A Country in Crisis, But So Much More: The Sri Lanka I Witnessed
The country is now a talking point for geopoliticians and economists. But there's more to the picture.
The perception of the island country of Sri Lanka is usually stereotyped in the country's protracted civil war balanced by its natural splendour and holiness. More recently, the country has become a talking point for geopoliticians and economists alike. However, there is still a picture that remains usually unseen. I landed in Colombo on 24 March and stayed there till the end of April.
While the country's economy was swirling downwards, I was fortunate enough to learn the ancient dance form of Ves Natum in Kandy, live by the sea on the north-western coast, and find my way through one of the world's last rainforests. What I felt, saw, and heard may shine some light on an extraordinary people and their culture – at a time when they are facing one of the worst economic crises in the country's history.
This tragic moment for the country has compelled Sri Lanka to revisit the edifices of its social and political culture. This culture can be defined as the confluence of the East and the West, both within and without, and of discovery and influence.
Although coincidental, a geo-sociological, rather than a geopolitical study of the country, is timely and imminent. A dive into this society will lead to a better understanding of the name that travellers once gave it – 'Serendib' – which is also the root of the word 'serendipity'. Even in the midst of rising despair, mounting anger, and gathering chaos, this land can be truly serendipitous.
Kandy, the Cultural City
Discovering the culture of Sri Lanka is a unique venture into a world of art, music, dance, poetry, and festivals. This journey unfolds itself once you reach the cultural capital Kandy, the last bastion of an ancient civilisation. In my experience, the people of Kandy, the Kandyans, are soft-spoken and gently mannered.
Perhaps there is no better way to penetrate the Kandyan mind than the classical dance of Ves Natum. The dancers sway to the beat of the drums, their bodies remain upright and their eyes focused. The hand movements are geometrical and sharp. I was tutored by Dr Waidyawathi Rajapakse, the descendent of one of the families who once danced for the kings. This was my introduction to the life and philosophy of the Sinhalese.
The culture of dance and music is born out of the temples in the ancient Kandyan Kingdom. In the sacred temple of the Tooth Relic, the ritual offerings to the Buddha continue to be made to the sound of drums.
Despite this rich musical heritage, the music of the masses is Baila, which was introduced to the island by the Portuguese. Celebrations mean dancing to this joyful mix of western instruments, African rhythms, and Sinhala lyrics. Like everything else, underneath the westernised façade lie layers and layers of complex diversity.
During the last week of my stay, the entire country was preparing for the auspicious festival of Avurudu, or the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. Despite their current hardships, people put on a happy face, students went back to their homes, families reunited, gifts were exchanged, and traditional sweets were served. I was instantly able to relate to the cohesive family values and ethos.
Sri Lanka's Women
Another thing that stayed with me was that in most of my homestays, the woman of the house had a considerable say in decision-making.
Many of the women of Sri Lanka wear the Osariya or Kandyan saree, characterised by its pleats, frills, and puffed sleeves. The Osariya is unique to this culture and has been worn for centuries. Although today the fashion is dominated by jeans and skirts, many women still prefer the traditional form.
As I went north along the country's coast, towards Mannar, I was hosted by an energetic, lively woman at her seaside property in a village named Silawathura.
The village was previously occupied by the LTTE and later reformed by means of job creation and infrastructural development.
At the heart of many of these initiatives was a woman from Colombo who was considered the 'godmother' by the villagers. During my stay, the local authorities prevented a power cut to avoid inconvenience to their godmother or my host.
Nature and Life
Until very recently, the island was characterised by a certain quality of life, not in the typical monetary or materialistic sense but in the nature of the life, which they led in villages and towns alike. This quality is derived and sustained through an intrinsic relationship with nature, which has been in place for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
A hidden mystical path in the living rainforest of Sinharaja, which envelops the holy mountain of Sri Pada, divulges this story of belief, culture, and environment. I embarked on this ancient trail in pursuit of the unknown. According to popular folklore, a legendary lion lived in this forest.
The dense canopy of forests almost hypnotises you to believe that you're in the lion's kingdom. I was welcomed by a whole range of species from the green hump lizard to deadly tarantulas to the gorgeous Ahaetulla, the green vine snake. With each step, I was shedding my own urbanised skin in the wilderness.
The future did not promise mercy, nor did the past promise security. The only way out was through the forest – listening to the insect sounds, tossing away the leeches, following the invisible footsteps, and stepping into the streams of water. I wasn't only moving harmoniously with all forms of life around me, I began acknowledging that we were all a part of one great family.
I suddenly heard someone repeatedly calling out my name in the background and was instantly snapped out of my fantasy world by my fellow adventurers who urged me to wear my raincoat. It started pouring heavily without any warning and we were soon covered with leeches. Leech rain was something that I had only read about in fictional stories, but by the time I left, I knew what it meant.
The idea of survival was borrowed from the forests and superimposed on the entire island. There is a continuous effort to reclaim the civilisational past, which is inextricably woven with the surroundings. Structures like water tanks and hydraulic systems, dating back to the earliest days of Sinhalese civilisation on the island, still hold the same relevance for paddy cultivation and human settlement.
For the people in these areas, bathing in the lakes is still part of a way of life. Since independence, the political leadership has put efforts to breathe life into the ancient water tanks of the dry zone, supplementing them with modern irrigation techniques.
The country’s new parliament, little outside the capital city of Colombo at Sri Jayavardenepura, embodies this intermingling with nature. Constructed in 1982, on an artificially created island built on a previously flooded marshland, this structure is one of its kind. Its architectural style is inspired by the country’s greatest architect, Geoffrey Bawa. The location symbolises the importance of water to the country. The structure is defined by the marriage of modernism with the vagaries of the tropical weather. To the best of my knowledge, there aren't many lake parliaments in the world.
Similarly, classical Sri Lankan architecture is pragmatically designed for ventilation from all sides. These simplicities have been incorporated into houses and other buildings. There is no attempt to control the climate artificially or follow fashion. Although the island was enduring the worst power cuts in its history, in many of the modern houses, the openness, the space, and the flow of air was such that life remained bearable.
The country has run out of funds to pay for cooking gas, but many households still have a place for cooking with firewood, separate from the modern kitchen. In the hot humid summers, Tambili (king coconut) or Beli fruit straight from the tree is still the go-to drink. The traditional sense of a dominant peasant community has prevailed, when most of the so-called modern techniques, unsustainable by nature, have fallen apart.
Land of the Dhamma
Buddhism is the religion of the majority in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese-Buddhists practise polytheism, unlike the Abrahamic religions. This explains the presence of Hindu deities and Hindu shrines – Devalayas – in nearly every Buddhist temple.
Buddha's message to the people was to find their own path to salvation integrated with values of love and compassion. These values are strongly ingrained and expressed by the ever-welcoming attitude of the people.
Embedded in the Dhamma is a sense of order which lies at the very centre of Buddha's consciousness. Perhaps, this has enabled the people to tolerate and endure the state of chaos for so long.
Since I left in April, things have changed. After months of growing hardship, this sense of order finally broke down. This was the day when the rulers of the land finally lost face.
On 9 May, the anger which had been controlled and suppressed for so long finally erupted. Within a few hours, the Land of the Dhamma became a seething mass of resentment and rage. In time, however, I believe that this lost sense of order will prevail once more, it will calm and soothe.
To the casual traveller, the passing visitor, the foreign dignitary, and now the journalist, Sri Lanka often appears easy to read. Yet it is not a land of black and white. It is a dense mesh of elements waiting to be discovered.
Those who see only the surface will find simplicity and certainty. Those looking deeper will find complexity. As they do, they will realise that many of the answers lie with nature and the life it nurtures. This is what I saw. I hope that I was right.
(Radhika Daga is an independent thinker and scholar on International Relations and Strategic Affairs. She has worked with renowned think tanks in India and Myanmar. This is a blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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