Analytics of a Wedding Photo

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Bennie Kirtisinghe married Manel Chitra Fernando on 8 June 1944 at the Dissanayake Waluwwa, Panadura. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It was on a day like yesterday, 8 June 1944 Manel and Bennie, my parents got married in Panadura, at the Dissanayke Waluwa, home of Manel’s illustrious Great grandfather. Yesterday, was spent looking at this photo, thinking of my parents, reading old letters and trying to deconstruct this photo to savour a day long past. A day and events that are now mostly forgotten.

She was 22 and he was 26. He the lover of poetry quoted Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Today, only the two flower girls – my aunt Nimal on the left and my cousin Punya are alive from this wedding retinue.  Bennie’s Best man, his lifelong friend Ariyapala — Prof. M.B. Ariyapala, the bridesmaid on the left Manel’s only sister Irangani,  the other bridesmaid Enid, Bennie’s cousin and the cute page boy Senaka are all gone. Faintly visible to the left is the Waluwa buggy cart and on the right Bennie’s car, a Renault.

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani, who was a very clever seamstress would have sewn the bridesmaids and flower girl dresses. She would have poured over English mail order catalogues and magazines to get ideas for designing the saree blouses. If I look closely, I can see her famous embroidered roses on the frills of the blouses which look more like a top portion of western bridesmaid dress.

Nimal, the flower girl says she can remember a long luncheon table with a white linen cloth where the plates were set surrounded by red and green croton leaves and being told sternly by an aunt not to touch the decorations. She also remembers a large marquee – “Magul Maduwa” set up in the garden. It had Areca nut – Puwak trees decorated with green vines,  red and green dyed reeds ( used in traditional weaving mats we call peduru) adorned with arum lilies and barberton daisies.

Cooks and caterers would have been cooking and making preparations at least two days before the event. The wedding eve is also a huge party for all bride’s relatives, and is celebrated with much gusto in Panadura. I remember well Irangani’s wedding eve in 1957 and as my thoughts turn a cavalcade of laughing relatives faces drift past in my mind.

Bennie wearing the national dress was strange to Manel’s family in Panadura and the even more westernised Anglican cousins in Moratuwa. Cousin Ranjani in a letter written in 1994, at their 50th wedding anniversary recalled how the bride looked radiant, young and sweet and the groom was smart in his national dress  — something that was “new” to them. Manel didn’t wear a veil as a bride as most brides did, and still do, irrespective of religion. Contrary to this, the bride and bridesmaids succumbed to the western tradition and carried bouquets of flowers. The flower girls wore half sarees or lama sarees — a long skirt and a blouse and wore garlands. So a mixture of imbibed Western bridal customs and some influence from neighbhouring India. Manel’s hair ornament on her centre parting was also not very common and her brothers and younger male cousins used to make fun of it saying it looked like “a crow crapped on her head!”

Ranjani Mendi's letter

In 1940 Bennie had asked for a favour from God Kataragama, at a shrine in the Southern jungles of then Ceylon. His wish was for a lovely woman for a wife. Bennie was in Kankesanturai (KKS), the northernmost part of Jaffna, nursing his brother Lionel recuperating from TB for almost two years.  In 1941, he was back at Siriniwasa, taking a break from his lonely existence in Kankesanturai. Two of his mild flirtations one with a young girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle and another with a Ms. Udagama had come to naught.  His friends like Tarzie Vittachi had been writing about how they chased girls in Colombo and he too very much longed for a girlfriend. So in 1941, Bennie was ripe for love.

Bennie emerged from the back garden at Siriniwasa to greet his sister-in-law Meta’s relatives from Panadura, who were on a pilgrimage to Kataragama. And there at the doorway to the sitting room he saw Manel. Stung by the cupid’s arrow, hin his mind this was the woman sent by God Kataragama. The door became his doorway of love.

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1941. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The road to Kataragama from Tissamaharama was a dirt track that meandered through thick jungles in the 1940s and travel was on bullock carts. Manel, many years later, recalled how the elders travelled in bullock carts and the young followed on foot. On the return journey from Tissamaharam Bennie and Ariyapala travelled on the same bus to Hikkaduwa. “Bennie sat with Sepal ( Manel’s brother) on his lap, and we had a huge comb of bananas hanging in the bus that we helped ourselves to when we were hungry.” 

There was some concern that Bennie’s Mum, Pinto Hamy would veto a proposal. She scorned love and had arranged marriages for 4 of her sons. The fifth Vinnie stood up to her and married his lady love, but earned her wrath. Bennie, however,  had collected valuable Brownie points looking after the TB ridden Lionel. In Manel’s favour was her lineage from the Great grandfather Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake

Ariyapala in a study for his PhD points out that the Pancha Tatntra advice which says “the wise give their daughters to those endowed with seven qualities: viz.caste or family character, protection, learning, wealth or power, beauty and health or youth.” Bennie fittingly qualified and Manel’s rather quiet and docile parents had no objections to the union. In fact they might have been overjoyed that their pretty daughter had attracted such a handsome man. However, life was to show that Bennie’s most enduring quality was his love for his relations and friends.

On his 50th wedding anniversary another lifelong friend of his, Godwin Witana, had sent the wedding invitation to Bennie and Manel’s wedding, back to them. A precious souvenir! For Bennie, this invitation and the letter from Cousin Ranjanii were the best golden wedding anniversary presents.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday in Nuwara Eliya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel did turn out to be the winner, that Bennie predicted and among many other accomplishments she did get him to wear western clothes too. While memories are fragile and sometimes unreliable, the written word lives on. “I got my wife to sing the song she sang on our honeymoon,” wrote Bennie. after one anniversary. He was ever the romantic.

“The day hath passed into the land of dreams
O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summerday so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness.”

– H.W. Longfellow/A summer day by the sea

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Benny’s Point

Benny's Surf Point, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Benny’s Surf Point, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Lounging on a “hansi putuwa” (planter’s chair) on the back verandah, watching a pair of blue kingfishers streak in and out among the coconut trees, sipping my morning tea, I am amazed at how relaxed I am. Gone with the wind are cravings to check mail or FB. There are  no deadlines to meet, no worries about strategies, budgets, Action Logs or Performance Appraisals. It is a painless transition to the stress free lassiz-faire lifestyle favoured by my father Bennie.

The coconut trees planted by my father have grown taller since my last visit, and the sky behind is a lovely porcelain Wedgewood blue. Beyond it the sea is multi-coloured — the pale jade green gets darker in the middle and turns almost a lilac where there are bands of coral. The horizon is smudged a deeper inky black and the thought that rains will come later in the day drifts into my mind.  But what am watching today is the white frothy topped waves – they come wave after wave, a never ending cycle. Eternally fascinating for me is the built up of energy as the wave rolls in, a moment of silence, followed by the huge thud as the wave hits the coral reef, splintering into a myriad bubbles.

This place I am watching behind our house has been named Benny’s Point and is listed as a Surf Point for Hikkaduwa, probably by early surfers when the back packing surfers of 1970’s flocked into Hikkaduwa.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970's. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970’s. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

This was also when my father Bennie, the garrulous, sometimes pugnacious local with a never ending stream of stories used to rent out rooms of “Siri Niwasa” on a bed & breakfast basis. My mother Manel and he had regular loyal clientele of German, French, American and Italian tourists who kept coming back. They didn’t even have 3 star luxury but they loved my Mum’s cooking and the generally laid back home life ambiance of Siriniwasa.

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970's. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970’s. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My sister-in-law Padmini had heard that Benny’s Point was listed in German travel guides years ago but my nephew Matheesha had only heard it, recently when they were in Panama in the East Coast of Sri Lanka.

Padmini says there was a Chef named Guido who copied my Mum’s recipes – specially her “Watalappan” — a steamed custard made of eggs, palm sugar and thick coconut milk flavoured with nutmeg. Like us, they used to refer to it as the “What will happen” pudding. Some modified form of this, plus other dishes like her fresh fish stew must have featured in some menus wherever Guido worked. Those days my Mum’s three course meal for Rupees 10/- — (costing even then probably less than US$1), was listed in a travel article as the best value for money meal, this side of Singapore.

Bennys_Hikkaduwa.10A quick search on Google brought info on Benny’s Surf Point up in an entry made by Shaka Sign Surf:

“Benny’s is one of the many surf breaks in Hikkaduwa. Named after a B&B property close by, on a perfect low tide day this should be your dream land in Hikkaduwa. Benny’s is a shallow break with a fast take off. Most importantly Benny’s is not for beginners.”

Another entry mentions the coral bottom and the fast left wave that is quite dangerous and how it breaks over a very sharp reef with shallow water. That entry too cautions: Only surf here if you really know what you are doing and at your own risk.

Bennie as he spelt his name might have been highly chuffed about this reference to him in Benny’s Point on the Internet. He himself at times signed off letter as “Foot in the mouth father”. Despite this he had a great sense of humour, was an avid reader and was very liberal in his outlook. Both he and my mother took the skimpy bikinis, topless sunbathing, see-through Kurtas, Oxford baths under the garden shower and gay couples in their stride. We were the ones returning for holidays from Kuala Lumpur and Penang who would go around  gobsmacked. I suspect some of the surfers had a soft spot for their host Bennie and if they had an interest in Buddhism they would have found in him a wealth of information although he hardly visited a Buddhist temple.

When I was flitting around countries in my not so distant working life, Father Bennie would say “Stay on terra firma, give up your ambitions, this place is your dowry to enjoy.” A tad too late to enjoy it with him. Walking along the beach, thinking of him, I waited for a spectacular sunset. Watching the watery sunset I was reminded of a reply by my father to one of my letters. ” Today’s house motto is Be satisfied with what you get [Lada pamaning sathutu wanna]. if not how can I be satisfied with this rag of a letter you sent.”

Sunset at Benny's Point, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 14 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Sunset at Benny’s Point, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 14 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It’s my house motto too. Gods don’t give you all pleasures. As I waited looking at the rather bland skyline with the camera in hand – a teenager after an evening swim runs past me shouting to his mates “Machang, machang (local for mate) walk this side if you want to be in the picture.” Good stuff, comes packaged in small sizes!!!

Beyond Benny's point to the left the beach stretches to the breakwater. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Beyond Benny’s point to the left the beach stretches to the breakwater. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

See also an earlier post: Much ado about Hikka Nudes

… And then there was Galle

Galle Ramparts. January 12, 2012. Photo© Chulie de Silva

There was Hikkaduwa, my dearest picturesque seaside birth village, and then there was Galle. “I am going to Galle, anyone coming?”  My father would holler while shaving in the kotu midula. We’d scurry, yelling yes, yes, yes in return – being a child then was enjoying every moment that came your way. His call usually was made on a Saturday – never mind we might be only going to the barber’s, but smart dresses, matching hair ribbons and our best Clarke’s shoes were the dress code.  While dressing my sister and I would start arguing which corner we wanted to sit in the back seat of the car. No one wanted to sit in the middle. I wanted seaside as I never tired of watching the sea but she wanted it too – so we’d settle – one on the favoured side going to Galle and the other coming back. My father would ask for his two white handkerchiefs – one for each pocket and we’d be off.  Prasanna, my brother would sit on my mother’s lap, leaving my sister and I the back seat.  Prasanna would do ghost driving holding an imaginary steering wheel imitating my father. My mother would forget how fastidiously she draped that saree that morning and exchange knowing smiles behind his back with my father.  My sister would ask for oxtail soup and brain cutlets for dinner. There was no butcher in Hikkduwa, and beef had to be bought in Galle.  So a trip to Galle meant beef would be on the menu that night.

Boy with boats, Ratgama, Sri Lanka. 26 December, 2005. Photo©Chulie de Silva

My father, ever the story teller would invariably spin us a story of Ratgama or Galle, historical or funny anecdotes of family members, friends or a historical yarn  – my favourite was of the Portuguese landing in 1505 in Galle, eating bread and drinking wine and the winding road the “parangiyas” [as the Portuguese were known by the locals], were taken to meet the King of Kotte.  The locals were used to many traders but this was a new lot they interpreted as a savage group of men, who ate white stones and drank blood.  We heard also of how the words paan  for bread, lensuva for handkerchief, janelaya (window); sapaththu (shoes); kalisam (trousers); almariya (almirah); and oralosuva (clock) entered the vocabulary along with customs manners and dresses.

An anchor from a Dutch period boat outside the Maritime Musuem. Galle Fort. January 12, 2012. photo©Chulie de Silva

Galle lies some 72 miles from Colombo, and is the most well known seaport- a heritage site.  Galle’s historical importance was a result of its harbor.  The changing trade winds threw up a flotsam of traders and seafarers and some ships got wrecked in storms. The ones who made it to terra firma were instrumental in changing not only Galle but the island’s history. The fleet of Portugese vessels commanded by Don Laurenco de Almeida too thus arrived driven off course by the weather and landed in Galle in 1505.  Many dates I’d learned in history lessons are forgotten but this sticks. This was a decisive moment for little Lanka and had repercussions  for centuries  to come.

Dutch Windows, Galle Maritime Museum. Galle Sri Lanka. January 12, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Galle the name itself is interesting.  Some say the name came when the Portuguese heard a cock crow and called it “Punot de Gale”.  The others say the name Galle came from the Sinhalese word “Gala” meaning an enclosure for cattle and maybe for the bullock carts that were the transport “containers” of yester years. The British used a corrupted form “Point de Galle.”

Galle as a fort came into being when in 1588, King Rajasingha I of Sitawaka laid siege on the Portuguese and they withdrew along the coast to settle in Galle. The Portuguese got the Sinhalese to take names they could pronounce easily and so the de Silva’s, Fernando’s, Perera’s, Almeida’s etc crept into Sinhalese family names.  I’ve read that the word  “Singho” is a corruption of the word sinno or senhor.  Apparently heads of local households had to queue up and the Portuguese would allocate names. When they closed shop for lunch they would say “Cooray, Cooray” meaning go away but the unsuspecting Sinhalese clans thought that was their name and so took it on.

VoC Crest, Galle, Sri Lanka January 12, 2012.. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The Dutch wrested power from the Portugese and constructed the present 90 acre fort of Galle. We could not pass through the thick walls of the gate without noticing the coat of arms and the huge VoC – “Vereenigde Oost Indische Compaigne” – Dutch East Indies Company crest with two lions on either side and a cock perched atop on a rock .  It bears under it the date 1669. As teenagers we hunted for old coins with this VoC crest on them when we heard these were valuable.

Often we’d get dropped off at the portly barber Edwin’s hairdressing saloon inside this fort. Edwin would come out to greet us dressed in squeaky white, a thick leather belt holding his neatly folded sarong.   My father would handover his brood with short instructions  “Give them short haircuts above the ears.” We loved Edwin’s high chair, the smell of shaving lotion, the spray of water, the smell of eau de cologne that was smacked on the cheeks of men after a shave  and the dusting of baby powder over our necks after the haircut. Everything was squeaky clean, the shiny bottles, the long blade they used to give men a shave and you could look through the mirror to a more images in the mirror at the back. There were no ladies then in his saloon – only men and children.  Edwin was a genial kindly man and who was as fond of us as we were of him.  It was easy for me to plead and cajole him to leave my hair a tad longer over the ears but my wish to keep a longer fringe coming down to my eyes was not looked upon as something healthy for my eyes. Afterwards, we’d run around the cobbled back streets of Galle and come in when we heard the horn of my father’s car, often none the worse for wear. Father would treat us to cool milk shakes in the café across the street from Edwin’s.

If we were going to see the grand uncle in his posh house by the ramparts, we had to take our report cards. My parents hardly glanced at our report cards at the end of term, but not the portly foxy lawyer grand uncle. He’d scrutinize the reports and give us money 20, 10, or a 5 rupee note, depending on whether you came 1st 2nd or 3rd in class.  If you got high marks for maths had to be anything above 90%, the dole out got better. This was our incentive to stay within the top 3 and score high for maths.  My sister, brother and I would next day, troop into the Hikkaduwa post office and buy savings stamps and paste them in our savings book. That was our first introduction to savings and embedded this archaic postal savings book with my spidery signature are heaps of memories. Grand Uncles’ house we thought was a mansion.  It had tiled floors and faced the ramparts. Once the ritual of paying respects to elders and collecting our dough over, we’d scamper off gleefully to run around on the ramparts and the giant great sea wall.

Ramparts was a treat in itself – this was the high point of the visit.  We could peer cautiously over the edge, see the lighthouse and the quaint Moorish houses, and the bearded traders.  We would pretend to be nonchalant and try our best not to stare at the Muslim ladies wearing the saree in a different way but I was dying to meet them and their children who waved to us peaking behind half open doors.

A deep-set window inside a boutique hotel in Galle Fort. January 6, 2008. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Galle retains in parts, this quaint charm, the aura of being a special place.  Muslim ladies are still there and now I am brave enough to stop and talk to them.  Much has changed, and has been built back — like the tsunami devastate bus stand.  Many of the Dutch buildings have been restored and have become boutique hotels with solid wide janeleya’s, even more solid doors and boasting of replicas of Dutch furniture.

A peak inside a boutique hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka, January 6, 2008.Photo©Chulie de Silva

I’ve peaked into many boutique hotels, stayed at two, waited on by obliging hotel staff, slept in rooms with four poster beds and pseudo antique furniture, letting my imagination wander, stepping back in time.  Out on the verandah overlooking the courtyard a waiter arranges blue lotus flowers at the alter and prepares to light the evening oil lamps.  Edwin, my Galle relatives with tortuous pasts, the Portuguese soldiers, their lady lovers in crisp dresses, ships laden with trading goods, would play in my mind’s eye an elaborate tableau.  I’d leave my body on the planter’s chair.  My avatar steps into the tableau to mingle with them, laugh with them, cry with them.  It’s fun being damnably sentimental.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day too!

My parents Manel and Bennie Kirtisinghe on the steps of the back verandah at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. circa 1990. Photographer unknown.

The beep from the sms woke me up early.  Still submerged in my dreams I debated whether to ignore it and go back to sleep but out here in Dhaka my brain kept nudging me to wake up — an sms at an odd hour doesn’t normally bring good tidings.  Still half in a stupor I read it through bleary eyes –it was Mother’s Day greetings from my first born Suren and his partner Nickie in Oz.   It was 13 May —  Mother’s Day was not uppermost in my mind but the thought that it was my father’s birthday was.  If he was alive he would have said “nonsense, rubbish” to Mother’s Day, saying “it’s mother’s day every day here and with a wink would have added a comment about my (n)ever loving wife. Their constant jabs at each other was legendary but so was their love story.

This photo was a delightful surprise from the past and had arrived at my desk a few days ago from my sister Yasoja, from Brisbane.  She had ferreted away most of the family photos when she migrated in the 1980’s to Australia.  We grumbled but after the tsunami of 2004, when we lost most of our treasured photos, we were overjoyed that her Brisbane archives had kept safe quite a cache of the family photos.

Photos like these are both a point of connection and a point of separation.  It captures a moment that I might have witnessed many a times and is now played back in a slow review of a life gone past.  I am there, sharing the cup of tea my bare bodied father is enjoying. I too am bathed by the amber light of the evening setting sun seeping through the coconut leaves over the back verandah. I feel the wetness of the towel on my mother’s knee, smell the freshness of the cool silky swathe of long wet hair, the tangy salt on my lips. The tape being played back stops as I linger over memories of how my mother and I tired of the salty sea water leaving our long hair a tangled mess, would go for a fresh well bath into the interior of Hikkaduwa.  I smile quietly as they do and wonder who the photographer was – a family member, a friend, a tourist?

Many are the photographs taken on that back verandah, many are memories of interesting visitors, even more interesting conversations.  My earliest recollections of a photo being taken and of course kept alive by the fact that a framed photograph of this one stood on the wooden radio set my uncle Vinnie had built at Siriniwasa.

My brother Prasanna and I. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 1950’s. Photograph by M.W. Indrasoma (Wimalatissa mama).

It was taken by my father’s bosom friend Uncle Wimalatissa on one of his visits to Hikkaduwa from Singapore.  My brother Prasanna and I were playing — he wearing the cap of a visitor who had gone for a dip in the sea.  I was trying out a swimming cap left by a lady who had finished her sea bath.

My mother said my father had cribbed this poem to me, but I didn’t care.  The scrawled handwritten letter is much treasured  —  written in 1981, after a visit home to see an ailing aunt and was  addressed to a Dear daughter

“What am I thinking of
this golden evening (of my life).
It is the daughter of my heart
who flits across my mind.
Her innocence
so like a lotus bloom.
She came to visit me just yesterday.
 
She left her darlings for awhile and came to savour
yet again (and again)
the love that spreads and smiles.
within her childhood home.
 
She writes to say
she loves both Ma and Pa.
I’m glad to see she had her priorities intact.
 
She had to go back to her kids and home (abroad)
She left with me her youthful happiness. 
She took with her
the love that Ma and Pa
will always give her.
Now I wait,
until she is home again
like the bursting glory
of the coming
of a flower in spring.”

At the end of this letter, my father had chided me for taking long to reply one of his letter, and said that “This account will be closed soon, and then you will have only memories
(ashes of thoughts).”

Family photos and letters my father wrote to me are my most treasured possessions, not just ashes of thoughts. More a kaleidoscope of love – I peer into —- my own private theatre to ruminate and enjoy yet again (and again) in the humid heat of Dhaka.

Vesak musings in Dhaka

    Women sell large pink lotus flowes near the Kalutara Temple. The gentle green sprouting bo -sapling on the concret pillar behind her and the white obituary notice on the concrete pillar saying life is transient sums up the cycle of birth and death. Significant in the the pali stanzas recited when flowers are offered is:     "Puppham malayati yatha idam me     kayoa tatha yati vinasa-bhavam." -- Even as these the flowers must fade, so does my body march to a state of destruction." Kalutara, Sri Lanka. December 26, 2008. Photo Chulie de Silva

Women sell large pink lotus flowers near the Kalutara Temple. The flower buds and white obituary notice on the concrete pillar saying life is transient sums up the cycle of birth and death. Significant in the the Pali stanzas recited when flowers are offered is:
“Puppham malayati yatha idam me
kayoa tatha yati vinasa-bhavam.” — Even as these the flowers must fade, so does my body march to a state of destruction.” Kalutara, Sri Lanka. December 26, 2008. Photo Chulie de Silva

The street below me is slowly waking up. The coolness and the soft gentle night of Dhaka will slowly and surely be replaced by chatter, noise, blaring of horns, the cries of the street vendors and the harsh light bringing with it the sweltering heat. Peering out through a tangle of telephone and electricity wires on a still cool and balmy morning I see a vendor with a basin of mangoes on his head and a vegetable seller his rickshaw van piled with glistening vegetables. He stops the cha walla who sells tea from a large flask for an early morning cuppa and they both sit on their haunches and shares a smoke.  A daily maid in a brightly clad red saree with two lasses in equally bright salwars walk passes them, wrapped in their own chatter. The garbage cart with the two young boys is further up the street.  I had watched a street fight between these two young lads and a bigger guy a couple of days ago on the way to work. The young had fought ferociously guarding their territory to operate. This is Dhaka, my abode for the present – I am a stranger – a bideshi – I do not belong but yet am very much a part of it; they are not my family here but am already wrapped in the myriads of issues of my coworkers – so are they my karmic connections? I am not sure if this is a past karma or I am making new Karma – fragments of thoughts, vignettes of life flit across my mind this Vesak as I peer down at the street.

Morning sweeper at Lalmatia, Dhaka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Morning sweeper at Lalmatia, Dhaka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Back in Sri Lanka people will be trekking to temple– my family to the Katudampe temple.

Detail from a frescoe at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Detail from a frescoe at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Today they say the moon will be the biggest, brightest full moon for 100 years. As the moon does the tango with earth, at times drawing close at times pulling apart, I reflect on how my life too has been a series of such dances where I have been close to some people on a daily basis and then moved away forming new circles of friendship.

The comfort and contentment that we take for granted from a happy family environment are poignantly missed by me in Dhaka. May, is also the birth month of my father and Vesak for me is intricately woven in with memories of him. One priest he had great respect was the scholar priest Rev. Thilaka fro the Katudampe temple. A serene temple set near the banks of a river, I too have good memories of the temple that does a great service to the village community. Paintings probably by late 19th century artists are not famous but is an important visual story telling for villages.

Part of the ceiling frescoes at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. August 31, 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Part of the ceiling frescoes at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. August 31, 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Often emotional transactions are much more complicated than financial ones but there is one factor that is common to both  We need to speculate to gain.  Thankfully, unlike your purse the heart has the capacity to replenish itself.

Yesterday, my bearded boss Shahidul Alam, writing from Berlin had introduced me virtually to a photojournalist and film maker Zin Myoe Sett  in Myanmar (Burma). My first contact in Myanmar!  Responding to Zin’s mail and thinking that he might be a Buddhist and thoughts of Vesak foremost in my mind, I had ended my email to him wishing him for Vesak and said “Buddhu Saranai” (May Buddha protect you) in closing.  Zin replied saying we add “Metta” (loving kindness) to it.  So this blog where I muse about teachings and recollect past events with a varied collection of photos and my ramblings is for my new friend Zin with Metta. And to all of you who have followed my blog and encouraged me to write more. …

A temple close to my village Hikkaduwa is the Sailabimbaramaya Temple in Dodanduwa. It is well known for the  giant granite Buddha statue which had eyes set with blue sapphires.  But the gems that were there are no more.  They were stolen.  Obviously the Buddha’s benevolent smile or the teachings did not matter a tot to the robbers.

The temple itself got the name from the granite statue which was brought to Dodanduwa from India.  The story is that the incumbent monks had heard of the granite statues in a region in India called “Kaveripattam” and a Governor had intervened to send one to Sri Lanka by ship. Dodanduwa, then did a brisk trade in salted fish, earthenware and salt with Maldives and India. People of the area says the  statue was taken from the harbour at Dodanduwa to the temple up the river on a raft.

The first Buddhist School in Sri Lanka by the name ‘Jinalabdhi Vishodaka’ was started by in the premises of Sailabimbaramaya Temple by Venerable Dodanduwe Piyarathana Maha Nayaka Thera.

Interestingly, as I roam around these temples with my camera comes the realisation that  rejection of the not so perfect is universal. I found these rejected statues tucked away at the Kataluwa temple.

Damaged and discarded Buddha statues at Kataluwa temple. Kataluwa, Sri Lanka. September 10, 2011. Photo Chulie de Silva

The perfect is worshiped thus;

Ye cha Buddha atita cha-ye cha Buddha anagata,
Pachchuppnanna cha ye Buddha-aham vandani sabbada.”
The Buddhas of the ages past,
The Buddhas that are yet to come
The Buddhas of the present age,
Lowly , I, each day adore!

A modern Buddha Statue at the Katudampe Rajamaha Vihare. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A modern Buddha Statue at the Katudampe Rajamaha Vihare.
Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

To my life’s end the Buddha and his teaching will be my refuge. Sadly. as recent news reaching me from Sri Lanka shows that the difference between paying lip service to the teachings and practicing them is profound.

I have carried with me when I lived abroad a little book called the “The Mirror of Dhamma” by venerables Narada Maha Thera and Kassapa Maha Thera. I was introduced to this book by my sister-in-law Swineetha Fernando way back in 1965. I have in turn given copies to my sons and I hear my granddaughter Tara, can get her tongue around some of the Pali gathas with an interesting twist. I have thumbed this book many times and  today I leave a you a wish for Vesak from this book.

Visible, invisible too
Those dwelling near or far away.
The born, and those seeking birth
May every being live happily.”

See also

A Salutary Poem at Vesak from Rabindranath Tagore

Out of the womb of sightless night – bring out the word of healing strong

“There is a space between man’s imagination and man’s attainment that may only be traversed by his longing.”

Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Everyday before I drifted off to sleep, in the waking hours as I moved into consciousness, rumbling along in a rickshaw in dusty Dhaka and often bored at office meetings, my thoughts would be on this this reunion and return to Siriniwasa.

Boats at Sunset. Hikkaduwa. 11 Jan 2012. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Boats at Sunset. Hikkaduwa. 11 Jan 2012. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The need to see the house had become a permanent gnawing ache, a longing, an avatar that travelled with me from the time I heard it had been restored.  In my minds eye every door of the house opened on to a memory – voices, faces, laughter, tears, friends and foes, all floated by – a kaleidoscope that I never tired of.  When I traversed it in my dreams, stuck in Dhaka, the nights more than paid for my hopeless longing in the day.

Back at Siriniwasa, we slid ever so easily into its embrace — it was as if we had never left it. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Suren had come back to Sri Lanka, after 16 years, it was Nickie’s first visit and my first for the tsunami +7.  The drive had to be the sea hugging coast road and not the new fast highway.   How could one not drive past the old school haunts of Panadura,  cheekily breeze past the Kalutara Bodhi thinking of Father Bennie who never used to stop but eagerly stop at the perennial favourite Monis.   I peered at the portrait of the old man founder remembering him counting out the Monis biscuits from a tall jar.  I think then we got  100 biscuits for Rs. 10 or so. While he  fished out the “monis”, we would very politely ask if he could add more of the top biscuit halves than the bottom ones.

The walls smiled, the doors welcomed with wide open arms, I tenderly touched the glass doors with the decorative woodwork . …. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Christine Kirtisinghe

Nothing was amiss.  Amma was sitting on the front verandah waiting for us and I could barely park the car when Suren bounded out.  Even at 90 years she had no problem recognizing her eldest grandson with tears of joy.  The walls smiled, the doors welcomed with wide open arms, I tenderly touched the glass doors with the decorative woodwork “mal leli.”  The one piece we broke playing football in the sitting room, had been left unrepaired.  Only I noticed it had got slightly shifted from its original position. The salty sea breeze whispered, there was thambili to drink, the cinnamon stick fence was up, the iron safe stood guard and the Birawa almirah quietly watched us as it had done for 100 years.

The return is never complete without the memory of my father. In 1989, he had written to me ” I hope you’ll read my letters again when I’m dead and gone. My time is fast running out. .. Kanishka has evening school so we have a sea bath and go to school.   I have nothing else to do – the car and the grandson.”

Kanishka my nephew and my father on the beach behind Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa circa 1989. Photographer unknown.

When I was a dayaka for the Polgasduwa hermitage there was a monk weighed by asthma,” wrote my father. ” He used to work hard at his studies to forget his asthma. Two years ago my birthday gift from you was an English translation of “Visuddhimaga” – the original [a Buddhist Pali Canon] is lost forever. In the preface were these poems this monk had written one night at 2 a.m. because he believed in wearing out than rusting out.”

Out of the womb of sightless night – bring out the word of healing strong

And put to flight the evil thoughts – that stood betwixt the eye and light

Where lies, friend, the golden mean? In giving up

Where’s the heart forever clean? In giving up

Where is life at its best seen? In giving up

Where reaches one peace serene? In giving up.

Postscript:

On 22 January 2012, the day when these photos were taken, Siriniwas welcomed Kanishka , and his bride Chamila, a doctor from Ratnapura.  Kanishka is the eldest son of my late brother Prasanna and as my father used to say the 10th male Kirtisinghe brought up at Siriniwasa.

Kanishka and Chamila at the traditional poruwa ceremony on their wedding day 19 January 2012. Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Return to Hikkaduwa 7 years after tsunami

Unlike many of the other tsunami anniversaries my heart is lighter this year.  We have moved past a threshold of pain.  Maybe we are propelled by a natural release of energy that they say happens every seven years
, which encourages you to move forward and make changes. Seven years after the tsunami of December 2004, the Kirtisinghe family seems to have found this energy to move back to their much loved home Siriniwasa.  Built a century ago in 1911, by my paternal grandfather Kaluappuwa Hennidige Bastian de Silva the main house had stood the wrath of the tsunami.  However, the tsunami had taken away the last Kirtisinghe son born in that house, my beloved brother Prasanna.

Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa 2011. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Today when I spoke to my younger brother Pradeep, there is a very positive lilt to his voice.  They are out shopping for the almsgiving for the seventh death anniversary and the first to be held at Siriniwasa in his memory. Like last year, it pains me to be in Dhaka.  But in my minds eye I can picture the event, the extended family, Rev.  Tilaka will give his sermon and praise my mother and remember the dialogues on Buddhism that he had with my  father.  The photos and memories from the past are potent potions to ease  the loneliness of being far away from the family centre.

Prasanna in sunglasses and I in happier times with cousin Athula, and friends at the old rest house, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Aruna Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa circa 1963.

It is impossible to count the number of people who had trickled in and out of the house over this last century, to enjoy the sea, listen to my father’s yarns or call as relatives did unannounced in the good old days. Tea was served, fresh young coconuts were plucked from the trees to quench the thirst, an extra pot of rice was put on the hearth and my mother would somehow dish out a scrumptious meal. For us children, the sea was always our private pool.

Wallowing in shallow water Prasanna wearing goggles with cousins Aruna, Athula, Anoma, Hemal, my sister Yasoja and I. Photograph by Benny Kirtisinghe

Some days, we will all troop off to have a picnic at the family estate.  For that we had to cross a small river on a catamaran. We had to park the jeep in the village, trek across a cinnamon estate to get to the river bank.  Once there we kids will cup our hands and holler “Hoooo” to the boatman. In old Sri Lanka a “hoowa” (the yelling shout) was a measure of the distance — i.e. if someone was close by  one would say he is only one “Hoowak” away — or ” Hoowak dura.”

Left to right standing Aunt Phoebe, cousin Punya and my mother, while Prasanna, Cousins Anoma, Hemal and Neomal, my sister Yasoja and I with the boatman in the rear. Photograph probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

On 13 March this year I had a mail from a Dr. Bernd Hontschik  who left a comment on the blog I had written about Prasanna on the 3rd year anniversary of the tsunami.

Dr. Bernd Hontschik in the garden at Siriniwasa in 1979. Photograph© Dr. Bernd Hontschik

Dear Chuli,
 in november 1978 and 1979 I was a guest in the house of your parents Manel and Benny for many weeks. Both visits were the most sunshiniest times of my life. Both visits I shared many hours with your brother Prasanna. Once I travelled through the whole island with him as my chauffeur. I am very very sad that I must read now that he was a victim of the 2004 tsunami. I will never forget your parent’s house, Manel’s meals served on the veranda, and the tiny garden house, which was my home at that time. And I will never forget Prassana. All the best for you, sent from Frankfurt in Germany, and please put a candle from me and Prasanna’s German friends onto the grave of him, if possible.
 Bernd.

The garden cottage at Siriniwasa, that collapsed during tsuanmi killing Prasanna. Hikkaduwa, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Prasanna with his beloved Audi and Tom and Julia. Sri Lanka, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Thank you Bernd for the good memories and here’s to lighting some virtual candles to remember Prasanna, Chrishanta and many others who died on the 7th anniversary of the tsunami.

Candles at Madhu Church, Sri Lanka. March 2010. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

2005:  Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away

2006:  A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami

2007:  Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa 

2009: Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger 

2010: Tsunami musings in Dhaka

A century old family photo on my 100th blog post

100th blog — is it significant? Not as significant as this 100 year old photo, but still a good time to bring it out. When I first saw this photo, I sat momentarily transfixed.  Here was a slice of history, frozen in a quiet gentleness, a significant moment in the lives of my ancestors, whose blood flows through my veins. I saw my grandmother, probably still in her twenties wearing the jewellery that my mother gifted to me.  I could see what excitement there would have been in this house of my great-grandfather S.K. Issack de Silva (circa 1860–1930) of Degoda, Ambalangoda  (seated next to my grandmother third from Left).

My paternal grandmother, Achchi, Pintohamy (Second from left) and grandfather, Seeya, K.H. Bastian de Silva standing behind her carrying Uncle Ritchie, in her father’s house in Ambalangoda. The photograph circa 1911 was taken when her brother Heron de Silva Kularatne (centre, back row) took oaths as a lawyer on his return from London. Standing next to him is his youngest brother Patrick de Silva Kularatne who also graduated from the University of London. His first job was as the Principal of Ananda College which he took up in 1918. He retired voluntarily in 1943. Later he shed his western clothes and went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost educationists. Re-photogrpahed from a copy by Chulie de Silva

The same stream of life that runs through my veins

night and day runs through the world and dances

in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of

the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks

into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of

birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this

world of life.  And my pride is from the life-throb of

ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Translated from Bengali by  Rabindranth Tagore.

A Salutary Poem at Vesak from Rabindranath Tagore

Frescoe at Katudampe Temple, Ratgama, Sri Lanka. Photograph (c) copyright Chulie de Silva

13 May was my late father – Benny Kirtisinghe’s birthday. Fathers and daughters bonds are special.  Even a decade after his death memories of him can bring tears to my eyes, as I yearn for the voice, the humour and his presence. This year Vesak comes a bit later than his birthday and am yet again far from Hikkaduwa to have joined in the almsgiving my mother would have held to remember him at the Katudampe temple.

He was not much of a temple goer, neither am I – In my case I wasn’t consciously following him.  Like him I didn’t feel a need for it. I remember rebelling against going to Sunday school in Panadura.  He ruled then, that 5 days of school was enough and children needed time to play and read and enjoy chidhood. I skipped and jumped around in joy at the decision. So we grew up for better for worse sans Sunday school. Panadura folk were not amused. They were then and even now regular temple goers. I thought we had a surfeit of Buddhist rituals and prayers at the Walauwa of my great-grandmother Annie Dissanayake. She looked fragile and gentle in her kabakuruttu but no one messed around with her. She till her death remained the “boss lady”. The Moratuwa uncles jokingly used to called her “Annie get your gun” – but then that’s another story.

In 2000 or 2001 when I told him that I was coming to Dhaka he said “That’s Tagore country” bring me a book of him. Then Shahidul’s Amma took me shopping for the book. It was on his bookshelf when he died.  I had picked it up after the funeral and ferreted it away.  I am glad that I did that, as the tsunami of 2004, couldn’t take it away. Here in Dhaka, I prowled around hungry for that book, for a touch the pages, that he turned, for the passages and poems he read to me, to bury my nose in the slightly musty pages, for the words that would calm my restless heart. ….. …

And then memory stirred, and trawling my Gmail archives I found a poem sent by my friend Raglan from England in 2006. I thought of it as a wonderful gift then, and wished my father was alive to share it – instead here it is for you. …

Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the fragrance of love…

Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart…

Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen…

Go not to the temple to pray on bended knees,
First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden…

Go not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have sinned against you…