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Remembering its British roots



Sri Lanka Navy turns 70:

By Jayantha Somasundaram

In the British and Commonwealth tradition, the Navy is the senior service. In Sri Lanka however it was the Army and the Air Force that came first, both being established in October 1949, followed in December 1950 by the Navy. Though the Sri Lanka Navy is currently celebrating its seventieth anniversary, the roots of the Navy go back much further in time.

The Ceylon Navy Volunteer Force (CNVF) was raised in 1937 at Kochchikade under the Command of VRD with a complement of 12 officers and 18 sailors. When World War II commenced in September 1939, the CNVF was posted to the Ports of Colombo and Trincomalee. Initially the CNVF operated out of the Port Commission’s tugs Samson and Goliath, thereafter it had the use of the armed trawler Overdale Wyke for minesweeping and escort operations.

In 1943 it comprised 10 vessels and a 100 sailors and was placed under the Command of the Royal Navy (RN). It was renamed the Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR) with Headquarters at HMS Gamunu. During the War the CRNVR operated trawlers converted into minesweepers and fitted with guns, submarine detection equipment and anti-submarine weapons. They guarded the approaches to the Island’s ports and provided protection to the merchantmen that used these ports.

The CRNVR also conducted missions outside the country’s waters, recovered Japanese aircraft shot down, sailed to Akyab after the Burma front was opened and accepted the surrender of the ship . The CRNVR went on to provide escort duties for merchantmen operating between Colombo/Trincomalee and Cochin, Madras, Addu Atoll, Male and Diego Garcia.

During the course of the War the strength of the Navy grew from 150 officers and sailors in 1939 to 1,200 in 1945. In 1946 the CRNVR was demobilised with 100 sailors remaining on active duty.

The Ceylon Navy Act of 1950 created the Royal Ceylon Navy (RCyN) which in the first instance was manned by personnel from the CRNVR. They formed the core of the RCyN established in December 1950 with six officers and 60 sailors under the Command of Captain William Banks CBE DSC RN. Commander Royce de Mel, the ranking Ceylonese officer, was sent to the UK for training and the RN transferred the Canadian built Algerine-class minesweeper HMS Flyingfish to the RCyN as HMCyS Vijaya.

The RCyN’s early mission was the defence of the Port of Colombo, Trincomalee being still a RN base. In time its role expanded to search and rescue missions, disaster assistance, Civil Defence and in 1952, anti-illicit immigration. Because HMCyS Vijaya was too large for Operation Wetback, as the maritime illicit-immigration operation was code named, Government Customs and Fisheries vessels were used in the Palk Strait which separated South India from Ceylon.

Captain Banks developed the RCyN to dovetail with RN requirements. He focussed on the protection of the Island’s ports and through off-shore mine clearing capability sought to ensure safe sea lanes for the RN to traverse the Indian Ocean. To this end the RCyN would be equipped with coastal minesweepers. In the Sri Lanka Navy: Enhanced Role and New Challenges (Indian Ocean Centre for Peace Studies: Perth 1992) Professor Gamini Keerawella and Lieutenant Commander S. Hemachandre explained that “The United National Party (Government) felt that Sri Lanka was only secure under the British Naval umbrella.”

In November 1951 Captain J. R. S. Brown RN took over command of the RCyN to be followed in June 1953 by Commodore Paul Chavasse . In August 1955 Commodore Gerard Royce Maxwell De Mel ADC RCyN was appointed the first Ceylonese Captain of the Navy; he was promoted Rear Admiral in 1959.

Once Cdre de Mel took over command of the Navy, it changed its focus from the ageing heavy frigates and minesweepers to patrol boats and fast attack coastal surveillance craft. The RN transferred a second vessel in 1955 and the RCyN purchased six Coastal Patrol Boats from Italy, an ocean-going tug and a minesweeper from the UK as well as two frigates from Israel during 1955-57. In 1955 the RCyN also received a Ford-class Seaward Defence Boat from the UK, HMS Doxford which became HMCyS Kotiya. They also purchased from Korody Maritime Corporation Venice, six Patrol Boats HMCyS Hansaya, Lihiniya, Diyakawa, Korawakka, Seruwa and Tarawa. By this time the RCyN had 35 officers and 458 ratings.

New RCyN bases were established during this period, HMCyS Elara at Karainagar in the Jaffna Peninsula, the communications centre at Welisara, a Naval training unit at Diyatalawa and when the RN vacated Trincomalee in 1957, HMCyS Tissa.

By an agreement with the UK signed in June 1957 the British transferred their bases on the Island to Ceylon and the Royal Air Force moved to Gan Island in the Maldives, and the RN to Singapore; until then the RN had stationed one Cruiser at Trincomalee. By the end of its first decade the RCyN had 150 officers and 1,800 sailors, with officers being trained at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, and sailors at Diyatalawa.

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Strong on vocals



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



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



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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