TikaWeeks #27/2018: Sri Lanka update

Posted by John on 8th July 2018

Batik, Sri Lanka
Fair Trade Sri Lanka – Support locals and experience something different

The Fairtrade organisation is a social movement whose objective is to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading and working conditions – and we can all contribute to this goal. A fair and equitable way of life should be the rule and in Sri Lanka we encourage cultural exchange, social awareness, local employment and self-development through our tailor-made holidays. With fairly traded goods and services you have the power to change the world every day since simple shopping or holiday choices can get local producers and providers a better deal. This means that they can make their own decisions, control their future and lead the dignified life everyone deserves.

There is a growing number of employers in Sri Lanka that support and nurture their workforce and we are delighted to include these fair trade pioneers in our Sri Lanka tailor-made holidays. From supporting impoverished fishermen’s wives and displaced peoples to develop fabric-making skills or encouraging handloom operators to preserve traditional crafts to helping organic tea and spice producers cultivate and market their wares, many companies are creating new opportunities, not only for themselves but for their cherished workforce. Similarly, enlightened hoteliers are embracing this open-minded ethos and we will introduce you to a selection of them on your fair trade holiday with us.

Our Fair Trade Sri Lanka holiday combines an introductory tour of the island with visits to fair trade producers while staying in local accommodation. Beginning in Negombo staying in a lagoon-side residence home to an arts and crafts workshop and visiting a Fairtrade manufacturer of wooden toys, the route continues into the Cultural Triangle via a Fairtrade handloom factory.

After exploring the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa and climbing iconic “Lion Rock” at Sigiriya as well as visiting Dambulla cave temples, the itinerary heads south to Kandy, with a stopover near Matale where the ancient art of batik was re-established on the island. Here you will prepare traditional ‘Rice and Curry’ and gets hands on experience of how the delicious food is eaten! A visit to an elephant dung paper producer also may be included. Then into the famous tea plantations of the Hill Country for a trek to World’s End and a scenic train ride to Ella, where you will learn about organic farming and artisanal tea-making at a secluded guesthouse working with the local community to support a variety of educational, economic and environmental initiatives.

Dropping down to the southern plain for a jeep safari in Uda Walawe NP and a visit to a rehabilitation centre for elephants supported by the Born Free Foundation, the south coast beckons for a stretch of beach side R&R. Final stop in Galle and a chance to see a government-run initiative to reintroduce locals to the art of Beeralu lace making. This intricate and time-consuming style of lace making is practised as a cottage industry in many areas of the south.

Peoples of Sri Lanka – #2 Sinhalese

Cultural influences

The Sinhalese have grown accustomed to taking on cultural influences from visitors and traders. Their willing acceptance of new ideas and people was further strengthened by the large-scale emigration to the island from north and south India. Many of the Sinhalese dynasties were enriched by imported royal stock from Indian coastal kingdoms. Their retinues, mercenaries and artisans provided a wealth of knowledge and expertise which helped develop the culture. Poetry, dance, drama, painting and sculpture all thrived in such favourable circumstances.

National pride

The foreign domination of the past five centuries brought other stimulating influences, many of which enriched Sinhalese culture. The national dish, rice and curry, for example, is derived from the Dutch, and the British education system transferred well. However, all of this was at a very high price. The level of exploitation and the divisive methods used to control the populace struck deep. Sinhalese nationalism is an understandable but negative reaction to earlier suppression.

Despite being rooted in many cultures and enduring 500 years of foreign control, the Sinhalese have carried through their turbulent history an intensely felt sense of their unique identity, pointing to the purity of the form of Buddhism practised on the island and on the long history of their kings.

The Sinhalese are proud of their dynasty of kings reaching back 2300 years, an unbroken chain of 167 monarchs, who reigned in various parts of the island, ending with the capture of Kandy in 1815. Throughout the centuries, one feature that endured was the balance of influence maintained between the rulers, the Buddhist monks and village society.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Having enjoyed a golden age in the pre-medieval period, Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Sri Lanka, practised by 69% of the population. According to Article 9 of the Constitution, it is the State's duty to grant it priority and to protect it, at the same time guaranteeing freedom of worship to other religions.

One of the paradoxes of Sri Lanka is the fact that it is simultaneously a preserver of the most orthodox form of Buddhism, the Theravada ("Way of the Elders"), yet responsible for leading it through profound changes since the end of the 19th Century in order to adapt it to the modern world.

Tradition associates the founding of Sri Lanka's first kingdom with Devanampiya Tissa, who the Mahavamsa suggests was converted to Buddhism by Mahinda, son of the great Indian emperor Asoka, at Mihintale near Anuradhapura. His decision to make Buddhism the official religion in his state continues to shape Sri Lanka today. Devanampiya Tissa also founded the Mahavihara ("Great Monastery") in Anuradhapura, the first such Buddhist monastic community in the country, which was to have a repeated decisive influence on the land's political fate, and also oversaw the chronicling of the country's history through the Mahavamsa.

The Mahavamsa claims that Prince Vijaya and his followers reached Sri Lanka on the day the Buddha gave up his mortal body, signifying that the Sinhala race was anointed with the task of preserving the teachings of the Buddha. In fact the Mahavamsa states quite clearly that the Buddha chose Sri Lanka as the country in which his doctrine should survive in its original form. Even though they were not converted to Buddhism until much later, the Sinhala race and the Buddhist religion are inextricably linked and remain so today.

Bhikkus, monasteries and temples

The Buddhist monks or "bhikkus" are active in the local community, as spiritual and family advisors. Some practise the healing arts and astrology. In the contemporary context, bhikkus participate in the economic and political life of the country. There are now more than 6500 monasteries in the country housing a community of around 20,000 monks.

Buddhist temples or monasteries are at the heart of the Sinhala community, and are centres of teaching and worship. The overall plan of a temple reflects its origins as a place for monks to live and worship, and the design follows a similar pattern throughout the country. The sacred land on which the temple is built houses an array of buildings and structures. A Bo tree (Ficus religiosa) is the landmark, the tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Of equal importance is the dagoba (relic chamber), which is a symmetrical half-moon shaped solid structure with a spire on the highest point. The image chamber contains images of the Buddha and his disciples, which in a modern context are artistic depictions of the life of the Buddha in his various incarnations. A simple preaching hall, which contains the belfry, is situated in the same compound. The living quarters of the monks are adjacent to the other structures. Temple premises contain an image chamber of Hindu deities, most giving credence to the fact that Buddhism and Hinduism enjoy a spiritual unity.

Devotees have the opportunity to worship in the temple premises at all times. Special days are marked by the quarterly lunar cycle, when activities of worship within the temple are intensified. On a rotating basis, the meals for the monks are offered by the lay members of the temple. Other offerings, which are placed around each of the sacred structures, are flowers, incense, oil lamps, camphor and fruit. Each offering has a specific spiritual significance and is accompanied by audible chants.

Support for the temple or, during the historical periods, the monastery did not just extend to daily sustenance. According to orthodox Buddhist belief, only members of the Sangha - the order of the Buddhist monks - can attain nirvana, the ultimate aim of Buddhist existence, and thus avoid reincarnation after their death. Kings, on the other hand, are subject to the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. However, by giving generously and performing other good deeds during their lifetime, anyone can secure a favourable reincarnation. The Sinhalese kings, and others who could afford it, thus generally gave donations to the holy men of the Sangha. However, since individual monks are not allowed to have personal possessions, the monasteries amassed both land and goods, and gradually became wealthy and powerful.

Belief in the stars

The Sinhalese take their superstitions very seriously. Marriages, births and any major social event are planned with great consideration to the advice of astrologers and gurus, backed up by the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and a lower order of demonic beings. Astrologists prescribe the specific types of rituals and chart auspicious occasions right down to days and times.

Every Sinhalese child has a horoscope based on the time of birth. The horoscope is based on a mixture of planetary influences, religion, legend and folklore. The position of the stars and planets is carefully analysed by an astrologer to determine the flow of the child's early life, usually the first five years. Thereafter, five-year horoscopes are cast in detail and predict good times as well as bad, wealth, job and marriage prospects and their effect on family members. For a male child it may even lead him into the community of bhikkus. If it is considered auspicious by the astrologer, and the senior monk of the local temple agrees to undertake training, parents of a young boy will then prepare him for the monkhood. This invests blessed merit on the mother and father, beneficial to their own spiritual development.

Auspicious hours, days and months are carefully considered before conducting any individual or family business or social activity. Negative influences can be countered by devotion to the Buddha, and propitiation ceremonies, several thousand in number, can be prescribed to forestall danger or earn favours at work or in any other area. The ceremony consists of narratives, recitations, bell ringing, drumming and dancing, complete with the appropriate masks depicting the mischievous deity or demon - a ritual condemned by Christian missionaries as devil worship. Some ceremonies have been known to last for three days, during which large amounts of food and drink are consumed!

The Sinhala community today

All Sinhalese people are bound together by their shared love for parents, extended family, friends and children. This is mutually expressed through gestures, body language, looks and obeisance instead of words. The placing together of the palms and fingers of both hands indicates a respectful acknowledgement of another individual.

Buddhist monks have provided the spiritual glue which maintains the cooperative spirit and serenity of village life for over 2,000 years. To this day the Buddhist temple doubles as a place of learning where young and old are taught history and culture of the Sinhala race and the Buddhist tenets of practical living.

The Sinhalese are renowned for their hospitality, as well as their strong cultural heritage. Visitors to the country, particularly those who have the time and inclination to tour rural Sri Lanka and communicate with the local people, will encounter a proud and traditional but fun-loving race that genuinely treasures human contact.

Where to stay… Off the beaten track

The Mudhouse is an authentic eco-retreat based around a well-developed community project in one of the least visited areas of the island. Flanked by lakes and blessed with abundant birdlife, wildlife and natural beauty, the uniquely designed and traditionally built huts are all constructed with natural materials sourced locally.

Palmyrah House is situated on Mannar Island in the north-western ‘dry zone’ region of Sri Lanka and seldom visited. The new incarnation offers comfortable rooms, local food, a swimming pool, a traditional well bath, recreational area, gym, library, bar and restaurant. From October to March, this isolated isle is alive with migratory birds.

Gal Oya Lodge is a luxury wildlife lodge constructed from locally-sourced, natural materials and spread over 8 hectares of private forest with a wonderful mountain backdrop close to the country’s largest lake. Gal Oya Lodge is an intimate retreat pioneering environmentally responsible tourism in a new frontier of the island’s burgeoning wildlife sector.

Categories: Accommodation, Culture, Sightseeing, Sri Lanka, Travel tips

« All articles