10 June 2023

Vanished and vanishing trails

‘Vanished Trails’ is the title of a novel by R L Spittal woven around the lives of three generations of Veddas, their engagement with changing circumstances and the consequent transformations. The Vedda as a ‘wild man’ is, according to famed Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekera, is largely a myth for the community, taken as a whole, is varied and has been variously placed in the overall social, economic and political systems that have prevailed in the island.

There were, I remember him once saying, the ‘Bandara Veddas,’ who were part of the nobility. The Vaeddas formed the first line of defence in various kingdoms and principalities at different moments in history, he pointed out during that same lecture.

Human beings make trails. Depending on their usefulness or otherwise they become well trodden pathways or vanish. Trails, of one kind of another, are constantly being made, constantly being erased.  
The world, the land, a community, journeys and even the life of a single human being can be talked of in terms of tracks and vanish(ing). Destinations call to us. Ignorance and arrogance lead us astray but ‘getting lost’ has its virtues too — we walk, we make pathways as we walk, we encounter the unanticipated which has its own delights. We discover secrets, rediscover the forgotten and unrecorded, we find ourselves.

There are rocks that will not suffer footprints. There are trails lost because infrequent use allows grass, weeds and plant life to recover that which was unintentionally robbed. Revisitation reveals that the world has changed. The tree that was a landmark is gone, we find, and the rock we sat on is hidden under leaves or moss. The path that too a Vaedda, ‘Bandara’ or otherwise, from here to there and somewhere else as well, can vanish but might very well leave some signs of having existed. That’s for trackers to find out and they usually do.

That which was charted is erased, is destroyed by the silverfish of time, fungi of neglect and the termites of fresh adventures. The old house may be gone and even if it still stands those who made memories in it pass on; the paint of remembrance is lumpy and strangles the throat of memory.

And yet, repainting cannot really be outlawed. Re-walking dimly lit tracks almost covered with discredited leaves or along the imagined traces left by explorers who came before cannot be prohibited.

That which is vanished cannot be magically brought back to life, but there are ways in which obliterated traces reveal themselves to us. Patience, a slow step and a heart whose doors are open to visitation of any kind: these are possible preconditions, ways of being and traveling advocated by the laws of place and time.

A few years ago, noticing a sign put up by the Department of Archaeology, my friend Tharindu Amunugama decided to go look for ‘Kosgaha Lena.’ This was off the Polonnaruwa - Maduru Oya road and part of the larger Dimbulagala Complex. He had been there before but had forgotten how to get there. There were no directions. We asked someone. He asked us to proceed in the same direction until we came across a kumbuk tree. We had to cross the irrigation canal that ran parallel to this track on the right (on our left was an extensive tract of paddy fields).

We found the tree, crept under an electric fence, crossed the canal and walked along a faint path into the jungles beyond. At one point the track came to an end. It was just too rocky. Tharindu couldn’t remember the direction in which the caves were located. We scouted around for a while, saw a lot of fresh elephant dung and after an hour or so of exploration, decided to turn back. The trail had vanished. Memory had been erased.

A couple of days later, having explored other parts of the Dimbulagala Complex, especially Namal Pokuna, Nil Diya Pokuna and the Pulligoda Gal Ge frescoes, we realized that we were on the very same road, except we were approaching it from the opposite direction. The kumbuk gaha was recognised. A different villager explained to us why we hadn’t been able to find the continuation of the trail. A new journey, then. It got us to Kosgaha Lena. In the rain.  

In a different century, no one would have needed directions to this place. In this century, there were very few who could give directions. Tharindu must have made tracks during his first visit. They were gone. We couldn’t make tracks this time around because we were too lost. And then that which seemed to have vanished became visible. There appeared a trail where previously there was none. We made a journey that had been made by many whose names we did not know.

Right now, as I write, there could be sunlight streaming through the trees around Kosgaha Lena. Maybe it is raining. Someone is getting lost somewhere. Someone is making tracks. Others will use them. Some will remember. Some will forget. For now, I remember trails and right now however hard I try there are things that have simply vanished.
['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart