BY Dushy Ranetunge
Jaffna remains one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful cities with the lagoons, the long roads across the sea connecting its many islands, stunning beaches, the calm lagoon like sea, many beautiful Hindu temples, the many excellent centres of education, the Portuguese fort and its gentle peoples who are to a great extent bilingual and perhaps the most hardworking and productive in Sri Lanka.
Cavady under Bo tree ~ click on pic for larger image
Desecration of Kantharodai stupa's cleaned
The bazaar remains open into the late evening and large numbers of bicycles clog the streets as its peoples go about their business. At the commencement of hostilities Jaffna was Sri Lanka’s second largest city.
Distances between towns in kilometres marked on street signs are displayed to two decimal places, highlighting the exacting mindset of the Jaffna citizen.
In addition Jaffna has some of the best food in the region. Their Jaffna crab curry puts Australia’s mud crab of Port Douglas and Melbourne to shame.
After clearing the checkpoint north of Omanthai, we witnessed the reconstruction of the old railroad destroyed during the war. The A9 highway from Omanthai until Elephant Pass is dominated by predominantly Sinhalese soldiers, who even operate the small restaurants by the roadside. This military presence seems overwhelming and stifling.
The check point north of Omanthai, the long distance from Omanthai to Elephant pass, the different culture, language, religion and cuisine at the other end in the Jaffna peninsula gave the perception of visiting a different country. This was felt by everyone in the three SUV’s who made up a party of 12 who were all Sinhalese.
They also without exception viewed the many roadside bunkers in the Jaffna Peninsula and soldiers guarding most junctions as creating a perception of an army of occupation.
The politeness, general attitude and professionalism of the predominantly Sinhalese soldiers manning bunkers and checkpoints were impressive. But however efficient, friendly and helpful they are, a predominantly Sinhalese force manning bunkers and standing at every street corner in Jaffna will be viewed with hostility by the Tamil population similar to how a Sinhalese population would perceive a Tamil army setting up bunkers and standing in every street corner in Hambanthota, Galle or Matara.
The soldiers themselves told us on several occasions that some in the local population look at them with a “vapara” eye.
To the Sinhalese visitor or soldier, the average Jaffna Tamil would say that everything is fine and that they are happy and want nothing more than peace, as repeated by President Mahinda Rajapakse when pressed on a political resolution.
But scratch the surface and once they feel that they can trust you, a different perception could be unearthed, often repeated by India and the Western democracies. An elderly Jaffna Tamil man who owns a petrol station on KKS road told this reporter last Monday, that Tamils want equality as articulated by Chelvanayagam. When I inquired if they will be happy with provincial councils, he said that they don’t work.
Our visit to Jaffna exposed and confirmed that all the conditions and discontent that led to the Tamil rebellion are still present today. The only ingredient that is lacking is the combustion of anti-Tamil riots such as in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983.
The Sinhala nationalist mind set seems incapable of comprehending what the Tamils are articulating.
The Tamils object to the “Sinhalisation” of Tamil areas. The Sinhalese nationalists say that if Tamils can live in Wellawatta, Sinhalese should be settled in the North and East.
The Sinhalese nationalist mind fails to comprehend the subtle difference between a Tamil deciding to live in Wellawatta and the state settling Sinhalese and building Buddhist temples in Tamil areas. One is a demonstration of citizen’s right to live anywhere in the republic and the other can be interpreted as the dominant tribe having seized control of the republic, abusing the republics resources for the benefit and perpetuation of the hegemony of the dominant tribe.
For example, in order to quell the southern JVP rebellion of 1971 and 1989, would the state have settled Tamils and Muslims in Galle and Matara and help build mosques and Hindu kovils in Galle and Matara to subdue the rebellious Sinhalese, to the same extent that they are doing in the North and East?
We visited Nagadipa in Nainathivu, Casuarina Beach in Karainagar (Karaithivu), Nalour Kovil, the Nilavarai deep black bottomless well in Nawathkiri, the ancient Buddhist ruins of Kantharodai, Point Pedro, KKS, Velvettithurai, Keerimalai beach and Kovil, Elephant Pass, Killinochchi, Mullaithivu, Iranamadu Tank, LTTE airfield, Kokillai, and Welioya.
The Nalour Kandasamy Kovil, one of the largest and venerated Hindu Kovil’s in the North was constructed by Chempaha Perumal known to the Sinhalese as Sapumal Kumaraya. His name is repeated daily in the Kattiyam as “Sri Sangabo Buvanekabahu”. The artwork in this temple reflects southern influence.
We visited the war memorials in Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass, and noticed the mention of Gothabaya Rajapakse and Mahinda Rajapakse in the memorial plaque. Soldiers were unhappy that there is no mention of General Sarath Fonseka on these two memorials. Some soldiers told us that Sinhalese visitors from the South had also commented on this point.
Irrespective of Fonseka’s Political shortcomings, the acknowledgement of his contribution to the war effort is common decency and the attempt to erase his name reflects negatively on the Rajapakse’s integrity.
There are large numbers of Sinhalese visiting the North at present and this is having its impact on the local population. Young Sinhalese male visitors are harassing females with various unwarranted and disrespectful comments. We heard these in Jaffna town as well as at Casuarina beach, which is littered with plastic bottles and bags. We saw one group standing around in the shallow sea with a bottle of liquor in the centre and eating processed crisps like food from a plastic wrapper which was allowed to float away after they had finished consuming it.
The Kantarodai ancient Buddhist remains, which was not desecrated by the LTTE, and which I had visited on several occasions previously during and before the conflict, has been desecrated by recent Sinhalese visitors who had written their phone numbers and names on the ancient stupas. This has now been cleaned, but the marks are still visible. During my previous visits, I walked freely around the many stupas at Kantharodai, but now its been cordoned off and the soldiers guarding it stated that the new restrictions are in place because the site had been desecrated by recent visitors from the south.
We visited the home of a poor Jaffna Tamil shopkeeper who treated us with vadai, bananas and tea. Their generosity and friendliness was no different to what we had experienced in the South.
One of the first things we saw on Sunday as we drove into Jaffna was Cavady dancing where men had pierced the middle of their back with hooks. Everyone in the vehicles were excited with the spectacle, but failed to notice something significant in the setting in which the religious ritual was taking place.
It was under an ancient Bo-tree. Jaffna has many Bo Trees and many of them have a little shrine built at the base of the tree, normally a shrine for Ganesha.
Generations of Sri Lankans have grown up being conditioned that the Sinhalese were the sons of the soil and that the Tamils were South Indian invaders who had invaded much later dislodging the Sinhalese in the North and occupying their lands. Similar to the Serbian view of Kosovo, the Sinhalese regard the North as Sinhala Buddhist land over-run by South Indian Invaders.
This view has more recently been dismissed by historians, as there is no evidence of large scale population displacement from the North.
In areas where the Sinhalese were displaced such as in the North Central Province, place names have been replaced by new Tamil names, but in Jaffna there are to the present day over a thousand “Sinhalese” place names, which survive in a Tamil garb, such as Aliyawala(i), kodigama(m), Weligama(m) etc.
This indicates that rather than wholesale displacement of the population, there has been a gradual Tamilisation. Recent DNA testing has also indicated that Sri Lankan Tamils are genetically closer to the Sinhalese than they are to South Indian Tamils.
All this and other evidence has led historians to reject the old theories and advocate that what has taken place in Jaffna is language and cultural replacement.
The same way that Sri Lankans in Colombo and the Western provinces have undergone language and cultural replacement by acquiring the English language, dress, cultural behaviour and Christianity in some instance, because of their contact with Western colonialism from 1505 onwards, Sri Lankans in the North have undergone language and cultural replacement by acquiring the Tamil language, dress, Hinduism and cultural behaviour because of their contact with South Indian colonialism from 992AD onwards.
The place names, the numerous Bo-Trees and ancient Buddhist remains indicate that the people of Jaffna were Buddhists from about 400BC till approximately 992AD, but despite them acquiring the Tamil language, culture and Hinduism, even today, they continue to perform some of their religious rituals under Bo-trees as they did so many generations ago.