Rebuilding burnt bridges


“Celebrate liberty, not imprisonment – celebrate diversity, not discrimination – celebrate differences, not differentiation – celebrate cultural variation, not cultural profiling.”

—Abhijit Naskar, Earthquakin’ Egalitarian: I Die Everyday So Your Children Can Live

UNESCO says that, “Three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension. Therefore, bridging the gap between cultures is urgent and necessary for peace, stability, and development.”

As we observe the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development on 21 May, this is something we ought to focus on as the situation in Sri Lanka can be very closely related to the above statement by UNESCO. In Sri Lanka, we are going through a cultural and social conflict for decades. Starting as back in the 1940s when the very first agriculture and resettlement work was initiated by the British in Sri Lanka, the seeds of anger, hatred, dispute, discomfort, displease, and even terror separated two communities in Sri Lanka; the Sinhala people and the Tamil people. Although the two communities have been living together for centuries in harmony (as history proves) at the dawn of the 20th century, the curse of racism and separatism parted the two.

Tamils, whose homeland is South India migrated to Sri Lanka, have been living in harmony and have greatly contributed to the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka. The Sinhala people, whose only homeland is Sri Lanka, have been sharing the land with many others such as the indigenous Vedda people and many other races and ethnicities that migrated to Sri Lanka. All these various races and ethnicities have immensely contributed to the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka.

However, as we have stated before, instead of connecting the bridges between the Sinhala and Tamil people, due to the greed and selfishness of political leaders of both communities, the races have grown apart from each other. This hatred and greed led the nation to a three-decade war and hindered the country’s development for decades.

In historic times, there had been cultural harmony between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, and the best examples are seen in Polonnaruwa. The bulls, which are sacred to the Hindus, were removed from the Moonstone as a mark of respect. Beautiful Siva devalas were built in Polonnaruwa, for the first time in Sri Lanka. They were well preserved and cherished as national treasures. During later times, Hindu gods were placed inside the Buddhist temples, and also, Hindu shrines were built within the premises of the Buddhist temples. The best example is the four major Hindu shrines which are located right in front of the Temple of the Tooth. Out of these four, Visnu and Skandha are major Hindu gods. The April New Year is celebrated in harmony and happiness by both Sinhala and Tamil communities, together. If not for the greed of racist and separatist politicians during post-independent Sri Lanka, no hatred or terror would have burnt the bridge of harmony and reconciliation between the two communities.

World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development is an opportunity to help Sri Lanka to understand the value of cultural diversity and learn how to live together in harmony. In this process, it is important to understand how and why cultural tolerance is important to achieve peace. It is important and timely to understand the role of intercultural dialogue in achieving sustainable development in Sri Lanka.

Joining us in conversation to discuss this interesting topic is the former Director of Conservation at the Department of Archaeology; Special Advisor to the Director-General of International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration (ICCROM), Rome, Italy; Special Advisor to the Director of WHITRAP Shanghai, China; and President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka, Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya who is a prominent scholar and archaeologist.

“Indeed, the world collectively considered peace and security as the fourth pillar of the sustainable development, emphasising its significance in today’s world,” started Dr. Wijesuriya.

UNESCO Policy on ‘World Heritage and Sustainable Development’ expands the fourth pillar on; fostering peace and security in ensuring conflict prevention, protecting heritage during the conflict, promoting conflict resolution, and contributing to post-conflict recovery; some of which can be utilised in building peace between the two communities by starting the intercultural dialogue, he explained.

As the current UN Chief says, “We are a world in pieces. We need to be a world in peace.”

Part of the cultural diversity is the very rich tangible and intangible heritage of both communities which can be an opportunity to build bridges as has been overly emphasised by UNESCO through its two international conventions, noted Dr. Wijesuriya.

Kataragama as a platform of peace

For instance, why cannot two communities engage in pada yatra which links the north and south of the country? He questioned.

How many of these communities gather in Kataragama for the religious festival and why can’t these be platforms for building peace?

Kataragama, can of course be considered a great platform for building peace and reconciliation between the Sinhala, Tamil, Vedda as well as the Muslim communities of Sri Lanka. The God who is worshiped at Kataragama is a major god that is culturally significant for Sinhala, Tamil, and Veddas. For the Sinhalese, it is a protector of Buddhism and a mighty god of war Kataragama, or Mahasen, while for the Tamils it is the fearsome yet compassionate Skanda or Kadira. For the Veddas, it is their beloved yet feared Kande Yaka and a Vedi princess Valli Amma who is the second wife of Kataragama.

The Hindu goddess Thevani Amma is the first wife of the god. Also, for the Tamils, the god who is worshiped at Kataragama is the son of their mightiest god, Siva or the Maha Deva, and the brother of Ganesh. Both Sinhala and Tamil people come together and perform their own rituals and traditions at the same devala premises. For the Muslims, there is a mosque built within the devala premises. The Veddas play a significant role at the Kataragama Perahera. No community is low or high at this place and it is a blessing to see all in harmony and get closer to their gods at this holy place.

There are so many restaurants in Colombo where Jaffna curries (meals) are on the menu. Not just in Colombo but in the South in general, Jaffna food or Tamil cuisine is much popular and in demand. Similarly, Dr. Wijesuriya said that there are many elements in the two cultures which can be used for the mutual benefit. “Diversity adds richness to life and why cannot we explore that?” he questioned.

Also, cultural diversity and cultural tolerance help to lead more fulfilling lives in aspects such as intellectuality, spirituality, and morality. In order to embrace and understand the two cultures, it is important to open dialogues between the two. In Sri Lanka, as the main conflict has been between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, it is crucial to have open and honest dialogues between the two and to accept coexistence.

As Dr. Wijesuriya emphasised, cultural diversity is a beautiful thing and Sri Lanka being blessed with such a gift should make the best use of it. This can be greatly used in promoting tourism. Instead of living in a 100 per cent solo ethnic or cultural zone, living in a zone with high cultural diversity is a blessing. It is vibrant, energetic, and unique.

The Muslim communities of Sri Lanka

It is interesting to note the Gale Bandara Deviyo who is venerated at Kurunagala when talking about the cultural diversity and harmony of Sri Lanka. Gale Bandara Deviyo was the son of the King of Kurunagala, who was born to a Muslim princess from Beruwala. According to local folklore, descendants of her family still live in Beruwala. The prince who was killed in a conspiracy, as it usually happens in royal families, in a fight for the throne, was born as a fearsome demon. Born as a ferocious demon after being pushed down the Kurunegala rock and murdered, he started harassing the locals. People prayed and then a mightier god (according to local folklore this is god Kataragama) commanded the demon not to harass people and instead help them. Since then he became a god that would answer the prayers of the villagers and help them.

The most interesting and fascinating part of this is that the first ‘kapu mahattaya’ or the priest of the Gale Bandara Devala at Kurunagala was a Muslim; a tradition that is continued to t his day. On the days he performs rituals, he prepares himself for that and also follows a vegetarian diet. Interestingly, most of the devotees who visit the devala are Sinhalese while there are Muslim devotees too.

The role of the Vedda people in Sri Lanka

When talking about cultural diversity and cultural inclusiveness, we hardly include the role of the Vedda people in the country’s development process. Yet, they have greatly contributed to the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka.

Especially, indigenous people of the world play a vital role in their respective countries. For example, in New Zealand, the Maori tribe plays a very important role in the country’s development. Nanaia Cybele Mahuta, hailing from the Maori community, is a prominent New Zealand politician and is serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Does this happen in Sri Lanka? The plight of the Vedda people of Sri Lanka is actually sad; they are an isolated group, which is probably the oldest group of humans who inhabited this island, yet are on the verge of losing their identity as well as their dignity due to poverty. Once a year or so, we hold an indigenous people celebration day or invite the Vedda Chief for a conference and we end it there. Researchers conduct research on them and propose plans to upgrade their lifestyles and yet, they are merely limited to paperwork.

They are not being involved in the country’s development process despite Vedda community playing a huge role in the country’s agriculture, tourism, and local indigenous medicine. It is recorded that in historical times, Veddas had played a dignified and vital role during wars as they would fight on behalf of the king, they would supply meat for the king and also pure bee’s honey for the sacred Temple of the Tooth. This practice still continues and every year, during the Kandy Dalada Perahera, the Vedda Chief and a group of Veddas visit the Temple of the Tooth and offer bee’s honey.

Before we end, we must bring to your attention two important points. At Korathota, there is a ‘Kapiri Deviyo’ who is being venerated by locals. At an ancient temple in Kandy, there is Elara’s son is venerated as a minor deity by locals. These are examples of cultural tolerance that have been practiced in Sri Lanka for centuries. This is the true nature of the islanders. Cultural tolerance and diversity go hand in hand.

Until the European nations stepped their foot on our shores during the 16th century and planted the vicious seeds of racism as a part of their strategy, ‘divide and rule’ along with forceful conversion, the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, and many other races, ethnicities, and religions coexisted in this island in harmony. Post independent Sri Lankan politicians, instead of extinguishing the flames, added fuel to it.

It is high time we put an end to this and embrace the cultural diversity of this country and together build a harmonious and peaceful future in a unitary Sri Lanka.

 “The seed of cultural harmony lies not in the culture you are born in but in the recognition of the sweetness of other cultures.”

—Abhijit Naskar, Sleepless for Society

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy