*all names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.
One of my first memories of my homeland is walking through the ruins of a bombed-out temple near the holy bathing waters of Keerimalai. I was barely an adult, having been brought to the northern tip of Sri Lanka to meet my grandmother, who had refused to leave during the island’s decades long civil war. As my parents chatted, I wandered through the sandy remains. I remember feeling like I was walking through a movie set, my unformed opinions not able to grasp the totality of destruction I was seeing. Shyly running my fingers along the decimated walls, I discovered a bullet hole is exactly the size of my finger. Touching the rubble that day brought me full force into the reality of the present moment.
The temple was targeted multiple times by Sri Lankan Air Force bombing raids in 1993, which killed 180 Tamil civilians, including five infants. The surprise attack was carried out despite the conspicuous presence of temple flags planted at the four corners of the sanctuary. Priests fled in horror and disbelief, only moments before the shells dropped.
Hinduism and Buddhism both originated in India and share many common precepts. Both religions hold fast to the idea that impermanence is the only constant, and that we must embrace the notion of change to ever feel truly and fully at peace. In Sri Lanka, you will often see a small statue of Buddha in Hindu temples; and in similar fashion you will almost always see a Hindu icon in Buddhist shrines. The crossover suggests that there is a common bond in one’s search for divinity.
For years, the ancient holy places of Sri Lanka co-existed peacefully, with various religions sharing space. Dutch, Portuguese, and British colonizers failed in turn to occupy or subsume these spaces. It was during the 30-year civil war that holy sites began to be targeted by civil forces acting on orders from leaders of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers).
The Eastern and Northern Provinces of Sri Lanka are traditionally Hindu areas, considered the homeland of the Tamil people, the largest minority group in the country with a population of around 3 million. The predominantly Hindu Tamils have long suffered oppression by the Buddhist Sinhalese government—a legacy of segregation that stretches back to colonial times. Eight years after independence, the government instituted the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhalese the official language of the country. This was only one act amongst many that instigated a series of violent ethnic pogroms which left Tamil communities in terror, catalyzing several armed resistance movements, including the most infamous of them all, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.
The decision to “end” Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war in May 2009 reflected the violence of its origins, as then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered a surprise attack by land, sea, and air on Mullivaikal—a thin stretch of coast that had been designated a “no fire zone.” The United Nations estimates between 40,000-70,000 Tamils were killed during the Mullivaikal Massacre, an incident that continues to haunt Eelam Tamil people to this day.
Today, the predominantly Tamil North and East of the country remains heavily militarized, with the North alone boasting 40 naval bases manned by 5,000 personnel. In the 14 years since the end of the war, there have been reports of what Tamil NGO Pearl Action calls “State Sponsored Sinhalization,” with Tamil land being forcibly taken and religious sites torn down, while any protesters are silenced and beaten. In the eyes of the Sinhalese government, Tamils grieving the losses of war are unequivocally prohibited. Today, I embark on a trip through these areas to see for myself whether the claims are true.
A dear friend who is a seasoned traveller, a Hindu devotee, and a fiercely independent woman with a slow gait and gentle demeanour, joined me as a fixer and translator on this journey. Together, we begin by taking a train from the capital, Colombo, to the eastern coast, before driving up through Trincomalee and Mullaitivu. Our last stop will be in the Northern peninsula of Jaffna—known to Tamils as Yalpanam. Despite the languid pace and reflective nature of Sri Lankan travel, we know this trip will also tear open the wounds of our past. With every step we are committed to healing our psyche of the generational traumas of war, while bearing witness to the stories of the people we encounter.
Everything Comes and Must Go
Our first stop is in the eastern town of Batticaloa where we visit a well known Tamil painter. Batticaloa is an area that feels somewhat forgotten by time. Its relaxed pace and warm smiles hide a history of trauma, group massacres, and bombings.
We arrive at the artist’s house in the morning, ripe mosquito time. His orange and yellow hued home is sparsely decorated, fully dedicated to the long standing artistic practice that he hones every day. In simple sarong and ancient glasses, he invites us to sit, always to sit, before we begin any lessons. Swatting away mosquitoes, we speak of the weather, the land and slowly, as with many people in this area, he touches upon his knowledge of sacred sites that are being occupied by the Archaeological Society. He tells us of a site at Kokkadicholai, as well as one high up on a hill, the Kusalanamalai Kumaran temple. Finally we prod him to the task at hand and he rises slowly from the broken chair on which he sits.
He produces a small bowl of soft rice-flour. Cleaning off a well-worn painting table, he begins to drip the flour finely between two fingers to form a thin and perfect line. He says very little as we pepper him with questions, but proceeds to draw perfectly straight and wavy lines, circles, and more. He steps back quietly and in this way we know that he wants us to mirror him. Our lines are haphazard and poorly executed, but we all giggle. Composing himself to draw again, he eyes us solemnly and says “Practice, practice.” We spend all morning following his instruction.
He creates detailed geometric patterns for us, and when asked, he provides very little discourse on the matter. Having survived war, economic crises, a tsunami, and many other traumas on the east coast, I guess he feels no need to elaborate, only to draw and create to his heart’s content.
I ask him, “Why do you like these patterns? What draws you to them?”
He replies simply, “Beauty and peace.”
Hoping he will open up, I prompt him further, “Are you bothered at all by the transient nature of the work?”
Without looking up, he responds without wavering, “No. Everything comes and must go.”
As we draw, he speaks less and less, perhaps remembering his days as a youth studying classical art in India. The patterns, however, become more and more complex, and we marvel at the skill and precision with which he executes them. After each bold attempt, he quickly wipes the art away with a well-worn rag and begins again. No holding on, no preciousness about his art, just one swift movement with his hand and all is lost forever to memory and time.
As he continues to teach us the gentle art of kolam, I begin drawing a line between the impermanence of occupation and this time-worn Tamil practice. Kolam is a transient art, created each morning only to wash away at night. It offers protection and peace in the fleeting moments of joy that one must relish under occupation.
It seems that no one knows when the Tamil art of kolam came to Sri Lanka. It has been practiced and passed down through family lineage for as far back as anyone can remember. Some believe it was brought to Sri Lanka by Indian workers from the north, who still slave away in the rice paddies of the hill country. Others believe it was always here, hailing from a time when Sri Lanka was connected to South India by a thin strip of land still visible from space. It is a beautiful and intricate art, often practiced daily by the female head of the household. Many designs are derived from magical motifs and abstract designs mingling with philosophic and religious iconography.
The element that draws me to this art is the temporality of it. Intricate patterns are drawn every morning, sometimes taking one or two hours to complete. Over the day they are stepped upon by visitors, washed away by rain, eaten by ants or wind-swept. The purpose of the pattern is to be used, to be discarded as the day winds along. It is in the act of creating the pattern that the artist finds peace, never tied to the outcome.
As we leave the artist’s home, we know where we need to go next. Research in Sri Lanka takes its toll, as we hold space for people releasing untold sadness. Visiting temples is a sort of respite, a place to release our own fears for the Tamil people. We prepare ourselves for the bumpy ride to an ancient temple on the top of a mountain.
KUSALANAMALAI KUMARAN TEMPLE
The World Will Always See Those Who Lost As The Villain
Sri Lankan history is consistently in dispute. Even with ancient inscriptions and records, the facts shift and change according to the current ruler. We have seen the world over how capitalism/colonialism relies on no absolute truths. Forced impermanence always plays a heavy role in the will to dominate others.
Cursory research on this temple tells us that a Sinhala prince lived on this site, and that the archaeological department has begun unearthing artifacts to support this claim. However, Tamil locals tell us that this is an ancient Hindu site built in the 11th century. After a deeper search on some forums and land surveys, I find details confirming its Hindu origins.
Early in the morning, we all pile into a small green rickshaw, too small to fit the entirety of the family at whose home we are lodging. And yet, fit we do. After some time, the road turns to dirt and the father carefully navigates the giant rain-filled potholes as we bump along for miles and miles. A group exclamation occurs as the mountain comes into view, looming beautiful and serene against the treeline.
As we approach, the land begins to feel tinged with magic. This is an ancient place, founded around a cave temple which soon became a worship place for the jungle god Murugan, a deity that is much beloved by Tamils across this tiny island. The God of War, but more specifically the war you wage within yourself, Murugan is prayed to when one is struggling with something formidable, that requires help to overcome it. There are reportedly inscriptions in this temple that date back 1,500 years.
The climb up is treacherous and steep, a thick metal rope our only assistance to guide the way. At first, it seems impossible, yet we persevere and make it to the top, barefoot the whole way. The view is stunning, the energy palpable. I’m moved to tears more than once, as I give my heart and my struggles to Murugan.
As we descend, the stone is violently hot and sears the bottom of my feet. I run haphazardly down the treacherous hill, and as the others lag behind, I spy some newly placed stones around the bottom of this site. Upon further investigation, the stones are markers placed by the archaeological department. Written in Sinhala language only, they read “Archaeology.”
We leave this place and decide to go and look for the priest; perhaps he has more of a story to tell about these stones that seem completely out of place. Although we stop a few times along the road to inquire about the priest, no one wants to help us. Finally we obtain his phone number from an unassuming young man who clearly tells us that he does not want to talk about the holy site. The priest reluctantly agrees to meet us up the road. We wait and wait in the shadow of a fiercely hot day, and yet he does not arrive. A spritely older man on a motorbike stops, grabs the phone and tries to convince the priest to speak to us. He says, “it’s our duty to speak about this, to tell outsiders what is happening here.” While he is talking, the father of our host family says the priest “seems scared.” Not long after, the priest finally asserts that he will not come to meet us.
The man on the bike, Manu—with the whitest teeth and biggest smile you’ve ever seen—begins to talk. He says many people are afraid, but he is not because he is a Hindu and he believes in his right to worship. He says he will fight until his dying breath to see these sacred places preserved.
A small contingent of locals are fighting encroachment by the Archaeological Department. They push back mainly through the Hindu concept of ahimsa, which means non-violent protest. This small group have succeeded (for now) to stop the occupation of their ancient Hindu lands. We find out from Manu that this is just one of 38 lands around the area that are marked for redevelopment and archaeological investigation by the department. Villagers have fought against each one and managed to stall the process for years.
We find out that the Archaeological Department claims this ancient Hindu site to be of Sinhala Buddhist origins, and has been digging to find artifacts to support this claim. While local people have indeed found ancient Hindu artifacts, these are dismissed, and fresh holes are dug from where newly-made Buddhist “artifacts” are then “pulled” from the ground as though they had been there all along. Our new friend Manu asks, “Do they think we’re stupid? Money wins, justice never wins. Right thought, right action never wins.” This sentiment is shared throughout the North and East of the country, where Tamil people have faced erasure for nearly 100 years.
Before he leaves, Manu tells us that he doesn’t know why he stopped his bike to talk to us, he feels he was led by the gods to stop. He says, “The world will always see those who lost as the villain.” I think about all of the Tamil people I have met who have lost so much more than their reputation, who have lost entire families, their homes, and now, their sacred right to worship.
On June 2, 2020, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the formation of a new Presidential taskforce to administer Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. The taskforce was entirely Sinhala in its composition, despite the Eastern Province being majority Tamil. Included in this task force were several Buddhist monks, who are among Sri Lanka’s most notorious hate-mongers. After some complaints, the president appointed one Tamil and one Muslim representative to join the force. A report by independent online newspaper The Citizen states that the taskforce has only vague mandates and a lack of Parliamentary oversight, nor any requirements for public reporting on their activities. The Chairperson of the taskforce has even published a book which claims that “99.9 percent” of archaeological sites in the East are Buddhist, despite thousands of years of history positing the opposite.
Back at the homestead in Batticaloa, we practice kolam with the young women of the family. Sitting barefoot on the front verandah we gently draw with desiccated coconut—delicate patterns which start and end without a break in the lines. This continuous detail is thought to be for the protection of the home; if the line remains unbroken no harm can enter as evil spirits will be trapped within the pattern. I feel the days’ events wander away as I draw, a gentle peace descends in the waning sun. Crows stop to watch us curiously as a line of ants slowly forms, eating away at the pattern as we draw it. Kolam is formed by placing a series of dots down first, and then connecting the lines over and over to form an undulating pattern. The pattern never ends. You could potentially repeat them upwards and outwards forever. In this way, I feel centred and graceful while performing the act, as though there is some order to the universe despite the chaos of the day.
As we leave the next morning for our trip up the coast to Trincomalee, the pattern is still there but has changed form. Some lines have been broken, some have been eaten by ants and other creatures. The smear of coconut pieces feels like a loss, and I struggle to accept that our efforts have been changed in this way. The others step over the pattern with ease.
Learning to let go is a process.
*Completed with the assistance of the Chalmers Family Fund and the Ontario Arts Council.