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Wevas, large and small

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The Dry Zone is my favourite place in Sri Lanka and, I dare add, in the whole wide world. The coasts with the restless or restful sea dashing or serenely washing the sands; the cool of the central hills with their brilliant greens and splashes of colour; even the yellow sands dotted by tall palmyrah palms cannot beat the bright sparkle of early morning in the Dry Zone nor the soft, faintly purple dusk followed by the brilliance of masses of pinpoints of light in the darkening sky; soon to be followed by a huge moon shedding silver. It’s an entirely different air one breathes, and if in one of the ancient cities, or in sight of the rising dagobas and spreading bo trees, the spirit is uplifted and one feels proud to be Sri Lankan.

Of these favourite places, I most love to be near are the wewas – some of them minor seas, others whose boundaries can be discerned and a few which are no more than large ponds, covered with lotus. It is exhilarating to drive or walk along a wewa bund. Just as the wide expanse of softy waved water fascinates, so does the luscious green vegetation on the other side.

I know how, where, when and by whom this love for wewas was bred in me: around age 10 when the brother just older than me and I holidayed with my eldest brother – the Divisional Revenue Officer of Demala Hath Pattu, a Kandyan District. He lived and had his office in Anamaduwa. There was a large wewa on one edge of the very small township of a couple of ‘kades’ and a kerosene shed. We never bathed there; too public, So it was a trudge in the evenings through forest to a small, dark wewa. The initial tentative steps in the water were tremulous and fearful since no bottom was seen. But with two brothers and one strong Haramanis to rush to the rescue, I was soon completely aquatic.

This bathing wewa among the trees and bushes must have been a ‘huluwewa’ or ‘kuluwewa’. I came across the name in a recent newspaper article, but I did not note the name, hence the doubt about it. These small reservoirs tucked in the forests were constructed in ancient times for the use of man and beast thanks to the consideration of our ancient kings for remote villagers and animals of the jungle, while also constructing marvels of irrigation technology.

Input from history

Sir Henry Parker, English engineer who worked in Ceylon in the mid 19th century when the British ruled us, studied the wewas and the marvels of our ancient irrigation system, leaving us much know-how. He said as one whose duties permitted him to gain an intimate acquaintance with the ancient works: “I have never concealed my admiration of the engineering knowledge of the designers of the great irrigation schemes of Ceylon and the skills with which they constructed the works.”

According to him the origin of the wewa was in the Euphrates civilization from where it came to India and then to Ceylon with the Aryans. This is also supposedly in line with the writings of the Mahawamsa. However he commends as a special feat the construction genius of the Sinhalese in the formation of all reservoirs with embankments much higher than those of simple village tanks; great earthen bunds, often some miles in length across many valleys thus intercepting the flow of streams and storing water during the rainy seasons, forming immense sheets of water in reservoirs.

Most of our great kings and leaders (D S Senanayake) are remembered for the gifts of wewas constructed in their day and under their patronage comparable to the patronage they gave Buddhism. “It was the wewa that sustained cultivation which produced enough food for everyone and a healthy population. Some kings have been deified for building wewas, and legend has it that the spirits of others still protect the wewas and anicuts they caused to be built. However it is sad that the wewa civilization degenerated with the foreign conquests and abandonment of the ancient kingdoms.”

There was talk of the revival of ancient wewas but that was not to be. Rather we recently saw the utter sacrilege (I call it this) of some crazy persons constructing jogging paths along the most venerated and largest of ancient wewas – the Polonnaruwa Parakrama Samudra (12th Century), Kala Wewa near Anuradhapua built by King Datusena in 307 BC; the scene of Kassyapa’s crime of patricide. Perhaps the Kantalai Wewa was also targetted by these vandals who definitely endanger the earth bunds with their bulldozers. The bunds as they are can very well serve as jogging paths – so few vehicles use them, even the roads of the ancient cities. So why construct jogging paths?

Wewa and dagaba

Kings who got wewas constructed, paying workmen in cash or kind (unlike pyramid building) always built a temple with dagoba close by or on the wewa bund itself. This may have been to propitiate spirits of devathavas whose territory was intruded upon. And for the protection of the wewa itself. A historian I consulted conveyed interesting information, which he had gathered from a research paper of one of his students. He said that the larger wewas were constructed and definite areas earmarked and separated (perhaps by underwater piles of small rocks or whatever) so that no contamination occurred to the water for temple use – no intrusion was permitted to this demarcated area. Next, parts were set aside for villagers’ use and here again separated for drinking and bathing and washing of clothes. Animals, the elephant particularly and farm cattle, were catered to in an entirely different section of the wewa. To enforce this separation and guard the wewa, a man was appointed by the king, residing in the temple or within its premises.

A tale of mystery founded

on a necessity

The most interesting facet was that once a very handsome worker was in a wewa construction team. Women of the village were fascinated, nay hypnotized by him, according to the tale. He was thus named Kalu Kumaraya. (May have been a darky Romeo! Sinhalese of course but dark skinned). When he died or migrated to build another wewa, his spirit was said to haunt the wewa bund. A convenient tall tale grabbed at because of the belief that women are unclean during their monthly periods and so the discomfort and consternation caused by supposing they came to the wewa of an evening to wash soiled clothes. (No disposables then!!). To prevent such, the warning floated around that Kalu Kumaraya’s ghost roamed around at evening beside wewas to capture women he fancied. No details given, none from the historian or his student as to what the consequent fate of the captured was – death or a happy living ever after.

Well, the name of the night ghost continued and I have heard it along with Mohini, a lovely lithesome lass who persistently visits young handsome men who live alone. Maybe another pragmatic myth to discourage bachelorhood and promote marriage!

Personal fascination

My fascination with wewas will never dim though travel is much restricted now and age catches up. Remembered are family picnic lunches on wewa bunds and once napping on a mat with strong Tissa Wewa winds blowing, to get up enervated. A special happening is sitting on the Nuwara Wewa bund near the old rest thouse, now extended and refurbished, to gaze at the distant Mihintale dagoba, soaking in the ambience of sanctity and complete peace. Clearly recalled is an evening bath with husband and son at the edge of the Senanayake Samudra with elephants close on the opposite side. Very recently staying over with six nieces and nephews at the old rest house now named The Lake House, with its dining area jutting into the Parakrama Samudra.

I end with the oft quoted words of wisdom attributed to Parakrama Bahu the Great (1123-1186). “Let not even a drop of water that comes from the rain flow into the ocean without being made useful to man.”

More current from French naval officer, ocean explorer and co-inventor of the Aqua Lung – Jacques-Yves Cousteau: “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”



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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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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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