By Uditha Devapriya
When he first makes an appearance in Gamperaliya, Gamini Fonseka has turned his back to us. As Jinadasa, the man who is to marry Nanda, his character remains faceless. Having gone through the usual, customary introductions, he and his family sit down with Nanda’s father, waiting for the woman he will wed not too long afterwards.
It is an arranged marriage, to be conducted on traditional Sinhala rites, but in keeping with those rites, the bride must first meet the groom. Yet even in the face of this first encounter, the husband-to-be-remains silent. We catch just one glimpse of him: his face hidden from us, his fingers tapping expectantly. Taking out a watch from his shirt pocket, he checks the time. He wants these formalities done with; he’s too impatient to wait.
Then Nanda enters the room. Bearing some betel for the guests, she does what she’s called for and sits in a corner, her face looking down. The scene is extraordinary in its simplicity, in how it establishes the link between these people, the subtle interplay between conversation and silence, and the small talk that belies the tension of it all.
We still don’t see Jinadasa: we can catch a glimpse only when Nanda looks up. This Nanda does, and we behold him in full form: shy, hesitant, the faintest outline of a smile creeping up in a corner, he is as eager to see her as she is him. Yet Nanda’s eyes dart off, not to his face, but to his collar. Crushed and unkempt, it jars her. Jinadasa apologetically straightens it, but it does its trick: she accepts him, and they marry a few days later.
In this sequence, Lester James Peries establishes the intricacies of a Sinhala wedding. What distinguishes it, I think, is Punya Heendeniya’s performance: in keeping with the spirit of her character, she represses everything. Ediriweera Sarachchandra once described Nanda as a woman lacking agency. This Heendeniya embodies throughout.
In the scenes that follow, we see Nanda accept her husband for who he is, with the faintest hint of a bond between them. Like all traditional Sinhala women, from that period, she falls in line with the wishes of her elders. There is thus not a hint of the love that would ordinarily pass between husband and wife. But the devotion of the one to the other comes out rather powerfully. This is hardly a love marriage, yet in her performance Heendeniya underscores the poignancy of her love. Later, when she breaks down after hearing news of her husband’s death, we will realise the complexity of her attachment to him.
No less profound is Gamini Fonseka’s acting. He doesn’t just underplay his performance; he constrains it. Sometime after the wedding Nanda comes across Jinadasa discussing the sale of a piece of land with an agent. He raises his voice, but only barely; Nanda has to get closer to hear what he’s saying. In the scenes that follow, he rarely asserts himself: even when his wife and her sister engage in an argument about food, he watches on the side, refusing to take part. To see him here is to appreciate an actor immersing his character in introspective réflexion sur soi, and refusing to let his performance deteriorate into theatrics. In that sense he is Nanda’s mirror-image: a character lacking agency, initiative. By contrast, Nanda’s other love, Piyal, expresses himself more openly: towards the end, when in a burst of anger he lets out his jealous imaginings, he conjures for us a perfect contrast with Jinadasa.
It’s hard to imagine Gamini Fonseka playing Jinadasa. Indeed, in 1963, when Gamperaliya was released, few thought otherwise. Martin Wickramasinghe complained to Lester James Peries that he had essentially mauled Jinadasa’s character by handing it over to a man more suited to playing a boxer. It’s a sign of Wickramasinghe’s humility that he later admitted to Lester that he’d been mistaken, but his misgivings were not unjustified: to consider Gamini, even by then the established A-star of the Sinhala cinema, for a performance that called for introspection over action, was a challenge. Yet as events thereafter confirmed well, while he fit the mould of the action star, the fighter who asked for, expected, and gave no quarter, he could just as easily fit into other moulds and other characters.
Pauline Kael once called Marlon Brando the quintessential American hero: a man trying to be a contender and a somebody, yet tragically cut down by his circumstances to be the bum he played in role after role. Insofar as Brando symbolised this sort of tragic heroism, he was probably more comparable to Tony Ranasinghe than to Gamini. But Brando’s swagger, self-confidence, and deliberate carelessness shared more with Gamini.
Whenever you saw Gamini, you always felt he wanted to give out something more than what he had in him. For him to work with another star was thus inconceivable; to dominate the world he was in, he had to be at the centre of it all.
On the other hand, whenever he was cast in a secondary role, he prevailed over every other player. This happened most forcefully in Sandesaya: despite being slotted in next to Ananda Jayaratne, he dominates the story. In Gamperaliya, a relatively austere work, he wouldn’t have had much room to dominate over the rest of the cast. But as subsequent films were to show, you could only act alongside him by playing second fiddle. Thus even in a commercial outing like Chandi Shyama, the story moves in a different direction when he appears. More than a decade later, when he emerges as the heroine’s older lover in the second half of Loku Duwa, he diverts the plot from what it had been leading to in the first.
All that, of course, underscored his tremendous appeal. Here it’s important to place him in his proper context. Gamini Fonseka became the hero of the Sinhala screen at a time when audiences were beginning to move away from the theatrical flicks they had got used to in the immediate post-independence era. Heavily influenced by the Tower Hall tradition, the acting in these films differed very little from the revues of the Parsi stage.
That these actors played onstage and onscreen merely emphasised the theatricality of both the performances and the stories in these films: a cultural anomaly reversed by Lester James Peries’s Rekava in 1956. Gamini’s appearance at this juncture, firstly as an assistant aboard The Bridge on the River Kwai and then in a small role in Daiwa Yogaya, was not coincidental: this was a new era for the Sinhala film, and it called for a new acting pedigree.
Gamini brought with him a new moral code for movie heroes. Blending into his characters like none of his predecessors had or could, he brought out a new realism that audiences had not seen until then. When you see him pick fights with the villain in Chandiya, a landmark for its time because it did not hesitate to depict its protagonist’s moral ambivalence, you no longer see the conventional hero local audiences had grown used to.
These protagonists operated in a world where the corrupt were those supposed to uphold the law and the few good men were those ostracised as outlaws. Gamini’s sense of justice went beyond the limits of the law. Whether he was pushed to it or whether he put himself into the thick of it, his concern was for the underdog.
The earliest fight scenes in Sinhala films contain an artificiality that, when viewed today, takes away from the delights of such altercations. Static and lifeless, they are invariably shot from one angle and limited to one frame. The music, rising to a jarring crescendo, only adds to the maudlin sentimentality underlying it all. Gamini did away with these conventions and breathed new life into the fight scene, turning it into a veritable art.
All that merely revealed the man’s immense vitality and versatility. Spreading far and wide, his interests went well beyond the cinema. He was profoundly concerned with politics and matters of social justice: themes which crop up in Sarungale, a work that, for all intents and purposes, might as well have been co-directed by him. We have it from D. B. S. Jeyaraj that just before Sarungale’s release, Gamini declared that no Sinhala man would lay his hands on a Tamil person again after seeing it. 1983 showed how wrong he was, but the point was that he shared a concern for the country he was born to. To say that is perhaps not to accept his politics, which Regi Siriwardena made a snide reference to in his review of Sarungale, but to reject his politics is not to dismiss his concerns altogether.
Gamini also displayed an interest in poetry and sketching, pursuits which have, barring the occasional biography, not been properly delved into by journalists. Widely read and deeply immersed in the mechanics of his art, he is an example to those who think you can become an actor by the force of your physique alone. Indeed, anyone who has seen his performance in Nidhanaya will confirm the point that it takes intelligence, hard work, luck, and more than any of these, practice, to unearth your acting skills.
How far this point will apply in a society where acting has all but completely been detached from its intellectual heritage is, of course, a question I am ill-fitted to answer. Yet seeing the many trends pounding the industry today, I remain sceptical: as with other fields of activity, we have dumbed down the art of acting, deplorably.
Straddling the worlds of both art-house and commercial films, Gamini Fonseka went on to dominate the Sinhala cinema. There is a scene in Welikathara where he converses with the villain, Goring Mudalali, at his office. Tissa Abeysekara’s dialogues spice up the altercation, with one salty witticism following another. The words hold back the tension: what you see are two dogs only a hair’s breadth away from pouncing at each other.
Watching Gamini talk the way he does, you are reminded of a similar encounter from a film made a quarter century later: Michael Mann’s Heat, which also pits a police officer against a powerful thief. There, too, the faceoff unfolds as a conversation, this time at a diner. There, too, the politeness of the conversation belies a sense of revulsion. Yet it is a sad testament to how far back we have gone that while Heat epitomises acting of the sort that Hollywood has standardised, Welikathara epitomises what we once held as a standard, but is no longer a yardstick. This is, of course, regrettable. But it is no less reversible.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
An amazing Sri Lankan – ‘the power of one’
By Siri Ipalawatte – Canberra
From Tidbinbilla to rain forests, red wines to thelijja, cappaccino to kurumba, five-stars to homestay…. Just when I thought I had touched every nook and cranny of Sri Lanka, it sprung yet another surprise. An old Uni friend suggested ‘why not visit the unusual and weird landscape called Ussangoda—the place in Hindu Mythology where King Ravana landed his air machine, dandu-monara? And off came another nugget! He said a batchmate of ours lived in a century-old house in a village called Kiula — an exotic name from the fact that the water in the area is kiul as it gets mixed with an underground seashell bed and salt water —very close to Ussangoda. This chance encounter led to a number of texts and mobile calls, and a few days later, a memorable sleepover in his house located between the 217 and 218t kilometre-post on the A2 highway between the sleepy towns of Hungama and Ambalantota in the southern Sri Lanka.
Exactly to the minute at 12.20 pm on one Sunday we drove up to the newly renovated old bungalow, and there was my friend—dressed in white drill trousers, open neck shirt, and sporting a perfect stubble—waiting on the huge front porch to receive us. Of course, he receives us as if we might have been royalty. This is his manner. He greets us with an emotional hug, holding a few extra seconds to compensate for the similar greeting that has not taken place recently between us.
We are shown a room—Wow! We are in a Dutch mansion. He seems to have frequent foreign visitors and in order to make them comfortable, even if they stay for lunch or tea only, he had built a set of large rooms, each with en-suite. Everything from the linen to the china in these rooms is spotless and clean as clean could be. After finishing our quick wash and change we sit in the backyard verandah — an outer open-air courtyard facing a fish pond and herbal garden, surrounded on three sides by bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, and have our lunch. He has extremely well-trained helpers: look like they have been with him a lifetime, they are respectful without being submissive.
I hear echoes of soft footsteps; children walk in one by one, some still in school uniform, and my friend signals the start of classes. The dining table is pushed back to the sidewall, and huge vetakeiya mats with colourful designs and borders are spread on the floor. The children sit devotedly holding various musical instruments. Then, begin the sound of notes emanating from varied musical instruments. I am pleased to notice that the tunings performed by the children themselves, with the help of an iPad!
Music gradually becomes diverse with so many instruments; tabla, sitar, violin, guitar, flute — and notes, both musical and vocal rising to a crescendo as the afternoon progresses —swara, raga, and a wide range of the traditional theme songs with tone of love, sadness, anxiety, motivation, devotion and spirituality. I felt truly happy and energised to share the afternoon with these engaged and intelligent young children who gave us an evening of musical magic that I will never forget. The class ended with all standing up and singing the national anthem together.
I am totally puzzled! How have these rural small children developed such strong, balanced and varied performing abilities? I know their minds and hearts are passionate about arts and music and they love to learn. But who would provide resources and opportunities to fulfill their passions? We often get caught up in what the typical career locations —cities, elite venues, large arts institutions— have to offer, but we forget what opportunity and experience might exist in these smaller, and often forgotten rural spaces. I think my friend wants to make people aware of the amazing qualities and gifts these Kiula children have to offer outsiders. And he has a fascinating story to share with me.
He had come to this village first in 2002, while he was the Chairman of a large corporation in Sri Lanka and quite by chance, bought an old ancestral house of a local politician that was in a dilapidated condition. In 2009, upon his retirement from an active career spanning 45 years, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, he sold his Colombo property, moved to this village having restored and renovated the house, to make it his retirement home. Through routine interaction with the villagers, he soon realised that the village children and their parents had a very limited view of the world and had a low level of self-esteem. Since he had the intention of spending his retirement years productively, he saw that there was an opportunity for him to be of assistance to the village children, to get a broader view of the world and have dreams of better futures for themselves.
He picked on the idea of expanding their knowledge and also their dreams and launched a mobile library. Not only did he buy second-hand books but he also begged his friends to donate whatever books they could, getting a fairly good collection. His first initiative was to begin a mobile library on a tuk-tuk, sent around the village every Saturday afternoon, lent free of charge to village children who became members of the ‘Kiula Kiyawana Gunaya free mobile library service’. Soon, there was widespread interest among children to read and after three years the activity was extended to invite them to contribute their own poetry and essays to a lithographed publication, called ‘Kiula Vimansa Athwela’. While these activities were progressing and the interest of village children on literary pursuits were growing, he moved on to facilitate them to learn music. An initiative that began with learning Sri Lankan folk music was later extended to learning Indian Classical Music.
On a chance meeting of an old friend, who is a graduate of the Bathkhande Sangeeth Vidyapith of Lucknow, India, and his local school in Badulla, an affiliated institute, he realised that he could provide an opportunity for Kiula children to prepare for the Bathkande Sangeeth Vidyapith examinations as external candidates. So, in 2013, commenced free classes in Indian classical music for a group of about 12 students. The first batch of students appeared for the Preveshika level exam in 2014, examined by a visiting Indian Professor and they did very well at the exam having obtained first and second division passes.
Initially, he had hired the music teachers from nearby schools to teach the music classes and the rest were taught by him, using smart classroom techniques —TV and Internet resources. At present, the music classes are taught entirely by old students who have reached the Visharad levels and a scholarship type payment is made to them.
In 2020, a total of 28 students sat for 34 subject areas in vocal music, violin, sitar, tabla, bansoori flute and esraj. Seven students who had reached the Visharad II level at the last exam have completed their final theory examination and now are Vishards. A further nine are at the Madyama (Diploma) level with 17 at the Prathama and Praveshika levels.
As he saw the need for the children to learn English and develop a better worldview, he also conducts free English and mixed learning classes. A few students are learning Japanese, Hindi and Tamil. Japanese taught by a lecturer with a PhD from Japan—one of his own students at Kelaniya Uni and a friend, retired after serving in JAICA. Hindi teacher’s services are obtained from the Swami Vivekananda Indian Cultural Institute, in Colombo and online Tamil teacher is the wife of a friend. In order to beat the Covid blues of the kids, he began organising online Sangeetha Ekamuthuwa on every Sunday afternoon using Zoom—and now is in its 21 week!
All activities are at no cost to the parents of the children, and even examination fees for the Bathkhande Exams are provided by his own savings. He has two daughters who live and work in the USA and they are his primary source of outside assistance. The only donations he has accepted over the years were used and new books and used and new musical instruments.
He would like to think of this initiative as proof of what one person can do, in a small way, on his or her own to cause change and he is very happy that his consistent effort has now proven to have paid off. He calls it ‘The Power of One’.
The virus and I
By Ransiri Menike Silva
Opening the newspapers these days is a hazardous exercise, one never knows from which page the Coronavirus will attack you, from a variety of angles and views that are factual, theoretical or speculative. For there it is, lurking furtively to pounce on the reader. And it is all so unutterably boring!
Is there nothing else to talk about? I wondered, so many interesting and entertaining things going on around us, like the acrobatic antics of our politicians and BIG (not bed) bugs have suddenly been stamped underground. No wonder it is so dull. I had just decided to terminate my subscription to my newspaper dealer, when I hit the jackpot, the virus came my way!
Summoning my regular trishaw man, Ranjith, not only for transport but also to ‘get shot’ himself along with me, we hit the road. The neighbourhood was familiar, the atmosphere not. We were travelling a muted world that was so soothing that I wondered why it could not always be so. The roads were full of pedestrians walking single file, in cliques or family groups. The traffic comprised two wheelers, three-wheelers and four-wheelers, yet there was no harsh screeching of brakes, no incessant honking, no heavy thump of badly negotiated speed bumps. All were heading one way. Nature contributed in her own way.
The breeze was gentle and the leaves rustled softly. A bird chirped on the top most branch of a tree and the telephone wires were bereft of noisy babblers. There were no raucous crows, mewing cats, whining dogs and snivelling kids, only the loud persistent announcements of a lone squirrel about his discovery of a bunch of ripe mangoes.
When we reached our destination the gates were open and the entire location swarming with busy people. It was dotted with billowing tents and awnings of a wisely chosen off-white shade that was easy on the eyes. These housed tables, chairs, writing material, forms and officials offering every form of assistance.
A hesitant expression or gesture from a new entrant had a squad of helpers instantly materialising to offer help with a chair; table; water; snacks; drinks; tissues; as well as by mending broken footwear, massaging tired feet and of course showing the way to the toilets. My Tuk Tuk had hardly stopped outside the main gate when a posse of policemen converged upon it and bore me off to a comfortable chair with the assurance, “Don’t worry Amma we will look after you.”
On spotting my escort returning after parking his vehicle following the unspoken instructions issued by the authorities, a senior police officer guided me to the correct place, his arm protectively around me like a mother with her new born babe; depositing me carefully in a chair he left me with a cheery wave to ‘mother’ some other ‘Amma’. Later he suddenly materialized beside me with the triumphant announcement, “Now it’s your turn Amma go that way.”
How on earth had he known? I wondered thoroughly surprised, but before I could show him my appreciation in an appropriate manner, he had vanished. While Ranjith was attending to all the formalities on my behalf, I sat back in my chair and watched the passing scene as I usually do as a writer. Something was definitely out of the place here. What? No queues! Unbelievable with such an enormous crowd. There were only about three or four people lined up (Ranjith was one) in front of each official who attended to their work. As each one was dismissed another automatically joined the line, not in a haphazard manner but from a row of applicants lolling in shaded comfort under an awning. That was the queue!
Families with no facilities to leave their young children at home alone arrived en masse. The mother joined the queue first and the others took off to some other part of the garden where they could enjoy themselves without disturbing others. I even spotted a lively ‘hide and seek’ game going on with young volunteer workers!
“That way” involved climbing two shallow steps to enter the second phase of our adventure and I found myself hauled up with one to my left, one to my right, one behind me and the other in front of me. Here a right royal welcome awaited us now labelled the ‘Ammai-Puthai’ duo. We were provided tidy packages of fresh milk cartons with straws and tissues before being escorted along an airy corridor to another part of the same property; then they turned back to attend to others following behind.
On spotting us, the ‘Ammai-Puthai’ duo, we were accorded special attention as we were the only elderly parent-child group present. I noted that each tent housed a different set of people who had been assigned separate rooms for treatment. The open-air arrangement was cool and refreshing, and the unlittered grass surprising. Then I saw youngsters with garbage bags collecting litter even before it hit the ground. A voluntary act that uplifted my spirits. When it was our turn the forms we had been issued earlier were collected and filled with more vital details, including the date for the second ‘shot’.
Smart blue uniformed matrons supervised everything. When my turn came, I was deposited gently in a chair, my left sleeve rolled up and the upper arm sterilized. Then the needle was jabbed in and pulled out before I could even summon up a grimace. What an anti-climax! Of course I heard a few stray noises emitted by some who probably expected it to be the done thing, but all others were as unaffected as I was. All forms were returned to us and we were advised to wait for 20 minutes to monitor any adverse reactions. Sitting there I wryly recalled the time our dog contracted rabies when I was an adolescent. Each day, after school, we had to report to the MRI for 18 days to get our anti-rabies vaccinations around the ‘buriya’ (navel) with a syringe so enormous that it resembled some ancient torture device! I have yet to see another one of that size.
Our wait was thankfully uneventful, no sneeze or even a sniffle. There were no musical chants from mobile phones but animated comical gesturing into them by their owners instead. When our time to leave was officially approved we were instructed to use the rear gate for exiting. Standing on the grass verge till Ranjith brought his Tuk Tuk around I could not help reflecting amusedly on the great ‘surgical trauma’ we had just undergone. We drove home in silence in keeping with the trend of the day and were finally back at home to relax, eat and sleep.
This, however, turned out an unfulfilled dream, for in a very short while the calls started coming in without a break. They came from friends and relatives who had also been ‘shot’ that day and were keen to share their individual experiences with me. They were from locations wide apart; Dehiwala, Moratuwa, Thelawala, Campbell Park (Borella) and De Zoysa Pura. Their experiences were almost identical to mine with only a few minor variations. The overall impression was the almost unbelievable efficiency evident at all these centres. It was obvious that this discipline was not due to any outside pressure but came from within all the volunteer workers; psyche that lay submerged until a time of need, when it swims to the surface.
It happens every day, unknown to the general public, in small and essential ways. It has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Warmth and care for others is an intrinsic trait. We always share whatever we have with others, even sacrificing our own possessions to gift to another. It is a tradition among us, to never let a visitor leave without serving a cup of tea and other refreshments if available. Often it will be an impromptu invitation to a meal at a table loaded with hurriedly prepared extras. An outstanding example of this was during the Tsunami when everybody came together in one tight group.
When we come together at such times, it is evident that, whatever we may call ourselves outwardly, we are ‘one’ people sans differences of skin colour, age, gender, social status or personal beliefs. Foreigners who have encountered this, either in our own country or elsewhere are overwhelmed by this unmatchable intrinsic quality that has existed since the beginning of time, long before ‘Karuna’ (kindness) was instilled in us by all the religious teachers of the world.
The most publicised comment about this comes from Edward Snowden, the well-known whistleblower who exposed the workings of the US intelligence community to the world. In his latest book ‘Permanent Record’ he writes in detail about the kindness and generosity of his poverty-ridden Sri Lankan hosts, who had helped him enormously, declaring his gratitude, saying that he would forever be in their debt.
I feel proud and privileged to be a part of such a wonderful nation even in a minuscule way. I hope you are too. I also thank the Coronavirus for affording me the chance in an oblique way, to publicise my undying loyalty to my wonderful country. I am proud to be a Lankan and hope you are, too.
Travellers and traders: Muslims of Sri Lanka
By Uditha Devapriya
In 851 AD, an Arab merchant, called Soleyman, wrote an account of his travels to the island of Serendib. Impressionistic but insightful, it records the earliest known engagement of a Muslim with Sri Pada, also known as Samantukuta.
Soleyman does not refer to Sri Pada as “aadam malayi”, the name we see in later Muslim reconstructions of the peak. Instead he calls it “Al-Rohoun”, which is what the ninth century Indian poet Rajasekhara used in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area around the mountain belonged. Literary sources inform us that this was the term used, and preferred, by Arabs and Indians from that time.
Around five centuries later, the scholar and traveller Ibn Batuta is reported to have climbed the peak. Patronised by the king of Jaffna, Batuta ascended the summit and came across a grotto bearing the name “Iskander.” Poets, travellers, and even historians would later posit this as evidence for the view, now largely debunked, that Alexander the Great climbed Sri Pada on his horse. Writing of his ascent, Batuta also noted that a Muslim Imam called Abu Abdallah, said to have died in 953 AD, was the first Muslim to make the climb. What we can speculate about from Batuta’s travels, other than the identity of “Iskander”, is that Muslim engagement with the summit dates to the 9th centuries.
Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka, of course, precedes these pilgrimages, while Arab engagement with the island predates even the coming of Islam. From the Mahavamsa we know that Pandukabhaya, after emerging triumphant from his war with his uncles, settled a community of “yonas” at the Western gate of his capital, Anuradhapura. “Yona”, we know well enough, was the term the Portuguese and the Dutch later used on Arabs.
We can’t really confirm whether the community Mahanama Thera referred to were the ancestors of the traders and settlers European colonisers encountered many centuries later. Yet, the coincidence is striking: it suggests that European colonisers considered the Arabs as alien to the country as the yonas of yore. Of course, the truth was more complex than such colonialist perceptions would suggest: by the 15th century, Arabs had become active participants in Sri Lanka’s economic, cultural, and political life.
We come across extensive references to Arabs in the country no earlier than in the sixth century AD. The literary sources we have tell us that merchants, from this period, made their way to Sri Lanka through three trade routes: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Braudel writes that by the seventh century, trade in the Far East was dominated by these three economies. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated but not cut off from the Indian subcontinent. It is from this vantage point that we should delve into the Arab origins of the Muslims, specifically Moors, of Sri Lanka.
Where did Arab traders settle in Sri Lanka? One school of thought argues that they first settled in localities in the north. Another school contends that they moved southwest, with records showing that a landing was made in Barberyn in 1024 AD. It must be noted that two of the oldest mosques were built in the latter region: the construction of the oldest of them, Al Abrar, dates to the 10th century, and that of the other, Kechchimalai, to the 12th.
Regardless of where they settled, we know what role they played in Sri Lankan society: they were, first and foremost, traders and merchants. In this, they became intermediaries between the island and the world. Enmeshing themselves in the commercial fabric of the country, they introduced practices that may not have been familiar to locals before their arrival. To say this is certainly not to deny the vitality of Sinhala civilisation; merely to note that the assimilation of other groups to that civilisation reinforced that vitality.
These encounters were hardly limited to the southwest, or even the north. Wherever they settled, Muslim traders wielded much influence, serving not just as merchants but also patrons of society. Encountering Colombo, for instance, Ibn Batuta wrote of a vizier called Jalasti, who had with him a retinue of 500 Abyssinians. Tennent suggested that his presence showed the Sinhalese were indifferent to commerce. Tennent’s view is, in one sense, a generalisation in line with colonialist readings of Sinhala culture, but it belies the reality of Muslim involvement of the island’s trade after the 10th century.
Their sense of privilege and proportion was significantly enlarged by a concession they won from Sinhala rulers: the ability to be tried by their own laws. This was an expedient necessitated by commerce: according to Lorna Dewaraja, whenever a dispute arose in any of the ports where they traded, it had to be settled “by a tribunal consisting of Muslim priests, merchants, and mariners.” Such privileges were crucial, because like any trade-based community Arab Muslims required a body of laws they could apply to their kind, wherever and in whatever part of the world they operated from. Their importance in this regard was not lost on local rulers: part of the reason why Arya Cakravari patronised Ibn Batuta so well was his desire to tap into Arab trade in the region.
Unlike European colonisers, even Muslims from other parts of the region, Arab traders formed one of the more peaceful communities in the island. Their pacifist nature, a stark contrast to the fanaticism of their compatriots in India, the Maldives, and South-East Asia, encouraged Sinhala kings to grant them settlements of their own. Eventually they became not just a part, but a fact, of life in the country.
In his account of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka, Paul E. Pieris recounts an incident where, upon their first arrival in the island, the colonialists managed to anger locals by attempts to slaughter their cattle. What is fascinating about this episode is that Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka preceded the Portuguese by nine centuries, and even more fascinating, the fact that cattle slaughter was one of the few crimes for which a refugee could not escape the brunt of the law if he or she escaped to a viharagam (where cattle were held in high regard). It was, to borrow the parlance of modern law, a non-bailable offence.
Based on such fragmentary evidence, the conclusion we can reach is that cattle slaughter would have been tolerated as a practice of a community, in this case Muslims, assimilated to the country’s society. When committed by a foreign group, on the other hand, it would have constituted an act of disrespect, or even aggression.
There is, of course, no doubt that Muslim settlers and local communities faced a common enemy in the European coloniser. In their attempts to convince the king of the perfidious nature of the Portuguese, for example, Buddhist monks actively took the side of Muslim traders, warning the Sinhalese court of the dangers of allowing the Westerners too many privileges. By this point the reputation of Muslims had transcended their position as mere traders; they had entered other fields, as diverse as medicine and the crafts, flourishing in whatever domain they settled in. In incorporating them into the court, as physicians or members of the military, the Sinhala polity thus absorbed them into its social structure. It is this that explains the high regard Buddhist monks had for them. Historians who tend to play with categories of race, without noting the role caste played in Sinhala society, fail to appreciate fully the implications of such developments.
We see these processes continue in the Kandyan kingdom. For a social structure that was so rigid and fixed, it is astonishing that it absorbed outside communities so well. Muslims not surprisingly figured in its scheme of things: they were decreed a place in the Sinhala caste system, banded together with the karavas or the fisher folk. They were also allowed their own headmen for the villages they settled in. This gave them a twin advantage: while maintaining amicable relations with the king, they continued with their cultural practices that set them apart from other social and caste groups. Readily genuflecting before rulers and nobles, they played a role as merchants, physicians, and envoys.
The fact that we do not come across records of tensions between them and other groups, particularly those such as the Buddhist clergy, indicates that, for all its limitations, Kandyan feudalism did a better job than British colonialism in maintaining inter-group relations. To say this is by no means to romanticise the caste system; only to suggest, as historians like Lorna Dewaraja have, that colonialism brought an end to a period of symbiotic harmony between groups who were, with the advent of Western rule, to see themselves in ethnic rather than caste terms. This, however, is an entirely new domain of research, one which most contemporary scholars, barring the likes of Asiff Hussein, have not explored. That it should be explored is implied in the unfortunate, though hardly inevitable, conflagrations of ethnic tension which crop up from time to time today. As Regi Siriwardena suggested a long time ago, what needs to be emphasised is not imagined unity, but actual diversity: a diversity that remained a force for unity for so long.
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