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The Pearl Banks

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by Rex I. De Silva

Ah what pleasant visions haunt me

As I gaze upon the sea!

All the old romantic legends

All my dreams come back to me

H.W. Longfellow(The secret of the sea)

Since my early teens I have been fascinated by the jungle and the sea although I have never been able to decide which attracted me more. A few classmates and I would occasionally “escape” from school to dive on the sandstone reef off Colombo and spear spiny lobsters, which we would sell to raise ticket money for the latest cowboy movie. This grew into a lifelong passion, which led to my becoming a professional diver and ardent underwater naturalist.

Pearl banks by road

In April 1967 a company exporting chank shells assigned Rodney Jonklaas, the renowned diver, to visit the Pearl Banks and report on the feasibility of equipping the chank divers with modern self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA). At the time they used to free-dive, holding their breath. Rodney invited another professional diver Trevor Ferdinands and me to join him on a 10-day expedition.

The Pearl Banks lie off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar. The reefs and banks are widely dispersed and in the limited time available we intended to explore only a few of those lying between Arippu in the north and Kudremalai Point in the south. The diving grounds are generally from 12 to 15 km off the coast and consist of several relatively flat reefs, banks and extensive sea-grass beds over which the sea is fairly shallow. The deepest areas are around 18-20 metres from the surface, but on average the sea is considerably shallower. A great pearl fishery was conducted several decades earlier. In its place a vigorous chank shell fishery had developed.

Chanks are large thick-shelled gastropod molluscs, which were very common on the Pearl Banks and adjacent areas. The shells were exported to India where they were used fora variety of purposes. When viewed ventrally with spire upwards, the aperture of a normal chank shell is on the right. On rare occasions a shell will be found with its aperture on the opposite side. Such a shell is referred to as a sinistral or “left- handed” chank, but is best known by its Tamil name, vallampuri. Being rare, such a shell is valuable and much sought after.

We travelled in Rodney’s Volkswagen van and passed through Negombo, Chilaw, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Medawachchiya, Mankulam and Murunkan. From thence, we turned south-west to Silavatturai, and then south over a badly surfaced road to Kondaichchi and Marichchukkaddai. A few kilometres further on, we reached our base camp, which was on the sea-beach at Mullikulam by the northern bank of the Modaragam Aru (river), which at that time marked the northern boundary of the Wilpattu National Park.

Our journey had its ups and downs. We stopped at crystal-clear streams for “river baths” and snacks. The van broke down in an isolated area where, despite our ineptitude as mechanics, it was restarted.

Trevor was an expert diver and underwater hunter (spear-fisherman). It was said that he even thought like a fish! He was friendly and easy-going but inclined to be quiet. Rodney, in contrast, was an ebullient personality. A biology graduate of the University of Ceylon, he was a true renaissance man with a deep knowledge of a range of subjects. He was a pioneer diver, spear-fisherman, underwater photographer and an authority on Sri Lanka’s marine life. He was a raconteur par excellence, and his repertoire of jokes, limericks and “rugby songs” was almost as legendary as his diving prowess; hence travelling with him was always entertaining.

The camp

Our camp at Mullikulam was primitive. It consisted of four thatched (cadjan-roofed) huts on the beach, one of which was assigned to us. The others were occupied by the chank divers and boat crew. We had brought ample supplies of drinking water from Colombo, which was fortunate as it turned out. There was a well a hundred metres inland, but we only used it for bathing as, despite a protective wall, it was occupied by numerous frogs. Frogs were our constant companions. Tree-frogs lived in the thatched roof and walls of our hut. They had the unpleasant habit of jumping (or falling) on us while we were asleep. More disconcerting was the fact that when they leapt off they would often leave a smear of liquid on our bodies. We soon learnt to cover ourselves from head to toe.

The day’s catch of shell was spread out on the beach to rot. Chanks in various stages of decomposition gave rise to an all-pervading and overpowering stench, which we never got used to.

The divers

We would leave for the Pearl Banks at dawn and return late afternoon. The diesel-powered diving boat was large and seaworthy. Most of the divers were Muslims with a few Tamils. They were well-built, tough and hardy individuals. The camaraderie, which develops among those who do hard and dangerous work together, was very evident. We were told that a few Sinhalese dived as well, but that they had returned to their homes for the Sinhala New Year. The day’s proceedings began with one of the older members of the crew facing Mecca and leading prayers.

It took us a few hours to reach the diving grounds where the anchor was dropped and diving would begin in earnest. All the divers used face-masks, a device which did not exist during the old pearl fisheries. A few had swim fins as well, but the majority did without them. The diving ability of these men was exceptional. I watched one of the older divers, probably in his fifties, go down 15 metres and stay underwater for well over a minute.

The best of these divers was a young Tamil. He was broad-shouldered, curly-haired and burnt black by the fierce sun. His pleasant demeanour made him everyone’s favourite. Rodney nicknamed him “Horst” after a popular movie star of the era. There was no depth that Horst could not reach, and he could stay down a long time on a single breath of air.

One morning Horst discovered a large sting-ray weighing well over 50 kg. It was lying partly buried in the sand at a depth of 15 metres. Horst took with him a yotha (handline) and diving down, without disturbing the ray hooked it in a spiracle (an opening behind the eye). At this the ray came to life and there began a titanic struggle between man and fish. We moved in to help but Horst motioned us back, and after a strenuous battle, during which he had to avoid the six-inch serrated dagger-like poisonous sting on its tail, he wrestled the ray to the surface and into the boat. Both Trevor and I had to surface for air at least once before the battle ended, and we were only spectators; but Horst did it on a single lungful of air.

Once in the boat the dying ray, which was a female, aborted two translucent foetuses each smaller than my palm. Although we had each speared our share of fish during our diving careers, we shared a moment of sadness for the dying mother, but of course we were only witnessing the harsh law of nature, which is survival of the fittest.

We had brought several SCUBA units with us, but lacking a compressor, had no way of refilling the empty air cylinders. This was not a serious problem as we were all excellent free-divers and therefore saved our air-tanks for the deeper and longer dives. We also followed the unwritten divers’ code and never used SCUBA for spearfishing.

Pearl oysters are bivalve molluscs, only a very few of which form pearls. When an inclusion such as a grain of sand gets lodged between the mantle and shell, the oyster reacts by encapsulating the object with a nacreous coating, thus forming a pearl. We saw relatively few pearl oysters during our stay, but then we were not really looking for them.

We did observe that the large, grapefruit-sized Ramose Murex sea-shells bore exceptionally long and thick spines. I speculated that they could be a different species. Rodney as usual had a ready explanation. In other waters triggerfish feed off the spines but as the Pearl Banks harbour very few of these fish, the Murex are able to grow their spines unmolested.

Sea snakes

We saw several species of sea snakes all of which are venomous, although most are usually non-aggressive. Sea snakes are air-breathers and while many species are able to dive to considerable depths, they must return to the surface periodically for air. These snakes often got entangled in fishing nets and it amazed us to watch the local fishermen extricate them by hand, and then almost casually toss them back into the sea.

We saw several yellow-lipped sea kraits, a form which can survive on dry land, and beaked sea snakes. We also saw many individuals of Hydrophis, which are banded snakes with thick bodies and relatively small heads. Most interesting, though, was the small-headed sea snake which has a heavy body, long thin neck and tiny head; an adaptation for securing prey in small crevices in the reef. Once as we were surfacing from a dive, Rodney pointed towards our boat where a fairly large sea snake (probably a beaked sea snake) swam purposefully up to the anchor-line and struck at it repeatedly, then backtracked a short distance and repeated the performance. Even Rodney had no explanation for this strange behaviour.

Rare sightings

It was on one of the shallower banks that we saw a dugong. This is the marine mammal which supposedly gave rise among seamen to legends of mermaids. As Rodney aptly put it, one would have to be at sea for a very long time to mistake the harmless but unattractive dugong fora beautiful maiden. The dugong is herbivorous, feeding mainly on sea grasses and weeds. They have been hunted for their flesh to the point of extinction in Sri Lankan waters, although from time to time one hears of sightings. It is very doubtful that many dugongs remain in the Gulf of Mannar. Unfortunately we had a long way to go and I had to be satisfied with a view from the boat: I longed to join it in the water. This was the only dugong I ever saw.

One morning on our way to the diving grounds, we passed a large swordfish swimming slowly at the surface with its fins standing out of the water. The fish did not appear alarmed by our boat which passed quite close to it. The long bill or sword was visible in the clear water. I wished I could have viewed it underwater, but chank fishing took precedence over all else.

From the boat we once saw an amorphous dark mass in the water. As it was moving in our direction we dived in to determine its nature. It turned out to be an enormous shoal of golden jacks, each weighing five to 10 kg. We hung on the anchor-line and watched in amazement as the fish slowly passed by. This was the largest school of fish that any of us had seen. Even the chank divers were impressed by the sight and admitted that none of them had ever seen such a large school before. The fish took at least 15 minutes to pass us by, and stragglers continued to appear for sometime after. As might be imagined this gave material for much discussion over dinner.

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in

Sri Lanka: Experiences and encounters

compiled by CG Uragoda)

(to be continued next week)



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Features

It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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