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Sunday, 6 February 2011





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The story of two famous corpses

A corpse is not a pleasant topic nor a pleasant object. That is why a certain segment of people admirably dispose of it within twenty four hours before flies swarm in.. However it is rather strange and weird how some countries have thrived on corpses. To make up for this macabre feat the corpses are called mummies and their tombs are placed in sky touching structures along with all the accoutrements necessary for After Life. Robbers akin to non-believing academics quite skeptical of this long voyage to another world have helped themselves over the centuries to the costly accoutrements while the mummies themselves are now showpieces in museums. An Egyptian mummy transported to the British Museum has since transformed itself to one of London’s famous ghosts, a story I may relate to you by and by.

St.Francis Xavier

The story I am going to relate now however is not from the Land of mummies. One figure is actually from our own soil. Other from the Continent of Asia, though he was only on a mission here. Known as the Apostle of Asia, his mission was to convert whole of Asia to the faith of his own country. Never succeeded fully. Or never even halfway. He had overlooked the fact that Asia is the springboard of religions and that long surviving religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam ,Shintoism and Taoism had already rooted there defying annihilation.

Back to the Sri Lankan corpse. That too belonged to a famous and erudite scholar who did not limit his talents to penning beautiful literary works but went on to dabble in scientific experiments too. He grew up in the Royal Court of Sri Jayawardena Pura during the reign of Parakramabahu V1 before he took to robes and then went on to be domiciled in his own monastic abode in the deep South ie.Thotagamuwa.

There he dabbled not only in writing but in many other activities that caught his fancy.Cropping out of his experiments was a concoction capable of mummifying corpses. What motive propelled this noted disciple of the Buddha to try his hand at such a thing defies all reason.. Cremation is practiced in this religion as it considers a body rid of life as utterly useless. No belief in the Rising of the Dead, the phenomenon of Resurrection.

So just consume the useless and putrefying thing to fire before it begins to emanate a foul stench. But the prelate was not only a robed scholar but a literary man with unaccountable whims and fancies.

Sometimes they indulge in not only poetic fancies but weird ones too.

Tram cars

In fact I once read an autobiography of another famous Buddhist prelate who lived closer to our times, so close that he travelled about in Colombo in tram cars. He writes on a peculiar incident that happened in this ex-mode of traveling within the capital. Believe it or not.

A young irresponsible youth had been travelling footboard despite many warnings. Then he got decapitated by either the tram door or a passing vehicle.I forget which. The head got thrown out first and then the headless body.Writes the author, “I watched with horror , the headless corpse take several steps forward as though searching for its missing head”.

So corpses do fascinate these elderly monks and the Kotte period prelate certainly seems to have been obsessed with it for it has come down via legends that Sri Rahula Thera took years to produce this concoction.. Finally it found its resting place at Ambana cave.

Never did he foresee that few years after his demise that this area would be overrun by a set of aggressive invaders from a country thounsands of miles away getting into every nook and corner of the littoral , temple and devale and royal court as they were all their God given property.

Much of the treasures they looted they shipped to Lisbon. The Ambana cave find seems to have served them in a different way other than filling their coffers, an incident linked to Francis Xavier whose dream was a 100% Christian Asia.. .

The following facts I quote both from actual history plus legends from the times. St.Francis Xavier (1506-1552,heyday of Portuguese empire building ) after a colourful life spent in Asia , died in an island off mainland China at the age of 46, thus recalled by God making short shrift the concretizing of his dream.

According to some accounts the island he died is an Island named Ambon , a name that bears a strange similarity to Ambana cave where Sri Rahula’s incorruptible corpse lay..On December 11,1553 St. Xavier’s body was shipped to Goa, a city on the West coast of India ,then the Portuguese headquarters in Asia .

The route lay along the then active Southern ports of Lanka like Galle and Dodanduwa very close to Ambana cave where news of the mummified monk would have been prevalent arresting the attention of a ship’s crew burdened with a rapidly putrefying corpse.Still many a nautical mile to sail.

Puppet king

It was a period where Portuguese power utilizing the puppet king Dharmapala was at its height. That meant that they wielded unlimited power in the maritime domain , especially in their highhanded acts that could include stealing well-preserved corpses. .

Back to the Xavier corpse.Even Westerners have wondered as to how Xavier’s body could have remained incorrupt for such a long period .Some say he was mummified while others argue that his incorruptible body is a result of a miracle.

Meanwhile residents in the deep South noted the disappearance of the famous prelate’s corpse from Ambana cave.

Can all this be mere coincidence? Or a story grown out of manufactured facts? The writer herself has been to the church of Bom Jesus in Goa which was again a coincidence that the reader would not be interested in.

The famous corpse lies there, not pretty to look at, all dried up ... According to historical legends overseas both hands of the already decaying corpse had disintegrated as it made its long way off an island off China .. But a hand ,said to be decaying now, is evident on the corpse at Bom Jesus church..

Meanwhile a strong legend grew up around Thotagamuwa about the bizarre exchange of corpses. Legends do not grow out of nothing.

At Bom Jesus church that I reached along a boulevard lined with Kadju trees reminding me of home and hearth, I gawked at the corpse with all this in mind. Could it be that of our brilliant poet Sri Rahula according to legends in my country or that of an energetic missionary who galvanized his actions to shroud whole of Asia in a Christian garb but failed .

But my wonder changed to awe plus ill placed humour at another issue that entered me.

Here were two notable and energetic people who had been busy going along different paths and after death, getting mixed up as corpses. What does it matter?

They are just corpses, dried up and shriveled. Not at all pleasant to look at. Finally the whole episode throws up the bold truth expounded in Buddhism, that of decay and transience.

Yet the issue remains.Some could even suggest a DNA test as a solution., if Christians do not consider it sacrilegious.



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