Monthly Archives: August 2009

Sri Lanka vs Pakistan

Up and coming cricketer

I have had a very interesting, eventful and eclectic two weeks; first the Hikkaduwa beach festival, then the Kandy Perahera, after that a cricket match and finally a trip to the north to the former LTTE zone, to take part in and report from the Feast of our Lady of Madhu.

On Wednesday afternoon I got a call from a Sri Lankan friend who had a spare VIP ticket to the T-20 Pakistan vs Sri Lanka cricket match at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Seeing I had never been to a cricket match and as it is so popular here I decided to go along.

Since I have been here I have watched numerous test matches, usually the Ashes, with Richard (a fellow volunteer), but the live game was much better, despite Sri Lanka’s poor performance and the fact that they lost the match.
We were sitting right behind the Pakistani cricket team. VIP seating is all very well, but you miss out on the atmosphere and excitement that is part of sitting with the real hard core supporters.

All in all it was a novel experience. The stadium is positioned in the middle of the slums, seriously dodgy looking. I’m glad we went there by car as I would never have been induced to walk through the slums alone and after dark.

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Festival of our Lady of Madhu

Service at the Madhu Festival

The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is one of the biggest and most hallowed Christian shrines in Sri Lanka. It was built 400 years ago and is a centre of pilgrimage for Christians and people of all religions from all over the island. The biggest annual Feast day is held around the 15th of August, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The shrine houses the statue of Our Lady of Madhu which has acquired a reputation for miracles over the years.

Due to the escalation of violence during the civil war in Sri Lanka the priests of Madhu removed the statue to safety. During the war thousands of refugees took shelter in the area around the shrine as it was regarded as a “demilitarized zone”.

The last time the festival was held under the Sri Lankan government and in safety was in 1983. For 27 years the festival was frequented by only a small number of people as pilgrims had to gain access and cross the border into the LTTE controlled area in order to attend.

Temple at the festival

This year about 500,000 people of all religions; Christians, Buddhists, Hindu’s and Muslims attended the festival; a colossal number of people. For many it was an opportunity to bring their family and children to a festival that for numerous people holds very sweet memories.

Because the war ended so recently the government only had two and a half months time in which to get the church and surrounding area ready for the festival. The amenities and facilities were very basic but no one seemed to mind as rich and poor mingled together, happy that they could once again visit this sacred place in peace.

Men waiting to bathe at the festival

Most people arrived on Thursday night or early on Friday morning setting up camped in the area surrounding the shrine. The grounds were packed with tents and heaving with people. There were designated areas for bathing; one for men and an enclosed quarter for the women. The men’s section was lined with concrete tanks. Hundreds of men and boys stood around the tanks with buckets waiting for them to fill up. When they were full the guard on duty blew a whistle and simultaneously the men all began to fill their buckets and slosh water over themselves. There was an atmosphere of festivity and fun in the ritual and it was hilarious to watch. In the enclosed women’s section the procedure was the same, however somewhat less boisterous and rowdy.

Local people had set up food and drink stalls which were spread out throughout the area to ensure the huge number of people had plenty to eat and drink during the festival.

There was a mass on Friday night at 6pm and another bigger one on Saturday morning which began at 5.30am. The evening mass was quiet beautiful; the shrine was lit up and wreaths of flowers decorated the altar. It was pitch black outside with only the lights from the shrine illuminating the faces of the worshipers  Thousands of people stood outside on the grass to hear the service which was sung in both Tamil and Sinhalese. It lasted for two and a half hours after which there was a perahera or procession of nuns and priests around and through the congregation.

I am not religious at all but I had the strangest sensation as I listened to the service; it was so peaceful and the singing was so beautiful and moving, it was an awe inspiring experience.

Worshipper at the morning service

After three hours of sleep in the monastery we were staying in, we were up for the Saturday morning mass which was equally lovely. As the first rays of sun lit up the shrine the enormous crowd were welcomed by the presiding bishops. The congregation was made up of almost 500,000 people. Our privileged media position in front of the shrine provided us with an amazing view of both the church and the immense multitude. At the end of the Eucharist service the statue of Our Lady of Madhu was taken in a procession around the congregation. For a lot of people this was a very emotional moment and many tears were shed.

In the sea of brown faces I was the sole white woman present. I only saw one other white guy who was also with the media. I felt conspicuous everywhere I went, everyone was looking at me. I thought I was used to it from living in Colombo but this was even more intense. My face almost hurt from smiling at so many people, who were merely curious to see a white person at the festival.

The group of 17 print and broadcast journalist – all male – that I traveled  really looked after me, particularly in the big crowds. They ensured that I was surrounded on all sides as we made our way through the enormous throngs of people; my own personal body guards!

Like on the last media trip I went on, the Sri Lankan journalists really appreciated me taking part in the excursions and were quite chuffed with my enthusiastic involvement with everything.

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Trip to the north

Military checkpoint in the north

On the same afternoon both Richard and Michael told me that the Sunday Island editor had asked them if they were interested in going on a media trip to the north. For some bizarre reason that I cannot fathom they both declined.

When I heard that there was a trip up north I went straight up to the editor and asked him about it, as it has been a wish of mine to go to the north since I arrived. Apparently he was concerned about my feminine abilities to ‘rough it out’. I assured him that I had no problem ‘roughing it out’ and was very interested in going. He agreed to try and get me on the trip.

24 hours later after numerous calls, several forwarded documents and a number of promises I received ministry and military clearance to go to the north. The government are not allowing many foreign journalists to the north and former LTTE zones as reporters had written negative reports on the government, in particular in relation to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. I had to give my word not to write anything negative about the government to send home or abroad.

So Thursday night I got on a bus, 17 guys and myself, from Colombo to Madhu. We arrived at 6.30am in the morning after passing through hundreds of checkpoints along the way which only increased in number once we entered the LTTE and former war zone.

Security at the festival

We stayed in a place about 30 minutes away from Madhu, where the religious festival was being held, called Don Bocso. It is a Christian centre run by the church which was set up by the missionaries of an Italian priest, Don Bosco.
Around 160 boys lived and went to school in the centre. 60 of these boys are orphaned Tamils, between 12 and 17 from the IDP camps. I was talking to one of the priests at the centre and he was telling me that the boys from the IDP camps are sent there by the courts. They are expecting another 300 boys to come once their new building is completed. The boys from the camps take a long time to settle in and adjust to the secure and warm environment. After years of living in the camps and in the middle of a war with the constant possibility of being abducted by the Tamils to become child soldiers, they have been traumatised and deeply scared. Their stories are horrific and very traumatic.

Some of the boys could speak a bit of English and a number of them came up to talk to me, curious to know where I came from. They were very polite and friendly. The centre has a school for the boys and the older ones can attend the technological centre or learn a trade so that they learn a skill and have an opportunity to find work on leaving. There was also a newly established bakery where some of the boys worked, making delicious homemade bread which they distribute in the surrounding area. The smell of freshly baked bread was mouth-watering and wafted through the centre all day long.

During the festival, as accommodation in the area was so scarce, the centre was putting up many people.The guys all slept in one big room but being female they ran around to get a room ready for me. My room had a bathroom attached and a shower which consisted of a large bucket of water and a small bucket for sloshing the water over yourself; a novel way of showering.

In the north the population is primarily made up of Tamils the majority of whom are Hindu’s and the minority Christians. Most of them cannot speak Sinhalese, never mind English. They are kind people, but you can see the effect of the long years of war in their faces, in their slightly guarded and weary demeanours.

It is strange how Sinhalese and Tamils, despite living in the same country and being of the same nationality, cannot speak each other’s language.

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It’s a small world!

It was quite funny the other day I wrote a news piece in response to a letter about an incident where people were handing out free cigarettes outside a restaurant in Colombo. It is illegal to advertise anything to do with tobacco and cigarettes in Sri Lanka, so the men were arrested.

I wrote the article, gave it to the news editor who approved it and it was put in the next day’s paper. Two days later I got a call in the office from the tobacco authority commenting on my article which they thought presented them in a bad light. I responded that I was just doing my job and that I had written the article in response to a letter from an authority. I told them that if they wanted to comment or give their side of things we would be more than willing to publish it but we weren’t going to change what we had said already They said they couldn’t say anything as they weren’t allowed to.

So that was that until on Friday night I was at a party. There were three girls there who I got chatting to. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I was working for The Island. Jokingly I said that they obviously all read the paper. One of the girls said that actually she had read something about tobacco in it the other day. I told her that I had written the article and she recognized my name. It turns out she wasn’t the one who called me but she works for the people who did and was aware of the article.

It’s a small world and totally random that I should have met her of all people at a party!

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Kandy Perahera

Pre procession

On a cultural and religious note, the Kandy Perahera, the biggest Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka and one of the biggest in Asia, was a spectacular event. The Perahera takes place every July/August and lasts for 10 days culminating at the full moon; poya day.

The newspaper had provided us with seats in the temple with a great view of the event. Richard, Michael and I left Colombo at 8am on Wednesday morning to make the three hour bus journey to Kandy. We arrived around midday and already the city was full of people waiting for the evening’s event. Many people without pre booked seats had been there since 8.00am in order to ensure a good view of the Perahera.

The pavements were packed full of waiting families and people sitting on the ground on plastic sheets. I don’t know how they did it, all the hours of waiting. Despite having seats we ended up sitting and waiting for five hour for the procession to begin.

Procession

Finally the wait was over and the Perahera finally began. It lasted three hours. Richard was almost beside himself with agitation at the end.

The procession consisted of whip crackers, fire jugglers, stilt walkers, drummers, Kandyian and numerous other traditional dancers, elaborately adorned elephants, prisoners and their guards carrying flags, and a casket atop a triage of elephants carrying Buddha’s tooth. It was quite a procession!

The Temple of the Tooth is the biggest and most important temple in Sri Lanka and is the one which the Kandy Perahera originates from. All temples have a relic of Buddha’s, or at least claim to. The Kandy Temple is said to have Buddha’s tooth, although no one really knows if it is there as the Portuguese claim to have taken it and burnt it during their colonization of Sri Lanka. However Buddhists say that the Portuguese were fooled and took a false tooth, the real one being hidden somewhere safe. Either way the temple claims to house Buddha’s tooth. For many Buddhist’s the Kandy Perahera is the religious highlight of their year and thousands flock to watch it. There are many smaller Perahera’s throughout the year originating from different temples around the country but none as big as the Kandyian one.

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