Mirror Magazine


Crossing the divide
By Esther Williams
Four young Lankans, a Sinhalese, a Tamil, a Muslim and a Dutch Burgher, symbolically representing a united front are currently in the Netherlands, on a mission to strengthen Dutch-Sri Lankan ties.


Premila Gnanenthiran of Chundikuli Girls' College, Jaffna, Anne Romanie Ockersz of St. Cecilia Girls' Convent, Batticaloa, Dharmakeerthi Thilanka Perera of Royal College, Colombo and Fathima Yasmin Wazeer of Sacred Heart Convent, Galle will enjoy an exchange of culture and knowledge and integrate into Dutch society during their month's sojourn, to better understand the link between the two countries.

Their visit is organised to commemorate 400 years of Dutch-Sri Lankan relations. The Dutch came uninvited to Sri Lanka in 1602, beginning a unique relationship that benefited both sides. Today four centuries later, the legacy of Dutch colonial rule remains with us in the fortified city in Galle, the churches, monuments, the Dutch furniture and even names of people and roads (Leyn Baan Street, Galle) etc.

"For most of the Dutch who have kept some form of link with this country, it is a sense of coming home, every time we come to Sri Lanka," explains Roelof J. Munneke, Director, Netherlands-Sri Lanka Foundation. This he says can be attributed not only to the monuments, all of which can boast of a long and varied history, but to the similarities that exist between the two countries.


"Sri Lanka is small like the Netherlands. We can travel easily to all parts and places like the Netherlands Welcome Village (1996), a home for elderly people and elements of culture that are common, strengthen this bond," he continues.

While in Holland, the students will live with different Dutch families and meet with each other at least twice a week. They will participate in a wide range of cultural activities and excursions. Also on the agenda are visits to Rotterdam - the main harbour and a study of the sluices (some almost 1 km long and huge constructions to control water level) so that they better appreciate modern day Holland and the technical status of the country. Visits to the museum and windmills will give them a glimpse of Dutch traditions.

The project, a brainchild of Mr. Munneke was conceived almost two years ago. Working with well-known photographer Dominic Sansoni of Barefoot, the idea gradually took shape, with a view to help the younger generation understand the links in history.


The organisers firmly believe that this project would bring the countries closer. "There are many in Holland who are not aware of the link. They cannot love something they do not know," says Mr. Munneke quoting a Dutch saying. The visit would hopefully spark some interest and perhaps persuade others to visit this beautiful country, thereby stimulating tourism, he hopes.

Schools and social organisations, in particular regions/communities, were asked to nominate suitable candidates and they were short listed after several rounds of interviews. All those nominated had to be academically proficient and talented, so that they could communicate, learn and understand from the experience.

Prior to their trip, the four Lankans seemed eager and confident. Thilanka Perera had certainly done his homework and seemed to have all the details of the Dutch period at his fingertips. An excellent student (with 8 As in his O'levels), Thilanka wishes to tell people there about Buddhism and the Sinhalese culture.

Pix by M. A. Pushpa Kumara

Fathima has lived all her life in the fortified city of Galle and meeting people who are a link to her hometown is like a dream come true for her. Closeness among family members, respect for elders are values that she has been brought up with, something she would share with the people she comes in contact with, besides the Muslim religion and culture.

Anne's surname (Ockersz) is Dutch and can even be found in the Dutch telephone directories. While part of her Dutch Burgher culture is a legacy from the Dutch, there are some unique aspects that have evolved through living in Sri Lanka - dress, food, dance, etc. "I would like them to know how we live and work, about our clothes and the songs we sing," Anne says.

"This is a rare opportunity for us to show them about our religion and culture that they may find interesting - eating with our hands, wearing flowers, etc.," explains Premila. An excellent Bharata natyam dancer, Premila goes fully equipped with her dance gear.

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