Monday, November 9, 2009

War in the 1990s

In May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber. It was generally assumed that Gandhi’s assassination was in retaliation for his consent to Jayawardene’s 1987 request for the IPKF. Soon after this, war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese intensified.

Although a high proportion of Tamils and Sinhalese longed for peace, extremists on both sides pressed on with war. President Premadasa was assassinated at a May Day rally in 1993; the LTTE was suspected, but never claimed responsibility.

The following year, the People’s Alliance (PA), a coalition of the main opposition SLFP and smaller parties, won the parliamentary elections. Its leader, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of former leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, won the presidential election and appointed her mother prime minister.

Although the PA had promised to end the civil war, the conflict continued in earnest, and Kumaratunga was targeted by a suicide bomber just days before the December 1999 presidential election. She was injured, losing sight in her right eye, but won the election. Curiously enough, the economy was showing signs of life during this period. Garment exports grew, growth ticked along at 5% to 6% a year between 1995 and 2000, and the ongoing war partly solved unemployment in the rural south.

In the October 2000 parliamentary elections President Kumaratunga’s PA won a narrow victory. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the president’s mother and three-time prime minister of Sri Lanka, died shortly after casting her vote.

The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa survived as a Sinhalese capital for more than two centuries – a period that provided a further two kings of note. Parakramabahu I (r 1153–86), nephew of Vijayabahu I, was not content simply to expel the South Indian Tamil Chola empire from Sri Lanka, but carried the fight to South India and even made a raid on Myanmar. Domestically he indulged in an orgy of building in the capital, and constructed many new tanks around the country. But his warring and architectural extravagances wore down the country’s resources, and probably shortened Polonnaruwa’s lifespan.

His successor, Nissanka Malla (r 1187–96), was the last king of Polonnaruwa to show interest in the wellbeing of the people and in the construction and maintenance of buildings and irrigation systems.

He was followed by a series of weak rulers who allowed the city to fall into disrepair. With the decay of the irrigation system, disease spread and, like Anuradhapura before it, Polonnaruwa was abandoned. The jungle reclaimed it within a few decades.

The rise & fall of Anuradhapura

According to Sinhalese accounts it was crime and banishment that led to their settlement in Sri Lanka in the 5th or 6th century BC. Vijaya, son of a North Indian king, was ousted from his title and kingdom due to his acts of assault and robbery. With a contingent of 700 men, the sinha (lion) prince was set adrift on the high seas in dilapidated ships, to face his destiny – punishment by death. But destiny took a different turn and as they travelled south, Vijaya and his men were blessed by the Buddha and (as accounts would have it) came to land on the west coast of Sri Lanka on the very day that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Vijaya and his men settled around Anuradhapura, forming the basis of a Sinhalese kingdom that developed there in the 4th century BC. Later, the Sinhalese kingdom of Ruhunu was established in the southwest but Anuradhapura remained the stronger kingdom. Early settlement took place mainly along rivers, as the aridity of the north was not conducive to human settlement and the cultivation of crops. No doubt banishment and the need for survival can be great motivators: Vijaya and his descendants demonstrated impressive resourcefulness. To overcome the challenges of climate they constructed water channels and reservoirs (known locally as tanks) – great feats of engineering and mathematics. Such inventiveness enabled the early settlements to develop and prosper.

In the 3rd century BC the Indian emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sangamitta to the island to spread the Buddha’s teachings. Mahinda soon converted the Anuradhapuran king Devanampiya Tissa, an event that is tremendously significant to the Sinhalese as it deeply influenced their customs, created a sense of national identity and, by developing scriptures and commentary, instituted a literary tradition. The mountain at Mihintale marks the spot where the conversion is said to have occurred. Today 1840 steps lead up the mountain to the site – it’s a popular pilgrimage place, especially on the June poya (full moon), the reputed anniversary of the king’s conversion.

Sangamitta brought to Sri Lanka a cutting of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. She planted this in Anuradhapura, where it still survives today, garlanded with prayer flags and lights. Other bodhi trees, grown from cuttings of the Anuradhapuran tree, now spread their branches beside many of the island’s temples.

With the conversion of the king to Buddhism strong ties were established between Sri Lankan royalty and Buddhist religious orders. Later, these ties strengthened as kings, grateful for monastic support, provided living quarters, tanks and produce to the monasteries. A symbiotic political economy between religion and state became consolidated. When the Sinhalese king Valagambahu fled from South Indian invaders he was given safe haven by monks who resided in the cave structures at Dambulla. When he regained his position in about 90 BC he expressed his gratitude by developing a huge cave-temple complex. Since that time it has been a centre of Buddhist practice.

Buddhism underwent a major development when the teachings, previously conveyed orally, were documented in writing. Sri Lankan monks played a significant role in the documentation process, when, at the Aluvihara monastery in the 1st century BC, they began in-depth commentaries on the teachings. Their work forms the major part of the classical literature of the Theravada (doctrine of the elders) school of Buddhism. It was in Sri Lanka that the Theravada school developed, later spreading to Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia. Even today, Buddhists of the Theravada school in Myanmar, Thailand and other countries look to Sri Lanka for spiritual leadership and interpretation of the scriptures.

Another event that served to intensify Buddhism in Sri Lanka was the arrival of the tooth relic (of the Buddha) at Anuradhapura in AD 371. It gained prominence not only as a religious symbol but also as a symbol of sovereignty – it was believed that whoever held custody of the relic had the right to rule the island. Modern-day presidents, prime ministers and governments see it as their duty to protect the relic and the rituals that surround it. It now lies in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy.

In AD 473, King Kasyapa assumed the throne by engineering the death of his father and the exile of his elder brother, Mugalan. Kasyapa’s skills were not limited to eliminating relatives – he also recognised a good piece of real estate and was a dab hand at property development. His reign saw the construction of the spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya, with its intricate water systems, ornate gardens and frescoed palaces. However, the exiled Mugalan, incensed by his ousting, returned to Sri Lanka with an army of Indian mercenaries. Mugalan defeated Kasyapa and reclaimed the throne, but he established a perilous precedent. To retain power, future Sinhalese kings found themselves beholden to Indian mercenaries. Centuries of interference and disorder followed with repeated invasions and takeovers of Anuradhapura by South Indian kingdoms, and self-defeating entanglements in South Indian affairs by Anuradhapura’s rulers.

Anuradhapura was pummelled many times but rebuilding was possible through rajakariya, the system of free labour for the king. This free labour provided the resources to restore buildings, tanks and irrigation systems, as well as to plant, cultivate and harvest crops.

Finally in 11th century AD, Vijayabahu I, weary of the continual cycle of conflict, destruction and renovation, abandoned Anuradhapura to make Polonnaruwa, further southeast, his capital.

Prehistory of Sri Lanka

Legend and history are deeply intertwined in the early accounts of Sri Lanka: did the Buddha leave his footprint on Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) while visiting the island that lay halfway to paradise? Or was it Adam who left his footprint embedded in the rock while taking a last look at Eden? Was the chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India the same chain that Rama crossed to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of Rawana, king of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?

It is probable that the Ramayana has some fragile basis in reality, for Sri Lanka’s history recounts many invasions from southern India. Perhaps some early invasion provided the elements of the story of Rama and Sita, recounted throughout Asia.

Whatever the legends, the reality is that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs (Wanniyala-aetto), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear. However, anthropologists generally believe that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants are descendants from the people of the late Stone Age and may have existed on the island since 16, 000 BC. The first Sinhalese, originally from North India, arrived in Sri Lanka around the 5th or 6th century BC. Traders and fisherfolk from South India who visited Sri Lanka during the late centuries BC also made the island their permanent home. The intermingling of the new arrivals produced a harmonious multicultural society – a state that, unfortunately, did not continue in the centuries that followed.

ntroducing Sri Lanka

Travel Alert: Fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has ceased, but northern Sri Lanka has been devastated by the conflict. Check the BBC for news updates and Safe Travel for current government warnings.

When the noted writer Sir Arthur C Clarke made his home in Sri Lanka in 1956, he claimed the island jewel of the Indian Ocean was the best place in the world from which to view the universe. The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey passed away in 2008, but no doubt the futurist would have logged on to Google Earth to gaze back at his island home from an online universe. And concealed in the sky-high imagery of this teardrop-shaped nation, he would have recognised an amazing diversity for somewhere so compact.

Fringing the coasts is an array of gently arcing golden-sand beaches, now making a comeback after the devastation wreaked by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Zoom closer to spy the giant tanks (artificial reservoirs) built by the first Sinhalese rulers around the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. In the Hill Country, a layer of cotton wool clouds obscures the view, mirroring the misty mornings travellers often experience in this area of waterfalls and verdant tea plantations.

To the northwest, a gossamer-thin land bridge almost connects fragile Sri Lanka to the modern juggernaut that is India. Two and a half decades of civil war reinforces this bridge to Tamil Nadu is as much cultural as geographic.

Irrespective of their cultural background, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim locals will welcome you with pride. Pride in their criminally underrated cuisine, pride in their national parks and wildlife, and – especially – pride in their national cricket team. Whether you’re a humble three-wheeler jockey or a British-trained lawyer or doctor, the sport that frequently stops the nation is always worthy of discussion. How will the boys do in the upcoming series against New Zealand? Will the country be ready to host the World Cup in 2011? And have you seen how much that opening batsman from Kandy is earning in the new Indian Premier League?

Faced with funding a war and weathering a global financial crisis, Sri Lanka’s proud population has been doing it tough for a few years. But equipped with a stellar combination of scenery, culture and history, a growing focus on sustainable tourism and (hopefully) a more settled society, Sri Lanka is firmly back on the radar for curious travellers seeking unique experiences.