“Oh no, NOT again!” was the thought running through my head on hearing of the fresh spate of communal violence spilling out of Kandy, Sri-Lanka. I had planned on visiting Kandy on my way to Peradeniya to visit my old university, but now it would have to be cancelled. The annoyance of cancelling a trip was nothing to the fear that gripped my gut on hearing of the burning of Muslim homes, businesses, and mosques in Nuwara (Kandy) and Ampara districts. The media feared that violence would spread to other parts of the country. The quick action taken by the government was welcome in imposing curfew, assigning a state of emergency, and full blockade of social media.
Anyone who has lived through the riots of 1983, recalled as Black July, still remembers like yesterday the raging violent mobs in the city as they went about killing members of an ethnic group and burning houses and businesses with impunity. Sanity and rational thinking were thrown out and Colombo was in the grip of high emotion. Who could ever forget the spiraling smoke all around, and the smell of burning flesh amidst the eerie quiet of a once busy city, punctuated by a sudden surge of an angry mob that appeared randomly like a drunk but deadly wasp cloud, hissing their hatred, destroying everything in their path as it raged past, only to disappear as quickly, having left only desolation and despair in its wake?
Therefore, it was with trepidation I accepted the invitation of Rev. Matale Wijewanse Thero to first meet him at the Mettaramaya Temple on Lauries Rd, Bambalapitiya. There were no riots in Colombo as yet, but one never knew. Friday the city held its breath in tense anticipation, geared ready to respond if any violence would break.
I had to meet the Reverend Matale Thero. He was part of the reason I was visiting my birth city. Rev. Matale is a friend of my Department Chair, Dr. Bill Wallis, and he would be my student in Fall semester 2018. Rev. Matale had cut short his trip to Australia and had come to Colombo to specially meet with me and we were supposed to go to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa to see the Buddhist archaeological ruins and then to visit his monastery with the hopes of organizing a study abroad trip for college students. I was supposed to take an unofficial survey of the land and make a list of places of interest the students would be visiting and learning about on their “Art History Tour” of Sri-Lanka, tentatively planned for Summer 2020.
The initial visit was very cordial though I got strange looks from the congregants at the temple. To find a Muslim girl meeting a monk is unusual, but except for the stares, no one intruded or commented on it. The head monk of the Mettaramaya temple met with me too. This initial meeting with the Rev. Matale concluded with a definite plan to visit his monastery “Gale Pansala” (so called because of the six caves surrounding his monastery) in Mihintale.
A Muslim girl travelling to the heart of Buddhist country accompanied by a monk would be controversial enough, but with the specter of communal violence ever ready to flare up in the background, this was a mission that needed more than an adventurous spirit; it needed faith in the goodness of the human heart, and of course, prayers. I was not alone; my mother would not allow me to travel alone. I had my sister in tow for company. The train journey to Anuradhapura took 5 hours: peaceful and scenic with panoramic paddy fields shimmering golden green with the rising sun. The Rev. Matale met us at the station with his driver, who was a young army officer, and a rickety but comfortable van to take us sightseeing.
Now an UNESCO World Heritage site, Anuradhapura was the first political and religious capital established by the Sinhalese race and the center of Theravada Buddhism. It was built around the cutting of the bo- tree. The city dates from even before the 5th Century B.C. Buddhism was introduced to the island 236 years after the passing of the Buddha, but here, in Anuradhapura it set root and flourished and spread, a window into what Buddhism must be like in ancient India, the place of its origin. The stupas found here are of the same magnitude as those of the pyramids of Egypt. The purpose of my visit was to get acquainted with the beautiful history of Buddhism and what better way to do that than to see it through the eyes of a monk, who has lived and breathed this life since childhood?
We visited all the famous stupas of Anuradhapura. Ceremonious and beautiful as they rose up hundreds of feet, evident from a distance: white, circular with protruding intricately carved spheres atop, majestic against the green and blue colors of the background, these stupas appeared shimmering in the hot hazy air. Each stupa had a circular, intricately sculptured black moonstone and guard stones sculptures on either side of the path that led to the entrance. A moonstone is a semicircular rock slab which is called sandakada pahana and it symbolizes the cycle of samsara in Buddhism. It would be these moonstones and guard stones, carved brilliantly that I was particularly interested in as that was a major part of my prospective student tour. The carvings bore a narrative, a visual story, lyrical and symmetrical, a testament to the mastery of the craftsmen who had carved them.
Next to each stupa was a huge water tank. Ancient kings built a sophisticated network of small tanks connected by canals to large reservoirs to collect and redistribute every single drop of rain the land received. The tanks were built in cascading systems, using the natural inclination and topography of the land. This rain water was collected for paddy cultivation. There were eleven massive tanks in the vicinity besides having over ten thousand small water bodies. Anuradhapura was grain self-sufficient due to the storing of rainwater collected during the two monsoon seasons. Because of the ancient water tanks built by each succeeding king who made Anuradhapura their capital for a thousand years, it had a sophisticated and advanced rich history as seen by the ruins left behind by each succeeding civilization.
As evening neared we made our way to Rev. Matale’s monastery in Mihintale. I do admit to fear outlining my thoughts. My rational thought told me I had nothing to fear. I was in the company of a man who is immensely trustworthy, but who can stem horrid thoughts from entering, especially if having been witness to such horrific, unspeakable atrocities as seen in 1983 riots? Curfew had been lifted just two days ago. The country was still in a state of emergency.
Gale Pansala was off the main road. It was a beautiful, new building, yellow in color with iron railings and cream colored tiled floors. Clean and remote and peaceful. It overlooked the Maha Kanadarawa Wewa (water tank). A Thirty-two thousand acres huge tank. There were no mosquitoes which I found amazing, having suffered mosquito bites since my arrival to the country. Sitting on a meditation rock overlooking the massive water tank, I could feel the peace in the cool breeze in the air, see gentle ripples in the water and dark stubs of cut tree branches peeking out here and there, as the water reflected the overhead sky, the clear blue, the white clouds, and if I listened closely, I could hear the fish swimming in the clear water.
As darkness crept in, the folks from the village came to pay a visit. The secretary of the Pansala was an Air Force gentleman. People were polite, kind, curious, without being overly intrusive, and they knew of my visit beforehand as the Thero had spoken of me. They were surprised at my command of Sinhalese, accented, yes, but understandable, compared to other foreign visitors who they were accustomed to having met before. Not only did I speak the native language, I was not white as they would expect someone from America to be. There was no conversation about religion, thankfully, but they knew I was a Muslim. We shared a meal that they had brought. Fresh caught fish from the tank, vegetables from their garden, rice they had cultivated themselves, simple village fare, but satisfying in its simplicity.
The next day at pre-dawn, we watched the waning moon disappearing as the sun gradually ascended. As the sky began to lighten, the Maha Kanadarawa Tank took on all the colors of a beautiful day. As the sun rose, its reflection in the still water made it look like there were two suns. The lack of insects still amazed me. Here was a corner that was unspoilt and untouched by civilization.
After a simple breakfast, I got a tour of the surrounding caves. These caves were believed to be the place that Arahat Mahinda, son of the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka, settled in to meditate along with his fellow missionaries from India. The Rev. Matale told me that it was in this hermitage of caves on the hill of Mihintale (the name which derives from Mahinda’s own), from which Buddhism spread to the entire country. There were pieces of ruins carelessly found in the surrounding vicinity like play blocks discarded by a messy child who had lost interest in finishing what he set out to build. Rev. Matale Thero wanted to make this place in future into a meditation center. The tour ended with a trip to see a stone bridge built at the same time as the Maha Kanadarawa Tank built by King Mahasen (276-303 C.E.) As I walked on it, it was sturdy and strong, and I marveled at how something built so long ago could withstand so much time without crumbling. Another testament to the skill and engineering talents of people past.
We spent the second day of our trip travelling to Polonnaruwa. On our journey, we bypassed Sigiriya, the steep rock fortress built by King Kashyapa, who committed patricide and deprived the rightful heir of the throne. To escape the revenge of his brother, Moggallana, he built the massive fortress of Sigiriya, another world heritage site, but being short on time, I wanted to see the ruins of the various kings who had moved the capitol from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. What I found most fascinating in the ruins of Polonnaruwa was that within the Buddhist temples would be found side by side Siva Devales (Hindu temples) and there even would be a shrine to the Hindu Gods inside, especially to the God Siva Lingum, showing that two religions existed side by side in harmony. If two religions could exist side by side in years past, why not now?
Interested in the architectural aspect, what I found interesting besides the above was the lively animation and humor as found in traditional Hindu Kovils (temples) of the intricately ornamental figures sculptured in the exterior walls of lions, demi-gods, and abodes with residing deities. In the Polonnaruwa period the Hindu influence is further seen in the abundance of statues of Hindu deities and the conspicuous difference in the moonstones where the bull is omitted.
The day ended with a swim in the Parakrama Samudrya. A soak in the clear water can melt away all stress and tiredness of the day. It was called a samudraya because the water tank built by King Parakramabahu was so big, people referred to it as a sea. History would quote him as having said, "not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man," which is one of his most famous utterances. This rain water would be collected in tanks, to be used for agricultural cultivation. This is why this area just like in Anuradhapura has thousands of water-bodies punctuating the landscape every few kilometers, but Parakrama Samudrya dominates the landscape, a hydro engineering feat that is still studied by modern day engineers.
The day had been intensely humid and hot. Thero predicted it would rain, and so it did on our drive back to the train station to catch the night train to Colombo. We saw wild elephants on our journey, strolling the streets like they had no care in the world, sharing it with automobiles that stopped to let them pass.
I spent two days in the very birthplace where Buddhism originated in Sri-Lanka before spreading to other parts of Lanka. Like the bo- tree, found in each Buddhist temple, a symbol of Buddhism and the oldest recorded living tree, what I was seeing was the planting of racial and ethnic harmony in this journey of two Muslim women accompanied by a monk touring ancient cultural sites. It was a need to understand the place I grew up in, conflicted memories of violence tarring beautiful memories of the past, of gentle people coexisting with other minorities in harmony, made even bitter because of the recent communal strife opening up a wound afresh that I had thought I had buried.
On this journey, not only did I get a lesson on Buddhism, but I came to better know my guide. I already knew he was ordained at a young age into the monkhood and taken his vow as a teenager, but I would learn more about the Thero from others (because he was too humble to talk of himself). He was the guru nayaka (chief) of that area. He had six degrees. He was referred to fondly as a Vedha Hamuduruva because of his healing touch in curing, aches and pains of his congregation. He was very much loved and respected. He was a scholar, and it was his ardent wish to study English, and he would be my student this Fall semester. Many a time on this trip the lines between a teacher and a student blurred. Who was the student and who was the guru?
When two individuals from different ethnic groups meet, as long as there is civility, they will have lots in common. It is when an uncivilized individual meets others from the opposite culture that friction occurs and differences are pointed out. That is where the misconception has arisen that opposing minorities shall never see eye to eye. As long as what’s different is admired and respected for what it is, there is no friction.
The people I met on this trip are the beating heart of Sri-Lanka. They are warm, hospitable, loving, simple village folk whose friendly nature bespoke of peace. Ardent Buddhists they may be, but these people yearned for peace just like everyone else. In no way could they ever belong to the fearful mob that my mind’s eye had conjured up. Deep down we are all one. If only we would get out of our comfort zone and venture out to meet people different from what we perceive to be as ‘us’. There is no greater education than to travel, and in the words of Robert Frost, the road less taken makes all the difference.
I will be recommending Sri-Lanka as a possible study abroad prospective destination to my American students. It is such interactions between different groups that bring about deeper understanding of the world and helps in fostering peace and harmony.