to the 2010 study points out, “references to bubonic plague in Chinese sources are both late and sparse”, a criticism made earlier, in 1977, by John Norris, who observed that it is likely that literary references to the Chinese origin of the plague were informed by ethnic and racial prejudices; a similar animus prevailed among the early Western chroniclers against what they perceived as the “moral laxity” of non-believers.

A more plausible thesis is that the bacterium had its origins around 5,000 or 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. A study conducted two years ago (Rascovan 2019) posits an original theory: that the genome for Yersinia pestis emerged as the first discovered and documented case of plague 4,900 years ago in Sweden, “potentially contributing” to the Neolithic decline the reasons for which “are still largely debated.” However, like the 2010 study this too has its pitfalls, among them a lack of the sort of literary sources which, however biased they may be, we have for the Chinese genesis thesis. It is clear, nevertheless, that the plague was never at home in a specific territory, and that despite the length and breadth of the Silk Road it could not have made inroads to Europe through the Mongol steppes. To contend otherwise is to not only rebel against geography, but also ignore pandemics the origins of which were limited to neither East and Central Asia nor the Middle East.

Such outbreaks, moreover, were not unheard of in the Indian subcontinent, even if we do not have enough evidence for when, where, and how they occurred. The cult of Mariammam in Tamil Nadu, for instance, points at cholera as well as smallpox epidemics in the region, given that she is venerated for both. “In India, a cholera-like diarrheal disease known as Visucika was prevalent from the time of the Susruta“, an Indian medicinal tract that has the following passage the illness to which reference is made seems to be the plague:

Kakshabhageshu je sfota ayante mansadarunah
Antardaha jwarkara diptapapakasannivas
Saptahadwa dasahadwa pakshadwa ghnonti manavam
Tamagnirohinim vidyat asadyam sannipatatas

Or in English, “Deep, hard swellings appear in the armpit, giving rise to violent fever, like a burning fire, and a burning, swelling sensation inside. It kills the patient within seven, 10, or 15 days. It is called Agnirohini. It is due to sannipata or a deranged condition of all the three humours, vata, pitta, and kapha, and is incurable.”

The symptoms no doubt point at plague, even if we can’t immediately jump to such a conclusion. The reference to a week or 15 days is indicative of modern bubonic plague, while the burning sensation and violent fever shows an illness that rapidly terminates in death. The Susruta Samhita, from which this reference is taken, was written in the ninth century AD. We do not have a similar tract in Sri Lanka from that time, but the Mahavamsa tells us that in the third century AD, during the reign of Sirisangabo, there was an outbreak of a disease the symptoms of which included the reddening of the eyes. Mahanama thera, no doubt attributing it to the wrath of divine entities, personified the pandemic in a yakinni called Rattakkhi (or Red Eye). Very possibly the illness was a cholera epidemic, or even the plague.

China, India, and Medieval Europe aside, the second major wave of pandemics came about a while after the Middle Ages and Black Death, and during the Renaissance, when conquerors from Spain and Portugal, having divided the world between the two countries, introduced and spread diseases to which they had become immune among the natives of the lands they sailed to. Debates over the extent to which Old World civilisations were destroyed and decimated by these diseases continue to rage. The first attempts to determine pre-colonial populations in the New World were made in the early part of the 20th century. The physiologist S. F. Cook published his research on the intrusions of diseases from the Old World to the Americas from 1937. In 1966, the anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns argued that most studies understated the numbers. In the 1930s when research on the topic began, conservative estimates put the North American pre-Columbine population at one million. Dobyns upped it to 10 million and, later, 18 million; most of them, he concluded, were wiped out by the epidemics.

And it didn’t stop at that. These were followed by outbreaks of diseases associated with the “white man”, including yaws and cholera. Between 1817 and 1917, for instance, no fewer than six cholera epidemics devastated the subcontinent. Medical authorities were slow to act, even in Ceylon, for the simple reason that by the time of the British conquest, filtration theory in the colonies had deemed it prudent that health, as with education, be catered to a minority. Doctors thus did not find their way to far flung places suffering the most from cholera, while epidemics were fanned even more by the influx of South Indian plantation workers after the 1830s. Not until the 1930s could authorities respond properly to the pandemic; by then, the whole of the conquered world, from Asia all the way to Africa, had turned into a beleaguered and diseased patient, not unlike Europe in the 14th century.

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Sat Mag

Piyadasa Sirisena Vimarshana: Recreating the life of a legend



Reviewed by Jagath C Savanadasa

By any account, Piyadasa Sirisena, who died 76 years ago, is a legend. He literally entered history of this country through his many faceted services to the nation.To recapture the life and times of such a personality is no easy task. But now, for the first time, a rich and illuminating biography of this great cultural figure has been published. The book is a veritable literary tome of 960 pages and exposes the reader to a vast range of information – so much so that it may overwhelm him. Our thanks should unreservedly go to Dr. B.D. Y. Vidyatilleke, a Medical Specialist, who out of sheer admiration of the services rendered by Piyadasa Sirisena, undertook this task.

Retrieval of old prints

Retrieval of old prints relating to publications issued by Sirisena or those connected to him is not easy. They are a century old archival prints long ‘buried’, that cannot be unearthed easily. It is commendable that this had been done. But it would have been arduous and time consuming.

A brief insight into the revivalist era

The biography delves deep into the beginnings of the Buddhist revival in the midst of Anti-Buddhist campaigns conducted since 1850s or around that time by the Catholic Church. It was part of an overall colonial strategy that was pursued with telling effect by the rulers – to divide the people in the colonies. The most glaring of it is the intractable division brought about in the Indian sub-continent in 1946/47.

The social climate as a consequence in Ceylon was depressing for the mass of the Buddhist population in the Maritime Provinces. The masses for centuries had laid absolute faith in Buddhism until foreign invasions, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British had attempted to destroy their faith.

But throughout the colonial history there had emerged resistance to such religious and cultural incursions. Invariably it was the Buddhist clergy who were at the helm of the struggle to restore the religion.

One of the frequent canards that the Catholic Church tried to spread at times through printed material was that Buddhism was apocryphal and mythical. The endeavour on the part of the Church which was an agent of the Colonial regime was to create doubt in the minds of the people about the religion.

Panadura Wadaya- 1873

Such campaigns were challenged by the Buddhist clergy at a historic debate in 1873. It was Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera who brought to light the truth about Buddhism. The achievement of the two Priests, laid the foundation for the restoration of Buddhism. It was a moral uplift and enlivened the spirits of Buddhists in the South of the country.

The biography includes details of the history making debate and its far-reaching consequences. On learning about the debate and impressed by the portrayal of the facts pertaining to Buddhism, a U.S. based theosophist Henry Steel Olcott came over to Ceylon. It was he who in due course set about establishing Buddhist Schools. Following these developments, the book on Sirisena, records the role of Anagarika Dharmapala in the revivalist saga.

Dharmapala pioneered Buddhist resurgence. He campaigned island wide against foreign influences. The history of this island perhaps never had a greater crusader than Dharmapala in the resurgence of Buddhism and nationalism.

Advent of Piyadasa Sirisena

The biography provides extensive coverage into the above mentioned history. Getting on to Sirisena, this writer is of the view that the arrival of Sirisena at the heart of the national revival, (Maradana)should be considered a landmark.

Undoubtedly he was a reformist par excellence and his influence on the mass of the Buddhist people during the early to mid 1900 was profound. Of course as Prof. Wimal Dissanayake once commented one of Sririsena’s greatest contributions to this country was the creation of the habit of reading among the literate Sinhalese

Sirisena a towering litterateur

The biography explores Sirisena’s career as a novelist, newspaper publisher and editor. The first novel Sirisena serialized in Sarasavi Sandaresa in early 1900’s gave him precedence over other novelists of the time. Thus he was the pioneer in the sphere.

“Rossalyn and Jayatissa or the Happy Marriage” was according to quite a number of eminent critics on literature, a path finding novel. It brought about a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Sinhala masses. This novel was reprinted 25 times in a decade. 25,000 copies of it were sold during this period. This made Sirisena lead the way as a novelist in that early era.

He followed up this astounding initial success of his, with 20 other novels which too reached the heights of popularity among Sinhala readers. Sirisena a bold and enterprising individual also pioneered writing detective stories. He published six such books. Though the biography does not specifically say , this writer feels that Sirisena may have been influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, world renowned detective Sherlock Holmes which captured the reader’s imagination.

Sirisena’s first detective story “Dingiri Menika a splendidly constructed romance between two socially unequal parties, was an outstanding success. It could also rightly be called a tear-jerker. In this book Sirisena had given the reader some of the most beautiful poetic creations of his illustrious career.

The biography has sumarized all the novels, which would have entailed hard work.

Quite contrary to the success that Sirisena achieved as a novelist, the picture as regards his life as a newspaper Editor and Publisher was different. Though Sirisena achieved national fame as a newspaper Editor publishing “Sinhala Jathiya” was different to writing novels.

Sirisena encountered financial difficulties and there were times when the publication of the newspaper was stopped. However throughout those years the newspaper was known for its forthright opinion. Sirisena was anti-imperialistic and did not mince his words in face of misdeeds, abusive power and exploitation of the Colonial government.

Sirisena was a great admirer of Indian leaders like Mahathma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others who waged a relentless campaign against the British regime. “Sinhala Jathiya” quite often published details of India’s freedom struggle.

Ties with other national leaders

Since early times, Piyadasa Sirisena formed close friendships with other national leaders like D.SSenanayake, Sir D B Jayathilleke, the Hewavitharanas, Arthur V Dias and a host of other prominent personalities. Towards the 1920’s, the political leadership of the country made demands for self government and freedom from Colonial Rule. Sirisena was supportive of such developments. He utilized the newspaper to highlight them and this led to the British being alert and vary about “Sinhala Jathiya” .

D.S. Senanayake – Sirisena nexus

The biography which refers to the Senanayake-Sirisena ties at length has included a rare photograph of a young Sirisena seated along with the Senanayake family at the latter’s ancestral residence “Bothale Walawwa”. Also an autographed picture of D S Senanayake reproduced from “Senani”, Nawinna, Sirisena’s last residence together with an autographed picture of Colonel T D Jayawardene, President J R Jayawardene’s maternal uncle. When Jayawardena as Chief Guest unveiled the Sirisena statue in May 1979 at Maradana, before a huge crowd, he said that Piyadasa Sirisena was a close friend of his family and in fact it was he who induced him to take to politics.

The biography brings to readers view other features in Sirisena’s life which should rightly fall under the history of the country. Among them were the Temperance Movement of which Sirisena was a key participant, the Sinhala – Muslim riots which rocked the country. It led to British over-reaction through the imposition of Marshal Law and the arrest of Buddhist leaders like D S Senanayake, F R Senanayake, the Hewavitharana brothers, Sir D B Jayatilleke, Arthur V Dias and Sirisena himself. The charges against them were proved baseless and they were released within two weeks.


However Piyadasa Sirisena had to face a Trial-at-bar for sedition which under the Marshal Law was punishable with death. The bench of three judges who heard the case were Englishmen. It is important to remember this was in 1915 when the Colonial regime was all powerful. Human considerations justice and fair play were swept aside with impunity.

But this grim episode has another side. This is besides the excellent biography and related herein out of general interest.

Origin of Sedition

Sedition was first introduced and entered the Penal Code in England during Elizabethan times. And it was on the basis of a “notion of inciting by words or writing disaffection towards the state or constituted authority’.

It entered the Indian Penal Code, firstly as a crime just short of treason in order to ostensibly forestall an incipient Wahabi plot against the government. This was in 1870’s when India was deep under British Rule. This law harassed those who opposed the colonial government no end. It once led to the arrest and conviction of two of India’s greatest patriots Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadar Tilak.

Sirisena anti-colonial to the core had in an Editorial in “Sinhala Jathiya” (when the Sinhala Muslim riots were brewing) had urged the people to rise against the government if the sacred and old right of using the route traversed by the Dalada Perahera was changed on the orders of the government.

A Ceylonese parallel to India

However the trial at Bar failed to prove the sedition charge. Perhaps due to the great defence put up by Ceylonese lawyers and evidence of Mrs.Cecilia Sirisena his wife who had defended her husband stoutly for three days.

Sirisena never seemed affected the least by the seemingly imminent death penalty he faced. This story was revealed by Sirisena’s grandson Lakshman Sirisena a leading lawyer one time in the South. He was not even born when the events took place, but this sensational case was revealed to him by his father W A C Sirisena, Crown Proctor, Balapitiya between 1956 to 1961)and Acting District Judge (at times).

In free India, the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said in 1950 “as far as I am concerned that particular section of the constitution 124A (PC) on sedition is highly objectionable and obnoxious. It should have no place for both practical and historical reasons if you like, in any body of laws we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better”.(But this law yet remains in the Indian Penal Code)

Sirisena – other notable features of life

Piyadasa Sirisena’s role in changing history

This nugget of priceless value was highlighted by Chaminda Welegedera leading Sinhala novelist in a thesis for his Masters degree titled “The role of leading opinion builder in the Colonial era-Piyadasa Sirisena”. This relates to how D S Senanayake sought Sirisena’s help to obtain a single floating vote in the State Council so as to become the Chairman of the Agricultural Committee of the Colonial Government which was just a step before being the Minister of Agriculture. That induced Sirisena, to request C. Gordon , the English member of the Colonial Government for Haputale to cast that vital vote for Senanayake .

History records as to the way in which D S Senanayake transformed Rajarata through agricultural development .That takes your mind back to the era of King Parakrama Bahu the great. This development had prompted the British rulers to call Senanayake the reincarnation of King Parakrama Bahu. This whole episode is yet another valuable reference in the biography.

Sirisena’s work as a Poet

The biography also refers to Sirisena’s skill in poetry. Most of his novels have poetry and he has also included poetry in his newspapers. This shows yet another dimension of his talent and skill. But Sirisena was planning to publish a thousand verse poetic tribute on the construction of Ruwanweli Seya the monumental Buddhist Dagoba in Anuradhapura. However owing to persistent illness that plagued him during his last years, he was able to complete only 700 verses.

On the other hand, one of Sirisena’s noblest deeds was the funds he collected through an appeal launched in the 1930’s to help restore the Ruwanweli Seya which had been damaged by the vagaries of weather for centuries. Many an old Buddhist family helped him in the noble task.

In his newspaper, Sirisena had also featured both happy and sad events that occurred in his family. Among the happy events were the marriages of his children all conforming to the traditions of those distant times and to the tie-ups with either prominent or wealthy families. The reports on such marriages gave details of the eminent persons who attended these functions.

Finally, during the Second World War the Sirisena family was relocated in Nawinna to avoid the Japanese bombing of Colombo. He transferred the management of the Sinhala Jathiya Press Ltd. to a prominent group of people, since he was unable to work any longer due to his illness. However, at the helm of the ownership of his Company was his youngest son A.P. Sirisena.

Piyadasa Sirisena passes away

On 22nd May 1946 Piyadasa Sirisena died after surgery at the Central Hospital Colombo 07. He was 71 years at the time of his death. He had lived the last few years in peace in a spacious new house in verdant Nawinna in the midst of a half acre garden which was a veritable orchard.

The funeral was held two days later at Kanatte Borella amidst a large gathering of mourners, including the nation’s leaders. Future Prime Ministers D S Senanayake, S W R D Bandaranaike were the main pall bearers. The biography records that long after he passed away tributes continued to be published in the national press and has been reprinted in the biography. The main funeral oration delivered by D.S. Senanayake made extensive reference to Piyadasa Sirisena’s enduring contribution in diverse directions to this country. Senanayake added “Sirisena, a great patriot had died when the gates of freedom for which he fought valiantly, were close at hand.’

The writer is a Senior Chamber of Commerce official and a former Economic Advisor to a Federated body of Chambers. He is also Honorary Secretary of the Piyadasa Sirisena Commemoration Society.


(The book Piyadasa Sirisena Vimarshana is available at Sarasavi Printers and publishers ,Nugegoda and other branches island wide.)

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Sat Mag

Echoes of Cuba



By Ranil Senanayake

I walk the hills rising from an azure blue Caribbean Sea, and try to envision the history that I have been told, a history of an island, green, tropical, rich in resources that fell into a despotic military-aided rule. The consequence of a power drunk ruler who made it easy for his cronies to move money across its borders and legalised gambling to facilitate the Mafia to launder its ill-gotten money from the US. The underworld became the lords and the land went out of reach for ordinary citizens. This history spoke of a small group of dedicated people, who struggled through incredible odds and fuelled by a shining love for their country, won the nation back from the underworld.

It was an impossibly small boat that arrived on the shores of Cuba with its cargo of committed revolutionaries in 1956 ‘more dead than alive’ as Che recounted, losing over half of their comrades, in battles, yet they went on to win their nation back from the underworld. By this action the amazing ability of the human spirit to rise to the ‘love of country’ is clearly demonstrated. Cuba was embroiled in corruption, its dictator Batista was supported by gangsters, thugs and killers. The huge inflow of money through their money laundering operations created a massive disparity of income and Cuban society descended into a situation of economic colonisation. The corruption was so bad that the US President John F. Kennedy once stated:

“I believe that there is no country in the world, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonisation, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation, which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”

The history of Cuba haunted me on my return to Sri Lanka; one of the first actions of Batista on gaining power was to facilitate the flow of external money through its economy and to legalise gambling, which eased the entry of the mafia into the country to launder its ill-gotten wealth from the US. One of the first actions of a past government of Sri Lanka was to liberalise the flow of money through our nation and legalise gambling. Was this to be the creation of our own Batistas and the surrendering of our nation to the underworld elements, local and of Asia, Russia, etc? As pointed out in the parliamentary speech by the late Mangala Samaraweera, MP. It is the activity of the underworld and their laundering of money though our economy that now contributes to ‘economic growth’ ( ), but is this something to crow about?

Such ‘misdirected growth’ is often promoted to enrich the people with power to amass capital but it creates a class of ‘super rich’ which rapidly widens the inequality gap between rich and poor.  The reason why we should all be vigilant about the phenomenon of a widening inequality gap between the rich and the poor is very lucidly explained in the informative and eye opening book ‘The Spirit Level’ ( by two Epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Their data shows that the consequence of a widening ‘inequality gap’ degrades the health and wellbeing of the people, this phenomenon applies to all countries from the so-called ‘rich’ to the so-called ‘poor’.

So, by all measures from profiting in pandemic control to officially sanctioned thuggery, it seems that we are descending again into a mafia-controlled sate rife with corruption, nepotism and cronyism. This process like a cancer will eat into our society, destroy our culture and enslave our children. Time will come when decent people will yearn for justice and especially to rid the nation of corruption. But where will we find our champions?

For us, this struggle will be hard. It has been commented that this nation twice removed from its genepool the genes for activism and bravery. In 1971, the government ‘removed ‘up to 20,000 or more of the educated, poor. Those who attended university or demonstrated interest in radical politics were young or unemployed were singled out for liquidation. The next pogrom was in the late 1980s when over 60,000 were ‘removed’ without a word being uttered in protest on any international stage. These people never passed their genes on. Genetically speaking, we removed from our race a large percentage of the traits for high intellectual potential and activism. Metaphorically, it has become the time of the bottom feeders in our gene pool to manifest themselves as the intellectuals and leaders.

Bottom feeders or ‘lowlife’ have a peculiar trait of myopia or short sightedness that does not allow them to consider anything other than objects of their greed. Consider the recent reports from The IPCC that warns of the global temperature rise by 1.2 -2 degrees due to the burning of fossil fuel and the use of cement. Such a jump in global temperatures will exacerbate global poverty, trigger severe heat waves, sudden floods and droughts, and cause sea levels to rise by three feet, it will ravage food supplies. Called A Code Red for Humanity, these reports warn us of the immediate need to reduce emitting fossil carbon and to prepare for the oncoming crises. Given such a global scenario a responsible action would be to try and reduce our carbon footprint, but Sri Lanka’s ‘economic development’ gurus propose the exact opposite. Once, we were made to accept the burning of fossil fuel, the construction of mega projects with a huge carbon debt in cement and increased fossil fuel use, as ‘people’s development’. Which people? In the face of a population struggling with the rise of living, a pandemic and climate change, brought about those very ‘development’ actions, the current ‘development’ projects are grotesque to say the least.

We crow that we have now entered a time of peace. But our rights are suppressed by the government using emergency laws. In war, combatants die, but what about the horrendous loss of lives of innocents? Do the innocents not deserve any consideration ? To a nation that values the act of giving merit to the departed, no action to remember or give merit to the dead is encouraged, in fact such activities are violently discouraged. We have become the ghouls that we accuse everyone else of being. No amount of propaganda can ever wash this blood from our hands. Only an honest and truthful reconciliation process with full accountability can!

Until then, it will be ‘Back to Batista’ for us.

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