In 2007 - 2008, I spent nine months in Sri Lanka as a Senior Fulbright Fellow teaching in the Department of Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy. I was privileged to meet many wonderful people and to travel widely in this spectacularly beautiful and deeply troubled country. This web album is a compilation of some of the photos that I took during that year. I would like to thank the US-SL Fulbright Commission, my colleagues at the University of Peradeniya, my friends at the Sewalanka Foundation, Father Mervyn Fernando, and many, many others. I would especially like to thank my wife, Rashmini Yogaratnam, who kindled my original interest in Sri Lanka and who supported me throughout this year abroad.
New York City
Sri Lanka is a small island nation with a big, complicated history. The country has inherited an exciting cosmopolitan culture, but finds itself tragically at war with its own selves. Sri Lanka has a fantastically beautiful and diverse ecology of beaches and mountains, elephants and birds, people and agriculture.
Located off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is about the size of Ireland (or the State of West Virginia). Today it is home to approximately 20 million people (and perhaps as many as 4 million émigrés who have left the country in the last fifty years).
Sri Lanka was known to the Arab traders as “Serendib”, from which the word “serendipity” fortuitously enters the English language. Many Muslims settled here over many centuries and today Islam is the third largest religion in Sri Lanka. In 1505, the Portuguese colonized many of the costal areas of Sri Lanka, bringing Catholicism and leaving behind also many Portuguese words, including the name “Ceilão”, later transliterated into English as “Ceylon”.
In 1602 the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out and began promoting Reform Protestant Christianity in opposition to Catholicism and the indigenous religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam). In 1802, the British took over from the Dutch bringing with them the English language and additional Protestant missions. It would not be until 1815 that the Kandyan Kingdoms in the interior highlands were conquered by the British.
Ceylon achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948. The British left behind an Anglophile elite and educational system, tea and rubber plantations, the first Island-wide transportation and communications system, an obsession with cricket, a centralized and paternalistic government bureaucracy, a Buddhist reaction to Christian missionaries, a destructive politics of identity, and the usual post-colonial resentments mixed with competing Western ideologies and nationalist aspirations.
In 1972 Ceylon renamed itself “Sri Lanka”. In Sanskrit the name aptly means “venerated, resplendent land”. The formal name was actually the “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka,” which was changed in 1978 to “the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.
Sri Lanka boasts a written history going back over 2000 years. Beginning around the fifth century BCE waves of Indo-Aryan immigrants from Northern India settled the Island displacing and absorbing the prehistoric Veddah tribes who lived tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers. Descendants of these original inhabitants can still be found in remote areas in the eastern jungles and scrub, as they try today like every other group here to preserve, rediscover, and recreate their imagined authentic culture. The descendents of the Indo-Aryan immigrants are today the Sinhalese people, who make up some 70 percent of the Island’s population and speak the language of Sinhala.
Throughout Sri Lanka’s long history there have been extensive contacts with south India as well, including repeated invasions and the establishment of Hinduism and the Tamil language as major cultural influences. In truth, there was a mixing of cultures, religions, languages, and genes between the Sinhalese and Tamils over two millennia, but modern Sri Lanka is a case study in identity politics run amok.
The mythology and history of the Sinhalese is recorded in the Mahavamsa, which also chronicle the establishment of Buddhism as the dominant religion on the Island. The first major Sinhalese kingdom was built in Anuradhapura in the fourth century BCE. Legend tells of the mission of Mahinda, one of the sons of the great North India Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, arriving in Anuradhapura in the third century BCE, where he converted the king to Buddhism.
The earliest written records of the teachings of Lord Gautama Buddha were first transcribed from the oral tradition in Sri Lanka some three hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Known as the Pali Canon, these scriptures establish the core beliefs and doctrines of Buddhism and make Sri Lanka an important destination for international Buddhist pilgrims and scholars.
The ancient Sri Lankans built a rich civilization based rice cultivation through the construction of vast reservoirs (known as “tanks”) and irrigation systems. The surplus production allowed the society to support a lavish aristocracy and tens of thousands of Buddhist monks in huge monastic compounds. The ruins of these sites today are popular archeological, spiritual, and tourist destinations in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambullah, and elsewhere.
Sri Lanka is most famous now for the long running civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers. What is not understood by most outsiders is that since Independence more Sinhalese have killed Sinhalese, and more Tamils have killed Tamils, then they have killed each other.
During my year of teaching and research, the civil war and a growing humanitarian tragedy raged in the North and in the increasingly frequent terrorist attacks mostly in and around Colombo. Inflation hit 30 percent. Government corruption reached new heights. Human rights abuses were widespread. Attacks on journalists became commonplace. And though the Sri Lankan Army could say that it was winning the conventional war against the LTTE, there was no indication that the Sri Lankan government had any idea of how to win the peace and create prosperity for the people of this troubled land.
Still in extreme circumstances, one meets extremely interesting people who persevere and try to make a difference, often at significant risk. The opportunity to meet so many such people in Sri Lanka from so many walks of life and backgrounds, and to enjoy the fantastic beauty of the land and its peoples, gives me great hope that someday soon Sri Lanka will enjoy the leadership it deserves, the peace it needs, and the prosperity it can yet achieve.
If a picture speaks a thousand words, then I hope these photographs will tell thousands of stories. From the thousands of photographs that I took in Sri Lanka, I have picked out about a hundred for this collection. Some few of them are fortuitously unique and stand on their own merit as great photographs. Others are really meant to tell a larger story about Sri Lanka – the landscape, the sites, the religions, the history, the people. Other images of special people or places really require explanation, because they are dear to me for personal reasons. I include them in this collection for my own sake and perhaps someday to remind me of a tall tale or a giant of a human being in my small life. Mostly I hope this collection inspires you to see the whole world as your island and Sri Lanka a very special corner of your world worthy of your concern and appreciation. As Siddhattha Gautama Buddha taught us, and as first recorded in writing in ancient Sri Lanka, the road to Enlightenment begins by paying attention.