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Ceylankan - a melange of many minds

The Ceylankan a quarterly published in Australia by Lankan expatriates celebrated its tenth anniversary last November


A stone carving

For an expatriate the Ceylankan publication 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 like buriyani.

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.

Intellectual

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 the West.

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].

Achievement

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 mother.

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.

Agriculture

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 and Trincomalee.

Maitland, too, followed the same thinking and got down 100 Chinese to reconstruct the Hamilton Canal. Both ventures seem to have been failures. 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.

Interests

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 and cloths.

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 wild who drop in on us from time to time from all over the globe to see Yala or Wasgomuwa 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 mentioned sanctuary.

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 rather easy.

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!

Great houses

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 Soysa.

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 the other.

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.

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