20 July 2020

Of secrets sacred and unholy

Budhubava: steps lead to a stupa
whose traces have been almost completely erased.
Pic courtesy Tharindu Amunugama

Wasantha Wijewardena, who calls himself a professional rastiyaadukaaraya, told me a long time ago that the sacred is a secret. If memory serves me well, he made this observation in September 2001 while walking through the jungles off Thanamalwila and below Beragala. He may have repeated this in 2006 somewhere near the Okanda Devale or while climbing Kudumbigala. It could have even been in 2012 in the midst of describing and explaining the social and cultural significance of ‘ang-keliya’ in Paanama.

There’s enough of the sacred in Paanama where secrets abound. It’s not what it appears to be and is probably not what people imagine it to be. Strange things have happened all over the world but Paanama, to my mind, has more than what could be called ‘fare share of secrets.’ More than fare share of the sacred — that would be another way of putt it.

The thing about the sacred, going by Wasantha, is the secrecy. The custodians of the sacred are not given to blabbing. And when they do talk, it’s in code. There’s suggestion, there’s a few facts thrown in, but it seems to be put together in a weave that cannot be unraveled. Some facts will be tossed in your direction, but you can’t really do much with them, because liberties have been taken with space and time in such a way that you can’t piece things together.  

Take the jungles. There are elephants, leopard, bears, wild buffalo and crocodiles. There are innumerable paths and if you are a stranger to these parts you could get lost or worse. And it could even happen to someone who has lived here all his or her life, was acquainted with pathways, had a keen sense of direction and knew enough about other creatures not to get in their way.

A man who knows the history, culture and heritage of Paanama and has roamed all over Kumana and Yala since a child, spoke about a creeper which, if touched or trampled, would make you lose all sense of direction and location. It’s called manmulaawel or ‘creepers that make you get lost.’

‘You could end up going around in circles for hours and not know it,’ he said, recounting a couple of times it had happened to him.  

He told me about ancient manuscripts which had mantras and spoke of many ways in which someone could escape unexpected calamities. ‘There’s leopard, wild boar, bear and elephant. You have to be very cautious and you have to watch your mouth.’

And so, those who know the secrets of the sacred take precautions. They survive. They take care of people they care about. They will tell you a lot about Lenama, regale you with stories of the legendary and ferocious Lenama Leopard they say they’ve seen and of course how this creature destroyed the Veddah community which had, again according to legend, exterminated the legendary Nittewo, a humanoid that 'evolution' had missed. They might even say that they’ve seen Nittewo. They won’t tell you were Lenama is located though. They keep some secrets. For good reason.  

In Paanama there are those who look for secrets. They look for the hidden. They are not givers or sharers. They are takers. They kill for meat and sale of meat. They fell trees for timber. They destroy places or archaeological value, especially stupas, in search of treasure.

It is strange considering it is not an easy place for some random traveler to walk in and walk out with meat, timber or treasure. I don’t know about poaching or felling trees in these jungles, but there’s a mark on archaeological artifacts that cannot be explained as the work of the natural elements.

The jungles around Paanama are just full of Buddhist shrines. There are remains of stupas and monastic complexes. There are hundreds of caves which housed meditative bikkhus in centuries gone by. Time has carved its signature with the help of the elements, but it’s not just wind, sun, rain and the relentless movement of the jungle that has ‘desecrated.’

It’s man. Well, men. Men who know what they want. Men who are mandated to protect, even. Men who have a stake in keeping the locals out and to this end would use whatever institutional leverage available to get them out of the way. They can be called poachers or treasure-hunters. They could be accused of felling trees. They could be evicted by referring to one ill-formulated law or another. That way the pathways to real poaching and treasure-hunting can be kept clear.

It is clear. How else could a place like Budubava have stupas razed to the ground? The Wildlife Department, the Forest Department, the Special Task Force, the Irrigation Department and the Archaeology Department have a presence. One or more have jurisdiction over these jungles. Could all these institutions be in the dark about the vandalism that is taking place? All of them, all the time and together? It doesn’t seem possible, but there must be a back story to every act of vandalism and it is hard to think that officials in these institutions as well as other state agents including local politicians, administrative officers and the courts are clueless. Maybe they are clued-in!

Whoever it is who is engaged in these terrible acts of vandalism, theft, desecration and erasure of heritage doesn’t seem to hold anything sacred. Forget ‘sacred,’ they don’t seem to hold in value that which is beyond valuation. It seems their secrets are held sacred for reasons that are quite obvious.  

What kind of fate awaits such vandals, I don’t know. Maybe ‘the sacred’ has its ways of dealing with such people. It can’t be pretty. Paanama keeps its secrets. People come and go. Paanama remains. It is a separate nation, almost. It has its ways. It has its secrets. It knows, protects and is protected by the sacred.

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [July 20, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten 
 Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer