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Sunday, 15 May 2011





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Government Gazette

Saga of Kalutara from the eyes of a civil servant

The past is not a package one can lay away ~Emily Dickinson

In an exclusive interview with Montage, distinguished former civil servant and the author of the book Kalutara an Odyssey Bradman Weerakoon, expresses his views on his book and the fascinating incursion into the colourful and extremely rich history of Kalutara and the personalities who defined the milieu. The book is not only a fascinating account on the history of Kalutara but also an anthropological study of lasting value.

The author’s forte is his remarkable ability to fuse facts, legends, history and a touch of nostalgia into an enchanting narration which is both informative in its primary sense and absorbing in its own way. 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 unassuming humanist who looks back, with love and justifiable pride, on the generations who lived and enriched Kalutara and its neighbouring townships. It is an objective account of Kalutara tracing 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 centuries, 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 the Panadura debate (1873) and the rise of reformist sects, particularly the Ramananna Nikaya in Payagala in mid 19th century” wrote the author describing the historical importance of Kalutara district in the pre and post-colonial history of Sri Lanka.

“ ..the descent of Kaluganga 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, talipots, 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 author states describing the pivotal role that the Kalu ganga played and plays in the lives of Kalutara. In the first part of the interview, author Bradmon Weerakoon details out , among other things, why he has undertaken such a meticulous research into the history of the Kalutara district and suburban townships of Pandura and Alutgama-Beruwela. Although the book mostly covers the history of Kalutara district, the author has not forgotten to record the changes that have taken place and overarching influence of tourism on the lives of the people particularly along the coastal belt.

Speaking about the sheer cultural and sociological diversity, the author states that Kalutara is a district outside the North and East ,which has a multilingual and multi cultural constituency in general and co-existence of people of diverse religions and ethnicities in particular. “ Within the 650 odd square kilometers of the Kalutara district I observed an unbelievable diverse mosaic of traditions, narrative histories and sub-cultures. To me this diversity is in physical features and climate. In faces and behaviours, their legends and folk tales, the freedom with which the people express their thoughts in art, in music, and speech is what defines Sri Lanka.

Hardly anywhere in the world would you get so much diversity within such a small compass of land. “

Excerpts of the interview.

Q: Your latest book entitled Kalutara an Odyssey codifies not only the history of Kalutara from pre-colonial times but also the history of the landmass encompassing towns of Panadura , Aluthgama and Beruwala and the singular contribution they made and are making to enrich the socio-cultural diversity of the country. How did the idea for the book conceive? And what made you to undertake this venture?

A: I had the chance in my career as a public servant to serve in several districts of the country.

In my early days for short stints in Anuradhapura and Jaffna and later on for a period of 2 years each In Ampara, Batticaloa and Galle.

I was very impressed by the manner in which the ordinary people had organised their daily lives, raised their children, nurtured their livestock or crops, fished in the lagoons, streams or seas and displayed an amazing capacity to improve their lives. Government activities and politicians were only incidental. Useful but not essential. I wanted to write a book about people and what they actually did and how they lived along with others.

Early colonial administrators had done such books full of information of local history, anecdotes about personalities big and small, about their temples and churches and mosques, their religious beliefs and their superstitions. Although I had never served in Kalutara I chose it for several reasons. I had some roots there, my father having begun life in a little village there. I started my schooling there – in the baby class at a convent and later in the big school nearby. It was close enough to visit on weekends (I had built a little retreat in my father’s village)and could spend night’s out there relatively easily absorbing the village sounds, scents and smells. I did much of my writing there with village friends around to help. I wanted to tell the people of this country and the world of what Sri Lanka was really like. Not quite the colorful Paradise of the tourist brochures, or what the middle pages of our daily papers show but a very pleasant, decent place where real people lived. I think that was what really drove me to write this.

The large and bustling coastal towns of Kalutara, Panadura and Alutgama-Beruwela have a fascinating history and local culture. I call this chapter of my Book A Tale of Three cities. What was common about them was that they are located on the banks of three rivers and constituted the human response to ‘the break in transportation’ which is an important reason for human settlement. A common history prevailed at the time of the 2004 tsunami too when the people of these coastal cities were badly affected by the waves which hit their homes and livelihoods. But they recovered quickly because they possess great resilience.


Q: You offer a fascinating account of history, important personalities and the legend of the ‘Richmond Castle’ in the first chapter. Given the rich socio-cultural history of Kalutara, how do you asses the place Kalutara holds in the history of Sri Lanka and its historical value to the posterity?

A: I tried to make some contribution to the extraordinarily rich story of Sri Lanka by focusing on one small corner of it; in this case the comparatively small, maritime district of Kalutara. Within the 650 odd square kilometers of the Kalutara district I observed an unbelievable diverse mosaic of traditions, narrative histories and sub-cultures. To me this diversity, in physical features and climate.

In faces and behaviours, their legends and folk tales, the freedom with which the people express their thoughts in art, in music, and speech is what defines Sri Lanka. Hardly anywhere in the world would you get so much diversity within such a small compass of land. This is for me Sri Lanka’s beauty. I found this, in microcosm in the district of Kalutara. People of all ethnicities, religions and castes live here. Being on the western sea-board and directly under colonial rule for almost 450 years it bears the impact of that long encounter in many ways. I have talked at length about this in my book.

The life and life - styles of some of its prominent citizens display this mingling of cultures. Take the case of Richmond Castle you have referred to. Here is the Padikara mudliyar – one of the local elite taking for his impressive residence (99 windows alone) the name of a castle in which British royalty lived. The Mudliyar (like other better know mudliyars of the time remember ther was also a Maha mudliyar) lived like a duke, with dozens of retainers, entertaining suddas mostly, and obviously dressing formally for dinner. I am sure his lifestyle was copied by his lesser functionaries all exploiting in many ways the peasantry who looked up to them for favour and patronage. The British found this a painless way to exercise their control. Perhaps this is at the root of our people’s present subservience to all kinds of authority. I thought devoting time to characters like the mudliyar might get particularly our students thinking seriously about our past and its influences on our present.

Land marks

Q:One of the prominent landmarks of Kalutara is the great Dagoba or pagoda and the Bodhiya (Bo tree). The history of the Dagoba and Bodhiya associates with the revival of Buddhism particularly before and immediately after the independence. How do you revisit the vital role that people of Kalutara played and the fascinating history behind Dagoba and Bodhiya?

A: I have in particular referred to three events where the people of the Kalutara district made a distinctive contribution to the country’s religious and cultural development. As for religion, in addition to Cyril de Zoysa’a single – handed restoration of the Kalutara Bodi (there had been before the colonial conquests the ancient Gangatilleke temple on this same site) there was the birth of the Ramanya Nikaya (a reformist movement within the Buddhist Order)in my own village of Palayangoda which a forbear vigorously supported, and the famous Panadura debate (between Christian clerics and the Buddhist sangha) at the height of the Buddhist revival in the late !9th century.

As for what the district people had given to our cultural regeneration there was the epochal institution of Sri Palee, built on the model of Shantinikethan in Tagore’s Bengal by Wilmot Perera of Panadura, in Horana. Sri Palee gave a whole new generation of Sri Lankan artistes an entry into Bengali music and dance forms and greatly influenced scholars, singers and dramatists like Sarachchandra and Amaradeva. Maname and Sinhabahu and the other great plays that followed in this tradition owe their birth as folk nadagam adapted to the modern stage, undoubtedly to the sparks that were lit at Sri Palee.

To get back to the Bodiya which is today one of the principal places of worship to the Buddhist pilgrim, it required immense courage and perseverance to obtain the right even to erect a mal asuna to lay a flower or two before the Bodhi tree in the time of the British administration. It must be remembered that the small elevation of the land on which the great dagoba was erected in the 1970’s was occupied by the Government Agent’s residence before Independence in 1948. It was only the dedicated work of Cyril de Zoyza and his unflagging zeal that enabled as much as 10 acres of prime land by the side of the Kalu Ganga, including the GA's residence and Kachcheri, to become available for the magnificent complex of buildings that constitute the present dagoba and the ancient revered Bodhi tree. All these developments are the work of Sir Cyril and the Bodhi Trust now led by his nephew Ajita de Zoyza that manages the daily collections of the devout at the Dagoba and Bodhi Tree..


Q: Prominent personality among the personalities described in the book is Sir Cyril de Zoysa. Sir Cyril de Zoysa is best remembered for Kalutara Bodhiya and Dagoba. How would you look back on the colourful personality, Sir Cyril de Zoysa who subsequently entered politics?

A: I have vivid personal recollections of Sir Cyril as the President of the Senate in the 1960s. I was then Secretary to Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike who it may be recalled sat in the Senate and not in the House in her first five years as Prime Minister. She took her oaths as a member of Parliament (Parliament consisting of both the Senate and the House of Representatives) on her first day in the Senate which being a small group of 30 was a comfortable place for Mrs Bandaranaike to commence her parliamentary career.

Sir Cyril had been appointed to the Senate by the UNP in Dudley Senanayake’s short-lived administration in the 1960’s. He treated Mrs Bandaranaike with the greatest respect and decorum and it was typical of the old world culture of the 2nd Chamber where most of the members of the Senate were elderly and exceedingly gracious to each other. Even Doric de Souza, volatile on the public stage was a model of rectitude in the Senate Chamber.

This attitude was also due in large measure to the discipline and traditions which the President of the Senate sir Cyril set for himself and the members. Sir Cyril's entrepreneurial ventures before he took to politics late in life were no less interesting. I learnt from village informers that his interest in owning and running a bus company arose from his daily journeys to practice in the Courts at Matugama from Kalutara.

He was originally from Balapitiya but moved to Kalutara early in life and practised the law both in Kalutara and Matugama. In the days of the 2nd World War he acquired a few buses and commenced this business under the name of the Swarnapali Bus Company. He had a sure touch for business and his venture flourished. The only competition he had in the Kalutara district was from Panadura where Leo Fernando ran the successful Panadura Motor Transit Company who monopolized the road transport system on the Panadura – Ratnapura road. You could end up in Buttala on one of PMTC buses that plied from Panadura via Horana and Ratnapura. In 1956 with the ‘Peoples Revolution’ that brought Bandaranaike into office the period of the bus magnates was over. Sir Cyril’s hundreds of buses were nationalised – he had by now transformed Swarnapali into the South Western Bus Company which was then one of the most efficient omnibus transport companies in the world.

It is said, and it may be apocryphal, that when he handed over his buses to the State Corporation that was formed – our own Ceylon Transport Board- he had given orders to his employees that the buses be fitted with new tyres and the petrol tanks filled to the brim! Certainly quite different to that which would have happened today when property moves from private to public hands.

Colonial times

Q: Under the sub-topic “Kalutara in colonial times”, you offered readers a wealth of information regarding how important Kalutara was in the colonial times. It has also been stated that Kalutara was strategically important landmass for colonials. What are the main factors which lured colonials to Kalutara?

A: In the days of the sailing ships which were the form of transport in which the Portuguese and Dutch colonialists came to the East, safe and secure (from piracy and bad weather) anchorages were what the ship’s captain would look for. The Kalutara district offered three such excellent sites where ships could enter the country and rest for some time drawing food and water and inevitably as with seafarers, recreation of diverse kinds. These were, from north to south, Panadura with its large estuary with the possibility of going as far, if the draught permitted it, the lakes of Bolgoda.

Plenty of water and game at the time. Next Kalutara where the lagoon provided shelter from the monsoon waves, and finally the large opening of the Bentara ganga which enable berthing of sailing ships near what is now the Bentota Beach Hotel. No wonder that in British times, in the horse drawn stage coach days, a first - class Rest House came up where the Hotel now stands – an absolute necessity where the ferry provided the only carriage over the ‘break in transportation’ which was caused by the river.

The Kalutara district with its fertile soil, a consequence of the annual flooding of the land bordering the great rivers that ran down to the sea, was great for spices which the European conquistadore was after, in addition to converts and the other ‘pleasures of conquest’. (Yasmine Guneratne has a wonderful novel with this evocative title.) I learnt while researching for Kalutara; an odyssey that while cinnamon was found wild and not so plentiful in Portuguese times the Dutch began its cultivation the crop on a systematic plantation basis.

Land tombos

The Dutch apparently were good managers of land – they developed the land tombos and land registration and strictly enforced the policy of cultivation of cinnamon on lands cleared by the villager for chena food crops. In fact , they were so serious about this that in addition to the errant villager who would be fined for his transgressions if he planted anything other than cinnamon, the village headman who should have policed the states policy was given the stricter public corporal punishment.

Certainly makes you wonder how effective such a policy would be if the Police were to be found guilty and given due punishment in addition to the criminal, if any theft or murder took place in their area of jurisdiction. Probably it was that no cases of theft or murder would ever be reported. The environs of the Kaluganga and Bentara ganga, like today, as seen by the number of tourist hotels and the smaller guest houses, were in colonial times regarded as salubrious and special for short holidays on account of being relatively cool and with plenty of daily sunshine.

John Rodney a colonial secretary in the early British times had his country retreat in Kalutara and would come down there from the more humid Colombo. At a time when the hill stations had not yet opened up, (the railways up and through the mountains were still to come), the claim of Kalutara to be the ‘sanatorium of the island’ certainly would have had much to commend.

(To be continued )



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