Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Casting about Sri Lanka

Castes are perhaps best known because of the powerful influences of the Indian caste structure but they existed in other places such as Sri Lanka. Traditionally it was believed the caste system was a fairly simple structure in Sri Lanka comprising 4 classes; Raja, Bamunu (Brahmin), Velenda and Govi. There is evidence that this structure prevailed up until the 18th century when the British were able to restructure the system following the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy in 1815.

This class structure appears to have come to Sri Lanka from Northern India, with the people who move to the island millennia ago. There are similarities to the Southern Indian Jati caste structure, which may have journeyed to the country as people migrated, or it might represent an even more ancient system. With the arrival of Buddhism the importance of caste was reduced but it remained a potent force in the community and still does today. Waves of migration particularly from Southern India, some sponsored by various Kings in Sri Lanka and then the British, continued to support caste in the social structure.

The British consolidation of caste as a management tool and in particular the introduction of a new “Mudaliyar” (Gatekeeper) class, now vanished as this group was absorbed by Govigama, resulted in the progressive reduction in the number of castes. It is now estimated that more than half the Sinhalese population are of the “Govigama” (Cultivator) caste. This movement began with the Dutch who freed up land ownership and many of the then peasants became independent cultivators. This process was hastened by the British who preferred to bring Tamil workers from India for plantation work and so effectively raised the status of existing Sinhalese cultivator classes.

There remains a separation between lowland and highland (Kandyan) castes. Partly this was because Dutch influences didn’t reach the Kandy kingdom and many classes were preserved. However with the final collapse of the kingdom in 1818 and complete British control of the island the differences declined. However caste and occupation remain more closely linked in the central highlands than anywhere else.

Major differences exist between low and high country people. Aside from the importance of cultivator classes there are other groups that took advantage of colonial trading demands and their location. Karave, Durava and Salagama developed into powerful classes, though still much smaller numerically than Govigama. During the colonial period these classes accumulated wealth and influence and spread to all parts of the island.

The other factor that has had profound impact on caste was the introduction of Tamil labour. Though various kings had found Tamil mercenaries useful during family and other feuds, it was the British use of Indian labour within the plantation economy that brought most of them to Sri Lanka. Because of the nature of the work most of these people came from lower castes and were more familiar with the rigid application of class in Southern India.

However peculiarities also exist among Tamil castes. Northern Tamils have some differences to Eastern or central Tamils. Over time some of the lower cultivator castes have risen in status with support from the British while in the East fisherman castes have found prominence because of their numeric and economic significance. Central Tamils are mainly Southern Indian labour and this is reflected in the way the caste resembles a Tamil Nadu community. Overall most of these people are from the lowest castes in India and their status is the same in Sri Lanka.

There is also a small group of people called “Chetties” in and around Colombo. They had their origins in the ancient Velenda caste and are believed to be a “noble” class. Somehow they avoided, and didn’t want to be part of any evolving caste system. In effect they became a caste outside of the normal system and are given credence for being of noble origin.

The British, while keen to consolidate castes as a management tool, also recognized the separateness of Chetties and allowed them to exist as something of a subset of Govigama. In the same way Eurasians were also seen as a subset of Govigama because it would have been too unpalatable for “white” lower castes to exist. As a consequence within the Govigama caste there formed a group of “first class” families who were mixed blood people and in some ways more British than the British.

Among Tamils the religious practices and obligations demanded strong representation from among the religious castes. The result was a larger number of these castes relative to the population and while the general structure resembled a normal Tamil Nadu village, there was a noticeable imbalance of castes.
There are still 18 castes remaining in central and southern regions but of the original 24 castes only 15 remain in northern areas. This reflected changing occupational demands and the impact of British consolidation as well as post independence reorganization along socialist lines. Despite the decline in importance of caste as people become more educated it remains of significant social relevance. Every weekend adverts are placed by hopeful parents/brothers/sisters seeking marriage partners with expectations about caste and astrological forecasts. Caste remains a force in society that still guides many people’s lives.

The following table sets out current castes and the basic relationship but it is naturally a generalized interpretation. However what is clear is the dominance of Sinhala castes among land-owning/cultivating castes while Tamils are dominated by fishermen and religious castes. Of course as said earlier these castes are not numerically equal with about half the population being from the Govigama caste.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Arrack for Dummy's

When you lie on a white sand beach beneath swaying palm trees your spirits are naturally lifted as thoughts rise to the sweep and sway of the fronds overhead. Here, in these graceful tops to the Coconut palm are indeed spirits that will lift you. In elegant cascades of light orange the coconut flowers provide the basis of arrack – the nectar of Eden.

But wait; there are in fact three types of palm that produce such nectar, the Coconut, Palmyra and Kithul. Coconuts dominate the coastal plains, Kithul the hills and Palmya the dryer northern regions. Regardless the process is the same; unopened flowers are cut at the tip and a dish attached to catch the sap that flows. Normally the “Toddy Tappers” cut the flowers in the early morning and should have the toddy in collection drums within 3 to 4 hours. An average palm will produce 2 litres of sap per day.

Since these palms may easily be 20 plus metres high the job is somewhat risky. So they don’t have to climb down each palm to move to the next they string rickety rope “ladders” between the palms to allow movement. Deaths among Toddy Tappers is not an uncommon happening.

The whitish ooze that flows from the cut flower has a very high sugar and yeast content. This captured juice, Toddy, is then put into barrels for transport. Once upon a time these barrels were teak or hamilla but now the ubiquitous blue plastic drums are the common sight. Because of the yeast content it begins to ferment almost immediately it is collected. Some is drunk at this stage and it is probably best described as a slightly cidery taste with a bit of a kick, though really only very mild.

As it ferments a little more it becomes Kissapu (illegal liquor) which is more potent and more likely to be a health hazard. Kissapu is a risky drink because hygiene conditions are usually poor and the fermenting liquor becomes contaminated with a range of pathogens. It also is higher in alcohol but not necessarily the “good” ones! Kissapu may have significant amounts of ethel alcohol and methanol, guaranteed to deliver a blinder of a headache and a sensitive tummy.

The Toddy that makes it through to the distillers however enjoys some care and attention to gradually become Arrack.

In 1881 The Household Cyclopedia of General Information provided an interesting (but generally inaccurate) description of the production of Arrack reflecting the mysticism surrounding the “far east”;

“Arrack is no other than a spirit produced by distillation from a vegetable juice called toddy, which flows out of the cocoanut tree. The operator provides himself with a parcel of earthen pots, climbs up the trunk of a cocoatree; and when he comes to the boughs, he cuts off one of the small knot or buttons, and applies the mouth of a bottle to the wound, fastening it to the bough with a bandage; in the same manner he cuts off others, and proceeds till the whole number is employed; this done, he leaves them until the next morning, when he takes off the bottles, which are mostly filled, and empties the juice into the proper receptacle. When a sufficient quantity is produced, the whole put together, is left to ferment. When the fermentation is over, and the liquor is a little tart, it is put into the still, and fire being made, the still is suffered to work as long as that which comes has any considerable taste of spirit. The liquor thus procured is the low wine of arrack; and distilled again to separate some of its watery parts, and rectify it to that very weak kind of proof spirit in which state we find it."

In truth however distillation of Arrack is much more scientific. The toddy from thousands of trees arrive at collection centres is tested for quality, and taken to the distillery and poured into “wash backs” traditionally made of teak or halmilla. Wash backs are the large vats where the bulk of fermentation takes place. Ideally all this occurs within 3-4 hours of the sap being drawn from the flower; then begins the delicate process of distillation.

In the Wash Backs the natural yeast feeds on the sugars producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. After about three days the liquid has an alcohol content of 5 to 7% by volume, and is now known as wash. Up until this point the process has been quite similar to the production of beer.
The wash is then pumped into the first copper pot still, known as the wash still, to be distilled. The wash is heated, boiling off the alcohol, which is collected in a water-cooled condenser.
This spirit, known as low wine, has an alcohol content of about 20 to 40%. The low wine is pumped into a second pot still, known as the spirit still, distilled a second and sometimes a third time. The final spirit generally has an alcohol content of 60 to 70%.

The distillation process is complete within 24 hours. The extracted spirit is transferred to Halmilla timber vats. This particular timber is prized for maturing spirits as it is believe it has the ability to make the coconut spirits mellow. No artificial flavours or ingredients are added. Maturation can take 15 years, depending on flavour, texture, alcoholic strength and fragrance requirements. Once matured the Arrack is then blended by master blenders drawing on know-how passed down from generation to generation and company tradition to produce the final result.

So that all done, what does it taste like? Well it’s a bit hard to describe. Personally I’d place it somewhere between whiskey and rum. It’s neither as sweet as rum nor as peaty as whiskey. Strangely it’s not “coconut” to me but perhaps more florally (like brandy), with distinct vanilla hints. It’s also wonderful!

For your education, at great personal expense, these are tasting notes from a weekend on Trapobane Island. There were 3 participants and I’ll leave it to you to decide a) who took this seriously and b) who could hold their liquor.

Black Opal Arrack Price Rps 740/--
1. Dry, caramel overtones. Some early “chemical” impact.
2. Kerosene crap.
3. Could double as paint stripper.
DCS Double Distilled Price Rps 790/--
1. Dry, vanilla hints, complex.
2. Which one is this?
3. Not bad, smooth, drinkable.
DCS VSO Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Rum like, long body.
2. Not bad, good body, complex
3. Short legs. What?
VX Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Distinct “Cashew” flavour, dry with early alcohol on the nose.
2. Very good, nutty flavour but no length.
3. Ripsnorting hangover material.
Mendis Triple Distilled Arrack Price Rps 920/--
1. Very smooth, fruity with a “cognac” style about it.
2. Very good, almost cognac-like.
3. Grows hair on a woman’s chest.
Old Reserve Arrack Price Rps 960/--
1. Liquer style, quite “coconut” and sticky feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Will polish mahogany to a brilliant shine.
Mendis 10 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 1600/--
1. Oily, distinct “coconut” and rather overpowering mouth feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Liquid squeezed out of a Sri Lankan sarong tastes better. Who knows that sort of stuff?
Mendis 15 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 2700/--
1. Very smooth, dry finish with some body.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Didn’t like it – too expensive! Finally a meaningful comment!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Snake Bite in the Garden of Eden

Many early travelers to Sri Lanka believed they were standing in the original Garden of Eden. Among the verdant growth serpents slid; not to offer apples but to feed on the similarly abundant wildlife. But at times people and serpents would meet and usually it was to the serious disadvantage of one or the other.

Sri Lanka, though an island of relatively small size, has the richest collection of herpetological wealth in South Asia. There are around 100 amphibian and 190 reptile species of which 96 are snakes. Despite only 5 being seriously venomous the death rate in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world being 6 in 100,000 population. Australia is blessed with many more lethal snakes in the scrub but has far fewer deaths from bites.

Factors which contribute to this high incidence of death by snakebite are primarily the socio-economic condition of the people, preference among victims for seeking traditional treatment for snakebite as well as clearing natural vegetation and habitats for settlements, agriculture and plantations.

While the island possesses a rich flora of nearly 3500 species of plants it has been an agricultural economy for the past 10,000 years. As a result, over the years many natural ecosystems have been transformed into agro-ecosystems which appeal to highly venomous snakes such as Cobras, Russell's Viper and Kraits.

Sri Lanka’s has also been an hydraulic economy with over three hectares of inland waters for every square kilometer of land. This is one of the highest densities of inland lakes, ponds, man made canals and still waters in the world. Combined with the warm coastal waters around the island are many coastal lagoons and estuaries that provide engaging habitats for both people and snakes.

The snakes are responsible for most deaths can be divided into 3; big snakes (Cobra) medium snakes (Common Krait and Sri Lanka Krait) and small snakes (Russells's Viper, Saw-scale Viper, Hump-nose Viper and Green Pit Viper. Then of course there are the 13 species of wet snakes (Sea snakes) which inhabit the coastal waters and estuaries around the island.
Being cunning buggers most venomous snakes are camouflaged to blend into the environment increasing the chances of treading on them. Vipers are particularly good at this and also at not moving much so are much better represented among snakebites. The green, yellow and black colour of the Green Pit Viper merges into the foliage of the trees, shrubs and creepers on which they rest, resulting in a fair number of people being bitten (or given apples) by Green Pit Vipers while plucking tea leaves, clearing forests and weeding.

Our Driver explained happily after a snake crossed the road in front of us;
“Oh it’s not dangerous! The ones you see a never dangerous!”

But the most apparent reason for the high incidence of snakebite is the food resource humans bring to the ecosystem. Rats, which come into paddy fields to feed on grain attracts vipers, cobras and other snakes. Other creatures also take advantage of human agricultural practices including frogs, mice, house geckos, skinks, land monitor lizards, house sparrows and poultry.
Some prey animals, such as skinks which are commonly found near houses have a disturbingly curious habit of getting on to beds in the night and creeping under pillows, mattresses or bed sheets. If you have a skink under your pillow you may well have a snake!

Many species of snakes come on to roads or tracks at dusk or night and especially immediately after rain, increasing the chances of people being bitten. According to one epidemiological study “15% of snakebites had been inflicted on roads”, a seemingly strange activity for snakes to undertake and there is no information on how many roads died.
A further useful fact is that most krait bites are preceded by rain. Since Sri Lanka is either in monsoon or inter-monsoonal and it rains every month the probability of rain preceding bites is not surprising.
Since around 45% of the population is engaged agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, fishing and hunting it is similarly not surprising that 85% of snakebites occurred while people were working directly or indirectly in agricultural activities or related pursuits such as weeding, preparation of fields, harvesting, guarding fields etc. Strangely all the known sea snake bites were on fishermen during fishing related activities.

According to the Sinhala Palmleaf Manuscripts;
“Among the snakes found in Sri Lanka, the most venomous and the most feared is the cobra, popularly known as the 'naya', which is highly respected, sometimes honoured and even worshipped by those who consider cobras with high esteem. If a person were to come across a cobra by accident, he speaks to it nicely to move away from the path, and never attacks it or tries to chase it away. There is a saying that a cobra never bites a blind man, even if he were to tread upon it by accident. This is said to be a sublime quality of cobras.”

There are some other interesting facts including almost all snakebite involving the Common Krait occurred in wattle and daub huts while the Hump-nose Viper, being rather short inflicts bites only on the feet in 85% of cases. Someone’s done some serious research here!

Regardless of where you get bitten there are some local beliefs and practices that may assist the patient’s demise from snakebite:
a) Application of a cut lime or onion, (something I heard also as a child in Australia)
b) When bitten by snakes, some do not wish to speak of it, fearing that enemies might "bind the venom" (visha bandeema) resulting in difficulty of curing the condition.
c) The belief that if bitten by snakes on certain inauspicious day, time or place (for example a cemetery), it presaged a poor prognosis.
d) Seeking non-scientific first aid techniques such as cauterizing, cutting, application of snake stone, tight tourniquet, drinking alcohol or urine etc.
The reputation of Auyvedic medicine and use of snake-stones still exists. Snake stones are often nothing more than pieces of partially burnt bones, chalk or bezoars. Bezoars are stony concretions found in the stomachs of goats, antelopes, llamas, chamois, etc., and formerly esteemed as an antidote to all poisons. Many people still hold that native treatment is better than western treatment to save victims from the venomous snakebite and in most rural areas; the 'sarpa-vederala' (snake-healer) has his place as the saviour of mankind bitten by snakes and on the verge of death.

However among most victims bitten by venomous snakes, shock is believed to be the cause of death, when they become aware that their lives are at stake. This fear is followed by emotional symptoms, such as faintness, stupor, feeble pulse and shallow breathing, which are different from systemic envenoming.

In the end though, it is only a few who succumb to the serpent’s sting and taste the forbidden fruits in the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tea Country Travels

As we’re doing some travel into tea country it’s probably time for a quick lesson on the tea industry in Sri Lanka.

Though not initially planned estate tea production in Sri Lanka has grown into a key element of the economy, accounting for 15% of the GDP. It is also important to the world market, being the third largest global producer.

Plantation industries began during the administration of Dutch governor Iman Willem Falck, cinnamon plantations were planted in Colombo, Maradana, and Cinnamon Gardens in 1769 with Government sponsorship. However the first British Governor Frederick North prohibited private cinnamon plantations to create a monopoly for his employer, the East India Company. Economic slumps Europe in the 1830’s made the cinnamon plantations unprofitable and they were abandoned by Governor William Colebrooke in 1833. The British planters then turned to coffee.

Coffee was first planted as a garden crop and the first coffee plantation was started near Galle in 1824. Demand and high prices in Europe for coffee fueled a Coffee Rush. Speculators flocked to Ceylon and by 1840 around 100,000 ha of rain forest had been cleared for coffee plantations. However in 1869 coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix; “coffee blight” or "devastating Emily". Cocoa and Cinchona were tried as alternatives to replace coffee but by the 1870’s virtually all the remaining coffee planters in Ceylon had switched to tea.

In 1824 a tea plant (stolen from China) was brought to Ceylon and planted at Peradeniya. Experimental plants were also brought from Assam and Calcutta in 1839 and by 1854 a Planters' Association had been established but it wasn’t until 1867 when James Taylor really marked the birth of the tea industry in Ceylon by starting a tea plantation in Kandy. It was only a small estate of just 19 acres but despite that by 1872 he started a fully equipped tea factory and that year the first sale of Loolecondra tea was made in Kandy. The following year the first shipment of tea totaling 23 lbs was sent to London.

Tea boomed in the 1880s exceeding that of the peak for coffee and growing to nearly 40,000 acres by 1899. By the late 1880s almost all the coffee plantations in Ceylon had been converted to tea, following the example, with coffee stores rapidly converted to tea factories to meet the increasing demand for tea.

Tea began being sold at auction as it increased in popularity with the first public Colombo auction in 1883, under the auspices of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The formation of the Ceylon Tea Traders Association established a structure that still operates today.
By the 1960s the total tea production and exports exceeded 200,000 metric tons and nearly 500,000 acres with Sri Lanka the world's largest tea exporter by 1965. In 1971-1972 a strongly socialist government nationalized foreign-owned tea estates. In 1976 the Sri Lanka Tea Board was founded through which all tea is still managed. However in 1992-1993 many of the government-owned tea estates were sold back into private hands. As in other countries that had attempted to base economic growth on government control, heavy losses due to nationalized management forced a return to privatization.

Tea production under these new arrangements saw growth exceed 250,000 metric tons in the late 1990’s to over 300,000 metric tons by 2000.

Directly and indirectly, over one million Sri Lankans are employed in the tea industry. From the beginning of the plantation industries, coffee, rubber or tea, labour was a problem. Sinhalese people were reluctant work in the plantations as they were used to paddy farming. Planters turned to Southern India for experienced labour bringing Indian Tamils to work on the estates and by the end of the 1880’s they represented a big chunk of the population.

A large proportion of the workforce are young women and typically young girls follow their mothers, grandmothers and older sisters on the plantations. Workers on estates live in housing known as "lines", a number of linearly attached houses with just one or two rooms with 6-12 or 24 line rooms in one line barrack.
Over 4% of the country’s land area is covered in tea. The crop is best grown at high altitudes of over 2100 m with an annual rainfall of more than 100-125 cm. For commercial production the “flush” or leaf growth are picked, usually two leaves and a bud, which have the flavour and aroma. The women “pluck” around 15 to 20 kg of tea leaves per day. This is transported to tea factories attached to the estate and within short walking distances as the leaves need to arrive fresh.

The tea factories in Sri Lanka are reflections of the 19th century being an industrial process essentially unchanged for over 150 years. The multi-storied building is centrally located to minimize the costs and time between plucking and processing. The tea leaves are taken up the upper floors of the factories where they are spread in troughs to “wither” reducing leaf moisture.
Once withered, the tea leaves are rolled, twisted and broken to release enzymes in the leaves which react with the air and oxidize particularly for the production of black tea.

Once partly dried the leaves are “rolled” on brass tables and then run through a rotating open drum to dry them further. The leaves are then spread out on a table to ferment. Initially the natural air temperature begins fermentation but it is important to manage temperature and humidity as well as duration of fermentation to maintain the flavor of the tea. As oxidization occurs the colour of the leaf changes from a green to a bright coppery color. To stop fermentation continuing once the leaf is judged at its peak heat is applied in a “firing” chamber to prevent further chemical reaction from taking place. This is when the leaf turns black and becomes crisper and it is critical that fermentation is stopped but the leaf not burnt.

Grading based on size of leaf particles is then completed with tea sorted into different shapes and sizes by sifting them through meshes. Grading names used to classify teas are not by any means the indication of its quality but indicate its size and appearance. Mainly there are two categories. They are "Leaf grades" and "Smaller broken grades". Here’s a quick lesson on tea grading.
Leaf grades refer to the size and appearance of the teas that were produced during the colonial era and the other refers to the modern tea style and appearance:

Leaves that have been “broken” or cut as part of the production process.

Describes the size of a grade.

Describes a good leaf of even appearance.

A rough, shaggy and uneven leaf.

Golden or Pale tip
Golden tips are highly desirable while Pale tips are not as attractive.

So these leaves are then identified by specific processed grades:

Broken Orange Pekoe. This is the most common tea grade in Sri Lanka and South India – normal leaf tea.

Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings. This is a very small broken grade of tea. Most Sri Lankan teas are BOPF grade and destined for tea bags.

Broken Pekoe. A brown or black broken grade of tea that can contain woody, stalky particles.

Crush Tear Curl Broken Orange Pekoe. This is an unorthodox production style but common among low-grown estates in southern Sri Lanka. The leaves in this case are crushed, torn and then curled in rolling machines. There is no impact on quality but because of the smaller size of the particles, CTC teas tend to produce a quickly coloured infusion.

The remnants of the sorting and grading process and used almost exclusively in tea bags.

Slightly larger than dust and named because this is what blew off the tables during hot air fanning process and they end up in tea bags.

Ceylon black tea is one of the country's specialties with a crisp citrus aroma and found as a single leaf style or in blends.
Ceylon green tea is sourced from Assam tea stock and generally has a fuller body and rather malty or nutty flavour.
Ceylon white tea, also known as "silver tips" is the champagne of teas. First grown at Nuwara Eliya the tea is rolled by hand and withered in the sun. It has a delicate, very light liquoring with notes of pine & honey.

The most important foreign markets for Sri Lankan tea are the former Soviet bloc countries of the CIS 57.6, the United Arab Emirates 48.1, Russia 46.1, Turkey 20.3, Iraq 11.1, Iran 12.5, UK 10.2, Japan 8.3, Saudi Arabia 11.4, Syria 21.5 and Libya 10 million kgs.

On an interesting final note, on any day of tea auctions in Colombo (auctions are held every Tuesday and Thursday) the amount of tea sold is equal to the total consumption in New Zealand in 5 years. Now I bet you didn’t know that!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Vesak and a trip Up Country

With Vesak providing a nice 4 day holiday and Colombo likely to be busy as a result we decided on a trip "up country" to the high country tea estates for some R & R.

Vesak is a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. A tidy human being, he did all important things on the same date so providing convenience to followers. The celebration is all about lights which are strung up everywhere with delightfully dodgy cables securing them and powering the globes.

This year Colombo was blessed with rain so the paper lanterns were covered in plastic bags to protect them and the surging electricity. This ensured fewer sparks and black-outs but resulted in "shrink - packing" of many of the lanterns as they heated up.

The idea of the laterns is said to have come from Emperor Ashoka's time when he introduced parades to celebrate the life of Buddha. Perhaps it is time for a little diversion about Ashoka. He was born around 304 BC the son of the Mauryan Emperor which at the time ruled much of India. Originally called Chandrashok, pretty much Ashok the Cruel, he had an exemplary life of a soldier, brutally leading his father's army to crush opposition. When he became Emperor himself in 269 BC he was no less savage in his prosecution of wars until his final war with the Kalingan kingdom. Here it is said he became sickend by the slaughter and declared;
What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
With this declaration came a conversion from his Vedic traditions to Buddhism. Like many converts he was zealous in his introduction of Buddhism across the entire Empire. In particular he had the interesting habit of ordering stone pillars to be erected inscribed with his edicts. They remain scattered across India.

He also built Stupas, 84,000 is estimated, and sent Monks throughout the world to spread the word, including to Sri Lanka. No doubt he felt his Kharma would be slightly skewed against him given his early enthusiasm for death. To overcome this according to Wikipedia;
Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of people was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding.

That does seem a tad extreme but he had a lot to atone for. So he now invented lovely parades to promote Buddhism: Vesak. The Ven. Dr. M. Dhammajothi says; In [Ashoka's] fourteenth Rock Edict, he mentioned about a processions conducted by him, which was very illuminated and fascinating to the masses, because images of gods, in their celestial cars with heavenly sights were exhibited in it. So for 2500 years they have been a feature of Buddhist celebrations.
So on the full moon in May/June the Buddhist world lights up. This year the celebrations in Sri Lanka were more enthusiastically embraced since it was the first following the end of the war.

Since this is a very special Buddhist festival for the week of Vesak the sale of meat and alcohol is theoretically limited. While the Government decrees business makes decisions on different objectives. Many shops do observe the ban but some don't . Of course prohibition generates business opportunities and amid the observances Toddy sellers, ganja touts and heroin peddlars are out and about. The Island reported;

Kalutara police arrested three young men on Vesak Day for drinking in public. They were having a ball in the garden of one of their friends (scarcely public). It was replete with all kinds of savouries and suddenly the police pounced on them (the savouries?), took them to the station and locked them up. The following day when they were sober (and no doubt needing their savouries) the OIC told them to visit the Sacred Bo-Tree and make religious observances.

There is no report of the where the savouries finally ended up, but certainly in custody somewhere. The same day the police also captured a man "loitering at a bus stop" carrying a kilo of ganja and had to deal with a "mother, 82, cast out on to the street by son and daugther-in-law". It was a busy day of peace and love.

So against this backdrop we headed off to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is pretty close to the centre of Sri Lanka's widest point. The town is about 2000 metres above sea-level but where we stayed, Kandapola (14 kms away), it was 6685 feet above sea-level. This is the Tea Factory, a converted factory, now a hotel.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Colombo Flood Photos

Where rivers and roads meet ... Of course the serious issue here is what is underneath all that water? Often drain covers are dislodged and people can quickly disappear not to mention rubbish glass and all sorts of other things!

In a country where rain is the norm and floods part of everyday life a motorbike is a mixed blessing!

Kids off to school despite the flooding. Many found their school buildings in no better condition but not much stops education here!

Just another day; day 6 actually of rain, pre monsoon.

The Galle school bus charges on regardless of the river .

Colombo Floods

Sri Lanka is just about to enter the South West monsoon after a period euphemistically called the pre-monsoon or inter-monsoon. In other words when it’s not monsoon it’s pre or inter monsoon. Perhaps this is because in Sri Lanka there are two monsoonal periods, the southwest and northeast; the first in May – August and the second November – February.

Now if you add this up you’ll see that there’s only a couple of months between each monsoon! So it seems a little strange that the Bureau of Meteorology advises inter-monsoon seasons

“...began with heavy thunderstorms and mini cyclones reported from many parts of the country causing floods in some areas and destruction from mini cyclones. Evening thundershowers and strong winds were quiet (I personally doubt the probability of ‘quiet’ thunderstorms but they are ‘quite’ likely) common during the inter-monsoon period.”

Now that sounds pretty much like a “lesser” monsoon to me but the Bureau tells us that the

“... special features of the inter-monsoon period are that there is no consistent wind flow and thunder accompanied by heavy rains with showers take place mostly in the evenings.”

Dr. B.R.S.B.Basnayake (Sri Lankans are always blessed with lots of initials) of the Centre for Climate Change Studies adds

"Sea breezes have a greater effect during the inter-monsoon period. The rain clouds form in the hilly areas and also create thunder and lightning. The clouds form around 10 or 11 a.m. and in areas like Nuwara Eliya (hill country) afternoon showers could be experienced. In the evening the clouds shift towards the coastal areas of the western and south-western belt between 4 and 5 p.m," he said.

  • And lightning does create havoc! On average about 50 Sri Lankans die from lightning strike and several hundred are injured. While this is appalling it’s not because Sri Lanka is particularly dangerous – it’s a result of the way people earn livings. Farmers in open paddy and fishermen on fishing poles (these are poles sunk into the sand a few hundred metres off shore where fishermen sit and fish beyond the breakers) in open ocean are obvious targets. Sometimes it’s not such risky behaviour that attracts God’s wrath;

    Lightning strikes Army rehearsal in view of commemoration
    (Lanka-e-News, May 21, 2010, 9.45AM) One the 17th May, a sudden lightning struck a group of Army officers of the Defense division who were present for the rehearsal in view of the forthcoming first anniversary war victory celebrations at the Galle Face green.Of those injured, three have been admitted to the Army Hospital while another had been admitted to the Colombo General Hospital for treatment, reports say.On the 17th, when the group of Army officers assembled at the Gall Face Green for rehearsal in preparation for the celebration, a sudden downpour forced them to stop the rehearsal. The victims of the lightning had been in a group at one spot.
    Major General Prasad Samarasinghe answering inquiries regarding this episode said, the victims were in a container parked on the marine drive along with the Army vehicle which brought them for the rehearsal. Due to the severe lightning the victims were subjected to a shock and received injuries.The anniversary celebrations of the war victory was suspended due to the torrential rains, and will be held next week, the Major General added.

    The ongoing concern about lightning has lead the Government to issue guidelines on avoiding strikes:


    · Keep away from any connectivity with water. Avoid bathing, cloths washing, dish washing etc.
    · Wipe and dry up your body as quickly as possible.
    · Avoid wearing wet cloths.
    · Try to be inside a properly enclosed building.
    · If at home, the most secured position is lying on the bed not touching any walls. Restrict your body expand only to the rubber mattress.
    · Avoid being closer to windows, doors, car porches, cloth lines, metal fences, metal shelters, transformers, switch boards and telephones.
    · Avoid concrete walls and floors as it may have metal bars inside.
    · Move away from groups of people.
    · Avoid leveled outdoor open spaces. Cease all outdoor activities.
    · Avoid being on top or near hill tops, roof tops and tower tops.
    · Avoid being in or near water swimming pools, rivers, streams or beach.
    · Never use any phones mobile or land. Disconnect the phone wires.
    · Do not use or be near the refrigerator.
    · Disconnect TV antenna wire and place it outside through a window.
    · Avoid using computer or other electric / electronic appliances.
    · Disconnect all coded electrical connections. Stop battery charging.
    · Ensure that the earth wire resistance does not exceed 10ohm/meters.
    · Take pets inside the building. Leave their metal chains outside.
    · Avoid using umbrellas and other objects with metallic components.
    · Avoid riding bikes, motor bikes, horses and open roof vehicles
    · Switch off car stereos. Close the shutters and doors when driving during lightening. As much as possible, do not touch metal parts. Avoid driving in leveled open spaces. Park in basements at all possible circumstances.
    · Avoid taking shelter under tall trees. Squat down to lower your height.
    · In the night lightening times, consider disconnecting main power from the MCB and try to depend on candle light during the danger period.
    · If the time gap between the lightening flash AND the thunderbolt is less than 15 seconds, you are in the danger zone. If you can hear the thunder you are in the striking distance. The lightening can strike as far as 16 kms (10miles) away from the raining zone.

(Data Courtesy National Disaster Management Center)

Based on this advice (assuming you are concerned about being struck by a electrical discharge rather than skin colour) the best solution is to do absolutely nothing but lie in bed, completely dry on a rubber mattress (and not among a crowd) and avoid “expanding” yourself as much as possible.

Apparently many people do not heed this simple optimisation of life during thunderstorms. Sri Lanka’s death toll from flood and lightning attest to that but it seems peculiar that these lessons haven’t been learnt over countless generations.

This year’s pre-monsoon has been severe; 500,000 people have been displaced and around 30 killed in the storms and floods. The surprise this generated in the community is of itself surprising.

A quick look over the past years identifies 120,000 people displaced in 2009; 50,000 in 2008; 110,000 in 2007 and so on. While 2010 was larger than most it is still the natural state of events. However “earthslip” warnings were issued by the Disaster Management Centre following the heavy rains and roads in all the major cities were impassable due to massive flooding. In Colombo, long lines of vehicles were seen marooned in the water which at certain points had risen to nearly five feet. Much of this was caused by the inherent dislike of Sri Lankan drivers to wait for anything including high water.

Heavy rains also damaged 50 houses and properties in coastal areas even raising from the dead guests at the Wadduwa-Pothupitiya cemetery. Strong winds also damaged more than 400 acres of banana cultivation. As of 26 May, more than 513,000 people or 118,888 families had been affected, including some 17,039 people who have been forced to move out of their homes with some 1,354 houses have been damaged or destroyed according to the UN.

The Bureau of Meteorology hopefully declared on the same day that the pre-monsoon
period was almost over and the monsoon will start in about 48 hours. Now that’s good news!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sri Lankan Police Scene

It's nice to get a feel for a place by looking at what is important through the eyes of law and order. South Asia always has some fascinating stuff produced as Mr Plod does his rounds and finds himself in the pages of newsprint. Sri Lanka is no different to any other part of the region.

Of course the war, and it's conclusion, (if there ever is such a thing as a conclusion to war) remains a constant focus of activity. A handgrenade here, an AK47 there, ammunition in bushes or wells still actract the attention of the constabulary but now of course these things have less lethal implications. Life is becoming more normal, less tense and people can be interested in the other things that happen around them. So setting war remenants aside the police scene is becoming more normal, bizare, interesting!

The New Year (Avurudhu) festivities have just passed and like all festival times there is opportunistic crime. A family, father, mother and teenage son were returning home from the hill country. During their Avurudhu visits to family and friends father was applied with alcholic libations. He was unable to resist the tempation to "heat his liver" and so by mid afternoon was constantly under fire from his unhappy wife and clearly needed a nap. They stopped in a village to rest, all happily snoozing in the car on the side of the road.

However once revived they found mother's handbag, cash, phone and jewelery gone! They rushed to the police station and lodged a complaint. However the best they got was a promise to "look into" the matter and a dressing down by a senior officer who declared "it such a shame that a father should cut such a pathetic a figure in front of his own son".

But sons are not always the victims. One poor ("46 year old" which I presume is important) mother was forced to complain to police about her "Randy Son". He, at a mere 21 had living with a "cabaret dancer who performs in night clubs" the tearful mother complained to the police. Worse, she was a widow and had started the relationship with this poor, unfortunate bachelor boy. He obviously found the comforts of a young, experienced dancer much to his liking and shifted out from home taking some of his mother's saris for his lover perhaps in a vain attempt at an aedopus complex. The police acted quickly on this occaision and called all parties together in the hope of reuniting an (aged) mother with her (randy) son and getting him to abandon the dancing harlot. To date they have had no sucess - now that's odd!

Some unlucky chaps don't fair so well. A women, with three children in tow, lodged a complaint with the police about here husband. He was a member of a leading band and very popular. He had as a result the demands of his audience and fans, neglected his family and was carrying on with another woman. The woman's husband and lover were both sumonsed to attend the police station. Woman one outlined the sad damage to her happy family while woman two started crying having been mislead by the musician who had claimed to be a bachelor! How strange - this could never happen in the West; a musician lie and root around!

The police officer, taking his duty seriously told the wife to take back her husband and start again, told the mistress to forget the past and begin a moral life and the bandsman to behave himself. The women, quite rightly said "no way, get fucked, fuck-off" or words to that effect. The "crestfallen man with the golden voice" said to the counselling copper I will give up my past ways and "lead the rest of my life singing and strumming my guitar and entertaining people." That is of course until the next fan offers to strum his guitar and let him entertain her!

Surprisingly the police while taking their duty very intently have not proven to effective. A woman whose husband had complain to the police about her running off with another man called them into the station only to find the paramour had since dumped the young lady for someone else. The police sagely advised the woman return to her husband and "lead a good life". She apparently has chosen to heed this suggestion.

And indeed it may not be too hard to find such people as police were shocked recently to find women "loitering" in the town at dusk. On a tip off they managed to arrest "women of easy virtue" who had been hanging around places such as banks, offices and bus stops during the day and shock horror bars and "gambling joints" after dark! Apparently they had come to town to take advantage of the festival celebrations.

On a sadder note a man, a loser in love's war, was found to have died due to an accident. He had strung a length of rope to a tree branch on the bank of a river from which he planned to hang himself for his (ex)lover to see. Unfortunately the fellow was far from a boy scout and the all important knot failed dumping him into the river. Not able to swim the lad drowned. The Coroner rightly declared the deaf to be accidental as he had intended to hang himself but failed and drowned by the concequent accident. A Darwin Award winner for the future I suspect!

Not all things are as well thought through perhaps. An abortion clinic was raided this week after they had received information that illegal abortions were being performed. In itself this is not particularly strange; what was strange was the report "[the police] took a foetus into custody." "We are waiting for the Judicial Medical Officer's report" a police spokesman said " and legal action would be taken thereafter". I imagine the report is not about the foetus's capacity to respond to charges.

But on a happy note parents who reported an "abuction" when their 22 year old daughter eloped with her boyfriend were reunited at a police station after the cops nailed the lovers. While the parents fumed it was discovered the two had been legally married and so there was nothing to be done. The police reported with some satisfaction that despite the family opposition to the affair "knowledge of the marriage" meant everyone left happily.

That's one to the sleuths!

Monday, May 3, 2010

We're here!

As you know we have arrived safe and sound (lost Diplomats often get a bit of newspaper coverage!) and we have settled in to our new home. Unfortunately our stuff hasn't yet arrived (expecting tomorrow - in Sinhala; a week or so) so the house is pretty bare and not yet home.

It's actually smaller than expected too. There are only 5 bedrooms (with ensuite spas), a study, formal lounge and dining rooms, an entertainment room, 2 kitchens, laundry and 2 dressing rooms. Of course the maid and driver both have rooms but we don't count them! The guards also have a room and facilities. There are 2 nice "al frescoe" areas, one on the ground floor and one off our bedroom upstairs. The grounds are small with only undercover parking for 2 cars and room for 2 more in the open. Still and all I think we could be comfortable here even though there isn't a studio for me to work in.

The staff are nice. Agnes is a great cook and insists on providing 3 meals a day 7 days a week - bother! Kumari cleans 5 days a week so we are practicing being much more untidy and dirty to keep her busy. It will be important that visitors prepare themselves for untidiness to help us out! The guards Nilantha and Beddewala don't speak as much English but do their best. Nilantha (a young farm boy) is working hard on my Singhalese and we have some gardening projects underway with more to come once I buy a few dozen more pots.

As yet we don't have a driver but it's really easy to get around (once your used to the traffic and rule idiocincracies) but we will get one. It makes it much easier to enjoy a night out and shopping is simpler without parking concerns. Being the monsoon it's better to be dropped off at the door rather than have to walk!

April is the hot month so temps have been in the low to mid 30's. Next month is the wettest with the monsoon at it's peak, so that'll be fun! The house has a few leaks, a few wiring issues and the odd plumbing situation (only hot water on the top floor) as well as some wonky A/C remotes but we'll cope.

A nice white cat is obviously planning to move in which is fine as long as she doesn't go after my birds. I've got some parrots and a baby Crow coming shortly and Nilantha is very keen for me to make a Pidgeon House and install 10 white pidgeons. It seems he likes pidgeons a lot! I plan to teach the crow to talk (which apparently can be done) but even if it doesn't wont I look cool with a crow sitting on my shoulder! Sonya isn't so sure and remains sceptical - sometimes she doesn't demonstrate a lot of imagination.

I don't have a job yet which is probably good since I have so much to do! Even though my painting equipments have not yet become present in the docks, I have the book of Delhi experiences to complete and some new projects here. Naturally one on our Sri Lankan adventures, a photographic work on Tuk Tuks (you know 3 wheeler taxis) and a more serious exploration of Arrack - history and tasting notes etc. You can see why we need a driver!

Sonya's working hard of course coming to grips with the new role and country etc so it's 7.30 to 6.00 at the moment. She's off to Delhi for a meeting over a few days next week and I'll tag along so we can catch up with "people" which will be great.

So now the adventure begins!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Leaving the Can behind.

The journey begins!

We leave the Can behind shortly to sail, metorphorically to Eden, the land of Serendip; Ceylon.