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Life and times of a Surveyor



National Surveyors’ Day fell on March 21

A surveyor is a professional person with the academic qualifications and technical expertise to practise the science of measurement, to assemble and assess land and geographic related information, to use such information for the purpose of planning and implementing the efficient administration of land, the sea and structures thereon, and to instigate the advancement and development of such practices.

An ola leaf found in Madras, written thousands of years ago, describes a surveyor thus:

“His profession will be giving estimates of lands and areas of lands, preparing plans, bills and land charges.”

Once at a seminar, held in Colombo, a leading light of the Surveyors’ Institute said that surveying was the oldest profession. A famous surgeon contradicting this, said that surveying, though an old profession, certainly was not the oldest.

“It has been held for centuries that the oldest profession is prostitution or to put it more elegantly, street-walking,” said this renowned surgeon.

“Aha,” said a professor of Engineering “to do street-walking there must be streets. And who built streets? Engineers! Then Engineering is the oldest profession.”

“Back to square one,” said the surveyor gleefully. “For streets cannot be built without surveying being done first.”

A cynic once said that a land surveyor was a man who revels at hide and seek. He begins his job by dispatching a bewildered labourer with a red and white pole into the jungles, and then spends his time trying to locate him with the eye glued to a telescope.

The earliest reference to surveying or land measuring, is made in the Jataka Stories. According to Kurudhamma Jataka, on one occasion the king’s officers came to a border village to lay out the boundaries of a new field. The Rajjugahaka-amacca, literally, “the minister holding the measuring rope,” or in other words the Surveyor-General, gave one end of the rope to the owner of the adjoining field to hold on to his boundary and attaching the other end to a survey pole, proceeded to stretch the rope to its full measure. When about to drive the pole into the ground, he noticed that the mark was exactly on a crabhole, with the crab inside. “If I drive this pole in,” he reflected, the crab will be hurt. If I put it on one side, the king will stand to lose some of his land. If I put it on the other side the purchaser of the field will be denied his rightful extent.” This, in allegory, ventures to illustrate the integrity of the ancient surveyor.

There had been a well-ordered system of survey in ancient Ceylon, with a highly developed topographical sense. The ancient Pagodas with exact ellipsoidal shape and the low gradients of the Yoda Ela and the Jaya Ganga are marvels to be admired. The British, within four years of occupying the Maritime Areas, established the Survey Department by a proclamation, dated 2 August, 1800, issued at Point de Galle (Galle). This shows the importance the British gave to surveying, it being the first Government Department they established. Surveying developed as part of military science, hence the name Surveyor General. The first Surveyor General was Joseph Johnvillie while N.S. Perera was the first Sri Lankan Surveyor General.

The life of a surveyor was an ordeal. They pitched their own tents in the jungle, away from their loved ones, friends and relatives, for hours days and years. They had no air-conditioned offices but enjoyed the beauty of nature and the magnificent scenery, and in the night, the moon and the stars burning bright. They went to work at the break of dawn, when the birds start to sing. They had to go over difficult terrain, uneven bunds, struggle up steep hills, wade through water, walk long distances and face the hazards of the scorching sun, heavy rains, the storms and floods. Then they had to brave ticks, leeches, snakes, elephants, bears, leopards and other wild animals and live amidst mosquitoes and bouts of malaria and diarrhoea. Their camp meals were below par and had no fixed hours. The survey labourers (later survey assistants) and the shikaray (gunman) offered unstinted support. These are the stark realities of the harsh life of surveyors who were trained at the Diyatalawa Survey Camp.

Once a survey assistant was killed at Medirigiriya, by a wild elephant. At the time he was the father of an infant son. Keeping the infant in an improvised saree-cradle in his hut, his widowed wife sang this lullaby:


‘Doyya dong puthe

Bayya bang puthe

Minindoru bathe

Atha nothabang puthe’

(Beseeching the infant son, never to become a survey assistant, to lead a harsh life!).

They play a vital role in the development activities in the very important fields of agriculture, land development, irrigation, land reform, registration of title, colonization, mapping and other development projects. The surveyors were the first on land and without them it would be journeys to the realm of fantasy. Sometimes, the work of the Department was mirth-provoking. For the Bandaranaike assassination case, the Department was required to prepare a site diagram of the residence of Minister Vimala Wijewardene and to mark in it the room occupied by the Chief Incumbent Buddharakkitha Thera, and the place where he parked his car, during his nocturnal visits!

In the meantime, the trade unionists were also active. They fought for better field conditions, better camps, better pay, better postal facilities and better modes of travelling. S. R. Yapa was a militant trade unionist who had a great vision for the survey profession. He was a fiery, fearless trade unionist, far-sighted, with a no-nonsense approach. Among the other trade unionist giants were: Chappy Pate, C.S. Perera, D.L. Peiris, A.P.S. Gunawardena, M. B. Ranathunga, P.A. Robin Chandrasiri, M. Kaluthantiri, R.M. Chandrapala and several others. In 1980, lady surveyors were also recruited, in keeping with the equality of sexes promulgated in the 1978 Constitution.

They proved more than equal to the task, though the surveyors work was physically tough.

(It was noticed that with the advent of young girl-trainees, the staff of the Institute was seen better dressed!) Cupid also played his role, with several surveyor couples ending up on Poruwas. The lady Assistant Superintendents of Surveys recruited, also proved equal to the task, and went on to become a lady Surveyor General.

The Ceylon Government Ordinance No. 15 of 1889, titled the Surveyors Ordinance, gave all the authority and directions to those who opted to be private professionals in the field of land surveying. Now, it is superseded by the Survey Act No 17 of 2002. In the year 1926, the ‘Ceylon Licensed Surveyors’ Association’ was formed mainly through the efforts of Ben J. Thiedeman, H. Van Buren, M.I.L. Marikar, S. Sabaratnam, G.L. Schokman, W.P. Wickramasinghe, R.C. Dissanayake and others.

After he left school, D.S. Senanayake served in the Survey Department that came under his control years later, when he became the Minister of Agriculture and Lands. In the year 1937 he, together with G.K. Thornhill, the Surveyor General, went out of their way to help the Association. In the process Thornhill had to face an audit query. His successor L.G.O. Woodhouse was just the opposite of him. This Association was later to become the present Surveyors’ Institute of Sri Lanka. Most of its members are engaged in Court Commission Surveys with quasi-judicial powers, while in some instances they are engaged in national service, in addition to attending to the needs of the general public. In the year 1974, the Institute opened its membership to the state sector surveyors.

Mount Everest was so named after Sir George Everest, the Surveyor General of India. The first President of the United States of America, George Washington was a land surveyor. There is an interesting story about him. One day a teacher in an American School told a pupil: “Henry! at your age, George Washington was a surveyor.”

“And at your age he was the President of United States,” said the pupil.

Some survey professionals took to politics, D. S. Goonasekera and Gamini Jayasuriya were cabinet ministers. K.B. Ratnayake was a cabinet minister and also a Speaker of Parliament.

H. B. Abeyrathna was a District Minister, Sarath Welagedera and S.M. Asenkudhoos were MPs. R.L. Brohier was an outstanding surveyor produced by the Survey Department. He rose from the lower to the top most rungs of the Department. He was also a scholar, a historian, a researcher, a writer and an archaeologist. Two of his monumental works were ‘Ancient Irrigation works of Ceylon’ and ‘Land, Maps and Surveys’. In 1920, R.L.B. and his survey party were travelling through thick jungle to establish a trigonometrical station, when they surprisingly discovered the historic ‘Avukana shrine’. A digression, once Ruhunu Puthra was making an impassioned speech, at a meeting, with R.L.B. in the chair. Soon after his speech, RLB took steps to make the then 24-year-old Ruhunu Puthra an F.R.G.S.

Dr. T. Somasekeram was the head of the Institute of Surveying and Mapping at Diyatalawa for many years and retired as the Surveyor General. He was also the Chief Editor of the National Atlas and authored the book ‘Surveying Stories’, which describes vividly the life and times of the surveyors. Sunil Kusumsiri is a Licensed Surveyor who has published the book titled ‘Maimgala’ (boundary stone) in Sinhala. It provides a vivid description of the stark realities of the life of a surveyor in sylvan surroundings, sometimes laced with humour.

Across the abyss of years, the science of surveying has undergone dramatic changes with the introduction of computers, electronic distance measurements, laser technology, global positioning system using satellites, land information systems and geographical systems.

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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic



This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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Dip Corps Plum Job? I don’t think so!



I was reading an article in the papers the other day saying that the Attorney General (soon to retire) had turned down a “plum job” (interesting and archaic term) by refusing to go as the High commissioner to Canada. In the days when terminology such as “plum job” was used indeed any member of the Diplomatic Corps was considered elite. They usually came from people who had got degrees with a class and preferably a 1st class, and I believe they had to get through a tough civil service exam as well. Before they reached the top post of High Commissioner (if they came from the service) they had to spend many years learning the ropes. A few High Commissioners were appointed from among civil service retirees in other fields and if so, their role was largely ceremonial with the other staff in the embassy handling the actual policy matters.

Ever since the advent of “Kukul Charlie” to Scandinavia as H/C, during the R. Premadasa regime, this worthy actually had a mini chicken farm in the premises of the embassy, and slightly before that the actions of A.C.S. Hameed as the minister of foreign affairs during the J.R.J. regime.The Dip: Co: has degenerated into a mess. Most of the staffers are political appointees and even the progeny of Ministers and MP draw salaries from the embassy, to fund their overseas studies. Everybody seems to be running his or her own little racket to supplement his or her foreign currency incomes. Many of them don’t even come back when their terms are over. The Ambassador’s main role seems to be a taxi driver or to use modern terminology Uber driver for vising VIP’s and their assorted relatives.

Is it a wonder that the incumbent Attorney General chose to decline an offer of this sort? An offer that would have consigned him to oblivion (as seems to be what happens to all able-bodied, intelligent, and capable people in the Pearl) and to top it off, dealing with the freezing conditions of the Canadian winter. This is a blatant attempt to sideline a capable professional who is perceived as a threat to the government as he seems a bit of a maverick and his penchant to toe the line cannot be guaranteed. Now, instead of appreciating constructive criticism and the actions of a professional guided by his knowledge and ethics, the increasingly military regime wants order followers. Extensions of terms come very easily to those characterless wimps who fill and overflow the ranks of government employees! In this case, a “kick upstairs” seems to be what the powers that be require. I guess the inherent and ever-present guiding light of jealousy among his peers, keeps organisations such as the bar association from protesting these actions? I am sure they will find an excuse all covered in legalize. I fear Mr. Livera will have to carve his own path through the morass of muck that is the Pearl at present.

What demoralises me further is that editors of newspapers and even so-called “journalists” write and publish such articles when they are well aware of the true reasons and facts. Then again, I have read articles quoting government financial “geniuses” saying that printing money will not be detrimental to the economy and even some ministers saying that devaluation of the rupee simply means more money coming in from Middle Eastern remittances and a better lifestyle for the beneficiaries! I was even sent a link by a friend to a published article saying Sri Lanka has done a better job than New Zealand to maintain a low Covid death rate. Of course, the link came with the words “Ammata Siri” from a friend of mine!

On the subject of Covid, I am told the predictions for the Pearl based on statistics put out by American Universities, are dire. Now, I know that those ruling the country firmly believe that Sri Lanka is the centre of the universe and anything said by anyone other than themselves is utter rubbish. BUT I see an opportunity here … this is the time to form a “war cabinet” to overcome this catastrophe. Kick out all the idiots who are simply drawing huge salaries, and gadding about in flash new duty-free vehicles. Send them to their electorates and tell them to stay there, travel by bus, mix with the populace, and do their JOBS. Cut their salaries by 75% and use that money to give benefits to those affected by the virus and resultant recession. Form a Cabinet of 20 (maximum) and concentrate on saving our country and her people so that we can live to fight another day.

I have heard rumblings of discontent among the ruling clan. The big cheese is apparently being hampered by the blue cheese (old cheese) and his direct decedents. Be that as it may there certainly are around 70% of those currently in government who can be sent home to their electorates. There are a handful of those in Opposition who may be able to do a good job in these circumstances if included in this war cabinet. There certainly is a foreign minister in waiting, who doesn’t even have a parliamentary seat at present. The current sitting of parliament is said to cost an astronomical figure per sitting. Close it down and have cabinet meetings at Temple trees or TT as is the current local parlance. Another huge saving that can be distributed among those daily paid labourers who have no way to feed their families at present. Use the Parliamentary cooking facilities to make lunch packets for the needy.

There are opportunities even among this present and perceived chaos. All it takes is the will of a strong leader who is prepared to think outside the box. The current president certainly has the powers, but does he have the will? The country certainly thought he had done when they gave him that massive majority!

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Vaccine need and experts vs political power



Manna from the skies and the drop of water to a man dying of thirst is for most now a jab in the upper arm which will hopefully keep at bay the dreaded omnipotent, omnipresent Covid 19 virus. It seems to be getting more virulent especially in poorer countries. But countries with massive daily numbers of those ill with C19 and large numbers dead, are fast returning to near normal e.g. USA. A young man who hibernated for the last fourteen months is away on holiday in the Big Apple – a separate State from his. And take it from Cassandra whose age, experience and potent gut feeling qualify her to judge situations, the improvement is due to President Biden’s leadership against that of Trump. Kudos go to Biden mostly for his selection of experts in relevant fields heading various government departments; selected solely on merit and matching the need; not considering relatives, sycophants, ethnic origin of the selected Americans. And he is totally receptive to expert advice. Judge his Secretary of State – Antony Blinken – a polar difference from big brash Mike Pompeo, in the mould of Trump. See how Dr Antony Fauci speaks now to the American media as shown us by CNN. He is confident; knows he is respected and trusted as Chief Medical Advisor to the President and also Director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases while with Trump he nearly had his head cut off for making statements about the pandemic contrary to what Trump wanted to hear. In this context why Dr Anil Jasinha was transferred as Secretary, Environmental Ministry, is still a mystery, since we Ordinaries do not believe it was a promotion. He did magnificently well, with the Army Commander and others in minimising the damage of the first C19 wave.

Many in Colombo are due for the second dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. When will it be given? We were lulled to complacency being told some time ago that the second dose was safely stored in time for vaccination three months after the first. Now we find the medical department’s cupboards are as bare as Mother Hubbard’s as regards the A-Z vaccine and there’s begging going on for the WHO to shower enough of this vaccine on poor Siri Lanka. Threatened is a cocktail of merrily mixed AstraZeneca with Sputnik or the Chinese vaccine. We all shout: No thank you!

We do sympathize with the government battered on all sides and reduced to begging. We appreciate what is being done, but go mad when we hear statements like “Development must go on” when development is a speedway to Ratnapura and purchase of helicopters.

Many approve of the move to lockdown regions and Grama Sevaka divisions and now even provinces since locking down the entire country is really too drastic a measure even though it will reduce mass infection.

Wise experts give of their expertise all the time.

The major issue that confronts the government at present is imminently losing the battle of the Covid 19 pandemic. Next, of course, is the mess of the second vaccine for which blame lies on the government. Then the fast-declining economy and solutions thereof, one solution being import of tourists and asylum given to those fleeing India. For this obvious blunder, blame is squarely on offshoots of the government like hoteliers, travel agents and leading the lot, Udayanga W with his Covid barrier-breaking influx of ‘ballooned’ tourists from Ukraine, one of the worst affected countries. The ‘balloons’ burst no sooner they landed in Paradise and were taken traipsing around Resplendent Sri Lanka.

Another disturbing situ inaugurated by the Prez himself is the fertiliser issue – his overnight banning of chemical fertilisers, to save farming community from kidney disease and win laurels as first country to ban such. Misfiring. Tests have shown the use of these fertilisers is not the cause of KDC. More damning: the sudden ban with no substitute organic fertiliser in large quantity will badly affect our primary cash crop and from the next Yala harvest itself our stomachs will rumble with hunger pangs and the poorer will surely starve. Nothing must be done with the sweep of the pen or the gush of words of command.

And here is Cassandra’s bone which she picks with the government. Experts abound in this country of intelligent people. They are not, apparently, consulted before decisions are made. As Prof, Rohan Rajapakse writes in his article Ban on agrochemical: where are we heading? in The Island of 11 May: “Three eminent scientists, namely Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha, Prof O A Ileyperuma and Prof C S Weeraratne have effectively dealt with the repercussions of the ban on chemical fertilizers.” (He gives their credentials in full). Prof Rajapakse goes on in his article to the sphere of pesticides and warns about that too.

No politician or army high-up nor even the Prez knows it all. So experts must be hearkened to, to serve the country and save its people.


Have you noticed as Cass has that the Minister of Sports and Youth is seen at very many meetings and exhibits involvement in fisheries, the environment, even the economy; far extended from his sphere of sports and youth. Latest sighting (Tuesday May 11) was him on TV news inspecting the marvelous hospital constructed in a couple of days by hard working, skilled young men. It will be manned mostly by young girls, nursing Covid 19 patients, at risk to themselves. So, Cass praises this young minister for being so interested in the welfare and well-being of the Ordinaries – we the people of Free Sri Lanka. A sports writer in the gossipy column on the last page of The Island of 12 May, gave him a paragraph, not complimentary like Cass’ paragraph (this). Also, we do not approve at all of exercise equipment being set up in villages. The villager has enough exercise in his farming and his spouse in house and garden work. Such centres, said to be open air, will only attract gawkers in their numbers, and laughter. Of course, someone will make money.

Dire danger of military in power

The youth of Myanmar are demonstrating to the entire world what the consequences are of military men ruling countries. Pro-democracy leader Daw Suu Kyi was given one term of half governing the country as Counsellor; the second time she and her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. She worked with the army leaders and going along with them – a la the Rohingya – was derided as a Nobel Peace Laureate.

The November 8, 2020 elections gave her Party a bigger majority. Then power was snatched off her and she was held hostage god knows where. (She suffered long years of strict house confinement after her first victory.)

The youth of the country rose up for democracy and for Suu Kyi being released. Listening to excerpts of conversations with two fighters for democracy – male and female – on BBC, Cass was overwhelmed with a fifty-fifty, long lasting spurt of emotion: sorrow and admiration for these young uns. Bless them and may they win the battle for a right of every human being – freedom from oppression and dictatorship. But these kids are being shot at with live bullets and more than fifty (if remembered correctly) are dead. Why-oh-why are base men so greedy for power?

The young of Hong Kong also fought unrelentingly but they were imprisoned and not killed deliberately. Their battle is against the growing power of China where a dictator resembling a military man rules supreme.

A bright spot

In media, whether print or visual, we long for news with optimistic effect to drive away, even temporarily, the doom and gloom that envelops us. Cass had her descending-to-depression spirits uplifted by watching a video clip of the Queen declaring the new Parliamentary sessions ‘open’.

Here was the mid-90s Sovereign walking steadily with her eldest son beside her and reading her speech about what ‘her government’ and ‘her ministers’ would do for the country in a steady voice with steady hands holding the script.

Top on this list was fast recovery from the pandemic followed by environmental, health and educational betterment. She hid signs of emotion that would have battered her because for almost seven decades she came in with her beloved Philip by her side at this ceremony.

Cass took courage from this marvelous woman.

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