We forgot to count the elephants! August 21, 2006

In our last report, we mentioned the SLELTA (Sri Landka English Language Teachers' Association) Conference in Colombo. We went, and it was great. The site was BMICH (Being from Flint, we say, "B-Mich," but everybody else calls it "B-M-I-C-H" (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). It was a gift from the Chinese government. Nice conference rooms, spacious lobby for tea, lovely dining room with fabulous food, and beautiful grounds, particularly the bougainvillea surrounded by plumeria.

SLELTA Conference, Colombo, August 4-6, 2006

Top center: Dushy and Visakha

Above: John Swales and Monique Gunesekera

Center: Monique

Bottom left: John and Dushy

Bottom center: the Conference Committee

The sessions–plenary, papers, and workshops–were interesting. We had expected the last day to be something of a loser, but three Powerpoint Presentations by students from Peradeniya were among the best. "Is my equipment longer than yours?" was an expose of "tutories," (private schools offering English language classes) in Kandy. They are pretty shoddy, and some make no effort to hide the fact that they offer sexual material, as you can see from the title. The second described internet chat sites in Sri Lanka, which are also overtly sexual and remarkably free in a traditional, conservative society. For the third, three women returned to their old schools in the provinces and analyzed the urban-rural divide in English teaching and learning. The most revealing fact was that young students were almost unanimously interested and eager to learn English, but by the time they reach high school, the enthusiasm had been 99% quashed. Sadly, effective English language teaching is definitely aimed at the elite.

Not only were the conference lunches sumptuous and plentiful, but on each of the three days we were served morning tea with sandwiches and sweets and afternoon tea with cake. There was always special provision for vegetarians, which was greatly appreciated. The service was impeccable!

In an earlier report we mentioned the driver whom we hired for three days in Colombo when Ven. Pannasila was here. We have seen him every time we have arrived at Fort Station. Sometimes he is touting for three-wheelers; sometimes he is offering his own van; but he is always smiling. We hired him for the ride to Hotel Sansu, a cheap business hotel we found in the phone book. It is small, fairly new, and obscure, but very reasonably priced and close to the site. We couldn't help comparing it to our hotel in downtown Kolkata last March. This one was much cheaper and pleasantly clean. Somehow, in ordinary Indian hotels, nobody seems to clean all the way to the wall; the edges and corners of every room are always grimy.

One of the most interesting comments Visakha heard at the conference was made by an Israeli presenter who had earlier given a very useful talk on teaching reading. She wondered why other presenters (as well as the SL Government) were so concerned with the Sinhalese learning Tamil: "Don't waste time, energy, and money on Tamil language–everybody should learn the language of the majority," thus reducing some very complex issues of discrimination and minority rights to nil.

Some weeks ago we got an e-mail from a woman who knew of us through Ann Arbor's Zen temple. She was working for an NGO on a tsunami relief project. We corresponded and invited her to Kandy for the Perahera. We agreed to meet in Colombo and to ride back together on the train. As Ken was escalatoring luggage at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel where we had arranged to meet for lunch, Visakha spotted a tall foreigner. She quickly dialed on the cell phone and watched the foreigner answer. Bingo, it was she!

Our friend's NGO was really spooked by the troubles. She was absolutely forbidden to go to Kandy--too dangerous! When her office called, she was on the train to--Kandy! She told them she was going to "an undisclosed location" for a meditation retreat. Well, we did do some meditation, so it was much more of a fib than a lie. There was no trouble at all in Kandy, but three blocks from the office where she's left some of her luggage in Colombo, a government minister and some passers-by were killed in an LTTE explosion. How ironic!

Everyone had told us that the Queens Hotel, just opposite the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) was the best venue for viewing the Esala Perahera, and that the best time was the next to the last night. We booked four seats (Barbara was still with us.) early for August 8. The tickets were a little pricey, but this is the biggest spectacle in the country, and, as mother used to say, "Might as well be hung for a sheep as a goat." Not very good guidelines for vegetarians, but let that pass.

The Perahera (procession) we were going to watch began at 8 PM, but all roads in Kandy were to be closed at 4:30, so we had to get to the hotel early. We always feel at home in the lobby of the Queens, so that was no problem. The four of us occupied some luxurious high backed chairs and enjoyed a snack of fresh vegetables, dinner rolls with feta cheese in olive oil from Colombo, and the best of Sri Lankan tea from the hotel. Then Ken and Visakha enjoyed a leisurely swim in the garden pool. (At Queens, the pool is $1.50/person, while the pool at the Colombo Hilton costs $14/person for non-guests!) Our seats were the best in the house! Front row, center, right on the curb!

In the fourth century A.D. the Tooth Relic was carried to the Ceylonese capital Anuradhapura by a prince and princess from Orissa, India, hidden in the princess' coiffure. Ever since being presented to the Sinhalese ruler, it has been the most venerated object in the island and regarded as the symbol of kingship. As early as the fifth century, the Chinese monk Fa Hien, who wrote about his travels in India and Ceylon, described the majestic festival he witnessed in Anuradhapura:.

"At length the tooth of Buddha is brought forth and conducted along the principal road. As they proceed on the way, religious offerings are made to it. When they arrive at the Abhayagiri Vihara they place it in the Hall of Buddha, where the clergy and laity all assemble in vast crowds and burn incense, and light lamps, and perform every king of religious ceremony, both night and day,with out ceasing. After ninety complete days they again return it to the Vihara within the City".

Successive rulers may have also instituted pageants in honor of the Tooth Relic, but the Esala Perahera of today dates from the reign of King Kirthisri Rajasinghe in the eighteenth century. Pageants of the four Hindu shrines (devalas) in Kandy were combined to form one magnificent procession originating from Dalada Maligawa. The pageant, which lasts for ten nights, with an increasingly longer and more magnificent procession each night, is a blend of Hindu and Buddhist rituals, attesting to the fact that the religions have been inextricably mixed and practiced harmoniously in the Island for centuries. Paritta (Pirith) chanting is done in the Hindu Devalas and alms given so that the Hindu gods can also acquire merit. Nowadays, only a duplicate of the relic casket is placed in the elaborate shrine on the back of the Maligawa Tusker. The relic is too precious to the whole country to be removed from the temple, which, in fact, was bombed in 1998 by the LTTE. <http://www.spur.asn.au/dalada1.htm>

The Perahera is a two-and-a-half hour unbroken spectacle. The music, the colors, the lights, and the costumes present a magnificent kaleidoscope as the procession passes by. Actually, however, it can be divided into five separate processions. The first, which is, of course, the most important, is from the Dalada Maligawa itself. The others are from: Natha Devala, identified with Avalokitesvara (Kannon or Kuan Yin), which is given precedence because that god is a Bodhisatta; Maha Vishnu Devala, identified with Sakka, the king of the gods; Kataragama Devala, identified with Skanda or Murugan, one of Sakka's generals who is also the Hindu god of war; and Pattini Devala, identified with Pattini, the goddess who protects from plagues, such as small pox, and the guardian of children. Each of these processions is distinguished by the color of the uniforms of the mahouts and the regalia of the elephants.

A charming book we just found at BPS describes the Esala Perahera as a ceremony to bring rain. The whip crackers, who can be heard long before they are seen and who begin the procession, represent the thunder. The torch-bearers, who carry on long poles flaming buckets of dried coconut husks the entire length of the procession, represent the lightning. The elephants represent the rain clouds. The final "Day Perahera," a "water-cutting" ceremony, represents the rain itself.

The snap of the whip cracker's great whips was louder than firecrackers, and we joined in the tradition of throwing coins, which attendants gathered. Next came fire jugglers. Some twirled and threw flaming batons high into the air. Others carried flaming wheels which they spun, creating rings of fire in front, behind, above, and overhead, as they threw them up and caught them with breathtaking skill. There were some men walking on twelve-foot-high wooden stilts and juggling with fire, but they had given up their fires just before they passed us, so we have no photos of that. The most mysterious fire bearers were spinning buckets of fire around their bodies as they marched. The flames never stopped revolving steadily, but it was impossible to see where the string was attached to the body–mouth, head, neck or waist.

Next followed rows of flag bearers. There were flags and standards of the various provinces and temples, as well as brass plaques, shaped like flags, embossed with animal designs, perhaps representing Jataka tales (we noticed peacocks, parrots, and rabbits). These were followed by the first elephant, with an impressive dignitary on his back. All the elephants (We had intended to count the elephants, but . . . There must have been well over one hundred!) were entirely covered in bejeweled and brocaded silk mantles, which hung almost to the ground. They looked more like moving mountains than beasts. The colors were gorgeous. The drapery fit over the ears, allowing them to flap them, covered their great foreheads, with holes for the eyes, and fell loosely over the trunk, between the great decorated tusks. From our perfect vantage point, we could look each elephant right in the eye! Many elephants were adorned with twinkling electric lights. (Batteries included?) The huge beasts moved very quietly and serenely, but some of the later ones, particularly the younger ones, lifted their feet rhythmically and swayed with the music of the drums.

Drumming is an important part of Sri Lankan worship, and there were many kinds of drums in the Perahera. Some were beaten with the hands, and others with special curved sticks. There were also cymbals, various horns, and a few flutes. Some young men (There were no women in the procession until the Pattini Shrine at the very end.) carried curved brass instruments which looked like horns, but they seemed to be ceremonial rather than musical. The musicians were accompanied by superb dancers: some with elaborate breast plates and jingling anklets, some with gorgeous headdresses, some with sticks which they beat together in rhythm, some with swords and dressed as warriors, performing mock battles as they danced. At intervals, stately, formally attired men, obviously representing kings and dignitaries, marched by with traditional umbrellas held over their heads. Toward the end, a large contingent of Hindu participants carried kavadis (meaning burdens) on their shoulders, much as we had seen in the Thaipusam festival in Malaysia at the Batu Caves. These appeared to be more ceremonial, not as heavy as at Thaipusam, and not attached to their bodies with hooks. Still, we did see several men with hooks embedded in the flesh of their backs, pulling their companions along.

The highlight of the procession was the magnificent Maligawa Tusker, bearing the replica of the tooth relic in a howdah on his back, shaded by a grand fringed canopy. A white cloth was spread in the elephant's path as a sign of respect for the relic, and he walked with great dignity. Everyone stood and paid obeisance as the relic passed by. We felt a thrill when the reliquary was in front of us.

In Sri Lanka, as you pass someone on the street, you will invariably get a smile and make eye contact, which seems to say, "It's so nice to see you!" We instinctively tried to make eye contact with the dancers (and with the elephants), but during the Perahera that was never reciprocated. Every drummer, every dancer, every elephant, and every torch bearer was intent on his part, mindful of the task. It was most solemn and impressive.

We had seen Kandyan dancers before, but never in such numbers. There were so many participants in the Perahera that it seemed that the whole city was taking part, and the rest of the country was watching. We have learned that some of the costumes use 13 yards of cloth. We hope the photos help to conjure up the images and to give some idea of the spectacle. Click here to see all 80 photos of the Perahera.

We didn't take part in the final day of celebration. That is when the great palanquins are taken to the Mahavehli River. There, behind screens shielding the boat from view, officials use special swords to "cut water," after which it rains and rains and rains!

The book mentioned above relates that during the colonial period, British authorities stopped the water-cutting ceremony for three years, during which there was a severe drought. When the people and monks appealed to be allowed to resume the festival, the administration reluctantly relented. As soon as the ceremony was performed, it started to rain heavily, becoming a downpour which caused floods. People called it "Maligawa water!" Lily told us that there was so much rain that year that even the lobby of the Queens Hotel was inundated.

There has been a recent spate of bomb blasts, mainly in Colombo. They are usually targeted, the Pakistani Ambassador, for example, and not random, although the claymore mine in the nature preserve about two months ago seems to have been waiting for someone to come by. In some cases, they are blatant assassinations, usually of moderate Tamil leaders. It certainly doesn't feel like a civil war of the Iraqi sort. Most of the country has a blend of ethnicities (Kandy seems to have a higher percentage of minorities than most places.), and most of the country is calm. The "fighting" is pretty much localized in the north and the east, where the Tigers hold sway. In much of the territory they control, they have driven out, or "ethnically cleansed," the Sinhalese and Muslims.

You have probably read about the recent fighting related to the Tigers having closed a set of sluice gates, which deprived about 15,000 people of water. More than 25,000 Muslims were forced from the nearby town of Muttar, and, if survivor's stories are true, there was a major massacre, but the ICRC hasn't been allowed back in to do a body count.

There was the "execution" of seventeen workers, mostly Tamil, in the office of a French NGO in that area. It is still under investigation. Was it the Tigers, or was it the Sri Lankan Army? Some say the Tigers disapprove of agencies who expose their (the Tigers') inability to provide services, but we know that the Sri Lankan army is not filled with angels. No army is, which makes it difficult to shout indiscriminately, "Support Our Troops!" We cannot support anyone who commits acts of genocide, indiscriminate violence, or other war crimes. In Flint, we marched shouting, "Not in our name!" Here we just watch and pity the civilians suffering on all sides.

The abbot of Subodharama, Ven. Dhammavasa, started collecting much needed food, water, and other necessities with the intention of delivering it to people recently displaced by the fighting. Donations poured in, and he hired a lorry. He was advised, however, that the situation was too volatile, and the goods must be distributed by the Sri Lankan army or the ICRC

When we went to the US Embassy to get new pages in our passports, we also registered as SL residents. Since then, we have been receiving "Alerts" about three times a week advising us not to travel in the north and the east, and to avoid moving with troop convoys. Good advice! We have been encouraging all of you to visit us here. Perhaps we need to temper that a little. Kandy really seems quiet and "perfectly" safe now, but no one knows what will happen in the next few months. We hope for the best!

On a lighter note: Our paper recently observed that "George III suffered for many years at the hands of mental illness." Certainly he was not alone!

Ken's 60th birthday was a chance to offer breakfast at Vajiraramaya. We had informed the older monk, who is always very helpful, and he registered August twelfth in the official temple register. Lily and her friend Margaret worked all night, literally, preparing green porridge, eggplant, dahl, cadju (cashew) curry, green bean curry, kirihode (coconut gravy), rice, and fruit salad. We prepared a mild cole slaw and deviled eggs, as well as curd and treacle. Both house guests helped sort all the dana and put it in bags for thirty monks and novices. Everything was ready when our three three-wheelers (Ashoka was puzzled when we told him we needed "nine wheels.") arrived at 6:30. Savithri, her brother and sister-in-law, Manel, and mother and daughter next door went by car and donated several cakes and other sweets. The boot of the car was also convenient for most of the food, allowing us to sit comfortably in the three-wheelers.

After all the food was set out, two monks took their seats in front of the Buddha, and we gathered below for taking Precepts. Then we took our places. The monks, beginning with the smallest of the novices, filed in with their bowls, pausing in front of the table for us to serve. They sat in the places arranged along the walls and ate silently. In all, there were twenty monks and novices and three nuns: one from Burma, one from Thailand, and one from Korea.

How remarkable that the Burmese nun is the very same bhikkuni we had read so much about before. She ordained here in Sri Lanka but was arrested and imprisoned when she returned to Burma, on the bizarre charges of being in robes falsely because the bhikkhuni order was "dead" and of being a threat to the religion! We were very happy to meet her and to have the chance to talk with her. She was interested to hear about our trip go India for the celebration of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion in October. She wants to know more about this movement and may even be joining us. That's exciting!

The Korean nun had studied six years in Rangoon, some of the time with Ven. U Silananda Sayadaw, and she presented us with several CDs of his lectures. She will be studying in either Kelaniya or Peradeniya. Personally, we hope it is Peradeniya so that we will have more chances to meet her.

After breakfast, we took our seats again in front of the monks, and they chanted several paritta. The chanting, perfectly in unison, resonating around the hall, was very moving. It was the perfect beginning for a birthday (which seemed not to end.)

Shortly after we finished our own breakfast back at the house, Savithri appeared with a lovely chocolate cake, which her son, the patisserie chef at the Topaz Hotel, had baked. Lily went shopping for vegetables and returned with a huge white cake, also beautifully decorated with roses. Our NGO friend had to catch the train to Colombo, but we sat down with Barbara and Lily and had cake. Barbara had bought some balloons, with faces, which some of the women had somewhat blown up. Ken explained that, in order to inflate the ears, one had to stretch them by blowing them up first. Barbara laughed that he was acting more like a six-year old that sixty, but he insisted that it was a matter of "challenge." He did, in fact, get all of them blown up, only popping one.

In the evening, the women from next door, Manel, Savithri, and their guests from Colombo dropped in, and we cut the chocolate cake, which we had with avocado coffee, which is rapidly becoming a big hit around here.

As this goes to the Web (as opposed to "Press"), our shipment has still not arrived. Briefly, the story is that, although it was finally declared "personal," for which there is no storage fee, Sri Lanka Ports Authority was demanding storage charges for the period that it had been considered "commercial." The various agents handling the cargo were blaming each other, and no one was taking responsibility to pay. Finally, after a flurry of emails back and forth from the States, it appears to have been cleared up. We got one email and one phone call informing us that one of the American companies involved would take charge and see that it was released. We are waiting for another phone call informing us that HAS BEEN released and that it will be delivered. We are not holding our breath. The big question is not when, but what will finally arrive. Will there be anything left inside the crates? Tune in for the next installment!

Our altar is still quite bare, though it is now graced with a beautiful brass plaque of Upagutta (or, according to Sinhalese tradition, Sivali), which was a birthday gift from Barbara. <http://home.earthlink.net/~mpaw1238/id37.html>

The day after she left, we got an urgent text message on our cell phone from our friend, informing us she was being evacuated "due to civil unrest (war) "within twenty-four hours. She was both disappointed and frustrated, because her job with the NGO was so rewarding. With lots of luck, she hopes to return and resume her social work here. We do, too.

Back to Table of Contents

Buddhist Relief Mission