World of Prasanna Vithanage
By Uditha Devapriya
The films of Prasanna Vithanage come back to you long after you’ve seen them. They move you, chasten you, sometimes make you angry, and frequently make you question life. The characters in them are usually ordinary people: It’s the situations they are placed in that are extraordinary. As with the crusader in The Seventh Seal and the priest in Diary of a Country Priest, they encounter a moral dilemma that ends up testing their very souls.
Vithanage’s characters often fail these tests, though sometimes they win. Yet the payoff in these films comes from seeing not how they win or lose, but from how the world at large responds to their moral dilemmas. In Anantha Rathriya, to give just one example, Suvisal ends his friendships, even with the girl he intended to marry. He does so not just because he wants redemption for the sin of violating his servant, but also because everyone disagrees with his resolve to go out into the open and seek forgiveness.
Nimmi Harasamaga’s character in Ira Mediyama also refuses to believe official accounts about her husband. Unlike the old man in Purahanda Kaluwara, the journey she undertakes to find out what happened to him is both physical and metaphoric. Suvisal informs us at the very beginning of Anantha Rathriya that he is going back to the past: Again, both physically and metaphorically. This is the fate that typically awaits Vithanage’s protagonists: They have to go back to their pasts to confront their sins. For Suvisal, the attempt is a failure; for the old man in Purahanda Kaluwara, it is not; for Nimmi Harasgama, it goes both ways.
But any hopes he may have had about reconciling with that servant, dissipates when she walks away from him. Vithanage does not give us a heroic ending. The simple truth is that his world has no room for heroes; as Suvisal’s girlfriend tells him, he wants to confess what he did not because of any remorse for his crime, but because of his desire to free himself from the memory of his rape. Defiant and angry, she tells him that he can never escape his past. To this Suvisal says nothing; he merely frowns at her.
Such dilemmas seem so convincing not because of the people who wind up facing them, but because of their impact on them. Not until the very last quarter of Anantha Rathriya, for instance, does Suvisal realise the full weight of his crime. When he does, he tries to release himself from the memory of his sin. The protagonist in Purahanda Kaluwara is desperate to know what happened to his son; like Nita Fernando’s Baba Nona from Paangshu, he refuses to believe the official record. His catharsis is considerably different from Suvisal’s: He goes to a water hole and stares at a group of children frolicking in a lake nearby. Blind and a little hard of hearing, he nevertheless smiles: Perhaps at the children, but more likely at having confirmed his suspicions, and at the hope that his son may be alive.
Yet the specificity of these locations belies a universality that transcends time and space. Hence Anantha Rathriya, though taking place during the second JVP insurrection, feels and looks contemporary. There is hardly any sense of time or place in Purahanda Kaluwara: The only object that offers a clue is the Grama Niladhari’s motorbike. Even then we are not sure when or where the story is taking place: The war seems a distant reality, its impact felt in the village only through the death of Vannihamy’s soldier-son.
At one level, Vithanage’s stories play out in specific locations: A drought-ridden village in the North-Central Province in Purahanda Kaluwara; Batticaloa and Colombo in Ira Madiyama; Bogawantalawa in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. Vithanage frequently turns hills and mountains into metaphors; in his debut, Sisila Gini Gani, the mists and mountains form a crucial part of the story, and play a large part in the tragedy it centres on.
The very first shot of Anantha Rathriya shows us a misty hilltop. Interposed with the sound of beating drums, it ominously foretells what is to come. In roughly the same vein, the coldness of the romance in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, between the pawnbroker and his wife, is echoed in the coldness of their surroundings. From misty mountains, Vithanage turns to sun-baked expanses as well, particularly in Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama. He works with contrasts of atmosphere and weather: Misty or sun-baked, these places evoke the tensions of his characters, situating them in their surroundings.
In Ira Madiyama, Colombo and the Eastern Province conjure two different worlds.
In Akasa Kusum, this rift turns inward: Sandya Kumari loses her sense of time as she retreats to the past, fantasising about her stardom after a scandal puts her into the spotlight. Like Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, Malini Fonseka epitomises Sandya’s schizoid imaginings. When all romantic illusions are shattered in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, similarly, the woman retreats to her fantasies. Betrayed by her husband’s secrets, she kills herself.
Curiously enough, in only two instances do these characters choose death or are pushed into it: The boy in Sisila Gini Gani and the woman in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. The first death sets in motion the events of the film, while the second ends it. Vithanage tries to avoid this fate for his characters as much as he can. Thus, even on the verge of suicide, Nita Fernando retreats to a clandestine affair from the past in Pawuru Walalu. Like Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, she is saved by the kindness of strangers.
The tension between social reality and moral complexity is what determines the course of these stories. Vithanage’s characters resolve this tension in different ways: Most of them push themselves into the thick of things, while others try as much as they can to avoid them. Suvisal, for instance, takes up the advice his friend, a lawyer, gives him, and refrains from revealing himself. His prospects are too dear for him to lose.
Not until much later do we realise what he has staked until now: His wealth, his career, and his marriage. When he lets go, everyone he knows leaves him. That is what makes the final scene so searing, yet so fitting: Despite everything he gave up for the woman he raped, nothing can or will wash away the crime or his guilt. Like the hero (or antihero) of Tolstoy’s Resurrection on whom Suvisal’s character is based, he does everything, not for the love of this woman, but to atone himself. In Tolstoy’s novel the protagonist’s pursuit of atonement turns our attention to the sordid conditions of Tsarist Russia’s prisons and penal colonies. In Vithanage’s film, it turns the focus inward, to Suvisal’s conscience.
Enveloped by their desires, these characters evoke both pity and loathing. This is a quality few Sinhala films, among them those of Lester James and Sumitra Peries, possess; almost every work of Vithanage contains it. At once culturally specific and broadly humanist, they enrapture us in ways none of his contemporaries have been able to match.
The concept of sin and atonement looms large in Vithanage’s world. That has a great deal to do with his childhood and teenage experiences; as he recounted to the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, while he grew up in a predominantly Buddhist and Sinhala atmosphere in Panadura, his neighbours happened to be Catholic. Waking up to the sound of hymns and sermons, he would invariably imbibe their world.
Later on, when he became enamoured of the cinema while still at school, he would return home, take a train back to Colombo, and make the acquaintance of Father Ernest Poruthota. There is thus something distinctly Catholic about his work, not just in the religious sense, but in the secular too: The catholicity of a perceptive and deeply sensitive artist.
Somewhere between Anantha Rathriya and Akasa Kusum, I grew up. These were formative years for Sri Lankan cinema. Difficult years, too: In the midst of a never-ending conflict, it almost went down under. Looking back, I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with the trajectory of our cinema during the last decade of the war. Many daring films have come out, as have many daring directors. Yet not a few of them seem content in recycling the same motifs and themes, the same narratives and stereotypes, to the point of tedium.
My fascination with Prasanna Vithanage’s oeuvre, in that sense, stems from a recognition of the fact that more than any of his peers, he has stuck to his guns and given us some highly original films. Not all of them can claim to be as good as his best, and yet, the best he’s given us so far convinces me that he’s the best our cinema has got. With another highly ambitious project, a tragic romance set in the twilight of the Kandyan kingdom, yet to come, I can only hope that he continues giving us more of the best, and more of the same.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Box of Delights – II
Seeing through testing times and future
Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,
University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.
Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.
But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.
But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.’
As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.’
Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce
‘Red the story …
Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.
So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys
She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.
“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”
“Monkey usually do that’
And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.
Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.
I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.
Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.
Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.
As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.
Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.
But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.
This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.
Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.
To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.
This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.
‘A Jaffna-man, an eminent surgeon with an European reputation’
180th Birth Anniversary of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood
March 13, 2023 marks the 180th Birth Anniversary of the late Hon. Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood, MLC, MD, MRCP, MRCS. Born on March 13, 1843 in Alaveddy, a small agricultural town in Jaffna; was the second of four children born to Elisha and Ms. Jane Backup, based on Alaveddy Church Records in the custody of Rt. Rev. Dr. Velupillai Pathmathayalan, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), formerly the American Ceylon Mission. Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood died on March 27, 1909 at the ‘Emms’, Horton Place, Colombo 7.
His father, Elisha born Sinnatambi on April 06, 1820, was one of six children born to a Saivite Hindu, Perumalpillai who migrated from Karaikal, South India to Sri Lanka and married a land-owner’s daughter Ms. Vairavi of Alaveddy. He was baptised ‘Elisha Rockwood’ in 1831 in Tellipallai and was given US $ 200 to complete his education at the Batticotta Seminary, known today as the Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, by the American Congregational Movement, which later became known as the American Ceylon Mission. Elisha completed his education and taught mathematics at the same school. He later joined the Customs Department as a Sub-Collector.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood married Ms. Salome Muthamma Muttucumaru, daughter of Mr. Adam Cathiravel Muttucumaru on November 1, 1871. Mrs. W. G. Rockwood was born in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District on March 15, 1857 and died at “Pembroke,” Horton Place, Colombo 7 on Saturday, August 29, 1925.
Thus born to humble beginnings, ‘Dr. W. G. Rockwood was a most skilful and distinguished physician and had by rare ability proved himself ‘the greatest surgeon in the East. His reputation was not confined to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or the adjacent continent, but had extended far beyond the seas to Great Britain, where he won the esteem of such eminent members of the medical profession as Dr. Marcus Beck, Dr. Charles Stoiiham, Dr. J. Bland Sutton. Sir Thomas Barlow, Lord Lister, and Sir Frederick Treves’. Dr. Rockwood was also president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in 1851 aged 08 years, had his early education at the Vembadi Boys’ School and later at Central College, Jaffna, which was founded by the Methodist Missionaries. In 1855, aged 12 years, he went with his father to Batticaloa and joined Central College, Batticaloa which was also run by the Wesleyan Mission.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1862 was in the last year of his teens, when a maternal uncle, Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai told him to come to Madras University for a “good education.” Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai died on March 19, 1900 at the “Emm’s,” Regent Street, Colombo 7.
In January 1866, aged 23 years, Dr. W. G. Rockwood passed the Calcutta University Matriculation Examination in Madras and applied for the arts course. His father prevailed on young Rockwood to follow medicine which he did with many misgiving and much reluctance. His disinclination soon disappeared for Rockwood took to anatomy with such interest. In July 1866, he joined the Madras Medical College and received the scholarship of Rs.20 allowed for those who pass the London matriculation Examination.
‘On his obtaining the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Madras, a member of the Board of examiners paid him the following rare compliment, “I have lately had, on behalf of the Madras University to examine a man of the name of Rockwood from Ceylon, for the Degree of Doctor of Medicine, and certainly was quite unprepared to meet a candidate for medical honours of this country so remarkably proficient. I fully believe that in any English or Scotch University he would have carried the highest honours” ’. (Source: Jaffna Catholic Guardian April 03, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood while he was serving in Puttalam skilfully handled an outbreak of cholera and because of his experience in handling it, he was sent to Jaffna in1868 to control the outbreak of cholera. He returned to Puttalam and then was transferred to Hambantota (June 1875) and later to Gampola (1878). It was while he was in Gampola that the vacancy for the post of Surgeon in the Medical Department of the General Hospital in Colombo arose.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1878 aged 35 years held the post of Principal Surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for a period of 20 years. He was the sole surgeon of the hospital and at the same time he was Lecturer in Clinical Systematic and Operative Surgery in the Ceylon Medical College. Besides this what leisure he could snatch from his official duties was given up to the demands of a large and growing practice.
He travelled to London in 1884 when he was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) and Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood retired from active service from the Medical Department after 31 years on March 13, 1898 at the age of 55 years. Upon his retirement and in recognition of his long-standing service he was immediately appointed Consultant Surgeon to the General Hospital in Colombo.
It is said of his authority on handling tropical diseases that there was an instance when a colour conscious Englishman who had an ailment was asked to consult Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood of Ceylon while on his way to Australia from England. The Englishman thinking from the name – Rockwood – was an Englishman made an appointment to see him at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo when the ship docked at the Colombo harbour.
On that day Dr. Rockwood was at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo waiting to see his patient. The patient was informed that Dr. Rockwood had arrived, came to the lobby and was pacing up and down the lobby impatiently when the management of the Hotel who were well acquainted with Dr. Rockwood had to draw his attention to the coloured man in the room. Seeing that Dr. Rockwood was coloured he had returned to his room. A year later the patient was back with his pride in his pocket to consult Dr. Rockwood.
Another story is related where a passenger ship had docked in the Port of Colombo and an SOS was sent out for a surgeon to attend to a German National. It turned out that the German National was the German Consul Freudenberg who was treated and cured of his ailment and later became a very close friend of the family. Dr. Rockwood was also physician to the Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway.
A combination of medicine and politics
The Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway appointed Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood to the Legislative Council representing the Tamil community for a period of five years from March 14, 1898 to March 12, 1903. Dr. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliyar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy who was the eldest brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who served as the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council for a single term. Governor Sir West Ridgeway in a private letter to Dr. Rockwood inviting him to join the Legislative Council as the Tamil representative said: ‘The Tamil community could think of no one who has earned the esteem and the admiration not of one community or of two, but of every community, of all men, of all races, as Dr. Rockwood’.
Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood was presented to His Majesty the King of England, Edward VII at St. James’ Palace on June 01, 1902 while he was serving as a Member of the Legislative Council. He was appointed to the Legislative Council for a second term on July 09, 1903. Due to continuing failing health, Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood in1906 laid off from all public activity.
The Legislative Council was the first Assembly set up under the Colebrook Reforms with 15 members in 1833 by the British under Governor Sir Fredrick North. There were two categories of members. Officials numbered nine and unofficial members numbered six. The official members were appointed directly by the Governor and their communities nominated the unofficial members. The six unofficial members comprised one each Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and three Europeans.
The Legislative Council was altered in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission and lasted until 1947. Ceylon gained Independence from the British on February 04, 1948. Ceylon changed her name to Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972 when she became a Republic. The second Constitution was enacted in 1972 when Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. Today we have the third Constitution enacted in 1978 when Hon. Junius Richard Jayewardene became the first Executive President under that Constitution.
‘Dr. Daniel Anthonisz, of Galle had demonstrated the advantage of breaking the monopoly of the legal profession over the unofficial seats in the Legislative Council. Dr. Rockwood’s tenure of the seat emphasised that advantage. Dr. Rockwood illustrated his preferences for his principles at the sacrifice of popularity when he proposed a motion in the Legislative Council on October 18, 1899, asking the salary of the judges of the Supreme Court to be raised high enough to make it possible to secure English barristers for the bench’.
On that occasion Dr. Rockwood said: ‘To have the certainty of even-handed justice is the greatest blessing a community can enjoy and the purity of that administration must be above suspicion. In a small place like Ceylon, where every man is known to every other man, it is necessary in the interests of the public that the Supreme Court Judges, who administer justice between man and man, must be men who have no local or permanent interests or connections. By, these remarks I do not mean to shut out local talent. Those who have established a reputation for efficiency and who have claims for meritorious service are possibly eligible for a higher post and these may be sent to other parts of the Empire where they have no personal interests to serve and no connections’. (Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader: Sunday, March 28, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood is described as one of Asia’s greatest surgeons who could operate with the use of both his hands (ambidextrous). He also promoted the choice of opium in the treatment of certain ailments. He was a member of the commission appointed by the then Governor of Ceylon to oversee the planning and construction of the Colombo-Chilaw railway line from Negombo. It was later extended to Puttalam. While serving on the commission he also suggested the construction of a railway line to Jaffna.
Six years after his death in 1915, Mrs. W. G. Rockwood donated Rs.20,000 to be utilised towards the construction of a 38 X 26 feet ‘Waiting Hall’ called ‘Rockwood Memorial Hall’ for patients who come to the General Hospital, Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for treatment. The foundation stone was laid in 1909 and the construction began in the same year. On April 16, 1912, ‘The Rockwood Hall’ was opened by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Edward McCallum (1907-1913). The plaque was unveiled in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English to mark the donation: ‘The Rockwood Memorial Hall erected to the memory of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood MD, MRCS, MRCP, Chief Surgeon of this hospital 1878 to 1898, Consulting Surgeon from 1898 until his death. Tamil Representative to Legislative Council from 1898 – 1905’. It is unfortunate that during the structural alterations made to the original building the three plaques and his photograph have been lost.
His character can be judged by his teaching. Once it is said that he rebuked a somewhat light-minded student and the latter, now an elderly man himself occupying a responsible position, remembers the rebuke. ‘Never make differences in your patients’, said Dr. Rockwood. ‘Every time a surgeon has a life depending upon his knife, it takes a fortnight off his own life, and the sense of responsibility is perhaps the greater when the man is a pauper than when he is a great and wealthy patient. The surgeon dare not take risks with the great man, for the world is watching him; but he fears still more to do so with the pauper, for then it is God who watches’.
He emphasised to his students that the surgeon must regard his treatise on anatomy as second only to the Bible. The words are characteristic of the man whose religion was always a predominant factor in his every thought and deed.
The ‘Rockwood Surgery Medal is awarded to the student who shows the greatest aptitude for surgery by the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna in memory of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood.
‘A dutiful son, a faithful husband, an affectionate father, a loyal friend, a skilful surgeon, a good man, not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.’ – Romans Ch 12; Vs 11-13
(Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader – Extraordinary Edition of Sunday, March 28, 1909).
(Excerpts from the book ‘From Williamstown to Vaddukoddai: The history of the Rockwood family’, published by the author William Sukumar Rockwood, MCPS, PgD. IHL, BA, JP, great grandson on August 21, 2011) -/end – 2280 words
LTTE writ on coral exploitation more effective than govt. orders
Tragedy and drama in the dry zone jungle
Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
(Continued from last week)
North of Thenaddi Bay and a little inland is the village of Kathiraveli. In 1975 Thilo discovered there a folk art not found elsewhere. He described this in an article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Lanka. For many years he was a Committee Member of that body. As recently as 2004 he wrote a sequel, which was not accepted for publication. Parts of it are reproduced here:
“In 1980 I contributed an illustrated article to the JRAS (New Series, Vol.XXV: 91) in which I described certain remarkable decorations in Kathiraveli, Eastern Province, on the outer walls of thatched mud-and-wattle houses, painted by women on the occasion of the Tamil New Year. The pigments used are lime and natural clays of different colours found in the village environment. The painting lasts about a year and is renewed before the next New Year.
“During the following decade I visited the village once or twice a year. Calamity soon befell the remote area in the form of the ethnic conflict. The village was occupied first by the army, the IPKF and finally the Tigers under whose control it still is. (at the time this note was written) It was, much of the time, in a war zone. My last visit had been in January 1992. By then the spirit of the villagers had been broken by untold tragedy.
“Only one house had still some basic decoration. Compounds were neglected and houses dilapidated, the people apathetic and subdued. Farming had become impossible. An aged couple whose neat and tidy homestead was a model for my paper had lost their only son who was taken to the army camp and never returned. Sadness and grief prevailed.
“In April 2003 I was able to pay a visit to Kathiraveli, although it is in an ‘uncleared’ area. After answering a few suspicious questions and establishing my bona fides, I was allowed to pass the LTTE checkpoint situated a little north of Mankerni. Up to that point the landscape had been devastated by the extensive and far-reaching destruction of all vegetation for security reasons.
“Thereafter I was passing through the familiar countryside which had hardly changed during so many decades, even centuries, in parts. The majestic trees are still standing along the road and on the coast. There are forests and a serene tranquility and seemingly timeless peace. Only here and there a jarring note: the memorial to fallen Tiger heroes, a large ‘military’ cemetery. new LTTE offices and installations with loafing youngsters around them. With considerable curiosity and apprehension I approached Kathiraveli.
“Nothing seemed changed. Soon we spotted the first painted house, rather simple but unmistakably in the traditional style. In all we found about a dozen such houses, each freshly painted, along the main roads, though generally there are fewer inhabited homesteads.
“Unfortunately ‘progress’ has reached Kathiraveli in the form of corrugated metal roofing sheets; two of the painted houses were covered with this material giving them a totally different and far less pleasing appearance than those with the cool and pleasant cadjan thatch.
“But the younger women had remembered the New Year tradition and had revived it in its pure, simple and natural form, some rather tentatively as if still trying to recall the old designs and motifs. The colours and basic patterns give these dwellings a clean, even festive and happy appearance.
“In December 2003 I was again in Kathiraveli, when I distributed nearly 100 colour photographs of decorated houses I had taken in 1977 and 78. They were intended to help strengthen the old tradition.
Otherwise the visit was a disappointment because in the short interval of eight months ‘development’ appears to have overtaken the village. There are glistening roofing sheets on old houses many of which have been replaced by stereotyped cement block constructions.
“For living comfort in this environment nothing can beat a well-constructed and maintained mud-and-wattle house generously covered with a thick and overhanging thatch of cadjan: cool during the hot season, dry and warm and cosy when the north-east monsoon is on.
“In this connection I might be permitted to touch upon another facet of personal contemporary history in this area. Not far away at Kayankerni on the coast I had for 30 years, a house, now a sad ruin. It was wrecked and the material looted in 1992. Even the well rings were dug up and carted away. For decades I had been fighting a mostly losing battle against the mudalalis who openly flouted the laws of the country by breaking and burning corals for lime. As a result erosion set in, the coast was altered and the protective reefs were destroyed, together with the trees and forests which provided the firewood.
“The process was aided and abetted by a lethargic and dishonest bureaucracy and a corrupt police force. Only once for a short few years was my campaign crowned with success when an energetic and honest GA at Batticaloa stopped the rapacious exploitation by ordering the police to destroy all the kilns in Passikudah, Kayankerni, Panichchankerni, and elsewhere in the district.
“When in 1990 the Tigers took over the area after the IPKF, they prohibited all coral breaking. The order was instantly obeyed by all, as non-compliance would have resulted in most dire consequences. Only ‘war widows’ were allowed to collect coral debris washed up on the shore and turn them into `sippi’, a traditional and acceptable ‘soft’ use of the resource.
“When the government regained the area the old abuse was resumed and as late as April 2003 did I note with dismay that more lime kilns than ever were in operation at Kayankerni, under the very noses of the security forces. (Note: The burnt lime is transported mainly to upcountry vegetable growing areas where it is used as a soil conditioner. Other uses are in mortar for construction and for whitewashing. Alternate sources of raw material are Miocene limestone and dolomite). All the more was I surprised when in December of the same year all the kilns had once again disappeared, again on the orders of the Tigers.
“Thus we have the absurd situation that in an area controlled by the Government an order from the LTTE is instantly and scrupulously obeyed, and the ordinary laws are brazenly flouted. Weak and disinterested authorities at all levels have long lost the will to enforce good laws, especially in the field of conservation. `Non- enforcement’ has been elevated to a fine art and policy under the influence of foreign gurus; doing nothing is so much easier than doing the right thing.”
The Vakarai area including Kathiraveli was retaken by government forces in early 2007.
Facets of the jungle
In the wilderness, too, there were aspects other than nature which engaged Thilo’s attention.Among the many parts of the dry zone he visited Wilpattu was a favourite. Several sections in this book describe his involvement with the area.
He explored extensively on foot the former Wilpattu West Sanctuary – now part of the National Park –especially the northern half of its 30 mile (50 km) coastline, between Kollankanatta and Kudremalai Point.
Much of this coast towards the north is formed by a cliff which is being eroded by the sea. To the north of Kollankanatta towards Pallugaturai this erosion exposes and destroys layers of the remnants of an ancient settlement. Thousands of clay and porcelain and worked seashell fragments litter the shore. There was even a clay-ring well. Thilo informed the Department of Archaeology, which then undertook a sample dig, but no further action.
It would have been a trading harbour during the Anuradhapura era, because in the vicinity on the track to Sinna Uppu Villu, not far away, he had discovered several baobab trees, as in Mannar, introduced from Africa. There must also have been, he thinks, a factory to make conch-shell bangles.
On the highest point, 225 feet above sea level, of the coastal ridge stands a chimney-like tower about 50 feet high. This and similar towers near Mullikulam and south of Arippu would have served as beacons during the time of the pearl fisheries.
In Kudremalai, at 123 feet, on the very edge of the cliff is the ruin of an ancient Hindu temple which, too, is fast disappearing with the erosion. Here is found the deep red soil, nearly purple or almost violet, to which is linked the ancient name ‘Tambapanni’ for Sri Lanka. It is said that Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala race, landed here. A motorable track provided by the Park authorities now leads to this point.
The beacon at Arippu is near the massive brick ruin of the `Doric’, built by Frederick North, the first British Governor of Ceylon from 1798 to 1805, for use as a residence when visiting the pearl fisheries. Again due to the erosion the ruins are now rapidly being lost. In the book The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, 2004 update, these are wrongly identified and depicted as being of the small Arippu Fort, the ruins of which are aboutfour km further north in the village.
Thilo also explored the North-eastern sector of Wilpattu which lies between the old Arippu road (now long abandoned) and Tantirimale. The ruins at this site, on the extensive rock outcrop (highest point 298 feet), were originally inside the National Park, the boundary of which in that sector was the Malwatu Oya. The place was entirely engulfed by the dense jungle. He first visited it on Vesak Day of 1966. Later the Park boundary was adjusted, the forest was cleared and people began to settle there.
To enable his explorations, from time to time he exercised walking through thick track and featureless monsoon forest with the help of a compass. The danger of missing the target several miles away was great because of the very restricted visibility, especially, where the nillu (Strobilanthes sp.) had grown high. Nevertheless, he always reached the goal with reasonable accuracy.
Observations at historical sites across the country were recorded in his notebooks, described later.Thilo also took an interest in the villagers who live in or by the jungle. Amidst his memories are tragedy and drama:
In a village called Manawa, some distance from Anuradhapura, Tikiri Bandara and 15-year-old Bandara Menike had fallen in love. Her family opposed the marriage. In desperation he shot to death three members of her clan. Then he took her by the hand and disappeared with her into the jungle, as witnessed by some women bathing in the village tank. He carried only his gun.
Tikiri Bandara was charged with three murders before the Anuradhapura Magistrate, in November 1957. The police mounted a search with dogs but failed to find the couple. Some months after this a poacher waiting for game in the fork of a tree at an abandoned tank observed a young man and woman coming out of the jungle in tattered clothes, she highly pregnant. They had a bath and vanished into the forest. Four years later, two skulls, some bones, two ear-studs and plastic bangles, a knife and the rusted barrel of a gun were found by hunters and produced before the magistrate.
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