The Botanical Garden in Peradeniya

Wow! I am all caught up on my photo processing! I’ve just uploaded my photos taken at the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya to my Picasa website.

There are two “must see” sights for visitors to Kandy. They are the Temple of the Tooth and the Peradeniya Botanical Garden.

Orchids at the Peradeniya Botanical Garden

Orchids at the Peradeniya Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is 60 hectares (142 acres)  in area and is beautifully sited on a π radian (180 degree) loop of the longest river in Sri Lanka, the Mahaweli Ganga. It has a long history. The garden was originally the Royal Botanical Garden for the last Kandyan king, then was further developed by the British during the colonial era, and now is run by the government of Sri Lanka.

One of the strongest features of the garden is its collection of trees. However, I found it difficult to get good photos of the trees, so there are not too many represented among the pictures. One section of the garden, the furthest from the entrance, are a collection of trees that are the roosts for literally thousands of fruit bats during the day. The trees here are tall and it was difficult to get any photos recognizable as bats while shooting up at the dark colored bats against the bright sky in the background. So actually my best photos of bats were the ones I took along the shore of Kandy Lake, but maybe the pictures here give you an idea of the density of bats in residence. I briefly wondered if the bats were called fruit bats because they look like some kind of fruit hanging from the trees!

As we strolled along the path that parallels the river, we noticed quite a party going on in the river itself. A group of young people were crowded on a little island, dancing and listening to some lively music.

Other than that, there is not much to say except that there are a ton of very beautiful, well cared for species of  flora. Some of the most gorgeous are in the orchid greenhouse. All in all, a photographer’s delight.

I guess I had better go out and take some more pictures!



Kandy Lake

Kandy Town, or downtown Kandy, has one corner that touches on the shore of a man-made lake, called Kandy Lake (at least in English!) The lake has a rectangular shapes whose long axis runs roughly east-west. Attached to its east end is a narrower “tail” that points a little south of east.

Kandy Town from far end of lake

Kandy Town from south shore of Kandy Lake

Aside from the part of the lake that touches the downtown, the rest of the lake shore consists of the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth (most of the north shore of the rectangular part), of some of the religious devales (mostly on the south shore of the lake), of Lakeside Adventist Hospital, of numerous older hotels, and of some very lucky residences. The entire lake shore is very much a public park and there is a pleasant path that encircles the lake. There are many park benches along the path to sit and admire the view, but their availability varies. It seems that persons unknown are so offended by young couples sitting together on park benches that they pour noxious liquids on the benches from time to time to prevent their use by anyone.

The lake is abundant with creatures of the air. I use “creatures of the air” and not “birds” because

Great egret

Great egret

some of the creatures are of class Mammalia and not of class Aves. Three types of egrets are present in large numbers: the little, the intermediate, and (a bit more rare) the great  egret. The egrets tend to hang around on the south shore all along the length of the lake. Currently there is a downed tree, completely bare of leaves, that has fallen into the lake. At any given time, its branches hold a few dozen egrets, Indian pond herons, and little cormorants. Often found there as well is a water monitor, resting on a branch and warming his cold blood in the sun.

Another bird in abundance is the crow, both the jungle crow and the house crow. The crows tend to stay close to downtown, at the northwest corner of the lake, presumably to be close to their food supply.

And, as I mentioned, some of the “creatures of the air” are of class Mammalia, that is, the fruit bats.

Fruit bat AKA flying fox

Fruit bat AKA flying fox

Fortunately for the photographer, the trees around Kandy Lake are not generally as tall as the trees in the Botanical Garden in Peradeniya and so I was barely able to get some pictures that are recognizable as bats. The photos hint at another name used for the fruit bats: flying foxes. The bats roost in trees during the day, mostly in the central part of the south shore. There are not as many bats on the lake as there are at the Botanical Garden in Peradeniya, but there are probably between one and two hundred lakeside residents.

I have enjoyed my books of photographs of the birds of Sri Lanka, but am disappointed in their coverage of ducks and geese.

Some kind of goose

Some kind of goose

Both of my two books only have entries for only one or two of each type. And who would not want to know the species of goose on the right? You have read the story of the “Ugly Duckling,” right? This is how the tragic (Russian or Irish) version turns out: he grows up into a really  ugly goose.

A great time to visit the lake is at dusk. For starters, the city turns on the fountain in the lake and the setting sun produces a rainbow from the fountain’s mist, visible from the promenade on the west end of the lake. From the south side of the west end of the lake, you can see the golden rays of the sun reflect from the copper along the edges of the roof of the Temple of the Tooth giving the Temple an electric-bright, golden, halo.

And then the aerial activity begins. Egrets of all types start coming in from the surrounding country side in squadrons, to spend the night with their brethren. This is best observed from the south and east sides of the lake. The crows retreat from the city to roost in trees along the northwest shore, but not before exhausting themselves with bursts of acrobatics and a sound us old folks have only heard after we closed our eyes during the scary parts of Hitchcock’s The Birds. If you want the experience, check the ground for the absence of bird droppings to find a safe place to stand. Meanwhile, the bats are rubbing the sand of sleep from their eyes and heading out in the direction opposite to that of the egrets. From appearances, it is if the bats work the night shift and the egrets work the day shift in some ecological factory.

The “shift change”  is not the experience one has at Carlsbad Caverns, but it is impressive in its own way.


PS I have uploaded thirty photographs taken on the shore of Kandy Lake over a two day period to myPicasa website.

Temple of the Tooth

I’ve uploaded some photos of mine of the Temple of the Tooth and the National Archives in Kandy to my Picasa website.

The Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa, transliterated from Sinhala) is the most holy Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. The Temple is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself. Kandy is only its most recent resting site.

The Temple of the Tooth

The Temple of the Tooth

The tooth relic is seen as a symbol of the right to govern Sri Lanka. So the temple that housed the tooth relic changed as the capital city of the Sri Lankan kings changed. So there was a temple of the tooth built in Anuradhapura and built in Polonnaruwa, as well as other sites. Even today, the tooth relic is related to governance. While the capital city of Sri Lanka is now Colombo (technically Sri Lanka’s Parliament Building is in a suburb of Colombo called Kotte, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of Colombo), the President of Sri Lanka has a secondary, but official, residence in Kandy. I heard a rumor that a week or two ago, the President made a visit to Kandy to sleep with the tooth relic, presumably seeking divine guidance.

Buddhists come daily to worship at the Temple. At certain times during the day the chamber that contains the relic is opened so that worshippers can see the casket that the relic is contained in. The tooth relic is very heavily guarded. When the relic’s casket is on display, one views it only behind bullet proof glass. The Temple has been the target of at least two bomb attacks. In the 1980’s, the Temple was bombed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the JVP, then a Marxist, Sinhalese nationalist insurgent group which, ironically, is now a political party in Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition. In 1998, the Temple was the target of a truck bomb attack, presumably by the LTTE. Eight people were killed and the octagonal structure seen in the photo was heavily damaged, but the relic’s sanctuary is in one of the interior buildings and was not itself damaged. The structural damage has since been repaired. Included with photos of the exterior of the Temple complex are some decorative details that I admired.

The tooth relic generally only leaves the Temple during the Esala Perahera in late July or early August each year. A perahera is a Buddhist religious ceremony that has aspects of a parade. The Esala Perahera in Kandy is reputed to be the year’s biggest celebration in Sri Lanka. Over a period of several evenings, the tooth relic is mounted on the back of an elephant and paraded around Kandy accompanied by drummers and dancers and performers of various other sorts. Mardi Gras seems somewhat comparable, only here the stars are the elephants.

This is a long winded way to introduce the photos of the elephants. The Temple keeps elephants for use in the perahera and by tradition, the elephants must be “tuskers,” that is, male elephants with tusks, the bigger the better.

Temple tusker

Temple tusker

Not that you can tell from this end, but this is one of the three tuskers we saw and who could resist such a shot? The rest of the elephant photos show the other two tuskers getting their daily bath. During the perahera, each tusker will be “caparisoned,” that is, draped with an elaborately decorated cloth covering, including electric lights. One honored elephant is chosen to carry the tooth relic. For many years, the chosen tusker was one named “Raj.” Raj carried the relic faithfully for so many years that he became much beloved and revered. His illness and death were a cause of national mourning. As a fitting honor, Raj was stuffed, and you can now see him in his own building on the Temple grounds.

The final set of pictures were taken in the National Museum, Kandy. The museum has many interesting displays and is not to be confused with the museum attached to the Temple of the Tooth.

Replica cave painting

Replica cave painting

The latter museum is devoted to the history of the tooth relic and contains many amazing gifts to the Tooth from worshippers around the world. The National Museum, Kandy is a bit dusty and tired, needing more resources to conserve and display what is a very interesting set of artifacts connected to the history of the times of the Kandyan kings in Sri Lanka. The museum was dark and I did not want to use flash because even though flash was not prohibited, it should have been. But I was very much taken with the style of painting I first saw at Sigiriya. The paintings in the National Museum, Kandy are replicas, but still captured the light, color, and bristols I had admired in Sigiriya. So you will find several photos of the replicas on my Picasa website.


Natural packaging technology

I see many wonderful things on my daily walks. Here is a photo of an amazing seedpod from some unidentified tree that I found by the side of the road on my walk to work the other day. (I have to admit that before I touched it I prodded it with tip of my umbrella to make sure it was flora, not fauna.)

Seedpod from unidentified tree

Seedpod from unidentified tree

This is yet another example of “Ain’t Nature amazing?” The round disks are the seeds. They resemble 0.9cm (3/16″) thick slices through the center of a small, very dry, green cherry. Then the slices are packed like Mentos into a perfectly cylindrical tube. But Nature went further than the Perfetti Van Melle Corporation in terms of packaging. Each seed occupies its own separate, lined, compartment in the pod.

I just thought this was so cool that I had to share. Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!


Be careful what you wish for

Everyone has had the experience of thinking of just the right retort in some conversation…seconds after the opportunity has passed. And don’t you wish for a second opportunity to use that retort. Well, be careful of what you wish for because you might just get it.

I was walking home last week. I pass quite a few people on my daily walk to and from campus. Youngsters often practice their English greetings on me. I exchange “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” with adults. I get stared at a great deal but I am getting over that. I feel more like I belong here. Today would be different, though. A group of teenage schoolboys were walking home together in the direction opposite to mine. They were wearing their school uniforms and laughing and joking, “palling around” like boys of fifteen often do. They were clean and respectable looking.

As we approached each other, one of the boys called out a “hello.” I smiled and returned the greeting as I have so many times before with young people. But this time, his next remark took me by surprise. He said, “Do you have any money?” I rolled my eyes at him and kind of snorted and continued walking past them. As I continued I could hear the same boy ask, “Give me some money?”

This was new. Many people here want money from us and we are rich by local standards. Mostly they want to sell us something. That is fine unless the seller is too persistent and then it becomes annoying. On the streets of Kandy Town we will often see beggars. They always leave me a bit unsettled. In the US, my policy is never to give money to beggars on the street because I know that we have a pretty good, if not perfect, social safety net and a beggar in the US is almost always better off it they seek help from a social service agency. So, not giving them money is my way of encouraging them to seek the help of people more qualified than I to give them the help they need. I salve my conscience by contributing money to the social service agencies through Kris’ church. I am not so certain about whether my US policy is appropriate here in Sri Lanka. The government has a budget for social services and, as a nominally socialist state, has a governmental philosophy supposedly sympathetic to the poor. But resources are tight and I do not have any idea what options the truly destitute have in Sri Lanka. So far, I have generally stuck to my US policy, but, as I said, it leaves me a bit troubled.

What was new was being asked for money by someone with no visible signs of being destitute. The usual beggars are rumored to go out of their way to appear pitiful. This young man appeared to be asking for money just on the assumption that since I was “rich,” I owed it to him. Or maybe he has tried this with other visitors and found some confused enough to have given him some money. I don’t know. But as I finished my walk home, I decided what I should have said in response to “Do you have some money?” was “Yes, and by Sri Lankan standards, I have a lot of money. So?” To the request “Give me some money?” I should have responded “Why?” and then called on the young man to have some pride, get a job, and earn his money. I had this imaginary conversation complete by the time I got home. I wished that I had had the quickness of mind to have articulated this at the time instead of my lame, if expressive, eye roll and snort. If only I had another chance…

Amazingly enough, the chance came the very next day on my walk to work. As I approached the main road that runs through campus and past the front of the Science Faculty, my path intersected that of a clean looking young man dressed, Western style,  in clean jeans and a white, short sleeve, dress shirt. I took him for one of the technicians who live on campus in university owned housing. He said, “Good morning.” I smiled, nodded my head, and said “Good morning.” Then he said “Do you have some money?”

Whoa! When have I ever had an opportunity like this? So, I started playing the script that I had in my head. I said “Yes, and by Sri Lankan standards, I have a lot of money. So?” He stuck to his script! “Give me some money?” “No,” I said, “Have some pride.” Un-pridefully, he tried again: “Give me some money?” “Certainly not!” I replied and we parted ways.

Now immediately I regretted my remarks. First, it was uncharitable of me. What did I really know of this man’s circumstances? If you can misjudge someone who is poorly dressed, surely you can do the opposite with someone reasonably well dressed. Second, I was not exactly doing my job as a Fulbrighter of making friends for the United States. But what made me feel really stupid was the language issue. My experience in Sri Lanka is that my friends and colleagues at the university speak and understand English extremely well (aside from my accent).  However, most other people only speak a little English. So, in all likelihood, what did that young man hear from me in response to his questions? “Yes, blah blah, blah” “No, blah, blah.” “Blah, no!”

So much for my oh-so-clever retort. I felt pretty small and not very clever at all.


The President visits Peradeniya

The ruling party in Sri Lanka is riding a wave of popularity right now because of the Sri Lankan Army’s recent successes against the Tamil Tigers. In keeping with the tradition of parliamentary democracies, that means that it is a good time for the ruling party to call for elections, in a bid to increase their share of  representatives. Two provinces, the Central Province and the North Western Province, were selected by the ruling party to have an election for their respective provincial councils, at least partially for the ruling party to gauge their strength before possibly calling for national elections. Kandy is part of the Central Province and so we have gotten a small taste of elections Sri Lanka-style.

The campaign has been going on for about a month. The election itself is this Saturday. Interestingly, this means that the campaigning should be over as election law in Sri Lanka prohibits campaign events within 48 hours of an election. Parties in Sri Lanka all have identifying symbols, kind of like the Democratic ass and the Republican elephant. The ruling party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SFLP), has as its symbol the leaf of the betel tree. The largest opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), has as its symbol the elephant. The Marxist, Sinhalese nationalist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) has a hand bell for its symbol. The symbols appear on the rather lengthy ballots as an aid to remind voters who among the many names represents which party.

The parties seem to compete in the process of tearing down the posters of their rivals and putting up posters for their party. Near our house is an underpass where the campaign posters seem to change daily, despite election laws prohibiting the use of public property for political advertising in the first place. During the campaign, the party symbols, along with slogans in Sinhala, are painted on the streets. I was a bit disturbed that, until recently, the only painted symbols on the path I walk to work were those of the JVP. There has been a certain amount of rowdiness and low level violence. Universities here are divided into “Faculties,” what we would call colleges, devoted to a group of disciplines. In the US, a university usually has a College of Arts and Science. In Sri Lanka, the custom is to have separate Arts Faculties and  Science Faculties. Imagine our surprise when we heard the news that at the University of Keleniya, a fistfight had broken out between students of the Arts Faculty and the students of the Science Faculty! The Culture Wars brought to street level! It turns out that the Arts Faculty has many supporters of the JVP and the Science Faculty supporters of more mainline parties. The police had to break it up. Of course no one “won” partly because a victory would be hard to define and partly because the police were all too happy to take out their own frustrations on the students, irrespective of which faculty the students represented. In some of the smaller towns there has been some low level violence with, for example, a bus being overturned and set on fire in a town south of us. And, yes, we are staying off the streets on Saturday.

Since we are not eligible to vote, no one has bothered trying to influence our non-existing vote. Since we get hassled all the time for money, this was a welcome respite. Several parties did stop by our house to give campaign literature to our maid. She showed about as much interest in the pamphlets as most Americans would. But the effect on our lives changed early this week when it was announced that President Mahinda Rajapakse himself would address the last SLFP rally in the Central Province to be held less than a kilometer (half mile) from our house.

It began three days before the rally (and two days before the public announcement of the visit). I was away at work, but came home to the report that two policemen had come by to check to see who was registered to live at our house. The records were considerably out of date, having not recorded the death four years ago of the owner of the house, nor the fact that both sons had left the house some time ago. Not surprisingly, our presence and our landlady’s absence was also not recorded. The plainclothes policemen were very polite and showed Kris their IDs upon request. They asked the maid for her ID card, but did not ask Kris for her passport. Satisfied to have the records brought up to date, they left.

Two different policemen showed up the next day. I happened to be home and was the one to answer the door. Once again the officers were very polite, were in plainclothes,  and showed me ID when I asked. I invited them in and they sat on the couch. This time they wanted the IDs of all three of us. They inspected them closely, seemed satisfied, and they left. This time they told us that they were checking because the president was visiting Kandy. Well, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s “Second City,” the president has an official residence in Kandy, and he has visited Kandy several times during our stay here, but the security had never reached this level.

That afternoon, we learned that the president was coming to address a rally to be held in Peradeniya, not Kandy, thus the location was much closer to our house than for his usual visits to Kandy. (We are just on the Kandy side of the border between Kandy and Peradeniya.) I woke up on the morning of the rally and started my walk to work. At the end of my lane, there were half a dozen uniformed policemen. There were another half dozen, some armed with automatic weapons, spaced along the twenty meters to the first road junction. At the junction there were another half dozen manning a road block/checkpoint. The morning commute traffic along the road into our neighborhood was crawling. I pulled out my cell phone to call Kris with a heads up. On my first try, the phone displayed the message “Call not permitted.” Not surprising that they would block cell calls when the cell phone is the preferred trigger device for roadside bombs. However after walking another ten meters, the call went through and I left Kris know what she was in for when she went out to shop for groceries.

When I got to work, I checked the online Sri Lankan newspapers and discovered that the precise location of the rally was Getambe. I had heard the name but did not know exactly where it was. A colleague clued me in that it was on the main Kandy to Colombo road, one junction toward Kandy from the junction we use to go to Kandy. That is, it was about one kilometer (about one half mile) from our house. So they were setting up an impressive security perimeter.

When the rally began, Kris and I and some of the other Fulbrighters were getting the first lesson in our second attempt at learning some Sinhala. Kris let me know that the police had once again visited our house, this time in uniform with one of the policemen armed with an automatic weapon, and once again checked the IDs of both her and the maid. After the class, we took a tuk-tuk home. No hassles until we got to the road block mentioned above. Then our tuk-tuk was stopped and the driver’s ID checked. Though they spoke in Sinhala, it was clear that the driver was asked where he was taking us. At that point we could see our destination and our driver simply had to point. We were passed through only to be stopped again ten meters further down the road, that is, within clear sight and shouting distance from the first checkpoint. We were looked over again, but apparently someone did shout and we were passed through without showing ID. And then we passed through the half dozen police at the entrance to our lane. As near as we could tell these were the same policemen who were at the entrance to our lane when I walked to work that morning some seven hours previously.

By the time I walked to work the next morning, all evidence of the security forces of the day before had evaporated as completely as if they were a conjury of my sun-baked imagination. My confidence in the accuracy of my memory was restored, however, when I noticed that there were several new painted campaign slogans on the roadway on my path to the Science Faculty, and they all featured the betel leaf.



Our Year in Sri Lanka is my first (and most likely my last) blog and it has been an educational experience for me as my blog teaches me about the “blogosphere.”

Today’s lesson: A new way to catch misspellings in your blog. The WordPress software gives me reports on several aspects of my blog. For example, how many hits the blog receives each day, how many hits each post receives each day, what links in my posts have viewers clicked, and what search terms were used to find my blog. So today, I find that someone came to my blog  when they typed in the search term “merle steep.” Sure enough, when I typed “merle steep” into Google my posting on Arranged Marriages was Google’s number 2 offering. And, sure enough, I had misspelled both the actress’ first and last names. But Google is smart enough to ask me whether I really had intended to search for “Meryl Streep” instead. So who would go ahead and click on my blog after getting that reminder? (I have since fixed the misspelling.)

The statistics about numbers of hits each day have been climbing, but have also ceased to tell me anything about how often my intended audience is visiting my blog. My intended audience, of course, are my friends and family in the US and my new friends and adopted families in Sri Lanka, with the secondary audience of future Fulbright scholars that I hoped would find some of the information in the blog useful. I’ve written a bit about this before when I first noticed the hits I was getting on the subject of the pronunciation of Phnom Penh.

But now my blog has apparently climbed up the search rankings on a number of topics. My blog is now number one when I Google “How to pronounce Phnom Penh.” My blog is number two when I Google “Electrical outlets in Sri Lanka,” number three for “Electrical plugs in Sri Lanka.” I am still number two for the search “pronounce Sri Lanka.” My blog is on the second page of Google results for “nonya ware.” If I Google “Mad dogs and Englishmen,” or “mad dogs and englishmen noel coward” my blog does not appear in the first several pages of Google results, but if I search on “phrase mad dogs and englishmen” or “mad dogs and englishmen poem” or “mad dogs and englishmen rudyard kipling,” my blog is among those on the first page of hits. I am also getting a large number of hits from searches about birds. Two of today’s hits were from someone who searched for “animals with curved beaks.”

What all this means is that my blog has a life of its own; a life I never really intended it to have. I do not mind so much, except I have lost the feedback from my beloved, intended audience that I used to infer from the statistics. These Google search topics are bringing a steady volume of hits to my site, so much so that they now dominate over the number of hits from my friends and families. Currently I am averaging about 350 hits per week. Earlier, I could tell if you all were reading my posts or not, now I can not.

So, from time to time, please let me know, by posting a comment or sending me an email, if you have a reaction to one of my posts. I do not care to be an authority on pronunciation or electrical plugs or the birds of Sri Lanka. I do care if my efforts at writing are of interest to you.


Our Christmas Trip (part six)

I really should finish off the story of our Christmas trip, the story that was so rudely interrupted by my bout with a stomach virus. There is just one last day to report on, so this will be the final installment.

You might well wonder, given my poor recall of Day 5,  if my memory is to be relied on for Day 6? Well there are two things working in my favor here. First, there are more photos of Day 6 and, frankly, we were somewhat “templed out” by Day 6 and so we only saw a few sites; what we hope are the highlights of Polonnaruwa.

The kings of Sri Lanka ruled from several different capital cities, but the sites of the  longest lasting kingly headquarters, in order, were Anuradhapura (380 BCE – 993 CE) (see Day 2), Polonnaruwa (1070-1314 CE), and Kandy (1581-1815 CE). These three cities make up what it called the “Cultural Triangle” in Sri Lanka. In addition to the historical importance of these three cities, most of the other culturally important sites, at least from a Sinhalese perspective, like Sigiriya and Dambulla, lie inside the imaginary triangle formed by connecting lines between these three cities on a map.

I have uploaded the photos I took on Day 6 to my Picasa website. They begin with some enterprising men at the side of the road on the way to Polonnaruwa.

Baiting water monitors

Baiting water monitors

These men use what I choose to believe to be cut-up chicken pieces to bait a group of water monitors from a small stream. Once the monitors have gathered, they flag down passing cars so that tourists can take pictures. The tourists are then, of course, expected to pay the men for the photo op. Works for me! These large lizards are about the same size as the land monitors. I have no idea if they pose any danger to humans, but if I were an egret, I would definitely watch my backsides around these guys.

Upon arrival in Polonnaruwa, we visited the National Museum there. (In Sri Lanka there are many National Museums, each specializing in artifacts of the region where they are located.) This museum was the best museum I have yet visited in Sri Lanka. There were a wealth of displays about the history of Polonnaruwa with good explanations in English. The museum was laid out according to the geography of the city so you could follow Polonnaruwa’s development and organization over the years. The museum, and the Lonely Planet, helped us narrow the number of sites we would visit that day.We also felt that by visiting the museum we would be able to appreciate some of the sites that we were not going to see.

Like I said, we were pretty “templed out” at this point in our trip. So we had lunch after visiting the museum and set out to see only two sites, really: The palace of King Parakramabahu I, one of the greatest of the ancient kings,  and the Gal Vihara, the site of four exquisitely carved Buddhas, all hewn from the same stone.

My photos show the brick ruins of the palace of King Parakramabahu I, originally said to be seven storeys tall. crw_6378crwMore picturesque was his Audience Hall, the structure with the many vertical columns. The Audience Hall was decorated with many animal carvings, no two alike, it seemed. The Audience Hall was also the scene of a confrontation I had with two overly persistent peddlers. They had zeroed in on Kris and would not leave her alone. I finally had to physically place myself between her and them, spreading my arms to block their way. “Don’t get angry,” they said. I told them that I was not angry, but they had to back off or I would get angry. They backed off, perhaps aware that they were breaking the rules prohibiting selling too close to the monuments at a World Heritage Site and not wanting to risk attracting the attention of the police.

The Gal Vihara is remarkable. The four rock Buddhas are of excellent craftsmanship. My pictures show only three of the Buddhas, the fourth was in the interior of a rock cave cut into the stone and I did not attempt to photograph it.

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

The unnamed carvers did a great job of using the patterns in the stone to enhance the images of the Buddha. There is a nice touch also in the reclining Buddha. If you look at where the Buddha’s head rests on his pillow, you can see that the artist has depicted the depression in the pillow made by the Buddha’s head. This detail is missing from many depictions of the reclining Buddha and it is kind of ironic that this detail would be included when the pillow is made of solid granite!

So Day 6 was a bit abbreviated. We drove back to the Kandalama Hotel and had another delightful meal outdoors under the stars. We made our peace with having to leave all that luxury the next morning to return to Kandy.

And we did. The drive back was essentially uneventful and so does not deserve a separate installment. We had had a wonderful vacation week and returned to our “regular programming” refreshed.


The Sri Lankan head “waggle”

We of the West are very linear minded, aren’t we? Here is an example. Provided you are not one of my Sri Lankan readers, nod your head up and down as if you are agreeing with someone. Note the motion of your chin as you do so. Your chin goes up and down in a vertical plane. Now, shake your head, side to side, to indicate disagreement. Now your chin is moving left to right on a horizontal plane. Except for the questioning gesture of cocking our head to one side, nodding in a vertical plane and shaking in a horizontal plane exhausts our range of head gestures.

Sri Lankans are not so limited. They have additional head gestures, chief being the head “waggle.” To get a sense of the head waggle, focus again on your chin. First loosen up your neck muscles. Now pretend your chin is a pocket watch swinging, pendulum-like, on the end of a chain. Your chin should move in an arc. It takes practice and requires a limber neck to make it look natural. The gesture is reminiscent of the motion of the head of a bobble-headed doll.

I have not yet figured out all the meanings of the head waggle gesture, but there are several. Usually, it means agreement, or “yes.” This can be very confusing to the American newcomer because we are used to interpreting any side-to-side gesture as “no.”  When we first arrived in Colombo, I proposed a fare to a tuk-tuk driver and he waggled. At the time, I was not sure whether this was “yes” or “no,” so I nodded vigorously up-and-down motions and asked “yes?,” then made vigorous side-to-side motions and asked “no?” His answer turned out to be “yes,” which, of course, meant that I was overpaying him. (Additionally, it is a perverse fact that seems almost to have been designed to promote misunderstandings between Sinhalese and Americans, that “Yes” in Sinhalese is “Oh,” which sounds very  close to “No.” Trying to schedule a pickup by a Sinhalese tuk-tuk driver over the phone (they all have cell phones) can come to resemble the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” comedy routine. )

But variations on the the waggle gesture have other meanings. I’ve detected an interrogative version: “Do you agree?” And I will never forget the day that PP needed to communicate to me that we were in the presence of a potentially long  winded speaker and we needed to get back home where we were already late for lunch. We were seated and as I listened to the speaker, I felt a light touch on my knee. I looked over at PP and he had a imploring look in his eyes and he gave me a nearly invisible, microscopic head waggle. The meaning could not have been clearer: “Please! Don’t let her get started or we will never get home!”

As another variation in meaning, let me add a story about my students during the first semester. As the instructor in a fourth year class in Classical Mechanics, I was told I had considerable leeway as to when to schedule the final exam, but that it would be wise to consult with the students about their schedules. So I sent out an email soliciting suggestions about the optimum date for the final exam.

A few days later, all four of my female students appeared at my office door. These young women seemed to work together and travel as a group. Young Sri Lankan women are always completely covered, at least from their necks to their ankles. The uniformity of their clothing and their closeness as they faced me, two in front, two in back, reminded me of a small choir. One of the women was Muslim, as evidenced by her head scarf, and she was the group spokesperson. She proposed a date that, in fact, was identical to what I already had in mind. To make sure that I understood the proposal, I repeated the date back to them and asked if that was correct. With a unison that would have made a synchronized swimming team proud, they each gave a kind of a half-waggle, their chins scribing a J through the air, which I think can best be translated into English as “Yep!” I asked them if they were aware that they waggled in unison and they dissolved into giggles and skittered off.

Kris and I have adopted the head waggle in private. However, we do not use it correctly. Between us, it means “I don’t know” and we usually use it in the context of “Here is yet another Oriental mystery I can not begin to understand!”


Innocent Civilians

The news in Sri Lanka is the pending fate of an unknown number of civilians trapped in the shrinking territory still controlled by the LTTE. Estimates of the number of trapped civilians range as high as 250,000 in an area the Sri Lankan government gives as 200 square kilometers (80 square miles). For comparison, this is about the same as the land area within the Seattle city limits. The population of the city of Seattle is 600,000, so the estimated population density of the civilians trapped in the jungles of the Vanni is nearly that (40%) of an urban center in America. The population density of the trapped civilians in the Vanni is 7% of the population density of the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Most significantly, these people are in an area without the infrastructure to support this many people. The area is so rural that it is becoming increasingly hard to follow the progress of the war because the place names mentioned in the newspaper articles are so small as not to be indicated, even on our large scale map of Sri Lanka. The possibility of a humanitarian disaster would be apparent even if there were not also a war going on.

So imagine taking Seattle, removing just over half of the people, removing all the buildings and roads, destroying all water sources and sanitation facilities, covering it all with jungle, and add an guesstimated 10,000 well trained, well armed, LTTE fighters. Now imagine the situation of the government of Sri Lanka. They are bound and determined to eliminate the LTTE and kill, or bring to justice, the LTTE leadership. Future prospects of winning the peace depend heavily on several factors, but two of them are that the charismatic leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran , not escape to organize guerrilla operations from overseas and that civilian loss of life be kept to a minimum. A frontal assault on such a dense population will likely lead to a large loss of life.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the government of Sri Lanka has prohibited independent news reporters from the area, the world is watching the situation very closely. Probably most significantly, India’s state of Tamil Nadu lies just 25 miles away across the Palk Straight and Tamil Nadu’s highest officials are already accusing the Sri Lankan government of genocide. At least two Indian protesters have burnt themselves to death to dramatize the issue. Right now, the Indian central government is supportive of the war against the LTTE in the name of the War on Terror (and revenge for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi), but the 62 million people in the state of Tamil Nadu represents 6% of India’s total population and so is a significant political bloc. Making the politics more delicate is that the leading Indian opposition party, the Hindu Nationalist BJP, is known to strongly support its fellow Hindus, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, in their separatist demands. So a large loss of life among Tamil civilians would likely lead to a big boost of support for the BJP, whose politics of Aryan racial superiority remind one uncomfortably of Nazi Germany.

The EU is also watching. They granted Sri Lanka a huge trade concession some yeas ago that doubled the yearly import of textiles from Sri Lanka, helping to boost the Sri Lankan economy. But now the EU is threatening to withdraw the concession unless Sri Lanka walks a fine line on issues of human rights. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban-Ki Moon, has also spoken out calling on both sides to protect the civilians in the Vanni.

So far, or so far as we can tell without independent reporters on the front lines, the government of Sri Lanka is proceeding cautiously at this stage and is carefully heeding the call of the international community to do what it can to protect civilians. The government declared a region of the LTTE controlled territory to be a “safe zone,” with the understanding that the government would not shell or bomb the area, and called for civilians to move to the safe area. They called a halt to offensive operations for 48 hours to allow time for civilians to move to the safe zone. They have called on civilians to leave LTTE controlled territory, promising camps with water, food, and sanitation, and international observers to prevent human rights abuses. The government has cooperated with the government of India and with the UN to allow food and medicine to be delivered to the LTTE controlled area. With some justification, the Sri Lankan government has groused a bit that they must be the first country in world history that is expected to feed its enemies. Some 300 people hospitalized in LTTE controlled territory were transferred to hospitals in the rest of Sri Lanka.

Of course, the effectiveness of these measures requires the cooperation of the LTTE, whose professed aim is to fight for the rights of the Tamil people. Let me again stress the lack of independent news from the area, but indications are that the LTTE is not only not cooperating, but actively doing everything they can to keep Tamil civilians, the very people  they claim to represent, in the line of fire. The government reports incidents in which the LTTE shot civilians who attempted to escape the area. The government reports that the LTTE has shelled and mined the safe zone to keep civilians from occupying it and the LTTE have moved their own military gear into the safe zone to protect it from attack. The secretary general of the UN, speaking oh so diplomatically, called on the LTTE to “to allow civilians in the conflict zone to move to where they feel most secure, including areas controlled by the Government.”  Perhaps the most telling, independent evidence that it is the LTTE that is primarily responsible for preventing civilians from leaving the battle area is a statement by the so-called Tokyo Co-chairs, a group of countries (Norway, Japan, the US, and the EU) that have been most involved in trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. Included in the press release is one line, in a document that otherwise diplomatically calls on both sides to protect civilian life, singling out only the LTTE: “International efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow the civilians freedom of movement have failed.”

And so we wait. Fearing the worst, but hoping for the best.

Distinguishing “civilians” from “militants” plays a major role in news reporting on conflicts from around the world. Killing an “enemy combatant” may be justified, but killing an “innocent civilian” is quickly labeled a war crime. But what is an “innocent civilian?” The term conjures an image of a non-political, nuclear family just trying to survive amid a war brought on by posturing militants and politicians driven by ideologies far removed from the need of people to just live their lives. No doubt many of them are.

At the start of the American Civil War, civilians came out to the battlefield to watch the battle for entertainment. The bloody nature of that conflict put a stop to that practice quickly and “Sherman’s March to the Sea” made a point of destroying infrastructure, livestock, and crops creating death and hardship for the civilians in the South. In World War II, the Germans bombed London, the Brits retaliated by bombing Berlin, the Americans formed the “Strategic Air Command,” and the unrestricted bombing of civilians was on. “Highlights” included the German introduction of bombs carried by missiles (the V-1 and the V-2, later to be adopted and improved first by the US), the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and finally the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During World War II, the vital role of civilians in supporting the war effort with food and factory production was recognized. On the American home front, civilians were lauded for their contributions to the war and exhorted to do more. By the same logic, the bombing of civilian targets in Germany and Japan was seen as a valid way to fight the war “strategically,” by denying enemy armies the food and supplies they needed to continue to fight.

So what makes an innocent civilian today? If a US Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile into a house and kills an Al-Qaeda operative and his family, are his family members innocent civilians? If the civilians killed in Gaza by the Israelis voted for Hamas, are they still innocent civilians? If the civilians in the Vanni truly support the LTTE, are they innocent? If some civilians are not innocent, how can we separate them from the innocent? In the United States, we have a tradition of the citizen-soldier. How does that tradition fit with the current mores of war?

And what can be done with an enemy that cares nothing for protecting civilians? Who is committing the war crime if Hamas militants open fire from a school sheltering civilians and the Israelis return fire with lethal results? What is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government if the LTTE embeds itself in a thicket of people and continues to fight? Or locates its artillery in a zone set aside for the safety of civilians and continues using the artillery in the battle, thereby nearly necessitating return fire?

In fact, I speculate that the LTTE wants as many Tamil civilians as possible to die in the final phase of this (un)civil war. This will maximize the sympathy for the Tamil cause and help recruiting and fund raising efforts for the coming guerrilla war. If Prabhakaran can escape by sea and Tamil civilians suffer massive casualties, the LTTE will survive to fight on. The best chance for winning the peace is for the government of Sri Lanka to capture Prabhakaran and put him on trial for the many crimes he has committed. At the same time, the government needs to minimize Tamil civilian casualties to reduce the public relations boost for the LTTE. Finally comes the hard part. The Sri Lankan government and, indeed, all the people of Sri Lanka, need to convince Sri Lankan Tamils that they are a valued part of a unified Sri Lanka.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not in any way trying to justify the killing of civilians, but I am trying to point out that the issue is not the simple one playing out in today’s headlines. Every dead body, citizen or soldier, is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for both sides in a war, because we have learned that the deaths of our enemies perpetuates the cycle of violence that continues to produce misery and death on into the future. Also, news reports labelling every civilian death as meaningless and thus a war crime, belittles the sacrifice of the many civilians the world over who have sacrificed their lives for causes they believe in. “Civilians” and “combatants” are yet another set of labels we humans are using to divide ourselves into “us” and “them,” often to justify killing “them.”  When will we learn that we are all in this together, that there is no “them,” and that therefore all we are killing is ourselves?