11 December, 2023


Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah: Anthropologist And Patriot

By H.L. Seneviratne –

H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah passed away on January 19th, 2014. This is not a conventional obituary, but a brief account of his work, meant as a tribute to his scholarship. Professor Tambiah was both a versatile and influential theorist and one of the foremost contemporary social science scholars of Theravada Buddhism. This account, addressed to a largely Sri Lankan readership, focuses on the latter, with only passing mention of the former.

Professor Tambiah’s studies in Thai Buddhism consist of, in addition to numerous scholarly papers, three outstanding works. The first, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970), based on an extended stay in the rural and conservative northeast Thailand, is a detailed description and interpretation of Buddhism as practiced at the village level. Deviating from the views of certain Western textualist scholars who saw popular Thai Buddhism as a debased form, Tambiah demonstrates the relations of continuity and transformation between “Buddhism” and the “folk religion”.  While this may sound like the commonest view of these two religious practices in all Theravada cultures, the freshness of Tambiah’s analysis derives from its particular interweaving of insights from several different strands of anthropology, enabling him to make general statements about, for example, the relation between myth and ritual, and the magical power of words.

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Professor Tambiah’s second Thai study, World Conquerer and World Renouncer (1976) examines Thai Buddhism from the opposite perspective. Whereas the first study took, in Tambiah own words, a “worm’s eye view”, the second adopts a “bird’s eye view, (“bird” and “worm” incidentally conveying to us the subtleties of evocation characteristic of Professor Tambiah’s writing). World Conquerer is a complex work of detailed historical documentation and ethnography that runs into 550 pages. I can here mention only one of its major facets, the distinction between two different types of polity, “centre-oriented” and “centralized”. The traditional polity of Thailand had no fixed centre or bounded territory. It consisted of a multiplicity of pulsating centres whose fortunes waxed and waned. In this system of inherent instability, a conquering hero emerges periodically from some corner of the political universe, and succeeds in bringing a considerable expanse of territory under “one umbrella”, without ever gaining effective control, but claiming ritual dominion. This claim is made on the model of the ideal Buddhist ruler, the “wheel-rolling emperor” (cakravarti) who, according to myth, conquers the directions by rolling the auspicious wheel in each direction, only to renounce the territory thus conquered, giving it back to the local ruler who in return accepts the wheel-roller’s ritual sovereignty. Parallels with Sri Lanka are clear, as in the case of Dutugamunu, emerging from the peripheral south, and marching on victoriously to bring the whole island under “one umbrella”. Such periodic concentrations of power enabled the king to support the Sangha economically and organizationally, giving rise to a pattern of simultaneous rise or fall in political and ecclesiastical fortunes. The effect on the Sangha is paradoxical: the king’s enhanced power meant that he could ensure the Sangha’s hierarchical authority, but it also gave him the ability to control the Sangha, for example, by staging “purifications” (sasanavisodhana).

In contrast to this centre-oriented polity with ritual dominion but no effective control, and no bounded territory, a centralized polity came into being as the Chakri kings established themselves in Bangkok in the nineteenth century. Economic and administrative measures were taken to strengthen the country as a centralized state. Such centralization meant the introduction of a modern rational bureaucracy to administer the entire the country. These formal measures have been followed up with state sponsored “rural development” programmes led by monks and located in peripheral regions inhabited by tribal peoples who do not subscribe to Buddhism. Implications of the transition from “centre-oriented” to “centralized” for the tribal groups and other minorities are clear: they enjoy only so much cultural autonomy as the centralized state is willing to confer.  Later, in his work on Sri Lanka, Professor Tambiah was to pursue this theme further.

If Professor Tambiah’s first Thai study represents a view from the village, and the second from the capital city, the third can be described as a view from the forest. Titled The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of the Amulets (1984), it examines the relations between the polity in its widest sense — the political centre, the people, the society as a whole – and the forest monks, an important branch of the Thai Sangha. The most significant of the book’s many themes that include hagiography and millennialism is the paradox of the renouncer’s meditatively generated magical powers. Such powers are of no use to the renouncer himself, because he has no attachment to wealth or any other mundane benefits that these powers could generate. In contrast, these are of the greatest value to the laity. And the latter can obtain these benefits by (1) looking after the material welfare of the renouncers, and (2) possessing objects that are symbolic of or have been associated with the saintly renouncers. The preeminent of the latter are amulets stamped with the likenesses of particular saints, in pursuit of which city elites –military, banking and other– make uneasy journeys to the periphery of the land, where saints occupy cosmic mountains, and rebels seek shelter in the thick of the forest below. It would appear then that the supernatural powers associated with pre-Buddhist asceticism, devalued by the Buddhists and expelled from their monasteries followed the spread of Buddhism like a shadow and are constantly trying to re-emerge, here in a cult of amulets, there in the search for alchemy and everlasting life, equally constantly to be rebuked and repelled by the path of purity and inner peace.

Amulets also play a role in millennial uprisings, and the book concludes with a general discussion on millennialism in Southeast Asia. At a grander theoretical level Professor Tambiah takes the reader to three conceptual citadels of sociology — Marcel Mauss on mana, the pervasive magical power of Polynesia and related cultures, Karl Marx on fetishism, and Max Weber on charisma. All three are illuminated. The last is particularly important because it is also a critique of Max Weber for failing to see the objectification of charisma in amulets and charms, while readily granting it for institutional structures. The theoretical sophistication these discussions reveal are further evident, among other publications, in Culture, Thought and Social Action (1985), Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (1990), Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life (2002), and Bridewealth and Dowry (1973) that Professor Tambiah co-authored with his Cambridge colleague Jack Goody.

Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka work falls into two distinct phases. Among work of the first phase is a study in kinship, where he demonstrated, among other findings, that polyandry in central Sri Lanka is related to land ownership, practised by small holders as a bulwark against fragmentation. Volume-wise, Tambiah’s work in this area is modest, but its impact was considerable, influencing as it did the thought of the Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach who in his path-breaking work on land tenure in Ceylon convincingly challenged the anthropological assumption of the autonomy of kinship, thus far securely enshrined in the discipline and gloriously reflected in the studies of the Tallensi by another Cambridge anthropologist, Meyer Fortes. Consistent with Tambiah’s findings, Leach demonstrated how kinship was secondary to landownership.

While the first phase of Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka studies represents the ideal of the detached scholar, those of the second reflect a newer ideal, that of social concern, that has been gaining scholarly respectability in recent decades. Work of this phase is more voluminous and, while scattered in different publications including his book Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (1996), is best exemplified in two books, Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of democracy (1986) and Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992). Given the ethno-religious and political scene in Sri Lanka, these works have made Tambiah a controversial figure in his home country to say the least. Buddhism Betrayed? was banned and Ethnic Fratricide has been unavailable in the country.

In Ethnic Fratricide, Professor Tambiah demonstrates that the causes of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka are not religious and ethnic differences going back to the island’s early history as some claim, but the stresses of recent origin rooted in economic stagnation with attendant unemployment and unequal distribution, demographic patterns, uncritical scholarship based on partisan hegemonic sources and a growing tendency towards authoritarianism. The book was published in 1986, and, looking back, it is indeed prophetic that Tambiah saw “ethnic fratricide” and “ dismantling of democracy” as two sides of the same coin. As far back as then, none would have imagined how thoroughly and with what salivating gluttony would democracy be dismantled two decades later, its key building blocks methodically taken down, one by one.

Professor Tambiah’s second book on Sri Lanka, Buddhism Betrayed? attracted more open and vociferous hostility, not because anyone cared to read it, but because of false conclusions on glancing at the cover that depicted an oratorical posture of a popular monk. Central to the book is the distinction between two types of Buddhism: (1) that of the texts and their elucidations that enshrine the ethical values of Buddhism, and (2) that rooted in the chronicles written by monks, the main feature of which is the identification of Buddhism with the Sinhala people, the territory of the island, and a kingship dedicated to the protection of Buddhism. The religious revival of the 19th and 20th centuries, despite its potential, failed to foster the first kind of Buddhism, instead bringing to the fore the second kind, resulting in the abandonment of Buddhism as a moral practice in favour of holding it as a political and cultural possession, to be ritualized, exhibited, boasted about, celebrated, televised, exported and so forth, but not to be lived by. The identification of Buddhism with an ethnic group and a territory made it exclusive, demoting other groups to second class citizenship. Tambiah points out how this contrasts with the historical process of inclusion that characterized Buddhism, enabling new and incoming groups to be incorporated as equal citizens in a land that all shared. As pointed out by the distinguished anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, this is depicted in folk rituals performed up till now.

Far from being a work that should be banned, Buddhism Betrayed? should be read by every literate Sri Lankan, for what it contains is a patriotic message. Tambiah is appreciative of the genuinely nationalist and anti-imperialist urge to assert indigenous culture, and the restorative nationalist and cultural project that came into being in the 1960s and 70s. Most disarmingly of his Sinhala Buddhist critics if only they read the book, Tambiah imagines a pluralistic Sri Lankan culture with a distinctively Buddhist stamp, a position that brings him close to thinkers like Martin Wickremasinghe. To brand him a separatist and a Tiger is as ignorant as it is absurd.

Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah was a towering scholar and one of the very few such scholars Sri Lanka produced in the twentieth century. He was a sensitive human being and a humanist. He will be greatly missed by the scholarly community and friends who have enjoyed his company, his wit, his laughter, his generosity and his humility.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Thank you for your introduction of Prof Tambiah’s works on buddhism. I believe that sharing of ideas and concepts of great scholars such as yourself and prof Tambiah will slowly permeate into the minds of our stupid breathren by osmosis.

    • 4

      The way how Sri Lanka’s so-called academics are lining up to praise the late Thambiah is revolting.

      This man was part of a Howard-Columbia project to denigrate the advanced vision of Buddhism with the help of [Edited out] Sri Lankans like ganannatha Obeysekera and his friends like Richard Gombrich and others.

      These peoples’ mission was to show the world that the version of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka is really animism influenced by local cultural practices like thovil and kohomba kankariya.

      They could not or did not see Buddha’s preachings that clearly said that the ability to benefit from his dharma depend on the starting knowledge of the seeker and a step-wise progress can be achieved towards advanced understanding by the uninitiated. Buddha’s dealings with King Pasenada is a prime example of this process in practice.

      They ignored the preservation of original Buddhist manuscripts in Sri Lanka and advanced commentry on Bddhism by Sri Lankan monks like Welivitiye Soratha, Balangoda Ananda Maitriya, Narada and Walpola Rahula theoros, just to name a few.

      Thambiah with A.J. Wilson also became part of the Tamil advisor group J.R. Jayawardena created. They proved at that time that despite their academic training, both of them were narrow-minded Tamil bigots.

      So H. L. Seneviratne, in his ignorance of thebroader world, can try to make a hero of Thambiah. But theyre are others who know better!

      • 5

        You may, in your warped Sinhala chauvinistic mind, consider Prof Tambiah a Tamil bigot because you and your ilk did not like the truth he revealed about Sinhala Buddhism. But, Prof Tambiah was a towering scholar in the field of anthropology, as mentioned by Prof Seneviratne, for his knowledge and the body of work he created on this subject. After all you can’t fail to acknowledge the fact that he was a teacher at two of the best educational institutions in the world – Cambridge and Harvard, a claim I don’t think any other Sri Lankan can lay claim to. Anyway, he wasn’t wrong about Sri Lankan Buddhism as Buddhism has been betrayed by the Sinhala politicians since the country gained independence. Just look at Sri Lankan Buddhism today, what you see is saffron clad thugs masquerading as representatives of Lord Buddha attacking places of worship of other religions, openly racist threats against Tamils and Muslims with utter impunity. I strongly feel that his book on Sri Lankan Buddhism must be read by all so called Sinhala Buddhists as it will open their eyes if they are not already shut firmly by blind arrogance and bigotry.

        • 12

          Yeah Right! Everybody else is following their religions properly.

        • 2


          It appears that one side of your little brain working for the wrong course.

          Can you please describe the same way on your beloved priests like Bis-hope [Edited out] and and Rev. Emmanuals that supported the LTTE blood sucking barbarisms.

  • 5

    HLS has given not only a very lucid summary of SJT’s lifework but inter alia indicated both the majesty of his thought and the originality of his contributions.One must also mention his boldness of spirit: he took on Max Weber both in the issue of “charisma” but also about Weber’s description of Buddhism.His wit and charm and humility have been mentioned in HLS’s commentary and in the obituary in the Boston Globe but one must also mention –if SJT will pardon the usage of the word– his charismatic presence and majesterial teaching style.Those of us who were privilged study with him in Peradeniya know this well and as well as some of his students at Harvard that I have met.

    All in all,one of the finest scholars Sri Lanka has produced in many an year,one who enriched the lives of all those who came into contact with him,either personally or through his books.

  • 2

    Well said Professor Seneviratne and Professor Perinbanayagam. I read Professor Tambiah’s work for my dissertation, but regret that I never met him. His ideas will live on.

  • 6

    Tambiah imagines a pluralistic Sri Lankan culture with a distinctively Buddhist stamp, a position that brings him close to thinkers like Martin Wickremasinghe.

    I concur with Prof. Tambiah. May he attain Nibbana!

    • 3

      Well said. I am currently reading a book on buddhism and culture by Mr Martin Wickramasinghe. I feel this book is written for layman like myself.

  • 16

    Prof. H.L.Seneviratne

    It was a pleasure to read your article, a fitting tribute to a great scholar indeed. I hope it is not a distraction from the solemnity of the occasion to raise an issue with regard to the ultimate significance of the “knowledge” that is supposed to stem from such anthropological studies. It is not a question about Prof. Tambiah’s contribution, but about the enterprise of anthropology as a whole. I’m sure Prof. Tambiah, who valued critical thinking, would have welcomed such a question.

    For example, as you outline, Prof. Tambiah has painstakingly described how the Thai Buddhists “make uneasy journeys to the periphery of the land” looking to find magical powers in order to derive material benefits. And this observation is insinuated as a “discovery” of a gap between the original cannon and the actual practice in day to day life. But is it actually a discovery? Are the people who engage in such a pursuit are doing it without self-awareness of this gap? Or are they fully aware of the contradiction and still do it, somehow reconciling it in their own minds taking into account the contingent nature of life. And isn’t this what we find in all religions and belief systems throughout history?

    Hindus, Christians and Muslims – all engage in rituals and magic that are often in sharp contradiction to their original cannons. So doesn’t this say something universal about the human condition – that life is a compromise between the ideal and the actual – rather than indicate some quirky behaviour seen occasionally? And isn’t casting some light on this phenomenon and gaining insight into this pattern of human behaviour is what should be regarded as knowledge and not just stating the obvious.

    Only when a man bites a dog it’s news. A dog biting a man will not make the 6’O clock news in my world.

  • 2

    Tyrants like Dutugamunu & anti-Mahavamsa movement
    C. Wijeyawickrema
    The retired anthropology professor H.L. Seneviratne, ends his recent Colombo Telegraph essay with a statement, “… tyrants like Dutugamunu used religion for purposes of gaining and remaining in power, and as opium of the masses, and there were willing supporters among the Sangha, as there are plenty that support the tyranny of our own times…” From the Internet dictionary I found out that a tyrant is a sovereign or other ruler who uses power oppressively or unjustly; or any person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively or despotically. Dutugamunu was more like a modern Moshe Dayan (even though later Anwar Sadat militarily defeated him) or a Ho Chi Min than Alexander the Great, Chengis Khan or the American Generals Patton or McArthur. He rescued the island from 40 years of Tamil occupation. He even respected his dead enemy Elara, with erecting a tomb. The only way I could resolve my puzzlement of why a 75-year old retired professor who came from a rural village, Millawa, Horana calls King D a tyrant was to think that he was part of the Trio who defamed Sinhala Buddhists unreasonably and unfairly by their numerous writings aimed mostly at their American students. Incidentally, all three of them were Fulbright scholars just like the first Fulbright guy from Ceylon was a CCS cadet Bradmon Weerakoon, who must have been a regular source of information to the US embassy in Colombo while working a secretary to seven PMs!
    Why do Buddhists kill?
    While contemplating to respond to him, unfortunately, I heard the news of the death of one of the Trio, another American-living professor, Stanley J. Tambiah (SJT). Unlike SJT, who was a high class (perhaps Christian) lawyer-family Colombo St. Thomas fellow, the third person of this American anthropology Trio was Gananath Obeysekera who is living in Sri Lanka now, a son of an Ayurvedic physician from the south. There background is relevant because in an interview given by SJT, at Cambridge, MA, USA on July 8, 1983 and reported in Colombo Telegraph on Jan. 21, SJT spoke about the identity crisis he faced in post 1956 Sri Lanka as an isolated rich and influential Colombo Tamil. The other two are at least born as sons of Sinhala Buddhist parents. I think it was J. B. Dissanayake in one of his books asked the question, “Why did two Tamils who grew up among the Sinhala Buddhists in Colombo take two different paths, one, Lakshman Kadiragamar, praising the Sinhala Buddhist society, and the other, SJT, so negative and critical about it (Sinhala Buddhist cause)?”
    The books written by this trio collectively, gave lot of half-truths and misinterpretations that misled the American students who read them. They failed to present the Sinhala Buddhist side of the story and from HLS’s D as a tyrant shows that they do not regret the damage they have done even in their old age. In the year 2002 or so I used to question HLS and SJT by e-mails about false or misleading items in their books and I never heard from them. My conclusion was that they could not make an untruth a truth, when got caught. SJT had a tremendous influence over the Americans living in the Harvard Area that he could see the Massachusetts (MA) Legislature getting fooled by his actions. Could one believe that this state of MA did, not after July 1983 but in 1979, when Amirthalingam was the leader of the opposition? Massachusetts House Journal for 1979, page 977 reads: … “Resolution memorializing the President and the Congress to protest and utilize the powers of their offices to rectify the gross injustices which have been inhumanely inflicted on the Tamils of Sri Lanka.”
    Putting Buddhists on the defensive
    What is given below is a revision of an essay that I sent also to the Trio around 2002. It is highly relevant today as we hear all around us attempts made to box Buddhists in. Sinhala Buddhists were treated like the proverbial “Kind hearted woman” and now we find the anti-Mahavamsa movement has come to open unlike in the past when it was behind the scene and discreet. Even the Divaiyna newspaper is used by the Island staff writer C. A. Chandraprema (a Marxist-Christian) to misrepresent facts and spread falsehood.
    S. J. Tambiah led Trio asked Buddhists (or monks?) a question, “How come believers of a religion that preaches ahimsa kill?” How come Buddhists betray Buddhsim? The Trio was deliberately fooling the international readers this question. Theravada Buddhists are a minority (50 million?) in the world. In Cambodia and Thailand, people eat rats, ants and dogs and therefore, the number can be even smaller. Powerful and rich countries in the world are Christian or Islam and Islam has oil and cruel dictatorships. There are over 5 billion people who are not Buddhists. My Christian American professor friend has a small ranch where he rare cattle for sale as beef. He uses all possible strategies to maximize his profit margin. Can I tell him about my Buddhist nonviolence and ask him to grow corn or cotton instead of the violent killing of cattle? How come Tambiah, HLS and GO all forget this simple reality and hold only Buddhists to a high religious/moral standards? Mother Teresa sent a letter of support on behalf of Keeton who provided her planes to travel and lots of money. The California district attorney traced Keeton money trail and found some of the money that he stole from the retired and poor Americans went to Mother Teresa. He asked her to return this money, but got no reply. Boston archbishop finally resigned after hiding for so long the sex acts of his priests still the whole truth is not out.
    Buddhism was wiped out from India by the Hindus and Muslims because Buddha did not teach how to use guns. As Nanda Malini sings one cannot take the navaguna vala to the battle filed. You take the sword and later when you have peace with no enemies coming to kill you then you get back to the navaguna vala and meditate as suggested then and now by HLS and the Colombo Telegraph writers Sharmine S and her supporters. According to Tambiah there is no need to guard the Dalada Maligawa or the Siri Maha Bodi! Or are we forgetting that Gods standards are set by the human agency? Take for example the concept of self-defense and three religious approaches.

    (1) If my life is threatened, I can kill the attacker – no legal liability, no sin (Christian, Jews, Islam believers?)
    (2) Even if my life is threatened, try to run away or die rather than killing the attacker – no legal liability no sin (Buddhists?)
    (3) Try to run away, avoid confrontation, be humane and humble (or escape even I have to kiss the a..) to avoid killing the attacker, but if I have no other choice then totally and completely annihilate the enemy (Bhagavad Geeta’s advice to Arjuna)

    Now there is a new law in some states of the crime-infested USA. It is called Stand your ground law. Recently, in the state of Florida, a man killed another simply because he felt threatened. According to this law you do not have to avoid or try to escape from an enemy. You simply stand where you are, and if the enemy comes towards you, then you can just kill him!
    The society has become so corrupt over the past 25 or 40 years because of politicians. It will not be easy to introduce Metta, Karuna, Muditha and Upekka that soon. First you have to get rid of the guns and bombs in the hands of so many. The names of Vessantara and Siri Sangabo are used in Sri Lanka today in exactly the opposite way the meaning of those names described in the Jataka stories. For example people today call a husband a vessantara, if his wife is sleeping with another man, knowingly or unknowingly to him. A siri sangabo is one who stupidly puts his neck out and gets it cut. Today there are no morals in the country. All running like mad dogs thinking the mirage they see is water.
    In the west there are so many books written, emphasizing the need to become engage Buddhists. This means intervention when needed as otherwise you will get wiped out. It is a kind of militant non-violence that is in need. Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced this which involved lot of blood flowing. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the most relevant movement, the Bodu Bala Sena is following the basic Buddhist rule, Come and examine and come and discuss. This is why BBS has become an irritant to all kinds of people. The so-called Sinhala Buddhists governments, with that foremost place to B in the constitution, cheated or tricked Sinhala Buddhist masses for so long, and they have finally realized that they have become just Kind heated women in Sri Lanka ruled by the black-whites.
    Throwing stones at others or buildings is not a Buddhist thing and no one supports that behavior. We do not need the American ambassador to lecture on that. But the problem is that the American ambassador prevented the useless UNP and SLFP politicians from passing laws to control unethical religious conversion going on crazily in all over Sri Lanka. When govts fail to pass laws just and reasonable, some people think they should become the law. This is why I sympathize with those who get their blood boiling. Part II of this essay will deal with the history of the anti-Mahavamsa movement.

    • 2

      You seem to be outnumbered and outscored by those who exposed Sri Lankan Buddhism, as practiced by the feral monks and opportunistic and chauvinistic Sinhala politicians, as barbaric and criminal. The evidence has been there and obvious since Sri Lanka gained independence 65 years ago. You have lost your argument and your cry ain’t gonna be heard by anybody. Read the newspapers and watch the television and you will see the ugly face of Sri Lankan Buddhism in its full gory glory – in the faces of the saffron clad thugs of the JHU and the BBS. They prove Prof Thambia absolutely right.

  • 2

    Prof HL, Thank you very much for the beautiful words of Prof.Tambaih’s work. On reflection it is very sad that we do not have emerging Tambaihs or HLs in our current generation. Lets hope!

    • 0

      Hear, Hear.

  • 13


    How can an anthropologist be also a patriot? Isn’t “patriotism” the “data” (primordial behaviour of the tribes) to be studied by the western-trained objective scientific anthropologists?

  • 1

    There are many in Sri Lanka who seem to have judged a book by its cover and did not seek to understand the complexity of the argument that SJT was making in his book on Sri Lankan Buddhism.In any case such misreadings and the agitation that followed created for SJT an enviable result:Alone among acedemics he became a celebrity and his book must be one of the few academic treatises that had to go into a second printing so soon after the first!

  • 0

    If Tambiah and Obeyesekere DID not merit the abuse of C. Wijeyawickrema and Anthropos, –both of whom hilariously misunderstand both their works and the puposes of anthropological studies–what kind of scholars wil they be?!!

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