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Twentieth Amendment, Constitutional Morality & Arunachalam



by Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Many people knew that the 20th Amendment will pass. I was one of them. When the debate on it was taking place in parliament, I was busy reading in the largest library in the country – the main library of the University of Peradeniya. I was working on something else, and it had very little to do with the 20th Amendment. The book I was reading and taking notes about was a collection of speeches and writing by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam. I have been a big fan of his ideas on education, and I really think he was the real father of our University.

His famous speech in 1906, making a case for our own university had practically everything needed to conceptualize a university of our own. Local intellectuals such as Sir Arunachalam were instrumental in creating the University of Peradeniya and, of course, in establishing a Department of Sinhala where I teach now. In his initial writing on a university, Arunachalam argued for two departments of Sinhala and Tamil, among others.

While reading I stumbled upon several essays on a topic being debated today, “constitutional reforms.” I kept on reading. While I did so, several academics who left the university to become politicians were preparing themselves to vote in favour of the 20th amendment. In addition to those ex-academics, there were quite a few learned and cosmopolitan people getting ready to vote for it. After a century of representative democracy, they had no hesitation in supporting an amendment that put an insane amount of power in the hands one man.

The man has no experience in public office. And the constitutional draft had everything that ruined the country for about thirty years. Under the watch of the 1978 constitution and many of its amendments, we in Sri Lanka had so much bloodshed, killing, disappearance, and soaring corruption. And the country’s economy did not improve in any meaningful way- certainly not compared to the price we paid; and human cost it incurred.

On reading Arunachalam on constitutional reform, I felt that there was very little Arunachalanian Sensibility in our parliament today. Those who have had an education similar to Sir Ponnambalam, at least on paper, were the most distant from Arunachalam’s constitutional morality demonstrated in 1918.

A century after Ponnnambalam Arunachalam gave his president’s address on the topic at the Ceylon National Conference, we find ourselves sending a bunch of morally bankrupt politicians to parliament to vote in a constitution that brings shame on those such as Arunachalam.

The progressive knight


Sir Ponnambalam was British educated, knighted, and very much pro-British on many counts. But his conservative ‘radicalism’ or republicanism appears revolutionary when one compares him to our present day parliamentary con artists. He was unparalleled in his erudition, urbane in manners and elegant in decorum. Yet, what lies beneath his ornamented language deserves some serious attention, even a hundred years later.

His speech was not about presidential powers. But ‘constitutional morality’ or ‘ethical spirit’ that undergirds the speech is very relevant to us today. His entire argument was about the importance of decentralizing power. He even cites the famous saying from Robert Knox that “take a ploughman from the plough, wash off his dirt, and he is fit to rule a kingdom” and argues that Sinhalese people, (“ploughmen” or peasants), who are already qualified to take part in the ruling of their country should be given that opportunity.

If the natives, both Sinhala and Tamil, are not educated enough to participate in activities of governing, then colonial rule itself, Arunachalam claims, is responsible for that weakness. He goes on to argue that the traditional Buddhist education system has been destroyed by colonialism, when introducing representative democracy the British must invest money to create an educated population in the colony. He states that true democracy cannot exist without an active citizenery:

“Under this baneful Crown Colony administration, virile citizens are not bred, but docile clerks and useful wheels in the official machinery. How far does this satisfy the first maxim of British statesmen that British Rule should operate as an elevating force on the character of the governed?”

Sir Ponnambalam, in beautifully written prose, was asking the colonial rulers the most important question related to democracy: without empowering the governed and making them active, can there be true democracy? How many are there in the parliament today with the moral courage to ask that question? Instead of empowering the multitude our good fellows voted a constitution to empower a single man. So much for all the education and experience we had since Arunachalam made those points!


Native forms of de-centralization


In his speech, Arunachalam describes pre-modern structures of de-centralized power: village council (gama sabha), district councils (rata sabha) and so on. “Above these stood,” continues Arunachalam, “the Supreme Council of the ministers of State, and the King who was considered the elected Supreme Magistrate. The form of election of the King was gone through, even in the most reactionary times, and down to the last of Ceylon’s kings a hundred years ago.” He claims that inscriptional evidence has shown these systems of devolved power worked smoothly.

Though he tends to idealize our native history, he was making the case that Sri Lankans had a long history of participatory democracy and decentralized power.


He was arguing against a privileged few ruling a country: “In Ceylon the British merchant and the British planter exercise too great an influence over public policy and measures. A chat over the dinner table, at the Club or on the golf links, does more than bushels of argument or months of agitation. Is it not every head of a department, every member of the Government, every member of the official majority of the Legislative Council, the kith and kin of the British merchant and planter?”

The British merchant and the planter left some 70 years ago. But the kith and kin of one man still do the ruling. Though it has been a regular feature of our postcolonial history, in recent times, the rule of a family cartel has been a regular feature. When a constitutional reform leads to further fortifying one man’s or one family’s rule, the Arunachalams of our times need to rethink before voting drafts into power or acts into law.

When voting for constitutions, the basic law of a country, we need all the moral decency we could muster, all the inspiration people like Arunachalam can give us. But for inspiration to come to you, you need to have basic morality within you. ‘If centuries of Buddhist moral imagination, decades of liberal education, or decades of left political experience, cannot provide you with such ethical reasoning, your nation is doomed.’ Arunachalam seems to say, in his wonderful speech 100 years before the 20th Amendment.

(The writer is Professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya. He earned his BA (Hons.) in Sinhala from The University of Colombo in 1994 and MA in Languages and Cultures of Asia and his PhD from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA in 2000 and 2004 respectively. He is a fiction writer, a critic and a social activist.)

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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