Sunday, April 26, 2015

Heroes and monuments

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, Insight,p. i11

LTTE bulldozer destroyed by Gamini Kularatne, as seen soon after the war was over (Pics by Bushana Kalhara)

A person who passes Elephant Pass notices of a monument made of a bulldozer plated with armor, which silently reminds the heroic action of a soldier during the war that devastated the country for a period about three decades. It was when the Elephant Pass army camp came under attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists in July 1991. A bulldozer was moving towards the camp was a strange sight for the soldiers, and it was obvious that it could cause serious damage to the camp. A valiant soldier named Gamini Kularatne took a decision and moved towards the bulldozer, and stopped its movement by tossing grenades inside it, amidst the heavy fire from the terrorists. Kularatne was successful in stopping the terrorist bulldozer, but he made supreme sacrifice in doing so.

Gamini Kularatne is one of the heroes of the country who emerged as exceptional during the terrorist war of Sri Lanka. He was awarded with the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya Award, the highest award for gallantry which can be received by a military personal in Sri Lanka. He is the first person to receive the award, and became known as Hasalaka Weeraya, since he was from Hasalaka.

The bulldozer monument at Elephant Pass is the same bulldozer which was destroyed by Kularatne. It was there even after the fall of Elephant Pass some years later and during the time when the area was under the LTTE. Since the defeat of the terrorists, the bulldozer is an attraction for fellow Sri Lankan, who tour the area.

War memorials

This event was recalled here as a recent comment made by a left wing politician monk stating this monument should be removed as it belongs to the past, and can be a barrier in the post-war society. There was a discussion on this statement in the society and many condemned the statement.

Erecting monuments and memorials for war fallen is to commemorate them or the victory of the battle or the event is common all over the world. Ordinary people and authorities build monuments for their heroes, apart from the personal memorials often erected by the relatives. This can be seen in many countries of the world as all nations have heroes who braved themselves to face the enemies valiantly. Such monuments boost the morale of the fellow soldiers and of a nation as a whole.

The monument at Elephant Pass commemorates a hero, who fought to defend the country from separatist terrorists. Similarly, there are many monuments built to commemorate other heroes in various places of the country, who fought to safeguard the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The largest of all is the “war heroes monument” situated near the Parliament in Sri Jayewardenapura, where names of all the fallen heroes of the Armed Forces and Police during the recent war are inscribed. There is another monument related to this war, built for the fallen members of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), numbering more than 1,500, killed by the terrorists during their peace keeping mission in 1987-1990 near the Parliament.

Apart from those monuments of the recent war, there are few built to commemorate incidents such as the suppression of locals in 1817 and 1848 struggles of freedom, often interpreted as ‘rebellions’. One at the place where Major Wilson was killed in 1817 and where ‘rebels’ were dispersed in Matale are two examples for such. It should be noted that there are some other war-related monuments are there, which are not directly related to Sri Lanka, i.e. numerous World War I and II monuments and even the Boer War Memorial in Kandy.

Ancient tradition

There is an ancient tradition of building monuments for war heroes – known as weera gala (hero-stone), where a fallen war hero was commemorated and he is mentioned as born in heaven.

A well-known hero-stone can be found at the Archaeological Museum at Anuradhapura. It was first discovered from a ruined site called Velana Damana in a forest in Vilachchiya Korale, Anuradhapura district in 1896 by HCP Bell. However, it was rediscovered 50 years later and taken to the museum.

This particular hero-stone is of interest due to the ideology behind it. The stone has two panels – the large lower panel consists of a battle scene. The hero is depicted as fighting with four enemies, with the support of a fellow comrade. The enemies are dead or dying while hero has been wounded fatally by arrows, but he continue to fight with the enemy facing undaunted up to death. The hero and his other comrade have vanquished four enemies, but at the cost of their lives. The upper panel consists of a noble figure which is being fanned by two nymphs. Prof. Senerath Paranavitana identified the figure as a Buddha, more precisely as Aksobhya Buddha and interpreted that the statue is the consciousness of the war hero, who was born in heaven. The stone bears a Sinhalese language inscription, belonging to the period between 10TH and the 12TH centuries, which is totally illegible. Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne differentiated from this explanation and argued that the fallen soldier is depicted as to attain nirvana after seeing the Buddha.

These hero-stones are a depiction of the belief that a warrior who died a hero’s death on the battlefield obtains bliss of heaven. This belief was strong in India, where Hindu beliefs supported the idea. There are many hero-stones found in South India. However, such a belief is not accepted by the Buddhist teachings which do not tolerate the killing of any living being. There are about five hero-stones found so far from Sri Lanka, and this tradition most probably had an influence of south India.
However, despite the fact that Buddhism rejected killing of living beings, many rulers of Sri Lanka fought war, emerged victorious and even were able to invade other countries. Some of such gallant rulers and heroes are stated to have been born in heaven. That is how the country’s sovereignty and the territorial integrity have been protected during the past.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rare landscape of Ussangoda

Dhanesh Wisumperuma
The Nation, 11-04-2015 (Insight, p. i 10)

Pics by Bushana Kalhara

After turning off a small road to the right near Nonagama Junction on Colombo-Hambantota (A2) road, we proceeded few hundred meters and then turned to the right hand side again and there was our destination. We were in the middle of a rare and unusual landscape of the country, known as Ussangoda.

Anyone would be able to see the difference of the open landscape in front of us in contrast to the surrounding area, which comprised mostly of dry zone vegetation. The soil of the area was deep red in color and quite an extensive area was almost devoid of any tall vegetation, except in few small patches that contained small shrubs. We were amazed by the scenery, while walking across the flat landscape in a southerly direction. The area is a rock outcrop significantly higher from the sea level, which is evident from the southern end where a narrow path taperes down towards the sea shore. This landmass was unusual and unique in the southern coastal belt of the country, a fact that is apparent to any visitor to the place. The Ussangoda rock outcrop is situated within the Ambalantota Divisional Secretariat Division in the Hambantota district in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. To the west of it was the Lunawa Kalapuwa, a lagoon, and Kalametiya Sanctuary. Lunawa, Kalametiya, Nonagama and Welipatanwila are among the villages situated close by.

Usangoda or Ussangoda

The name of the area was pronounced as ‘Usangoda’, as evident in Nila Kobo Sandesaya, a 18th century sandeshakawya(messenger poem). This poem was written with the objective of carrying a message to the god Kataragama and the messenger bird flew across this area. It mentioned the place as Usangoda, which could be the original name which changed to the easily pronounceable from Ussangoda better known today. The poet instructed the bird to look at the soil which was in red color resembling the flesh of humans that was piled up by a group of non-humans or demons that came from the ocean to encroach the land. The poet also likened the color of the soil to a type of red colored flower, rakthakusuma, which could be the rathmal. It is worthy to note that the poet who lived two centuries ago was aware of the color of the soil of this place. However, he didn’t want to comment how the red color originated.

The rock outcrop is a high rising ground from the sea shore and the name may have been originated from that sense – the higher ground area. The recorded name ‘Usangoda’ supports this. It is still used by many.

As we were aware, there are many folk stories coined to explain the origin of the color and the lack of vegetation on the landscape, some of which are undoubtedly of very recent origin. One story mentions that this was the place where betel was first brought to Sri Lanka and the color of the soil was a result of deposition of masticated betel! Another story goes on to say that it was a ground of the local deity Mangara. A third story links this place to Ravana, a character of the Indian epic poem of Valmiki, considered as a mythical one by the learned people. There will be such folk stories generated in future too, due to the creativity of the people, and not based on facts. There is a suggestion that this is where a meteor knocked the earth in the past.
However this unusual nature of Ussangoda rock outcrop is explained by science.

Serpentine rock

Ussangoda is an outcrop of a rock type known as ‘serpentine rocks’, which is a rare formation in Sri Lanka. According to geologists, serpentine bodies are naturally found in the vicinity of the boundary of Highland and Vijayan Complex, two geological plates that make the country. Availability of serpentine rocks in Sri Lanka was not known to science until 1970s, when geological explorations revealed the availability of such sites along the boundary of the two plates. There are six serpentine rock formations found in the country–other sites being Yudhaganawa (in Wasgomuwa), Indikilapelessa, Ginigalpelessa, Katupotha and Rupaha, all of which are situated along the boundary of the plates.

These serpentine bodies and soils associated with them contain high concentrations of heavy metals such as nickel, cobalt, iron and magnesium. There are iron oxide and silicon dioxide as major components of the soil. It is these heavy metals that limit the growth of vegetation on the surface of these bodies as it alters the physical and chemical nature of soil. Plants that can tolerate the heavy metal concentration are able to establish themselves in this extreme environment. Researchers have found high concentrations of heavy metals in the few species of plants which grow on such places. This vegetation is often known as serpentine flora and includes a few dozens of species that fascinate many scientists by their remarkable ability to thrive on this type of soils.

The vegetation of the serpentine Ussangoda area contains of two distinct forms of vegetation - dominant prostrate species (plants that grow lying along the ground) and few patches of thorny shrubs. There is a number of research papers conducted on the vegetation of Ussangoda and other serpentine rocks.

Due to this particular ecological significance, and due the proximity to the other important habitats in the surrounding area, an area comprising 349 hectares (i.e. 862 acres) was declared as the Ussangoda National Park under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance in May 2010. We noticed the possible tracks of driving vehicles through this landscape, which can cause degradation of the site.

Time has passed and the evening sun was going down the western sky. It was time to say goodbye to this extraordinary place. On our return we had a locally made fruit drink made of the fruits of kadol, a mangrove plant, and sold by the villagers in the small thatched huts – they are receiving some income from the tourists that visit the area. We left the place while keeping this in mind - it is our duty to protect this place, even from misinterpretations.

The unusual landscape of reddish earth

Small rock found on the flat land

A low-lying plant that flourish on the landscape