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President Rajapaksa and his 13A dilemmas

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by Rajan Philips

It was said of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike that “it was a grim irony that he should be called upon, at the moment of his greatest political triumph, to articulate the strong opposition of the Sinhalese to any attempt to establish a federal constitution.” Sixty-five years later, it could be said in reverse that it is a grimmer irony for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be unfairlyput on the spot by his most ardent supporters and their insistent calls for abolishing the Provincial Council system, in total disregard of the realities of political and geopolitical consequences of such abolishing, not to mention the extraordinary Covid-19 challenges that he has to deal with now. The irony is to be noted because Mr. Rajapaksa was among the first to raise the call for abolishing the PCs as far back as 10 years ago, when even the mere thought of becoming Sri Lanka’s president may not have crossed his mind as an American citizen.

The PCs are not the only dilemma that President Rajapaksa has to wrestle with. He is grappling with quite a few of them. While almost all other presidential dilemmas are connected to Covid-19, the dilemma over 13A and the Provincial Councils is antecedent to Covid-19, but like everything else in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, is complicated by it. Hence the lingering question, why bother with a new constitution now? And especially for this President, whose credentials are totally those of a practical doer, and not at all the characteristics of a constitutional visionary? The answer might be that it is the ‘constitutional cabal’ that is running the constitutional show, like every other cabal running every other government show.

 

‘Sapatha’ and Overreach

The immediate cause for the abolishment calls is the apparent decision of the government, or the Prime Minister, to go ahead with the long postponed (by the Wickremesinghe-TNA-JVP threesome) elections to the currently defunct Provincial Councils, which were established under the 13th Amendment. The sources of these calls are also a classic case of multiple political tails trying to wag the country’s presidential executive and his brother prime minister. A government minister, indeed, the Minister for Public Security and the State Minister for Provincial Councils, has, in ancient Mahabharata “sapatha kara kiyanawa” style, made a solemn pledge to the members of the Civil Defence Force that he would put an end to the system of Provincial Councils. The Experts Committee tasked with preparing a draft for the new Rajapaksa constitution, is also reported to have expressed concern over holding PC elections before their draft is done and a new constitution is in place.

It is not clear if there is unanimity in the committee over this concern, or if some committee members are speaking publicly for the whole committee. There was an earlier news report that the Experts Committee took an internal vote and decided by majority on a matter that is apparently fundamental to preparing the draft constitution. That an expert committee on the constitution would take an internal vote to decide on a fundamental question without referring it to its political masters in the government (with the parliament helplessly sidelined in the whole exercise) is an extraordinary overreach. If this is any indication, even the draft constitution that the committee would likely produce (presumably by a majority vote) may turnout to be extraordinary and tendentious.

Does the matter that the committee had to vote on have anything to do the 13th Amendment? We do not know. But we know that the more powerful members of the committee are not amused by the government’s apparent decision to go ahead with PC elections. And that is some gall for a committee appointed by the country’s Head of State to publicly tell the government if or when it should conduct elections to any elected body. For now, there is more than Expert Committee amusement or gall that has been put on display. Real midweek fury against the Provincial Councils has been unleashed by Prof. GH Peiris, who is also a prominent member of the Experts Committee.

 

Facts and Fabrications

Anyone looking to get refreshed on the materially relevant historical background to the constitutional voids that were unnecessarily created in 1972 and in 1978 – and their partial filling by the 13th Amendment (in 1987) and the Provincial Councils it created, could re-read Chapter 36 in KM de Silva’s (1981) “A History of Sri Lanka.” Even its first few pages will do. My opening quote on SWRD Bandaranaike in today’s article is from page 513 of de Silva’s book, in Chapter 36: “The Triumph of Linguistic Nationalism”. The quote might suggest that the historian was having his academic tongue in his political cheek, but it reads far superior to anything that a geographer seems to be able to politically offer 40 years later. And this is not because Sri Lanka has too much history and too little geography.

Yet, no one can do worse than CA Chandraprema’s attempt to rewrite history, as he did in his hagiographic monograph, “Gota’s War.” We can anticipate versions of it to be undiplomatically broadcast from Geneva from March onward. The one thing about the history of Sri Lanka’s national question or conflict is that it is a well studied (even “over studied”, as AJ Wilson used to say) subject, and almost everyone who is of consequence either in Sri Lanka or abroad is well versed, in it and knows to discern between facts and fabrications. More than historical writings, Sri Lanka’s stubborn facts always give the fabricator’s, if not the government’s, game away. Just as it is impossible to hide a whole pumpkin in a plate of rice. Peremptorily abolishing the Provincial Council system will be one more stubborn fact that will fetch no credit for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans who have lived through and politically experienced the tumults and wars after 1977 need no lesson from old history, colonial, or pre-colonial. Some of us–Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese, and Tamils rising above our ethnic strictures, happened to be involved in efforts to respond to these events within the framework of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE).1983 is now considered a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s modern history, one that is totally negative and even calamitous, and quite different from 1956 which bore both positive and negative fruits. However, 1983 had its annual forerunners. Riots broke out in 1977, after a twenty-year hiatus and within months of the UNP’s bigger than landslide election victory. For the first time, plantation Tamils were targeted in communal rioting. In 1978, the UNP used its massive majority in parliament to elevate one of its MPs, Prime Minister JR Jayewardene, as the country’s first executive president. 1979 was the year of the Emergency in Jaffna, when President Jayewardene ordered Brigadier (Bull) Weeratunga (not DIG/IGP Rudra Rajasingham) to “eliminate the menace of terrorism in all its forms from the island and more specially from the Jaffna District.” Two years later, in 1981, tea plantation districts were targeted again in the south, while off-duty policemen burnt down the Public Library in Jaffna. In 1982, President Jayewardene upended parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka through the chicanery of a referendum. One year later, what was catastrophic became calamitous, as the Palestinians are known to say.

1983 implicated Sri Lanka not only geopolitically with India, but also internationally with practically every western country where Tamils leaving Sri Lanka found a foothold. The Sixth Amendment that was passed during the dark and difficult days of August 1983, erased the elected TULF off the political map and handed over the keys to Tamil politics to armed militants. Sarath Silva said as much in his 2005 ruling as Chief Justice, in the course of denying President Kumaratunga’s plea to stay in office a year longer.

The commonplace argument is that 13A and the Provincial Councils were foisted on Sri Lanka by India’s machinations taking advantage of an old, weak, and beleaguered President Jayewardene. While this argument might be politically potent, it is bereft of any analytical insight or credibility, and it flies in the face of events and the alignments of political forces within Sri Lanka before and after 1983. The notion that India’s role in Sri Lanka was triggered by the fury of Indira Gandhi after she was apparently scorned by JR Jayewardene is cheap table talk and should not be a serious political consideration. And in 2020 it is utterly inappropriate to speak of any woman, let alone a woman political leader and Prime Minister, being scorned, leaving aside the not uncommon misattribution to Shakespeare of the line (“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”) that was satirically written by William Congreve (1670-1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride.

 

Indian Involvement and Sri Lanka’s Failure

I make no suggestion that India’s involvement, or interference, in Sri Lanka was entirely, or even primarily, motivated by neighbourly altruism. There were of course machinations, but they were mostly of the raw bureaucratic kind, thanks to the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s wannabe CIA. And whether it was Indian involvement or interference, it did not arise out of nothing and would not have transpired the way it did and to the extent it did, without compelling circumstances in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan political circumstances after 1977, and more so after 1983, provided both the pretext and the context for India to get involved in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. And no one, not even India, could have anticipated that things would get ugly and totally out of control as they did over several years. It is still the sorest point among many Sinhalese that India peremptorily prevented the Sri Lankan military onslaught on the LTTE in June 1987 with its controversial air drop of food supplies in Jaffna. The contention is that were it not for this highhanded intervention, the war would have been over by and large in 1987 itself. This is debatable because the LTTE was then primarily a guerrilla organization and may have survived the onslaught to live and fight another day. It was only years later that the LTTE would build up its so called conventional fighting force and convert itself from being a fighting-fit guerrilla force to a flabby national army, and getting drunk in the process with its own myth of invincibility. And in this saga of ironies, India that initially aided and armed Tamil militant groups on the beaches of Tamil Nadu, would later preside over the disarming of every militant group bar the LTTE, engage its army in an unfinished and unsuccessful fight against the LTTE, and finally – 22 years after the infamous ‘parippu drop’ – end up aiding and assisting the government of Sri Lanka to vanquish the LTTE once and for all. It was not only the Central Government in Delhi that went through these about-turns, but also the state and government leaders in Tamil Nadu who were complicit at every step along the way. And there is no shortage among Sri Lankan Tamils who believe that the Tamils were shortchanged in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment, and especially by the provisions of the Provincial Councils Act that the two gave rise to.

 

As for JR Jayewardene, although his detractors among the Sinhalese may never concede this, he must have felt entitled to a little last laugh in getting India to clean up the militant mess which in his mind was mostly of India’s making. To his justifiable credit, however, he conceded in the end that India was the only external agency, and not any western country or international agency, that would help him put his Sri Lankan house in order after national politics has unravelled beyond restoration by any domestic initiative alone. This very point was well articulated in a public statement, at the time of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, by more than a score of left and liberal Sinhalese intellectuals, activists, and academics. I do not have the statement at hand, but suffice it to say that the anti-13A lobby is not entitled to claim exclusive monopoly over Sinhalese political thinking, then or now.

As well, the 13th Amendment is not the only controversial initiative, constitutionally or otherwise, that JR Jayewardene implemented and presided over aided by his tyrannical majority in parliament. His entire 1978 constitutional project has been controversial from the time of its inauguration. In fact, the 13th Amendment has had greater support among non-UNP Sinhalese, than the 1978 Constitution ever did. Abolishing the executive presidency has been the winning battle cry in every election from 1994, until 2019. At none of these elections, including, I believe, the 2019 and 2020 elections, did any of the main contenders for power promised to abolish the Provincial Council system.

On the contrary, Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People’s Alliance movement used Provincial Council elections to launch their campaign against and eventually oust the UNP from power after its seventeen year rule. Mahinda Rajapaksa cleverly and consistently used PC elections to consolidate his electoral fiefdom. Again, as political indicators go, the 2014 PC election in Uva signalled the people’s regime fatigue after 10 years of Rajapaksa rule and 20 years of SLFP-dominated governments. Lacking Chandrika Kumaratunga’s charisma and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cleverness, the beleaguered yahapalanaya folk shuttered up the Provincial Councils and postponed their elections indefinitely. Their dillydallying has created the current dilemma for President Rajapaksa.

There is no dispute that the implementation of the Provincial Councils system has not turned out to be an appealing success. But this is not due to any systemic or structural shortcomings, but entirely due to the failure of political leadership. The blame for the worst leadership failure should fall squarely on the shoulders of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in general, and particularly on the TNA and CV Wigneswaran for what they have done and what they failed to do with the Northern Provincial Council after its first and only election in 2013.

There is no question that the PC system needs changes and reforms, regardless of when the next elections are held. And unlike any other institution in Sri Lanka, the PC system has a handbook of reform recommendations in the comprehensive symposium complied, in 2010, by the late Ranjith Amarasinghe, Asoka Gunawardena, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, and AM Navaratna-Bandara. There have been plenty of other suggestions, most recently by Austin Fernando and Nirmala Chandrahasan.

In his December 25 article in The Island, Fernando recounts that the current government includes many past champions of the PC system, including former Provincial Chief Ministers and Governors. Will they speak out now, or stay silent as the current abolishment clamour grows? The current voices of abolition have been around from the time the PCs were introduced in 1987-88. But for over 30 years they have not gotten anywhere close to influencing, or dictating to, the policy of any Sri Lankan government on the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils. Until now. And that is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main dilemma.



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Dudley Senanayake: some personal anecdotes

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Excerpted from the Memoirs of Snr. DIG (Rtd.) Edward Gunawardena

Dudley Senanayake was a truly charismatic leader. By his exemplary behavior he enjoyed the respect of both sides of the House. He always entered the chamber from the main doorway and walked majestically down the aisle to his seat. Almost all Members rose from their seats to show their respect.

He was an excellent debater. If he had to make a speech it was a studied contribution. He never spent his time in Parliament without making use of every minute. If he was not in the chamber he would be in discussion with his colleagues and members of the opposition as well; or he would be in the library or even learning different aspects of Parliamentary procedure from the Clerk of the House.

A remarkable characteristic of Dudley was his ability to concentrate and focus his mind on what had to be done. If he had to attend a function where he had to make a speech, he would prepare his speech in the car with his eyes closed, seemingly but not asleep. When parliamentary sessions were due he would closet himself in his room either at Woodlands or the annexe at Temple Trees for hours, sometimes smoking the pipe as well as cigarettes, concentrating on the agenda for the morrow.

This desire for solitude even led to unpredictable situations. One day during the time of the 1965 budget debate, when I visited Woodlands at about 8 pm. the PM was not in. Carolis, his man Friday, and the sergeant on duty told me that he had walked across to his brother Robert’s for dinner. When I went there I was told by William, the driver, that ‘Hamu’ had driven away alone in a friend’s car that had been parked there. Asked for the description of the car I was told that it was a black Riley, a fairly large vehicle.

Nobody knew where he had gone. It was a tricky situation. But I did not panic because I knew he was a good driver. I put up Robert who was resting. He had seen Dudley driving off. “Dudley likes to walk up and down by the beach. That’s the way he prepares his speeches, Eddie,” were Robert’s words. He also added that Dudley was sure to be in the Kinross area.

I immediately called the Colombo Traffic Branch on my walkie-talkie, got down a patrol car and traveled to St. Peter’s Place. There were no vehicles to be seen down the lane. However turning to Kinross Avenue, a black vehicle was spotted at the end of the road. To my utter relief it was the Riley. Having instructed the patrol leader to call for an unmarked car to be close to the Riley and position the marked car at the top of the lane on the Galle Road, I walked across the railway line to the beach.

In the hazy moonlight I saw the Prime Minister’s figure in the distance. I got close and kept a reasonable distance behind him. He was bare-footed and the bottoms of his trousers were rolled up.

I kept on following him. It was amazing indeed, no one appeared to have recognized him. Approaching Kinross Avenue he stopped by the railway line until a train passed. When he was opening the door of the Riley, I surprised him by saying “Good evening Sir”.

 

“Ha, How did you know that I was here?”

“That’s my job Sir,” was my reply. With a guffaw he invited me into the car. The drive to Woodlands was smooth. We were talking of many things all the way. When he asked me why I followed him I explained to him that ensuring his safety was my responsibility. I also told him that if he had a flat and had to change a wheel as the Prime Minister, it would be headline news. “There is something in what you say”, was his response.

It was also on this drive to Woodlands from the Kinross beach that Dudley asked me a question the answer to which probably had serious consequences in the UNP. “Gunawardena, what do you think of this man Menikdiwela?” he asked me. Before I could ask him the reason, he said that he thought Joe Karunaratne (his private secretary) needed some assistance.

I knew Menikdiwela as a DRO in the Warakapola area when I was the ASP Kegalle. He was a very down to earth, rustic, betel chewing public servant recruited as a ‘Kandyan’ under the quota system that once prevailed. Backward and taciturn he kept a distance from even the GA and other Kachcheri officers such as the DLO, AFC and even officials of his own rank, the RDO and SSO. But he was a man of the times, with excellent rapport with the ordinary rural folk. Dudley probably wanted my opinion because I was the ASP Kegalle.

I knew Joe Karunaratne also very well. As such I was able to give a full and comprehensive answer to the Prime Minister’s question. I told him that I knew Joe well. Honourable and accepted in the highest circles, his Colombo 7 upbringing was an impediment to empathizing with people that mattered politically, particularly ordinary village folks and the Buddhist clergy. I still vividly remember the words that I used in my reply to the Prime Minister’s question. “Good to have a man like that, Sir. I know Joe well He is not comfortable meeting Buddhist priests and villagers. Menikdiwela is a ‘bulath hapaya’ sort who can handle them. Good fellow to meet the people coming from the electorate”.

The Prime Minister got the reply that he probably liked to have. Menikdiwela was able to thus became close to the top echelons of the UNP. The rest is history.

As a parliamentarian, Dudley not only enriched the quality of debate and deliberation, he epitomized dignity and decorum. His voice was that of a leader. When he spoke there was rapt attention. Seldom was he heckled. He never got angry. He sometimes pretended to be angry in the course of arguments, aggressively walking across the floor of the House was not in anger but for effect. That was his style.

Devastating wit was one of his strong assets. During the debate on the Dudley- Chelvanayakam pact I was seated in the speaker’s gallery following the proceedings. When he was speaking he was interrupted by none other than a respected parliamentarian Maithripala Senanayake. Pretending to be annoyed he stopped speaking, prompting Sir Albert Pieris the Speaker to say “Carry on Prime Minister”.

Dudley laughed and turning to the Speaker said, “Mr. Speaker, the Hon. Member for Medawachiya (Maithripala Senanayake) is Sinhala Only by day and believes in the reasonable use of Tamil by night!” There entire House roared with loud laughter. Maithripala Senanayake was then courting his wife-to- be, Lake House journalist Ranji Handy from Jaffna!

 

His habits, likes, dislikes and simple ways

Simplicity was the hallmark of Dudley’s life. He was a typical bachelor least concerned about the neatness of the place where he lived. At Woodlands there were only a few basic pieces of furniture. These were generally in disarray. In the drawing room was a dust laden glass cupboard with memorabilia consisting mainly of garlands of artificial flowers and empty gift boxes. The items of value had apparently been spirited away.

After his days work, in the evenings, either at Woodlands or at Temple Trees he liked to be in the bedroom dressed in sarong and bare bodied or in a banian. on numerous occasions he had got me to sit beside him on his bed and go through petitions particularly against the police, a file prepared by Joe Karunaratne. In fact once there was an anonymous petition which said that Edward Gunawardena was a Trotskyite in the University. When I read this out, he laughed and commented, “Who is the undergrad who is not a leftist?”

Dresswise, to office, Parliament and all other formal functions he wore English tussore or drill suits. To have his laundered suit ready was one of Carolis’ main tasks. He was very particular to see that his slightly graying hair was well groomed. As already mentioned Yardley Brilliantine was his hair cream. It was Robert who saw to all these needs. Once a month he took a haircut at the saloon that had been patronized even by his father, Gabriel’s Hair Dressing Saloon, Colpetty. I am not certain whether this saloon exists today. Perhaps the Bally’s Casino building has swallowed up this modest place!

He had a fair collection of Tootal ties. However, he used only one or two of these regularly. These had more of green or brown. Carolis had neatly arranged all his clothes in two wardrobes. His formal wear including socks, underwear and handkerchiefs were in one large nedun almirah. In another large almirah of teak were his bed linen, towels and sarongs. Stacked neatly in one shelf were about 10 — 15 casual shirts he was fond of wearing in the evenings, when he went out for a drive or for golf. He wore only tan leather shoes custom made by the Majestic Boot Works. Carolis was the man who polished these shoes.

As a rule he was up by 6 a.m. Sipping from a large mug of tea prepared by Carolis he would skim the newspapers before going to the washroom. He would take only about 10 minutes for his ablutions, shave and a shower, which he liked cold. Robert once told me that Dudley had been taking cold showers even when he was at Cambridge; and this was probably the reason for his bouts of catarrh.

As a rule he took his lunch and dinner at Robert’s or ate meals sent to Woodlands from his btother’s home. His favourite dishes were curried or baked seer fish and roast chicken, particularly for dinner. He did not take any alcoholic drinks, but was a heavy smoker, mainly a pipe, but smoked cigarettes too. His collection of pipes consisted mainly of Dunhill’s and Peterson’s and although he received from his friends tobacco brands such as Dunhill, Three Nuns and Balkan Sobrani, his preferred brand was the locally made Island Pride. Ardath and Markovich Black and White were his favourite brands of cigarettes.

He was generally healthy and fit but for a chronic stomach problem and occasional bouts of bleeding catarrh. Both Dudley and Robert believed in a body massage about twice a month. Don Thomas the well known masseur whose nick name was ‘pocket Apollo’ regularly visited Woodlands. Don Thomas had been the masseur attached to the Ceylon team that took part in the 1948 London Olympics at which Duncan White won a silver. The physician who attended on the Prime Minister was Dr. Lucian Gunasekera the son of Sir Frank Gunasekera who was physician to D.S. Senanayake.

Dudley was very fond of photography. On all his field trips to see him with a camera slung on his shoulder was a familiar sight. He had several expensive Canons and Nikons. The exposed reels were sent to Lake House for processing. He merely looked at the prints and put them aside. He did not care to preserve the photographs that he took in albums. Nobody really knows what has happened to the thousands of photographs that he took.

He spent quite some time dusting and cleaning the lenses of his cameras which were in almirahs and drawers here and there. Likewise, he spent much time cleaning his smoking pipes too. Sometimes he would get so engrossed in these that he lost sight of even official engagements. One day when he was operating from the annexe of Temple Trees, there were several people seated, apparently to see him. The time was 9 a.m. When I walked in Shantun Abeygoonwardena was on duty as security officer. He told me that the Prime Minister was in his room upstairs doing some work. But I was surprised when I saw that one of the persons waiting to see the Prime Minister was Hector Kobbekaduwa, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission.

I knew Hector well. He was the brother in law of Sydney Ellawala. The latter was a first cousin of Robert Gunasekera, my father-in-law to be. When I was stationed at Ratnapura I used to drop in regularly at Sydney’s on my visits to Balangoda. Hector too was a regular visitor there and it was here that I befriended him, even enjoying bathing together in the cold waters of the Belihuloya. He told me that he had come to hand over his resignation from the Chair of the PSC to the Prime Minster. The time given to him had been 9 a.m.

As it was already past 9 a.m. I hurried upstairs to the Prime Minister’s room. He was standing outside on the corridor looking skywards holding a camera lens to one eye. He had been cleaning his cameras. He was surprised when I told him that the Chairman of the PSC was seated in the lobby waiting to hand over his resignation He did not care to dress up. He asked me to bring him up immediately.

Hector was greeted very cordially and they had a long chat seated close to each other. Apparently he knew Hector well, with Sydney Ellawala being a friend and a staunch UNP supporter.

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Dangerous and meticulous work copying Sigiriya frescoes in Bell era (1896)

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(Excerpted from Sigiriya Paintings by Raja de Silva, retired Commissioner of Archaeology)

RE-DISCOVERY AND DOCUMENTATION (Early Visits)

The village of Sigiriya is mentioned in the 16th century book of Sinhala verse titled Mandarampura-puvata. From then on, the site seems to have disappeared from the public record until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Major Forbes of the 78th Highlanders and two companions rode from Polonnaruva through Minneriya and Peikkulam in search of Sigiriya, and reached the site early in the morning of a day in April 1831 (Forbes 1841).

They returned to the site two years later and Forbes explored further the cavernous walled gallery on the western side of the great rock, which led towards the summit. Forbes was surprised to observe a durable plaster on the brickwork of the wall, while above the gallery, especially in places protected from the elements, the plaster was seen to be painted over in bright colours. However, he was disappointed and puzzled in not recognizing any representations of the lion, which, according to local lore, gave the name of Sigiri, i.e., Sinhagiri to the rock.

The lion that eluded Forbes was tracked down by the next visitor, who remained anonymous in recording his impressions in 1851 under the title “From the notebook of a traveller” in a magazine known as Young Ceylon. This early visitor described the gallery as a long cavernous fissure, the outer edges of which were deeply grooved and a brick wall raised there, nearly to the roof. The inner surface of the “cave” was described as “covered with a coating of white and polished chunam gleaming as if it were a month old”.

Some of the plaster from the ceiling and the rock side of the gallery had fallen off, but it was noted by the visitor that “there was a profusion of paintings, chiefly of lions, which is said to have given the name of Singaghery, Sihagiri or Seegiry to the ancient site”. No other visitor had reported on these lions.

Twenty four years later, Sigiriya and the paintings were brought to public notice by TW Rhys Davids (1875), formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service, in a lecture given before the Royal Asiatic Society, London. Rhys Davids described his observation, through a telescope, of the “hollow” halfway up the western side of the rock, with its surface covered with a fine hard “chunam” plaster on which were painted figures. He mentioned that the northern (i.e., further) area of the gallery was covered with ornamental paintings (again, to be lost not long after) and thought that a large number of these may have been erased with the passage of time. By the close of the century, when the Archaeological Survey Department (ASD) commenced work at Sigiriya, these paintings had all disappeared.

TH Blakesley (1976) Public Works Department, viewed the paintings from afar in 1875, and reported for the first time on their subject, which he recognized to be female figures “repeated again and again”, showing only the upper parts of their bodies, and richly ornamented with jewellery. The figures (he said) had a Mongolian cast of features. Blakesley also examined the plaster layer adhering to the accessible parts of the main rock, and remarked on the existence of paddy husks in the ground.

Reports of the existence of paintings at Sigiriya had attracted the attention of connoisseurs of art in Sri Lanka and in England, and Sir William Gregory, the former Governor, requested Alick Murray (1891), Provincial Engineer, to attempt to reach the paintings and make reproductions of them. This proposal was sanctioned by Sir Arthur Gordon, the Governor, who gave every encouragement to the project. Murray went to Sigiriya, fired with enthusiasm for this pioneering venture, but was disappointed to discover that the local villagers would have no part of his plans for disturbing the rock chamber which, they imagined, was inhabited by demons. The populace, however, was, persuaded to clear the jungle at the base of the rock in the required direction, while Murray awaited the arrival of Tamil labourers who were urgently requested from South India.

The Tamil stone-cutters (who had no fear of Sinhala demons) bored holes in the rock face, one above the other, into which were fixed with cement, iron jumpers. As they went higher up the rock towards the cavern containing the paintings, the man of the lightest weight had to be selected to bore the holes. After a while, even this labourer found it difficult to ascend higher. He supplicated that if he were allowed three days of fasting and prayer, he might succeed in finishing the task. Murray answered his prayer in the affirmative, thinking that it might lighten the man’s weight and thereby help him to reach the pocket containing the paintings. Once this goal was reached, it was found that the rock floor was at too steep an angle to permit one to stand or even sit on it. A strong trestle or framework of sticks was made and secured to iron stanchions let into the rock floor. A platform was made and placed on the framework to enable one to lie on his back and view the paintings.

On June 18, 1889, Murray made his historic climb into the fresco pocket, and he worked for a whole week lying on his back on makeshift scaffolding to make tracings of six paintings in coloured chalk on tissue paper. The work was done, climbing up and down each day, (as he said) “from sunrise to sunset”, the only inmates of the cavern being swallows who used to “peck at him resentfully”. When his work was reaching conclusion, a few of his friends including SM Burrows, Government Agent, Matale, hazarded the climb to the pocket to visit him, and it was suggested that a memento be left behind. A bottle was obtained and in it were deposited a newspaper of the day, a few coins, and a list of names of friends who had visited him at work. Murray’s party was astonished when a Buddhist monk and a Saivite priest sought permission to enter the chamber, and they were accommodated by Murray. They prayed for the preservation of the bottle, thereby adding solemnity to the occasion of its sealing into the floor with cement – a ceremony that was accompanied by Murray and Burrows singing “God Save the Queen”.

An unfortunate result of Murray’s excellent efforts at tracing the paintings under the windiest of conditions was that, on detaching the tracing papers that had been pasted with gum on the periphery of each figure, an egg-shell thin layer of painted plaster (i.e., the intonaco) also came away revealing a white framework of the layer of ground underneath. Another deplorable result was that a few Tamil labourers had scribbled their names on the painted plaster. The copies made by Murray were stated by Bell to have been exhibited above the staircase of the Colombo Museum.

Murray described the paintings as having been done on the roof and upper sections of the sides of the chamber; that they represent 15 female figures in all, but no doubt many more had existed originally, as traces of them were to be seen. The freshness of the colours (he observed) was wonderful, curiously, green predominating. Each figure was stated to have been life-size and many were naked to the waist, the rest of the form being hidden by representations of clouds. They were arranged either singly or in sets of two, each couple representing (he said) a mistress and a maid.

 

Access to Fresco Pockets

In 1896, Bell made regular access to the fresco pockets possible by the construction of a vertical ladder of jungle timber from the gallery to the cemented floor that was spread on the sloping -round of the rock cavern 40′ above. The shorter and narrower pocket A was made accessible from pocket B by a floor of iron planks set on iron rods as supports let into the surface of the rock horizontally and grouted in.

The early timber ladder was replaced by an iron wire vertical ladder with safety measures of hoops of cane and wire netting around it in 1896. A spiral staircase of iron steps was constructed in 1938. Another similar staircase was recently constructed by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) cheek-by-jowl with the earlier construction, and is used as the method of access to the fresco pocket at a point to the south of the original doorway. Visitors now use the old stairway as the exit from the pocket.

Eighty five years ago entry to the fresco pockets was restricted to those who had obtained permits from the Archaeological Commissioner. (AC).

The public has the opportunity of taking their cameras into the fresco pockets, on permits issued by the ASD, and photographing the paintings. No persons are allowed to have their photographs taken in front of the paintings, and at least two guards are stationed inside the fresco pockets as a security measure. No electronic or other flash-lights are permitted in photographing the paintings.

 

Documentation and Copying of the Paintings

Bell decided to photograph the pockets from a distance at the same elevation, and record the disposition of the paintings within. For this purpose a four inch hawser was let down from the summit to the ground with an iron block tied to the end. Through the block a two inch rope was passed and an improvised chair firmly tied to it, whereon the photographer took his seat. The hawser was then hauled up from the summit, 150 feet up until the chair was level with the pocket and 50 feet clear of the cliff, but due to the force of the wind that caused it to sway in the air, the photographs taken were not clear.

It took DAL Perera, Chief Draughtsman and Bell’s “Native Assistant”, a week to do an oil painting to scale, while perilously suspended in mid-air like the man on the flying trapeze. The painting was later photographed and lithographed to make a plate. From the top of the iron ladder the rock curved inwards for four feet or so to an upward rising floor of pocket B where it was not possible to safely stand or even sit on the smooth surface. As a safeguard at the head of the ladder and along the entire edge of both pockets B and A to the north of it and the ledge between them, iron standards three foot three inches in height, with a single top rail, were driven into the rock Bell stated: “Without such a handrail, a slip on the smooth inclined floor of the pocket would have meant instant death on the rocks fifty yards below.”

In the last week of March 1896, Perera made copies of six paintings in pocket B while being dangerously seated on the sloping floor. In the following year with additional safeguards and working platforms, Perera continued copying the remaining paintings in the two pockets. Bell reported that 13 of the paintings in pocket B could be easily reached from the floor, being painted on the rock wall and the lower part of the oblique roof of the cave, but they were not at one level. It was these paintings that Perera copied in 1896 and 1897 while being uncomfortably perched on the sloping floor of the fresco pocket, which had in 1897 been cemented towards the outer edge.

The painting at the extreme south, i.e., No. 14 and the fragments No. 15, 16, 17, were out of reach and well up on the roof of the pocket. To get at these paintings, it was necessary to construct a “cantilever” of jungle timber, firmly lashed to a stout iron cramp let into the rock floor. To the end of this projection was tied a rough “cage” of sticks, from which uncomfortable and perilous perch Perera made copies of the last and highest figures in pocket B.

It was even more difficult and dangerous to fix a hurdle platform outside the narrow and slippery ledge separating pocket B from pocket A and onwards to the end of this pocket. It took 10 days to construct this stick-shelf (massa). In addition to P iron bars supporting the woodwork, the whole braced strongly to thick iron cramped into the rock, the platform had to be further held up by a central hawser and side ropes, hauled taut round trees on the summit 300 feet up. When finished this improvised platform stood out 15 feet from the cliff.

It took Perera 19 weeks to complete copying the 22 paintings – 5 in pocket A and 17 in pocket B.

The constructional details and measurements given above are intended to serve several purposes: to enable the reader to appreciate the labour and expertise in 1896 exercised by the authorities in setting up the elaborate apparatus for Perera to copy and photograph the paintings – all for the love of preserving our ancient artwork; to appreciate the great care taken by Perera under perilous conditions to make such excellent copies of 22 paintings, now exhibited in the Colombo Museum, which Bell extolled in superlative terms:

“It is hardly going too far to assert that the copies represent the original frescoes as they may still be seen at Sigiriya, with a faithfulness almost perfect. Not a line, not a flaw or abrasion, not a shade of colour, but has been reproduced with the minutest accuracy”. (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Ceylon Branch (1897).

The details and measurements are also intended to impress upon readers the magnitude of the feats of our craftsman in ancient times, who constructed broad, long scaffoldings rising to a height of around 400 feet using jungle timber and creepers; and to marvel that the artists painted their subject so well, during a very long period upon multi-layered plaster on the wind-blown exposed rock.

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“… And death will have its day” Shakespeare

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Hearing of the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Saturday April 10 was like losing a family member. I acknowledged to myself that was strange for who are we to the Royal Family – the House of Windsor – not even their Commonwealth subjects now. But there was that transitory sorrow and the desire to listen to the details of his life as presented on BBC, and read about him. I found later that a young Lankan man, now domiciled in the US, felt the same. “I felt sad on hearing he had died, though he lived long enough.”

This direct descendant of Queen Victoria, a Greek Prince, gave up his citizenship and his name and became British. Much of it, as also the proposed marriage to Princess Elizabeth, was maneuvered by his ambitious uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Princess Elizabeth conveniently fell in love with the dashingly handsome Naval Officer, Philip, when on a visit to the British fleet with her father King George VI, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. She was 13 when first attracted, and he a mature 19, already in the Royal Navy.

 

The Netflix film series of the House of Windsor/Mountbatten

I also ascribe his death being like the goodbye of a person known, as I had watched the Netflix film series The Crown which traces the life of the Queen from childhood up with Clair Foy playing the Princess and young Queen and Olivia Coleman playing the aging sovereign, brilliantly. Incidentally Tobias Menzies who played the role of the Duke in series three and four resembled the Prince more than the younger Matt Smith. The Crown is claimed to be true to life and therefore warts being shown, plus of course the incidents that prove the Queen’s regality, constancy, dedication and dealing tactfully with her stubbornly rash sister, five Prime Ministers including Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, when personalities clashed just a wee bit.

And then the annus horribilis – year of disaster and misfortune of family divorces and fire at Windsor Castle. In all these personal and national travails, Prince Philip stood steadily by her side; in public one step behind, and she leaned on him though steely strong herself. She acknowledged this fact and her gratitude to him on many occasions. It is accepted that Philip steered the Royal Family through troublous times. I include here Tobias Menzies’ tribute to the Duke on hearing of his death:

“If I know anything about the Duke of Edinburgh I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t want an actor who portrayed him on TV giving his opinion on his life, so I’ll leave it to Shakespeare. ‘O good old man! How well on thee appears the constant service of the antique world. When service sweat for duty, not for need. Thou art not for the fashion of these times where none will sweat but for promotion, and having that do choke their service up even with the having. It is not so with thee;’” (As You Like It – Orlando in Act 2, Sc 3)

When the Navy Officer Philip was questioned by King George VI, who with his wife did not quite approve of this seeker of their daughter’s hand in marriage due to his penury and family connections to Germany, he promised he would always stand by Elizabeth, care for her and protect her. Which he did. It was no easy task for a strong man to be consort and play second fiddle to the Queen of Great Britain, and far flung Commonwealth countries which accepted her sovereignty. She told her parents she would marry Philip and no other and the love story unsentimentally yet sincerely continued for 70 years.

 

Poignant and revealing

I remember well the narrative in the series of The Crown of one of his rumoured major discretions. His physio invited him for a weekend party convincing him he was under mental stress and needed relaxation and diversion. Thus while the Queen had to travel alone to Sandringham, he went off with a couple of men for a weekend of golf and drinking. It was on this occasion that Christine Keeler who rocked the political stability of Britain with her ‘charms’, was present. Photographs had been surreptitiously taken and in one, the Prince’s rear view was seen.

Princess Margaret stormed into Queen Elizabeth’s solitary breakfast with the newspaper published picture and said there was no mistaking her husband having been partying. What followed was so revealing. The Queen was devastated emotionally but was completely stoic. She was seated on a window sill in Buckingham Palace when Philip came in. She was aloof. He knelt by her and apologized. Then he sat on the window sill himself. Slowly she moved her hand to his extended arm. And he said: “I promised your father I would care for you? Haven’t I done that all these years?”

 

Early Life

He was born in Corfu in 1921. The following year, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece, was banished from the country. The family was taken to Italy on board a British naval destroyer. The baby Philip slept in a cradle made from a box that had been used to store oranges. For the next ten years or so, he lived a peripatetic existence, with no fixed home. His mother, Princess Alice, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and consigned to a sanatorium. (Later, she sheltered Jews in Athens during the German occupation and was honored, in 1994, as Righteous Among the Nations).

Prince Andrew, the father, exited to Monte Carlo to live with a mistress. He left nothing to his children. Netflix’s BBC-approved The Crown showed that his mother, now a nun, was invited to stay with their family in Buckingham Palace, the move being more Queen Elizabeth’s. He somewhat ignored his mother, who was befriended by Princess Anne. Later, the film shows Philip walking with her to the garden beside her quarters. She died December 5, 1964 aged 84 in Buckingham Palace and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and in 1988 in the Church of Mary Magdalene, Gethsemane, Jerusalem.

All four of Philip’s sisters married Germans. One of the sisters died in 1937 with her entire family in a plane crash. He attended her funeral amid throngs of Germans giving the Nazi salute. None of them was invited for his wedding, though his mother was present, later at the coronation of the Queen, dressed in a sort of nun’s habit designed by her.

When the Duke was asked whether he had been traumatized by his fractured upbringing, with so much turmoil, he replied: “My family broke up. My mother was ill. My sisters were married, my father was in the South of France, I just had to get on with it. You do, One does.” However,the Mountbattens in Britain took him over and then his uncle Dickie, Lord Louise Mountbatten, his wife and two female cousins, welcomed him. Lord Mountbatten continued the role of mentor and advisor and later shifted to Prince Charles who was completely devastated when Lord Louis died at the hands of the IRA while sailing.

 

Gaffes and quotes and doing good

Of course Prince Philip had his quirks, mostly through being frank verbally. Many are the undiplomatic comments of his. “I would very much like to go to Russia,” he said at the height of the Cold War, “although the bastards murdered half my family.” I distinctly heard on TV Prince Philip give vent to annoyance at one of his final public appearances of meeting a special group of soldiers. He and others were seated while all else stood behind. The cameraman was fussing.

Then came Prince Philip loud and clear: “Take that f….. picture!” (The f-word pronounced full).

“That fierce and funny view of the world was at once a boon and a curse. It both stood Philip in good stead and, notoriously landed him in trouble which made headlines and drew accusations of racism. …. There is no denying the pressure was there from the start, long before he was forced to become a liege.” Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “He consistently put the interest of others ahead of his own.”

In the New Yorker of April 9, Anthony Lane titled his article – ‘Prince Philip‘s death is the last embers of British Stoicism.” Lane wrote: “That is indisputably true and was demonstrated for decades by the sight of Philip patrolling in the slipstream of the Queen, like a frigate in the wake of an aircraft carrier – a step or two behind her, to one side with his hands diplomatically clasped behind his back. To maintain that secondary position without tiring requires a formidable level of self control, especially in a man who had once as a naval officer enjoyed command of a ship. Renouncing his own career in 1951, he was required to kneel before Her Majesty, at her coronation, two years later, and swear to be ‘liege man of life and limb.’”

He was also, considering Prince Charles’ life, too strict in his upbringing of the heir to the throne. By any measure sending him to the Spartan boarding life at Gordonstone, which he had enjoyed but was near traumatic to the sensitive Charles, was a mistake. However, to compensate, as seen in The Crown, he tried to sort things out between Charles and Diana when cracks appeared in their marriage. He spoke to her as a father saying they were both strangers and aliens in the royal family that was so different to other families, but tradition and duty called for restraint, sacrifice and dignity. He had overcome strains and restraints by taking an interest in matters global (wild life), service (his help to young people) and for recreation to polo, after being a good cricketer.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was much more than that. He was an outstanding global figure with peculiarities tempering a stoic, strong personality.

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