February 23, 2024

An uneven path to peace

This piece on Sri Lanka appeared in Mint Lounge of April 24th.

Sri Lanka in Mint Lounge

I am in Anuradhapura at the Sri Maha Bodhi shrine, a must-visit destination for locals and visitors alike. The low fence encloses a cutting from the Bo tree (Ficus religiosa), protected and venerated by Buddhists, under which Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have attained enlightenment. Walking along the designated path, I muse slightly derisorily on the kind of things that take on religious significance. Suddenly, I stop.

Ahead in the open ground, a group of soldiers in full uniform (sans footwear) is sitting under the sprawling branches of a tree. They are listening intently to, and repeating, the prayers a yellow-robed monk is reciting. Or not so intently. I bring down my camera sheepishly when one of the soldiers, baby-faced, looks around and spots me. As I freeze, wondering if I have just committed a faux pas, he grins broadly at me. The chanting continues, the monk’s tones sonorous, the soldiers’ soft.

The monk and the soldiers

All alone in the rain

While the world may be debating whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has truly been vanquished, the country itself seems to be enjoying its hard-earned peace. Everywhere in Sri Lanka, there are domestic tourists in large numbers. The president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seems popular among his compatriots for the tough decisions that steered the country towards the end of the civil war. Everywhere there is a buzz about the impending general election and the streets are lined with fluttering pennants. In a predominantly Buddhist country, these could be prayer flags but for Rajapaksa’s beaming face on them. My driver sings his praises and is confident that he will win (and despite his several detractors, he subsequently does).

On Galle Face Green by the sea in Colombo, hundreds of people are walking around, thrilled as much by the cool evening breeze as their new-found sense of freedom. A young couple I talk to say they have never seen so few soldiers on this road. “This is the first time nobody has stopped to question us,” they say. There are groups of soldiers on the main streets of Colombo, but they all wave us through with friendly smiles. There are metal detectors everywhere too, but coming from a country where they are just as common, I do not view them as particularly ominous.

Monk at the seaside

The only time I experience a frisson of tension is on the second day of our week-long drive through Sri Lanka, when I reveal to our driver-guide my Tamil ethnicity. A Sinhalese Buddhist, he has been telling us all morning about the racial strife in the region and describing in great detail the numerous bomb blasts the country has survived. He stops mid-sentence but recovers immediately and asks in a worried voice: “Aishwarya Rai? She is not Tamil, no?”

In Sri Lanka, aggression seems to have co-existed with or preceded peace throughout its history. Sigiriya, now a part of the country’s cultural triangle, stands testimony to this fact. Built on a foundation of violence by King Kassapa, who murdered his father Dhatusena in the fifth century, Sigiriya was partly absolved when it was converted into a monastery after its ruler’s downfall.

When I reach Sigiriya, the morning drizzle has turned into a downpour. I am standing on the muddy path leading to the Lion Rock, staring in dismay at the sheer rock face (600ft high, I remember reading) that appears and disappears in the thick mist. I am half tempted to turn back: Do I want to risk life and limb to see the ruined palace of a patricidal king? An old lady clad in a monk’s white robes stops next to me and flashes an almost toothless smile. Holding on to a thin plastic sheet that serves as her raincoat, she points to the rock and me in turns, silently urging me on. I smile in return and start walking ahead, only to see her scamper away into the fog that has descended on the steep steps. Each time I stop to catch my breath, I look around for her, but doubtless she has climbed all the way to the top by then.

To Sigiriya in the rain

Sigirya's maidens

I understand Sigiriya’s inaccessibility—Kassapa intended it to be an impregnable fortress—but that knowledge does not make it any easier for me to walk down the wet steps. I am suddenly distracted by the cackle of the young boys next to me, oblivious to the rain. No such worries for them; they are giggling, perhaps at the memory of the topless women on the walls midway to the peak, the frescoes of the mysterious “Sigiriya maidens”. I remember seeing in Anuradhapura a group of schoolboys roughly the same age, walking single file holding lotus buds in their hands. None of the boisterousness of the young there, they fit right into the rarefied surroundings.

It was faith that brought them—and kept them well behaved—to that small shrine to worship a tree, just as it is unassailable faith that attracts people of all ages to Kandy, home to the temple that holds Sri Lanka’s most important religious artefact, believed to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, retrieved from his funeral pyre, no less. Legend has it that the tooth was carried into Anuradhapura in the fourth century by Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamala, hidden in the latter’s hair. Paintings in the temple show the princess in a hairdo reminiscent of actor Sharmila Tagore’s 1970s beehive. The tooth soon came to be associated as much with royalty as religion; among contenders, custody of this relic guaranteed access to the throne. Consequently, it has a troubled history and has changed hands several times—including, in later centuries, the Portuguese and the British—before arriving at its final abode in Kandy.

At the tooth temple

At the Kandy temple

The relic lies in a casket behind closed doors, taken out only for important visitors and on important days. That does not deter the thousands who make their way to the temple daily. “Every Buddhist in Sri Lanka must visit it at least once in his lifetime,” says our guide. I join the men and women clad mostly in white who queue outside, patient through the numerous security checks and barriers. Inside, they devoutly place their lotus buds at the entrance of the shrine, take photographs, light lamps and head straight to the pleasant lake beside the temple, with its duck-faced paddle boats bobbing about idly in the middle.

A pleasant evening at Kandy

The people I meet across Sri Lanka—the happy families at Galle Sea Face, the white-robed monk at Sigiriya, the young soldier at Anuradhapura, the lotus vendor in front of the Kandy tooth temple—have all been gentle and friendly, making it easy to forget that they live in a country that has seen decades of violence. Perhaps they smile hoping—or knowing—that it is now time for peace.

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