Colombo Telegraph

At A Scholarly ‘Kussiya’ In A Cocktail Dress

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli

LDA Conference 2016: Culinary Ethnology in Sri Lanka

Lanka Decorative Arts (LDA) swam into my ken recently when someone told me about its 2016 conference ‘Kussiya: Culinary Ethnology in Sri Lanka’ and suggested that I’d enjoy attending it (all dressed up in order to enjoy it all the more) and doing an in-depth coverage. Accordingly, I wrote a line to LDA Founder Director Dr. Ayesha Abdur Rahman by way of permissions, coordinated with Adilah Ismail, an arts and culture journalist, who is also a panelist on the conference and made arrangements to attend on Day Two and Day Three.

I found it one of the most enjoyable conferences that I had ever attended, permeated by an upbeat pulse with never a dull moment. For ‘Kussiya’ is that type of dynamic conference where not only the papers presented by the panelists, but also the panelists themselves can be converted into rich sources of sociological information. Let me illustrate with an anecdote. In the introduction to the conference catalogue, Ayesha Abdur Rahman explains that the conference will follow the historical development and culture of kitchens associated with our multi ethnicities, involving, among other things, specialized cuisines influenced by indigenous and external factors. The conference theme, Ayesha tells us, connotes food and the socio-cultural histories behind its preparation and eating habits, as well as the similarities and diversities that exist in the cultural melting pot of Lanka.

Sinhalese vegetables

In short, the main fare at this ‘Kussiya’ consists of food cultures of communities, regions, religions and ethnicities. Day Two is when indigenous food cultures come most to the fore, with topics such as ‘Saiva Reformation of 19th Century Jaffna and the double kitchen tradition’, ‘Food and food practices among east Coast Muslims’, ‘Ritual cooking and food offerings in Agamic and non-Agamic temples in Jaffna’, ‘Kiri Ammawarunge Dane; the feeding of seven milk mothers’, ‘Bath Malava: Thanksgiving after the harvest and alimentation for deities’. Even Day Three, which is intended to be more cosmopolitan with such topics as ‘Ports along the ancient trade routes’, ‘The movement of spices along the ancient silk route of the sea’, ‘Juxtaposing the past with the present: The growth of Gastrodiplomacy’ includes a presentation of one of the most traditionalist and purist food cultures of the island, ‘From Bolo d’armor to Breudher: a conversation on Portuguese and Dutch Burgher cuisine in Sri Lanka’.

Deborah Phillip talks breudher and lamprais with Anne-Marie scharenguiver Keller and Angelo Gonsalves

At the end of Day Two, under the influence of this kaleidoscope of culinary traditions, I buttonhole Professor Asoka De Zoysa, a panelist and presenter on Day Two of ‘Cooking for the pious: From Mulutange to Kussiya’ and ask him; “Do you think there is such a thing as Sinhalese food and Sinhalese vegetables?”. It’s his answer which converts this professor in the Department of Modern Languages, University of Kelaniya into a rich source of sociological information. He says “No. Sinhalese is a language for me and Tamil is a language”

Astounded at the professor’s denial of food ethnology in the midst of a conference on culinary ethnology in Sri Lanka, I ask “But when you consider such vegetables specially used in Sinhalese cuisine as ‘bandakka’, ‘thibbotu’, etc.?”.

Eastern Muslims

De Zoysa retorts “No, no others are also having. They are all having. But the preparations are different because the generations are using different ingredients. That area Naleefa was talking about; Eastern coast, they are putting fish into everything, because they have fish in abundance and don’t use dry fish. So that again is very regional.” The ‘Naleefa’ he mentions is Ms. A.W.N Naleefa, a lecturer in Sociology in the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka. Due to my inability to reconcile dressing up with being early, I had missed her presentation ‘Food and food practices among East coast Muslims’, the second item of Panel One on Day two, held between 9.00 and 10.30 a.m.

At the ladies’

However on Day Three of the conference, at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, Naleefa, some of her research students and I have an encounter in front of the ladies room. We are sort of waiting in line, they in abayas and hijabs and I in a short summer toga which leaves one shoulder bare (which I subsequently learn Professor Asoka De Zoysa has been going around calling a ‘cocktail dress’- more of this later). They open the conversation with me and I ask Naleefa about ‘Sinhalese vegetables’, Does she think there are such things, do the Eastern Muslims have the same ‘batu’, ‘bandakka’, ‘me karals’, ‘vetakolus’ etc. but use them in their cuisine with only the preparations making the food culture distinct? Naleefa, who is a Muslim from Galle, read Sociology in Sinhala and English and took up residence in the East only after her marriage, admits freely to Sinhalese vegetables, and informs me that although the same vegetables may be grown in the East, due to the different cultivation methods, they take on different shapes, colours and sizes.

Naleefa’s contribution to the conference is that different cultures and ethnic groups have different culinary cultures. Distinctiveness in food selection, unique dishes and styles of food, different preparation methods and spices are the building blocks of a distinct culinary culture and by reason of these, Eastern Muslims have a different food culture, which the researcher had observed first hand living in an Eastern Muslim village for 10 years. Naleefa tells me that her husband practically can’t do without the ‘Eastern mix’ of spices and has to have it brought from their village whenever they have to live in Colombo for any length of time. She also tells me that their dried fish which is made from tank fish is quite different from our run of the mill ‘karawala’. A misconception that her presentation seeks to demolish is that all Muslims eat the same foods and follow the same traditions. By way of personal illustration, Naleefa also tells me that after being immersed in Eastern Muslim Food for ten years, it feels like a treat whenever she gets to taste the food of her hometown, Galle.

The overall objectives of the conference are reconciliation and cooperation. In the introduction to the conference catalogue Ayesha Abdur Rahman has written hopefully, “The north and the entire east coast were isolated and overlooked due to the long drawn-out war that marred our island. Now understanding and hope among our communities are being rebuilt, and I trust that this conference by its approach will facilitate reconciliation and understanding. ”

Her trust is not misplaced. ‘Kussiya’ by bringing together scholars from the Universities of Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya, Moratuwa, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Uluvil, as well as two invitees from the Bard Graduate Centre for Studies in the Decorative Arts, New York, does promote reconciliation, cooperation and dialogue. Kussiya is a friendly and relaxed space. Two of Naleefa’s research students from the South Eastern University of Uluvil, their hair covered with colourful hijabs, tell me that they like my hair and ask my name. I tell them that I can’t see their hair and admit to being a Darshanie. Isn’t that a Hindu name, and what am I, they wonder. I disclose my ethnological provenance and explain that the name enjoys common usage between Sinhalese and Tamils.

Academic Fur

The sparks of a possible interdisciplinary dialogue were ignited when Dr. Dulma Karunaratne from the Department of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya, during the course of her presentation, ‘Was the kitchen solely a woman’s domain in pre-modern Sri Lanka? A socio-archaeological analysis of Buddhist Temple Murals’, remarks, “This is Morana Warige Tisahamy (not that Uruwarige Tisahamy), the husband of Uruwarige Siriyawathi involved in cutting these dried meat into small pieces and he is helping in cooking. So I know that [just] as I’ve seen [depicted] in the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Vihara mural, [here in the present context too among the Veddas] husband and wife [are] involved in some kind of kitchen activity.”

Pubilis gets research students from Uluvil, Jaffna and Peradeniya cooking

During the post-panel discussion, the only social anthropologist at the ‘Kussiya’, Dr. Malathi De Alwis of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo challenges the validity of this one on one comparison; “In the context of the Wanniyalettho earlier known as Vedda mentioned in Dulma’s presentation, you take something from the early 19th century as those paintings were and then you go to the current 21st century context and say you see a similarity. But I would be cautious about that, because that is an assumption that the Veddas have been unchanged over time. Maybe it’s reflected today, but we don’t really know right? You can see it as a reflection. But to see it as a one on one comparison, saying, here’s what the painting is showing and here is real life reflecting that in in today’s context. I think I would be careful about such one-on-ones”

Dulma retorts instantly, “So that is one of the methodological approaches in Archaeology. We call it ethnographic analogy. We observe the behaviours, tool making systems, etc. and special characteristics of modern tribal/primitive people and we reconstruct the history of our people. I told you the Vanniyaletthos were changing a lot, but I carefully selected a family who haven’t changed a lot. We can’t see these types of activities and these types of kitchens by visiting all Veddas. This is a rare scene. All over the world [archaeologists] study the modern tribal communities and we apply these kinds of ethnographic data to reconstruct our past.”

Ethnographic Analogy

During lunch, Malathi De Alwis asks me if I am Darshanie, saying she has seen my photograph in my columns in The Nation. I suggest to her that the fur was somewhat flying during her discussion with Dulma Karunaratne. She says that the disagreement seems to be about the conventions of two different disciplines. I try to tell her, though probably not making myself very clear, that archaeologists when they anchor their discoveries of the past to the present, simply want to keep themselves moored to some familiar landmark lest they lose their bearings with relevance and reality. They don’t necessarily imply unbroken continuity between the past and the present. For example when I interviewed Professor Raj Somadeva of SL Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology, he showed me a small stone excavated from a proto-historic context marked with a tunnel like cavity, which obviously represents the vagina. At the time of excavation, they found the cavity filled with red ochre powder, clearly meant to depict blood. But then, the professor went on to say that in the rural society, the vagina is known as ‘kili male’ and ‘kili’ means blood. He concluded that it’s the idea behind that rural terminology, which is depicted in this object, offering us an instance of the linguistic reflected in material form. This could have been an eyebrow raising (or a hair raising) moment for any social anthropologist.

Kitchen Gossip

A kitchen is a place for sharing knowledge, cooperation, forging of new bonds, a happy and productive place. Sometimes it can also turn into a place of malicious gossip and ill will. The ill will and gossipy aspect of the ‘LDA Kussiya’ is provided courtesy of Professor Asoka De Zoysa. When I approached him in order to obtain a copy of his presentation after the conference, through Dr. Michael Roberts, a mutual friend and a senior anthropologist, De Zoysa apparently remarked “Isn’t she the woman wearing the cocktail dress, who was putting on lipstick (I was putting on lip balm, into which the latest technology has incorporated lip colour. It’s a long conference with few chances of sipping water) and was being unethical recording the conference without permission?” On a subsequent phone call I made at his request, Professor De Zoysa tells me “I thought that question you asked me, whether ‘bandakka’, etc. were Sinhalese vegetables was really odd and that put me off.” When I have recovered from my astonishment, he follows up with, “The conference was a closed conference and not open to the public”. This was so manifestly untrue as to need no response. When I inform him that I had requested and obtained permission from Dr. Ayesha Abdur Rahman to do an in-depth coverage through email, which she had copied to all members of the LDA Board, he says he only saw his mail after the conference. Then he tells me that journalists are supposed to make notes, not make visual and audio recordings using their smart phones, adding, “You should have given your card and introduced yourself as this big journalist”. He also admits to being 65 years old.

Women in cocktail dresses

That explains a lot, I think. On Day Two De Zoysa’s fellow LDA Board member and panelist Deshika Van Haght presented a paper on ‘Jadi and its Jars’, wearing a sunshine yellow, short summer dress with spaghetti straps. On Day Three I had attended wearing a sunshine yellow summer toga which left one shoulder bare. It’s kind of amusing to imagine Asoka De Zoysa, a self-proclaimed costume historian looking on with disapproval, muttering to himself ‘Women in cocktail dresses in an academic conference!”

Dressing modestly

Day Two at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission nearly had me attending in a midriff exposing ensemble which I modified at the last minute to achieve better coverage. I don’t mean to imply cause and effect, but on Day Two I encountered a polite and communicative Asoka De Zoysa, who told me “A lot of people think kitchens are not important in ethnography. But you can see that there is a ritual kitchen, there’s the everyday kitchen, there’s the very professionalized kitchen. Adilah is doing on food diplomacy. Around kitchens a lot of things can be done.”

For their 2016 conference so many things have been done by LDA around kitchens that being at their ‘Kussiya’ is not like being in a kitchen at all. Instead it is like being in a vast hall with many doors leading off it into fascinating rooms and corridors. In this metaphorical hall, there was a door marked ‘The Illustrated Kitchen’ through which Dulma Karunaratne and Asoka De Zoysa propelled us into Sinhalese kitchens of pre-modern Lanka. Using as their primary sources murals painted during 18th and 19th centuries to embellish Buddhist temples of Kandyan, Southern and Western maritime regions, these two scholars had tried to reconstruct the socio-culinary space of that time and place. Their findings were served up to the audience between 11.00 am and 12.30 pm on Day Two, 5 August 2016.

Removing upper garment

Throwing a tantalizing tidbit into this fascinating time bracket Asoka De Zoysa shows a mural from the Kataluwa Purvarama Viharaya, depicting an alms giving scene from the Patachara story. He says, “And the last picture is also exciting because the scene ends in a mandapaya, a kind of a pavilion in a layman’s house, where food is being served. It’s a kind of a dana as we know today. On close observation you see that lady has taken off her upper garment for the Buddhist monks. I don’t want to get into the politics of garments here. That comes in a different context all together. Here the lady is showing respect to the Buddhist monks by taking off her upper garment.” During question time a duly entranced member of audience asks “This is not a question but just to get an idea. The lady removing the upper garment when she offered the dane, she belongs to a lower caste?”

A pre modern Sinhalese woman serving dane without an upper garment to show respect to the Sangha

“Not really” says Dulma. She means that it’s a woman of status, namely Patachara that the artist has depicted in the scene. The questioner goes on, “you remember those days they were not allowed to…” Not allowed to wear an upper garment those low caste women, is what the questioner wants to say. But she is interrupted by Asoka De Zoysa who defers the question with “We will have a chat and discuss later on” It sounds as if he is being coy but I think in reality it was unwillingness to shift focus from culinary ethnology to politics of garments.

Low caste women

In a leisurely chat over tea after session end, De Zoysa tells me what he really would have told the questioner if he had not been constrained by the topic of the conference. In the pre-colonial setup as attested in the Sinhala Sandesha Kavyas women in the lower social strata were the ones who went mostly into the public space and they didn’t wear upper garments. The upper strata of women mostly stayed at home, again without wearing an upper garment. “It’s like the purdah no? You are inside the house and you are as you are.”

As I talk to him I notice that he carefully avoids using the word ‘caste’ which tends to make his discourse a bit murky sociologically. He says ‘social status’ or ‘social strata’ instead which didn’t overlap completely with caste in pre-modern and colonial Lanka. There were some privileges that accrued to rank or status alone, while the right to don an upper garment was bound up with caste only. For example a lady of a higher rank may enjoy the privilege of travelling in a palanquin or living in a larger house made of brick while a farmer’s wife may have to walk and live in a daub and wattle house. But both of them would enjoy the privilege of wearing an upper garment. De Zoysa would continue to miss these subtle distinctions as long as he continues to fight shy of certain ethnographic labels. Last week I described how he incredibly denied the existence of ‘Sinhalese vegetables’ in a conference supposed to be about food cultures belonging to the multi ethnicities on the island of Lanka.

Asoka De Zoysa

Ever since Professor Asoka De Zoysa first swam into my ken when I helped upload his presentation for the National Trust Lecture series to Dr. Michael Robert’s website, in 2013, I have felt that no other scholar in Sri Lanka is more equipped to demolish the modern, common and romantic misconception that just because a woman is shown without an upper garment in a pre-modern, illustration, she has to belong to a lower caste. Asoka De Zoysa has observed that throughout the Kandyan region Mandri, the queen of King Vessantara is depicted in murals without her upper garment. One reason is that she is now living humbly having renounced all appurtenances of rank. Also when she is living in seclusion in the forest, she is virtually living in private space, where it was normal for women, both upper and lower to be shown without upper garments.

The first scene of the Uraga Jataka story contained In the Madawala Tampita Raja Maha Viharaya murals dated to around 1760 in Kirti Sri Rajasinghe’s time, feature three topless women inside a house. They are a Brahmin’s wife, daughter in law and female servant enjoying the freedom from upper garments in their private space. In the next scene when all three women are on the road which is public space, the wife and daughter in law have donned their caste status symbols or jackets while the female servant’s upper body is bare.

Stars present

Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne, identified by Ayesha Abdur-Rahman as ‘special advisor’ to LDA was supposed to be keynote speaker for Day Three, but developed gallstones that had to be taken out the very day he was to have delivered his ‘Kussiya: The Social Melting Pot of Techno-Cultural Convergence’. Sudharshan told me that Ayesha has a tremendous talent for bringing different people together. She does. The entire conference, especially Day Three simply crackles with the star power of the panelists and the attendees. Professor K.D Paranavitana, the eminent Dutch historian is there. I missed his presentation, ‘Some Culinary Habits Acquired During the 16th and 17th Centuries’ given on Day One. He introduces his wife to me with “This is Mrs. Paranavitana”. She is actually Emeritus Professor Rohini Paranavitana, editor of such collections of pre-modern war poems as Sitavaka Hatana and Kustantinu Hatana.

Ramla and Deborah

Most of all the conference features two young historians whose looks are as impressive as their presentations. These are Ramla Wahab-Salman and Deborah Philip. Ramla got her Bachelors (Hons.) degree from University of Delhi and Master’s degree in South Asian history from School of Oriental and African Studies , University of London. During tea, following her session, I observe two senior historians Professor K.D Paranavitana and Dr. Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda looking at Ramla with awe. “She is pretty good”, Sinharaja whispers to K.D. Pranavitana, who whispers back, “yes she can read the textual sources in Arabic”. Ramla likes to call herself a South Asian historian. She tells me that in exploring Persian and Arab contacts with Sri Lanka, she does not reduce it to Islamic contacts but goes on the ‘continuity of people’ principle. Islam only came into being in the seventh century AD and the doings and interactions of a people in their pre-Islamic phase belonged to the same continuity as their post-Islamic phase. Yes I remark, after all the Persians had an empire in the sixth century BC which included Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Ramla agrees, signaling that for her history of a people would not begin only after they became Muslim.

Arabs and Persians in SL

Accordingly in her presentation ‘The Movement of spices along the Silk Road of the sea’ she tells us that during the period immediately preceding the 7th century AD, Persian ships stopped in Sri Lanka as a rule. Then the 9th century saw Muslim trade dominance along the entire maritime route from the West Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Canton, fueled by the pursuit of an Islamic scientific tradition. In the 9th century, after the Guangzhou Massacre, Arab ships stopped using Guangzhou as a port and made South and South East Asian ports their destination. This led to the flourishing of ports such as Mantai. Accordingly in the 9th century Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih in ‘The Book of Roads and Kingdoms’ speaks of Aloe, pepper and varieties of spices available in the island of Serendib. The port of Mantai was of primary importance to these merchant geographers as it provided the practical and necessary services of food, fresh water and hard wood for the repair of ships after a journey.

Strangely enough Ramla Wahab does not refer in her presentation to the ninth century Kufic (early Arabic script) inscriptions found from around the ports of Sri Lanka. She is aware of them though, as I found out when I questioned her on Day Two about solid evidence of Arab contacts with Sri Lanka prior to Ibn Batuta in 14th century AD. Ramla says words to the effect that she is not into epigraphy, like for example Dr. M. A. M. Shukri would be. But I wonder should a historian disregard knowledge coming from branches of expertise outside her ken. After all few historians are epigraphists and archaeologists, yet they utilize knowledge coming from these specialist branches.

Interesting Burghers

The other young historian at the conference is Deborah Philip, an assistant lecturer in History at University of Colombo. Her undergraduate dissertation was (typically) on the Burghers of Sri Lanka after 1956 and their response to Sinhala Nationalism. She doesn’t present a paper but does something just as good or better. She brings together the best resource persons she would have used if she was actually writing such a paper and chairs a panel discussion which brings the topic to life in a way a mere paper could not have done. The topic is ‘From Bolo D’Amor to Breudher: A conversation on Portuguese and Dutch Burgher cuisine in Sri Lanka’. “There’s some nepotism in the panel”, she informs us, because it includes her uncle Paul Beling, who looks to me so much like a bishop out of Barchester Towers that I can’t stop staring at him. He talks about breudher, which along with lamprais are the two most famous and symbolic culinary icons of Burgher identity in Sri Lanka.

A Porto Rican

I, ‘the woman in the cocktail dress’ pronounce ‘Kussiya: Culinary Ethnology in Sri Lanka’ a success because it was so colourful. Contributing to its colour in no mean measure was Professor Asoka De Zoysa, who tells me in a post conference telephone call “You looked like a joke recording it. It was a joke”. I am so glad to have contributed in my own way to the colour of the conference. One other person who contributed significantly to the colour of the conference was Ayesha Abdur Rahman’s husband Rashid Abdur Rahman, a ‘Porto Rican in Sri Lanka’. During lunch on Day Three, he tells me that he is against all dress norms such as the burka, hijab, face veil, which can be used to dominate and oppress. He tells me that after Day Three he would be off to Barefoot café to play drums with somebody called Jerome. He along with several others who had married Sri Lankan women were deported, by the Sirima Bandaranaike government who felt they might be CIA agents. I whisper to Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda, who is standing by that Jane Russel was also deported. “Different reasons”, he whispers back. I suggest to Rashid that perhaps he and those others had married Sri Lankan women exactly for the reason suspected by Sirima et el. I am feeling somewhat manic and jovial no doubt due to my cocktail dress. Rashid protests against any CIA aspersions giving his Latin Americanness as proof. I suggest perhaps then his wife was the agent? Rashid protests that Ayesha loves Sri Lanka. I think perhaps she does and the whole concept of Lanka Decorative Arts is proof of that.

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