By Basil Fernando –
The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9th August) should have been a great day of celebration in Sri Lanka. The history of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people goes back over 100,000 years. Even somewhat belatedly, something must be said on this great occasion.
The fact that the nation and its people know of such a long history must itself be considered a matter of enormous significance. Prehistorians deserve the credit for bringing this matter to the people living now. These scholars have been engaged in painstaking work for many decades, carrying out excavations that have led to astounding results. It is wonderful to see that this knowledge is being shared with the public and a different worldview is now emerging in the country; a sense gratitude for people who found their way from Africa, which is considered the cradle of humanity, and settled in Sri Lanka, and left their footprints not only on the earth, but also in the minds, hearts and the souls of all the people.
As the emergence of mountains and rivers mark importance stages in the geologic history of the world, the emergence of attitudes and mental characteristics is also a natural process that leaves a permanent and inerasable trace. The ‘orographic maps’ they made of their surroundings, natural events, and their social lives have been transmitted to the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious minds of all that were to come. That river of consciousness, with many layers, will remain the base of our moral outlook.
All those long years they lived outside the grip of private property and the state. That was possible then. Later developments, including changing agricultural practices and modes of production, gradually brought about big landholdings by private individuals, which also gave rise to conflicts. That is a long story by itself. However, even in such times of conflict and infighting, the heritage of created long ago by the country’s first inhabitants should provide the wisdom to deal with the new situation.
Thanks to prehistorians we also have a more favourable portrait of Kuweni. It is perhaps fitting on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples to share a poem I wrote quite some time back on Kuweni.
Kuweni the queen
She was queen of all birds,
all plants and flowers,
and all seeds
She did not tame elephants
to fight wars or to be slaves.
She did not cage birds
Or enslave her brothers and sisters.
Seeds were birthed and then gave birth,
Birds sang and then there were more birds,
Elephants ganged and created more such giants,
Kuwani , their queen was queen of love.
Sun shined and rain rained,
winds blew and, at times, rivers flooded.
With love and care she managed it all,
She was the mother, the friend, the queen, the woman.
(Enter—Vijaya, Don Lorenzo de Almeida and Other Looters)
To Kuweni’s land came the looters
They did not come to settle and share
But to battle and take
Whatever that was there
Spirit of love and care
Was no more there
The queen was crushed
Her people ambushed
Looters were crowned
Kings were clowns
Kuweni’s blood still survives
Her sprit still lives
Like the trees, bushes and birds
Even in adverse whether survives
Her song can still be heard
Like the rainbow she reappears.