Geographical factors prepare the agrobase while astrological factors determine the time-frame of our annual Solar Festival.
As prominence given to more mundane things has held sway over our annual solar festival, popularly known as ‘aluth avurudda’, (and loosely referred to as the Sinhala-Tamil New Year), most of us little know or have not given sufficient thought to how this unique phenomenon has evolved over the years. Hence, although several weeks have elapsed since the dawn of the solar festival in mid-April this year, ruminating on its evolution and development thus far cannot be confined to a particular month or a few days of the year, although it is the culmination that reaches in mid-April. Even a cursory glance through its occurrence (recurrence!) shows that the dawning and waning of this nostalgic-event are spread over the whole year, and that it’s not a spontaneous activity. Even a rudimentary glance through the cyclic nature of this event shows that it’s the outcome of the interplay of several repetitive happenings basically influenced by geographical and astrological determinants.
(i) Solar Festival Coinciding with the Vernal Equinox
When discussing the geographical determinants of our solar festival, the two events that we need to lay emphasis are the two major events coinciding with the (virtual) movement of the sun. The sun crosses the celestial equator twice a year. When the sun crosses the celestial equator in its northward journey up to the tropic of Cancer, it is referred to as the vernal equinox. Its timing is March 20/21. This is the commencement of the astronomical spring and summer for the northern hemisphere. It takes three months to reach the northern limit, that is, the tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees from the equator), and its timing is June 20/21. In the sun’s return journey southwards it again crosses the celestial equator on September 20/2, referred to as the autumnal equinox. This event heralds the dawn of summer for the southern hemisphere. Thereupon, the sun journeys up to the tropic of Capricorn , that is, to its southern limit, on December 20/21. This limit too is 23.5 degrees away from the celestial equator.
(ii) Positioning of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the sun’s upward – downward journeys
Against this backdrop what is relevant to our discussion on the solar festival is the positioning of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the aforesaid journey of the sun. Sri Lanka is
approximately 7/8 degrees north of the celestial equator. Therefore, when the sun is over Sri Lanka in its northward journey it will be 23/24 days after the vernal equinox.
90 days – 23 days = 67 x 2 (up & down) = 134 days = Approx. 4 ½ months (Yala)
Its timing, therefore, coincides with April 14/15, on which date we celebrate the solar festival. From there onwards the sun takes approx.. 66/67 days to reach the tropic of Cancer, and for the sun to be over Sri Lanka again, in its southward journey, it takes another 66/67 days. So the sun’s movement from being over the island and back again to be over the island will take approximately 134/135 days or 4 ½ months.
(iii) The Yala – Maha Seasons and their impact on the Solar Festival
Due to Sri Lanka’s positioning nearly 8 degrees north of the equator, we saw that the sun in its northward journey, would be over the island on April 14/15. Again in its southward journey to the autumnal equinox the sun would be over Sri Lanka on August 26/27. The sun’s journey to the tropic of Cancer, from being over Sri Lanka and to be back to be on Sri Lanka would take 133/134 days or nearly 4 ½ months; that is, on the basis of 67 days of the sun’s upward journey from Sri Lanka to the tropic of Cancer and again it be over Sri Lanka in its backward journey. This shorter period of 4 ½ months is the Yala season or the ‘lesser harvest period. Invariably, therefore, the Maha season is the longer period of 7 ½ months, which is considered the principal or the main harvesting period.
(iv) Why the Solar Festival cooinconicides with the end of the Maha Seasons –
This determination would drive home the fact that while the Yala season in the island is shorter, the Maha season enjoys a wider spread of about 7 ½ months, vis-à-vis the total period of 12 months. Our Solar Festival is at the end of the Maha season, which provides a bountiful harvest during the month of Medin. The word Maha comes from Mas which is a combination of Maha+As (large+harvest). The month of Medin is what you get by combining Maha+Din. Maha is great/large or bountiful, and Din is reaping / cutting or harvesting. The oldest reference to the word din is in the Dhampiya Atuwa Getapadaya, inferred to have been written by king Kassapa V (Aba Salamevan Kasub) of the Anuradhapura period, that is, inor around the 10th century AD. Din also appears in the same context in several other subsequent literary works, namely, Amavatura and Ruwan Mal Niganduwa (a lexicon of the Kotte period).
The month coinciding with the Solar Festival is known as Bak Maha (month of Bak). It follows the month of medin. Hence, it needs no explanation that with the advent of the month of bak the country will be richer with a bountiful harvest gathered in the month of medin. The month of Bak (bhagya in Sanskrit for fortunate) thus becomes a propsperous – bountiful month as a result of the long period of agricultural pursuits under the Maha season, and the bountiful harvests gathered thereof in the month of Medin.
While geographical determinants set the groundwork for the staging of our solar festival, astrological determinants help fine-tuning the exactitudes as to what, how and when the gamut of related activites has to be performed. As to when the application of astrology to our routine and special activities commenced remains in obscurity. But the fact remains that timing is everything in our society, and shows how pervasive astrology has been in the Sri Lankan society. The success of something is often related
to when it happens. The astrological chart linked to the solar festival, therefore, plays a major role in determining the numerous activities linked to the Solar Festival, ranging from the waning of the Old-Year to the dawning of the New Year. There are three important phases in the sun’s transit from the old year to the new year. These are (i) The tail end of the old year referred to as ‘parana-avurudda’, (ii) The period of transition, referred to as ‘sankranthi’ (a Sanskrit word) or ‘nonagathaya’ (the period yet to arrive or the period un-arrived), and (iii) aluth avurudda (dawn of the new year).
‘Nonagathaya’ (the period not arrived/un-arrived) is an interesting word that gives a clue in an attempt to trace the history of the traditions of the solar festival. This word is derived from the combination of na + agatha. agatha is a past participle that appears commonly in many rock inscriptions including that of Vessagiri, belonging to the 6th century A.D. (of the early Anuradhapura period). One of its inscriptions says:
“dhamarakitha thera Agatha anagatha chathudisha shagasha dine.
anikata sona pithaha bariya upasika thisaya lene”.
(could be translated as “The rock cave donated to Dhammarakkhitha thero and sangha or fraternity who came from the four directions. This is the rock cave of female devotee Tissa, wife of Anekatta Sona’s father.)
Entry of Religious Observances, Customs, Rituals and Festivities
It is pretty obvious that, with the passage of time any human activity would grow in size
with the entry of beliefs, rituals, customs and festivities. They also provide a fertile springboard for the sprouting of faith-related activities. With the phasing out of the of
the total event into old year, interim phase and the new year a whole hog of things found their way into the system. Leaving aside the avurudu sports, festivities and community-activities, this is how such observances and customs as listed herein came in: (i) Bathing for the passing year, (ii) Cleaning and kindling the hearth, (iii) Boiling the milk-pot, (iv) Preparing the first meal, (v) Waring a particular coloured costume, (vi) Exchanging pleasantries, (vii) Partaking the first meal, (viii) Transacting with the well and with family members, including planting of a tree (ix) Visiting relatives and friends (x) Bathing (purification) for the newly dawned year, and (xi) Leaving home for diurnal activities. Each of the more important rituals and observances was guided by an astrologically determined auspicious time.
Nonagathaya (un-arrived time) and Religious Activities
Among the different phases of the solar festival much importance was give to
‘nonagathaya’ or the un-arrived time. During this time, according to tradition the Sri
Lankans have been encouraged to refrain from material pursuits, and engage solely in
religious activities. This is the period the sun is said to be transiting from rewathi nekata of the Meena rashi (Pisces) to aswida nekatha of the Mesha rashi (Aries). Astrologically this span of about 6 ½ hours isn’t result bearing period, and therefore, the people have been, for ages, bent on religious practices. Some have dared to refer to nonagathaya as an inauspicious time.
Commonality of Our Solar Festival with those of Our neighbours
Probing into the festivals of our neighbouring countries reveals that their national festivals also coincide with our solar festival. This revelation enables reaching the obvious conclusion that wherever agricultural pursuits had been their main stay, the sun played a decisive role in determining their activities. The national holidays referred to as Songkran in Thailand also falls on April 13, and goes on for three days up to April 15. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word sankranthi. They also believe in the sun’s transiting, which is specifically referred to as meṣha saṅkrānti. In Thailand event has lately been transformed as the National Water Festival, highlighting the impact of water on their daily pursuits. The geographical spread of the solar festival also establishes the impact of the Hindu calendar and the influence of the Sanskrit language on their civilizations. It also reveals that the traditional solar-based New Year is celebrated in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mauritius, some parts of northeast India, parts of Vietnam and China as well. The timing of these festivals is almost similar. All these countries including Sri Lanka had been following the Solar Calendar until the advent of the Gregorian Calendar. The Silappadikaram of the 5th century, an elaborate poetic interpretation of Tamil culture mentions the 12 Raasis or zodiac signs that correspond to the Tamil months starting with Mesha/Chitterai (Aries) in mid-April.
Conclusion – The Sun, the First Time-keeper to the Nation
Hence, the above revelations compel us to conclude that our solar festival is more than just a solar experience. As it is intensively interwoven with the habits of the people, it is a festival that celebrates Sri Lankan culture, history, and science. In fact, the sun has been our first time-keeper to the nation. Greek culture was referred to as the Hellenistic culture as they were worshippers of the sun. Helio is the sun. Our ancestors were also worshippers of the sun, and they were also referred to as Helas. It is the four Hela clans (Yak, Na, Dev, Rakus) that later became siv+hela and ultimately Sinhala. Heli helei heleyya… a song that continues to be sung by our fisher-folk is a strong indication of our closeness with the sun. There’s hardly any doubt, therefore, that our solar festival goes back to unrecorded prehistoric times.
It needs to extend a word of appreciation to Prof. Ajantha S. Dharmasiri for providing the writer an opportunity to research and make a presentation on our Solar Festival to the Institute’s staff.
Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’
By B. Nimal Veerasingham
Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.
The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.
In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.
The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.
Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?
The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.
The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.
The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.
LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.
In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.
Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.
Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.
The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.
The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.
For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.
But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.
As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.
Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.
What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.
Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.
A tribute: Sumana Aloka Bandara
Top and bottom photos show Bandara with his theatre troupe
By Uditha Devapriya
Photographs of Bandara
by Manusha Lakshan
“That the man who wrote these plays wasn’t mentioned in the State Drama Advisory Board’s ‘Playwrights of the ‘60s baffles me even today.” (Sunil Mihindukula)
Sunil Mihindukula was referring to Sumana Aloka Bandara. When my friend Chathura Pradeep broke the news to me of Bandara’s passing away last Monday, I first wondered how many people, particularly young people, would have heard of his name. In the heady years of Sinhala theatre, in the early 1960s, Bandara lived and breathed theatre. If his works aren’t as remembered today as they ought to be, they were immensely popular then. His sole achievement, for those who have the foggiest notion of what he did, seems to have been introducing Malini Fonseka to the stage. Yet this isn’t all he did.
In much the same way Sarachchandra became a product of his era, Bandara epitomised the cultural zeitgeist of the times he lived in. He counted among his contemporaries G. D. L. Perera and Premaranjith Tilakaratne, as well as the formidable Sugathapala de Silva. Critics invariably refer to this generation as the children of 1956, but they were more correctly the pioneers who made 1956 possible: hailing from a subrural middle-class, educated in English, they lived and revelled in a bilingual twilight between West and East, studying Shakespeare, Becket, the kitchen sink realists, and kabuki with as much dexterity as they did traditional dramatic forms. I lamented the passing away of this era when Premaranjith Tilakaratne died four years ago. With Bandara’s demise, the circle seems dismally complete.
Sumana Aloka Bandara was born on October 31, 1940 in Diullegoda, near Nikaweratiya. He obtained his primary education at Diullegoda Rajaye Pasala and his secondary education at Vijayaba Maha Vidyalaya. At Vijayaba, he met Simon Nawagaththegama.
Apparently Simon had been quite a character: “he was almost always mulling over a book.” While the school hadn’t boasted of exceptional facilities, “it empowered us to explore our interests.” Against this backdrop, Bandara and Nawagaththegama ended up becoming great friends: “I sincerely believe that, to his dying day, I was the only childhood friend he kept in touch with.” Surprisingly for Nawagaththegama, however, “he never took part, neither was he called to participate, in the plays we were taken into.” Bandara remembered two plays in particular: Sarachchandra’s Pabavati and a radio drama called Alokaya.
“It was a heady time for playwrights. Pabavati, as you know, established Sarachchandra. The English critics began to notice him. I won’t say I was a big theatre fan but these things did not escape us. On the other hand, we were also exposed to the big screen.” Of the films he watched, he remembered “the Tamil ones the most, since they were frequently screened: M. G. Ramachandran and Anjali Devi were particular favourites.” No doubt these lit a fire in Bandara’s soul: “I wanted to go beyond my hometown, to Colombo if possible.”
In 1961 Bandara did just that. Working as a clerk at the Civil Aviation Department, he soon got to know people who had links to the theatre in the capital. “We watched as many films as we could, given that there was hardly anything else we could do in our free time, but more importantly we developed and nurtured an intense passion for drama.” Sooner or later these lovers of the theatre would get their shot at writing and producing their own plays, and the opportunity came, invariably, through their workplace.
“I was a member of the Government Clerical Services Union. We were tasked with the soliciting and procuring funds. One way we did that was by organising a drama festival. Through these festivals, I met a man called Dharmadasa Jayaweera. He mooted to us the idea of staging original plays. That’s how we formed our troupe. We called ourselves the S Thuna Kandayama (‘S. Thuna Group’), after the first initial of the names of the founders: S. Aloka Bandara, S. Dharmadasa Jayaweera, S. Karunatilake. By then Sugathapala (de Silva) had formed Ape Kattiya, and Premaranjith Tilakaratne 63 Kandayama.”
Somewhere in 1965, S. Thuna came up with Akal Wessa, their first production. The play, Bandara remembered, “contained three characters: a woman and her husband, plus a second man that woman falls for. The plot was based on a short story called ‘Trikonaya’ by Daya Ranatunga, from a collection of stories, Thuththiri Mal. Dharmadasa played the role of the man and I took up the character of the husband, but we had an issue with finding a girl to play the wife.” It seems they approached every thespian: “we went to Prema Ganegoda, Chandra Kaluarachchi, even Leoni Kothalawala. Being newcomers, we couldn’t make much of an impression. We had to fall back on a fresh face.”
Fortunately for Bandara, a friend of his from school working at the Treasury Department, by name Ekanayake, living in Wedamulla, a suburb in Kelaniya, was good friends with a family, one of whose daughters had taken part in several school based productions and won beauty contests. “He suggested her for the role and we went around inquiring whether she would like to take part. Her father was hell-bent against it. Eventually, through some miracle, she got permission, and came down to play the wife’s character to perfection.”
Despite its controversial subject matter, the play became a phenomenal success: “It ran on for more than 10 shows.” Sumitra Peries, talking to me about that period, remembered Akal Wessa as “revolving around an interesting theme and becoming popular among mainstream audiences.” Tissa Liyanasuriya, who, like Sumitra and her husband Lester, went to see every play he could, had gone to watch it with four friends, including Joe Abeywickrema. “Were it not for a problem that cropped up regarding the authorship of the text,” Liyanasuriya noted, “it would have become one of the most successful plays of its kind.”
Liyanasuriya remembered Akal Wessa for another reason: “the girl who played the wife’s role won Best Actress at the Drama Festival, and we selected her for our next film.” That girl was Malini Fonseka, and the film Punchi Baba. So much of an impression had she created in the minds of those who saw her that two other directors vied to take her in: G. D. L. Perera with Dahasak Sithuvili, and Lester James Peries with Akkara Paha. “Lester selected her as the protagonist’s sweetheart, and later cast her as his sister,” Sumitra recalled.
Akal Wessa was followed by three productions: Nidikumba (1967), Api Kawda (1969), and Kiri Kandulu (1972). With Nidikumba – which featured Nita Fernando, who had just entered the cinema – Bandara made yet another contribution to the theatre: while it was far from the first absurd Sinhala play, it was through that play that a Sinhala word for Absurd theatre was coined: “Vikara Rupa.” The term was Bandara’s.
Api Kawda was an exploration of rebirth against the backdrop of marriage life, while Kiri Kandulu delved into unemployment, uncertainty, and the transcendental love of a mother. By then, however, a new dramatic form had entered the stage, and as a result the era of Jayasena, Gunawardena, and Sarachchandra had to yield to that of Nawagaththegama, Hemasiri Liyanage, and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, among others.
Amidst all this, Bandara recalled, “we faced the vagaries of life as they came to us: periods of intense poverty, joblessness, uncertainty. I took to writing novels and autobiographies. Sumana Mathaka and Patirikka, my memoirs, were published by Godage some time back. As for drama, well, I couldn’t return to it. Times had changed, I had a family to manage, and besides we were not in the 1960s, when it was possible to experiment in theatre and live a moderately comfortable life. We could no longer afford that life.”
If Bandara’s most enduring contribution to the theatre had been introducing Malini, this does not, and should not, belittle his other plays, and the lengths he went to stage them despite all obstacles. “It was a different time,” he smiled at me, bringing our conversation to an end. “A sonduru kalayak.” He may have been facetious there, but he was right. His death hence brings us a step closer to the end, not of that kaalaya, but of the memory of an entire yugaya. The Sinhala theatre, like the Sinhala cinema, has had many obituaries. This may be one among many; the latest, depressingly enough, of many more to come.
The writer can be reached at
That Serial Rape of Girl Child
by Dr D. Chandraratna
The writer was former Deputy Commissioner, Probation and Child Care (SLAS)
A/Professor Curtin University, Perth
Consultant, UNICEF, Social Care Project 2006
The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child prostitution as ‘the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration.’ Therein a child is taken to mean anyone under the age of 18 years, The current episode of the serial rape of a girl child has caught the attention of many in the country and understandably so. We all are entitled to know more about it and in a sense it is genuinely everybody’s business for obvious reasons.
Official statistics at the National Child Protection Authority seem to suggest that child, related crimes are perpetually creeping up despite the many institutions, statutes and other state and non-state apparatuses brought in to stem the rise, alongside improved social conditions and law reform. We need to caution that rises in statistics could be due to better reporting and policing by state officials. On the contrary, there are child protection authorities that believe that those official figures, far from exaggerating, underestimate the real quantity of crime, leaving out many who do not get reported owing to a number of reasons. There is also scepticism in society that many schemes unveiled with fanfare as quick solutions to child crimes have not been implemented.
Why the sickening abhorrence
Leaving aside the emotional and affective arguments there are scientific reasons as to why this sordid episode is heart rending. First, working as a prostitute is dangerous and presents real risks to children. The body of a Sri Lankan child is often too small and malnourished to have intercourse with an adult man, and early sexual activity can be physically damaging for life. Young prostitution is also associated with poor health and substance use. Many child prostitutes are often already traumatised kids who have been abused. Pimps and traffickers manipulate children by using physical, emotional, and psychological abuse to keep them trapped in a life of prostitution. Venereal diseases run rampant. Children may also suffer from short–term and long–term psychological effects such as depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of hopelessness.
Secondly, technological advances, in particular the Internet, have facilitated the commercial sexual exploitation of children by providing a convenient worldwide marketing channel. Individuals can now use websites to advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with minors. Third, the overwhelming majority of clients are men, and at most time’s men of economic and social power who thrive on exploitation in their vocations. Fourth, child prostitution is clearly related to other forms of child sexual exploitation, such as trafficking and pornography; the precise links varying between different locations. Child prostitutes are filmed having perverse sex and that these images are stored, shared with others, and, in some cases, made commercially available. In the current episode the mobile phone has facilitated the despicable act of selling the services of this child.
Types of child prostitution
Child prostitution has a number of dimensions: trafficking, debt-bondage, prostitution supplementing family economies, ‘survival sex’, religiously sanctioned child prostitution and a few others. Debt bondage we already know from Bangkok and Phuket streets where intermediaries offer cash advances to parents to procure girls and boys under false pretences. The children are then sent to work in brothels, sometimes without their parents knowing the nature of the work they are involved in, working until they have paid back the debt. Finally, there are also other incredulous instances of religiously sanctioned child prostitution, such as the ‘devadasi’ cults of India, where girls are ritually married to a deity and are expected to have sex with intermediary priests or higher caste members of the community. These variants are operating in the newfound cults of major religions of the world and expose style sensational news hit the headlines from time to time.
Sri Lankan child prostitution:
A situational report
Let me explain the merits and demerits of our experience in the field and discuss serious flaws, which need to be improved if we are to contain the possible growth of these instances. This kind of gang raping little girls is becoming all too frequent in a hitherto conformist Sri Lankan society.
Sri Lankan child prostitution came to prominence in the time of the burgeoning tourist industry, alongside the height of the HIV infection. There have been claims that the demand for child prostitutes, in the developing world, rose as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because children are thought less likely to be infected and are therefore more favoured as sexual partners. There are also claims that some men believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Literature says that similar claims were also made about syphilis in Victorian England.
Our research in the early 2000, conducted as part of UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Services, distinguished between situational and preferential abusers. Preferential abusers were habitual paedophiles that have an interest in either boys or girls only of a specific age. Situational abusers may well not have a particular sexual preference for underage prostitutes but will have sex only if circumstances yield an opening. The South Western coastal belt from Negombo to Tangalle was a haven for paedophiles arriving in the guise of genuine tourists. Evidence was plenty that these preferential paedophiles took residence in some tourist spots and were molesting beach boys, sometimes with parental consent. Parents and others who were benefitting from the sordid crime harassed our research staffs. The police were surprisingly quiet. In one encounter the mother who shouted, ‘my son will not be pregnant, so what does it matter to you’, chased the researcher out of a home. Such is the ignorance of the illiterate folk and the lure of good money.
Our Achievements on this front
The combined effort by the Ministry of Social services (which included Child Protection at the time) with UNICEF, operationalised a number of projects along the popular therapeutic remedies suggested by child experts. The themes we worked on were many. Very briefly (a) Training the cadre that prostituted children should be treated as victims, never as offenders, (2) Victim-sensitive interview techniques be used in all cases of child abuse, (3) Prostituted children be treated with respect and concern and should be encouraged to talk about their experiences, (4) A holistic approach when working with these children (5) Greater access to services; (6) Private court hearings rather than open courts; (7) Gender sensitive, and culturally appropriate services planned with victims; (8) Victims included in the process of identifying and developing solutions. (9) Professionals to make a concerted effort through information sharing and all stakeholders involved in developing, implementing, and/or overseeing strategies to prevent and address prostituted children and youth; (10) Stiffer penalties for all types of offenders.
We were weak on professionalism in the child protection services and to rectify that we drafted a Human Services Diploma (at graduate level) to cover the entire island. The entire judiciary was to be familiarised on the subject covering all 10 items noted above. The response that the judiciary extended to us including Supreme Court and High Court judges was admirable. The Judges participated with so much enthusiasm.
Sad to note that these programmes (costing over $100 Million) have been one off affairs and the courses themselves have been prostituted for money. Regret to note that this project, funded by, UNICEF came to nought for the unbending bureaucratic attitudes of general administrators who refused to accept any science that upsets their hard earned status and power. The $60 million spent to build Social Care Centres to transform casework practice are cattle sheds. Despicable is too soft an epithet to describe the reticence of bureaucrats. Given the length of this vast topic I will note, by way of a conclusion, a few issues that we must address to arrest further decay.
We are accelerating towards a moral abyss?
Firstly, like in many third world countries, the exploitation of children is still prevalent in domestic and commercial trades. Children who fall prey to sex crimes are generally the poorest in countries as Sri Lanka. This exploitation is rampant in Sri Lanka beyond reasonable bounds. Mark Suckerburg’s Facebook and Internet have catapulted societies, which were autocratic, but reasonably moral, into the moral ‘vacuum’ where pornography overwhelms online learning (trawling) as my friends from Colombo tell me. Hope they are wrong. When corruption has engulfed society, exploitation becomes the natural modus operandi. In COVID times we have seen how Asian societies made extortion of the dying without compunction. Lest you charge me for condescension let me state that capitalism in the West has an ethic still held tight both by fear of God, civility and stiffer penalties. Wonder whether readers saw how the Australian Prime Minister himself put down the plunder of toilet rolls at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing untoward happened in trade and commerce ever since in Australia.
When I queried, the Chief monk, Rev Siri Sobitha, in our Perth Buddhist Temple, he wisely told me that Sri Lankans have given up the eternal truths (Dharma) as enunciated in the Angutthara Nikaya without any semblance of civility in our society. When a society, or an individual, discards ‘Hiri Oththappa’ there is unending decay. The simplest meaning, as our mothers have harped on us, is ‘Lajja Bhaya’. Are we on the doorstep of this Nadir?
Police – Protectors or Oppressors
What we observed then were police indifference and neglect. Abuse from the upholders of the law, manipulation of the poorest and most defenceless, and temptations to twist discretion into improper discrimination, improper bias, improper means and intransigence. In Sri Lanka uniformed patrolmen supplementing their meagre pay by small payments from myriads of drivers on the road is an open secret. Every instance of child prostitution had political or economic power links. Wonder whether police were voluntary molesters in this episode, too.
Bribery has become a way of life in highly bureaucratised countries as Sri Lanka. It is well known that bribery is necessary to oil the wheels of essential government services. Overzealous public officials have created unnecessary rules that invite corruption as part of acceptable practice. Corruption at all levels in the country is a chronic political illness. Corrupt police reflect a corrupt community where the government is corrupt and in similar measure the professions, businesses, industry and labour. And even the system of criminal justice is tainted.
The sentencing drama
A judge in sentencing, we believe, is guided by a single clear criterion, but it is by no means clear to the public. These crimes are like warfare against the community, touching new depths of consciousness. If criminals are brought to trial, the convictions must be commensurate with the public sentiments such that others will not commit such depredations. The punishments must deter would-be imitators. By the same token retribution has to be proportionate to the enormity of crime. The question of just deserts is important to the degree that punishments shall not exceed the guilt. This rape was vile, repulsive, demanding that it must be avenged, the perpetrators denounced but yet it must accord with the guilt and no more. As Bentham said ‘punishment itself is evil as crime and thus the judge should impose no more of it than the limit allowed’.
The court system is biased against the powerless child victims from poor environments. They are handicapped from the start for several reasons. The judgements given are seen as unfair. Unjustified prejudice, ignorance on the part of courts, poorly conducted police investigations, discrepancies due to the practices of individual judges, discriminatory practices of police, differential ability of defence counsel are insurmountable hurdles against the poor victims.
Finally in Sri Lanka it is difficult to quell public rumours about political interference at various stages in the proceedings. The case against the perpetrators of the Jaffna girl Vidya demonstrated the invisible hand of politics.
Let the citizenry be vigilant to stop this savagery.
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