Archives For Tamil

Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.

I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.

Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!

After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.

When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”

Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.

Back in November, which seems like an eternity ago, I taught my students about the American Festival of Thanksgiving. I compared Thanksgiving to the Hindu festival of Pongal, which is celebrated in January. Pongal is a festival to celebrate the harvest.

Pongal (Tamil: பொங்கல்) means ‘spillover’, as in overflowing pots of rice. It marks the reaping of the harvest, and the change of seasons – the end of the rainy season. Here in Trinco, the population is overwhelmingly Tamil, and Tamils are generally Hindu.

The festival lasts four days, but only the first day is a national holiday. Today marks the day of sun worship. WIthout the sun, crops would not grow, and the world would be consumed by eternal darkness. Tomorrow is a day of worship for cows. Cows are crucial to the farming process, before tractors they were the sole means of tilling land (and still a popular method here in Sri Lanka). Cows provide the milk that is used to make Pongal, a sweet and savory rice cooked with  cardamom, jaggery, raisins, and cashew nuts. The last day of Pongal is a day of bird worship, and also a time for sisters to pray for their brother’s happiness. (Sorry girls, there is no day for your brothers to pray for your happiness)

This morning, one of my coworkers from Sarvodaya called me and asked if he could stop by. He brought me a heaping pile of Pongal, and two bananas. It was delicious. Tomorrow, at 5pm, I will be joining his family for their Pongal celebrations.

I’m curious to see whether any of my students show up for class tomorrow, as it a cultural day of festival – but not a national holiday. As often happens, I’ll find out in the morning whether I have class.

 

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Pongal and bananas.

We all bleed red

January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

Looking down at my watch I realized it was past 8:30 in the morning, time to get to work. I had lost my sense of time as I was consumed in my thoughts while sipping on a real cup of coffee.

I headed out the door, and crossed the street. On the corner of Champa Lane and Kandy Road all of the tuk-tuks hang out, waiting to chauffeur the citizens of Trinco to their destinations. This is the last day I will be taking a trishaw to work, as my landlord will be delivering my bicycle today. And it was a great end to the week.

I approached the line up of vehicles, and one of the drivers pointed at beige rickshaw – my appointed vehicle. I dropped my head down and greeted the driver in Tamil, vanikam. I told him I wanted to head to, Sarvodaya, NGO – kenenk. Uppuveli. We quickly settled on a price of 200 rupees ($1.58) for the ten minute, 5km ride.

Once we were on Kandy Road, headed towards town, the driver turned to me and said, ‘I Tamil no. Vanikam no. We all Sinhala, in the morning say ayubowan’. Race matters a lot in this country, a war was fought for three decades between the two major races. And the international community is closely watching the development of race relations here.

After a moment of silence, he asked me why I came. And I told him I was a volunteer, this seemed to make him happy. I learned his name, Prabath, and that he has lived in Trinco for all of his 31 years on Earth. He told me that up until four or five years ago, no foreigners came to Trinco. ‘Fighting very bad. Tamils, Sinhala, all killing. Why? All people bleed red. No need to kill. Peace is good.’

The English was broken, but the message was clear. Growing up, surrounded by war, this generation has embraced peace. Whether that peace will be sustainable is another question entirely; but for the moment at least one tuktuk driver is sleeping easier, happy to know his daughter will not be awoken in the night by the sounds of war.

A Stroll Through Base

November 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

Trinco is a town dominated by the military. As you enter the main city you have to pass through multiple checkpoints, where uniform clad youths clutch their presumably Chinese made kalashnikovs. In the town itself, Tamil is the language of choice. Sinhalese is about as useful as English, many people don’t speak either.

Last Friday I headed to Fort Frederick, to look at the temple which sat atop the Portugese built fort. To get there you must walk through the army base, along the rather long uphill walk I stopped at a connivence store for a cold drink. I greeted the clerk in Tamil, and he looked at me and replied in Sinhalese. Apparently he didn’t speak any Tamil.
Later I continued on, and found my way to the top of the fort, at the temple. Here I met a solider by the name of Gayan. Like many, he only spoke English and Sinhalese. I learned that he’s spent six tours abroad, as a driver. He had just returned from Lebanon, and was on his way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica to drive for someone. He was kind enough to allow me to take his photo in front of his landrover, of which he was quite proud.
The most shocking thing about my walk through the military base was that in a city where the primary language is Tamil, there is this world dominated by Sinhalese. Just one reminder, among many, that Sri Lanka is a divided society – and language is a tool to divide.

A government shelling civilian hospitals, providing the false hope of ‘No Fire Zones’, and corralling 130,000 people in one square mile.

I’ve just finished watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and am in a state of shock. This documentary sheds light on the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – as the Government crushed the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

A UN Panel believes that at least 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war. International observers were forced to leave the Tamil occupied regions of the country, while civilians were deliberatley targeted by both the Government and Opposition forces.

The LTTE are the pioneers of the suicide bomb, and the nations of Sri Lanka was plagued by civil war for a quarter century. It is difficult for me to fully judge the government’s actions  when contextualized – though nothing can justify the bombing of civilian hospitals in a designated no fire zone.

I am thrilled to find that on July 27, 2012 the Sri Lankan Government announced it will begin conducting formal investigations into alleged human right violations (Indian Express). This is due to pressure on the Government from the international community, and it is expected that their report will be filed within 6 to 18 months.

With this investigation, I hope the nation of Sri Lanka will take another crucial step towards resolving this conflict.

Update: Thanks to a reader for sharing the Sri Lankan Government response to this documentary: