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The Aftermath of Empire – Reappraisal and Reconciliation (Part 1)



by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe*

*The author is an Honorary Professor at the University of Buckingham, UK, at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, and also at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka.

He was a former Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, Staff Member of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, and former Professor at Cardiff University. He is a pioneer of the discipline of Astrobiology and the author of over 450 scientific papers and some 35 books.


In our post-colonial modern world, the restoration of unity and harmony in our ethnically diverse multicultural polities stands out as an important priority. However, we have another task we cannot neglect – to explore and sift the enormous treasures of ancient wisdom and knowledge that have come to light following a long colonial history. An impartial assessment of competing paradigms would be of crucial importance for progress.

The British Empire finally ended in India in 1947, and a year later in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Its legacy – including the use of the English language pervades the modern world. But we also see many unresolved conflicts – conflicts between races in our newly generated polities, as well as clashes between competing paradigms. This article will explore a personal perspective of the decolonisation process focussing in particular on the Indian subcontinent. In this context it is relevant to declare my own personal background. I am very much a part of the British Empire, having grown up in the crown colony of Ceylon during the twilight years of the Raj. I went to a school (Royal College Colombo) that was modelled on Eton, learning Greek and Latin, but regretfully less of my own native mother tongue and culture. My early upbringing epitomises what the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (AD56-120) famously said of conquered people – that they readily adopt novelties of the conqueror’s ‘civilization’ whilst in fact they were adopting features of their own enslavement.

Two generations of my ancestors have epitomised this connection. My paternal grandfather Dionicious Lionel had worked in the office of the Governor General Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs for which he was later honoured with the title Mohandirum. My father Percival Herbert**, who was a Cambridge-trained mathematician obtaining the highest distinctions in the Mathematical Tripos in the 1930’s (being taught by Sir Arthur Eddington), went on to become an Indian Civil Servant with his first posting as “Deputy Collector of Customs” in the Bihar state in India. With such a background and education a more colonially-oriented upbringing could not be imagined. To cap it all my arrival in Cambridge in 1960 and the start of my long career as an astronomer and astrobiologist in the UK began with the award of a Commonwealth Scholarship, a scholarship scheme that was presumably launched as part of a process of post-colonial atonement. However, the process of decolonisation at a much deeper level, which involves accommodation and acceptance of a diversity of races as well as ideas has still a long way to go.


Injustices of Empire


British rule in India has been variously described as benevolent and generous on one the one hand, and replete with cruelty, plunder and pillage on the other. The truth lies somewhere in between. However, the evidence of cruelty, of punitive taxation and concerted attempts at de-industrialising of India throughout the 17th and 18th centuries abound.

In the pursuance of purely commercial objectives the British administration in India has carried out many acts of violence and cruelty that in modern times would be deemed violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. These include the extraction of punitive taxation from the population of Bengal during two major famines that led to the deaths of millions of people. There was also the deliberated flooding of rice paddy fields in the coastal plains of Ceylon rendering the land unsuitable for paddy cultivation, done it would seem for the sole purpose of enhancing demand for the Empire’s new rice plantations in Burma; and the illegal sale of opium to China leading to addiction and great distress. The impoverished state of the subcontinent when the British finally left India in 1947 was at least in part due the imperial encounter of the preceding 3 centuries.

In my view, one of the most regrettable aspects of colonial rule both in India and Sri Lanka was its implementation of a policy of divide and rule – divide et impera (one that has been originally attributed to the father of Alexander the Great – Emperor Phillip II of Macedon (359-366BC)). The effect of imposing such a policy was to make it easier for the British to rule a religiously and ethnically diverse group of subjects; but on their eventual departure it undoubtedly contributed to many tragic events. The partition of India and its regrettable fallout had roots in the divide et impera policy, as did the ethnic conflicts that erupted between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s.


Deep History of Empire

Empires in one form or other have existed throughout the history of human civilization. It is a process of colonisation that probably started in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia and the Indus region over four thousand years ago. The formation of empires has always brought far-flung peoples and races together under a common banner, and this contributed to the spread of technological and intellectual discoveries over ever larger parts of the globe. But these advantages were often gained at the expense of much hardship and suffering, a feature that tends to go unnoticed in the euphoria of triumphant victories and achievement. We all know that in the recent history of empire, which included genocide, slavery and racism, amongst other evils, there is a great deal that is to be regretted. There is also much to be celebrated. I would not be writing this article in English if it was not for the British Raj that had once coloured a third of the world in its red vermilion hue and dominated world history for at least four centuries (Fig.1).


The British Empire and its European counterparts can all trace their cultural ancestry back to the Roman Empire that had dominated for a full millennium, and before that to the city states of classical Greece – “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome”. Beyond this point in history our westernised collective cultural memory conveniently begins to falter. What about the Persian Empire that preceded the Greeks, and the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilisations in the preceding two millennia? It was these most ancient civilizations that had indep0endently laid down the framework for mathematics, science as well as literature.

This is the point at which a Eurocentric culture with its built-in prejudices begin to assert itself most stridently.


Unravelling of Ancient wisdom


There is now little doubt that the Babylonians knew Pythagoras’s theorem and had even invented calculus by at least the 2nd millennium BCE. These were probably used as tools both for their development of city planning, surveying and engineering, as well as in nurturing their interest in astronomy. The Indians and the Indus valley civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa at about the same time bear a similar testimony to a highly sophisticated scientific culture that included the invention of the so-called Hindu number system with concepts of zero and infinity, both of which were crucial for the later flourishing of mathematics. Throughout the middle ages, long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the cumbersome system of Roman numerals continued to be used throughout Europe for arithmetic as well as for accounts for purely chauvinistic reasons. When the far better ancient system of Hindu numerals came to be discovered in Europe the reluctance to switch to this system is well documented.

The Arab mathematician Al-Khwarizmi in the 9th century was among the first to use Hindu numerals but it took over two centuries before translations of his work appeared in Europe. The great advantages of the new number system very slowly dawned on European mathematicians, although it was not until the 16th century when the Hindu numerals (renamed Hindu-Arabic numerals) completely replaced the old Roman numeral system. The delay in the transition was undoubtedly connected with a deep-rooted suspicion of the alien non-Christian pagan culture from which the system had emanated.


Trade and culture

After the start of the British East India Company in 1600CE a deeper knowledge of the ancient civilization of the subcontinent began to slowly dawn. The intellectual responses to this West-East encounter varied with time. The British colonisers and traders were initially surprised to find the Moghul empire of India far richer and more sophisticated than they might ever have imagined. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the technological difference between India and Britain was minimal. Moreover, the economy of India based on its long-established supremacy in cloth weaving, combined with a thriving steel and ship-building industries, made India among the richest countries of the world.

There can be no doubt that Britain’s trade with India over the next two centuries served to greatly increase its own prosperity at home. The planned demolition of the centuries-old cloth weaving industry in Bengal (allegedly including the chopping off of the weaver’s thumbs) was directly connected with the growth of similar industries in the north of England in the 18th century.

The development of an intellectual culture that was centred around Coffee houses (and later Tea houses) in London was also directly the result of the tea and coffee trade with India and later Ceylon. But despite all the beneficial developments that followed from Empire, responses to the encounter between Britain and India remained fraught with a deep sense of ambivalence. It was clear that Britain was dealing with an exceedingly sophisticated and very ancient civilization – albeit in straightened circumstances – one that was considerably older than any in the West. And this fact remained very difficult to admit and come to terms with.


Unravelling the treasures of Sanskrit

The realisation of the great literary and cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent began to fully dawn through the work of the British Orientalist and Philologist Sir William Jones who arrived in Calcutta in March 1783 to take up a post as Judge in the Supreme Court of India. Besides quickly mastering Sanskrit and assiduously translating a vast body of ancient Indian literature, Jones as a philologist unravelled the ancestral relationship between Sanskrit several European languages of later date including Greek and Latin. His work is seen today as the starting point of comparative linguistics and the birth of the idea of an Indo-European family of languages. The genres of Sanskrit literature that were unravelled by Jones included epic poetry, drama, history that in its total volume far exceeds the combined content of the surviving Greek and Latin literature of Europe.


The European colonial rulers at this time found it exceedingly difficult to accept that their own languages and literature had any ancestral debt to any language that belonged to the dark-skinned people of the subcontinent, people who in their view were only fit to be servants and slaves. Although this sounds a harsh indictment today it remains a fact and one that we have to grasp.

William Jones founded the Asiatic Society on 15 January 1784 (later to become “The Royal Asiatic Society”) based in structure on the Royal Society of London. Its declared aim was ‘…….the investigation of subjects connected with, and for the encouragement of science, literature and the Arts in relation to Asia’. It perhaps came as no surprise that native Sanskrit scholars were initially excluded from membership of the society, a society that was ostensibly dedicated to unravelling their own indigenous intellectual culture and traditions! This constraint was lifted in later years but the racist overtones of the entire venture became clear at the outset and echoes of it rumbled long after.


A more recent shock to Eurocentric pride came in 1905 with the discovery in India of a Sanskrit text dating back to the 3rd century BCE dealing with statecraft which was amazingly similar in spirit and content to Niccolo Machiavelli’s classic work “The Prince” published in the 16th century of the common era. This was Kautiliya’s Arthashastra which was a comprehensive treatise on how a king should rule so as to enlarge his empire and his treasury as well as to bring happiness to his subjects. In one memorable statement Kautiliya recommends scrutiny of accounts supplied by his staff because: “Just as it is impossible to know when a swimming fish is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money”. This book that predated Machiavelli by nearly two millennia was a bitter pill for Western scholars to swallow. But the lesson to be learnt from the experience of Empire became clear – that no single polity or civilization can claim a monopoly of intellectual attainments of any kind.



(To be continued)

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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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