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The Central Bank Bombing



by J. Godwin Perera

The date was the same as today -January 31. But the year was different. It was 1966. 25 years ago. My office was at Aitken Spence, Lloyd’s Building on Sir Baron Jayatilaka Mawatha (former Prince Street ),in close proximity to the Central Bank. That’s why this tragic incident is indelibly etched in my memory. As a matter of interest, Aitken Spence shifted to Vauxhall Street many years later. However on this morning I did not go to office as I had another appointment in another office at Maya Avenue.

I had been nominated to a special committee appointed by the then Minister of Industrial Development the late Hon. C.V.Gooneratne (He was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in June 2000) to develop a plan to accelerate the promotion of apparel exports. This meeting commenced on schedule at 9.30 am. Around 11 am we heard the unmistakable ‘Boom’ of a bomb exploding. As we looked out of the windows in the direction of Fort, we saw dark, black plumes of smoke rising to the sky. Someone exclaimed ‘That’s where the Central Bank is’ The meeting was abruptly terminated.

In haste we hopped into our cars to get either to our offices or homes. But by now the city was in panic. Vehicle drivers were impatiently tooting horns. Traffic jams had already formed. To proceed 30 feet it took no less than 30 minutes. Motor cyclists and three-wheelers with raucously blaring horns rode on the pavements. Yes it was indeed true. It was the Central Bank and adjoining buildings that were burning.

Those were days of deep anxiety. The LTTE was on the rampage throughout the country. No one knew what dangers lurked ahead. The risk was that of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For almost three decades Sri Lanka was embroiled in a war against the LTTE, described as one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. But this was 1996. It would take another anxiety ridden, fear shrouded, 13 years for the LTTE to be completely annihilated. During this dark period the pages in our nation’s history was splattered with the blood of thousands of innocent persons and thousands of combatants on both sides of the divide.

The LTTE even extended its ruthless arm across to India where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 while he was campaigning for the forthcoming elections. Here in Sri Lanka while the war raged in the North and East, in Colombo high profile targets were selectively killed by suicide bombers. Amongst those assassinated were the Commander of the Navy, Admiral Clancy Fernando in 1992. President R. Premadasa in 1993. UNP Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in 1994. There were many more. Such a list would take an entire page of this journal.

The Central Bank was one of the many soft targets selected by the LTTE in their diabolical desire to create chaos and confusion, panic and pandemonium. Eleven years before this, on May 14, 1985, LTTE terrorists killed 146 civilians who were worshiping at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura. On that fateful day of January 31, 1966, Colombo was like a city under siege. The seeming normalcy was unreal. No one spoke about it but it was there. Employees in both the public and private sectors diligently reported to work. No matter how one went to and returned from work, whether public transport or private vehicle everyone, yes, everyone, was exposed to the risk of being killed by the LTTE.

Meanwhile, known only to the highest level of the LTTE hierarchy a ruthless plan to create death, destruction and devastation was being unfolded. On January 29, an Elf truck (42- 6452) loaded with over 200 kg of RDX explosives, gelignite, dynamite and ball-bearings all of which had been cleverly hidden under coconut husks left Vavuniya. It had reached Colombo on the 30th and parked in a safe house. Then next morning after the usual rush hour traffic had lessened and commercial activity had settled down to its busy routine the Elf truck with its lethal cargo had driven along the city’s main roads, passing undetected through several check points.

Then on to Janadhipathi Mawatha and to the main entrance of the Central Bank. The time was 10.45 am. As gunmen in the truck traded fire with the security guards of the Bank, it crashed through the main gate and the deadly cargo was detonated. Half of the Central Bank building crashed and fires broke out on several floors. But that was not the end of the attack. Within a few minutes a three-wheeler arrived. It carried two LTTE cadres armed with automatic rifles and a RPG launcher which they fired indiscriminately all around them.

Since the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) is at the apex of the country’s financial system with the primary focus of maintaining economic and price stability and financial system stability to promote sustainable growth through policy stimulus and advice, the LTTE would have wanted to paralyze the country’s financial system and cripple the economy. Certainly much more damage and destruction would have been caused if the explosives laden lethal lorry had been able to enter further inside the Bank building.

But fortunately barriers had been constructed in front during the Governorship of the late Dr H.N.S. Karunatilaka. The fortitude and commitment of Bank officials from the highest levels to the lower levels was truly admirable. In fact on the very next day – February 1, all those who were not injured came to the Bank’s Centre for Banking Studies at Rajagiriya to work. It was ‘Business as Usual’ But let’s revert to that fateful day of January 31st

In an article ‘ Rising from the Ashes – The Central Bank’s Remarkable Recovery from the Terrorist Attack’ C.P.A. Karunatilake who was the Superintendent of the Currency Dept. provides a graphic description of the rescue operations within the Bank. ‘Despite an imminent danger to their lives there were many brave sons and daughters of the Bank who dared to go into the building in search, if any of their colleagues or visitors were trapped in, to help them out safely. Some officers were seen driving bank vehicles loaded with affected colleagues rushing them to hospital.

‘Since all the entry and exit gates at road level were blocked with rubble, the wounded had to be brought down through narrow stairways at the back of the building. A difficult task. Some were injured so badly that the rescuers could not even touch them and they were brought down on window curtains, as stretchers were not available. ‘

He provides the grim statistics that 41 Central Bank officers and visitors perished. Eight officials became totally blind, 11 were partially paralyzed, and a few hundred were wounded, some badly. Outside the Bank a shocked city watched helplessly. Clouds of black smoke wafted skywards. Fort became a scene of panic and pandemonium. The shriek of sirens, the screams of blood-soaked survivors, the roar of fires gone out of control, and the rumble and crash of collapsing walls, rent the air.

The scenes were reminiscent of the 1974 Award Winning disaster movie titled ‘Towering Inferno’ starring Paul Newman and William Holden. In this movie it was the world’s tallest building which was set ablaze due to explosions caused by short circuits and inadequate safety measure. It was a gripping movie which had the audience enthralled in a mixture of emotions chief of which was shock and sadness. But that was all acting. Here in Fort, it was real life. Shock. Sadness. Unbelievable but true. A day time nightmare.

While the Central Bank was the target of the LTTE, other buildings in the vicinity also suffered. Cargo Boat Despatch, Amro Bank, Air Lanka Reservations, George Steuarts, Mercantile Credit, Hotels Corporation and Ceylinco. Many roads in the vicinity like Chatham Street, Hospital Street and Canal Row were littered with glass. Cars parked here had become twisted metal. Mangled bodies littered the street. Personal belongings lay scattered. Blood soaked clothes were strewn around. It was like a battlefield.

But here were no soldiers. Here were civilians. Meanwhile raging fires engulfed Ceylinco which at one time was the tallest building in Fort. Its walls were crumbling. Employees were frantically trying to escape. Overhead helicopters were defying billowing black fumes of smoke and intense heat to drop aqua foam to douse the fires.

According to news reports 72 bodies had been recovered by Thursday afternoon. By Thursday evening bulldozers were removing the rubble and rescue workers were searching for more bodies. The final tally of this sad tragedy was – 91 killed, 1,400 injured and 100 had lost their eyesight due to the scattering shards of glass.

There is a saying in Tibetan ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.’

True. Very true. And hope was renewed and revived when a new Central Bank building, modern in architectural design, with state-of-the -art conference facilities, IT- incorporating the most modern equipment and appliances and a research library of international standards was officially declared open on August 27, 2000 by the then President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It coincided with the 50th Golden Jubilee of the Central Bank. With it there was ushered a new dynamic vision of development and sustainable growth in which the Central Bank would play a very pivotal role.

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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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