Archives for posts with tag: 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.

Well, actually, maybe that should read ‘The president came to town on my birthday’… The difference a preposition makes in the English language! 🙂

The Road Development Authority here in Sri Lanka, with a generous loan from the Chinese government, has been redoing the road along the Kalpitiya Peninsula – from Palavi to Kalpitiya, about a 40 km stretch. And it has finally been finished! The official opening was the 23rd February – my birthday. And the president was in town to officiate the opening and we somehow managed to get VIP tickets to the event! What an event to add to my special day! Ha!

After showing our VIP invitations, and a thorough frisk and search by the security officers, we were seated on the special white chairs at the front of the giant marquee that had been set up in the market area in the local town Norochchalai. I had put on my ‘conservative’ dress for the event – covering my shoulders and my knees. But was still getting a few stares – partly because I was the only obviously ‘white’ person there!  1000s from nearby villages were there to have a chance to see the president – but only a few had received VIP invitations for the white seats!

As he arrived with his entourage, and a huge media contingent (this was a big PR opportunity!),  the noise and excitement from the crowd mounted, and we were asked to move closer to the front. And then came the speeches. Whilst I did not understand most of them, I certainly felt the fervour that was being created by the various speakers as they extolled the great work the president is doing in Sri Lanka.

A representative from the Chinese consulate spoke on behalf of the Chinese government. His speech went between Mandarin and English. And every time he spoke English all the cameras zoomed around to focus on me! It was quite hilarious although I had to keep my poised and interested face on for those shots! Apparently we even made it to the 6 o’clock news!

Then it was the president’s turn to speak and the crowd became very passionate and began to surge forward through the makeshift barrier into the VIP area. He even finished his speech with some Tamil – the language spoken widely in this area of Sri Lanka. As he finished, and we stood up to leave as well, the crowd finally broke through and there was a rush to get closer to the president. I was caught for a moment in the crush until his security staff held back the crowd and we were given safe passage out of the throng!

The road was closed to traffic as the entourage continued further north. So we walked back into town. What a little adventure to add to my birthday! 🙂

ImageProxy.mvcBali!

I arrived back a few days ago, and even though this time I arrived at the new international terminal, it was still the same as I left the air conditioning – straight into the sights, smells, heat, and noise that can only be Bali!

Into a taxi and another way that you know you’re back in Bali – the questions! ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where are you going?’, ‘Are you married/do you have a boyfriend?’, and if you happen to say yes to that one, then the inevitable ‘Do you have children? How many?’seminyak sunset-1

And one thing to know about Balinese culture, and more generally Indonesian culture, is that for these questions (and many others) even if you want to say ‘No!’, the polite answer is ‘Not yet – belum.’ As there’s always a chance!!

seminyak -4These questions are not prying and are not considered too personal – it’s just a way of placing you, of working out how you fit in a culture that is very family and community oriented. Although the one about children is a big one! Having several children, and particularly boys, is such an important part of Balinese culture, a way for things to continue.

Elizabeth Gilbert, and whatever you think of her, or ‘the’ book, describes the ‘questioning’ well:galungan penjor-1

“When you are walking down the road in Bali and you pass a stranger, the very first question he or she will ask you is, “Where are you going?” The second question is, “Where are you coming from?” To a Westerner, this can seem like a rather invasive inquiry from a perfect stranger, but they’re just trying to get an orientation on you, trying to insert you into the grid for the purposes of security and comfort. If you tell them that you don’t know where you’re going, or that you’re just wandering about randomly, you might instigate a bit of distress in the heart of your new Balinese friend. It’s far better to pick some kind of specific direction – anywhere – just so everybody feels better.galungan-6

The third question a Balinese will almost certainly ask you is, “Are you married?” Again, it’s a positioning and orienting inquiry. It’s necessary for them to know this, to make sure that you are completely in order in your life. They really want you to say yes. it’s such a relief to them when you say yes. If you’re single, it’s better not to say so directly. And I really recommend that you not mention your divorce at all, if you happen to have had one. It just makes the Balinese so worried. The only thing your solitude proves to them is your perilous dislocation from the grid. If you are a single woman traveling through Bali and somebody asks you, “Are you married?” the best possible answer is: “Not yet.” This is a polite way of saying, “No,” while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.

Even if you are eighty years old, or a lesbian, or a strident feminist, or a nun, or an eighty-year-old strident feminist lesbian nun who has never been married and never intends to get married, the politest possible answer is still: “Not yet.”

― Elizabeth GilbertEat, Pray, Love

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/748041-when-you-are-walking-down-the-road-in-bali-and

seminyak beach-4As many of you know, I’ve been to Bali many times. Almost too many times to count now! For many years I avoided it – thinking it was full of Australians that projected an image that I didn’t want to be associated with! And don’t worry – there is that element! But Bali is so much more!

This time, I’m just here for a few days staying in the bustling ‘Australian enclave’ of Seminyak. For a bit of shopping, some great food, and the opportunity to hang out in a place I know well, where I feel very comfortable, where I can get around on the back of a motorbike, where I have enough Indonesian still to be taken seriously and not considered a naive tourist! But I’ve done Bali in many other ways too – Lavina and the north coast for a totally different perspective; Ubud and the hills for markets, and temples, and cooler temperatures; …

1st galungan-5Staying in Seminyak, you could easily be in any touristy Asian city. But scratch the surface and the real Bali is still there…

The old lady preparing the offerings that are used daily for the little temples dotted in front of businesses and residences; the old galungan-7man working the rice padi one block behind the bustling street; the car full of boys and men all dressed in traditional sarongs heading to a ceremony; the penjor that line the streets – not just for the sake of the tourists but to commemorate the recent Galungan festival; the kakilimas selling street food in front of the 5 star restaurant; and of course, the questions that get asked as soon as you start chatting to a local!

Thanks again Bali for being what I needed when I needed it!

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

1st galungan-4

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.

1st galungan-2