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Gods in jungles and pandemic in cities

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‘As adults we know that humans are certainly a believing bunch. And evolutionary anthropologists say that’s no miracle. The origins and ubiquity of religious beliefs can be explained by evolutionary theory.’

By B. Nimal Veerasingham

School days are always straddled with many fun times in everyone’s hard drives. Remembering growing up, our psyche always keeps the pleasant ones permanent rather than others, as a holistic booster to our overall wellbeing.

Listening to stories is everyone’s favourite, especially during childhood. During my primary school days there were class buddies who could relate fictional stories, at times we don’t know whether it’s one or many, craftly encompassed into one. Many times, there is no official end to such stories and always left in a state of ‘to be continued’. When a subject teacher is absent, the temporary teacher, or the Senior student who fills up, engages such storytellers to the rescue. The class is mesmerised delving deep into the unknown without end. Occasionally there are few temporary teachers who would pose questions to amuse themselves while keeping the class engaged. In one such session a question of futuristic pondering was posed, ‘what do you want to become when grown?’ I can clearly remember almost half of the class raising their hands to become, of course, ‘Father’ (Catholic priest). The young students perceived priesthood as an act of nobility and selfless service to others, as the school was managed by American Jesuits then.

Only one became a Father and all the rest became real fathers to families.

During the same time period at school, I had another classmate whose father had several lorries (trucks) plying back and forth to Colombo as he was an agent to several commercial consumer goods in town. I have noticed that all lorries have a large straight board, mounted from one end to the other behind the driver’s seat. This board contained almost all the known Gods equally in separate square frames. One day I asked my friend as to the logic of having all Gods in the lorries. Coming closer and tapping on my shoulder he told me with a chuckle, ‘Machan, as you know, the road to Colombo after dark has many unknown obstacles. Floods, robbers, wild animals and notably elephants. I am sure one God out of all would help us to overcome those, as we do not want to bet on just one.’

Thinking of it now, he reminds me of the most common recommended strategy of all present-day financial advisers, ‘do not put all eggs in one basket’.

Religions, notably the organised ones, nowadays, undergo a major transformation in many circles all around the globe. As the world becomes intrinsically connected more than ever, the change in the West is quite apparent as droves mainly the younger generation stay away from organised religions. ‘Spiritual, not religious’ is one of the catchphrases. The growth of practical application of knowledge and science perpetuates critical thinking and questions the validity of many beliefs of the past.

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

While precise numbers of church closures are elusive, a conservative estimate is that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year. It’s not uncommon to see ‘Churches for Sale’ in real estate classified advertisements. Developers are busy turning many into condominiums providing the serene structure and reverberating invocations, as part of the sales pitch for potential condo dwellers.

When I see old places of worship, some almost 100 years old, with perceived accumulated positivity are being sold and converted into normal dwellings, it brings back the memory of a science teacher we had at school. True to his calling, he wanted us to think differently, not falling in line with simple ‘why’, but more so with ‘why not’ school of thought. Once he described how he and his friends had stayed the whole night in a very old, abandoned temple to record anything that sounded abnormal. According to his theory when the exact temperature, atmospheric pressure and wind patterns repeats that of a past date, ideally the sounds from that past date also would repeat. It’s kind of placing Newton’s law of motion in analytical interpretation. It made us spellbound to listen to challenging situational variations of physics and life sciences by our beloved science teacher, sharpening critical thinking along the way.

As adults we know that humans are certainly a believing bunch. And evolutionary anthropologists say that’s no miracle. The origins and ubiquity of religious beliefs can be explained by evolutionary theory.

First, our ancestors evolved certain mental abilities, useful for survival and reproduction, which predisposed them to religious beliefs. Many mental ingredients are necessary for religion as we know it. But scholars emphasise three tendencies, which are pronounced in humans, but minimally expressed in other species, that we seek patterns, infer intentions and learn by imitation.

These are cognitive adaptations that helped our ancestors survive. For example, it is obviously useful to notice paw prints (a pattern) laid by an animal planning to eat you (an intention), and to deter the predator with tactics others have successfully used (imitation). But people overextend these tendencies as part of human expression and energized renditions. This led to connecting disasters to angry deities and reading the future by way of a whole heap of bodily features and cosmic timings.

Our natural tendency to over-imitate predisposes us to religious practices. Rather than relying on experience and trial-and-error, humans learn most behaviors and skills from other people. Evolved features of our brains, such as Theory of Mind and over-imitation, likely caused the emergence of religions in human societies. It doesn’t take supernatural beings to explain why so many people believe in them, just natural evolutionary processes.

One of the household names in Sri Lanka and one of the oldest God worshipped by both Sinhalese and Tamils is ‘Kataragama deviyo’ or Kandan/Murugan/Karthigayan/Subramaniyan/Velan/Sayon/Shanmuga or Kumaran. There are records even before Christ the existence of Kataragama God situated in a jungle terrain not easily accessed. Sir Pon Arunachalam (celebrated civil servant, legislative member, father of University of Ceylon) writing in the Journal of the Asiatic Society 1924 edition, mentions that ‘hardly anyone goes there except for pilgrimage twice a year, the forest haunted by bears, elephants, leopards and deadlier malaria.

The last stage of about 11 miles beyond Tissamaharama is over a difficult forest track and a river, Menik Ganga, which in flood time has to be swum across there being no boats. In the 1930s, when good roads were scarce even in Colombo, my grandmother walked barefoot the whole way to Kataragama and back in fulfilment of a vow for the recovery from illness of her child, the future Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy (Legislative member and the first Asian to be knighted). Hardships they endured are such as are yearly borne with cheerfulness by thousands travelling by foot along the coastal jungle tracks of the Northern, Eastern and Uva provinces and many from India’ he writes.

Clearly, the abode of Lord Murugan or Skandakumara is mountainous jungle terrain (Kuringi tract as per Sangam literature) and intrinsically affiliated to the then Hunter-gatherer framework. Even the celebrated six abodes of Lord Murugan tied to Vedic times are situated in hilly and once jungle regions of Tamil Nadu. The earliest mention of Kartikeya in Buddhist texts may be found in the ‘Janayasabha Sutta’ of the Pali Canon, where he is referred to as ‘Sanankumara’. Here he is introduced as a deva of the rank of ‘Mahabrahma’ and a disciple of the Buddha.

The antiquity of Skanda worship has been noted in Sangam literature (400BCE – 300 CE) and differing views are still debated on the symbols found in Harappa-Indus valley civilizations (Old Bronze age). The jungle God’s close association with native aboriginals, wild honey in the offerings, ‘aalathi Bami’ dance performed by Vedda women during rituals, and the native priesthood untouched by Brahmanical influences, reinforce the organic nature of the history. To cap it, his second concert Valli Amma originated from the same aboriginal clan. Even the weapon he is identified with, lance or spear, is the first hunting weapon humans adopted to safely hunt from a distance. Lord Skanda’s favourite jungle dwelling peacock and his elephant-faced brother Ganesh are not mysteries in this string of evidence.

Appreciation to nature and origins of human civilization is the centre and possible reason for Skanda worship. Anthropologists argue that this ancient form of rituals and forms of worship originated and got shaped, when humans started or were moving into an agrarian society from the jungle dependent hunter-gatherer society.

As our societies continue to evolve, with the current technological advancements that provide greater benefits and solutions to our existential challenges, the traditional role once religion played becomes foggy.

Societal, cultural and identity markers at times influence the degree of belief or pretention within societies. Developed countries show less, while developing countries show more in this equilibrium. Japan has only about 4% of its population identified as religious and a similar trend in Western Europe where social scientists now characterise as ‘post Christian’. Much of the developed world provides the best to their citizens in their hour of need, which also makes the belief in a benevolent God less attractive and meaningless, allowing a higher power to keep watch over people. Organised religion may no longer be needed in such societies, but its still human nature to perceive agency in the complexity and unpredictability of the world, even when there is none.

The current pandemic has travelled in unchartered territory, destabilising the ways to seek interference of a higher power. The growth in the knowledge and the power of science literally put the Gods muted, even putting their places of residence in curfew or lockdown modes, making the divide even greater for the devotees at the hour of need.

The ‘Groundhog Day’ is a Hollywood movie released in 1993, starring Bill Murray. It’s about a cynical television weatherman thoroughly caught up in a boring, slow-moving small town, facing the same situation again and again, and becoming depressed.

Groundhog is a lowland rodent. The North American farmers of a bygone era had a superstitious belief in its ability to predict a short or a long winter in early February. As weather mattered to farmers in terms of soil preparation, groundhog helped if anyone believed in its prediction. If the rodent coming after hibernation doesn’t see its shadow due to cloudy weather and remains out of its burrow, it means the winter is short. This tradition is kept alive in certain cities still as an entertainment, simply to invigorate the economy by way of publicity for tourism.

The weatherman’s agony of facing a bleak state without hope is captured in the below conversation.

‘What would you do if you were struck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing you did mattered?’

That’s what Phil (Bill Murray) asks two men at a bar as he contemplates the boring dead-end of repeating Groundhog Day over and over, with a known outcome.

One of them answers, ‘That about sums it for me.’

For many of us the situation created by the pandemic has not changed much for the last two years, going through the drill of the same again and again, with no end in sight. No real togetherness, no travels, no public places and no family occasions. Every day is fraught with suspicion, caution and vigilance. Not to mention the physical and psychological complications of being isolated or feeling lonely. The only theme that rises above is the indefinite nature of the jam that we are all in at the same time.

Though Act 2 brings the darker side of depression and escapism through criminality Phil gets enlightened by way of overcoming hopelessness with two key components. He uses his time in the service of others and constantly engages in ‘self-improvement’. In the service of others need not be simply donating money but could be as easy as directly connecting others with gifts of time, empathy and humor. Sharing an uplifting remark or acknowledging or smiling at people that you come across daily or querying the neighbors of his/her welfare, are simple acts that we often take for granted. The inner satisfaction of truly generating care and concern for others also allows us to record the blessings or what we are grateful for. Numerous studies have indicated that this simple act of counting the blessings increases satisfaction with life and frees us from time prison. Constantly allowing us to develop and make new hobbies or getting better at acquiring new skills frees us from the clogged mind or memory lapses and will lead to optimism instead of negativity. Phil takes up ice carving and music lessons as part of acquiring new skills to keep his mind positively active.

When he made a difference in how he sees and reacts to the outside world, his outlook of what a ‘Groundhog Day’ changed entirely. He learnt to reinvent himself and to be in the service of others by acknowledging, ‘Anything different is good.’

Difference achieved by re-examining habits and attitudes.

Doing good we might say what all major faiths propose but ends up as mere habit or routine.

It is not like what we want to become when we grow up to do good, or betting on different Gods for increased probability. If we want to uplift our emotional and physical health now during this time of breakdown of our daily lives, then there is an answer within us, not necessarily a grant from any higher power.

The film encircles the most important theme Tolstoy propelled through the parable ‘The three questions’ published in 1885 as part of the ‘What men live by and other tales.’ When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do all the time?

As the king learned from the sequent events including practising lifesaving skills, the answer is within us and no need to look for counsel from others when it comes to doing the right thing.

‘Do good for all, and learn new skills’



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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