Media reports about the restoration of the Kuragala Cave Temple, in Balangoda, went largely un-noticed among the public. Battered by the rising cost of living, impending power cuts and fuel shortages, the restoration of a temple in Balangoda hardly registered among many of us.
According to media reports, the Kuragala Cave Temple was visited by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and restoration work on the temple is being carried out successfully by the Sri Lanka Army. Army Commander Shavendra Silva participated at an elaborate ceremony at the site marking the building of a dagaba, Buddha statue and hall. What was not mentioned in the coverage of the restoration of Kuragala is that it is also known as Jailani, named after a Sufi saint who is supposed to have mediated at the site for several years.
There is a mosque on the premises and several tombstones and an annual festival marking the death anniversary of the saint associated with the site has been carried out for many years. The Buddhist temple was largely forgotten for many years and only came to prominence recently after the intervention of Buddhist monks including organisations such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, who claimed that Muslims had damaged the ancient temple and encroached on what was originally a sacred Buddhist site.
Sri Lanka is home to a number of religious sites that are claimed by various religions. For many years, these sites functioned relatively peacefully, with different religious groups practising their rites and rituals alongside each other. Often, pilgrims and devotees who visited these sites, moved between different religious practices quite seamlessly. The boundaries between religious practices seemed quite porous and mixing rites and rituals quite normal.
Sri Pada, Kataragama are the better known sites where this type of religious syncretism was seen very strongly, especially in the past. Such sites and practices were not uncommon and rarely caused comment. For instance, many Buddhist temples have shrines to Hindu gods within their premises and devotees moved among different traditions happily. It was not unusual to visit multiple shrines seeking blessings or divine intervention – covering all possible religious bases was not viewed as heretic, but quite sensible.
Yet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain this spirit of sharing and acceptance in religious practice today. The search for ‘purity’ in each religion, the importance of claiming spaces as their own and of marking sites as ‘originally’ belonging to one or the other has intensified in recent times. Efforts are underway to ‘cleanse’ religions of ‘alien’ influences and to strictly police boundaries between religions.
Leaving aside the sociological implications of such efforts – and the futility of attempting to fix human behaviour and cultures into tightly bound, static categories – it feels like we have all been forced to shed the colours, the messiness and joys of living in a plural society. I grew up during a time where participating in ‘Vel’ processions, making Vesak lanterns, carol singing and breaking fast were part of the natural rhythm of life.
Yes, we were conscious that each one of us had our own traditions – but there were no inhibitions or restrictions in participating in the traditions of others. It didn’t feel so transgressive to move between traditions or to pick and choose from different traditions. Even within a particular religious tradition, there seemed to be much more diversity than there is today. Today, religious institutions and sentiments have become far more severe and controlling and dare I say, consequently, far less interesting.
Several years ago, when I was part of a study that looked at contested religious sites, I remember the apprehension I felt visiting Devanagala Rajamaha Vihara, one of the sites that we studied. The Devanagala Rajamaha Vihara, in Mawanella, was located within a largely Muslim community. During that time, tensions had developed between the Muslim community and a group of monks and Buddhist laypersons mainly from outside the village over the boundaries of the temple. As I walked through the village to the temple and as I climbed the rock to the temple at the summit – I could feel the hostility and waves of suspicion that emanated from community members who observed us closely.
The community had been divided into different groups and any visitor to the temple was viewed as someone potentially representing a particular side of the conflict. Although this temple, like many – including Kuragala/Jailani, were located in breathtakingly beautiful locations – I could hardly take in the splendour of the environment as I was too aware of the tensions within the site. There was bitterness, accusations and counter-accusations from all sides.
However, what I saw that day in Devanagala and am seeing today in Kuragala/Jailani and in many other sites, is the inevitability with which minority communities have had to accept the dominant claims of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. This acceptance doesn’t come easily and doesn’t come without anger or resentment – but it is an uneasy recognition of how closely State power is aligned with the majority community. It is an acceptance that comes from knowing how much is stacked against minority communities in Sri Lanka and based on an assessment of what it takes to go against the majority and what exactly they will be up against if they do so. In most instances, minority claims have been pushed aside and Sinhala Buddhist claims aggressively marked.
While this may bring some level of short-term satisfaction for majoritarian sentiments – it is an inherently dangerous situation. Sustaining this level of control over minorities and their aspirations will demand increasingly forceful and aggressive actions from the State. Many of these sites are guarded by the military and State patronage is very apparent. At this moment, it appears successful: there is seemingly very little push back (at least openly) from minority communities on the way in which Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism is being established institutionally, politically and culturally. But what does it mean for minority-majority relations moving forward?
Whether it is the inevitability of Buddhist shrines in State institutions, or the removal of material that is deemed critical of or insensitive to the majoritarian mind-set from education curricula, or the insouciance with which the National Language policy is ignored, minority communities are constantly reminded about who is in charge and of their secondary position in the order of things. What we may lose in the process is the chance of finding the middle ground, commonalities and shared understanding.
Establishing this sense of belonging among us has been possibly one of the greatest challenges this country has been facing since independence. While reading the Hansard records when C.W.W Kannangara presented the Education Reform Bill in the 1930s, I was struck by the words of Member of Parliament H.de Z. Siriwardane: “We will get power soon – majority may get more power. When we get more power into our hands it is not fair to force our opinion on the minorities”.
Somewhere along the line, politicians decided that it was much easier to fan communal tensions for political power rather than find ways to establish a Sri Lankan identity that represented all of us. Admittedly, we have failed to find a language, practices or institutional arrangements so that no community or group feels like second class citizens, historically marginalised or under threat. But it is probably the most important thing that we need to do if we are to move forward.
By Harini Amarasuriya (Ceylon Today)