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Sri Lanka’s ancient hydraulic civilisation and birth of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

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by Satyajith Andradi

Sri Lanka continues to be in the grips of many high profile crises of recent origin such as the COVID–19 pandemic, chronic difficulties in servicing foreign debts, shortages of essential items such as food and fuel, skyrocketing cost of living, and crop failures due to the ban of chemical fertilisers, to name a few . However, the national question, which has tormented the country for decades, continues to be one of her biggest problems, if not the greatest.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism features prominently in any discourse on Sri Lanka’s national question. Its detractors often derogatorily call it by terms such as Sinhala Buddhist imperialism, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, and Sinhala Buddhist racism, whilst its protagonists call it Sinhala Buddhist patriotism or simply patriotism. Meanwhile, somewhat esoteric and ephemeral terms such as Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, kinguistic nationalism, and ethnocracy are used for it in learned discourse. Further, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is very often discussed with reference to personages of Sri Lanka’s ancient history such as Dutugemunu and Elara. Hence, it is useful to trace the genesis and early phases of development of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism during Sri Lanka’s ancient past, in order to enhance our understanding of the subject.

Sri Lanka’s ancient agrarian revolution powered by irrigation engineering

As in our own age, in the distant past too, various races migrated from one land to another for various reasons such as the search for greener pastures and the forced eviction by intruding tribes. From about the sixth century BC, Sri Lanka too, which until then was thinly populated by primitive hunter gatherers, experienced an influx of migrants from overseas. Some of them, who had a knack for agriculture, settled in the arid north central plains of the island, which were covered with wooded forests and shrub jungles, as those one could still see in places such as Wilpattu. As direct rain water was often inadequate and undependable for growing paddy, these pioneer settlers cultivated the art of conserving water by building small artificial reservoirs called tanks, and convert the hostile arid terrain into paddy fields with the water thus conserved. Thereby they were able to establish a firm foothold in pre-historic Sri Lanka. These rough, tough, and enterprising pioneer settlers came to be known as ‘Sihala’ or Sinhalese, whose founding fathers were, according to legends, Vijaya and his band of seven hundred followers, who came to Sri Lanka from northern India. Other migrant tribes, either perished in this hostile physical environment, like the traders devoured by Kuveni, or got suppressed and assimilated by the dominant Sinhalese. This was a social process, which had some affinity to the process of natural selection in the biological world – a case of social Darwinism, so to speak. The Sinhalese went on to build progressively bigger tanks, weirs, canals, and complex irrigation systems connecting all such innovative creations with rivers which flowed from the distant wet mountains. As a result, the erstwhile wild and hostile terrain of Sri Lanka’s north central plains were converted into a vast blue and green tapestry of thousands of artificial lakes and lush paddy fields studded with dagobas of immaculate white. The formidable physical challenges posed by the nature were surmounted with an audacious human response. This monumental transformation, which took place more than thousand years ago, inspired many people of modern times. A notable person amongst them was the British planter, archaeologist, and author John Still ( 1880 – 1941 ) of Jungle Tide fame, who in turn drew the insightful attention of Arnold Toynbee, the eminent scholar of comparative history and civilizations ( Arnold J Toynbee; A study of history ; abridgement by D C Somervell ). The agrarian revolution powered by advanced irrigation systems was the bedrock, the backbone, and the material basis of the fully-fledged hydraulic civilization of ancient Sri Lanka. The elaborate social, political, cultural and religious institutions of that civilisation constituted, as Marx would say, its superstructure.

The birth of the ancient agrarian revolution based on irrigation engineering pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism in the island in the third century BC. The medium sized tank ‘Abhaya Wewa’, which is also known as Basawak Kulama, in Anuradhapura, built in the fourth century BC by king Pandukabhaya, proves the point. The next important tank, Tissa Wewa, was built in Anuradhapura during the reign of Devanampiyatissa ( 250 BC – 210 BC ). Irrigation engineering witnessed a quantum leap during the reign of the great Vasabha ( 67 AD – 111 AD ). During his reign, in addition to many large tanks, the Elahera canal was built. This canal diverted the waters of the Ambanganga, a tributary of the Mahaweli river originating from the Matale hills, to the tanks in the arid north central plains. The next great period of tank building was the reign of Mahasena ( 274 AD – 301 AD ), during which many tanks including the giant Minneriya Wewa was constructed. Mahasena’s achievements were equaled or surpassed during the reign of Dhatusena ( 455 AD – 473 AD ), during which huge tanks such as the Kalawewa and the Yoda Wewa were constructed, damming the Kala Oya and the Malwathu Oya respectively. However, the greatest irrigation engineering feat during the reign of Dhatusena was the construction of the Yoda Ela, also known as Jayaganga, a fifty four mile long canal which carried water from the Kalawewa to the Tissawewa in Anuradhapura. Further significant additions to the irrigation infrastructure were made during the reigns of Moggallana II ( 531 AD – 551 AD ) and Aggabodhi II ( AD 604 – AD 614 ). The former constructed the huge Nachchaduwa Wewa near Anuradhapura, augmented the Nuwara Wewa in Anuradhapura ( History of Ceylon, University of Ceylon: editor; S. Paranavitana ) and built the Padaviya tank by damming the Ma Oya (K M De Silva; A History of Sri Lanka ), whist the latter constructed the Kantale, Giritale, and Kaudulla tanks. Thereafter, the expansion of the irrigation systems seems to have subsided for several centuries till the time of Parakramabahu the Great ( 1153 – 1186 ). This king is considered to be the greatest tank builder of Sri Lanka (ibid ). The massive Parakrama Samudraya in Polonnaruwa, which was created by combining three tanks including the Topawewa, is undoubtedly his finest achievement in the field of tank building. It has to be been noted no other king after him built major tanks.

The ancient agrarian revolution powered by irrigation engineering had many important economic, social, political, religious, and cultural implications and outcome. On the economic sphere, it phenomenally increased the extent of arable land by making it possible to bring vast swathes of erstwhile arid forest land under the plough through irrigation. Further, it would have, most probably, facilitated a significant migration from small scale peasant subsistence farming to more productive large scale farming. Anyway, the obvious economic outcome of the ancient agrarian revolution was the generation of ever increasing agricultural surpluses over and about what was needed to feed the peasants and other agricultural labourers. These massive economic surpluses enabled the kings and their ruling elites to invest enormous resources in the expansion of the irrigation infrastructure, in maintaining the irrigation technocracy and the royal bureaucracy, in building impressive Buddhist monuments such as the great stupas, in patronizing outstanding Buddhist scholarship of international repute, and in constructing awe inspiring secular monuments such as Kasyapa’s Sigiriya rock fortress and royal palace.

On the social and political spheres, the elaborate irrigation systems stretching across vast swathes of farmlands, inexorably led to centralized control of agriculture through irrigation management. The technocrat who controlled the spills and the sluices of the tanks and weirs came to dominate the peasant who ploughed the fields, sowed the seeds, and harvested the crops. This entailed the ascendency of the state bureaucracy including the irrigation engineering technocracy, which in turn called for a unified and highly centralized state.

Pandukabhaya and birth of Sinhala state

It was mentioned earlier that the first significant tank was built by Pandukabhaya in the fourth century BC. It is interesting to note that he was also the first ruler of the Anuradhapura kingdom. Prior to him, the main Sinhala presence in Sri Lanka constituted a conglomerate of Sinhala settlements situated between the Kala Oya and the Malvattu Oya, loosely connected by tribal and family ties. It is evident that Pandukabhaya forcefully subjugated these semi-autonomous settlements and united them under his leadership. Thus the first Sinhala state was born. No doubt, this was in response to a historical necessity of the agrarian revolution, which called for an efficient centralized state. Certainly, this nascent state had nothing to do with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or patriotism. In the first place, Buddhism was yet to be introduced to Sri Lanka. Further, the Sinhala state was yet to perceive a real threat from non – Sinhalese. It was young, vibrant and self- confident. It was, in modern parlance, an absolute monarchy.

Devamanpiyatissa and the birth of the Sinhala- Buddhist state

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the great Mauryan emperor Asoka during the reign of Devamanpiyatissa ( 250 – 210 ) at a time when the ancient agrarian revolution was in full swing. As already mentioned, it was during this period that the Tissa Wewa was built. The peaceful conversion of the country to Buddhism received unreserved royal patronage. The nascent Sinhala state became a Sinhala Buddhist state. Numerous lands and viharas were gifted to the Maha Sanga. These included the Thuparama dagoba, and the spacious Mahamegha park in Anuradhapura, in which the sacred Bodhi tree Sri Maha Bodhi was planted. This signaled the establishment of the Mahaviharaya, the centre of Theravada Buddhist Church in Sri Lanka. No doubt, the doctrine of the Buddha, which laid down a well –structured spiritual path to freedom from existential suffering through the taming of the senses, struck a chord with the well-structured thinking of the Sinhalese irrigation engineers, which provided a path to freedom from material want by taming wild and hostile nature, with technological innovations.

Like Pandukabhaya’s Sinhala state, the nascent Sinhala Buddhist state during Devanampiyatissa’s had nothing to do with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or patriotism. It did not perceive a real threat from non – Sinhalese or non-Buddhists. Like Pandukabhaya’s state, it was young, vibrant and self- confident.

The Sinhala Buddhist state under siege

Devanampiyatissa’s Sinhala Buddhist kingdom was in state of blissful harmony, arguably unparalled in Sri Lanka’s long history. However, this state of affairs was to be dramatically disrupted after a short period of time due to game-changing external and internal interventions. The major external challenge came from Tamil adventurers from south India bent on plundering the growing wealth of Sri Lanka’s hydraulic civilization. The main internal challenge came from the growing Mahayana tendencies amongst sections Sri Lanka’s Maha Sangha, which had traditionally been the custodian and standard bearer of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and abroad. Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism was born as a response to these challenges from within and without.

The first major challenge to the young Sinhala Buddhist state emerged thirty years after the death of Devanampiyatissa. Sena and Guttika, two Tamil brothers engaged in horse trading, captured the Anuradhapura kingdom and reigned for twenty two years. A few years after the Sinhalese regained the kingdom, the second successful invasion from South India was launched. This was led by the Chola prince Elara, who reigned in Anuradhapura for forty four years. The Sinhalese under Dutugemunu vanquished Elara and regained the kingdom. Dutugemunu’s reign ( 161 BC – 137 BC ) was a watershed in the Sri Lanka’s history. The island, which hitherto consisted of several kingdoms, was unified under his leadership. The Sinhala Buddhist state became, in present day parlance, a unitary state. However, less than four decades after Dutugemunu’s death, Anuradhapura was captured and occupied again by south Indian Tamils from 103 BC to 89 BC. They were expelled by Vattagamini ( Valagamba ) , who reigned from 89 BC to 77 BC. Thereafter, for more than five hundred years, Sri Lanka was free from foreign occupation. It was during this period that her ancient irrigation witnessed its first great flowering. However, it was during this period that the serious internal threats to the Sinhala Buddhist state emerged. They came in the form of Mahayana challenges to the uncontested supremacy of the Mahavihara led Theravada Buddhist Church, which was a main pillar of the Sinhala Buddhist state. The initial threat came in the first century BC with the establishment of the rival Abhayagiri monastery by Valagamba, which harboured dissenters. The immediate response of the Theravada Buddhist Church to this was the writing down of the Tripitaka at Aluvihara during that king’s reign. The next threat, which was of a much greater magnitude, was the intrusion of Mahayana thinking in the form of Vaitulyavada in the third century AD, during the reign of Mahasena ( 274 AD – 301 AD ), with the fanatical support of that monarch. This was somewhat contemporaneous with the rise of Mahayana in south India under the guidance of great masters such as Nagarjuna. Anyway, the Theravada Buddhist Church eventually prevailed by winning back the king to its side with great difficulty.

The long peace of half a millennium, which commenced with the reign of Valagamba, ended with the invasion from south India in 429 AD. This resulted in the reign of six Tamils kings in Anuradhapura for twenty seven years, until Dhatusena liberated the country from the foreign yoke. Thereafter, the country did not experience invasions from abroad for about four centuries. Ancient Sri Lankan irrigation witnessed its second great flowering. However, during ninth and tenth centuries, Sri Lanka got caught up in the geo-political rivalries amongst south Indian Tamil kingdoms of Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas. At that time the Hindu Tamil civilization of south India was in its ascendency, whilst the aging Sinhala Buddhist civilization was in a state of stagnation, if not decay. The end result was the conquest of Anuradhapura and the north central plains of Sri Lanka by the Cholas in the closing decade of the tenth century. This dealt a crippling blow to Sri Lanka’s ancient hydraulic civilization. The Sinhalese were, under Vijayabahu I, able to expel the Cholas from the Island in 1070, and under Parakramabahu the Great, revive the ancient hydraulic civilization. Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation witnessed its third and last flowering. However, the revival was short lived. The invasion by the marauding Kerala army of Magha of Kalinga in 1215 dealt the death blow to the ancient hydraulic civilization. The Sinhalese, who had populated the north central plains since sixth century BC, migrated en masse to the south west and the central hills. The irrigation works were abandoned and went into disrepair. The hostile arid jungles, which were banished by Sinhalese pioneers, returned to the north central plains with a vengeance. The ancient hydraulic civilization of the Sinhalese, which had flourished for more than one thousand five hundred years, came to an end.

The ancient hydraulic civilization and Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism

Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, like many other –isms, constitute an ideology; an outlook. As already mentioned, it was born as a response to the external and internal challenges to the ancient Sinhala Buddhist state, which was an integrate part of the ancient hydraulic civilization. But, how do we conceptualise this ideology of Sri Lanka’s distant past? Fortunately, the ancient chronicles – Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Chulavamsa, and the last two chapters of the Pujavaliya, come to our assistance. However, it should be cautioned that the ideologies contained in these ancient documents represent , more likely, the views held by their respective authors and their contemporary societies than by the personages of their narratives.

It seems that the internal threat to the Theravada Buddhism by Mahasena’s aggressive promotion of Vaitulyavada prompted the writing of the two oldest exiting chronicles of Sri Lanka – the Dipavamsa, written in the fourth century AD, and the Mahavamsa, composed in the sixth century AD. The fact that the narratives of both works end with the death of Mahasena points in that direction. Anyway, both emphasize that the island was freed from the Yakkas by the Buddha to make way for the Sinhalese settlers and the establishment of the Buddhist doctrine. This amounts to an imprimatur for Sinhala Buddhist exclusivity in Sri Lanka, which goes back, at least, as far as the fourth and sixth centuries. However, the treatment of the Sinhala king Dutugemunu and the Tamil king Elara by the two authors differ significantly. For instance, whilst the Dipavamsa devotes a mere twelve verses to Dutugemunu, the Mahavansa devotes eleven out of its thirty two chapters to him. Clearly, Dutugemunu is the favourite king of the author of the Mahavamsa. Further, whilst both chronicles admire Elara as an incomparably just king, the Dipavamsa, unlike the Mahavamsa, takes note of his outstanding spiritual qualities. More strikingly, the Mahavamsa, in chapter twenty five seeks to lend a Buddhist imprimatur to Dutugemunu’s war with Elara. This is certainly inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Metta Sutta, as much as the crusades of medieval Christendom authorized by the papacy was inconsistent with the letter and spirit of Jesus’ utterance ” Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” ( Matthew 26; 52 ). In fact, the Mahavamsa’s stance on the Dutugemunu- Elara war is reminiscent of the ideas on ‘just war’ advocated by St. Augustine and the Bhagavad Gita. Most probably, the south Indian invasions of the fifth century prompted the sixth century author of Mahavamsa to take a more militant Sinhala Buddhist stance than the fourth century author of the Dipavamsa.

The first part of the Chulavamsa, which was most probably composed in the early part of the thirteenth century, provides useful information about the period from the death of Mahasena to the end of the ancient hydraulic civilization. The last two chapters ( chapters 33 and 34 ) of the Pujavaliya briefly covers this period in addition to history up to the death of Mahasena. The Pujavaliya was composed in the mid thirteenth century, shortly after the collapse of the hydraulic civilization. Whilst the three chronicles were composed in Pali, the Pujavaliya was written in Sinhala.

The Chulavamsa and the Pujavaliya, in comparison with the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, take a more hostile approach towards non – Sinhala Buddhist actors. For instance, unlike the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the Pujavaliya perceives Elara merely as a malevolent personage bent on destroying the Buddhist Church. The more virulent Tamil invasions from the ninth century onwards, would have contributed towards this more aggressive Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

We have seen how the dynamics of the ancient hydraulic civilization gave birth Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism. The hydraulic civilization itself perished as a result of the devastating invasion of Magha of Kalinga. However, Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism did not perish with that civilization. On the contrary, it has continued to live as a potent ideology of Sri Lanka, right up to the present day.



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Features

Illegality of Urumaya programme

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President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).

BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME

“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).

VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION

The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.

OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.

Jurisdiction

“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).

PROPOSED STRATEGY

The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.

 CONCLUSION

The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey

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Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

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Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

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Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive

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The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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