26 March 2014

The Bodhisattva of Godavaya

Where the Walave empties into the sea all the sorrows and joys gathered in its long journey from the southern end of the central hills is a hamlet by the name of Godavaya.  What is today a hamlet was a thriving port twenty centuries ago. Indeed archaeological evidence suggests that there was human habitation in the area as far back as 7,000 years ago. 

A Brahmi script inscription states that King Gajabahu I issued an edict that customs duties obtained at the port be credited to the Buddhist monastery, Godapavata (Gota Pabbata) Vihara.  The port, according to archaeologists, probably pre-dates this inscription.  The harbour town is said to be have been an entrepot on the maritime silk route from at least the 2nd Century CE. 

Nestled in the crook where the Walawe falls into the sea courtesy the tsunami of 2004, in this place so pregnant with history, a different kind of history is unfolding, I noticed.  Last Saturday, my friend Renton De Alwis took me to Godavaya. Accompanying us was that gentle and accomplished lady Iranganie Serasinghe. 

As we entered what proved to be a spotlessly clean facility, Renton greeted people with his trade mark ‘Ayubowanda’, followed by ‘dannavada kawda kiyala?’ (do you know who I am?).  ‘Alvis mahattaya ne!’ (It has to be Mr. Alwis) was the constant response.  We were greeted by a lady called Dharmalatha, who invited us to sit down. 

Before we could sit, we heard a threewheeler coming up to the entrance.  Dharmalatha or ‘Latha’ as everyone called her, rushed out. A few minutes later she came inside.  She was carrying an old lady.  Ivy Regina is 82 years old and very ill. She is on an exclusively liquid diet.  She had been taken to hospital to dress some wounds that had broken out on her feet.  Latha Akka carried her inside and to the toilet, upon the request of the patient.  Ivy Regina is blind.  Just like the 30 other residents of the ‘Sarana Home for the Aged Blind’, set up and run by the Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind. 

Dharmalatha Karandana, the only person who is not visually handicapped at this facility, has been working as the Deputy Project Director for the past 20 years.  She hails from Karandana, Ingiriya and had been drawn to this place on account of a personal tragedy.  She takes care of all 31 residents, 10 male and 21 female, ranging from the age of 40 to 82. She said that a resident had passed away recently at the age of 102. 

The Federation provides a small sum of money which is not enough even to provide meals for a couple of days.  The facility depends on the alms offered by various individuals.  Food, Latha Akka said, has never been a problem.  Food however is not the only thing required.  I asked her how she manged.

‘We depend on pin vee.  When the paddy is harvested, the residents go out seeking alms. Farmers give them paddy.  This is what we’ve used to build most of our structures, the budu medura (image house), the perimeter wall and so on.  We used pin vee to paint the buildings recently.’

She told me that health clinics are conducted regularly at the ‘Home’.  The medicines prescribed are paid for by some good-hearted people working at the Hambantota Salterns.

There was order in the place. A time table that was strictly adhered to.  The residents were clean and orderly.  They knew how to smile.  They knew how to sing.  Mallika, a woman who had gone blind at the age of 45, sang Nanda Malini’s ‘Buddhanu Bhavena’ and followed this with a kavi pela consisting of stanzas expressing gratitude (to those who offer alms).  There was control, modulation and feeling in the rendition, the kind of which one does not find in the various talent shows that are telecast nowadays.  She is from Anuradhapura.  She wanted to sing a bhakthi geethaya (devotional song) she had sung while at school (Mahamewnaavata sisila genena samaadhi pilimaya – The Samadhi Buddha statue that cools the Mahamewna Gardens). We were mesmerized. 

She was not the only talented individual.  A woman in her seventies gifted Aunty Iranganie with some pieces of lace she herself had knitted.  A man in his late seventies, hunched with age, a student of Sunil Shantha, entertained us with some of the master’s songs.  His voice was not what it must have once been, but he was true to melody and beat and had not lost his sense of nuance. 

In the middle of all this, a young family arrived to celebrate their 2 year old son’s birthday by offering sweets and tea to the residents.  Malindu Rasanga is probably too young to understand the magnitude of that act of kindness.  There are many ways to celebrate birthdays. This was different, however. 

There is something about ‘Sarana’ that makes one want to visit and re-visit.  Whatever it is, I am convinced it has a lot to do with this remarkable lady Latha Akka.  She keeps things in order, keeps things clean, has won the love and respect of all the residents.  She keeps them smiling. 

The residents know the sea is not far away.  They can’t see it.  Some were almost swept away by the tsunami, but Latha and some others had saved everyone who was at risk.  It was after the tsunami that walls were built around the facility, complemented by some retaining structures at different levels. 

‘What do you need?’ I asked.  ‘We don’t need food,’ she answered.  She pointed out that there are hundreds of visually handicapped people who are abandoned by their families.  They all grow old and need to be taken care of.  There just isn’t enough space.  There is enough room for another building.  She has enough heart to take care of twice or thrice the number of people currently in residence. 

Dharmalatha has dedicated her life to taking care of the 'aged blind'.  I don’t know which paramitas she was fulfilling.  This bodhisattva will take care of all these people and whoever else takes up residence during her tenure with the same love, dedication and strength of character, I am sure.  With or without the help of anyone else.  It won’t hurt to give for there are those who can give and those who cannot.  In any event, if ever you go to Godavaya, drop in and say hello to her.  It might give you a better perspective on things.  I came away empowered. Sighted.