Archives for category: culture

Last week I went to Udappu. Udappu is a small Tamil fishing village on the arid coast of western Sri Lanka, a couple of hours north of Colombo. Off the main road, visitors to Sri Lanka don’t go there. Not even many locals know where it is, or have a reason to go there.

udappu -6But Udappu is a very special place. It has a large Tamil Hindu community, with a large temple. And once a year there is a very special festival. For a couple of weeks from the end of July to the beginning of August, 1000s of Hindu people descend on the otherwise small and sleepy town. Many camp on the beach. The festival centres around the Mahabharata epic. Each day the community comes together for parades, and story telling, and music, and special temple poojas. And it all culminates with a big evening of fire walking.

udappu-2Back in January, we had been a for a little road trip, exploring this part of the coast of Sri Lanka, stopping at windswept fishing villages, and driving along narrow sandy lanes. We went to Udappu – and there is nothing ‘touristy’ about it. Which is what makes this whole thing so special. It is such an important part of the community, of the families involved. Nothing about it is put on to make money, or attract tourists – it is just an important part of the life of this Tamil Hindu community. It is very hard to find much information about the details and the specifics of the festival online. We found out about it through a photographer friend.

I went late one afternoon last week. As we pulled into town I wondered if my information was correct. This town seemed as sleepy, as wind swept and as dusty as it had been in January. Wasn’t there supposed to be a big festival happening?udappu -5

We parked the car, and I decided to try and visit the temple. I left my shoes in the car, and spent the next 3 hours happily wandering through the temple and the village barefoot. I was welcomed into the temple, and encouraged to take photos. It soon became obvious that there was a group of men preparing for some event in the temple – maybe something was going to happen!

udappu -3The men were all dressed in white sarongs that had rich coloured borders. They took their shirts off as they entered. The women wore gem coloured saris with gold borders, lots of jewellery, and scented flowers in their hair. Everyone entering the temple applied kumkaman to their forehead, with parents and grandparents helping out children.

Suddenly the bell started ringing, and the atmosphere changed – there was an air of expectation. I went outside, and from nowhere people started streaming to gather in the temple grounds, or along the street. Many settled on the sand as the men I had just seen in the temple began reciting the Mahabharata epic. Everyone smiled, and made room for me, and we exchanged a few words or actions. I only made one baby cry with my camera!

udappu-8But many more were gathering on either side of the street. I joined them, wondering what was going to happen. The crowd built and built. People asked where I was from, many have families and friends who have migrated to Australia over the years. Suddenly music started, and some balloons appeared at the far end of the street – the crowd surged forward, and I found myself at the back with no polite way of getting through or being able to take photos. I’m not very good at asserting myself in these situations! A man nearby noticed my plight and asked if I wanted to take photos – and helped me work my way to the front of the crowd – and kneeling in front I was in a prime spot for some shots.udappu-1

I still don’t understand all of what I saw and with most people I asked there wasn’t enough common language to go into the details. But it was very special, and as the only foreigner there that night, I wasn’t in the way, I was welcomed – but I also knew this was not for show, and a very important event for those involved. There were men in horse costumes, and dancing purple men; a huge parade around the temple with a man in a trance and more drumming, with crowds chanting and following; more story telling.

udappu-10And then at some appointed signal, everyone entered the temple. I was swept in with the crowd. Everyone was reaching to apply kumkaman. Some people were following their own personal paths of devotion – kneeling, praying; others were with family and friends chatting as they went into the inner sanctum. The drums were playing, the oil lamps glowing. The temple was abuzz.

udappu-9I left with many goodbyes from the crowd, and invitations to return for the next day, the final day of the festival (which unfortunately I was not able to get to). But I was so grateful to have been involved, to have seen what I did. And to have been welcomed into the community. It is just another event in a string of serendipitous events that I have been caught up in recently – in the most part because of the generous and welcoming spirit of locals here in Sri Lanka. Thank you once again – and don’t worry, I’m not taking these opportunities for granted!udappu -7

 

 

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I live not far from St Anne’s Catholic Church, Thalawila – the oldest Catholic Shrine in Sri Lanka. It is right on the beach, halfway along the Kalpitiya peninsula, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, 3 1/2 hours from Colombo. I have been there several times, but not seen anything like I did last weekend!

thalawila-5The history of the church goes back to the 17th century. St Anne is the mother of the Virgin Mary. One story claims a poor Portuguese man was travelling from Mannar to Colombo looking for work. He was not successful, and whilst walking back along the coast, stopped to rest under a tree which is now the location of the church. Whilst sleeping he had a vision of St Anne. Upon waking he could still see the image, and built a small chapel dedicated to her. The other story claims that a European trading boat was shipwrecked off the coast. The area was very arid and inhospitable but the crew took shelter under a large banyan tree. They placed an image of St Anne in the tree. The captain kept his promise to build a church there upon the success of his business.

thalawila-4Last Sunday was the one of the most important feast days of the year for St Anne’s church. It is known for many miracles and blessings. Families from all over Sri Lanka had been gathering in the 10 days leading up to the feast day. Many come hoping for their own miracles and blessings.

thalawila-3I visited last Sunday evening and spent some time wandering around chatting to people, as well as visiting the church itself. Some estimate that up to 400000 people had gathered for the event. People come by private and public bus, by car, by tuktuk, and packed into the back of flatbed trucks – with everything needed for their stay tied on! A makeshift town had quickly been established – with all that was needed to support this many people in a normally very sleepy part of Sri Lanka!! Food stalls, mobile phone charging stations, public showers, large tanks with water for drinking… Some families camped on the beach, others on mats in front of the church, many were in tents on the bare land in front of the church.thalawila-8

thalawila-1Everyone wanted to say hello. And even if we couldn’t say much more than that to each other, they wanted me to sit and meet their families. Fernando introduced me to his wife, children and grandchildren, as he very proudly told me, ‘I am Christian.’ A large extended family from Negombo had driven up 10 days earlier to be here for the entire festival period. Another man waved at me through the bus window with a big smile on his face, ‘I am going back to Colombo.’

 

praying hands-1As I got closer to the church, candles, tapers and other religious items were being sold; and people with various disabilities, others suffering illnesses, lined the paths hoping for alms. After entering the gateway, I came upon a large stone cross, on the way to the church. This was the scene of much activity. Some people were lighting candles and stopping for a prayer. Others were seeking to touch the cross which had had blessed oil poured over it. As I was watching, a man came with a new bottle of oil and began to pour it over the cross. The crowd surged forward to reach for the oil – and many were trying to capture some of the oil in their own bottles to take with them, to use for future prayers and supplications.thalawila-6

Despite the huge numbers that had descended upon this tiny, remote community, there was a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. I saw no other foreigners during the time I was there, although I did bump into several locals I know. I nearly didn’t recognise Sarath, a local fisherman – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with long pants, a button down shirt, and his hair all slicked back! Looking very smart with his family and he stopped to chat with me. I was welcomed by everyone. I asked questions, and I had questions asked of me. And after we ran out of the few English, Sinhala and/or Tamil words that we had in common we just smiled at each other!

boy-1Just another one of those days where I felt blessed to be welcomed to an event that was so special for so many people. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities lately and continue to thank the people I meet along the way for their friendliness and openness.

So, last week I wrote a post about getting caught up in the Vel festival, on Slave Island, Colombo.

A week later, I was wandering through the same area, and whilst there was still evidence of the Vel festival (it continues over several weeks), this time it was all about Eid ul Fitr. Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims, had just finished, so everyone was enjoying the first full day of Eid.

on the way to prayer-1I was walking through just on sunset – men and their sons walking to the mosque. Families were in the street, enjoying the cooler air as the heat of the day finally left, and taking the opportunity to chat with friends and neighbours.

I bumped into Riaz, who invited me to join his family for a cup of tea. Riaz, in his mid 30s lives and works in Dubai – and has done so for the last 14 years. He is now an assistant manager at a golf club. He is home for 6 weeks over the Ramadan period to spend time with his family who live on Slave Island.ImageProxy.mvc-2

As we sat outside the family house, neighbours and friends continually dropped by to say hello. ‘Salaam alaikum!’ Everyone was wearing their new clothes, bought for Eid. His mother was relaxing in the cool breeze – after a busy few days cooking for everyone! His niece stopped to show me the mehndi on her hands, specially applied for this time of the year.

ImageProxy.mvcRiaz’s family have lived in this area for the last 3 generations. But their future is a little uncertain as the government has already begun to ‘gentrify’ some nearby streets on Slave Island.

This area is called Slave Island, named by the British, in recognition of the slaves kept here during Dutch and Portuguese rule. Slave Island borders Beira Lake which used to be nearly 3 times the size it is today, and formed a natural defence around this small patch of land in the middle of Colombo. Many of the slaves were African and it is believed that some of their descendants still live in this area today, and are often known as Sri Lankan Kaffirs. Javanese and Malays, mostly soldiers under Dutch and British rule, also lived in the area. Many Muslim families live in this area today – they are often referred to as Sri Lankan Moors. It is thought they are descendants of Arab traders that came to Sri Lanka between the 8th and 15th centuries, and/or descended from Tamils that came from India.

photo-5Such a small area with such a diverse and rich history! I always enjoy wandering around this part of Colombo – and feel very thankful that I had the chance to join Riaz and his family for tea.

hindu festival-6Have you ever had one those days? Where your plans change and you’re not really sure what’s going on but then serendipity takes over and you get caught up in amazing things?

Well that happened to me the other day in Colombo. I had heard that there was a big Hindu parade at Sri Subramaniya Kovil, the big temple on Slave Island. By the time I got there, after getting caught up in typical Colombo traffic whilst doing a few chores, I thought I may have been too late.

It was the middle of a very warm and humid day in Colombo – it is supposed to be the wet season, but the rains have not come, and the city is so heavy and still, waiting for a big storm to clear the air! I was beginning to wonder whether this was such a good idea – maybe I should just go somewhere with air conditioning?

hindu festival-5As I got closer to the temple I could see signs of an earlier parade – had I missed everything? But no, there were still people waiting expectantly on the corners, offerings for sale, and police monitoring the traffic. I walked up and down the street just to see what was going on, as kids played on the street in traditional outfits, and locals watched from their doorways.

It wasn’t long before the crowds began to get heavier, the police presence more pronounced, and there was a definite air of excitement. The women wore traditional saris with flowers in their hair, carrying bowls filled with offerings; the men wore orange sarongs; hindu festival-8and the children – some in traditional costume, others wet from the earlier parade – were chasing each other up and down the street.

I found a spot near a little local store. The man was preparing and selling coconuts – an integral part of the offerings – and everyone was coming to buy from him. His wife was setting up a big table with offerings at the front of the store, and an older man was preparing a pile of coconuts.

The crowds continued to build, the police stopped the traffic, one gentleman found me a peak spot for viewing and for shots, and although everyone was eager to be ready for the parade, they were also wanting to make sure I was OK! At that stage the only white woman around – but I felt very safe and very welcomed into this distinct little community within the bustling city of Colombo.

hindu festival-16And then the parade started! From asking around, and doing a little research, I found out this festival, which goes over several weeks, is dedicated to the Vel. The Vel is the sacred spear, and is considered a deity within Tamil Hinduism.

First came men carrying giant fabric Vels, followed by 3 elephants – one even dancing to the music! There were many adults and children in various costumes – peacocks, and hanuman the monkey god, and various dancers, accompanied by bands and musicians.

hindu festival-3And then came one of the most important aspects of this parade – the men and boys, often in a trance-like state, suspended by dozens and dozens of hooks. Some were sitting, some were lying, others were suspended, almost in a crucifix-like pose. As well as being suspended by these hooks through their skin, many also pierced their faces with miniature Vels. Some were offering blessings and carrying babies that the crowd were offering up.

This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this. And I watched in awe and amazement. Not something I would ever want to do myself! And it made me wonder about the dedication to their religion and their culture.hindu festival-10

There was a lull in the parade as some overhead banners were moved in preparation for the larger floats coming through. It was only then that I stopped and realised how hot I was! I must have looked a bit out of sorts too as several women that I had been chatting to earlier offered me a cold drink. But despite that momentary need for a break, I was still feeling such wonder about being involved! And thankful for the opportunity to see such an amazing event! Wow!

hindu festival-1Soon after, women came, carrying sacred fire. Some had shaved their heads as another sign of their dedication. And there were many men, waiting for the next float, all in their orange sarongs. And many with mobile phones! A real mixture of old and new working together.

The street soon filled with 100s and 100s of men and women and children. Took me a while to work out there were 2 thick ropes in the midst of the crowd that were being used to pull a large golden chariot with the priests. One rope was being towed by men, the other by women and boys. You could barely see the rope as there were so many people wanting to be involved and trying to help!hindu festival-7

At the front of this, a group of young men stopped at the large pile of coconuts that had been doused in water and yellow dye and then also set alight briefly. As an important part of the ceremony, before the priests came any further, they smashed all the coconuts on the ground – with such delight! And bits of coconut flying everywhere!

hindu festival-13And with a shout, everyone heaved, and the chariot made its final way to the temple. The crowds surged to the base of the chariot to have their offerings blessed by the priests. The air was palpable with expectation and excitement. Following the chariot was a group of women. I’m still not sure of the purpose, but many were prostrating themselves on the ground, and following the chariot, often on their knees, whilst other women were pouring water over them.hindu festival-14

I slowly made my way through the crowd to the temple entrance, and watched the confetti being thrown from the top of the temple over the priests and the offerings and the crowds as they slowly shuffled inside. Some of the young boys were still suspended outside waiting for the auspicious time for them to be taken inside.

hindu festival-2

I decided not to try and enter the temple. And to leave the crowds for some much needed respite! But after an amazing couple of hours I was still abuzz! Whatever you think about religion or people’s beliefs, or what people do for their beliefs, for me it was such an honour to be involved and welcomed into this event.

I’ve had Ayurvedic treatments before – you know the type of thing – you’re travelling in India and end up with an Ayurvdedic massage in a place set up for tourists – all very nice, and slightly ‘Westernised’..

I have occasional back problems, and I relish a regular deep tissue/remedial massage, so the other day I visited the local Ayurvedic clinic in a little, very ‘untouristy’ town in Sri Lanka.  And what an adventure that turned out to be!!

Everyone in town goes there for any medical need. Sitting in the outdoor waiting area, I was an unexpected sight for all those coming and going for treatments and to pick up their oils and herb packs. The doctor was busy going from room to room, then back to the dispensary to instruct his assistant on what potions and lotions to prepare.

Eventually, with some unknown signal, it was my turn and I was taken across the courtyard. Down to my knickers only, I lay on hard table, with a small towel, that looked like it had been there for at least several patients before me! And then the treatment began.

At one stage I think (I’m not sure!) there were 3 people working on me. One assistant applying very liberal doses of oil all over my back and legs, the doctor working on the problem areas on my lower back, and another assistant pressing a hot poultice pack of herbs over my shoulders and back. Every so often he would disappear and return with a very hot, new pack to continue pressing. And in between, the other assistant would slosh another half bottle full of oil all over me! Not the most relaxing but not horrible either – I could feel the heat and the herbs radiating through me.

Eventually we all had enough of that, and I was moved very unceremoniously to the nearby steamer. Dripping with oil, I stepped across the room to the wooden box  –  not my favourite thing, it seems too much like a coffin for me! But all part of the treatment. So lying on my back on the slats, the lid was closed, leaving just my head sticking out. The same towel wrapped around my neck to keep all the steam in.  A range of herbs were heated releasing the steam and aroma through the slats – and I could feel the oil and sweat just pouring off me! 10 minutes later it was time to turn onto my stomach – and the heat felt even more intense! 5 minutes into that side, feeling slightly overcooked, I had had enough and had to ask to be released! Just not a sensation I enjoy!

Once released, I was assisted to stand up and the doctor brought in the next part of the treatment – a refreshing orange Fanta! To get some sugar and fluids back into my body! Then the assistant dabbed baby tonic all over me – which stung like aftershave on my red bare skin! They laughed at the slat marks that were left all over my body! The tonic, surprisingly, helped disperse any remaining oil – I had been worried about sliding down the car seats as I left!

Dressed, I met with doctor again in the dispensary to receive my diagnosis – I am ‘blocked’ across my shoulders and my lower back. I took the plastic bag with my personalised oil concoction, along with instructions to rub it onto the affected areas twice daily and to come back next week for a follow up treatment.

So let’s see what happens next week!

eb3c7fc092e411e2b2fd22000a9e0875_6Made is a young man in Ubud, working as a guide and motorbike driver to support his family. Always with a big smile on his face, one of the happiest guys I know. Always with a goal, a plan to improve things for his family. Always willing to do whatever and go wherever for his guests.

I first met Made 4 years ago when I was staying along Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, making one of my regular trips to Bali – often on the way to or from Australia as a respite between the craziness of work in London or New York, and the busyness of catching up with family and friends at home.

He offered me a ride on his motorbike to one of my favourite Ubud hangouts – Jazz Cafe. Whilst living in Jakarta I quickly became a frequent user of ojeks – motorbike taxis – so readily took him up on his offer.blessing-1

Since then we have done many a trip together – local trips to temples and markets around town; trips further afield, exploring the island with friends and a second bike; even trips to and from the airport (although if I have too much luggage or travelling with a friend, Made arranges a car and driver).

people-2Made’s father died several years ago and although Made is the 2nd eldest (hence the Balinese name Made!), he has taken responsibility for his family. His older brother, Wayan, is not well and not able to maintain a job or bring in a regular income. His mother is a day labourer and does her bit to bring in money to look after elderly grandparents.

Made has worked very hard over the years, making improvements to the family compound, as well as saving to purchase a second bike – this means he can rent one to guests, or bring in another driver to do day trips for 2. He dreams of owning a car, and maybe opening a guesthouse on the land behind the family compound.

He keeps in touch with guests (and he calls them guests, not clients – which I think makes it much more personal!) through text messaging, Facebook and email. And clients, old and new, soon become friends!sal-1

I have visited his family compound many times, having tea and cake with his mother, and playing with his cousin’s daughter, Wayan. Made has also opened up many opportunities for me to explore and further understand Balinese culture. I have been to special temple ceremonies with him, and last year Sal and I had the privilege of attending a cremation ceremony – a very significant event for Balinese – we felt very honoured to be involved.

So next time you’re in Bali – say hello to Made for me!

galungan-7Today is Galungan – a very important festival in the Balinese year.

Galungan recognizes good (Dharma) over evil (Adharma) with people acknowledging the creator of the earth, and offering sacrifices of food and flowers to ancestors within village temples and family compounds. 1st galungan-1

galungan-2Each family/compound has a responsibility to create a penjor for the entrance to their home, as well as contributing offerings to the family and village temples.  Preparation takes many days, and the local markets are always busy in the period leading up to Galungan.

Many events occur before and after Galungan. Tomorrow everyone will spend time visiting family and close friends. It all culminates in Kuningan in 10 days time. Kuningan means yellow and on this day the Balinese will make special offerings of yellow rice. 1st galungan-3

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As the year has 210 days, I was also fortunate enough to be here for Galungan last year as well! I was invited to join Made as he visited several village temples to share his family’s offerings. It was a busy, bustling time, nothing too formal! Families, all dressed up in sarongs and kabayas, knelt in temple compounds, offering their gifts and receiving blessings, before chatting to friends and moving onto the next temple. What a privilege to be involved.

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