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.
road between Vavuniya and Omanthai
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.
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.
of a brutal war: An armoured car at Elephant Pass
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.
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
familiar scene in Jaffna town
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon by Richard Boyle-Part
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."
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.
(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."
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."
"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.'"
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,
"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."
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 (1599:182): "This Ceylon is a brave
Island, very fruitful and fair."
"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."
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."
"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."
from English literature pertaining to Sri Lanka are given in H-J2.
The earliest is by Fitch (1599:183): "He cometh to Columbo,
which is the place where the Portugals have their fort."
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."
(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)."
"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."
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)