My father, the unforgettable Premnath Moaraes
Birth centenary fell on Jan. 31
by Pradeep Moraes
Singer, Songwriter, Lyricist.
Actor, Film Director, Scriptwriter, Producer.
Weightlifter, Wrestler, Footballer, Cricketer, Athlete, Gymnast
Journalist, Sports Editor, Creative Head & Copywriter.
Commentator, Compere and Silver tongued Orator,
Believe me, the list goes on.
Renaissance Man? , Bohemian Artist? Yes to both, but to me, most importantly, the gentlest human being one could hope to meet, and the most devoted husband to my mother and loving father my sister Rehani or I could ever have hoped to have .
Premnath Joseph Moraes – born Joseph Peter Moraes Fernando on January 31, 1923, was of solid middle class stock, who carried his simple and devout Catholic faith right through life.In many ways he epitomized the essence of the very best of the Benedictine trademark ,with traits and talents that wove a rich tapestry of Arts, Sports, Humanity, Simplicity and a Christianity that was lived rather than preached.
Abundantly blessed with talent and versatility, he was however trusting to a foolish degree and unfailingly gullible so as to be a target for exploiters and worse, resulting in the vicissitudes of economic circumstances. So it was not his largesse that begets the incredible goodwill he has left as his legacy to his family, but rather a tribute from people of all walks of life to Premnath the man.
Talking of all walks of life, my father trod many paths; a short outline of which I hope will make good reading.
Joining the Police force soon after school , he was seconded to the CID and later advised to leave by a senior police officer after having spoken openly at the funeral of a colleague who had been gunned down when leading an unarmed raid on a den of vice.
Thereafter he sought and secured a position as a reporter with the Times of Ceylon after an interview with its Editor, Frank Moraes ( later Editor of the Times of India and father of the poet Dom), who reminded him that “the coincidence of our surnames will remain just that! “
Leaving the Times of Ceylon building , Premnath was almost knocked down by a vehicle driven by his friend Sangare Sellamuttu (later Mayor of Colombo ) with whom he got chatting and informed him of the job he had just landed . “What nonsense ” said Sellamuttu , “with your looks you should be in films . Let me introduce you to Sir Chittampalm Gardiner. ” Good looks he had, no doubt about it, but rather than me being accused of understandably favourable bias let me quote an excerpt from a long , eloquent and emotional appreciation by the late, great Gamini Fonseka:
“On those extra broad shoulders
rested that handsome head
of a barrel chested man
with a wasp like waist
His features stirred envy
In the hearts of “stars” of his day. “
The shoulders were actually very broad prompting the late T.B. Illangaratne (author and later Govt. Minister) to describe the hero in one of his books (in Sinhala) as having a moustache like Ronald Colman, and shoulders like Premnath Moraes.
Getting back to Sir Chittampalan (also an old Ben) , the great man was too busy to see my father that day and instead told him “meet me in Madras on Monday morning” (this was Friday) leaving the young applicant to find his own fare – perhaps a test of mettle.
Young Premnath (a name he then assumed ) was signed on as an actor and thus started a romance with the film industry which lasted over 50 years ( from 1947 to 1998 , from starring in ” Kadawanu Poronduwa “ (also known as Broken Promise) the second Sinhala film to be produced, to Demodara Palama, circa 1997. Warada Kageda and Kapati Arakshakaya in the late forties were followed by several others .
This was followed by a stint in Shanthiniketan the Centre of Arts north of Calcutta , the stay which was undertaken for purely aesthetic reasons, gave my father the most pleasant memories among which was seeing and hearing Maestro Ravi Shankar perform for over a hundred cumulative hours.
The long visitation was in the company of his close friend Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne (Star and Director of Ashokamala – the first Sinhala film). Though they both learned classical dance in Shanthiniketan, my father unlike Shanti was never a fan of ballroom dancing – much to the chagrin of Rani , my mother.
From Shanthenikitan, Premnath moved to Bombay where he was in the famed Raj Kapoor/Nargis circle , and was close friends of Dilip Kumar (Mohamed Yusuf Khan), and closer still to one of the most beautiful Hindi actresses of the time, whose gift to him – a gold , Universal Genève watch , I wear to this day.
Back to Ceylon , and the man took up to singing, was contracted to the HMV label (His Masters Voice) , recorded solo, and with Latha (Walpola) and Chitra (Somapala), of the many recordings perhaps the most famed are “Sri Lanka Rani Meniye” ( the de facto Catholic anthem of Sri Lanka) and “LakDeepe” .
Mellifluous to a high degree, his voice had the unusual combination of mellowness and power, in fact we have a photograph of my father recording “5 ths” in a studio a full 20 ft away from the “mike”.
Here, permit me to express a son’s view albeit emotionally flavoured ; I truly believe that no one could sing Olu Pipila or Kokilayane Kolila Nade, better . Incidentally the great Sunil Santha who immortalized these songs was also a Ben .
The Sri Lankan Nightingale Rukmani Devi once told me that she and her husband Eddie Jayamanne (both of whom were very close to him) used to badger my father to sing the 1939 classic “Over the Rainbow ” at every possible opportunity, and redoubtable fellow Benedictine Ben Navaratne ( argued to be the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka or Ceylon ever produced) used to always ask my father to promise to sing ” O Danny Boy ” over his grave; very poignantly Ben Navaratne and Premnath Moraes are buried within yards of each other at the Jawatte Cemetery.
On to 1953. Production Assistant (titles were not grandiose in those days ), and Second Unit Director for Elephant Walk , directed by William De Telle , the son in law of the legendary Cecil B De Mille ( of Ten Commandments Fame ) .
Starring Vivien Leigh, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews – all Oscar Winners – (Peter Finch and Dana Andrews later, Vivien had already won hers for Streetcar named Desire). Living at the Galle Face Hotel for a full nine months, interspersed with long stays at up country locations, my father enjoyed close interaction with the best acting talent the world had to offer, with the huge bonus of frequent visits from Laurence Olivier, probably the most acclaimed Thespian and Actor who was obliged to check on his wife Vivien, who succumbed to a nervous breakdown within the shooting period. Many were the occasions when the “master” himself was coerced to perform Hamlet to a private audience,
What is remarkable (given that this was 1953) is that Vivien’s condition was recognized , possible inability to proceed was anticipated, and EVERY scene was shot twice, one with Vivien Leigh, one without. So upon Vivien being unable to proceed with the film, the images of Elizabeth Taylor were superimposed – without her ever having visited Ceylon. Not bad for 1953!
Two short stints as Second Unit Director for United Artists “Captain’s Table” and “Purple Plains” which starred Gregory Peck , on to India where he was Production Manager at Gemini Studios in Madras, where most of the Sinhala Films at the time were edited, dubbed and produced. Coincidentally his uncanny look alike, the Tamil film star Gemini Ganeshan, got his eponymous name through association with this studio.
Wide varied and versatile though my father’s exposure to the celluloid world, in my opinion his single most significant to the Sinhala Cinema were his unremitting efforts to get Gamini Fonseka into it, culminating in a successful introduction to Lester James Peiris who brought Gamini into Rekawa in a non starring role. The rest – to use a cliché – is history!. Gamini never lost an opportunity to credit my father (whom he referred to as his “guru “) with his entry to films, and Lester has also endorsed the fact over the years.
Many are the others whom Premnath introduced and inducted into the Film world, stars, cameramen, sound artists, script writers, editors , music directors et al, and many are the pioneering developments he introduced to Sinhala cinema.
A classic example is Sri 296 which he directed in 1959, wherein he provided Henry Jayasena , Joe Abeywickrema and Punya Heendeniya with their first “starring ” roles (all had played small roles earlier), introduced the very beautiful Zeena Valencia to whom he attributed the screen name “Sumitra” (a name she retained for life) who then went on to marry Gamini Fonseka.
is considered a watershed in Sinhala Cinema with the introduction for the first time of an all Ceylonese crew (film crew up to that point were from India) and also for the introduction of two full colour sequences under the mastery of cameraman A.V.M . Vasagam
followed circa 1961 with Gamini in the starring role and Shane Gunaratne as Migara. Scenes from the filming of this film form some of my earliest, distinct, memories with sword fighting being practiced in the main hall of our home at Colpetty (this house had previously been perhaps Ceylon’s only synagogue and an extremely large mosaic floored circular hall). And the equestrian escapades of the horsemen who were trained by Ranjith Dahanayake , later of Hermes International fame . Space does not permit a fair recording of his film career but mention might be made of his roles in Kathuru Muwath, Priyanga (where he played Vijaya Kumaratunga’s father ) and Hitha Honda Minihek where he at Gamini’s insistence played a virtual real life role as Gamini’s “finder” and mentor.
Association with Tyronne Fernando (Minister) and Manik Sandarasaga led to my father writing and scripting the rather ribald Colomba Sanniya (Coming Sweet). He also was the “ghost writer of the Hollywood Production of God King , and to use the term employed by that great Ben, Ravindra Randeniya who was the star of the film – “the de facto director” of much acclaimed Kalu Diya Dahara .
Ironically, given his long involvement with Sinhala cinema, Premnath won the most kudos , and international and local acclaim for directing the Tamil Film “Vaadai Kaatru” in the seventies, shot on the arid dunes of Pesalai. As recently as on September 26, 2015, that redoubtable and insightful journalist , DBS Jeyaraj referred to Vaadai Kaatru as “probably the best Tamil Film” ever made in Sri Lanka .
(To be continued next week)
‘A Jaffna-man, an eminent surgeon with an European reputation’
180th Birth Anniversary of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood
March 13, 2023 marks the 180th Birth Anniversary of the late Hon. Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood, MLC, MD, MRCP, MRCS. Born on March 13, 1843 in Alaveddy, a small agricultural town in Jaffna; was the second of four children born to Elisha and Ms. Jane Backup, based on Alaveddy Church Records in the custody of Rt. Rev. Dr. Velupillai Pathmathayalan, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), formerly the American Ceylon Mission. Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood died on March 27, 1909 at the ‘Emms’, Horton Place, Colombo 7.
His father, Elisha born Sinnatambi on April 06, 1820, was one of six children born to a Saivite Hindu, Perumalpillai who migrated from Karaikal, South India to Sri Lanka and married a land-owner’s daughter Ms. Vairavi of Alaveddy. He was baptised ‘Elisha Rockwood’ in 1831 in Tellipallai and was given US $ 200 to complete his education at the Batticotta Seminary, known today as the Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, by the American Congregational Movement, which later became known as the American Ceylon Mission. Elisha completed his education and taught mathematics at the same school. He later joined the Customs Department as a Sub-Collector.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood married Ms. Salome Muthamma Muttucumaru, daughter of Mr. Adam Cathiravel Muttucumaru on November 1, 1871. Mrs. W. G. Rockwood was born in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District on March 15, 1857 and died at “Pembroke,” Horton Place, Colombo 7 on Saturday, August 29, 1925.
Thus born to humble beginnings, ‘Dr. W. G. Rockwood was a most skilful and distinguished physician and had by rare ability proved himself ‘the greatest surgeon in the East. His reputation was not confined to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or the adjacent continent, but had extended far beyond the seas to Great Britain, where he won the esteem of such eminent members of the medical profession as Dr. Marcus Beck, Dr. Charles Stoiiham, Dr. J. Bland Sutton. Sir Thomas Barlow, Lord Lister, and Sir Frederick Treves’. Dr. Rockwood was also president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in 1851 aged 08 years, had his early education at the Vembadi Boys’ School and later at Central College, Jaffna, which was founded by the Methodist Missionaries. In 1855, aged 12 years, he went with his father to Batticaloa and joined Central College, Batticaloa which was also run by the Wesleyan Mission.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1862 was in the last year of his teens, when a maternal uncle, Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai told him to come to Madras University for a “good education.” Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai died on March 19, 1900 at the “Emm’s,” Regent Street, Colombo 7.
In January 1866, aged 23 years, Dr. W. G. Rockwood passed the Calcutta University Matriculation Examination in Madras and applied for the arts course. His father prevailed on young Rockwood to follow medicine which he did with many misgiving and much reluctance. His disinclination soon disappeared for Rockwood took to anatomy with such interest. In July 1866, he joined the Madras Medical College and received the scholarship of Rs.20 allowed for those who pass the London matriculation Examination.
‘On his obtaining the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Madras, a member of the Board of examiners paid him the following rare compliment, “I have lately had, on behalf of the Madras University to examine a man of the name of Rockwood from Ceylon, for the Degree of Doctor of Medicine, and certainly was quite unprepared to meet a candidate for medical honours of this country so remarkably proficient. I fully believe that in any English or Scotch University he would have carried the highest honours” ’. (Source: Jaffna Catholic Guardian April 03, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood while he was serving in Puttalam skilfully handled an outbreak of cholera and because of his experience in handling it, he was sent to Jaffna in1868 to control the outbreak of cholera. He returned to Puttalam and then was transferred to Hambantota (June 1875) and later to Gampola (1878). It was while he was in Gampola that the vacancy for the post of Surgeon in the Medical Department of the General Hospital in Colombo arose.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1878 aged 35 years held the post of Principal Surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for a period of 20 years. He was the sole surgeon of the hospital and at the same time he was Lecturer in Clinical Systematic and Operative Surgery in the Ceylon Medical College. Besides this what leisure he could snatch from his official duties was given up to the demands of a large and growing practice.
He travelled to London in 1884 when he was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) and Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood retired from active service from the Medical Department after 31 years on March 13, 1898 at the age of 55 years. Upon his retirement and in recognition of his long-standing service he was immediately appointed Consultant Surgeon to the General Hospital in Colombo.
It is said of his authority on handling tropical diseases that there was an instance when a colour conscious Englishman who had an ailment was asked to consult Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood of Ceylon while on his way to Australia from England. The Englishman thinking from the name – Rockwood – was an Englishman made an appointment to see him at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo when the ship docked at the Colombo harbour.
On that day Dr. Rockwood was at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo waiting to see his patient. The patient was informed that Dr. Rockwood had arrived, came to the lobby and was pacing up and down the lobby impatiently when the management of the Hotel who were well acquainted with Dr. Rockwood had to draw his attention to the coloured man in the room. Seeing that Dr. Rockwood was coloured he had returned to his room. A year later the patient was back with his pride in his pocket to consult Dr. Rockwood.
Another story is related where a passenger ship had docked in the Port of Colombo and an SOS was sent out for a surgeon to attend to a German National. It turned out that the German National was the German Consul Freudenberg who was treated and cured of his ailment and later became a very close friend of the family. Dr. Rockwood was also physician to the Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway.
A combination of medicine and politics
The Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway appointed Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood to the Legislative Council representing the Tamil community for a period of five years from March 14, 1898 to March 12, 1903. Dr. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliyar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy who was the eldest brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who served as the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council for a single term. Governor Sir West Ridgeway in a private letter to Dr. Rockwood inviting him to join the Legislative Council as the Tamil representative said: ‘The Tamil community could think of no one who has earned the esteem and the admiration not of one community or of two, but of every community, of all men, of all races, as Dr. Rockwood’.
Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood was presented to His Majesty the King of England, Edward VII at St. James’ Palace on June 01, 1902 while he was serving as a Member of the Legislative Council. He was appointed to the Legislative Council for a second term on July 09, 1903. Due to continuing failing health, Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood in1906 laid off from all public activity.
The Legislative Council was the first Assembly set up under the Colebrook Reforms with 15 members in 1833 by the British under Governor Sir Fredrick North. There were two categories of members. Officials numbered nine and unofficial members numbered six. The official members were appointed directly by the Governor and their communities nominated the unofficial members. The six unofficial members comprised one each Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and three Europeans.
The Legislative Council was altered in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission and lasted until 1947. Ceylon gained Independence from the British on February 04, 1948. Ceylon changed her name to Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972 when she became a Republic. The second Constitution was enacted in 1972 when Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. Today we have the third Constitution enacted in 1978 when Hon. Junius Richard Jayewardene became the first Executive President under that Constitution.
‘Dr. Daniel Anthonisz, of Galle had demonstrated the advantage of breaking the monopoly of the legal profession over the unofficial seats in the Legislative Council. Dr. Rockwood’s tenure of the seat emphasised that advantage. Dr. Rockwood illustrated his preferences for his principles at the sacrifice of popularity when he proposed a motion in the Legislative Council on October 18, 1899, asking the salary of the judges of the Supreme Court to be raised high enough to make it possible to secure English barristers for the bench’.
On that occasion Dr. Rockwood said: ‘To have the certainty of even-handed justice is the greatest blessing a community can enjoy and the purity of that administration must be above suspicion. In a small place like Ceylon, where every man is known to every other man, it is necessary in the interests of the public that the Supreme Court Judges, who administer justice between man and man, must be men who have no local or permanent interests or connections. By, these remarks I do not mean to shut out local talent. Those who have established a reputation for efficiency and who have claims for meritorious service are possibly eligible for a higher post and these may be sent to other parts of the Empire where they have no personal interests to serve and no connections’. (Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader: Sunday, March 28, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood is described as one of Asia’s greatest surgeons who could operate with the use of both his hands (ambidextrous). He also promoted the choice of opium in the treatment of certain ailments. He was a member of the commission appointed by the then Governor of Ceylon to oversee the planning and construction of the Colombo-Chilaw railway line from Negombo. It was later extended to Puttalam. While serving on the commission he also suggested the construction of a railway line to Jaffna.
Six years after his death in 1915, Mrs. W. G. Rockwood donated Rs.20,000 to be utilised towards the construction of a 38 X 26 feet ‘Waiting Hall’ called ‘Rockwood Memorial Hall’ for patients who come to the General Hospital, Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for treatment. The foundation stone was laid in 1909 and the construction began in the same year. On April 16, 1912, ‘The Rockwood Hall’ was opened by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Edward McCallum (1907-1913). The plaque was unveiled in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English to mark the donation: ‘The Rockwood Memorial Hall erected to the memory of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood MD, MRCS, MRCP, Chief Surgeon of this hospital 1878 to 1898, Consulting Surgeon from 1898 until his death. Tamil Representative to Legislative Council from 1898 – 1905’. It is unfortunate that during the structural alterations made to the original building the three plaques and his photograph have been lost.
His character can be judged by his teaching. Once it is said that he rebuked a somewhat light-minded student and the latter, now an elderly man himself occupying a responsible position, remembers the rebuke. ‘Never make differences in your patients’, said Dr. Rockwood. ‘Every time a surgeon has a life depending upon his knife, it takes a fortnight off his own life, and the sense of responsibility is perhaps the greater when the man is a pauper than when he is a great and wealthy patient. The surgeon dare not take risks with the great man, for the world is watching him; but he fears still more to do so with the pauper, for then it is God who watches’.
He emphasised to his students that the surgeon must regard his treatise on anatomy as second only to the Bible. The words are characteristic of the man whose religion was always a predominant factor in his every thought and deed.
The ‘Rockwood Surgery Medal is awarded to the student who shows the greatest aptitude for surgery by the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna in memory of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood.
‘A dutiful son, a faithful husband, an affectionate father, a loyal friend, a skilful surgeon, a good man, not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.’ – Romans Ch 12; Vs 11-13
(Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader – Extraordinary Edition of Sunday, March 28, 1909).
(Excerpts from the book ‘From Williamstown to Vaddukoddai: The history of the Rockwood family’, published by the author William Sukumar Rockwood, MCPS, PgD. IHL, BA, JP, great grandson on August 21, 2011) -/end – 2280 words
LTTE writ on coral exploitation more effective than govt. orders
Tragedy and drama in the dry zone jungle
Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
(Continued from last week)
North of Thenaddi Bay and a little inland is the village of Kathiraveli. In 1975 Thilo discovered there a folk art not found elsewhere. He described this in an article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Lanka. For many years he was a Committee Member of that body. As recently as 2004 he wrote a sequel, which was not accepted for publication. Parts of it are reproduced here:
“In 1980 I contributed an illustrated article to the JRAS (New Series, Vol.XXV: 91) in which I described certain remarkable decorations in Kathiraveli, Eastern Province, on the outer walls of thatched mud-and-wattle houses, painted by women on the occasion of the Tamil New Year. The pigments used are lime and natural clays of different colours found in the village environment. The painting lasts about a year and is renewed before the next New Year.
“During the following decade I visited the village once or twice a year. Calamity soon befell the remote area in the form of the ethnic conflict. The village was occupied first by the army, the IPKF and finally the Tigers under whose control it still is. (at the time this note was written) It was, much of the time, in a war zone. My last visit had been in January 1992. By then the spirit of the villagers had been broken by untold tragedy.
“Only one house had still some basic decoration. Compounds were neglected and houses dilapidated, the people apathetic and subdued. Farming had become impossible. An aged couple whose neat and tidy homestead was a model for my paper had lost their only son who was taken to the army camp and never returned. Sadness and grief prevailed.
“In April 2003 I was able to pay a visit to Kathiraveli, although it is in an ‘uncleared’ area. After answering a few suspicious questions and establishing my bona fides, I was allowed to pass the LTTE checkpoint situated a little north of Mankerni. Up to that point the landscape had been devastated by the extensive and far-reaching destruction of all vegetation for security reasons.
“Thereafter I was passing through the familiar countryside which had hardly changed during so many decades, even centuries, in parts. The majestic trees are still standing along the road and on the coast. There are forests and a serene tranquility and seemingly timeless peace. Only here and there a jarring note: the memorial to fallen Tiger heroes, a large ‘military’ cemetery. new LTTE offices and installations with loafing youngsters around them. With considerable curiosity and apprehension I approached Kathiraveli.
“Nothing seemed changed. Soon we spotted the first painted house, rather simple but unmistakably in the traditional style. In all we found about a dozen such houses, each freshly painted, along the main roads, though generally there are fewer inhabited homesteads.
“Unfortunately ‘progress’ has reached Kathiraveli in the form of corrugated metal roofing sheets; two of the painted houses were covered with this material giving them a totally different and far less pleasing appearance than those with the cool and pleasant cadjan thatch.
“But the younger women had remembered the New Year tradition and had revived it in its pure, simple and natural form, some rather tentatively as if still trying to recall the old designs and motifs. The colours and basic patterns give these dwellings a clean, even festive and happy appearance.
“In December 2003 I was again in Kathiraveli, when I distributed nearly 100 colour photographs of decorated houses I had taken in 1977 and 78. They were intended to help strengthen the old tradition.
Otherwise the visit was a disappointment because in the short interval of eight months ‘development’ appears to have overtaken the village. There are glistening roofing sheets on old houses many of which have been replaced by stereotyped cement block constructions.
“For living comfort in this environment nothing can beat a well-constructed and maintained mud-and-wattle house generously covered with a thick and overhanging thatch of cadjan: cool during the hot season, dry and warm and cosy when the north-east monsoon is on.
“In this connection I might be permitted to touch upon another facet of personal contemporary history in this area. Not far away at Kayankerni on the coast I had for 30 years, a house, now a sad ruin. It was wrecked and the material looted in 1992. Even the well rings were dug up and carted away. For decades I had been fighting a mostly losing battle against the mudalalis who openly flouted the laws of the country by breaking and burning corals for lime. As a result erosion set in, the coast was altered and the protective reefs were destroyed, together with the trees and forests which provided the firewood.
“The process was aided and abetted by a lethargic and dishonest bureaucracy and a corrupt police force. Only once for a short few years was my campaign crowned with success when an energetic and honest GA at Batticaloa stopped the rapacious exploitation by ordering the police to destroy all the kilns in Passikudah, Kayankerni, Panichchankerni, and elsewhere in the district.
“When in 1990 the Tigers took over the area after the IPKF, they prohibited all coral breaking. The order was instantly obeyed by all, as non-compliance would have resulted in most dire consequences. Only ‘war widows’ were allowed to collect coral debris washed up on the shore and turn them into `sippi’, a traditional and acceptable ‘soft’ use of the resource.
“When the government regained the area the old abuse was resumed and as late as April 2003 did I note with dismay that more lime kilns than ever were in operation at Kayankerni, under the very noses of the security forces. (Note: The burnt lime is transported mainly to upcountry vegetable growing areas where it is used as a soil conditioner. Other uses are in mortar for construction and for whitewashing. Alternate sources of raw material are Miocene limestone and dolomite). All the more was I surprised when in December of the same year all the kilns had once again disappeared, again on the orders of the Tigers.
“Thus we have the absurd situation that in an area controlled by the Government an order from the LTTE is instantly and scrupulously obeyed, and the ordinary laws are brazenly flouted. Weak and disinterested authorities at all levels have long lost the will to enforce good laws, especially in the field of conservation. `Non- enforcement’ has been elevated to a fine art and policy under the influence of foreign gurus; doing nothing is so much easier than doing the right thing.”
The Vakarai area including Kathiraveli was retaken by government forces in early 2007.
Facets of the jungle
In the wilderness, too, there were aspects other than nature which engaged Thilo’s attention.Among the many parts of the dry zone he visited Wilpattu was a favourite. Several sections in this book describe his involvement with the area.
He explored extensively on foot the former Wilpattu West Sanctuary – now part of the National Park –especially the northern half of its 30 mile (50 km) coastline, between Kollankanatta and Kudremalai Point.
Much of this coast towards the north is formed by a cliff which is being eroded by the sea. To the north of Kollankanatta towards Pallugaturai this erosion exposes and destroys layers of the remnants of an ancient settlement. Thousands of clay and porcelain and worked seashell fragments litter the shore. There was even a clay-ring well. Thilo informed the Department of Archaeology, which then undertook a sample dig, but no further action.
It would have been a trading harbour during the Anuradhapura era, because in the vicinity on the track to Sinna Uppu Villu, not far away, he had discovered several baobab trees, as in Mannar, introduced from Africa. There must also have been, he thinks, a factory to make conch-shell bangles.
On the highest point, 225 feet above sea level, of the coastal ridge stands a chimney-like tower about 50 feet high. This and similar towers near Mullikulam and south of Arippu would have served as beacons during the time of the pearl fisheries.
In Kudremalai, at 123 feet, on the very edge of the cliff is the ruin of an ancient Hindu temple which, too, is fast disappearing with the erosion. Here is found the deep red soil, nearly purple or almost violet, to which is linked the ancient name ‘Tambapanni’ for Sri Lanka. It is said that Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala race, landed here. A motorable track provided by the Park authorities now leads to this point.
The beacon at Arippu is near the massive brick ruin of the `Doric’, built by Frederick North, the first British Governor of Ceylon from 1798 to 1805, for use as a residence when visiting the pearl fisheries. Again due to the erosion the ruins are now rapidly being lost. In the book The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, 2004 update, these are wrongly identified and depicted as being of the small Arippu Fort, the ruins of which are aboutfour km further north in the village.
Thilo also explored the North-eastern sector of Wilpattu which lies between the old Arippu road (now long abandoned) and Tantirimale. The ruins at this site, on the extensive rock outcrop (highest point 298 feet), were originally inside the National Park, the boundary of which in that sector was the Malwatu Oya. The place was entirely engulfed by the dense jungle. He first visited it on Vesak Day of 1966. Later the Park boundary was adjusted, the forest was cleared and people began to settle there.
To enable his explorations, from time to time he exercised walking through thick track and featureless monsoon forest with the help of a compass. The danger of missing the target several miles away was great because of the very restricted visibility, especially, where the nillu (Strobilanthes sp.) had grown high. Nevertheless, he always reached the goal with reasonable accuracy.
Observations at historical sites across the country were recorded in his notebooks, described later.Thilo also took an interest in the villagers who live in or by the jungle. Amidst his memories are tragedy and drama:
In a village called Manawa, some distance from Anuradhapura, Tikiri Bandara and 15-year-old Bandara Menike had fallen in love. Her family opposed the marriage. In desperation he shot to death three members of her clan. Then he took her by the hand and disappeared with her into the jungle, as witnessed by some women bathing in the village tank. He carried only his gun.
Tikiri Bandara was charged with three murders before the Anuradhapura Magistrate, in November 1957. The police mounted a search with dogs but failed to find the couple. Some months after this a poacher waiting for game in the fork of a tree at an abandoned tank observed a young man and woman coming out of the jungle in tattered clothes, she highly pregnant. They had a bath and vanished into the forest. Four years later, two skulls, some bones, two ear-studs and plastic bangles, a knife and the rusted barrel of a gun were found by hunters and produced before the magistrate.
Jathiaka Namal Uyana Marks 32nd Anniversary
Mother nature welcomes all. She doesn’t judge, she doesn’t discriminate, she just opens her arms to one and all. There is a space and place in nature for all. Nature is filled with breathtaking landscapes and has gifted us some of the most beautiful creatures on earth. All of us love to experience natural beauty and be one with nature. We should give her thanks everyday for being so gracious and kind to us by providing us with the means of survival.
Humans and other fauna and plants have a complex relationship extending far back into our joint evolutionary history. Natural vegetation refers to a plant community, which has grown naturally without human aid and has been left undisturbed by human for a long time. Sri Lanka’s natural vegetation covers about one-third of our total land area.
‘Jathika Namal Uyana’ is the largest ironwood forest and pink quartz mountain in Asia. It is a world heritage site that has gained the attention. Namal Uyana is rich in biodiversity. It provides a healthy and healing environment that has attracted local and foreign tourists. This ecosystem is a national resource of great religious, ecological and geographical value. The Na Uyana forest covers a total more than 2,000 acres.
The pink quartz mountain range in Namal Uyana is the largest of its sort in Asia. It consists of seven hills covering an extent of about to 600-700 acres. According to history, during the construction of Taj Mahal in India, pink quartz from here was taken to carve its windows. An amazing creation of nature, the pink quartz mountain belongs to prehistoric era.
Namal Uyana is an extremely rare phenomenon replanted with Iron Wood trees in the Eeghth century AD beginning during the reign of King Dewanampiyatissa and ended during the reign of King Dappula IV. It has been a sanctuary for Buddhist monks during King Devanampiyatissa’s reign in the eighth century. King Dappula declared it as a human sanctuary and It was decided to establish ‘’Mahamevna Uyana’’ here.
Our country is a blessed with a variety of natural vegetation . Trees are important part of every community. In the 21st century, instead of planting trees, the majority felled existing trees for construction and other uses. Deforestation has many effects on the environment and most importantly it affects biodiversity directly. If we cut one tree , ten trees should be planted in its place.
We are fortunate to have people who know the true value of natural vegetation and are committed to protect it. Wanvasi Rahula Thero who came forward with great sincerity to protect The Jathika Namal Uyana is an exemplary Buddha putra. He bravely undertook that great task in the midst of grave privation in the early days.
He said in an interview that he started this historic mission in March 1991. “At that time, this place was devoid of human habitation. When I set foot here, the Namal Uyana had been destroyed by treasure hunters and timber thieves. I built a small wooden house on a ‘Mora’ tree and started this mission for my country. There are no words to describe this journey and the challenges overcome. I am glad to tell you tha the Jathika Namal Uyana celebrates its 32nd anniversary in March.
Ven Rahula said that In order to gain more international attention, we need to improve and protect a world heritage sites like Namal Uyana to attract more tourists. As a developing country, Sri Lanka does not always need to seek loans from elsewhere but develop our own resources to fund economic development.
“From former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to current President Ranil Wickremesinghe all governments have supported this endeavour. I am not a monk who supports any political party. I did all the administrative work here from 1991 to 2018 when Jathika Namal Uyana was brought under the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) which now handles all operations. As a Buddhist monk I understand the true meaning of the word ‘renunciation’. it means ‘doing what must be done with no expectation of any reward. I am not the owner here just a keeper.
“I stared this national mission for the welfare of all beings. This is not something belonging to the Sinhalese but to all the people living on this island. Students of school from all provinces visit jathika Namal Uyana. It gives children of all races and religions the opportunity to marvel at this wonder. The responsible authorities should be directed to provide the necessary facilities to maximize the opportunities available here. It is a place where research on geology , ecology and archaeology is possible.
“All the electronic and print media of the country have supported me to complete this mission successfully. I give my special thanks to the Divaina newspaper for the good work done on its initiative. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me.
Rahula thero said he has plans to undertake many meritorious projects like providing houses for the homeless, equipping schools, providing clean drinking water and succor to the sick through the Jathika Namal Uyana project. He said in this 32nd anniversary year of the project we must all strive to achieve national unity spurning racial and religious differences.
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