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Midweek Review

Mandarin and Tamil – A historical perspective

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By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan

The recent discovery of name- boards in public institutions which have omitted one of the national languages, namely Tamil, only to replace it with Mandarin Chinese has caused a furor with Tamil members of Parliament and other politicians voicing their protests. Certainly, this is most unfortunate but rather than blame the Chinese it is the Government Authorities in charge of the implementation of the Official languages policy who should be blamed. They have been remiss in this instance which is only a small part of the general malaise in respect of the implementation of the official languages policy. This however is not within the remit of this article. In this article, I would like to focus on another trilingual inscription on a stone tablet stele, left by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, and dated 15th February 1409, in Sri Lanka. It was originally inscribed in Nanjing in China itself and discovered in 1911 in Galle, and now preserved in the Museum in Colombo. This stone tablet with inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil signals the arrival of the Chinese fleet and invokes the blessings of Buddha and the Hindu God Vishnu whom the inscription mentions as “Thenavaran Nayanar” and refers to an endowment that Zheng He, had presented to the Vishnu Devale at Devinuwara and to a Mosque. Prof. Sasanka Perera in a very interesting and historically researched article titled “Veera Alakeshvaras Phlight signals from the past,” published in The Island of 28th April 2021, to which I am indebted, refers to this inscription as a “Subtle but obvious way of appealing to the socio political sensibilities of large and important communities in The Island at the time”. So it would appear that the Tamils were an important community in the island at the time. Sinhala does not feature in the inscription. Veera Alakeshwarar’s clash with the Chinese which I refer to in my article is part of the historical perspective which I wish to draw attention to. It has many lessons for the present , and brings to light the Chinese presence in this country many centuries ago.

To continue with the purpose of Admiral Zheng He’s naval journey, it was part of what was known as the “Ming Treasure voyages”. To quote Prof. Perera, the seven voyages under this naval scheme took place between 1405 -1433 AD and was the brainchild of the Ming Emperor Yongle. These voyages were undertaken to expand China’s military, political and commercial Authority across the oceans and to find local allies and establish Chinese spheres of influence in different parts of Asia, parts of the Middle East and places like Mogadishu and Mombasa in Africa. Before arriving in Sri Lanka Zheng He’s fleet had visited other south east Asian countries where also steles were left behind. All these interventions were made to ensure the stability of maritime routes for Chinese vessels. This is very much in line with what is happening today, with the Chinese “Belt and Road initiative”. The Chinese of that era were aware of the Tamil language and culture both because of the maritime traditions of the Tamils during the era of the great Chola empire but also because Tamil Buddhist monks from Kancheepuram had brought Buddhism to China. The Chola empire in South India which held sway over Sri Lanka also included parts of south east Asia , and had a large maritime fleet and merchant navy. Furthermore, Tamil traders and merchant guilds were active in the Indian occean and in south east Asia. With the decline of the Chola empire the seas were open for a new naval power and we find the Ming emperor making a strategic move.

To turn to Sri Lanka and Veera Alekeshvara’s encounter with the Chinese, I will have to go back in time to the Alagakkonara/Allagakone family, of which he was a member. This feudal family originally from Madurai or Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, settled down in Lanka and became very powerful in the Gampola Kingdom. The father of Veera Alakeshvara also known as Alakeshvara became a Minister in the Kingdom. He fortified a marshy region around the present city of Colombo and called the fortress he built there Jayawardenepura, and the area around became known as Kotte, (which means ‘fort’ in Tamil). From his fortifications he drove out the northern army of the Arya Chakraverti, who ruled the kingdom of Jaffna, and the tax collectors from this kingdom who were raiding the south western region. Thus, he came to overshadow king Vikramabahu I11rd of Gampola. Subsequently after some infighting with family members Veera Alakeshvara his son became king of the Gampola kingdom as Vijayabahu VI , and ruled from 1397- 1411 AD.

However, Veera Alakeshvara like some of our present China critics, was hostile to Chinese intentions in Sri Lanka and launched piracy attacks on the Chinese fleet in Sri Lankan waters with the help of some Muslim chieftains. As a consequence, Zheng He, left Sri Lankan waters as he had other ports of call, but returned to take revenge on Alakesvara. In 1410/11 Zheng He and his troops attacked Kotte and captured Veera Alakeshvara and his family together with other key political figures allied with him. He was taken as a prisoner to China. In the collected works of Yong Rong 1515, his capture is described as well as his subsequent pardon by the Emperor as follows “thus the August Emperor spared their lives and they humbly kowtowed making crude sounds ( a reference to their language) and praising the sage like virtue of the Imperial Ming ruler.” But this was not the end of the matter. As Prof. Sasanka points out regime change was the object, and Parakramabahu the Sixth ascended the throne. Chinese records reveal that the new king was chosen by Sinhalese emissaries present at the Ming Court, nominated by the Emperor and installed by Zheng He, using the Chinese military and naval power at his disposal, as a ruler more amenable to Chinas intentions. He created a political alliance with the Chinese that allowed expansive political projects such as the Ming Treasure fleet easy access to local waters as well as local political support.” It is also of interest to note that Sembagha Perumal alias Sapumal Kumaraya an ethnic Tamil and adopted son of Parakramabahu the Sixth subsequently conquered the northern Jaffna Kingdom and built the Nallur Kandasamy kovil in Jaffna and his exploits are commemorated by the poet Sri Rahula thera in the Kokila Sandesaya and the Selahini Sandesaya.

Aside from the sense of ‘deja vu’, which Prof. Perera remarks upon, Alakeshvarar’s story has many lessons for us today. We learn that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was a powerful and respected one, hence the inscriptions in Mandarin along with Tamil and Persian. In the north the Kingdom of Jaffna under the Arya Chakravarti dynasty was as powerful as the other kingdoms and at that time was threatening kotte and even extracting taxes from regions in the South. Here too it was ethnic Tamils such as Alakeshvara senior who led the defense of the Kotte and Gampola kingdoms, and built Jayawardenapura, and it was Sembagha Perumal who later defeated the Arya Chacraverti and brought the Jaffna kingdom under the rule of Parakramabahu VI. The ethnic differences were subsumed, and Sinhalese and Tamils worked together as one people. The wars were for territory, with kings fighting kings and not between ethnic groups. It was only with the arrival of the western colonial powers starting with the Portuguese that ethnic differences surfaced, perhaps as a consequence of a divide and rule policy. Another lesson we learn is that the Chinese political presence i n the island is not something new. Furthermore Chinese trade was a key factor in the Sri Lankan economy as vindicated by the large collection of Chinese coins in Yapahuwe, which fact is adverted to in Prof. Perera’s article citing Prof. Sudarshan Senviratne. So, the resumption of Chinese political and economic activity in the island is not suprising. Chinese history records that after the great naval expeditions of Zheng He, there was a change in China’s policy and internal constraints made the Country turn inwards. It is now clear that China is resuming its old policy as evidenced by Admiral Zheng He’s naval expeditions, and is once again engaging in expanding its military, political and commercial authority across the globe vide the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Port City project in Sri Lanka is part of this grand design. The Port City project can bring benefits to Sri Lanka too, but it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government and people to see that Sri Lanka’s interests are adequately protected and they cannot fault China for any short fall as every country looks after its own interests. In the context of the lessons we learn from the Veera Alakeshvara episode, Tamil politicians would be well advised to be more mindful when making protests at what they perceive to be Mandarin taking precedence over Tamil. We do not have to kowtow to the new Emperor in Beijing, and protests must surely be made when called for, but made courteously, recognizing that our cultures Tamil and Chinese, have co -existed enriching each other over many centuries as in the spreading of Buddhism by monks from the Tamil country, and the extensive trade as in the exchange of cotton goods for silk between the two civilizations. We have seen from the Galle Inscription that China gave the Tamil language pride of place in Sri Lanka at a certain point of time, and I may mention similar inscriptions have also been left by them in other south Asian countries. At that time Tamil was a language of commerce and trade in the Indian ocean region and the Tamil Kingdoms of South India were powerful entities. Similarly, the Persian language held sway for these reasons. Interestingly we learn from the Moroccan Traveller of the 14th Century, Ibn Batuta, who visited the kingdom of Jaffna, that the king Arya Chackraverti held control of the trade in pearls, had contact with foreign merchants and could speak Persian. It remains to be seen whether the Tamil language once again regains its lost position and the respect that entails. The Trilingual stele in Galle invokes the blessings of the Hindu deity the “Thenavaran Nayanar” Vishnu, for a peaceful world built on trade. For the present we have to recognize that China has come to stay as a power in the region, in a world built on Trade. We can be proud that two Asian nations India and China are emerging as the super powers of the 21st century and go with the trend giving due consideration to both countries in our political and economic policies.



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Midweek Review

Rajiva Wijesinhas’s ‘Exploring India’

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Reviewed by Goolbai Gunasekara

When a professor, a novelist, a writer, a politician, an educator, an international speaker, a teacher, a former university Vice Chancellor and a respected academic writes a book on travel it jumps, perforce, onto the “must read” list for all serious readers. Add to the above that he is much in demand as a judge at Literary Competitions, both in Sri Lanka and the UK, and when one tops it all by mentioning that he is also a Gratiaen Prize Winner, one realies that here is a Modern Day Renaissance Man (His various careers are naturally not in given order of importance).

Rajiva Wijesinha dates his long love affair with India to his boyhood when he accompanied his mother, the well-known Girl Guide Commissioner, Muktha Wijesinha, to Madras when she was on Girl Guide business. Arriving in modern Chennai, he took off by himself on a tour in which no other teen-aged schoolboy would be even remotely interested. That Rajiva was considered a child prodigy was accepted at the time, but his intellectual curiosity exceeded all normalcy and has led him down unusual avenues of exploration for the next 50 years of his life.

With having an Indian father, who was himself an academic, I thought I was pretty high up on the ‘know India’ landscape scale, but after reading ‘Exploring India’ I realize I have barely scratched the surface of understanding the scope of that vast and intriguing country. India’s ruins and architectural marvels and many that are off the beaten track are revealed with a love and understanding of that great sub-continent’s history.

Punctuated by excellent photographs taken through the years of his travels, fascinating descriptions of cities, palaces, forts, temples and varied historical sites make “Exploring India’ difficult to put down.

Parts one and two describe his travels as a student and a teacher along with educational and academic perspectives. Parts four, five and six comprise intensive sightseeing of both old and new India. While this book is mainly about India, Rajiva takes in his tours of the other SAARC countries in section seven of this comprehensively written book. Such an undertaking would have been impossible had not Rajiva kept detailed diaries all his life. He was preparing to write this book from his teen years, perhaps!

Among the plethora of pictures I found several which were of particular interest. The Fort of Jhansi, for instance, recalls an early heroine of mine (and of many Asian women). Pictures of Pakistan were particularly poignant as I had schooled in Karachi while it was still ‘Undivided India’ and had visited beautiful Lahore frequently as modern Pakistan was my family’s home in Sind before British haste messed up the Partition of India. Also in Lahore are tombs and works undertaken by Nur Jehan (another heroine) the famously manipulative and beautiful wife of Jahangir.

What is noteworthy about all these photographs is that they do not contain only the much pictured and widely reproduced tourist pictures. Little known aspects and lesser known attractions of India dot its pages. For example, Babur’s tomb in Kabul, the minarets of Lahore, monks at play in Bhutan, schoolboys in Thimpu wearing uniforms of sartorial elegance, the island temple of Pokhara in Nepal, etchings in the palace of Bikaner et al. All these go to enthrall a reader.

Buddhists will be particularly interested in one fact of which most of them are ignorant . While exploring the higher reaches of areas round Harrapa and Taxila, Rajiva heard of tribes that still practice Buddhism though he did not actually get to meet them. There he found wondrous examples of Gandhara Art. From Peshawar he walked up a hill to the monastery of Takht –i-Bahi, 2000 years old! In the area, high up in the Karakorum range, lies a fabulous engraving of the Buddha out of rugged rock.

The chapters are interspersed with well-known names, thanks to Rajiva’s many academic connections and also his contemporaries at Oxford. In Karachi he asked a gentleman why the men of Pakistan disapproved of Benazir Bhutto and was told that they felt diminished at being ruled by a women. Also they had heard that she went to nightclubs in England! Rajiva thought it prudent to remain silent about the fact that he had himself taken her to a nightclub in their Oxford days!

Rajiva’s accommodations in India causes the reader considerable amusement. As an inveterate traveler he often went along on whims of the moment without making proper bookings. This led him to sharing a berth on a train with an old man and his grandson and then in stark contrast to having Nirmali Hettiaratchi as a fellow guest at the posh Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu. He has had dinners with our High Commissioners in India like Sudarshan Seneviratne and Austin Fernando who must have been considerably bemused by the sweep of Rajiva’s fascination and encompassing knowledge of India. He has enjoyed stays with Oxford friends at Bishop’s Palaces and pleasantly relaxed teas in Karachi with Benazir Bhutto, his old friend from Oxford, who remembered his penchant for chocolate cake.

The educator in Rajiva is never quiescent. It surfaces all the time and his visits to India were often for literary and educational reasons. During the time he was a Member of Parliament, Rajiva was in in Delhi for an Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue being held at the India International Centre. Our High Commission arranged for discussions with Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, an old friend of Rajiva’s from her days as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. The discussions were on the sad state of English in our country while India’s standards were zooming up by the day. Other well-known participants in the discussions were Nihal Rodrigo, Sajith Premadasa and Harsha de Silva. Mrs. Rao was happy to provide him with all the necessary aid but the Government of Sri Lanka changed and the scheme was very unfortunately dropped.

There are too many names, too many incidents, too many pictures, too many amazing stories to relate in a short Review. So let me just say “READ the Book”. India is our closest neighbour. Let us get to know her every facet as best we can. Rajiva Wijesinha’s “Exploring India” will do just that for the reader.

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Midweek Review

Making vocational training an impressive choice

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By Dr. Ajith Polwatte

Globally, a significant number of young persons choose vocational and technical training so as in Sri Lanka as the way for developing a livelihood for their life. At the same time, the Government and non-governmental organizations trying hard to increase the enrollments for such training using range of methods, including media and other promotional programmes. This article presents some of the important things which the responsible agencies can adopt to make vocational training an impressive choice for youngsters as well as adults for them to be able to develop a livelihood.

Vocational training is referred to as training of persons for specific occupations in the industry. In Sri Lanka, with the inception of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system, the vocational training system has improved significantly nevertheless, due to number of reasons, still it is not impressive enough to be an alternative choice for youngsters. They still view vocational training as “inferior” product to other educational choices thus as said before, responsible agencies in vocational training sector are compelled to spend resources to promote vocational training.

There are several things which would help making vocational training a good choice for young persons. If a vocational training system lacks the factors discuss in this article, people say the system is inferior thus cannot be trusted as a pathway for life success. Let us discuss those factors which would determine choosing a vocational training program a better choice as discussed below.

Demand-driven courses

* Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

* Use of modern technology in teaching

* Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

* Qualified, competent and committed Teacher / Trainers

* Attractive learning environment

* Merit-based enrollment

* Opportunities for extra-curricula activities

 

Demand-driven Courses

The term demand-driven is a bit familiar term in vocational training system of Sri Lanka (especially after inception of NVQ system) however, those who involve in training management need to understand the real meaning of the term. The “demands” are the work requirements or the expectations of the employers in the industry. In other words, it is what the work setup expects from the workers to do. The workers are supposed to fulfil those expectations thus the training centres need to train own trainees in such a way that they would be able to fulfil those expectations. Then such courses are titled as “demand-driven” courses.

Due to internal as well as external pressure factors, not all courses run by training centres are demand-driven. Internal factors include staff issues, available equipment and buildings, etc., whereas external factors include needs of the general public, opinions of influential persons, etc., which are referred to as “social demands”. Especially, the public sector training centres tend to deliver “social demand-driven courses” due to the said pressure factors. Social-demand driven courses not always ensure employment but real industry-demand driven courses ensure employment within or outside of the country. The outcome of vocational training should be a gainful employment and earnings thereof thus when youngsters making choices one of the key determinants would be the assurance of an employment upon completion of training. Designing of courses thus shall be based on industry needs rather than social needs. Therefore, it is better making all the vocational training courses “industry-demand-driven” towards the march for a better vocational training system.

 

Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

There is a proverb called “small is beautiful”. Though there is a perceived truth behind this proverb, the vocational training setup has exceptions. When a training centre provides 1-2 courses, there would be no room for social interaction thus the centre becomes an unattractive and monotonous place for the trainees. Also, the unit cost of training increases as few numbers of trainees are trained. Whereas if a centre is able to provide around 10 courses instead of few courses it can get “economies of scale” thus unit cost of a trainee decreases. As large numbers of trainees are trained, social interaction increases which makes the training centre a livable and attractive place to general public. Most people love to be part of “big places” than “small places”. Big places mostly have opportunities for extra curricula activities than small places which makes a significant impact to people’s minds in making choices. Therefore, those responsible for vocational training better start thinking about “big centres” than smaller centres for the way towards a better training system. On the other hand, school leavers, for number of years in schools, used to be in a spacious environment with room for extra-curricular activities admire and expect similar environment in vocational training centres as well.

 

Use of modern technology in teaching

Use of face-to-face and “chalk’n talk” method of teaching in vocational training is no longer an attractive method for youth of 21st century. Modern teaching is based on mix method of internet, audio and video, simulations etc. In vocational training, mostly it should be based on practical approach than classroom-based teaching approach. Successful application of competencies at work is the hallmark of vocational training. Practical abilities matter at work which are supported by related knowledge thus teaching methods need to be improved to make vocational training impressive for the youth. Scholars A. Michael and K. Marinos (2018) of CityUnity College / Cardiff Metropolitan University, Larnaca-Aradippou, Cyprus discusses the value of using a combine teaching methods by considering class-dynamics and students’ personal learning style with in-class activities supported by modern audio-visual means as a positive factor to be able to stimulate vocational centre students’ learning appetite. Thus it is necessary to innovate modern approaches to teaching at vocational training centres of our country.

 

Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

In Sri Lanka vocational training setup, use of up to date technology and application of digital methods in training and assessments is at lower level compared with developed countries. In training, as said before, ICT and online methods with mix modes need to be adopted. In assessments, it takes place as formative and summative throughout the course duration. Formative assessment are done on continuous basis by the teachers and the summative assessments are done by the certification body when national certificates are issued. During both of these assessment methods, it is better if online assessment tools be used where applicable. For formative assessment, one example may be the use of “Blogs” where students discuss and talk around an issue on internet-based Blog which the teachers monitor and give marks which are considered for pass marks. Blogs can be made social-media compatible so that with less cost students can access such assessment tools with lots of interest. These kind of modern assessment methods add value to vocational training setup. Designing Question Banks (Q-Banks) for summative assessments and releasing part of the Q-Bank to common practice (using mobile phones) may energize students to learn with enthusiasm.

 

Qualified, competent and committed Teachers/Trainers

Teaching is considered to be a noble profession which demands capacity in terms of knowledge and dedication. Also being updated with new development is mostly matter for teachers as knowledge is accessible via internet in modern world. Those who join teaching profession due to the fact that there are no other jobs make teaching at vocational training setup very unattractive. It is better industry practitioners in relevant trades could be brought in to the training centres and if vocational teachers could be sent to industry for exposures which would definitely increase of the quality of vocational teachers. Subject matter training and training-method training matter equally to be a good teacher. Vocational teachers are the first party who interact with students thus good teachers make good vocational training centres. Providing at least once-a-year industry exposure would increase capacity of a teacher to be able to teach well in the centre.

 

Attractive learning environment

Quality of vocational training mostly determines by the quality of learning environment. Quality of learning environment makes mainly the teaching and use of machinery, equipment and tools in teaching. In Competency based Training (CBT) introduced with the inception of the NVQ system tried to create a learning environment similar to what is prevailed in the industry. Thus the CBT method has been able to make a difference in the vocational training setup nevertheless it is still argued that there is a mismatch of technology being used in the centre and that prevails in the industry.

Due to several constraints, training administrators find it difficult to update training centres with new equipment. Nevertheless it is a good idea to be in par with the industry in the quest towards a better and impressive training setup.

 

Merit-based enrollment

Enrollment of a vocational training centre is such an important activity where the centre brings “inputs” to make “outputs” at the end of a training course. If a centre selects wrong “inputs” obviously the centre ends up with wrong “outputs”. Therefore, at the enrollment, the centre needs to select the most suitable, capable, committed and creative set of students who would follow the course up to the end. Therefore, a merit-based enrollment scheme is necessary with selection tests and interviews being held to select the best set of students. Then the training centre would be able to give the industry a good output of skilled persons who can actually work successfully.

 

Opportunities for extra-curricular activities

One of the things which make a good vocational training centre is the availability of room and space for extra-curricular activities i.e leisure sports, aesthetic activities, leadership and team building activities, literature, drama and arts activities etc. Training centre need to be large enough in terms of trainees to be able to build teams for these activities. Such social activities make training-life of students enjoyable which may have positive impact for proper learning at the centre. Extra-curricular activities inculcate soft-skills among trainees and training administrators better develop a system to recognize those soft skills for final pass marks.

The factors discussed above and the other positive things would contribute in different magnitude towards making vocational training centres impressive for the youth as well as for adults which encourage them to join vocational training centres. With these attributes in effect, people tend to see vocational training an impressive alternative pathway to learn vocations for life success.

 

 

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Midweek Review

Dawn

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By Lynn Ockersz

 

Once again, the growing multiverse is ablaze with light,

As night withdraws in a slow diffusing dance,

Leaving on all things on earth a sublime shine,

And the reminder comes,

That light is the essence of life,

Along with the hope that with every dawn,

Comes a whole new lease of life,

For the linking of hands among humankind,

And for marching towards a great new awakening for all,

Leaving none behind in a backward slide,

While every day becomes a time for a new resolve,

To bring big sparring minds to act peacefully as one,

And for putting behind the negative grasp of night,

That makes the spirit a lumbering carrier,

Of the cumbersome luggage of the past.

 

 

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