July 1989, A pilgrimage to Kataragama
Let me take you on a long ago trip through the sites and sights of 1980s Sri Lanka; a trip I associate so strongly with my complex father and the gifts he has left within my very personality.
December 11, 2017
y nature, we are made of two equal parts through the mere fact of our genetics. How we build ourselves beyond that is very much our own life story and influenced by so many and deep inside of me there is much that is my mum and much my dad. Unfortunately due to distance and resources, many of my amazing global family of friends never have had the chance to spend time with my mum or my dad. I do wish that many of you would have had the luxury of having tea or beer with my late father, and the few that did meet him, I am sure, still remember him fondly. He was a complex passionate man prone to extreme acts of kindness and generosity, but as clueless at times as he was intelligent. So let me take you on a long ago trip through the sites and sights of 1980s Sri Lanka; a trip I associate so strongly with my complex father and the gifts he has left within my very personality.
Kataragama in 2003
1. Introduction, July 1989, Sri Lanka
On a typically hot, sweltering Colombo day in July 1989 we boarded a bus at Colombo Fort central bus station. It was one of the now ancient square box Sri Lankan government TATA busses coloured red in the front with thin aluminium sidings that growled on every acceleration. I think they may still be on the road, a testament to Indian engineering and Sri Lankan perseverance. My mother, father and I were heading on “pilgrimage” to the holy city of Kataragama. A journey that my father insisted we undertake on every infrequent trip to the land of my birth. Kataragama was his favourite, most sacred place in all the world, he would say. This trip we didn’t go by car. I can’t remember why, maybe our old car was broken, maybe we didn’t want to take chances driving all the way from Colombo.
Mum and Dad in 2003
At this time in Sri Lankan history the guerrilla civil war of separation with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) was being waged ceaselessly in the north and east of the country. Meanwhile the southern insurgency with the Marxists (JVP) was ongoing and the then president of Sri Lanka had committed to eradicating both. In the end, the war would take another 20 years and tens of thousands of lives before coming to an end.
Checkpoints and barricades were common, armed forces with jovially-challenged faces would scowl at you closely, watching for any aberration. As my Sinhalese was of fairly poor quality, I hung around my mum and dad and said very little in case someone noticed that I was not actually fully Sinhalese and start asking questions drawing unwanted attention. This was a tense time for everyone and the wrong word could get you in a lot of trouble.
The seats in the busses in those days, and likely still, were barely cushioned and often ripped with the tired foam stuffing peeking out from under fake leather. The busses were often run standing-room only with people leaning out the doors, the machines overloaded and kneeling to the road… even on these long-distance routes.
This bus traveled the famous Galle Road out of Colombo. A busy road, in fact the second busiest in the country after Kandy Road connecting Colombo and Kandy in those days. The road followed the sandy and lagoon infested coastline of western Sri Lanka. When you weren’t standing or having a bag in your face you could peer out at numerous sandy beaches as you rounded the different curves. In the past and in the present the tourists would be dotting the beaches under umbrellas for protection, but in that particular troubled time, the beaches were empty for the most part aside from those who ignored the fear of war in exchange for cheap resorts.
These were not air-conditioned modern busses. Only occasionally the stuffy air billowed with the hint of the salt breeze of the ocean wafting through the sweaty passengers. Back then, the trains would run along the shore pastramshackle huts lined between rail road and main road. Their future was doomed even then, 15 years before this same coastline would be devastated by the infamous 2004 Tsunami. Even then rocks were being planted to stop the encroachment of mother ocean on the sandy flat land.
2. The Continual Historian
My father was approaching his 60s and this was one of our not so frequent trips to the homeland that was hardly ever home to me. For years we had taken this route in our old 1953 grey Wolseley 1500. The busses and cars all would stop at the same places, this was a ritual for all Sinhalese. Likely those that bypass the new highways and take the old routes still stick to these rituals to this day. For example, every bus and car halts at Kalutara to put alms for the Bodhi tree at the temple by the side of the massive black iron bridge. Someone, usually the conductor, would run from the bus, put the coins into the till, place his hands in prayer in a show of supplication towards the Bodhi tree and ask for safe passage. No one ever forgets to do this.
A Pooja Ceremony at Tissamaharama, 2003
Had we been in a car, my father would have regaled us with stories. My father had a deep abiding fascination with histories; history of the people, history of the land, always searching for the story behind why some person, politician, or rock existed. Steeped in the stories of the Mahavamsa (the ancient chronicle of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka) he was the born storyteller that you often found seated at the corner of the neighbourhood bar. Here the Portuguese would have landed and traded. Here was the town named Kaduwa (sword) that became Hikkaduwa due to hiccups (I’m sure he was joking). Here was where he stayed as a student in the 1950s, and mum, do you remember that trip in the 60s and how could there be so many houses? Often there were exclamations at what the various politicians had done to ruin this beautiful land. He would sigh at how people had used the limestone from coral reefs to grind into the white paint used on the mud brick houses and thereby allow the sea to encroach into the land.
We changed busses at the famous Portuguese fort of Galle. Our first stop as we neared our destination, would be Tissamaharama. So let me explain about Tissamaharama and Kataragama as my father probably first explained it to me as a child. In Sri Lanka, Tissamaharama and Kataragama are holy places for Buddhists and Hindus. The Lord Buddha was supposed to have visited both places. Sinhalese Kings of Sri Lanka started their wars conquering the island several times from these southern cities. Kataragama was the home of Lord Murugan, Sri Lanka’s only resident deity of the Hindu pantheon. Sitting astride a peacock, he had supposedly given his blessing to many battles. My dad would even claim that nearby hills featured in the famous epic Ramayana.
Tissa Lake, 2003
Tissamaharama is more a buddhist town with a white stupa and ruins dating back a few thousand years. We would often stay at the Tissamaharama Rest House. Every visit returns me back to every other time. Every visit since I can smell my dad and mum, I can hear them in my mind’s eye. Monkeys jump in the trees and the Rest House was built next to one of the many ancient man-made reservoirs. A lingering memory would be red and pink sunsets over Tissa Lake, the stupa in silhouette, birds in the air, a crane in the water and soft smell of burning incense. Overlaying all of this is my father’s voice, pretty much reciting the Mahavamsa as the palm trees rustled in a gentle wind.
3. The Quiet Extrovert
But this time, on this trip, we did not stay in Tissamaharama, we continued on through to Kataragama. Here we checked into the very plain, white-walled, conspicuously-clean, vegetarian, alcohol-free and pilgrim-filled Kataragama Rest House. As always, my father would chat with the person at the desk, and within 5 minutes, a new friend was made. There was always some connection to someone and with that ready grin and story, there was hardly a human that didn’t love chatting to my dad. If beers were in the offing then laughter and chuckles would ensue. But under the stern gaze of my mother, there was to be no alcohol before the Pooja.
We quickly changed into new clean white clothes; my father in a white shirt and tan pants and my mum in a her customary pilgrim saree. My father was, as always, the colonial gentleman, his nice watch on display, a sparkling fountain pen in his pocket, grey hair neatly styled with cream, shirt neatly tucked in. This was not a place where you appeared unkempt to divinity.
The walk to the holy city in Kataragama is not far from the rest house but the first stop was to make the pooja trays. Typically a pooja tray contains fruit, flowers and incense, the mealtime offering to the gods. My mum was the mistress of this task; my father and I would hang back as she chose the fruits and the various other contents according to her exacting specifications. With garlands added we were finally off with three heavy pooja trays. From the gate to the holy city, we would discard our flip flops and proceed on bare feet. These were the days before my father’s sciatica after which walking barefoot would become the same as walking on hot coals.
The holy city of Kataragama was reached by crossing the Menik Ganga (Gem River). My father would exclaim as we went over the “new” bridge to the holy site that pretty much every leader of Sri Lanka since independence seemed to have built a bridge or gate to the holy city. Sarcastically he noted that it was little different from ancient kings, littering the countryside with the equivalent of “I was here” monuments meant to exalt them in reincarnation. The main area of Kataragama is a walled area with a hut-like temple to the god Kataragama (Murugan). Next to that temple is the smaller but related temple to Lord Ganesha. Students would line up to make offerings to the brainy elephant god just before their upcoming exams.
At a certain time, we would all line up amongst the grove of Bodhi trees; descendants, it was said, from the sapling brought to Sri Lanka after Buddha’s death. Underneath the dry leaves that gave Buddha the peace to achieve his enlightenment, we would hold our pooja high on shoulders or above our heads and enter the temple at the tolling of the bells. Everything had to be done right. My father would hold my hand as he silently prayed good fortune to my brothers and I. At times his hands caressed my head gently. Then we were inside. The colour, the sounds, the loud chanting and the clanging of the bells. First came the pooja of the Murathang rice, the special sweet holy rice only ever produced for the mealtimes of the gods. That would first be served to the god and then to the waiting flock. This was the start of the thrice daily ritual of feeding the immense appetite of the gods and with whom we now shared a meal. From here we would hand over the pooja basket and the priest would take it behind a multihued curtain adorned with a giant representation of the god Kataragama. A few minutes of chanting later, the tray would be returned, fruit cut in half, and finally one of the priests would put the third eye on our foreheads before we exited into a cooling night.
Looking towards Kiri Vehera, 2003
From here we would head to the Kiri Vehera. An ancient stupa from the 6th century BC that shines milk white against the jungles to which it is set. This is possibly one of the endearing images of my father, him sitting or standing staring up at this giant stupa, deep in thought. This was a man so extroverted that spending an evening alone often seemed to be some sort of personal torture, and yet here so profoundly deeply and quietly contemplative. This was he said, his favourite place. A place that felt calm and holy, where he was one with the world, regardless of his religious beliefs. When I left home, I discovered that he had added a small picture frame with a clipping of a picture of Kataragama into my luggage. I still have it. I even brought it with me to Helsinki.
4. The Man of the People
The next day we boarded a bus from Kataragama to Badulla in the highlands. I remember we had many discussions about whether to go straight back to Colombo and which route. I really wanted to take the “Podi Menike” train from Badulla to Colombo Fort. And my dad did too. So we boarded another many-hour bus and off we went. That particular bus ride was memorable due to a child getting motion sick and vomiting out the window only to have some of it fly onto my dad. He took it in stride. It was also memorable in that the lands to the east of there were grey areas of control between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. Bombs had gone off on this road, and there were stories of guerrillas hidden in the woods. Kataragama was safe; there was no way any party would ever commit a crime there. Outside, that was a different story.
Tea Country, Sri Lanka, 2003
We arrived in Badulla just in time to get to the train station and board our train. If there’s one reason I remember this journey so well and associate so much of my father to this journey, it was the train ride. Trains were a big thing between my dad and I. Even more than a historian of the land, he was the foremost family authority on British cars and trains. He even remembered when certain diesel engines would have come into service in Sri Lanka. I would stare out of the car window for hours hoping for a glimpse of these iron and steel behemoths that plied the rice paddy fields. And my dad was happy to encourage me along with stories of the train system and his youth. Now we would take the famous tea-country train.
The train leaves Badulla in the afternoon and arrives in Colombo Fort station in the night time. It winds through innumerable tunnels through highland tea and small villages populated by the tea plantation workers of the various major tea companies: Lipton, Cargills, Mackwoods. The train, from Badulla to Kandy stops at every station, a commuter train as much as a tourist long distance train. Over old Georgian bridges, through innumerable smoky tunnels, and passing little well-kept one-room stations and smartly-dressed station masters exchanging message rings with train drivers to track the flow of traffic on the remote one-track highland line.
Now, I had mentioned that this was a tense time in Sri Lanka but the western capital region was fairly removed from war. Suicide bombings were unfortunately common, but the general apparatus of war hardly intruded into the lives of Colombo people. That year the LTTE were ascendent. They were making forays into the highlands and a few months before there had been clashes with the Sri Lankan Army in nearby regions. The population of this area, and most, if not all the occupants of this particular train carriage from Badulla into the highlands were Tamil. Many of those who worked the plantations were descendants of the Indian Tamil labourers brought over by British colonial masters.
Podi Menike, 2003 near Haputale
At one plantation station several armed soldiers came on board. We were sitting by the window, my mum, my dad and I. I had been paying little heed to the goings-on in the carriage until then; I had been staring out into the distance as I always do on train rides. These armed men with ugly looking weapons and fatigues walked down the aisle peering closely at each occupant. Finally they came to my smartly-dressed father and stopped short. One of the men said something in Tamil to my father and without too much hesitation and to my absolute surprise, his hand firmly on my mum, he answered back in Tamil. The man stood there for a bit, the gun slung across him and finally taking a long look at each of us, he motioned to the other men and left our carriage.
At the next stop, the armed men left. At the following stop , the Sri Lankan Army jumped on board and proceeded to identity check everyone on the train. Armed to the teeth, they were looking for someone.
We would arrive much later than expected and exhausted to Colombo. A day later we heard some chilling news. There had been a battle in a village in the highlands. A group of guerrillas had attacked a Sri Lanka army group. It had happened not much after those first men had left our train, though I have no definitive proof of anything.
Dad in 2006, 75th birthday
I asked my father how he knew Tamil. In a carriage filled with local Tamils, we obviously stood out like a sore thumb. He said it is the right of anyone to be spoken to in the language that they wished. He had learned some Tamil as a child and student, worked in the north and respected the Tamil people greatly, why should he not answer back in Tamil.
To this day I do not know whether anything would have happened had he answered in Sinhalese or in English, but I always think of this story when I think of the amazing amount of emotional intelligence my father often showed. He was clueless about lots of different things, especially, for example, when my mother was angry, but in this he taught me a lot. Always learn the language, it is not just a courtesy, it is a solemn duty as a human to communicate with those around you in their own tongue.
Besides which, you may never know when armed guerrillas might board your train.
Next week would have been my father’s 86th birthday. And I do sincerely miss his laughter and stories.