27 May 2014

A dansala for royalty

The first was when I was about five years home.  We were returning to Colombo from Kurunegala, my maternal grandparents’ place.  It was night.  My father stopped the car at a nondescript point located somewhere close to the Alawwa bridge.  That’s when I first heard the word dansala, roughly translated as ‘giving-kiosk’.  It was a kottamalli dansala.  Coriander was always thought of as medicine, until that day. 

Since then I’ve been to countless danal.  You just can’t escape them if you live in Sri Lanka.  Twice a year most of the country is transformed into a spectacle of giving, once at Vesak and once at Poson.  There’s ice cream, rice, manioc, sago, soft drinks, bread, beli-mal and other foods and beverages at every turn.  It is of course ‘Buddhist’ in that the ‘moment’ is defined by histories special to Buddhists.  It is not ‘for Buddhists’ though.  It is for anyone and everyone who passes by.  It is not always ‘by Buddhists’ either; Christians and Muslims also organize dansal in areas dominated by people of these faiths.  It’s a community-thing that cuts across distinctions of all kinds. 

That kottamalli dansala, as far as I can remember, was not cluttered by people, noise, music, elaborate decorations, blinking lights and flags.  It was a roadside exercise of wholesome giving sans frills.  Today, I am intimidated by crowds and traffic, put off by noise (there’s only so much of ‘loud’ Baeg that one can take, after all) and the glitter.  If I have to be on the road, though, I would stop and partake.  I prefer however to go to temple, stay home, light some lamps and watch the sky if the moon is unhindered by cloud. 

It was different this Vesak. 

I was driving home around 5.00 pm when I had to stop at the traffic lights on Reid Avenue.   While waiting for the light to change I noticed some boys offering something in cups to a couple of cars they had managed to stop.  I noticed a ‘hut’ with a banner.  I was close enough to read the legend on the top, ‘Hela Suwayen Pidena Aushadeeya Kenda’.   That wasn’t something I would have associated with my old school, certainly not during the time I was a student. But Royal College, under Upali Gunasekera, was a different school and I knew enough to guess that I might be missing something good if I drove on without stopping.  I was correct. 

I’ve seen and benefited from hundreds of dansal over the years.  To me, this was the best.  It was an out-of-the-world kenda drink.  It was ‘out of this world’ simply because that which was common has over the years become rare or rather made to become rare.  ‘Kenda beelada?’  was and still is a common and dismissing allusion to weakness of body when in fact kenda is anything but weak, weakening or indicative of weakness.  As Prof Nalin De Silva recently observed a more appropriate (scientifically speaking) dismissal would be kiri-beelada (after milk?). 

This was this-worldly for other and more important reasons.  This divine drink had a rice base, rice varieties with names that are uncommon or rather made uncommon for reasons we cannot go into here: madathavaalu, paccaperumal, kahavanu and kalu heeneti.   Flavored by an ingredient mix that includes rare herbs of immense curative value and boiled with gotukola, pumpkin and radish, there was a spicy sting to the drink.  ‘Good stuff to the last drop,’ tongue and palette held witness. 

Further inquiries revealed that this is a regular drink for the students of the school with over 800 consuming it on a daily basis.    All the ingredients are organic.  The curative values time tested.  All the rice varieties are known to enhance immunity and flush out impurities in the body.  The other ingredients help cure high blood pressure, diabetes and dozens of other medical conditions. 

It was a Right Royal treat and not because it was a Royal College project.  ‘Royal’ not only because the event, true to the tradition of that school was a collective effort that brought together the Buddhist Brotherhood, Tamil Dramatic Society, Interact Club and the Entrepreneurs’ Club.  The ‘royalty’ was embedded in the choice for the dansala and the quality of that which was gifted.  As cleansing of mind as that hot cup of kottamall I downed so long ago, but more wholesome in nutritional content and for the choice made by those schoolboy given its elite tag and the preferential milieu of the times.

It is easily the best dansala I’ve been to in all my life; I felt I was being treated like Royalty.  May the Principal, staff and students of Royal College receive the blessings of the Noble Triple Gem, always.