Colombo Telegraph

Reinterpreting Our Culture: Threat Or Pressure?

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils

Mano Ganeshan recently circulated an important thought-provoking note on the census and how Tamil numbers are distorted by counting Indian Tamils as Sri Lankan Tamils. Concluding that he does not support two separate classifications within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, he suggests that all Tamils in Sri Lanka come under one single classification as “Tamil,” and calls for a discussion.

I support his call not least for the reason that Ceylon Tamil and Indian Tamil have become caste symbols. But I offer the caution that one’s labels, appellations and choice of culture are strictly one’s own and not for others to impose. Throughout history we have all changed labels. All of Sri Lanka – at least before Gautama Buddha – was proto-Hindu and now the majority are Buddhists through reclassification. Many Buddhists in Jaffna became Hindus with the Cholas. And then many became Christians. These labels are to be chosen by whoever wears them and not imposed. Indeed the President is a Buddhist who attends Hindu festivals. He is attending voluntarily and no Buddhist can tell him that he cannot.

Sinhalese Imposing on Tamils

Relabelling is sometimes under threat and at other times voluntary. The majoritarianism underlying imposed labels is seen, for example, in, one, assuming that all Sri Lankans speak and understand Sinhalese when we do not, and in, two, getting all of us to attend and stand up at state functions when Buddhist monks are chanting, functions that many non-Buddhists attend only because they are scared that they may be seen as disloyal to the state. Closing liquor stalls and beef shops patronized by the poor on Poya while rich Buddhists have imported liquor and meat at home and access to them at supermarkets shows cultural correctness to be suffused with hypocrisy. Mano Ganeshan points to Indian Tamils becoming Sinhsalese.

Tamils and Pongal

On the Tamil side also we see similar insensitivity. Thai Pongal is promoted as a Tamil festival by nationalists looking for something common in a community that is multifarious. Thus over the last few days we saw many Pongal greetings as if it is a pan-Tamil festival, typified by the Sunday Times’ description of Pongal: “Thai Pongal, a Tamil holy day.” The Daily Mirror’s Gamini Jayasinghe has to be congratulated for getting it right: “Thai Pongal is a ‘Thanksgiving ceremony’ celebrated by farmers in particular to thank the nature spirit – the sun – and farm animals for bringing prosperity in agriculture with plentiful harvests. They venerate and thank the Sun God – the nature spirit – and offer the first part of the produce in the form of cooked rice.”

Changing Culture: The devout Roman Catholic Shiranthi Rajapaksa sacrifices to gods Vinaayahar and Suriyabahawaan

That is, Pongal is a Hindu caste festival celebrated by the Vellala (agricultural) caste. Vellalas generally being the educated caste, whatever their spin it becomes fact. That only Tamil Hindu Vellalas celebrate Thai Pongal (as distinct from other Hindus in India) made it easy for Vellalas to foist this absurd claim on the rest of us as if Christians sacrifice to the sun.

In a rigid caste system, few would want to argue that this is not their festival for it would expose their caste status to their detriment when almost everyone aspires to become Vellala (Note that in the Dutch census 30% of Jaffna was Vellala and by the 1970s it was 50% and today it is a lot more).

Navalar as Saiva Saint

Yet another dimension is the attempt by Vellalas to add Arumuka Navalar, the Saiva revivalist, to the 64 Naayanmaar (Saiva Saints) as the sixty-fifth. This is telling all Hindus who their saints should be. On the tea estates most do not even know who Navalar is.

Moreover, Navalar’s record is that he looked down on the lower caste – walking out of the Wesleyan Mission School (now Jaffna Central College) when a Nalava caste boy was admitted and insulting a person for drinking coffee brewed by the missionary’s cook. As Navalar put it, “the Kusinip parayan’s copi.” He also taught children that alms-giving during the floods is only to the Vellalas and higher castes to earn merit.

When the lower-castes are told that Navalar is their saint and they support the idea, the dynamics of caste promotion are evident – as is the internalization of caste subjugation among those who do not like it but dare not say so. It was only the people of Valvettithurai who had the self-respect to chase off those who came to install Navalar in their temple.

Sri Lankan Food

Another culture hoax imposed from the top of society and the tourism and hospitality industry is this so-called Sri Lankan food.

What indeed is Sri Lankan food? As a Tamil boy I enjoyed puttu and idiappam from my mother perhaps with a French sounding omelet and coconut chambal (anglicized as sambol). The healthily cooked curries with little oil were no comparison with today’s curries. Coconut milk gave taste but that is really Malay and was not part of our cuisine early in the nineteenth century. For Captain Basil Hall, during his tour in 1812-5 in Ceylon, describes as specifically Indian the gravy in curry which he says is added to these spiceries, before the fish or meat is put in, and consists generally of ghee. Using milk or cream in curries he classifies as from the northern provinces of India. He adds further that the Malays generally make the gravy of the ground kernel of the fresh coconut, instead of butter or ghee.

So whose is the bright yellow or dark red coconut gravy we relish so much? When I was at the university eating at Sinhalese homes, that cooking was also relatively healthy with korakkai and Maldive fish for flavour instead of oil. To enjoy a meal we went from Moratuwa to Greenlands, Golden Gate or Indo-Ceylon.  There were few other restaurants.

Today, thanks to globalization, we have 5-star hotels with Indian and Chinese cooks (or cooks trained under foreign chefs) serving “Sri Lankan Delicacies.” A seminar in Colombo routinely gets us a delectable buffet.  Most deserts except for fruit, are deliciously European or Mogul. Even our Vattil Appam (appam on a tray) is Muslim and etymologically Tamil so likely not Sri Lankan.

Today, all the Mogul and Chinese dishes, plentifully garnished with Indian spices and ghee, and liberally using coconut milk, are regularly cooked at our homes and restaurants. Buriyani is Muslim or Indian. String-hopper buriyani is an adaptation of Chinese noodles using Japanese aji-no-moto. Poori and paneer are regular fare at homes today as are noodles, chappati,  tofu, steaks and bacon, and even meat-like vegetarian innovations by Tibetan monks using gluten. Beef is regular fare in many Hindu and Buddhist homes. Classicists will remind us that in the Ramayana, 2000 animals were killed and served everyday to Brahmins and mendicants in Rantideva’s palace, and cooks served great joints of meat like sirloin of buffalo and haunches of venison roasted on spits and dressed by dropping ghee there on, or spiced as curries – the description is so much like the Greek Shish Kebab that I am sure we have been enriched by intercultural exchanges from Alexander’s times.

Our True Culture

Our cuisine clearly addresses Sri Lanka’s multicultural past. The sooner we accept that our cultures interact – not only with each other but also internationally – the better off we would be in addressing our internal, parochial problems. Our cultures are dynamic and evolving, yet ultimately they are what we choose – whether we choose to follow the dictates of more powerful castes, ethnicities or political cultures, or resist to protect the richness of our heritage and our self-respect.  No one can tell us who we are except ourselves.

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