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The Mahaweli

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by Chanaka Wickramasuriya

“Mahaweli mahaweli mahaweli”….. Virtuoso pandit Amaradeva’s classic resonates out there as the author traces this river; geographically, along the topographical contours of this varied land, and historically, along its intricate relationship with this island’s both ancient and contemporary civilizations.

The Mahaweli, or literally ‘the great sands’, is not just a river. And it is not just the island’s longest river (at 335km), or the one with the largest river basin (10,500 of the island’s total 65,000 sq km). The Mahaweli has a natural uniqueness to it that has resulted in a profound bearing on the formation and evolution of our cultural and political heritage. It will not be presumptuous to say that this river, analogous to its meandering trace, has carved the path for the history of this island’s peoples. Or even perhaps, been responsible for the sheer existence of a history itself. Amaradeva poetically alludes to this in his classical ballad.

One can say that the Mahaweli traces its headwaters to the Kotmale Oya and Hatton Oya. The former, having its source along the north western slopes of the Horton Plains plateau, while the latter traces its beginnings along the Watawala ridge. The significance of this will not be lost to even the amateur hydrologist. An overlay of the rainfall patters of Sri Lanka on her map shows that the country’s highest annual average rainfall takes place along this range, and notably, on account of it being fed by the more prolific South West Monsoon, at almost twice the precipitation of its North East counterpart.

This makes for a remarkable fact. The Mahaweli becomes, as far as this author can ascertain, the only Dry Zone river to be fed by the South West Monsoonal rains.

Having harnessed and coalesced these waters, the Mahaweli carves an idyllic path northward along the Gampola valley. The splendor of this valley discernible to even this author, as he once sat at a hermitage on the hills of Hindagala watching this river, dotted on either side by quaint hamlets and rice fields, the vestiges of an ancient kingdom that found refuge during trying times. And alas only to be told by his mentors that he was negating the benefits of his vipassana endeavors by pleasing his senses!

The river thus meanders its way up to Gannoruwa. And here, the providence of nature, or the hands of the formative deities of this land, depending on your preference, make a call. The river encounters a small hillock at Gannoruwa, and perhaps because of it, and unlike like all rivers originating on the western slopes that carve their way down toward the western seaboard, the Mahaweli makes an abrupt right turn.

At some point in pre-history these waters would have then encountered a formidable bridge of Charnockite rock in the escarpment between the central plateau and the southern edge of the Knuckles massif. Eons of hydrological erosion then forced these waters through the gorges of Randenigala and the breathtakingly narrow Rantambe, churning out what would have then been class four and five rapids. Legend has it that the master equestrian King Rajasinghe II would leap across the narrow 20-foot gap on his trusty steed, and that until more recently when the dams of the Mahaweli Development Program took shape, the sounds of these churning waters could have been heard over five km away. Like a giant hydrological serpent, the river breaks through this East-West divide to rear its head onto the eastern half of the island. And here too the seemingly inexplicable takes place.

Having garnered further waters from the Knuckles via the Hulu Ganga, from Pidurutalagala via the Ma Oya, from Horton Plains via the Uma Oya and from even as far as the Badulla and Passara hills via the Badulu Oya and Loggal Oya, instead of finding what would look to the layman as a path of least resistance directly toward the eastern seaboard, the Mahaweli decides to turn north.

The river then traverses this almost directly northern path, covering about half of its total distance, and a third of the island, to break into the ocean via a myriad of mangrove forested deltas at the island’s largest bay at Koddiyar in Trincomalee. Here too merging into yet another natural wonder of what is one of the world’s largest natural harbors, replete with underwater chasms and gorges of over 700m deep. But not until the river has harnessed even greater waters along the way through its largest tributary, the Amban Ganga, it too a creation of the western slopes of the Knuckles range, and the less plentiful Hasalaka Oya and Heen Ganga, which gather waters off the range’s eastern slopes. In this section the Mahaweli creates what is the country’s largest deposits of alluvial soil, spanning the entirety of its northern trajectory and breaking into vast areas of up to 10km wide on account of seasonal flood plains, as well as the largest seasonal sand banks from which the river derived its name.

Thus, it is as if nature was the precursor to our island’s proud hydrological engineering heritage, and even its modern manifestation of the Mahaweli Development Program. For nature seems to have decided long ago to find a way to harness the bounty of water from the island’s salubrious western slopes and nourish its dry north-central and eastern plains. A feat of engineering even modern man would have found hard to, and is yet to, replicate.

But the story of the Mahaweli does not end there. Mankind soon pounces upon this natural marvel to both exploit and tinker with her resources for their benefit. It is akin to having been endowed with a mythical nature’s guitar, and then fine tuning its cords to seek the perfect tune. The resulting dance having spanned over two millennia yet continues. While this story could be arguably best narrated through time, this author will choose to deliver it, like the river itself, along the course of its journey.

The story begins in the upper reaches of the Kotmale Oya, the Agra Oya. Here, literally and metaphorically shrouded in the mists of the Thotupola hill and time, a little south of Pattipola, are the remnants of a little known 220m long tunnel and 11km long canal. Believed to have been constructed circa the 13-14th century, it is perhaps the earliest known subterranean trans basin canal. Considered an engineering marvel for its time, this canal used to divert the west bound waters east into the Uma Oya basin to irrigate the lush fields of the Uva.

Moving down the Kotmale Oya, further nourished by the Nanu Oya is the Upper Kotmale Reservoir and Hydro Power scheme. The third largest power generator of the Mahaweli Development Scheme originally conceived between 1965-69 under and FAO/UNDP funded master plan, this was one of the last to be completed in 2010 after a series of environmental controversies and re-engineering. The river is then joined by the waters of the Devon Oya, Pundal Oya and Ramboda Oya and flows into the famed and beautiful valley of Kotmale, once the sanctuary of the legendary King Dutugemunu during his youth. This valley was inundated by a rock-filled dam 87m high and 600m in length starting in 1978 under the Accelerated Mahaveli Development Program, becoming the second highest hydro electricity generator of the scheme. Its added function being controlling the flood waters of the Gampola valley and optimizing the diversion flow at the barrage at Polgolla.

As the Mahaweli, now as a fully-fledged river or ganga, meanders its way around the upper middle-class suburbs of Kandy, evoking visions of our checkered history with names like Primrose Gardens, Anniewatte and Mawilmada, we encounter the Polgolla Barrage. Polgolla was the first of the projects under the Mahaweli Development Program and was implemented in 1976. At 144m in length and 14.6m in height, a relatively innocuous looking structure compared to its gargantuan brethren, the Polgolla Barrage nevertheless, in this authors view, creates the most geographically impactful diversion of Mahaweli waters.

It starts with an eight km long underground penstock northward to Ukuwele power station. Ukuwele then releases these spent waters into the Dhun Oya, which in turn connects to the Sudu Ganga which then emerges further north as the Bowatenna Reservoir. Built in 1981, the picturesque Bowatenna’s primary purpose was retention and diversion of waters for irrigation. In a bizarre twist of engineering and geographical fate, the released waters of Bowatenna become the Amban Ganga, making the Mahaweli the only river to feed its own tributary.

Waters diverted from Bowatenna are channeled through a tunnel to Lenodara, and from there enter the Dambulu Oya. It is from here that modern man’s diversions of the Mahaweli start to enter the realm of the ancient kings, and their stupendous feats of hydrological engineering and civilization building.

The Dambulu Oya has a little known but unique history, as it is a conduit of Mahaweli waters from two separate modern and ancient diversions. The ancient system starting from Demada Oya, a tributary of the Amban where an anicut built by Dhatusena diverted waters to the Wilimiti Oya, a tributary of the Dambulu. The Dambulu Oya thus takes Mahaweli/Amban waters from both Dhatusena’s creation as well as the modern Bowatenna, via the Ibbankatuwa Tank, north into the gigantic Kala Wewa – Balalu wewa complex and the Kala oya basin. Dhatusena’s “only treasure” as he proclaimed, for which he earned his patricidal son Kassapa’s wrath, Kala Wewa is the largest tank complex of ancient Sri Lanka and was built in the fifth Century AD. Waters from the Kala Wewa are transferred via the famous Jaya Ganga, carved also during the same time with the intricate engineering precision of a gradient of one foot to one mile, 86km to Devanampiyatissa’s third Century BC Tissa Wewa in the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura. Waters also find their way to the more modern Rajanganaya further west via the Kala Oya itself. The excess waters of the Tissa wewa find their way into the Malwatu Oya, the islands second longest river, and off that via the Yoda Ela into the famed Giant’s Tank over 50km north west of Anuradhapura, it too a creation of the legendary Dhatusena, to irrigate the famous Rice Bowl of Mannar.

A bifurcation at Dambulu Oya built in 1976 also takes Mahaweli waters into the ancient and touristically popular Kandalama tank, the origin of which is little known, as well as to the Hurulu Wewa a further 25 km north. Built by Mahasen in the first Century AD, the Hurulu is the primary repository source of Sri Lanka’s fifth longest river, the Yan Oya, where a new reservoir was constructed in 2017 about 50km further north east. Sporting what is Sri Lanka’s longest main and saddle dams totaling a staggering six km in length, the Yan Oya project infuses water into the ancient Padaviya Tank. Originally built to trap the waters of the Ma Oya, the actual origins of this very ancient tank are yet debated but speculated to having been built by Saddhatissa (137-119 BC). 165km from its original diversion at Polgolla, this will be the furthest point north yet traversed by the Mahaweli’s waters.

But Bowatenne is not done yet in her generous dispersions of Mahaweli’s bounty. Rather coincidentally and poignantly perhaps, situated at what is considered the center of the island, the reservoir stands where the iconic Nalanda Gedige temple stood. Since relocated to the banks of the lake, this temple represents a unique fusion of Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist Tantric architecture and is thought to have been built around the 13th Century. Waters thus blessed flow beyond Bowatenna as the mighty Amban, the Mahaweli’s largest tributary, which has an ancient and contemporary history worthy of her own story.

To be continued next week



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PLANES OF EXISTENCE

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(from THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS by Venerable Narada Mahathera)

“Not to be reached by going is world’s end.” ANGUTTARA NIKAYA

According to Buddhism the earth, an almost insignificant speck in the universe, is not the only habitable world, and humans are not the only living beings. Indefinite are world systems and so are living beings. Nor is “the impregnated ovum the only route to rebirth.” By traversing one cannot reach the end of the world, says the Buddha.

Births may take place in different spheres of existence. There are altogether thirty-one places in which beings manifest themselves according to their moral or immoral Kamma.

There are four states of unhappiness (Apaya) which are viewed both as mental states and as places.

They are:

1. Niraya (ni + aya = devoid of happiness) woeful states where beings atone for their evil Kamma. They are not eternal hells where beings are subject to endless suffering. Upon the exhaustion of the evil Kamma there is a possibility for beings born in such states to be reborn in blissful states as the result of their past good actions.

2. Tiracchana-yoni (tiro = across; acchana = going), the animal kingdom. Buddhist belief is that beings are born as animals on account of evil Kamma. There is, however, the possibility for animals to be born as human beings as a result of the good Kamma accumulated in the past. Strictly speaking, it should be more correct to state that Kamma which manifested itself in the form of a human being, may manifest itself in the form of an animal or vice versa, just as an electric current can be manifested in the forms of light, heat and motion successively — one not necessarily being evolved from the other.

It may be remarked that at times certain animals particularly dogs and cats, live a more comfortable life than even some human beings due to their past good Kamma.

It is one’s Kamma that determines the nature or one’s material form which varies according to the skilfulness or unskilfulness of one’s actions.

3. Peta-yoni (pa + ita) lit., departed beings, or those absolutely devoid of happiness. They are not disembodied spirits of ghosts. They possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye. They have no planes of their own, but live in forests, dirty surroundings, etc. There is a special book, called Petavatthu, which exclusively deals with the stories of these unfortunate beings. Samyutta Nikaya also relates some interesting accounts of these Petas.

Describing the pathetic state of a Peta, the Venerable Moggallana says:

“Just now as I was descending Vultures’ Peak Hill, I saw a skeleton going through the air, and vultures, crows, and falcons kept flying after it, pecking at its ribs, pulling apart while it uttered cries of pain. To me, friend, came this thought: O but this is wonderful! O but this is marvellous that a person will come to have such a shape, that the individuality acquired will come to have such a shape.”

“This being,” the Buddha remarked, “was a cattle-butcher in his previous birth, and as the result of his past Kamma he was born in such a state. “

According to the Questions of Milinda there are four kinds of Petas — namely, the Vantasikas who feed on vomit, the Khuppipāsino who hunger and thirst, the Nijjhamatanhikaā, who are consumed by thirst, and the Paradattapajavino who live on the gifts of others.

As stated in the Tirokudda Sutta these last mentioned Petas share the merit performed by their living relatives in their names, and could thereby pass on to better states of happiness.

4. Asura-yoni — the place of the Asura-demons. Asura, literally, means those who do not shine or those who do not sport. They are also another class of unhappy beings similar to the Petas. They should be distinguished from the Asuras who are opposed to the Devas.

Next to these four unhappy states (Duggati) are the seven happy states (Sugati). They are:

1. Manussa The Realm of human beings.

The human realm is a mixture of both pain and happiness. Bodhisattas prefer the human realm as it is the best field to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood. Buddhas are always born as human beings.

2. Catummaharajika — the lowest of the heavenly realms where the Guardian Deities of the four quarters of the firmament reside with their followers.

3. Tavatimsa — lit., thirty-three — the Celestial Realm of the thirty-three Devas where Deva Sakka is the King. The origin of the name is attributed to a story which states that thirty-three selfless volunteers led by Magha (another name for Sakka), having performed charitable deeds, were born in this heavenly realm. It was in this heaven that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the Devas for three months.

4. Yama — “The Realm of the Yama Devas.” That which destroys pain is Yāma.

5. Tusita — lit., happy dwellers, is “The Realm of Delight.”

The Bodhisattas who have perfected the requisites of Buddhahood reside in this Plane until the opportune moment comes for them to appear in the human realm to attain Buddhahood. The Bodhisatta Metteyya, the future Buddha, is at present residing in this realm awaiting the right opportunity to be born as a human being and become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta’s mother, after death, was born in this realm as a Deva (god). From here he repaired to Tavatimsa Heaven to listen to the Abhidhamma taught by the Buddha.

6. Nimmanarati — “The Realm of the Devas who delight in the created mansions.”

7. Paranimmitavasavatti — “The Realm of the Devas who make others’ creation serve their own ends.”

The last six are the realms of the Devas whose physical forms are more subtle and refined than those of human beings and are imperceptible to the naked eye. These celestial beings too are subject to death as all mortals are. In some respects, such as their constitution, habitat, and food they excel humans, but do not as a rule transcend them in wisdom. They have spontaneous births, appearing like youths and maidens of fifteen or sixteen years of age.

These six Celestial Planes are temporary blissful abodes where beings are supposed to live enjoying fleeting pleasures of sense.

The four unhappy states (Duggati) and the seven happy states (Sugati) are collectively termed Kamaloka — Sentient Sphere.

Superior to these Sensuous Planes are the Brahma Realms or Rupaloka (Realms of Form) where beings delight in jhanic bliss, achieved by renouncing sense-desires.

Rupaloka

consists of sixteen realms according to the jhānas or ecstasies cultivated. They are as follows:

(a) T’he Plane of the First Jhana;

1. Brahma Parisajja –– The Realm of the Brahma‘s Retinue.

2. Brahma Purohita — The Realm of the Brahma’s Ministers.

3. Mahaā Brahma — The Realm of the Great Brahmas.

The highest of the first three is Mahaā Brahma. It is so called because the dwellers in this Realm excel others in happiness, beauty, and age-limit owing to the intrinsic merit of their mental development.

(b) The Plane of the Second Jhāna:

4. Parittābhā — The Realm of Minor Lustre,

5. Appamānābhā — The Realm of Infinite Lustre,

6. Ābhassarā —

The Realm of the Radiant Brahmas.

(c) The Plane of the Third Jhāna:

7. Parittasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Minor Aura.

8. Appamānasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Infinite Aura.

9. Subhakinhaā — The Realm of the Brahmas of Steady Aura.

(d) The Plane of the Fourth Jhana:

10. Vehapphala — The Realm of the Brahmas of Great Reward.

11. Asaatta — The Realm of Mindless Beings,

12. Suddhavasa — The Pure Abodes which are further subdivided into five, viz:

i. Aviha — The Durable Realm,
ii. Atappa — The Serene Realm,
iii. Sudassa — The Beautiful Realm,
iv. Sudassi — The Clear-Sighted Realm.
v. Akanittha — the Highest Realm.

Only those who have cultivated the Jhanas or Ecstasies are born on these higher planes. Those who have developed the First Jhana are born in the first Plane; those who have developed the Second and Third Jhanas are born in the second Plane; those who have developed the Fourth and Fifth Jhanas are born in the third and fourth Planes respectively.

The first grade of each plane is assigned to those who have developed the Jhanas to an ordinary degree, the second to those who have developed the Jhanas to a greater extent, and the third to those who have gained a complete mastery over the Jhanas.

In the eleventh plane, called the Asaatta, beings are born without a consciousness.

Here only a material flux exists. Mind is temporarily suspended while the force of the Jhāna lasts. Normally both mind and matter are inseparable. By the power of meditation, it is possible, at times, to separate matter from mind as in this particular case. When an Arahant attains the Nirodha Samāpatti, too, his consciousness ceases to exist temporarily. Such a state is almost inconceivable to us. But there may be inconceivable things which are actual facts.

The Suddhavasas or Pure Abodes are the exclusive Planes of Anagamis or Never-Returners. Ordinary beings are not born in these states. Those who attain Anāgāmi in other planes are reborn in these Pure Abodes. Later, they attain Arahantship and live in those planes until their life-term ends.

There are four other planes called Arupaloka which are totally devoid of matter or bodies. Buddhists maintain that there are realms where mind alone exists without matter. “Just as it is possible for an iron bar to be suspended in the air because it has been flung there, and it remains as long as it retains any unexpended momentum, even so the Formless being appears through being flung into that state by powerful mind-force, there it remains till that momentum is expended. This is a temporary separation of mind and matter, which normally co-exist. “

It should be mentioned that there is no sex distinction in the Rupaloka and the Arupaloka.

The Arupaloka is divided into four planes according to the four Arupa Jhanas.

They are:

1. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Space.

2. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Consciousness.

3. The Sphere of the Conception of Nothingness.

4. The Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.

It should be remarked that the Buddha did not attempt to expound any cosmological theory.

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is not affected by the existence or non-existence of these planes. No one is bound to believe anything if it does not appeal to his reason. Nor is it proper to reject anything because it cannot be conceived by one’s limited knowledge.

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Sins of Fathers and Comrades

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“The sins of the father will be laid upon the children.”

Exodus 20:5 (5th of Ten Commandments)

The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 5)

by Kumar David

It is a terrible, a terrifying curse that the sins of one generation will be visited upon successors. Some Christian sects, to this day, hold the Jews responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ though a learned Christian scholar, Lay-Preacher and friend assures me that this is perverse – Pontius Pilate must carry full responsibility he declares. But another with lesser ecclesiastical credentials (he never would have made it to Lay-Preacher though lay was not the obstacle) assures me that unlike JR in 1983, Pilate had good reason to fear that he had no choice and that the mob threatened governance. Actually, JR never made that lame-duck excuse – I think he rather enjoyed watching it. (Aside: Ranil was JR’s nephew in whose Cabinet he loyally served throughout the treachery and slaughter – Bahu please note).

Two organisations are paying a high price for their past, the blame for which is laid on their heads. The example in the headlines this month is the Taliban. The curses of centuries of faith-based relics have submerged it, though internal conflicts may still reverse the worst of the dark age. The other, always in the rear-view mirror of Lankan politics are the 1971 and 1989 events. I promised in a previous piece that I would stop bugging the JVP for long ago follies for which present leaders bear no responsibility. I intend to keep that promise. The misfortune is that that we the NPP still face “Didn’t your people do that?”, “Can we trust them again?” and such flak. A giant blunder by one generation of comrades hangs over the heads of their successors. This piece however is about the Taliban, a theme to which I seem to be getting addicted.

That Chairman fellow said “Women hold up half the sky”, but the Taliban by imposing cruel dress codes and obsolete conduct on unwilling women who have tasted personal freedom for two decades have created an implacable foe. (If some prefer to adhere of their own volition, that’s fine). Opposition to gender oppression and the Pashtun power grab will ignite conflict. There were sporadic protests by small groups of women earlier, but on September 7 a large one, thousands strong marched for miles through the streets of Kabul and was finally dispersed by shots in the air. There are videos of beating and detention of well-disciplined women protesters by bloody fool machismo in the lower ranks of the Taliban who will have to be crushed. It remains to be seen if the leadership has the guts to do this or whether it will go the way of all Lankan regimes on inter-racial and religious injustice. I am not holding my breath. On September 8 the regime impose a ban on demonstrations; this will be defied. If the Taliban mows down Afghan women with grapeshot what is left of its Islamic credentials?

So far, I have written in support of the expulsion of NATO. This has been done and now Act 2 of the drama has commenced. It is time to hold the Taliban to acceptable standards of human and democratic rights but instead it has formed an all-male mainly Pashtun government of aged hard-line dotards and given the lie to promises of ethnic inclusivity and recognition of women. It has slipped back to primeval faiths and primitive customs. The Taliban Education Minister who has never been to school, when challenged about his fitness for the job responded: “Education is irrelevant so long as you are pious.” There will be a push back by younger Taliban cadres as the economy goes into free fall and conflict with women and non-Pashtun ethnic-minorities swells. I am of the view that we are passing through a period in which nothing is settled and foresee changes within the Taliban and in the nature of the state.

Foreign occupation has had contradictory effects. On the one hand liberal values and a liber-democratic state were the proclaimed objectives. On the other hand, drones and artillery killed thousands of civilians, the Afghan army murdered and plundered, and billions of dollars unloaded on foreign contactors spread a plague of corruption from the President down. In sum the occupation was a disaster and a failure.

Confessional slavery

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, the Taliban regime and some others impose dress codes, curtail commonplace democratic rights, deny education and horse whip or stone to death women who defy primitive religious injunctions imposed on all whether these practices are egregious to other genders, faiths or ethnic collectives. (I avoid the term Islamic as I am not schooled in whether Islam actually sanctions such incongruity and cruelty). In the best-case, the Taliban will see the writing on the wall and retreat, give or take a few tactical adjustments. If it is deaf to half its population it will engender a women’s uprising; these women have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to gain. It will take time for a clandestine but identifiable leadership to mature and resistance organise itself. The Taliban does not want to give any rights to women and it will concede only what it is compelled to by domestic and international pressure.

The best Sri Lankans of all faiths, ages, communities and genders can do is to extend moral and if possible practical support to women enslaved by confessional states. Did you know that Afghans were making creative and aesthetically sensitive films from well before Taliban-I? Muslim women in open societies have shone in the professions, academia and public service. Their fathers, brothers and husbands now have a duty to help this process everywhere. It is a shame that Islamic clerics and Muslim laymen and scholars across the world have failed to denounce the Taliban’s behaviour. Many, not only in the thuggish lower ranks, who obstruct progress gun in one hand and whiplashing women on the streets, are alarmed by their own limited educational and intellectual horizons and nativist ignorance. That’s the long and the short of it.

The New Taliban Government: a formula for strife

The Taliban proclaimed an Islamic Emirate, but a Republic is emerging on the streets of Kabul and Herat. Two weeks ago I wrote about the internal dynamics in political movements in watershed periods. It is necessary now to admit that in Afghanistan and in the Taliban the first round has been won by the reactionaries. Nevertheless, professed pieties and hermetic decision making notwithstanding, the conflict within Taliban driven by anger on the streets and dissent in the countryside, is only beginning. Yes true, the Taliban did not fight for 20 years in the mountains to win power and then create a liberal state. Nor do the hardliners care a whit about the hardships people suffer without medical services and food. What will forces change within the movement is if these deficits provoke challenges to its power in the country at large, and if internal cracks within the Taliban widen under stress. The real world will in the end win over the imagined world of faith, ideology and ignorance.

You would be justified to reckon that the government was formed in a home-for-the-aged. Aging Mohammad Hassan Akhund, an aide of the Taliban founder Omar, is PM and Abdul Ghani Baradar his deputy. Omar’s son Yaqoob is defence minister. Two senior Haqqani network members, leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and his aging uncle Khalil Haqqani are interior minister and minister for refugees respectively. Akund, Siarjuddin and Khalil are on UN sanctions lists for terrorism. It’s as if after victory in the Panjshir Valley they cocked their thumb at the world, especially the West and said “Bugger off! We won the war. We will do as we please”. That in broad terms is the government though described as “Interim”. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the new government. It is playing at global foreign policy and currying favour with the Taliban not to interfere with its repression of Uighur Muslims. China will be of no help in the democratisation of Afghanistan (or Sri Lanka or Burma or anywhere).

The leaders professed that women will play a prominent role and have access to education, but they were excluded from talks when forming a government and there is no longer any mention of a ministry of women’s affairs. About 40% of school children are girls and 30% sitting the university entrance exams are women; unrepentant religious aboriginals in the leadership will attempt to roll all this back. I keep returning to the women’s issue because my sense is that repressing women who have tasted education and employment and then oppressing them socially is not sustainable and will engender conflict. Attempts to impose a Pashtun state on other ethnicities by an aged ideologically primitive leadership in the context of an economic meltdown will aggravate conflict and create splits and realignments within the movement. This may bring younger leaders to the helm and then modify the state itself. The signals as yet are mixed. If the leaders refuse to budge, conflict between the people and the Taliban will break into the open. This is not a desirable scenario; a compromise is better.

This essay has continuity in views and content with my column of September 5, “A perspective on conflicts in the Taliban” which readers may wish to consult.

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My personal experience and perspective of Astrology and Palmistry

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by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

I was simply fascinated by the stories about his experience with palmistry revealed by my erstwhile colleague Prof Sanath Lamabadusuriya in a recent article to the Sunday Island Newspaper.

Palmistry or Cheiromancy originated in ancient India more than 5,000 years ago and spread to China, Greece and Rome. Now palmistry as an art is practiced worldwide. At present there are three types of palmistry, Indian, Western and Chinese. The Western and Chinese palmistry now show a significant divergence from the original Indian palmistry. The Indian Vedic astrology is closely linked to the notions of karma. Palmists believe Palmistry is both a science and an art. Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity around 2,400 years ago.

I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents both of whom were measured and well-mannered health care professionals. Bringing up their children in the aftermath of the first World War they endured the nomadic life of government transfers every four years serving in some of the most inhospitable places. Those were troubled times of malaria, dysentery and typhoid epidemics. In those days without TV and radio they developed a hobby which was all consuming. They were excellent and adept palmists and astrologers.

I still recall the many books on the subject that filled the bookshelves of our house in Nugegoda. Friends and family got my grandparents to cast horoscopes and got their palms read. For them it was a hobby for which no money changed hands. According to family folklore, when I was born at the Kandy hospital my grandma, was there with her watch recording the time of birth with accuracy. The local time in Ceylon was changed during World War II to what was called ‘War Time’. This caused enormous upheaval in the astrology community in getting the time correct for casting horoscopes.

I grew up in a milieu with great belief in the ability to predict the future. We all had our astrological charts on rolled up ola leaves. My grandparents were well aware of its difficulties and shortcomings and also how, when and what information to divulge. My grandfather was a fine palmist. He never lost his sense of playfulness or the ability to find humour in his predictions. When I was a young kid I was told that I will be a doctor and my future lies in another country. In retrospect I am amazed how accurately he summed up my future.

He was always discreet in his predictions and did so with great sensitivity. In the fullness of years, I can acknowledge now, the predictions were remarkably accurate. I had a cousin who was my age and attended the local school with me. When I asked my grandpa about her future he was reluctant to discuss it. It brought us great sadness when she died tragically age 35. There were times he did get things wrong. His clientele was family and friends. These errors came to light many years later and no one came to any serious harm.

My grandfather did tell me that I had the perfect chart to be a good palmist. I did learn the basics from him and loved it. He often said “practice makes perfect” and that I should read palms regularly. The idea did appeal to me. It is wonderful to be able to predict the future. As a teenager there were too many other interests and distractions. Although my interest receded it never died. I took it up again briefly after retirement, just as a hobby. On a Mediterranean cruise I discovered palmistry was a good ‘party trick’. The mere mention at the dinner table that I could read the palm generated great interest. Despite my disclaimer of being a novice the ladies lined up for their futures to be revealed.

When I was a first year medical student we visited a family friend in Kollupitiya. There was a large gathering. Amongst the crowd was a professional palm reader. They asked me if I want my palm read. Without much thought I agreed and realised later that was a huge mistake. As there was an audience the palmist played to the gallery. Some very personal events of my future life were bared for all to hear causing me great embarrassment and distress. Much of the past was incorrect and in retrospect the future predictions were a load of rubbish. In those days I wasn’t vocal enough and suffered in silence. I still blush when I think about it. This is an excellent example of how NOT to read the palm. There are many such unscrupulous quacks and rogues that hoodwink the people to earn a living.

All palmists should learn the trade as an apprentice to a true professional who should pass on their wisdom, teach the obligations and the refinements we call “bedside manner”. Like in the Hippocratic oath they should be taught “primum non nocere” ( first, do no harm). In my childhood I recall the village astrologers and palmists who frightened the people with impending doom and gloom and extracted money to counteract the forces of evil. Perhaps with increased literacy and learning these practices have now largely disappeared. It is my belief that like in every profession, for astrology and palmistry too, well beyond the aptitude, some have the special gift of instinct or intuition that set them apart from the rest. I have met a few such brilliant professional astrologers and palmists who have made a name for themselves and make an honourable living.

The art of predicting the future has always fascinated people all over the world. For a young person with all his/her life before them there is that inevitable desire to know what is in store. Even In the 21st century that desire still exist. There are some who would say “why know the future, just get on with life”. As a septuagenarian, knowing the fragility of life, I agree with that sentiment completely. Que sera sera – whatever will be will be.

On a personal level, my future has been predicted with great accuracy and I have good reason to believe in both palmistry and astrology. The accurate time of birth and proper casting of the horoscope is the key to its reliability. Even with all that the predictions are neither fool-proof nor flawless. Finding a genuine bona-fide palmist or astrologer is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

There is a conflict between my scientific background and those imprecise and unregulated business of astrology and palmistry. As a medical professional I am trained only to trust evidence-based information and have some scepticism and even some cynicism about matters I cannot deduce logically.

I never allowed my decisions to be guided by astrology or palmistry. Those predictions have no guarantee of accuracy although it gave me a fairly clear picture of what the future held for me. I have lived my life as I wanted making much of the decisions on the hoof. In the main I have no regrets. I have always believed that although my future lay in my own hands much what happens to us in life is governed and influenced by the awesome forces of destiny.

As old age came to my grandparents, they had the respect and love of the extended family. I will always remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm, and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. Their demise to me was an end of an era. The memory of my grandparents still remains with me as a dear and precious possession.

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