Ceylankan - a melange of many minds
FOR an expatriate publication the Ceylankan, which comes all the way
from Sydney, has many surprises.
For one thing I was under the impression that expatriates are people
who are busy making money all the time and as a result they have no time
left to 'waste' on such cultural enterprises like producing
entertaining, informative and valuable journals like Ceylankan that is
hard to put away once you start on it.
For instance, I picked up one at random from a lot I have been
receiving quarterly over the years and found myself so absorbed in it
that I forgot the purpose why I picked it up for, which was to thank the
Editor for sending them to me.
Just to give a sample of what this periodical serves let me lay
before you the range of its interests by opening the pages of just one
journal. Tucked away in a corner almost like an afterthought is a recipe
telling you how to prepare a dish of couscous, a Moroccan dish somewhat
One of its high points being the use of ten strands of saffron - not
to be confused with turmeric, the Indian saffron, which we use in Lanka
but have to be satisfied with it as the real za'faran as the Arabs
called it when they brought it to Spain in the Middle Ages is the most
expensive kitchen ingredient going. I suppose only expatriates can
afford to use it.
In contrast to this gourmet stuff we have an intellectual feast
prepared by a Sri Lankan physician, Dr Lakshman Ranasinghe, on the
health facilities available to us in the past both in the East and in
I was glad to find confirmation here that when it comes to civilised
living we in the East have set an example to the rest of the world.
Contrary to the picture given by a writer by the name of W.H.S. Jones
who said that the heathens, meaning those of us who were non-Christians,
took the view that 'compassion for suffering was a virtue,' while the
Christians considered it a duty.
Dr. Ranasinghe points out that this was not only derogatory but
historically false. He goes on to say that 'the first infirmaries and
hospitals in the world were Buddhistic, and, they were conceived and
established out of commitment to both duty and virtue.'
He also refers to the achievements of Sri Lanka in this field as
deserving separate discussion because 'coverage involves impressive
details of builders, locations, categories (with plans, drawings and
photographs of structures)'[see reprint of 1986 annual Presidential
address in 16 page booklet]
It's a pity that some photographs reproduced to illustrate the
article do not show details too clearly.
For even the sun and rain pouring on these ruins for hundreds of
years and still lying around Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have not
succeeded in obliterating the sculptor's artistic stone carvings on even
urinals and squatting plates.
Such has been the compassion displayed by the kings in the past, some
of whom were ayurvedic physicians themselves, that hospitals have been
put up not only for pregnant mothers and the old and sick but also
hospitals for animals.
To look at other areas in this particular issue you may come across
the achievement of a Ceylonese (or is it Sri Lankan?) astronomer who was
able to predict the time of arrival and departure of Halley's comet.
He was Prof. Allen Abraham born in 1865 in Pairikoodal in Karaitivu
as Subramaniar Ampalavanar. Halley's 1910 comet, a wonder of the
heavens, which was quite visible in our skies to even naked eyes,
because it spread like a giant, luminous ekel broom (idala) from the
horizon to the middle of the sky, a description given to me by my
Orbit of Venus
Not only did he predict the time of its entry to be visible to the
naked eye when other astronomers gave a much later date, he also went on
to say that the comet would enter the orbit of Venus and that this would
retard its movement.
For this Prof Abraham was rewarded by being made a Fellow of the
Royal Society of Astronomers in Britain in 1912.
As a child he lost his parents early and his schooling was done in
what is known as a 'Thinnai School' - a school conducted in a verandah.
Yet the Thinnai School helped to produce an astronomer!
This issue also carries the ninth instalment of a very interesting
series on the lesser-known ethnic communities of Sri Lanka. This one is
about the Chinese.
They are almost an invisible community today, but throughout history
we have had many dealings with them. Vama Vamadevan, who is now in
retirement in Australia after his service with the Ceylon Police, is a
frequent writer to the Ceylankan.
He is very much aware of both the historical contacts and relations
with the Chinese and also of contemporary Chinese events.
I was not aware that the colonial government in its early days not
only toyed with the idea of getting down Chinese workers but actually
got down this labour for agricultural and other work.
Governor North had pursued the idea of securing foreign labour and
had got down Malayalees, Madrasis, Malays and even Kaffirs as recruits
for the armed services.
Similarly he thought of filling the agricultural ranks by getting
down Chinese. Initially he got down 47 Chinese and planted them in Galle
Maitland, too, followed the same thinking and got down 100 Chinese to
reconstruct the Hamilton Canal. Both ventures seem to have been
Vamadevan suggests that the name Ja Ela is a memento from this period
when the common man mistook the Chinese from Penang to be Malays. And
China Garden in Galle is where the Chinese were settled.
Septuagenarians and octogenarians among us may remember how in the
Thirties Chinese peddlers either walked around or pedalled around in the
city and the suburbs on bicycles carrying huge bundles of Chinese silks
Little kids were scared of them and were told to be of good behaviour
or else they would be taken away in those bundles. But the older ones
were not scared. They even used to taunt them saying cheena booku booku
chinaray/kolombata yannay koi paray.
What I have said so far should give an idea of the range of interests
covered by the Ceylankan. One more item for those Sri Lankan lovers of
the ild who drop in on us from time to time from all over the globe to
see Yala or Wagomuwa or Uda Walawe.
Rodney St. John recalls an unusual elephantine encounter he has had
just a 'hoo shout' away from the bungalow he was putting up at the last
For some reason or other he had stayed back instead of joining the
others on their morning round looking for elephants when right next to
the bungalow almost, a group of adolescent-looking elephants were
feeding quietly totally oblivious to where they were.
After about half an hour of feeding they started throwing dust and
dirt on themselves and then began rubbing against each other. They
seemed to be in a very frolicsome mood.
There is a picture in the magazine of one of them resting from his
exhaustions as it were by lying down on his side, which the writer says
is not the normal way elephants rest.
Standing usually does resting, but this picture of jumbo lying down
is proof that this is no traveller's story. Anyway, this seems to have
been a rare instance of a group of frolicsome elephants, taking it
I must say that the Ceylankan provides a good deal of interesting
reading, which I think is more than of topical interest. Where else can
I get a picture of what the 'Garden city of Colombo' looked like except
by reading an article like People and Homes on Thurstan and Cambridge
Place - Fifty Years ago.
Did you know that the area around Bagatalle Road was once a 125 acre
coconut cum cinnamon estate? Occupied at first by a Civil Servant,
Charles Edward Layard, it later came into the possession of that
philanthropist Charles Henry de Soysa who built on this ground a
100-roomed house. Those indeed were the days!
Later he held a spectacular and historic dinner in these premises for
the benefit of the Duke of Edinburgh and sought his permission to name
it the Alfred House.
You may have noticed around Alfred House Gardens three other
commodious residences, the gifts to some of the children of C.H. de
One is today the residence of the High Commissioner for India, the
second is College House, an architectural curiosity, where the
Registrar's office and the library of the University College used to be
and the third, I think, was named Villa Venezia, a grand looking villa,
adjoining Reid Avenue on one side and what used to be Thurstan Road on
Not only these great houses but also the streets that led to them
were lined with a canopy of trees, adding to the beauty of our roads and
helping to popularise the reputation of Colombo as a garden city. Thanks
to the Ceylankan we have now a record of how well we once lived.
Ceylankan is produced by the Ceylon Society of Australia originally
incepted in Sydney now has a Melbourne chapter, and membership spread
over six countries (mainly to receive the Journal). Total around 350.
Australian groups meet quarterly in Public Session and hold addresses
by eminent academics, scientists, economists, lawyers and doctors to
name a few. The Journal is also published quarterly. The editor is