Knights of heritage
By Sonali Siriwardena
Sri Lanka and Nether lands celebrate 400 years of bilateral relations this year. Significantly, the Dutch government last week honoured two Sri Lankans Ms. Deloraine Brohier and Dr. K. D.Paranavitana for their contributions towards bridging the cultural heritage of Holland and Sri Lanka. They were awarded the title of the Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau from the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

This honour is even more momentous because it is completely unsolicited and bestowed solely at the discretion of the Government of Holland. "There are no nominations as is the protocol and tradition in Holland, where the public and the recipient are not told of the award up until the time of the investiture," explained Ms. Brohier. "In fact we were both totally clueless although our families were informed a few days earlier for the purpose of making arrangements to attend the function," said Dr. Paranavitana, who received this royal award for the detailed archival and academic work done by him on the historical relationship between the two nations.

Deloraine Brohier, who has contributed immensely towards the promotion of greater knowledge about the Dutch period in Sri Lanka, also shares the rare distinction of having received the same award, as did her father Dr. R.L. Brohier in the late 1970s. "However my father received an award of Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau, which is a notch higher than that of a Knight. Daddy was in fact, the first non-Dutchman to be bestowed the Order of Officer in 1979. And so I was very touched to be given a title myself," she said.

Ms.Brohier and Dr.Paranavitana are the only Sri Lankans to achieve this distinction after the late R.L.Brohier. So what brought about this rare recognition of service towards the preservation of mutual cultural heritage? "We could say that it was Hein Princen -the former ambassador for The Netherlands who first set the ball rolling, because he was very supportive of the contributions made by the two of us during his tenure," they said. Recipients of the award are usually nominated by the local ambassadors but the nomination goes through several ministries including the Foreign Ministry and has to be finally approved by the government of the recipient.

During Mr. Princen's term as ambassador, Dr. Paranavitana was successful in publishing two books including one on Dutch tombstones and also conducted several lectures and seminars to facilitate the better understanding of Dutch culture while Ms. Brohier played an active role in the project to repair the Old Dutch Hospital in Fort. She was also elected the first woman President of the Dutch Burgher Union, which was established in the early 1900s. "Mr. Princen was also instrumental in initiating and setting up the Sri Lanka-Netherlands (Friendship) Association in 2000 in which I served as the Vice President and Dr. Paranavitana as Editor. So with all this activity, the ambassador saw us very motivated in strengthening the links between Sri Lanka and Holland," she said.

"The 400th anniversary is significant in two ways because it marks the arrival of the VOC, who brought the Dutch to the East Indies and it also marks the stepping ashore of the first Dutchman on Ceylonese soil," said Ms. Brohier.

Describing the ornamentation of the medal, Dr. Paranavitana explained that the medal given to them is far more ornate than those bestowed by other governments. The centre crest on the front contains the state symbol while the back ornamentation is symbolic of the royal dynasty. "The word 'Netherlands' in Dutch mean 'low-country'. Initially these lands were divided into seven provinces under the head of the Spanish but in the 1600s they banded together under William the Silent who was the Stadtholder or Chief of Administration. And this Stadtholder belonged to the House of Orange or Oranje-Nassau. So it is to this family Order that the terminology used in the title makes reference," explains Dr. Paranavitana.

The pair explain that the word 'burgher' is Germanic in origin and refers to the middle-class citizens in early Netherlands, when the country consisted of seven separate provinces. These groups formed trading companies in the desire to venture beyond their shores. But later these seven trading companies were amalgamated under the Stadtholder William the Silent, and the companies, which concentrated their trade in Asia, came to be called the VOC or United Dutch East India Company, with their main headquarters in Batavia. "Burgher is also commonly misconstrued today to indicate ethnicity. It cannot be regarded as an ethnographic term because it has nothing to do with race. It is in fact a generic term of historical origin," opines Ms. Brohier. "Also sometimes the Sinhalese make a polite reference to Burghers as 'lansi' and this too is derived from the Dutch word 'Hol-lanche' meaning 'natives of Holland'. So 'lansi' is a Ceylonese Dutch word because in Sinhala phonology we don't normally use the letter 'h' at the beginning of a word," said Dr. Paranavitana.

Dr. Paranavitana recounts that his interest in the discipline was first stirred in the early 1970s when as a young archivist he came across many unutilized Dutch archives, in which no one took much interest. "I thought that this could be a good area to conduct research and so I started learning the Dutch language in 1973. After several years of self-study, I secured a scholarship from the Netherlands University Foundation, where I obtained a Diploma in Archives Administration in 1980. After having received his PhD in Australia in 1994, Dr. Paranavitana returned to the National Archives in Colombo as Deputy Director and later embarked on an academic career by joining the Rajarata university when it was established in 1996.

Having been the archivist to former President J.R.Jayew-ardene during his 12 year tenure in office, Dr. Paranavitana also has the distinction of being the first person to go deep into Dutch translations. "Anyone can translate a tomb but one has to have a very fine grasp of Medieval Dutch language in order to translate documents such as the Council Minutes of the VOC," he said.

To Ms. Brohier, the interest in the fusion of the Dutch-Sri Lankan culture, and the preservation of such, was to an extent bequeathed to her by her father the late Dr. R.L.Brohier, who was a renowned scholar and author of several works on the Dutch heritage in Sri Lanka. "I worked very closely with my father in his work at the Royal Asiatic Society and also during my career days at the UNDP and broadcasting. But I think my involvement increased gradually and more so after his death, because it seemed that out of my siblings I was to don his mantle. So as time passed I began to be consulted on the subject by foreign academia and the local administration," she said. Ms. Brohier was called upon by the Netherlands University Foundation, to tour and conduct a series of lectures in various parts of Holland, on Dutch culture in Sri Lanka.

As for the future, both recipients remain decidedly committed to their quest to unearth, reveal, and promote the rich heritage shared by the two countries. "We have many events in the pipeline this year in commemoration of the 400th anniversary, one of which is a Conference on Dutch-Sri Lanka relations. There will also be a Dutch film festival and a lace exhibition and Food Festival of the DBU in November," says Ms. Brohier. "There are also seven books on various aspects of Dutch heritage to be published this year, one of which I hope to co-author," said Dr. Paranavitana. Thanks to such relentless efforts, the history and heritage surrounding the arrival of Dutch in Ceylon, will be far from forgotten.

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