September 11, 2008

Memory seems to be the unofficial theme of the ISLE (Inter Collegiate Sri Lankan Education) Program. The book we read before coming on the program was, When Memory Dies, by A. Sivanandan. Then we had a speaker come who mentioned the way memory has been abused in Sri Lanka by both the government and the opposition. After colonialism the Sri Lankans on both sides forgot their shared history as Tamil and Sinhalese living as one people and instead remembered only the things that divided them.

This past week we spent on a tour of all the archaeological sites in the Northern part of Sri Lanka. The tour was led by our Material Culture teacher Sudharshan Seneviratne. He is the Director General of the Sri Lankan department of Archaeology, basically he’s a huge deal in Sri Lanka. He is doing something amazing with memory, he is trying to change it. He is using the archaeological sites to show the shared history of the Sinhalese and Tamil people long before the colonial powers came and divided them. Before meeting him I had never realized the immense power of the past to control the present. The question Professor Seneviratne asked us over and over is, “Whose past is being shown here?” It was very similar to the idea that history goes to the victor. In Sri Lanka it seems there is no victor and the past of the Tamils and the Sinhalese has been manipulated by a third party. Hopefully, Sudharshan and his contemporaries will literally be able to dig up a peaceful solution. I think that all of the students and I were lucky to have him as our professor because he didn’t teach us only about Sri Lanka, but instead he gave us an understanding of the importance of accurately interpreting the past.

On the last night he asked us all to hold the things we had seen on the tour in our memories and allow them to shape not only how we see Sri Lanka but how we see the world. I know that I will never be able to forget the things we did and so I wanted to share a few of the highlights. We started at an ancient burial site in Ibbankatuwa that was built in the 6th century BC and in the course of seven days we had traveled, caves, forest, mountains and rocks finally ending up at about the 13th century AD.

By far my favorite site was Sigiriya. On the first day we climbed Pidurangala rock which about 1/2 way up had a giant Buddha carved out of the rock. All around was nature and the Buddha statue had been there for so many centuries that it appeared as  much a part of the nature of that rock as the plants that grew around it. When we reached the top of the rock it felt like we were the only people on earth as we all gazed out at the world bellow in total silence. And on top of the rock, we had our daily lecture while the sun set.

The next morning we climbed what seemed like endless steps of varying sizes, ending with a nearly vertical march up tiny iron “steps” drilled into the side of Sigiriya rock. At the top we reached the remains of the ancient Sri Lankan kingdom. Being on top of Sigiriya rock you could understand why the God King, which is what the ancient kings called themselves, would want his kingdom in such a powerful location.

I’ve attached a few pictures because in this case I think the pictures really do speak louder then words.


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