Northern Province: Mullaitivu
Sixty thousand Sri Lankan Army troops are currently stationed in Mullaitivu District, which means there is now at least one soldier for every two civilians. Reports by the Tamil Guardian state that Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeological has reportedly had a heavy hand in “inventorising” heritage sites this area, having claimed 400 acres of land around holy Kurunthoormalai, home to the historic Athi Aiyanar temple. With the aid of a local NGO, we visit a small village in an area decimated by itinerant bombing, which still has very little in the way of structures or homes.
Mullaitivu East: Now How Do I Grieve Them?
They sit all four to a bench, facing me, each in a different colourful dress. They eye me suspiciously as the translator speaks about my interests in the region. Slowly, they answer my questions, reserved and staunch, not wanting to show too much emotion. I am keenly aware of the trauma these mothers have faced, this being one of the worst hit areas of the conflict. They don’t have much to say about land occupation, or the military, though they are answering my questions as politely as they can.
Then something happens that I have witnessed many times on this trip. Trauma spills out all in a jumble from someone’s lips, as though it was waiting all along—all these past 15 years to be heard—to be remembered.
The woman who speaks is small in stature and older than the rest. She is dark-skinned with deep lines streaking across her face. Her bare feet rub against each other anxiously. She tells us that three of her children are buried on the other side of the local army barricade. All three were taken against their will by the rebel militants. With very little training, they were thrust into the fighting, where each one fell, one after the other. The army bulldozed their graveyard and built a military base on top of it. This I have heard throughout my journeys all over the North & East: the cemeteries of fallen rebel soldiers being razed as soon as the war ended, as though the death of a loved one could ever be forcibly forgotten.
She fights back tears as she tells us, repeating over and over: ‘Now how do I grieve them? Now what do I do?’
The other women remain quiet, they choose not to share their secret pain on this day.
Northern Province: Erasing The Past To Preserve The Future
Upon arriving in the Northern Province, we speak with a local artist about kolam, impermanence and erasure. Having lived just outside of Jaffna for the entirety of the war, he believes that kolam is an art that has been practiced here since long ago, but there is a reticence to acknowledging that history, perhaps due to a well-worn survival strategy. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my grandmother, who was forced to hide any identifying Tamil symbols during the Black July pogroms of 1983. She took out her gold nose ring, stopped wearing the Tamil bindi we call a ‘pottu’ and ceased adorning her hair with flowers—all traditional symbols of Tamil womanhood—to survive the times and limit the risk being killed. This gradual erasure of Tamil practices and customs has become a way of surviving discrimination and violence.
My mind begins to spin when the artist offers an explanation, ‘Erasing the past to preserve the future’. I wonder, what proves existence? And what forms does it take when it is dormant? Perhaps existence can be held through word of mouth and community care, these acts becoming an active and almost invisible resistance to oppression.
Kankesanthurai: We Are Following Orders
We are recommended to visit this area by a local journalist, and told that we don’t need to ask questions from anyone, just to go and see with our own eyes.
We drive the unpaved road, staring out the window at house after house occupied by the military. Even the shells of houses destroyed by bombs have signs of military life: a uniform hung out to dry, an armed guard dozing out front. These shells betray the long-ago grandeur of this area with its huge villas and expansive gardens. I ask the driver to turn down a small road because it feels like the eyes of the military are all around us.
As we drive we come across yet another bombed out house. Three Tamil workmen are chopping down a very large tree out front. We stop and in typically Tamil fashion launch into a familiarity that allows strangers to share intimate details with one another immediately upon meeting.
We learn that this plot of land is part of the 100 acres recently released by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. In a bid to resurrect his waning popularity, Ranil released a meagre 100 acres of land for redevelopment from the approximately 74,000 acres of state land and 6,400 acres of private land that has been “occupied” since the war. Unsurprisingly, the land belongs to the wealthiest members of this community.
A couple of weeks after the release, the Tamil owner of this property hired a team to clear the land and get it ready to sell. The property boasts two huge banyan trees, sacred to Buddhists. These trees are common on temple grounds and Buddhist holy sites, often accompanied by a ruling that forbids them to be cut down.
We stand and watch as the Tamil workmen mercilessly hack at the Buddhist holy trees under direct orders from the landowner to cut them down and remove all trace that they ever existed.
Jaffna Town: Every Day It Refreshes My Mind
Back in the town center we visit with another local artist and musician, a woman who hosts a music school in her house. As we sit with her and her adoring son, the haphazard sounds of children learning to play violins emanates from the next room.
We were directed to this woman, having been told by many that she is an expert on the art of kolam. She speaks to us excitedly about her private practice, something she undertakes every single morning at the threshold of her home. At first she tells us that she draws to welcome visitors and to protect the home. She loves the fact that it forces guests to slow down and proceed with tenderness, so they do not disrupt the energy of the house. After some time, she admits that her main goal in the practice is that it eases her troubles and centers her mind. She tells us that the knots in the pattern change according to her mental state, on some more troubled days there are more knots than usual. She believes the pattern is a gift, not only to herself and to her family, but to the people who pass through the pattern during the day. They take a little bit of her gift with them on their feet, as do the birds and insects, and in this way she is offering protection and connection to the world at large.
She isn’t bothered by the impermanence of the art, in fact she says “every day it refreshes my mind, my home and my life to create these patterns.” I am taken by her unattachment to the outcome, and by the willful, intentional impermanence that she undertakes every day. Perhaps there is some solace in the control she wields, as the sole creator and destroyer of the pattern.
Nainativu: Same Same, But Different
Our last destination on this journey is the sacred island of Nainativu, known as Nagadeepa by the Buddhists. The small island is home to the Hindu Nagapooshani Amman Temple and the Buddhist Nagadeepa Purana Vihara, places of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus alike. The ferry we take to the island is tiny and packed full of worshippers of both faiths. We sit on the steps and stare out at the bright blue waters with the approaching shrines in the distance. The boat stops and as I begin to disembark the Tamil boatman stops me. He says, ‘This Nagadeepa’. I nod because yes, I want to go to Nagadeepa/Nainativu. I try to disembark again and he stops me again. ‘This NAGADEEPA’, he says forcefully. I look at my guide and we both shrug. I turn back and say ‘Nagadeepa, Nainativu, same same’ with a shake of my hand. His smile turns downwards and he begins to look angry. I slink back into the boat, not sure what mistake I’ve made. The ferry springs to life with a lurch and the boat turns towards another corner of the island. It’s only in that moment that I realize my error. There are two docks to disembark, one long wooden dock leading to Nagadeepa, the Buddhist shrine, and another about 200 metres away leading to Nainativu, the Hindu temple. I feel sheepish having unwittingly offended our Tamil boatman. He does not act kindly towards us for the rest of the trip.
The Amman temple at Nainativu is renowned as a place to worship fertility. Around 1000 devotees come daily from as far away as India to pray for a baby or to thank the god Amman for giving them a family. We see Hindu Tamil devotees and also quite a few Sinhala Buddhists visiting the shrine to ask for help. It’s a beautiful place with a rich history involving a supposed visit from Lord Buddha himself, who came to solve the dispute of the local Naga kings. Over the years both temples have been destroyed and rebuilt by colonizers, rebel militias and war. Still, it’s a peaceful place with many visitors of all faiths intermixing. When we leave, I stare back at the two temples, standing side-by-side, imagining them existing this way for millennia.
Religion often gets instrumentalised in political warfare, but perhaps an adherence to ancient religious practices and their principles are a gentle form of resistance to that phenomenon. With structures coming and going depending on the occupier, the sacredness of these sites is never broken. The community does not forget, despite being pushed to reform their identity to conform to the occupying state. It is ever-present, and yet largely unseen unless sought out.
The ancient process of kolam, unfolding as it is created, also uses the transient energy of nature to tell its own narrative upon the earth. It works with the changes and is not concerned with impermanence, which is ever-present in the mind of its creator.
This road trip is one of many that I have taken in the lands of my ancestors, but this time has felt markedly different. Although the Tamil population has been through many traumas, and the world has witnessed them all, now the oppression has become silent and insidious. A wily snake that weaves its way throughout the Tamil homeland, overrunning history with its own new, false narrative. It will not stop, despite the resistant efforts of the people. It seeks to overwrite the sacred history of this land and further disenfranchise the Tamil people. What does impermanence become when it has nowhere to go?
*Completed with the assistance of the Chalmers Family Fund and the Ontario Arts Council.