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Meeting the Maha Mudaliayar as a young ASP

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(Excerpted from Senior DIG Edward Gunawardena’s memoirs)

It was indeed a privilege to meet and come to know Sir James Peter Obeysekera, a doyen of the Low Country aristocracy. Although the Obeysekera family was spread far and wide in the Western Province, Batadola Walawwa situated in the Gampaha District was its seat. This was the majestic residence of Sir James. With Lady Hilda Obeysekera having passed away earlier, he lived alone at Batadola. His son, J.P. Obeysekera Jnr., who was the Member of Parliament for Attanagalla and his wife, Siva, visited him frequently and attended to all his needs.

I had heard of him. After I met JPO Jnr. at the Fountain Cafe I remembered my father (the assistant manager there) telling me that he was the son of a former Maha Mudaliyar. With Batadola in the police district of Gampaha I was anxious to meet and strike a conversation with this senior colonial official when I was posted there. I was wondering how I could make an appointment and call on him. It was my good fortune that I mentioned this to Inspector Alex Abeysekera when I visited the Nittambuwa police station one day.

Alex was quick to say that Sir James was a man I should meet. He believed that few in the younger generation would have even have heard of him, leave alone meeting him. Alex had called on him several times and Sir James had begun to look forward to his visits. Small wonder because Alex, although he had started his police career as a constable, was an erudite gentleman who spoke excellent English.

Alex lost no time in informing Sir James of his intention to visit him with the ASP of Gampaha. He telephoned me to say that Sir James would be pleased to see us in the afternoon of the Saturday to follow. Dressed in uniform I drove to the Nittambuwa police station in my car. Alex was also in uniform. He suggested that we go to Batadola in the Police Jeep.

With a laugh Alex told me that Sir James was a man who had long associated with the uniformed elite as an ADC to the Governor. In any event, in the sixties men in uniform were much respected and trusted.

Alex took the wheel and I was seated in front. The Police driver and a constable got into the rear. With the time approaching five we reached the driveway to the Batadola Walawwa. The narrow avenue of Na (ironwood) trees resembled a dark tunnel. It was cool, silent and dark. The sky could not be seen. I felt that I was in a different country. I suggested to Alex to stop for a few minutes and enjoy the ‘silence of the afternoon’!

A minute after we started off again we saw the light at the end of the tunnel of Na trees. What a fascinating sight it was! The setting sun shone on the white walled, imposing, castle-like Batadola remains a sight firmly etched in my memory. From the darkness of the avenue of Na trees Batadola certainly resembled an edifice out of this world.

Recognizing the police jeep a middle aged man, presumably a watcher, opened the main gate. Alex cautiously drove the vehicle to the portico. Before we could even get off the jeep Sir James appeared at the main entrance. Behind him stood a man dressed in a white sarong and white tunic coat buttoned to the neck. “Come in gentlemen, please make yourselves comfortable”. So saying he bade us sit down. His voice sounded squeaky.

The furniture in the sitting room consisted of settees and chairs of ebony and calamander with crimson velvet cushions. On all the chairs were heaps of books, magazines and newspapers. Alex and I had to clear the chairs of these books and magazines to sit down. Before Alex could introduce me the old man turned to Alex and good humouredly said, “So Abeysekera this young man is your boss”. With this I got up, introduced myself and shook hands with him. He was gracious enough to get up from his seat.

Dressed in a long sleeved white shirt and cotton khaki longs and wearing gold rimmed glasses he looked wiry and fit. Although in his late seventies with wooden clogs as footwear he looked quite tall. After we settled down in our seats he was curious to know my family background, my educational achievements, the school that I attended, what my brothers were doing etc. He appeared to be very pleased when I told him that I had already met his son, the MP. But he laughed and said, “that fellow is not cut out for politics. He likes to drive racing cars and pilot aeroplanes!”

I then saw the man who was dressed in white bringing a tray with two cups and saucers and a small glass tumbler which had a liquid the colour of wine. He left this tumbler on a stool near his master and brought the tray round. He then said, “I don’t know whether police people will like this drink. You know Abeysekera this is what I sip throughout the day. It is plain cold tea without sugar. It is good for your health.” I responded by saying that I too like it, but with a little lime juice and chilled.

With the time approaching 6.30 p.m. it suddenly occurred to me that Alex had mentioned about the old man’s fondness to keep on talking. His advice to me on the way was to keep mum as much as possible and to allow him to do the talking. But to get him talking I had to ask a question or two. I then told him how fascinated I was seeing the Batadola Walawwa for the first time and asked him, “Sir, how old is this lovely structure?”

His immediate response was to say that it was the oldest Walawwa in Siyane Korale. I also remember him saying that an ancestor of his, a chieftain from the south who also had Dutch blood, had been able to obtain about five hundred acres from an early British Governor to plant coconut and cinnamon. This ancestor had first built a modest house by a stream lined with bata (small bamboo). According to what he related the present structure dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. However, Sir James himself truthfully admitted that he found it difficult to recall the details of the origins of Batadola Walawwa.

At 7 p.m. sharp the man in white brought a meat mincer and mounted it on a small table near which Sir James was seated. Alex kicked my leg as if to say it is time to go. Moments later this man brought a plate with a fork and spoon. A small dish of food was also brought. I knew it was food by the colour of the green beans and carrots. I got up from my seat to indicate that the time had come to leave. “No, no, please stay, let’s talk a little more,” he said.

“How is it, Sir, that Horagolla is better known than Batadola?” “Better known? What nonsense. True, the riff-raff have heard of only Horagolla. And that too only after Banda became prime minister”; he sounded slightly agitated, but appeared to be enjoying the banter. Proud of the superiority of Batadola, Sir James began to rattle off the ancestry of the Bandaranaikes and how they had become rich.

According to him the Bandaranaikes had been ‘Poosaris’ of the Nawagamuwa Devala who had got contracts from the British Government to supply labour and metal for the construction of the Colombo — Kandy Rd.

While we were talking the man in white started putting the contents of the dish in small doses to the meat mincer and turning out little lumps of minced food to be eaten by his master. Nevertheless, he appeared to be keen to keep talking about the Bandaranaikes even whilst eating his dinner. However keen he was to go on with the conversation, I thanked him for the wonderful reception we received and got up to leave. He virtually pleaded that we should drop in often. Despite eating his dinner at the time, he walked up to the door to see us off.

A few weeks later I visited the Wathupitiwala Hospital in connection with a serious motor accident that had occurred on the Kandy — Colombo Rd at Pasyala. As I drove in, from a distance I spotted Sir James standing near the entrance. He was dressed in a lounge suit of khaki cotton drill and wearing a brown felt hat. His footwear was light brown canvas deck-shoes. He also carried a black umbrella. In every respect he resembled a typical English country gentleman.

I saluted and shook hands with him. He remembered our meeting at Batadola. Before getting into his car he thanked us again for our visit and said he’d like to meet us again. As was his practice he had visited the hospital semi-officially to inspect the buildings and premises. This hospital had been built in memory of his late wife, Lady Obeysekera.

It wasn’t long before we met Sir. James again. Alex and I had to visit a scene of murder close to the Batadola Estate and we took the opportunity to drop in at the Walawwa. Sir James greeted us warmly. “I knew that you were coming to this area. I expected you to drop in. Perhaps we can continue the discussion from where we left off.”

He appeared to be keen to tell us more about the Bandaranaikes. The jovial mood he was in was obvious. “Today you will not get plain tea”. So saying he ordered the butler to bring us iced coca cola.

Starting off the conversation he expressed the opinion that the Obeysekeras were more refined people as a clan. Most of them were Oxford or Cambridge educated. He referred to his cousins, Forester and Donald. Alex butted in having been a boxer to say that he knew Donald’s sons, Danton and Alex. He also was keen to impress on us that the Bandaranaikes particularly the late Solomon and R.F. Dias reveled in crude ribald jokes. He was in an unstoppable mood. When I interjected to say that S.W.R.D was a distinguished Oxford alumnus, “Yes the first and perhaps the last,” was his response.

Perhaps he felt that I knew more about the Bandaranaikes. He may have even thought that I was an admirer of the Bs, by the questions he began to ask me. “Have you been to Tintagel?” he asked me. I told him that I called on the Prime Minister officially at his Colombo residence. “What do you know of the ‘Maligawa’ in Cinnamon Gardens?” “I have not seen or heard of a Maligawa other than in Kandy,” was my reply.

He laughed loudly. Alex who was a silent listener provided the answer. “It is adjoining the Cinnamon Gardens police station Sir, the palatial residence of the Obeysekeras in Colombo.” Sir James was pleased. He got another starting point to educate me more about the Obeysekeras.

Continuing he told me that the Cinnamon Gardens police station is on a land donated to the Police Dept. by the Obeysekera family. Unlike Tintagel which was owned by an Englishman the Maligawa had been built at about the same time that the Batadola Walawwa had been built. He recalled the WW II years when as a young man he had been an additional ADC to the Governor.

When I showed interest he began to speak freely. According to him the Maligawa, where he lived during the war years was only second to Queen’s House. He described two luxury suites that were reserved for visiting dignitaries and other special guests. Even Queen’s House did not have such accommodation, he said.

Unlike Queen’s House the location of the Maligawa had special advantages. He had been fond of riding and the Governor’s stables had been located across the road in the race course. Geoffrey Layton and Louis Mountbatten, whenever they wanted to ride, had been his guests at the Maligawa. What has stuck in my memory is the peculiarity that Layton had, a preference to ride a piebald named Tojo, the name of the Japanese war lord! What was unsaid was that the Bandaranaikes never hosted such important people at ‘Tintagel or Horagolla.

He also told some interesting stories about, Geoffrey Layton and Mountbatten. Saying both were playboys, he laughed. With the arrival of his son JPO. Jnr. apparently for a private and personal meeting with his father, Alex and I decided to take leave of Sir James.

I met him once more before I left Gampaha district on transfer; and this happened to be the last time. The occasion was a handicrafts exhibition at Nittambuwa. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the chief guest at this exhibition and I had to accompany her as the ASP Gampaha. Most of the Members of Parliament of the area were present. I distinctly remember the tall and big made Wijayabahu Wijesinghe, Laksman Jayakody and M.P. de Z Siriwardena.

The MP for Attanagalle, J.P. Obeysekera Jr. was a notable absentee. But his father, Sir James, stood amongst the distinguished invitees. What struck me was his dress, the attire I had seen him in before; the khaki lounge suit, khaki canvas shoes and the brown felt hat.

When the Prime Minister started going round viewing the exhibits, the MPs too followed. They kept a reasonable distance from her but Sir James kept up with her talking to her all the time, even joking and laughing. The Prime Minister too appeared to enjoy his company.

One episode in which Sir James figured remains firmly etched in my memory. A large stall exhibiting terracotta statuettes drew the special attention of the Prime Minister. Prominent among these exhibits were several nude figurines. With a mischievous smile Sir James turned to the Prime Minister and to be heard by all close by commented, “Sirima, I never knew Attanagalla women had such lovely breasts!” Everybody nearby laughed. Without showing any embarrassment the Prime Minister smiled graciously.

Sir James Obeysekera was not a public figure when I met him. He was living in quiet retirement having faded away from the public gaze. From what I could gather in the limited moments I spent with him he longed for company and conversation. Having been a central figure among the social elite during the era of the Queen’s House Ball, the social evenings at the Maligawa and the Governor’s Cup the blue riband of local horse racing, loneliness had overtaken him.

I consider myself fortunate to have met this great gentleman. Undoubtedly, Sir James, the Maha Mudaliyar had been the leading aristocratic figure in the low country. But when I met him he was a simple, erudite, witty gentleman. I regret I could not attend his funeral in 1968 as I was out of The country as a Fulbright student in Michigan.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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