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Midweek Review

Vira Alakeshvara and Zheng He:



More basic factsax

By Sena Thoradeniya

Prof. Sasanka Perera’s (SS) essay titled “Vira Alakeshvara’s Plight: Signals from the Past” in the Midweek Review in The Island of 28 April 2021, invites interest owing to its political overtones. The readers, historians, researchers and others concerned are inundated with details of Zheng He’s Seven Voyages or Ming Treasure Voyages, Zheng He’s biography, Ming ship building project hitherto unknown in world history and creation of a massive fleet, goals and objectives of the said voyages and their consequences. In all these writings Zhen He’s visit to Sri Lanka, capture of Alakeshvara and the erection of the trilingual inscription by Zhen He in Galle in 1409 A.D. are adequately treated. Why a sudden cry about Vira Alakeshvara? Why wave warning ‘signals” picked “from the past” when anti-China lobby in Sri Lanka and its foreign allies are waging an unrelenting campaign against the Belt and Road Initiative, Colombo Port City and lately against China’s Sinopharm vaccine? Against this backdrop it is important to examine whether the Ming Voyages had expansionist and colonial designs to conquer, subjugate, colonise and plunder the countries in the Indian Ocean as Western colonialists who later dominated the oceans.

It is true that Vira Alakeshvara’s “plight at the hands of the Chinese” (his capture, taking him to China as a prisoner, pardoning him and sending him back to Sri Lanka) was not adequately documented in Sinhala historical/literary works such as “Rajavvaliya“, “Alakeshvara Yuddhaya” or “Saddharma Ratnakaraya“. Why did this happen? Is it because “national defeats are hardly a part of public national memory” as SS alludes? Do we forget or “consciously erase” “moments of shame”? Don’t we commemorate the annexation of the Kandyan Kingdom by the British in 1815, the most “shameful moment” in the annals of our history? Don’t we commemorate the freedom struggles in 1818 and 1848 respectively although they were ruthlessly suppressed by the British colonialists? The list is too long. Don’t the Communists all over the world commemorate the Paris Commune of 1870 although it did not last for more than four months? Don’t the Western powers still celebrate Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916 though it brought disaster to the allies. The day ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) landed in Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey is a public holiday in both countries (ANZAC Day).

Geiger in his translation of Mahavamsa says, “our chronicle makes short work of the undoubtedly eminent personality of this man” (Alakeshvara). Although “Nikaya Sangrahaya” gives a detailed account of Alakeshvara’s military exploits and his service to Buddha Sasana it is silent about his encounter with the Chinese. The account given in the “Rajavaliya” was most confusing and sequentially incorrect. Accordingly, it was a certain Wijayabhahu along with his four younger brothers taken to China as a captive. “Alakeshvara Yuddhaya” does not mention the name of the ruler who was taken to China as a prisoner. Strangely, these two sources refer to the advent of Vira Alakeshvara and his military exploits at a time when there was anarchy in the country soon after the King was taken to China as a prisoner. This was followed by Alakeshvara’s hunt for a young prince, according to the chronicler the son of the captured king, who later crowned as Parakramabahu VI. “Rajavaliya” says the Chinese troops had “deceived the King promising him tributes”. The King, for his part had “done some foolish things”. “Saddharma Ratnakaraya” clearly states that it was Alakeshvara of Raigama who was taken to China (“Cheena mayamata asuwa”). But the same source says this happened when he had returned to Lanka from his voluntary domicile and ruled for twelve more years.

The late Prof. A.V. Suraweera in the Introduction in his Critical Edition of “Rajavaliya (1976/1997) solves this “historical jigsaw puzzle” with the help of sources such as Diago do Couto. We should forgive the author of “Rajavaliya” as he had not accounted for several centuries of history from the downfall of the Dambadeniya kingdom up to the ascendency of Parakramabahu VI in Kotte. It is also evident that later writers copying sometimes in verbatim what was written by their predecessors. Scholars such as E.W. Perera, Simon de Silva, H.W. Codrington, John M. Senaviratne, Senerath Paranavitana and Lorna Devaraja shed more light on this most confusing episode of Sri Lanka’s history. To this list, we have to add the works of Edward L. Dreyer (“Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty 1405-1433”), Louise Levathes (“When China Ruled the Seas- The Travel Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433), J. V. G. Mills (“The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores” translated from the Chinese texts, which remain the best scholarly work) and of many others. Records of the Chinese Royal Court of the day and eye witness accounts of those who participated in these voyages now in translation in English provide a detailed description about the “plight “of Alakeshvara.

Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe, Consultant Paediatrician and Clinical Allergist, an investigative historian in his huge volume titled “Lak Ithihasayen Wasan Woo Cheena Meheyuma” (The Chinese Mission Hidden in the Sands of Time), published in 2014, containing 31 chapters with end notes and appendices, traces the trade between Sri Lanka and China in the 15 th century, Zheng-He’s seven voyages and their objectives, rise of Vira Alakeshvara, how Vira Alakeshvara challenged such a powerful personality like Zheng He, capture of Vira Alakeshvara by the Chinese, advent of Parakrama Bahu VI and the prosperity during his reign, and eye witness accounts of Ma-Huan and Fai-Shin who accompanied Zheng He in his voyages. So the” plight” of Alakeshvara is not “forgotten or consciously erased” and it still echoes in our “heroic discourse”. As Louise Levathes who interviewed the contemporary descendants of Zhen family, Dr. Amarasinghe interviews descendants of Parakramabahu VI, who now live in Taiwan whose forefathers have come to China in 1459 A.D. Dr. Amarasinghe says that according to The Ming Shi-lu Records (The Veritable Records in the Ming Dynasty) an envoy of Parakramabahu VI had visited the Ming Royal Court in 1459 A.D. The author assumes that this royal envoy who made China his home was Parakramabahu’s third adopted son. It is amazing that medical doctors such as Ajith Amarasinghe and a few others have ventured into history when there is a dearth of professional historians in Sri Lanka now. Incidentally Dr. Amarasinghe is the author of the book “Finding Sinhabahu” (2019), an analysis of the early history of Sri Lanka documented in ancient chronicles.

Most writers consider Zheng He as a mariner, explorer and a diplomat in addition to a fleet admiral. He was skilled in the art of war, strategy and diplomacy. His main activity was exploration. In his friendly visits he visited Royal Courts building new relations and expanding existing relations with other nations on behalf of the Ming Emperor. In every country, Zheng He landed, he presented messages of goodwill and gifts to local rulers such as gold, silver, fine Ming porcelain and silk; invited the local rulers to visit the Royal Court of Emperor Yongle. He brought back letters, riches and gifts from local rulers and foreign ambassadors. This has been described as a tributary system but tributes usually were far less valuable than the gifts given by the Emperor. The Galle trilingual inscription shows the magnitude of offerings made to local religious institutions. In his subsequent voyages he accompanied the envoys who came to China to their respective countries.

Some opine that they were involved in a succession struggle in Sri Lanka and Parakramabahu VI was installed by Zheng He with the concurrence of the Sri Lankan envoys present at the Ming Court; but according to Sri Lankan sources Vidagama Maithreeya Thero was in the forefront in bringing Parakramabahu VI to the throne.

The most important purpose of these voyages was to open a Maritime Silk Road as Mongols were controlling the overland Silk Road across Central Asia. Ming Voyages were not designed to conquer or colonise foreign countries seeking territorial control. As a consequence, ports in the region were developed. It prevented invasion and provided protection to the Region. The troops used “limited” military force when they were threatened as in the case of Vira Alakeshvara and in defeating a pirate fleet in Sumatra: settled enmity between Ming China and Java. They established Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and invariably it increased China’s role in Indian Ocean trade.

It was recorded that Vira Alakeshvara was hostile (engaged in piracy) to the Chinese in their first voyage at Beruwala harbour in 1405 A.D. But Zheng He had decided to leave Sri Lanka for other destinations without confronting Alakeshvara. Alakeshvara had commanded an army consisting of 50,000 troops as against 30,000 troops of Zhen He. Confrontation against Alakeshvara and his capture with his family and principal officials took place during the third Ming voyage in 1411 A.D. Strategically, this happened in Zheng He’s outward journey. The battle between two topmost military strategists of the day had been recorded in minute detail. Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe says that this was the first occasion in Sri Lanka that gunpowder was used in military armaments.

Did this confrontation happen due to business rivalry? The late Professor Ananda Kulasuriya has pointed out how wealth acquired in trade helped certain lineages like that of Alagakkonara (Alakeshvara) to gain access to political power. It should be recalled that Jayapala of Salawatha (Salawatha Jayapala Methi), the Prime Minister of King Parakramabahu VI who patronised the author of “Guththila Kavyaya” was a merchant. Dr. Amarasinghe points out quoting Chinese sources that Jayapala Methi, who visited China as an envoy died in China.

World historians today show that Chinese ships could have ruled the Indian Ocean and far beyond for many more years, had not the Ming Voyages been abruptly halted. (We do not intend to discuss the reasons for the suspension of these voyages.) They could have definitely checked the Portuguese incursions in the Indian Ocean. The history of Sri Lanka would have taken a different course. If so, how different Sri Lanka would have been?

China was conquered by the mighty Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan––something Genghis Khan had failed to achieve. It is well known that the Great Wall of China was built to keep northern invaders out. From the Opium War to total liberation in 1949 China fought against imperialism. It waged a protracted war of resistance against Japanese imperialism during the period 1937-1945. China did not invade Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macao although they were its legitimate territories.

Deng Xiaoping the architect of modern China, in his Address at the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on April 10, 1974 said, “China is a socialist country and a developing country as well, China belongs to the Third World …. China is not a superpower, nor will she ever seek to be one …. If one-day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too plays the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bulling, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as a social-imperialist, expose it, oppose it, and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.” These words expressed at the behest of Chairman Mao are still valid in shaping China’s foreign relations. This is the signal of the present.

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Midweek Review

Rajiva Wijesinhas’s ‘Exploring India’



Reviewed by Goolbai Gunasekara

When a professor, a novelist, a writer, a politician, an educator, an international speaker, a teacher, a former university Vice Chancellor and a respected academic writes a book on travel it jumps, perforce, onto the “must read” list for all serious readers. Add to the above that he is much in demand as a judge at Literary Competitions, both in Sri Lanka and the UK, and when one tops it all by mentioning that he is also a Gratiaen Prize Winner, one realies that here is a Modern Day Renaissance Man (His various careers are naturally not in given order of importance).

Rajiva Wijesinha dates his long love affair with India to his boyhood when he accompanied his mother, the well-known Girl Guide Commissioner, Muktha Wijesinha, to Madras when she was on Girl Guide business. Arriving in modern Chennai, he took off by himself on a tour in which no other teen-aged schoolboy would be even remotely interested. That Rajiva was considered a child prodigy was accepted at the time, but his intellectual curiosity exceeded all normalcy and has led him down unusual avenues of exploration for the next 50 years of his life.

With having an Indian father, who was himself an academic, I thought I was pretty high up on the ‘know India’ landscape scale, but after reading ‘Exploring India’ I realize I have barely scratched the surface of understanding the scope of that vast and intriguing country. India’s ruins and architectural marvels and many that are off the beaten track are revealed with a love and understanding of that great sub-continent’s history.

Punctuated by excellent photographs taken through the years of his travels, fascinating descriptions of cities, palaces, forts, temples and varied historical sites make “Exploring India’ difficult to put down.

Parts one and two describe his travels as a student and a teacher along with educational and academic perspectives. Parts four, five and six comprise intensive sightseeing of both old and new India. While this book is mainly about India, Rajiva takes in his tours of the other SAARC countries in section seven of this comprehensively written book. Such an undertaking would have been impossible had not Rajiva kept detailed diaries all his life. He was preparing to write this book from his teen years, perhaps!

Among the plethora of pictures I found several which were of particular interest. The Fort of Jhansi, for instance, recalls an early heroine of mine (and of many Asian women). Pictures of Pakistan were particularly poignant as I had schooled in Karachi while it was still ‘Undivided India’ and had visited beautiful Lahore frequently as modern Pakistan was my family’s home in Sind before British haste messed up the Partition of India. Also in Lahore are tombs and works undertaken by Nur Jehan (another heroine) the famously manipulative and beautiful wife of Jahangir.

What is noteworthy about all these photographs is that they do not contain only the much pictured and widely reproduced tourist pictures. Little known aspects and lesser known attractions of India dot its pages. For example, Babur’s tomb in Kabul, the minarets of Lahore, monks at play in Bhutan, schoolboys in Thimpu wearing uniforms of sartorial elegance, the island temple of Pokhara in Nepal, etchings in the palace of Bikaner et al. All these go to enthrall a reader.

Buddhists will be particularly interested in one fact of which most of them are ignorant . While exploring the higher reaches of areas round Harrapa and Taxila, Rajiva heard of tribes that still practice Buddhism though he did not actually get to meet them. There he found wondrous examples of Gandhara Art. From Peshawar he walked up a hill to the monastery of Takht –i-Bahi, 2000 years old! In the area, high up in the Karakorum range, lies a fabulous engraving of the Buddha out of rugged rock.

The chapters are interspersed with well-known names, thanks to Rajiva’s many academic connections and also his contemporaries at Oxford. In Karachi he asked a gentleman why the men of Pakistan disapproved of Benazir Bhutto and was told that they felt diminished at being ruled by a women. Also they had heard that she went to nightclubs in England! Rajiva thought it prudent to remain silent about the fact that he had himself taken her to a nightclub in their Oxford days!

Rajiva’s accommodations in India causes the reader considerable amusement. As an inveterate traveler he often went along on whims of the moment without making proper bookings. This led him to sharing a berth on a train with an old man and his grandson and then in stark contrast to having Nirmali Hettiaratchi as a fellow guest at the posh Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu. He has had dinners with our High Commissioners in India like Sudarshan Seneviratne and Austin Fernando who must have been considerably bemused by the sweep of Rajiva’s fascination and encompassing knowledge of India. He has enjoyed stays with Oxford friends at Bishop’s Palaces and pleasantly relaxed teas in Karachi with Benazir Bhutto, his old friend from Oxford, who remembered his penchant for chocolate cake.

The educator in Rajiva is never quiescent. It surfaces all the time and his visits to India were often for literary and educational reasons. During the time he was a Member of Parliament, Rajiva was in in Delhi for an Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue being held at the India International Centre. Our High Commission arranged for discussions with Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, an old friend of Rajiva’s from her days as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. The discussions were on the sad state of English in our country while India’s standards were zooming up by the day. Other well-known participants in the discussions were Nihal Rodrigo, Sajith Premadasa and Harsha de Silva. Mrs. Rao was happy to provide him with all the necessary aid but the Government of Sri Lanka changed and the scheme was very unfortunately dropped.

There are too many names, too many incidents, too many pictures, too many amazing stories to relate in a short Review. So let me just say “READ the Book”. India is our closest neighbour. Let us get to know her every facet as best we can. Rajiva Wijesinha’s “Exploring India” will do just that for the reader.

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Midweek Review

Making vocational training an impressive choice



By Dr. Ajith Polwatte

Globally, a significant number of young persons choose vocational and technical training so as in Sri Lanka as the way for developing a livelihood for their life. At the same time, the Government and non-governmental organizations trying hard to increase the enrollments for such training using range of methods, including media and other promotional programmes. This article presents some of the important things which the responsible agencies can adopt to make vocational training an impressive choice for youngsters as well as adults for them to be able to develop a livelihood.

Vocational training is referred to as training of persons for specific occupations in the industry. In Sri Lanka, with the inception of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) system, the vocational training system has improved significantly nevertheless, due to number of reasons, still it is not impressive enough to be an alternative choice for youngsters. They still view vocational training as “inferior” product to other educational choices thus as said before, responsible agencies in vocational training sector are compelled to spend resources to promote vocational training.

There are several things which would help making vocational training a good choice for young persons. If a vocational training system lacks the factors discuss in this article, people say the system is inferior thus cannot be trusted as a pathway for life success. Let us discuss those factors which would determine choosing a vocational training program a better choice as discussed below.

Demand-driven courses

* Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

* Use of modern technology in teaching

* Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

* Qualified, competent and committed Teacher / Trainers

* Attractive learning environment

* Merit-based enrollment

* Opportunities for extra-curricula activities


Demand-driven Courses

The term demand-driven is a bit familiar term in vocational training system of Sri Lanka (especially after inception of NVQ system) however, those who involve in training management need to understand the real meaning of the term. The “demands” are the work requirements or the expectations of the employers in the industry. In other words, it is what the work setup expects from the workers to do. The workers are supposed to fulfil those expectations thus the training centres need to train own trainees in such a way that they would be able to fulfil those expectations. Then such courses are titled as “demand-driven” courses.

Due to internal as well as external pressure factors, not all courses run by training centres are demand-driven. Internal factors include staff issues, available equipment and buildings, etc., whereas external factors include needs of the general public, opinions of influential persons, etc., which are referred to as “social demands”. Especially, the public sector training centres tend to deliver “social demand-driven courses” due to the said pressure factors. Social-demand driven courses not always ensure employment but real industry-demand driven courses ensure employment within or outside of the country. The outcome of vocational training should be a gainful employment and earnings thereof thus when youngsters making choices one of the key determinants would be the assurance of an employment upon completion of training. Designing of courses thus shall be based on industry needs rather than social needs. Therefore, it is better making all the vocational training courses “industry-demand-driven” towards the march for a better vocational training system.


Training centres with right number of courses and students to reflect good image

There is a proverb called “small is beautiful”. Though there is a perceived truth behind this proverb, the vocational training setup has exceptions. When a training centre provides 1-2 courses, there would be no room for social interaction thus the centre becomes an unattractive and monotonous place for the trainees. Also, the unit cost of training increases as few numbers of trainees are trained. Whereas if a centre is able to provide around 10 courses instead of few courses it can get “economies of scale” thus unit cost of a trainee decreases. As large numbers of trainees are trained, social interaction increases which makes the training centre a livable and attractive place to general public. Most people love to be part of “big places” than “small places”. Big places mostly have opportunities for extra curricula activities than small places which makes a significant impact to people’s minds in making choices. Therefore, those responsible for vocational training better start thinking about “big centres” than smaller centres for the way towards a better training system. On the other hand, school leavers, for number of years in schools, used to be in a spacious environment with room for extra-curricular activities admire and expect similar environment in vocational training centres as well.


Use of modern technology in teaching

Use of face-to-face and “chalk’n talk” method of teaching in vocational training is no longer an attractive method for youth of 21st century. Modern teaching is based on mix method of internet, audio and video, simulations etc. In vocational training, mostly it should be based on practical approach than classroom-based teaching approach. Successful application of competencies at work is the hallmark of vocational training. Practical abilities matter at work which are supported by related knowledge thus teaching methods need to be improved to make vocational training impressive for the youth. Scholars A. Michael and K. Marinos (2018) of CityUnity College / Cardiff Metropolitan University, Larnaca-Aradippou, Cyprus discusses the value of using a combine teaching methods by considering class-dynamics and students’ personal learning style with in-class activities supported by modern audio-visual means as a positive factor to be able to stimulate vocational centre students’ learning appetite. Thus it is necessary to innovate modern approaches to teaching at vocational training centres of our country.


Up to date technology with appropriate level of digitalization

In Sri Lanka vocational training setup, use of up to date technology and application of digital methods in training and assessments is at lower level compared with developed countries. In training, as said before, ICT and online methods with mix modes need to be adopted. In assessments, it takes place as formative and summative throughout the course duration. Formative assessment are done on continuous basis by the teachers and the summative assessments are done by the certification body when national certificates are issued. During both of these assessment methods, it is better if online assessment tools be used where applicable. For formative assessment, one example may be the use of “Blogs” where students discuss and talk around an issue on internet-based Blog which the teachers monitor and give marks which are considered for pass marks. Blogs can be made social-media compatible so that with less cost students can access such assessment tools with lots of interest. These kind of modern assessment methods add value to vocational training setup. Designing Question Banks (Q-Banks) for summative assessments and releasing part of the Q-Bank to common practice (using mobile phones) may energize students to learn with enthusiasm.


Qualified, competent and committed Teachers/Trainers

Teaching is considered to be a noble profession which demands capacity in terms of knowledge and dedication. Also being updated with new development is mostly matter for teachers as knowledge is accessible via internet in modern world. Those who join teaching profession due to the fact that there are no other jobs make teaching at vocational training setup very unattractive. It is better industry practitioners in relevant trades could be brought in to the training centres and if vocational teachers could be sent to industry for exposures which would definitely increase of the quality of vocational teachers. Subject matter training and training-method training matter equally to be a good teacher. Vocational teachers are the first party who interact with students thus good teachers make good vocational training centres. Providing at least once-a-year industry exposure would increase capacity of a teacher to be able to teach well in the centre.


Attractive learning environment

Quality of vocational training mostly determines by the quality of learning environment. Quality of learning environment makes mainly the teaching and use of machinery, equipment and tools in teaching. In Competency based Training (CBT) introduced with the inception of the NVQ system tried to create a learning environment similar to what is prevailed in the industry. Thus the CBT method has been able to make a difference in the vocational training setup nevertheless it is still argued that there is a mismatch of technology being used in the centre and that prevails in the industry.

Due to several constraints, training administrators find it difficult to update training centres with new equipment. Nevertheless it is a good idea to be in par with the industry in the quest towards a better and impressive training setup.


Merit-based enrollment

Enrollment of a vocational training centre is such an important activity where the centre brings “inputs” to make “outputs” at the end of a training course. If a centre selects wrong “inputs” obviously the centre ends up with wrong “outputs”. Therefore, at the enrollment, the centre needs to select the most suitable, capable, committed and creative set of students who would follow the course up to the end. Therefore, a merit-based enrollment scheme is necessary with selection tests and interviews being held to select the best set of students. Then the training centre would be able to give the industry a good output of skilled persons who can actually work successfully.


Opportunities for extra-curricular activities

One of the things which make a good vocational training centre is the availability of room and space for extra-curricular activities i.e leisure sports, aesthetic activities, leadership and team building activities, literature, drama and arts activities etc. Training centre need to be large enough in terms of trainees to be able to build teams for these activities. Such social activities make training-life of students enjoyable which may have positive impact for proper learning at the centre. Extra-curricular activities inculcate soft-skills among trainees and training administrators better develop a system to recognize those soft skills for final pass marks.

The factors discussed above and the other positive things would contribute in different magnitude towards making vocational training centres impressive for the youth as well as for adults which encourage them to join vocational training centres. With these attributes in effect, people tend to see vocational training an impressive alternative pathway to learn vocations for life success.



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Midweek Review




By Lynn Ockersz


Once again, the growing multiverse is ablaze with light,

As night withdraws in a slow diffusing dance,

Leaving on all things on earth a sublime shine,

And the reminder comes,

That light is the essence of life,

Along with the hope that with every dawn,

Comes a whole new lease of life,

For the linking of hands among humankind,

And for marching towards a great new awakening for all,

Leaving none behind in a backward slide,

While every day becomes a time for a new resolve,

To bring big sparring minds to act peacefully as one,

And for putting behind the negative grasp of night,

That makes the spirit a lumbering carrier,

Of the cumbersome luggage of the past.



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