20 October, 2020

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Life And Times In Old Jaffna: A Review

By R.S.Perinbanayagam

Prof. R.S.Perinbanayagam

The Yaal Players by Vimala Ganeshananthan (Colombo: Kumaran Books Ltd)2013
Life and Times in Old Jaffna. A Review.

This work contains notes written by a woman, Emily Gnanam, who lived in Karativu, an islet off the coast of Jaffna in the early years of the last century. It is also interspersed with commentaries by her daughter Vimala Ganeshananthan who also is the editor of the volume. Emily Gnanam,it appears, spent her early life in a large farm in Karativu before getting married and moving to Trincomalee. Her descriptions of her life in the farm reveals the existence of a semi-feudal system in Jaffna with various castes living in or around the farm and providing services to the landowners and receiving compensation in kind and cash.

Emily Gnanam’s notes give us a fascinating account of the lives of the various people of the household as well as the life of the village in rich detail. She describes the procedures and customs observed in everyday life as well as the nature of the marriage alliances contracted by the members of the household. It describes the ceremonies connected to the weddings, the nature of the arrangements that were made to consummate these contracts etc. It appears that cross-cousin marriage was still the preferred form. Further, since the family were Christians living among Hindus, and having of course inherited some Hindu customs as well, had to make various amalgamations in their rituals. For example a Christian wedding was conducted in church but nevertheless they also used the Hindu ritual of tying the golden chain with the sacred pendant—the thali kodi– around the neck of the bride by the groom. In the Hindu customs the pendant was inscribed with sacred Hindu symbols but Christians inscribed the image of the Bible on it. She describes the clothing and the jewelry worn respectively by the young girls as well as the different styles worn by the more mature ones and their grooming before the wedding ceremony and so on.

All in all, it’s the work of an astute observer of the social scene, and has given us, without much aforethought, a wealth of information about the life of a particular segment of Jaffna society at a particular time: a wealthy, landowning, socially and culturally dominant and high-caste segment, that is. Equally significantly they were Christians living in harmony in a Hindu culture and with a deep commitment to education. Further, it is written in a very simple style without unnecessary elaborations and ponderous analysis. The teachers at Vembady High School for Girls,where Emily Gnanam studied, do seem to have taught her a thing or two about writing too.

It is however the sociological and economic implications of the life of the family as an index of the Jaffna community that is the most valuable contribution of the work. The Gnanam family were converts to Protestant Christianity but seems to have had many Hindu relatives with whom they had not only cordial relations and even at times intermarried with them. They appear to have taken full advantage of the increasing opportunities provided by the schools that were opened by Christian missionaries. Emily Gnanam’s father was in fact a teacher in the school run by the American mission in the neighborhood after having been educated in one such school earlier. Emily Gnanam herself studied here and then transferred to Jaffna town to study in the school run by the Methodist missions called Vembady School for Girls. She didn’t just study and learn the feminine and domestic styles of life that the Christian missionaries tried to impart to their women students but went on to pass the Cambridge senior examination. She was perhaps one of the first among women in Jaffna to have obtained that distinction. The family in fact moves to Jaffna town so that she and her siblings could be educated in the city schools, she and her sisters at Vembadi, and her brothers at Jaffna Central College. The architectural styles of houses in Jaffna town favored by Dutch over that of the Portuguese too merits the attention of Emily Gnanam. These two occupying powers, besides their architecture,left their genetic footprints too in the light skin and blue eyes that some people in Jaffna sport and even this does not escape comment from the Gnanam!

While that the girls were given an education uncommon at the time in Jaffna society was significant enough, it is the story of her brothers and cousins that is of distinct sociological and economic significance. They were educated in these Christian schools–either at Central College or at Jaffna College, the premier school established by the American mission, and they seem to have obtained various qualifications: the Cambridge Junior certificate or the Cambridge Senior certificate or what was called the first-in arts –later to be called, I believe, the intermediate in arts, which was a prelude to the bachelor of arts degree. It not clear from her notes however which of these qualifications were obtained by which member of her family but they all seem to have dedicated themselves to getting an English education.

With one or more of these qualifications in hand the brothers and cousins went forth looking for jobs and wealth to the south of Ceylon but above all to Malaya and Singapore. These qualifications that the young men obtained made them eligible for service in the bureaucracies of the far-flung British Empire as well as in its railway systems. Some of them as far as I can fathom from Emily Gnanam’s notes also went on to become doctors and lawyers too.

The young men of the Gnanam household seem to have taken full advantage of the educational opportunities and made good in Malaya. However once they settled in Malaya they don’t seem to have settled for good. There was a constant traffic between Malaya and the homeland and the hometown. The young men came home to get married or brides were sent to Malaya to get married to eligible young relatives. Some young boys were also invited by their relatives in Malaya for further education and they too settled in Malaya but they returned to get married to one cousin or another. Furthermore, the older relatives seem to have gone on long visits to Malaya too. These were no doubt arduous journeys: there was the boat ride from the island of Karativu (there was no causeway between the island and the mainland at the time and after the causeway was built it changed its name to Karainagar!), and then a ride in a bullock cart on rough terrain to the city. From there they had to take a trip in a cargo boat to reach Malaya. Yet many seem to have gone back and forth: the call of kinship-loyalties on the one hand and the call from hometown on the other seem to have been too strong to be offset by the difficulties of the journey.

This family’s story is in fact a fine microcosm of what happened to Jaffna society once the Christian missionaries began arriving in the peninsula. It nicely particularizes some general features of Jaffna society of a particular time. The Americans came first to be followed by the Methodists and the Anglicans. Catholics too had established their own outpost. In any case the Protestant missionaries, for one reason or the other, seem to have converged on Jaffna and opened up schools in practically in every nook and cranny of the territory. Originally they were meant to educate only the Christians but eventually they accepted Hindus and the schools soon became institutions that educated mostly Hindus. Again, for one reason or the other, that I don’t want to go into here, the local population, after some reluctance, took to these schools with enthusiasm and soon–at least, in a few decades — Jaffna was awash with young men educated in English looking for employment and careers both within the island and in the far-flung British Empire, mainly in the Malay Peninsula but also in Burma and some of them even went to Madras to work. The American mission established the premier educational institution in English in the remote and dusty village of Vaddukoddai and called it, somewhat arrogantly “Jaffna College” the Methodists built Jaffna Central College and the Anglicans had St.John’s College” andS the Catholics St. Patrick’s College. The education of women was not neglected either: the Americans established the Uduvil Girls School, the first of its kind in South Asia, the Methodists started Vembady soon after and the Anglicans started a school for girls in Chundikuli–all in the 19 century. The Hindus, not willing to be outdone by the Christians started their own institutions. This proliferation of educational opportunism in the peninsula accounts for the large presence of Jaffna Tamils in the administrative services and the professions not only in Ceylon but in Malaya too and not because the British rulers favored them in some way– as some ignorant scribes and racist propagandists and internet charlatan have claimed. They were given employment because they obtained the necessary qualifications. These young men worked outside their ancestral villages but came home to marry and build houses and buy land and contributed immensely to the prosperity of the peninsula. These moneys they brought back or sent home trickled down to the carpenters and blacksmiths and the masons who built the houses as well the goldsmiths and silversmiths who made the jewelery and so on and so forth. Indeed the economic impact of the work of the Christian missionaries on Jaffna society is yet be explored by scholars.

The work depicts a way of life of the old north that has gone with the wind, never to return. It has been lovingly edited by Ganeshananthan. It however is not without a major flaw: the commentaries that Ganeshananthan has inserted between her mother’s narratives. These comments, while adding some context to the narrative, should have been separated from the Emily Ganam notes, either typographically or put in as an appendix. Indeed they are quite unnecessary and we should have been allowed to enjoy Emily Gnanam’s words by themselves. I may add that a genealogical table of the family and dates of birth etc would have enhanced the value of the work.

Still, this book is of great value to the social historians of Jaffna and one must thank Ganeshananthan for giving it to us.

*R.S. Perinbanayagam is Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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    This is a fascinating portrait of a by gone era of our country, Ceylon. What is most striking to me is the pragmatism, flexibility and discernment with which these people accepted what today’s Sinhala supremacists and cultural purists call “imperialism” and “unethical conversions”. The Sinhala extremist propaganda never tires of pointing out how under British rule 70% of the population (Sinhala) had 10% percent of the government jobs. This is cited by the Sinhala rabble rousers as the imperialists “favouring the minority” and “divide and rule”. The truth is that, as Sid Prinbanayagam points out, modern education, which meant a good knowledge of English, was enthusiastically accepted by the people of Jaffna, including the Hindu upper stratum, after minimal initial resistance. Whereas in the Sinhala south, the early seeds of the Sinhala Buddhist ideology that was to grow and mature in 1956, and taken to disastrous extremes in the next decades, the missionaries were given the cold shoulder, which led them to pack their bags and go northwards, to the welcoming people of Jaffna. Even today, a section of the Sinhala extremist elite, who have profited from an English education, are denying the same, through “Sinhala Only”, to the children of the poor for whom such an education is the sole path of mobility. On the Tamil side, we have Tamil extremists who claim that their achievements are due to Tamil genetic superiority, paralleling the thought of their fellow ideologues in Bengal, where a large meritocracy has come into being too, thanks to their greater exposure to English and western education by virtue of the first capital of imperial India being located in Bengal.

    The pragmatism of these people seems to have led them to cross political boundaries, and accept hybrid identities as opposed suffocating purist identities as are envisaged, even after so much blood shed and suffering, in the fantasies of a Sinhala Buddhist utopia on the one hand, and a “the Tamil nation” on the other. These are nothing but opiates designed to keep the masses in the service of the elites whose collaborators these ideologues are.

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      A kid from my home town,whom I was fortunate enogh to support with a few hundred Rupees during his A levels got into Engineering in his first attempt and is now an Enginer in a major utility.

      This kid went to a little school which was once a Pirivena or a place where the Buddhist monks were educated.

      If not for Sinhala education would this kid have been able to express his talents and get in to where he is today?.

      Is he from an “Elite Class”?.

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        Why not in English. Is it Buddist Engineering he did.

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      H.L.

      You are right the people in Jaffna were more pragmatic and seized the opportunities provided by the activities of the missionaries. But the question still remains how did the pragmatism that was absent in the south come about in Jaffna. I think there was a whole host of factors.

      Firstly, the different economic conditions that prevailed. Though agriculture was the main economic activity throughout island at the time, in the south it was mostly subsistence farming, whereas in the north already a nascent market economy had emerged. The benign weather and ample resources in the south obviously didn’t provide any incentives for hard work and the Sinhalese people had by and large settled for a subsistence economy. In contrast in the north the harsh arid conditions and scarce resources meant the people had to work harder for survival. With few alternate economic avenues available the Jaffna people had to be very enterprising in their agricultural work and they were already growing cash crops such as tobacco. They also took up to trade in larger numbers. As a result when the missionaries arrived the Jaffna society was already market-oriented with a “protestant” work ethic.

      Secondly, it cannot be denied there was a greater push by the missionaries in the more receptive north as the Tamils eagerly embraced education as a new enterprise for advancement in their constricted economic conditions. Tamils as a minority might have felt more secure with the new rulers who had the Sinhalese also under their control. For that reason they might have been willing to be more subservient to the colonial rulers than the Sinhalese who – like most majority communities in the colonies – were somewhat resistant to colonialism. Whether viewed as pragmatism or subservience there is no doubt this “push-pull” factor worked more successfully in the north.

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      The American Miisionaries who wanted to work in Ceylon, were directed to Jaffna by the colonial British governor, because Jaffna was farthest from Colombo. At that point in time the Americans were fighting for their independence from Great Britain and were enemies. The famous ‘ Boston tea party’ involving the dumping of tea imported by the British government from Ceylon into the sea, was an act of resistance to British rule by the Americans.

      The American missionaries laid the foundations for a modern education system and the opportunity was ceased upon by the receptive local population- high caste Saivite Vellahlas who were ready to convert as an exchange for a good education. Other missionaries followed in the heels of the Americans and did their mite too. The compeition permitted the non-converts to benefit as well. Arumuga Navalar led the Saivite resistance to the Christian conversions by establishing high quality Hindu schools to provide education of missionary quality to the unconverted Hindus.

      This is the story in brief of why Jaffna had a high concentration of good quality schools. A seed in history was blown into Jaffna by accident, found a fertile soil and grew into a giant tree! There was no favouritism or colonial intrigue to divide and rule involved.

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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        While your story is almost correct, the American missionaries arrived in 1814 not during the battle of independence !
        But you are right, it was the ill will towards the American landing in “their” soil that made them send the Americans to the north (the British had just lost the war of 1812, to the USA, an unrelated war to the war of independence )
        For the record Uduvil girls school established in 1824 was the first of its kind in Asia, again the American missions set new trends and opened new doors to Tamils-and the Tamils made maximum use of these.

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          NR:
          It is generally believed that the American missionoaries were sent poste-haste to Jaffna by the then Governor becauswe he was afaid that they would spread their revoltionary ideas in the capital city.James Rutnam has however challenged this thesis.I don’t have access to this essay at the moment.
          It is possible the the missionaries chose to go to Jaffna because they werte already relatively competent in Tamil having earlier worked in the Tamil country in India.
          Ironically,the flagship American institution Jaffna College was to become the nurturing gound of an anti-imperialst movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the shape of the Youth Congress!

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            Prof. Perinpanayagam,

            Thanks for your review and bringing to our attention a past that is being forgotten and the records of which are largely lost. My maternal uncle, Archdeacon, Ven ( Dr) D.J. Kanagaratnam studied in depth the advent of American missionaries in Jaffna and their role in catalysing education there. I have passed on only what I have leared from my late uncle. My uncle’s research, was definitely much after James Rutnam’s essay. Ibhave no leads as to whether my uncle wrote anything on the subject. What you have referred to as ‘ generally believed’ may be a fact.

            Further, you are absolutely right in reminding us that many missionaries who came to Jaffna were versed in Tamil. Dr. G.U. Pope who translated the Thiruvasam comes to mind, although he carried out his missionary work only in South India.

            Dr.RN

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        The Boston tea party was in 1773 and the tea came from China.
        In fact in 1773, the British were not even in SL, they only arrived in the 1790s.

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          Dev,

          You are right. There are also reports that the consignment was a mixture of Ceylonese and Darjeeling teas. However, the tea was likely from China.
          Dr.RN

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            Dr. Narendran, I urge you to research your facts before writing so extensively.

            In another piece you wrote some incorrect things and then said that you had since done some reading and proceeded to write some more of your unrelated stuff.

            Most of us read before we write and you should consider doing that. Here you write wrong things and when corrected, rather nonchalantly say “You are right” and proceed to give more of your “facts.” I feel lost wondering how correct your new facts are.

            The general public unfortunately reads these careless writings and makes them the basis of their education on history. Please be more responsible.

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              Prof.Hoole ,

              Your comment is similar to your articles. Both based on your prejudices and self-righteousness. Read the literature on the Boston tea party, there are references to the tea being from Ceylon. The involvement of the British East India Company in the tea trade, may have given birth to this perception. Further, I have no hesitation is acknowledging a mistake, with regard to what I remembered reading. There was no intent to make mischief.

              As to the advent of American Missionaries to Jaffna. I am probably right. My late uncle Ven (Dr) Donald Jayapalan Kanagaratnam had researched this issue and was quite conversant with the details. I was conveying what I had learned from him. I am ready to unlearn what I know, if contrary evidence is presented.

              I went to the extent of researching the origins of Saivaism and the rise and decline of Buddhism in India and among Tamils, the whole day yesterday, before I replied you elsewhere. You call this careless writing! Refute what I have referred to objectively and to the point. i am ready to learn. Gymnastics with words and diversionary tactics are not becoming of you. Further, most of what you write, is not objective and are based on selected information that bolster your own prejudices. Most times I see attempts at deliberate obfuscation and I hope not deliberate, mischief making.

              Dr.RN

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              He reads after writing and thinks after reading. A genius.

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      I hope it is not too late to respond to HLS’s comment here but I would like to endorse every word he has written particularly these words:
      . “The pragmatism of these people seems to have led them to cross political boundaries, and accept hybrid identities as opposed suffocating purist identities as are envisaged, even after so much blood shed and suffering, in the fantasies of a Sinhala Buddhist utopia on the one hand, and a “the Tamil nation” on the other. These are nothing but opiates designed to keep the masses in the service of the elites whose collaborators these ideologues are.”

      It is the pursuit these unrealistic and impractical goals that is leading our country to,to borrow a phrase from the old cold war days, Mutualy Assured Destruction!

      1

      re.

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    What a refreshing article which is soothing to read about life in Old Ceylon,unfortunately thanks to the selfish Sinhala and Tamil politicians I never experienced such things when growing up in Jaffna ;-(

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    Old Jaffna is dead. Welcome to new Jaffna.

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    WE SRI LANKANS ALWAYS HARP “ON THE GOOD OLD DAYS”. THAT IS BECAUSE WE LIVE TODAY “IN THE BAD NEW DAYS”. WHO SPOILT THE MILK ?.WHETHER JAFFNA OR DONDRA PEOPLE WRITE ON THE DAYS GONE BY AND THEY REFLECT A YEARNING FOR THOSE DAYS ! DO WE LEARN FROM THE PAST? OR DO WE JUST DREAM OF IT.
    WIMALAS BOOK APPEARS TO BE A DOCUMENTARY OF OLD JAFFNA. SO BE IT.

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    Thank you Prof. Perinbanayagam for telling us about the book. There are some minor corrections to the dates. The Anglicans were first in Jaffna as soon as the British arrived as they had free access with the British army. The Rev. Christian David (a Tamil from South India who was ordained by the Dutch and had been in their clerical service — i.e. as a Dutch Reformed Minister) opened up for the Anglicans the Church of St. John the Baptist in Chundikuli which was disused and being used as a cow-shed to feed the army. However in establishing schools the Anglicans followed the Methodists but preceded the Americans. The Methodists came in 1814 and immediately opened up schools including a girls’ school which could have been Vembadi before Uduvil. Uduvil however is believed to be the first formal boarding school for girls in Asia (although the Methodist girls’ school likely had girls living with the missionaries).

    Many of the comments after the article are unfortunately inaccurate and misleading as already pointed out by a person. It is commonly believed but untrue that the Americans were sent to Jaffna in “Exile” because of hostility from Governor Brownrigg because of the war of 1812. Mark Balmforth of Columbia University in his 2010 paper “The Myth of Exile: Samuel Newell and the Origins of the American Ceylon Mission, 1813-1814,” has used old original records to show that Brownrigg was a strong evangelical in correspondence with William Wilberforce (who was instrumental in reversing the ban on missionaries imposed by the East India Company) and the Americans were warmly welcomed by the British (including Brownrigg) to establish in Jaffna.

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      Prof. Hoole,

      Why should the word exile have been ever used? The American Missionaries were not being punished. Governor Brownrigg may have welcomed the American missionaries, but may have based on directions from London, told them to work in Jaffna. The references you quote do not contradict the likely fact that American Missionaries were only permitted to work in Jaffna first.

      Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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      A distinction should be made between priests and missionaries. Priests only performed the sacred rituals of a religion. Missionaries, were persons of a religious group sent to an area to do evangelism or ministries of service, such as education, literacy, social justice, healthcare, etc. Very few combine both roles. Dr. Albert Schweitzer is the best known missionary cum priest.

      Further, who among the missionaries may have come first does not matter. The American missionaries brought the most precious resource – money-, a vision and a sincere commitment that exceeded those of others. The Americans are yet probably the most charitable people and a people ready to challenge the status quo.

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran.

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