Raising the palmyrah curtain
A journey to Jaffna and the Wanni-Part I
By Prasanna Weerawardane
It was a glorious sunset, an orange backdrop to a masterwork by Cezanne. I was about to capture it on film when I realised we had company. A little girl with large eyes had stopped by us. "Which country are you from?" she asked me in Tamil."Colombo," I said. "No!" she said shaking her head emphatically.

A9 road between Vavuniya and Omanthai

The fact that I was dressed like a typical tourist with a camera dangling round my neck, here on a dusty road in the Wanni jungle made me quite exotic. But I was from Colombo, and it's a foreign country to many of these people in the north, certainly the children. I had just come from Jaffna and was on my way to Madhu and Mannar. It was a journey that I will not forget.

The dust of the north has been shaken off my footwear and clothes, but etched in crystal are the memories of Jaffna and the Wanni. We had got to Anuradhapura and Vavuniya with time to spare: my partner and I were going to Jaffna, for her it was work, and for me the very first visit in my 40+ years.

Growing up in Colombo in the far off 60s and 70s, Jaffna was a curiosity to middle class Sinhalese like me. Then came the war, and Jaffna was centred on our radar screens, but it was a no go area. There was a curtain of palmyrah, razor wire and anti-tank obstacles come down over the north. Now peace had arrived, and the chance to visit Jaffna had come. Of all the journeys I had made in Sri Lanka, this was the most emotionally charged, a journey to a war which had just been halted. Vavuniya was just another small town now. Three cheerful young men manned the LTTE checkpoint at Omanthai. There were many heavy vehicles waiting to be processed. A large number of vans and buses were waiting to be checked, returning from Jaffna.

Relics of a brutal war: An armoured car at Elephant Pass

We made our way through no-man's land. The famed A9 highway was a rutted, badly potholed narrow lane of sunbaked tar. Thankfully it was straight, and relatively level. This was the highway of death fought over for so long and over so many bodies. Not so much a highway, it seemed to me, more a 1950s vintage narrow lane bordered by dry zone jungle.

Obviously development had stopped here since 20 years ago, hence this sorry excuse for a road, but was it a pointer to the levels of thinking in the powerbases of Colombo, that this road was not expanded and improved before war broke out. It seemed rather pitiful that this had been the main artery to the northern peninsula.

We had lunch at Kilinochchi, at the LTTE cafe, next to the Govt.Vet's office: delicious food, Jaffna style. It was packed with diners, but pretty orderly. I wondered how many of the young guys serving were cadres.

Was it possible that the waiter who brought our meal had exchanged his cyanide capsules for dishes of brinjals? I would have loved to have found out. This was the only eatery between Omanthai and Jaffna, and it was a good barometer of civilian traffic-right now traffic was heavy indeed. It was hot, the heat being punctuated by a dusty wind.

Back on the approaches to Jaffna, there were occasional patches of scrub on the roadside. We passed the bombed out remains of the Paranthan Chemical Works. Walking by the roadside was a male LTTE cadre, a 4-pack of grenades for his RPG strapped on his back. It was a sobering reminder, if one needed it, that this peace was still on a hair trigger.

A familiar scene in Jaffna town

We arrived at Elephant Pass, the white sign now obscured. It was an immense vista. On both sides of the road, shimmering in the heat, was a flat plain broken up by occasional clumps of palmyrah and scrub. Here and there lay rusting and broken bits of metal: the detritus of war.

This was the scene of climactic battles, of great heroism and carnage. Given the immensity of the Army camp, it was hard to believe that it could be overrun. But overrun it, the LTTE did, at the third try.

Looking at this vista, I could begin to understand the nature of the LTTE commitment to its cause. I also wondered about the wisdom of having a camp, however fortified and seemingly impregnable, in the middle of enemy territory. Didn't just such a scenario occur at Dien Bien Phu, that debacle for French forces in Vietnam? The French, in the middle of their fortified camp on a mountain, were laid siege by General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander of Vietnamese forces, who after a fierce battle lasting days, overran the camp in spite of reinforcements rushed by air. Elephant Pass too, couldn't be supplied by road, the SLAF being the only lifeline. What a military debacle this had been.

The whole area on both sides of the road was mined. There were two wrecks of armoured cars by the roadside, and buses from Colombo had stopped. It was a Kodak moment, people posing for snaps on them. Didn't they realise the danger from mines? The rusting remains of an LTTE barricade-busting truck were enacting similar scenes. It was like these people had a death wish. Apparently very much in demand were the signs put up by the army, UN etc, warning of mines present. Visitors from Colombo and elsewhere loved to pull them out for souvenirs. Another example of the famous happy-go lucky approach to life we exhibit regularly. Not very smart, though.

The sunbaked, arid grey sand of this stretch held many secrets for me. Years ago I had watched the cinematic masterpiece that was Akira Kurosawa's Ran, his makeover of Hamlet, and there was a signature scene of his which remained rooted in memory: a climactic battle in slow motion, the soundtrack being a low key orchestral dirge. Explosions, bodies flying through the air, horses screaming, flashing swords, pikes and all the gory panoply of war.

Looking at this wasteland at Elephant Pass, if I shut my eyes I could imagine such a scenario, magnified a thousand times. The chatter of T-56s the howl of RPGs, the thunder of artillery, and the anguish of thousands dying. All in slow motion. This was our version of Flanders Fields, that charnel house of World War I, in the mud of Belgium. How many bodies lay beneath these sands? What tides of blood had washed over these arid wastes?

Through the Pass finally, and over the two bridges to Jaffna. These two bridges too had been the scene of many battles. We came to the army barricade to Jaffna proper: it was made of palmyrah. At this point we left LTTE territory. Making our way through Chavakacheri, I saw all the devastation caused by shelling and aerial bombing. There was nothing left, except occasional majestic clumps of palmyrah. We passed occasional large, seemingly well ordered coconut plantations, some heavily mined.

Jaffna city seemed green, inspite of war damage: skeletons of bombed out houses in narrow streets. The size of the roads and houses reminded me of Trincomalee: this would have been a city in a time warp had the tragedy of war not occurred. Now it was a city warped and scarred by war.

We found our guesthouse, run by a very nice lady, Mrs.Manoharan and stretched our legs. The street we were in was very green, lots of trees, and all the houses except one at the very end were intact. There were other guests as well. Another vehicle from Colombo had arrived just before us, and disgorged four people, who got the best room in the house, with an attached bath. But our room was okay, although small. It looked out into a wide balcony into which I wandered: in a reddening sky, fruitbats were flying home, their sharp edged wings outlined black against the setting sun.

We went for a short walk. There was a medium-sized Hindu temple about two streets down, opposite which was a crossroads. There was an army bunker here, with the house behind pocked with bullet holes. The streets were full of people on bikes and on foot. A few '60 and '70s era Austins were on the road. Looking as we did, and me wearing shorts, we stood out here. People gazed at us. It was not an unpleasant sensation, as is usual when one gets stared at, more a sense of wistfulness. Visitors from another country. It was noticeable how many bunkers and barriers remained in the streets here. Back in Colombo, security barriers were a distant memory, but here, the reality was of a city still under a degree of siege.

Dinner that night was rice and seafood curry, with brinjals and murunga, Jaffna style. Delicious. There was a power cut early evening which lasted for over an hour. It had been a long day, and we slept early, woken intermittently by power cuts. It was good to be in Jaffna, this city which still seemed to have a sense of bygone grace: a grand old lady who had seen more destruction and death in two decades than most countries would see in a 100 years. A tribute to the human spirit.

The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle-Part XVII
From Barbareen to Dunderhead
Although the Oxford English Dictionary does not include geographical names, Hobson-Jobson does. As Henry Yule, the principal compiler of the glossary, comments in his Introduction: "We judged that it would add to the interest of the work, were we to investigate and make out the pedigree of a variety of geographical names which are or have been in familiar use in books on the Indies."

The second edition of Hobson-Jobson (H-J2) has 14 entries concerning either places associated with Sri Lanka, or names for the island. Apart from often using archaic or incorrect spellings (Candy, Jafna, Putlam, etc.), Yule makes some etymological errors. Donald Ferguson noted these after the publication of the first edition in "Anglo-Indianisms," Ceylon Literary Register, Vol. 1, Nos. 28 & 29, February 11 and 18, 1887. Some of Ferguson's observations are reproduced.

Berberyn, Barberyn (1803). H-J2 states that it is, "Otherwise called Beruwela, a small port with an anchorage for ships and a considerable coasting trade, in Ceylon, about 35 miles south of Colombo."

The Sinhala meaning of the name is "the spot where the sail was lowered." No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given. The earliest is by Robert Percival from An Account of the Island of Ceylon (1803:129-30): "Six miles onward from Caltura lies Barbareen, a small village, with a sort of harbour formed by a projection of land where the river runs into the sea. This is almost the only place where the high surf and rocky shore on this coast permits ship-boats of the European construction to land."

Candy (1681). "A town in the hill country of Ceylon, which became the deposit of the sacred tooth of Buddha at the beginning of the 14th century, and was adopted as the native capital about 1592. Chitty (Simon Casie Chetty) says the name is unknown to the natives, who call the place Maha Nuvera, 'great city.'"

H-J2 includes the earliest reference in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka, by Robert Knox from An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681:5): "The First is the City of Candy, so generally called by the Christians, probably from Conde, which in the Chingulays Language signifies Hills, for among them it is situated . . . This is the Chief or Metropolitical city of the whole Island. It is placed in the midst of the Island in Tattanour, bravely situate for all conveniences, excellently well-watered."

Ceylon (1599). "This name, as applied to the great island which hangs from India like a dependent jewel, becomes usual about the 13th century. But it can be traced much earlier. For it appears undoubtedly to be formed from Sinhala or Sihala, 'lions' abode,' the name adopted in the island itself at an early date. This, with the addition of 'Island,' comes down to us in Cosmas in Greek. There was a Pali form Sihilan, which, at an early date, must have been colloquially shortened to Silan, as appears from the old Tamil name Ilam, and probably from this was formed the Sarandip and Sarandib which was long the name used by mariners of the Persian Gulf."

H-J2 includes the earliest reference in English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka - dated 1599 - by Ralph Fitch from Ralph Fitch: England's Pioneer to India and Burma (1599[1899]:182): "This Ceylon is a brave Island, very fruitful and fair."

Chilaw (1803). "A place on the west coast of Ceylon, an old seat of the pearl-fishery. The name is a corruption of the Tamil salabham 'the diving;' in Singhalese it is Halavatta. The name was commonly applied by the Portuguese to the whole aggregation of shoals (Baixos de Chilao) in the Gulf of Mannar."

No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given in H-J2. The earliest is by Percival (1803:83): "A little farther westward lies Chilou, a village where the Dutch have erected houses for the entertainment of strangers."

Colombo (1599). "Properly Kolumbu, the modern capital of Ceylon, but a place of considerable antiquity. The derivation is very uncertain; some suppose it to be connected with the adjoining river Kalani-ganga. The name Columbum, used in several mediaeval narratives, belongs not to this place but Kaulam."

No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given in H-J2. The earliest is by Fitch (1599[1899]:183): "He cometh to Columbo, which is the place where the Portugals have their fort."

However, it is Knox (1681:1) who is the first to provide a derivation: "On the West the City of Columbo, so called from a Tree the Natives call Ambo, (which bears the Mango-fruit) growing in that place; but this never bear fruit, but onely leaves, which in their Language is Cola, and thence they called the Tree Cola-ambo; which the Christians in honour of Columbus turned to Columbo. It is the chief City on the Sea-coasts, where the Chief Governour hath his residence."

I like the following by Percival (1803:114): "Columbo taken all together is, for its size, one of the most populous places in India. There is no part of the world where so many different languages are spoken, or which contains such a mixture of nations, manners, and religions."

Dondera Head (1803). "The southernmost point of Ceylon; called after a magnificent Buddhist shrine there, much frequented as a place of pilgrimage, which was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1587.

The name is a corruption of Dewa-nagara, in Elu (or old Singalese) Dewu-nuwara; in modern Singalese Dewundara. The name is identified by Tennent with Ptolemy's 'Dagana, sacred to the moon'. Is this name in any way the origin of the opprobrium 'dunderhead'? The name is so written in Dunn's Directory (1780 edition)."

Ferguson comments: "Dunderhead, we imagine, was a term of opprobrium long before Dondra Head became at all generally known; sailors are famous for transforming names of places in the most ridiculous manner."

A decade or so later, the editor of H-J2 noted that the OED entry for dunderhead "gives no countenance to this (theory), but leaves the derivation doubtful; possibly akin to dunner."

No references from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given. The earliest is by Percival (1803:131): "Ships outward bound from Europe, generally come in sight of the first land at Dondre-Head, the southern promontory of Ceylon."
(More next week)

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