By Uditha Devapriya
In 851 AD, an Arab merchant, called Soleyman, wrote an account of his travels to the island of Serendib. Impressionistic but insightful, it records the earliest known engagement of a Muslim with Sri Pada, also known as Samantukuta.
Soleyman does not refer to Sri Pada as “aadam malayi”, the name we see in later Muslim reconstructions of the peak. Instead he calls it “Al-Rohoun”, which is what the ninth century Indian poet Rajasekhara used in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area around the mountain belonged. Literary sources inform us that this was the term used, and preferred, by Arabs and Indians from that time.
Around five centuries later, the scholar and traveller Ibn Batuta is reported to have climbed the peak. Patronised by the king of Jaffna, Batuta ascended the summit and came across a grotto bearing the name “Iskander.” Poets, travellers, and even historians would later posit this as evidence for the view, now largely debunked, that Alexander the Great climbed Sri Pada on his horse. Writing of his ascent, Batuta also noted that a Muslim Imam called Abu Abdallah, said to have died in 953 AD, was the first Muslim to make the climb. What we can speculate about from Batuta’s travels, other than the identity of “Iskander”, is that Muslim engagement with the summit dates to the 9th centuries.
Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka, of course, precedes these pilgrimages, while Arab engagement with the island predates even the coming of Islam. From the Mahavamsa we know that Pandukabhaya, after emerging triumphant from his war with his uncles, settled a community of “yonas” at the Western gate of his capital, Anuradhapura. “Yona”, we know well enough, was the term the Portuguese and the Dutch later used on Arabs.
We can’t really confirm whether the community Mahanama Thera referred to were the ancestors of the traders and settlers European colonisers encountered many centuries later. Yet, the coincidence is striking: it suggests that European colonisers considered the Arabs as alien to the country as the yonas of yore. Of course, the truth was more complex than such colonialist perceptions would suggest: by the 15th century, Arabs had become active participants in Sri Lanka’s economic, cultural, and political life.
We come across extensive references to Arabs in the country no earlier than in the sixth century AD. The literary sources we have tell us that merchants, from this period, made their way to Sri Lanka through three trade routes: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Braudel writes that by the seventh century, trade in the Far East was dominated by these three economies. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated but not cut off from the Indian subcontinent. It is from this vantage point that we should delve into the Arab origins of the Muslims, specifically Moors, of Sri Lanka.
Where did Arab traders settle in Sri Lanka? One school of thought argues that they first settled in localities in the north. Another school contends that they moved southwest, with records showing that a landing was made in Barberyn in 1024 AD. It must be noted that two of the oldest mosques were built in the latter region: the construction of the oldest of them, Al Abrar, dates to the 10th century, and that of the other, Kechchimalai, to the 12th.
Regardless of where they settled, we know what role they played in Sri Lankan society: they were, first and foremost, traders and merchants. In this, they became intermediaries between the island and the world. Enmeshing themselves in the commercial fabric of the country, they introduced practices that may not have been familiar to locals before their arrival. To say this is certainly not to deny the vitality of Sinhala civilisation; merely to note that the assimilation of other groups to that civilisation reinforced that vitality.
These encounters were hardly limited to the southwest, or even the north. Wherever they settled, Muslim traders wielded much influence, serving not just as merchants but also patrons of society. Encountering Colombo, for instance, Ibn Batuta wrote of a vizier called Jalasti, who had with him a retinue of 500 Abyssinians. Tennent suggested that his presence showed the Sinhalese were indifferent to commerce. Tennent’s view is, in one sense, a generalisation in line with colonialist readings of Sinhala culture, but it belies the reality of Muslim involvement of the island’s trade after the 10th century.
Their sense of privilege and proportion was significantly enlarged by a concession they won from Sinhala rulers: the ability to be tried by their own laws. This was an expedient necessitated by commerce: according to Lorna Dewaraja, whenever a dispute arose in any of the ports where they traded, it had to be settled “by a tribunal consisting of Muslim priests, merchants, and mariners.” Such privileges were crucial, because like any trade-based community Arab Muslims required a body of laws they could apply to their kind, wherever and in whatever part of the world they operated from. Their importance in this regard was not lost on local rulers: part of the reason why Arya Cakravari patronised Ibn Batuta so well was his desire to tap into Arab trade in the region.
Unlike European colonisers, even Muslims from other parts of the region, Arab traders formed one of the more peaceful communities in the island. Their pacifist nature, a stark contrast to the fanaticism of their compatriots in India, the Maldives, and South-East Asia, encouraged Sinhala kings to grant them settlements of their own. Eventually they became not just a part, but a fact, of life in the country.
In his account of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka, Paul E. Pieris recounts an incident where, upon their first arrival in the island, the colonialists managed to anger locals by attempts to slaughter their cattle. What is fascinating about this episode is that Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka preceded the Portuguese by nine centuries, and even more fascinating, the fact that cattle slaughter was one of the few crimes for which a refugee could not escape the brunt of the law if he or she escaped to a viharagam (where cattle were held in high regard). It was, to borrow the parlance of modern law, a non-bailable offence.
Based on such fragmentary evidence, the conclusion we can reach is that cattle slaughter would have been tolerated as a practice of a community, in this case Muslims, assimilated to the country’s society. When committed by a foreign group, on the other hand, it would have constituted an act of disrespect, or even aggression.
There is, of course, no doubt that Muslim settlers and local communities faced a common enemy in the European coloniser. In their attempts to convince the king of the perfidious nature of the Portuguese, for example, Buddhist monks actively took the side of Muslim traders, warning the Sinhalese court of the dangers of allowing the Westerners too many privileges. By this point the reputation of Muslims had transcended their position as mere traders; they had entered other fields, as diverse as medicine and the crafts, flourishing in whatever domain they settled in. In incorporating them into the court, as physicians or members of the military, the Sinhala polity thus absorbed them into its social structure. It is this that explains the high regard Buddhist monks had for them. Historians who tend to play with categories of race, without noting the role caste played in Sinhala society, fail to appreciate fully the implications of such developments.
We see these processes continue in the Kandyan kingdom. For a social structure that was so rigid and fixed, it is astonishing that it absorbed outside communities so well. Muslims not surprisingly figured in its scheme of things: they were decreed a place in the Sinhala caste system, banded together with the karavas or the fisher folk. They were also allowed their own headmen for the villages they settled in. This gave them a twin advantage: while maintaining amicable relations with the king, they continued with their cultural practices that set them apart from other social and caste groups. Readily genuflecting before rulers and nobles, they played a role as merchants, physicians, and envoys.
The fact that we do not come across records of tensions between them and other groups, particularly those such as the Buddhist clergy, indicates that, for all its limitations, Kandyan feudalism did a better job than British colonialism in maintaining inter-group relations. To say this is by no means to romanticise the caste system; only to suggest, as historians like Lorna Dewaraja have, that colonialism brought an end to a period of symbiotic harmony between groups who were, with the advent of Western rule, to see themselves in ethnic rather than caste terms. This, however, is an entirely new domain of research, one which most contemporary scholars, barring the likes of Asiff Hussein, have not explored. That it should be explored is implied in the unfortunate, though hardly inevitable, conflagrations of ethnic tension which crop up from time to time today. As Regi Siriwardena suggested a long time ago, what needs to be emphasised is not imagined unity, but actual diversity: a diversity that remained a force for unity for so long.
Impressive Indian scene…
Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.
Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.
Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.
Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.
Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”
However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.
“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”
Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.
She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.
“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”
Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.
“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.
“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”
Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.
And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”
Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.
Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community
On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).
Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.
The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.
Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.
By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.
We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.
The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.
Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.
This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.
Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.
Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.
Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!
Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.
The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.
All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.
To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.
I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.
The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.
I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.
More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?
It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.
The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality
A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.
It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.
However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.
Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.
The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.
Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.
India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.
The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.
But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.
Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.
Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.
Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.
Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.
GL explains to UN Special Rapporteur Lanka’s progress related to labour welfare
Sri Lanka Tourism commands attention at World Routes 2021
Registrar of Companies, a mere filing cabinet?
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
Features4 days ago
The Sandahiru event – celebrating failure
news3 days ago
Sirisena, other SLFP MPs asked to leave Govt.
news5 days ago
SL defenceless, warn experts
Features5 days ago
Rising farce of Family Power
news6 days ago
Church welcomes Prez’s promise to move against those named in Easter Sunday PCoI
news4 days ago
Scotland Police to stop training Lankan cops
Sports3 days ago
World’s lowest paid captain on the verge of equalling World Record
Features4 days ago
Are we heading for an unprecedented disaster like the Irish Potato Famine?