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Life on Earth, Pandemics and the Covid-19 disaster

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Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe

University of Buckingham, UK and

National Institute for Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka

Dr. Sarath C. Witana, MD Dr. Ananda Nimalsuriya, MD

Philosophers and political thinkers down the ages, Locke, Kant and Russel among others, have all stressed the importance of preserving personal and individual liberty as a prime goal of any civilised society. Limitations of liberty are of course necessary but only in so far as they prevent violence and demonstrable harm to others. The limitations of our freedoms being enforced on us in relation to the current pandemic have no rational basis whatsoever, and in our view constitute a flagrant denial of our human rights.

The Earth teems with life of all kinds, lifeforms ranging from the simplest microorganisms to the most complex of life forms – plants, animals, humans. Microbial life forms – bacteria and viruses – are present not only on or near the Earth’s surface, on land and in the oceans – but also in the deep ocean floor, kilometres below the surface, and at least 10 kilometres in the atmosphere. We humans – Homo Sapiens – are perched atop this pyramid of Earthly life declaring ourselves to be in command of all we survey.

Over the past century biologists have unravelled the mind-blowing complexity of life at a molecular level as well as its super-astronomical information content as is clearly manifest for instance in the arrangement of amino acids in crucial enzymes. At the same time astronomers are unravelling a universe that is every bit as complex, informationally rich and as magnificent as life itself. For too long, however, we have failed to appreciate that there must exist an intimate and inextricable connection between life on the Earth and the vast external cosmos. Only by acknowledging this link would it ever be possible to fully understand the world in which we live.

For well over a century the concept of life starting by a process of “spontaneous generation” on the Earth in a primordial soup of organics has been firmly locked into the cannon of science. Attempts to synthesize life from non-life have continued in the most advanced biotech laboratories for well over half a century. With the passage of time all such hopes have turned out to be utterly illusory. Every attempt that has been made thus far to replicate the process of spontaneous generation in the laboratory has ended in dismal failure.

 

Four decades ago, the late Sir Fred Hoyle and one of us (CW) had already accumulated enough supportive evidence to state with confidence that terrestrial life must be inextricably linked to the cosmos at large. The main connecting link was comets and cometary debris that continually gains entry to the Earth’s environment. Supportive evidence came from many different scientific disciplines – astronomy, space science, biology and geology. The conclusion that was evident for over four decades was that life is not and cannot be a planet-based phenomenon, but can only be understood as a truly cosmic phenomenon, the Earth being just one of billions of sites on which life has taken root and evolved. The evidence in support of this cosmic theory of life is everywhere around us, but few have had the courage of link it all into a coherent story. This reminds us of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay whose sonnet “Huntsman, What Quarry?” says it all:

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric. . . .”

There can be little doubt that the world is now facing a crisis more serious than any it has seen over the past several decades. The Covid-19 pandemic is an indisputable fact, but to face it squarely and deal with the problem in an honest way is of paramount importance for our survival, and indeed the survival of billions of people around the world. This is a pandemic caused by a new virus. But our human species has faced many millions of similar pandemics in the past. Recorded history is in fact full of accounts of past plagues – the plague of Athens, the plague of Justinian, the Black Death come to mind, and there were many others that punctuated our past.

With the dawn of the new millennium in 2001 the unravelling of our genomes – human DNA, as well as the DNA of primates – has shown clearly that as much as 10 percent of our silent (non-coding DNA) has an origin in viruses. The evolution of our primate line leading from early anthropoids to humans have been marked by a succession of viral pandemics each one of which may have been a close call to extinction. However, a small proportion of survivors were left after each such pandemic and it is likely that the viral information carried through the evolving line at times contributed to the development of new traits and biological functions. This radical point of view in relation to scientific orthodoxy, but one that has to be faced.

 

Biosphere reaching to the sky

Before coming to matters directly related to the present pandemic let us note that tons of viruses are actually swept daily into the sky from all across the world. This happens via tornadoes, dust storms and oceanic spray, and the same viruses (along with others from space) continually fall back to ground in mist and rain. Several independent studies carried out over the past three decades have all shown that a variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi can actually be recovered from the stratosphere from heights of up to 40km. These microbial entities are generally similar to those found on Earth’s surface, the obvious inference being that they are transferred from the ground level to the stratosphere. Other investigations including one conducted by balloon sampling of stratospheric air have led to estimates of an infall rate from space of the order of tonnes of microbes every day.

Recently an international team of scientists placed collectors high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain to collect the shower of viruses that falls from the sky. The number of viruses falling upon the mountain tops was mind-boggling – amounting to a staggering 800 million individual viruses that are deposited daily on every square metre of the planet’s surface. These results when combined with earlier studies that show the existence of some ten million viruses in every single drop of ocean water clearly points to the existence of a vast virosphere (an ecology of viruses) high in the sky which continually mixes with our well-recognized ground level biosphere and microbiomes. Scientists have speculated for some time that there is a stream of bacteria and viruses continually circling the planet above the planet’s weather systems, and this is only recently coming to be established as a fact.

In the light of all the available scientific evidence we can imagine a feedback cycle involving interchange of viruses (and bacteria) between two reservoirs – a stratospheric virosphere at and a ground level and atmospheric biosphere that includes plants animals and humans. Both biospheres, at ground level and in the sky, are interconnected and are involved in the onset and continuation of epidemic and pandemic diseases in our view. As early as 1979 Fred Hoyle and one of us published all the relevant data pointing to this connection in the book “Diseases from Space” (a revised edition of which has just been published.)

 

Tropospheric cloud viral reservoir and COVID-19

One of us along with a team of colleagues have studied all the data relating to the origin and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic began and came to a conclusion that the facts are markedly different from the generally accepted orthodox views of this pandemic. We think President Trump came the closest to articulating the truth about the pandemic when he told Bob Woodward in February 2019 that the virus was in the air and people became sick by breathing the virus laden air.

The bare facts are that in late 2019 a large load of SARS-CoV-2 virions (the causative virus) was somehow introduced into the atmosphere in the environs of the Wuhan in Hubei province of China. There have been many theories of the new Corona virus (genetically related to the viruses that caused SARS-1, MERS some years earlier and also to some prevailing zoonotic viruses) came into existence at this moment in time. Our preferred view is that the causative virions first entered the stratosphere/troposphere/atmosphere from an external cosmic source above this region of China from a comet fragment. This was probably related to the Jilin fireball that exploded over northern China in late October 2019.

Whatever happened is now only of academic interest, but the facts are clear. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the introduction of a vast quantity of the Covid-19 causing virus in the Hubei province of China that began to lead to cases of acute disease and death from November 2019 onwards. It is reasonable to conclude that the atmosphere over many thousand square kilometres of the Earth’s surface became thick with the primary infalling virus as well as with secondary replications from human infections over a very short time. Much of this kept recycling through upward currents back and forth into the tropospheric jet steam. Subsequent breakthroughs from the tropospheric jet stream back to ground level are responsible mainly if not entirely for the subsequent sporadic in falls defining hotspots of infection around the world. Person-to-person spreading of course occurs, but the primary cause is viral infall from the streams of fast flowing gas that makes up the tropospheric jet streams.

The initial first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is well recorded to have occupied nearly a full calendar year, infalls of virus from the troposphere being essentially controlled by local weather conditions. As in the case of other respiratory viruses this process has a seasonal cycle particularly in the north and south temperate latitudes. We believe it is this cycle that we are now witnessing as a second wave of COVID-19 around the world.

This, in our view, is the only model of the pandemic that can explain many facts:

1. The emergence of new expanding hotspots of infection after the intial Wuhan outbreak straddle a narrow latitude belt centred on 30 degrees North (the location of the northern jet stream)

2. Within each “hotspot” clustering of cases over a wide range of distance scales point to patchiness of incidence at ground level. The pattern is similar to a virus laden mist/dust falling to the ground crossing various length scales of atmospheric turbulence.

3. The many instances of infections with no first cause (first case) identifiable, such as in ships at sea or remote islands.

4. Mysterious clusters called community spread, or attributed to unidentifiable “superspreaders”

5. Medical facts point to the availability of a well-defined protocol for early diagnosis and isolation, followed by regimes of treatment that have been attested to alleviate acute inflammatory responses and serious illness that might follow.

All these facts are now clearly staring us in the face and yet we refuse to take note of them. The devasting consequences of a wrong theory of the pandemic that involved huge curtailments in our personal freedom, lockdowns around the world, causing disastrous effects on every walk of human life are now becoming amply clear.

It is of paramount importance that we take note of the facts as we have presented them in this article, and spur governments to act in the best interests of everyone.

Humanity in 2020 deserves no less. The long march to freedom from tyranny must begin – the tyranny of wrong science, and the tyranny of the governments who are being misled.



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India at 75

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By Gwynne Dyer

Last Tuesday, on the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to turn India into a developed country, within the next 25 years. If all goes well, that could actually come to pass, but it would have to go very well indeed.The demographic and economic signs are positive. The country’s population has grown fourfold, since independence in 1947, but population growth has now dropped to ‘replacement level’: 2.1 children per completed family.

The current youngest generation is so large that the population will keep growing, until 2060, when it will have reached 1.7 billion. The upside of this is that India will continue to have a rapidly growing young workforce for another generation, while its only rival, China, will have a rapidly ageing and dwindling population (1.2 billion and still falling in 2060)

India’s GDP per capita has been growing at about 5% for years, and if that continues for the next 25 years, it will have grown to $7,500 per person. That’s certainly within the lower ranks of developed countries (like Mexico, South Africa or China today). Given the size of India’s population, the economy would certainly rank in the world’s top five.

So, Modi’s prediction was certainly within the realm of possibility, but there are two big wild cards. One is climate: although only half of India, technically, falls within the tropics, all of it, except the very far north, suffers long, very hot summers.This summer has been the hottest ever, with many of the largest cities experiencing temperatures, above 45°C, for days at a time. Whatever we do about climate in the future, it can only go on getting worse for India, for the next 25 years.

That will bring the country into the zone where it literally becomes unsafe for people to do manual work outside, at the height of summer; death rates will go up, and food production will go down. Nobody knows exactly how bad it will get, but it will certainly get much worse that it is now.

The other wild card is war. Since the Indian and Pakistani tests of nuclear weapons, in 1999, the subcontinent has lived under the threat of a ‘local’ nuclear war that would devastate both countries (and also cause global food shortages lasting for at least four or five years).An Indo-Pak nuclear war is not inevitable, but, unlike the major nuclear powers, these two countries have fought real wars against each other – three in the past 75 years. The likelihood of such a catastrophe actually happening is certainly a lot higher than zero.

Each country now has about 160 nukes, and although both are now working to move beyond the dangerously unstable ‘use them or lose them’ phase where a a surprise attack might disarm the other side, there is no real stability to be found when the adversaries are so close and the hostility is so intense.So there is no harm in considering whether it might have been better to keep the entire Indian subcontinent, first united by the British empire, in one piece, at independence, rather than splitting it into two countries (and eventually three, counting Bangladesh).

The split was by no means inevitable. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two main Hindu leaders of the independence movement, wanted an inclusive, non-sectarian republic, including all of British India, although they failed to offer Muslims sufficient guarantees to ensure their support.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the main Muslim leader in 1947, did want to carve a Muslim-majority Pakistan out of the country, but there was no obligation for the British government to satisfy his demand. He got his way because the United Kingdom was virtually broke after the Second World War and in a great hurry to dump its responsibilities in India.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, had five weeks to draw the dividing line between the two new countries. Around 15 million people, who found themselves on the wrong side of that line, became refugees, mutual massacres followed, and within weeks India and Pakistan had their first war. But it could have been different.

The undivided ‘big India’ would have 1.8 billion people today, about one-third Muslim and two-thirds Hindu. That would virtually guarantee that both groups would be represented in every government and in most political parties.

Lots of countries, elsewhere in the world, manage to be both democratic and prosperous with comparable religious and/or ethnic differences. The ‘big India’ would not have wasted 75 years’ worth of high defence spending, and there would be no risk of nuclear war.All those energies would have been devoted instead to civilian priorities, and that united India might already rank as a developed country. Might-have-beens.

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Ukraine War: Mother May I?

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By Gwynne Dyer

“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”

The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.

The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”

Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.

But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?

It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.

Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.

Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.

Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.

Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.

The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.

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Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity

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Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation

Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran

A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication

Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: vijiyapa@gmail.com)

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.

Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.

What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.

The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.

The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’

When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.

At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.

For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.

A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.

‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.

However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.

The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.

Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.

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