The Impermanence of the Present Moment: Part II
Artistic Practice (26/29)

The Impermanence of the Present Moment: Part II

A three-part artistic investigation into the occupation and dissolution of Tamil holy sites in Sri Lanka.

Trincomalee: The Sea Took Them

In a city as old as time, a Buddhist statue sits at the centre guarded by a chain link fence. At 2,000 years old, the ancient port city of Trincomalee has a Hindu history far preceding the Buddha statue that was placed here in 2005. It is one of the oldest known Tamil settlements in Asia.

painting of a Hindu deity hanging in the trees

A man is watering flowers in the garden. We ask him if we can enter through the small, locked gate. He assents, his red-rimmed eyes and apathetic smile subtly warning us against staying too long. The pristine white statue sits untouched. No flowers or traditional offerings have been placed upon it. We ask the attendant: “Why the gate? Don’t people get to freely worship here?”

He tells us that shortly after the statue was built some Tamil radical militants threw a grenade at the statue, blowing up a part of it. It had to be rebuilt, and after that the fence was added for the statue’s security. I ask him if Buddhists worship here and he eyes my Tamil adornment with suspicion before replying, “Of course.”  

He tells us that during the time of the bomb attack, there were frequent protests by village locals who strongly opposed a symbol of Sinhala nationalism being placed in a primarily-Tamil area during a civil war.

When asked what happened to those protestors, he reluctantly says, “They were all killed.” And when pushed for details, he eyes us suspiciously again and only offers, “They were taken out to sea and killed. The sea took them.”

Massive statute in Trincomalee before which families are taking pictures

Kuchaveli: What Can We Do?

After a few wrong turns we travel down a lonely, dusty road to the Kali temple, which seems unusually quiet. After a brief stop to ask for directions, we find the young priest of the Kovil at home in a small hut with his family—a lively wife and three sweet-faced children, shy and docile. 

Our conversation with the young priest eventually leads to rumours that the government is preparing to take over the sacred site. He says that he hasn’t heard of any plans to claim the Kovil, but the land around the temple has been claimed by the Department of Archaeology. He estimates about 10 acres. He is reticent to answer more questions, but the silences are quickly filled with shouts through the kitchen window from his wife as she cooks dinner for the family. We listen to her silhouette as she describes how another temple nearby (Semmeeswaran aalayam) has been claimed by the army, and they have stopped any Tamils from going to worship there. A Buddhist stupa has been placed there so the local army soldiers can worship. She eventually emerges from the shadows and enters the garden, serving us ginger tea, fully sweetened. 

She continues to talk, while her husband looks sheepishly on. She speaks about how special that Shivan temple was, it was a beautiful place up high on a rock that many locals flocked to because of its special energy. She seems frustrated and upset that they cannot go there anymore. Her husband, in contrast, just shrugs his shoulders and says, “‘What can we do?”’

We ask if they have heard of the government appropriating other temples in the same way. The wife nods her head excitedly and points in multiple directions, naming kovil after kovil that has been claimed. In one area, which we had noticed while driving in, she says there was a sacred and ancient Ganesh idol on the side of a cliff facing the ocean. The army knocked the idol into the ocean and placed a Buddhist stupa there instead. 

By the end of the conversation we all sit silently, feeling thorough disdain for what we all know to be true. We pass a brand new stupa on the way out with a fresh coat of cold white paint gleaming in the sunset.

Buddhist monk in orange robe watches over patrons at a holy baths

Kanniya Hot Wells: The Gods Must Be Angry

Walking towards the holy hot springs, we see a small, newly-built brick structure with a sign written in English that reads: “Sivan Kovil.” We are confused because Hindu Shiva temples do not normally look like this—encased in brick, with no fanfare. Our driver tells us there used to be a Shiva temple up above where we’re standing, and when we follow his hand gestures our eyes fall upon a giant gleaming white Buddha statue in its place.  

The current Shiva “temple” is poorly blocked off, allowing us to swiftly evade the broken fence and launch towards the building. We are curious to take a peek inside the darkened windows when a police officer calls out to us and informs us that we’re not permitted to go any further. When pressed, he explains there is an open investigation with the Department of Archaeology and no one is allowed to observe the site until the case is resolved. We are desperate to look inside, to have our eyes fall upon what we can only assume are the dusty, damaged remains of the revered God of destruction and rebirth. 

I am reminded of our conversation the day before with the priest’s wife. “The Gods must be angry,” she’d said. “Their retribution will come.”

The seven hot wells renowned for their healing properties are very busy, with Tamil locals and Buddhist monks sharing the space. Bucket after bucket of hot water is poured over heads and shoulders, the drops glistening in the sunlight. A flash of orange catches my attention and I see an elderly Buddhist monk watching over the scene. While it all seems friendly, there are no other Sinhala tourists there. Only the monks, who have a showy presence—likely to enforce the changing of hands of this Tamil site. 

The older monk then escorts a lone British tourist around the area, explaining how this is an ancient Buddhist site of healing. She believes him, eyes wide with respect. And why shouldn’t she? A quick google search tells us this same narrative, with many websites being updated recently to accommodate the new “findings.” Only locals to the area continue to pass on the origins of this site, from person to person, mouth to mouth.

Before we leave, we encounter two Tamil youth who tell us that this site once housed the grave of a revered Tamil sage, and many people used to come here to pay tribute. Soldiers from the army destroyed the grave site and covered up any signs of its existence. 

The night before we are set to travel north, I dream of kolam patterns. The never-ending lines of symmetry, precision and complexity swirl together in a vast universe of stars, outwards and upwards. I awaken and begin drawing, enraptured by these line-filled drawings which can be seen not only in Hindu mythology, but throughout history in Islamic, Greek, and Pagan philosophies. What is it about patterns that help us find God? Perhaps it is to seek control in an uncontrollable world.

*Completed with the assistance of the Chalmers Family Fund and the Ontario Arts Council.

Filed Under: Photo & Video


Maya Bastian is an award winning Tamil-Canadian filmmaker and artist with roots in conflict journalism. She is the recent recipient of the prestigious Chalmer’s Fellowship. Her most recent film TIGRESS participated in Cannes Court Metrage 2021. Her video installations and mixed-media artwork have shown at Edinburgh Fringe, Colombo Art Biennale, Gallery 46 Whitechapel, Shoshana Wayne LA, Artworks Downtown SF and more.

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