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Sunday, 13 March 2016

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Government Gazette

Freedom to love

What is our definition of 'development' and social 'advancement' if our lovers cannot visit and enjoy inspiring public places and scenic locations in their own country? And why is war and communal hostility extolled as heroism and nationalism but love and intimacy sidelined embarrassedly and even restricted on our Dharma Dveepa?

Captive Europeans held in the villages of late medieval Sri Lanka were goggle-eyed at what they saw as the lewd antics of the natives. Women of certain classes and castes were bare-breasted, just as much as their male counterparts were bare-chested. Couples had the freedom to love and live together informally until their intent to bear children and maintain a family prompted them to formally resolve - in a sacred ceremony before family and community - to live as a conjugal unit for their lifetime.

In one form of marriage, the woman agreed to live with one or more male siblings of her partner in polyandrous cohabitation. In another form of marriage, the man would live with, and care for, more than one cohabiting female spouse in polygamous partnership. Both polyandry as well as polygamy were forms of sexual relations and conjugal partnership practised not only in Sri Lanka but also in much of the southern part of the Sub-continent, be it Tamil Nadu, Kerala or, Karnataka and surrounding regions.

Some foreigners, whose own societies practised very different forms of social and sexual behaviour, could not help being disturbed by the lifestyle they experienced on our 'paradise' isle. Those who lived long on the island, learned the social rationales behind the indigenous social norms and, adjusted their attitudes. It is no wonder, then, that Robert Knox could not wait to tell the world about his serendipitous discovery!

The evolution of a human society in the climatic conditions of an equatorial island with temperatures of limited fluctuation and high humidity has naturally brought with it attitudes and lifestyles that treat the human body and physical interactions between people in a certain way. This is quite different from societies where people live in climates that require warm clothing and the constant covering of the body either for protection from extreme cold or extreme heat and sunlight. The non-exposure of the body in public creates a very different understanding of nudity and sexuality as compared with lifestyles where clothing is at a minimum due to climate and natural environment.

Thus, while the potentates of cold and harsh climes adorn themselves in layers of fine clothing, our nobles and kings were proudly bare-chested but adorned with the finest jewellery.

A few centuries of Euro-Christian Puritanism were not enough to upset local mindsets when hippie holiday-makers crowded our southern beaches in the nineteen-sixties in thongs and g-strings or sometimes joyously nude. Neither did that same Western religio-cultural influence erase local structures of gendering and sexuality. Even today, Sri Lankan (and South Asian) men hold hands in friendly intimacy and inter-sexual relations are fluid and provide for a range of social situations in which variations of gendering are enabled, legitimate and fulfilling.

Modern Sri Lankan law governing human relations should build on our indigenous civilisational flexibility even as we devise laws and social ordering that ensures justice and freedom and, not the stifling of human relations.

The ravages of colonial imposition bite deep. Freedom in one way does not save our minds from a colonial intellectual crippling in other ways. Our sense of colonised inferiority results in a confusion of aspirations and, in crude adjustments of behaviour and pretensions - all in efforts to copy the 'developed' world.

Security officers chase away couples from our national symbol of freedom from colonialism: Independence Hall. Police chase away lovers sheltering demurely under umbrellas on Galle Face Green. Guards in city parks target young men and women holding hands in intimate conversation. Last week's protest at Independence Square over this kind of restriction must serve as a warning alarm of the danger of forgetting our indigenous reality as we seek some half-baked fantasy of 'perfection'.

Even as we absorb the currents of Modernity, we need to filter out the extraneous flotsam that could straitjacket our creativity and flamboyance. As Jawaharlal Nehru once observed (to paraphrase him), we need to retain our capacity for independent thought so that we do not get blown off our feet by irrelevant foreign influences.

The Lovers depicted in Isurumuniya should not be only engraved in stone. Neither should the beauties of the Sigiriya frescoes be the sole, two dimensional depiction of beauty on an otherwise puritanically barren land.

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