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Sunday, 24 April 2011





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Government Gazette

Anthropological account of lasting value

Kalutara an Odessey

Author: Bradman Weerakoon

Kalutara an Odyssey by Bradman Weerakoon, a seminal publication on Kalutara is, perhaps, one of the best anthropological accounts ever written on Kalutara in the post independent Sri Lanka. This rather meticulous study not only covers its main subject Kalutara but also its adjoining cities of Panadura, Aluthgama and Beruwela.

The author’s forte is his remarkable ability to fuse faction, legends, history and touch of nostalgia into an enchanting narrative which is both informative in its primary sense and absorbing in its own way.

Kalutara an Odessey
Author: Bradman Weerakoon

It is not the mere flavour of didactic academic writing which looks for exhaustive details and nor the casual diary entries of an outstanding bureaucrat of our era but writings of an assuming humanist who looks back, with love and justifiable pride, on the generations who lived in Kalutara and its neighbouring townships.

It is an objective account of Kalutara tracing back its history to the colonial past, uneasy passage to independence and the dominant figures who defined diverse eras. Yet there is an enthusiastic voice underneath the plain text which grabs the reader’s attention throughout the book.

“I was tempted to base this story on the Kalutara district on the earlier, officially written manuals of districts and provinces, mainly in colonial times. Several of these written by administrators of the past in the 19th and 20th century, are in the nature of classics.

There is, therefore, much that may appear obvious or miscellaneous information in this book. …. There are two major contributions of the people of the district…the service rendered to the revival of Buddhism in the country through Panadura debate (1873) and the rise of reformist sects, particularly the Ramanna Nikaya in Payagala in mid 19th Century” states the author Weerakoon stressing the singular contribution that the people of Kalutara district made to enrich the socio-cultural life in the post independent Sri Lanka.

History of the landmass

Tracing the history of the landmass, the author points out that Kalutara had attracted foreigners such as Portuguese, Dutch and English and in the pre-colonial history the Kalutara District served as a boundary of Ruhunu Rata.

“The town of Kalutara can lay claim to a long and colourful history. In ancient times the town was known as Velapura and there is yet ( the powerful of tradition and memory being so strong) a street, a junior school and a private health clinic using the name, in its busy bazaar. I found the authoritative Government Census Report of 1901 support the story that city was called Velapura. …Headman’s Division of Kalutara South and North were called Velapura Kalutara and Desastra Kalutara…Bentara ganga marked the extremity of Ruhuna and the boundary between the South and Western Province”

The majestic river Kalu Ganga is an important landmark of Kalutara District. From the ancient times, the river had been used as a major mode of transportation of goods and people from Sabaragamuwa (North-Western Province) to Kalutara and was a principal gateway into the country. Colonial administrator such as Emerson Tenant has described the boat ride along Kalu Ganga.

“ ..the decent of Kalu-ganga from Ratnapura to Caltura (Kalutara) is effected with great ease in the boats which bring down rice and arecanuts to the coast, and the scenery include everything that is characteristic of the Western lowlands; temples reached by ghauts rising from the edge of the river; and villages surrounded by groves of tamarind and jak trees, talipats, coconut and kitools. Along the banks, the yellow stemmed bamboo waves its featherly leaves, and on approaching the sea the crew pines and mangroves grew in dense clusters, and over-arch the margin of the stream.”

The fascinating description on Kalu Ganga includes the history of the river and the legends behind naming it Kalu ganga. In ancient times, the goods were transported by makeshift boats called padda and the boat owner was called Thandal Mudalaali . The author states that the world Thandal comes from the English word ‘tindal’ which the Carters Dictionary describes as the ‘owner of a dhony. As to the formation of the name of Kalu Ganga, the author states that according to one school of thinking the river gained its name owing to ‘its darkest mood especially at flood times in its lower reaches” and another was that it gained its name because of its beauty which is also described in Sinhala with a suffix Kalu as Dakum Kalu ( beautiful), Sith Kalu (attractive). In pre-modern times, the people settled on both banks of the river, before the bridge was built, crossed the river by ferry boats. The wind mouth of the river ( approximately 1kilometre) would compel a break in transportation and invariably the habit was formed in making offerings to four guardian deities.

“ Beginning in mediaeval times, the ‘break travel’ whether it was by horse, bullock or on foot, needed ancillary services like food and accommodation for the weary traveller, and rest house ( earlier ambalamas) with galas or stables for the bullock and horses. …offerings to the four guardians deities of the country at such vulnerable river-crossing site was common and …following an old tradition no traveler along the Galle Road will go past the sacred Bo tree which stands on the southern bank of the river, without an act of obeisance to the Bo tree”

The Great Dagoba

The account of the great Dagoba or pagoda which is a prominent landmark of Kalutara is interesting one. The Dagoba was constructed in 1970s by famous Sri Lankan engineer A.N Kulasinghe. The unique feature of the Dagoba is that devotees can visit the core of the Dagoba and the inner wall of hallow was adorned with paintings depicting scene from Jataka stories.

Tracing back to the history of Dagoba, the author states; “Before the European conquerors, starting with the Portuguese, came in 15th century, the small hill on the Southern bank of Kalu Ganga on which the Dagoda now stands was the site of Gangatileke vihare. Close to the vihare had been planted a Bo tree of Anuradhapura, which has stood there since its planting at the time of the Arahat Mahinda in the 3rd century BC. Incidentally, I was reliably informed that the Bodhi tree on the sea side of Colombo –Galle road, at which the majority of passers-by make their offerings , is a later addition-possibly sapling itself of the ancient Bo tree on the landside at the edge of the river and alongside the Dagoba. “

It is obvious that the author has done meticulous researches not only into places of interest which are also prominent landmarks of Kalutara but also into lives of prominent personalities associated with Kalutara.

Sir Cyril de Zoysa

One of the colossal figures associated with Kalutara is Sir Cyrill de Zoysa who founded the Kalutara Bodhi Trust. It was thanks to his pioneering effort that Sri Lankans can worship the Dagoba and Bodhi tree which is now famous throughout the world. Sir Cyril de Zoysa was not only a highly successful lawyer who practised at Kalutara and Matugama Courts but also a transport entrepreneur who owned ‘Swarnapali’ Bus Company which was later came to know as ‘South Western Bus Company’.

“I made his acquaintance after he entered politics and became President of the Senate in the 1960’s. (That was the time when Mrs Sirimawo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman Prime Minister was in the Senate and I worked as her official secretary)”

Sir Cyril de Zoysa is best remembered for the establishment of the Bodhi Trust of Kalutara in 1980’s. Zoysa’s struggle to make the Bodhi accessible to devotees was a bitter struggle against the colonial authorities. He commenced his campaign in the 1940’s and wrote about the then state of the Bodhi which was barricaded on one was allowed to enter the premises. Cyril de Zoysa himself wrote ; “ No one was allowed to approach the Kalutara Bodhi even if it were only to offer flowers or light a lamp. The Government Agent of Kalutara deployed the Police to secure the place and chase away people who came in to the Bodhi to worship there. I got wind of this. I cannot indeed account for the sentiments that arose within me to erect, even forcibly, a stand to place flowers before the Bodhi and conduct a Buddhist religious ceremony there.”

Following a bitter struggle, Sir Cyril de Zoysa was able to obtain the entire area, 10 acres of prime land from the Government for him to set up the Bodhi Trust of Kalutara.

Many faces of religions

Although Kalutara is famous for the Bodhi and numerous Buddhist temples, its religious diversity is breathtaking. One of the facts of the predominant Buddhists of Kalutara is their higher degree of religious tolerance.

“The large number of churches, statues of Christian saints and numerous mosques one sees on the coast road (the A2) between Panadura and Aluthgama speak to the tolerance that the large Buddhist majority display in regard to religious diversity. The history of this area in particular the heavy penetration of the Christian religion and work of missionary societies –has left a legacy which remains. In many middle- class family networks it is not unusual to find branches of family that have adopted faiths different to that of the original forebears. Other important Catholic churches and shrines, which draw large crowds at festival time are ones at Kalamulla, Payagala and Maggona. A replica of Mount Calvary in Maggona is especially venerated by the devout Catholic community”

Kalutara in Colonial times

The author in a moving piece of research records the importance of Kalutara in Colonial times. One of the facts that the colonials were attracted to Kalutara was that the large river mouth offered a convenient anchorage for their ships and gateway into the country. One of the prime motives of colonial occupation of Kalutara was trade.

“The Dutch occupation of Kalutara and their presence in the district was motivated chiefly by their interest in trade. The 17th century Europe saw the rise of Dutch power through their enterprising merchants who were determined to wrest control the spice trade from the Portuguese. Europe needed spices-chiefly cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg and paper. The East Indies- especially Java and Sumatra and later Ceylon, were the prime targets for these commodities. Earlier, for centuries these essential spices for food preservation during the long European winter months had come overland along the Silk route, also called spice road. “

The United Dutch East India Company (VOC, Vereenigde Netherlandsche Oostindiche Compagnie) with the support of the Dutch Government played a prominent role in the trade.

In describing the society in Colonial times, the author noted how Sinhalese rose in rank to occupy prominent positions in the then British colonial society. Remaining legacy of such personality was the Richmond Castle built by Padikkara Mudliyar Don A Silva Wijayasinghe Siriwardene (1888-1949).

Richmond Castle

One of the important facets of rise of Don A Silva Wijesinghe was that it marked the formation of Ceylonese bureaucracy. His lavish wedding vindicates the power and wealth he gathered during the colonial times as an important official in the British colonial administration.

“ …Siriwardene was able to contract a marriage which brought in status and property enabling him to live a life of great influence rivalling the hospitality of the legendary chieftains in the time of Sinhalese kings. His wife of Kandyan Sinhalese origin was from the Suriyabandara clan and the wedding party travelled by special train to Kalutara from Kandy , along with British officials from Colombo for the elaborate ceremonies arranged in the ‘Castle’ which Siriwardene had built on the bank of the Kaluganga. …it was conceived of the image of royal castle in England. Richmond Castle is a two-storeyed building with 99 doors and 34 windows. “

Among the important Government establishments in Kalutara are National Institute of Health Services (NIHS) and the Police Training School.

Although the book is primarily on Kalutara, the author explores the adjoining towns such as Panadura and Aluthgama. In the chapter on Panadura. Apart from great debate on Buddhism (Panadura Vadaya) , Panadura is famous for some of the well-known personalities. Among them are Mohottivatte Gunanada Thera, G.P Malalasekera, Wilmot A Perera and Cyril Jansz.

Multilingual constituency of Beruwela

The detailed account of Beruwela is an interesting one. The author states that this unique multilingual constituency is one of the 39 Divisional Secretariat Units (Outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces) where Tamil shall be used along with the official language (Sinhalese) for administrative purposes.

“Many travellers over the centuries have written of Beruwela which was at most times regarded as the main centre of Muslim settlement. A tombstone with the appellation ‘Hijra 331’ found in a cemetery in Beruwela, indicates that Muslims had settled there from as far back as the 10th century.”

Kalutara District is noted for its diversity in livelihoods. Prominent among the main livelihoods are farming, fishing, handicraft, toddy and arrack, tourism, garment industries. Among the sports of the District include cricket, water scooting and motor sports.

The diverse cultural life of Kalutara District is vividly captured in the Chapter 3 in which among other things author has mentioned the overarching European influence on the cultural life of the population and the other influences such waves of migrants as Arabs which resulted in the formation of a sizable constituency of Muslims in the District.

“The geographical location of the Kalutara District, on the South Western seaboard of the island, endowed with numerous bays and estuaries which provided safe anchorage in the days of the sailing ship, made it a natural site for migration and entry. And history records that they came from the South and West of India, from Arabia, the eastern African coast and Malay Archipelago. The position of the district, facing the Arabian sea, in the time of European expansion into the East in the 18th and 19th century, further influenced the ethnic mosaic of the district. In colonial times particularly, Kalutara became a plural district, one in which the Sinhalese, Muslim, Tamil, Burgher and Malay people live and where Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Hindu religions also coexisted relatively harmoniously. “

Interestingly, colonial influence is not only visible in the architecture of the building but is new words which have been easily found their way into Sinhalese. The author pointed out that some of the Portuguese words such as janela (window), mese (table), almariya (wardrobe), Kamisa (shirt) Kalisan (trousers), mes (Stockings), Sapathu (Shoes) , alpenetti (pins) and bottama (Button) as well as Dutch words such as istoppuwa ( veranda), soldare (upstairs) and Tarappuwa ( Staircase) have been added over the years to Sinhalese.

In the chapter 7, the author offers a detailed account of the history and the developments of networks of roads, railways and by ways in Kalutara District. Although coaches, carts, hackery or buddy cart in the colonial times to transport passengers and mail, commencement of railway heralded a new era in Kalutara District linking it from Matara to Colombo and among the coastal townships. It was the British Governor Gregory who commenced the construction of Southern line around the 1880s.

In the chapter 8, the author inquires into the political and administrative structures of power past and present. According to folk lore, the District of Kalutara had been divided into Raigam and Pasdun Korale apparently by the Kalu ganga (Black river) which flows in the middle of the District. In the mediaeval times, the coastal strip was sub-divided into the Kalutara Totamune and Panadura Totamune.

Kalutara, an Odessey offers readers a wealth of information on Kalutara District along with an anthropological account. It is noteworthy that meticulous research went into the book has made it a repository of facts and figures so much so that it can be reference book on Kalutara District. It is a must read for scholars who are interesting in Sri Lanka and a good and informative read for deserving readers.



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