Plus - Letters to the Editor

Change the picture both literally and metaphorically

Response to “The great pretender” - Some observations

It was with much interest that I read the article “The Great Pretender” by Kumudini Hettiarachchi in the Sunday Times of November 7. I too have been very much concerned about the incorrect representation of our National Flower. Hence, I would like to briefly mention some facts that would place this issue in better perspective. I trust my observations will clarify many matters pertaining to this topic of discussion and will no doubt be fair by all plant taxonomists of Sri Lanka.

As quite correctly recollected by Mr.K.H.J.Wijedasa, the then Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority, a three-member committee of experts was appointed to select the National Flower and National Tree. However, although three university professors were appointed to this committee to carry out this task, none of them were authorities on plant taxonomy.

The beautiful Nil Manel. Pic courtesy Prof. Deepika Yakandawala

It is also factually correct that ‘Nil Manel’ and ‘Na’ were selected by this committee and given Cabinet approval as the National Flower and the National Tree of Sri Lanka, respectively, around 1986. The botanical name of ‘Nil Manel’ is Nymphaea nouchali Burm.f. of the Family Nymphaeaceae and the botanical name of ‘Na’ is Mesua ferrea L. of the Family Clusiaceae as described in the “Revised Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon” in Volume X, page 291 and Volume I, page107, respectively. However, as soon as the incorrect picture was publicly displayed to represent the flower, Emeritus Professor B. A. Abeywickrama of the University of Colombo, very dutifully pointed out this mistake then and there.

I wish to emphasize here that this blunder, a ‘National faux pas’ as Ms Hettiarachchi puts it in the article, was detected right at the outset by the taxonomists of our country. However, probably because the incorrect flower was considered to be far more attractive than our paler less conspicuous but yet very beautiful ‘Nil Manel’, or because this committee genuinely felt that they were right, this invaluable advice was not accepted by the committee and the incorrect flower came to be known as our National Flower. Thus, this is no ‘stunning disclosure’ as the article states. It is, very sadly, a well-known mistake, known to several botanists of our country for almost a quarter of a century.

The incorrect flower displayed as our National Flower is present in an array of instances as stated in the article: in the Government’s official website; in certain stamps; in school textbooks; and even in the Wikipedia; appears to be Nymphaea caerulea Sav., another species of the genus Nymphaea which has not been recorded in the Flora of Ceylon. Better known in many other parts of the world, this plant is neither indigenous nor endemic to our country but has probably been introduced to Sri Lanka at some later stage, become naturalized, and is now commonly found in many parts of our country.

There is still another interesting observation I wish to mention here for the benefit of those who are interested in plant sciences. During the preparation of the book, “A Checklist of the Flowering Plants of Sri Lanka”, I came across yet another finding while working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK - this time the controversial point was not the flower but the tree, and then, not its appearance but the name. As mentioned before, the botanical name for ‘Na’ long accepted by our taxonomists is Mesua ferrea L.. However, it is interesting to note that yet another group of taxonomists at Kew are strongly of the view that it should rightfully be renamed Mesua nagassarium sensu Kosterm.. One will never know if this name too is to change with time!

Many are the challenges when one works in any field, particularly when new ideas result in new findings. The field of taxonomy is fast changing with the coming of molecular taxonomy and new technology, but, nevertheless, what one decides eventually should be what is thought to be most correct at that time.

The three professors who served on this committee with all good intentions are now no more and I fervently hope that my response will not in any way bring discredit to any of them. My intention is to enlighten the public about the exact facts relating to this issue.

It is also my intention to protect the good names of two of the most eminent taxonomists our country has produced, Prof.B.A. Abeywickrama, Emeritus Professor, University of Colombo, who served as Chairman, Advisory Committee of the Flora Project, National Science Council of Sri Lanka, and Prof.M.D. Dasanayake, Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya, who co-edited “Revised Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon”. I have discussed the issues raised in this article with both these gentlemen before writing it.

I believe my response will give the reader a clearer perspective of the issue; in other words, a better picture of the matter. Coming to the final paragraphs of ‘The Great Pretender’, “What are the options now?”, perhaps, the answer should be, “It is better late than never….. to change the picture”, both literally and metaphorically.

Prof.L.K. Senaratna Department of Botany, The Open University of Sri Lanka.

At Colombo YMBA and not Kandy

It is with some reluctance that I am compelled to contradict certain important mistakes made by a near namesake of the great Dr.G.P. Malalasekera in his recent article on GPM and the World Fellowship of Buddhists [WFB]. Dr. Mahinda Malalasekera makes the claim that the WFB was inaugurated in Kandy’s Audience Hall.

This is wrong. It was inaugurated at the Colombo YMBA – and this building can easily be identified from the group photograph that the writer wrongly claims as taken in Kandy. I was present as an undergraduate and served as an usher at the Conference, and as chauffeur to delegates.

The delegates did go to Kandy, but it was on pilgrimage to the Dalada Maligawa where they were ceremonially greeted by the Diyawadana Nilame. There was no question of the WFB being inaugurated in Kandy.

I have verified these facts from Mrs.Ratna Goonetilake who was Joint Secretary of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress whose President Dr.G.P. Malalasekera initiated the Conference.

Tissa Devendra, Via e mail

Champs in many ways

Seven schools were invited to play at the girls' Volleyball tournament in the President's Gold Cup held in Walasmulla last week. Only one was chosen from the Southern Province: St. Mathew’s Bi-lingual School in Deniyaya. Perhaps this is because they have most frequently been Matara Provincial Champions since they took to volleyball, 14 years ago.

Their playing field is a rough, stony stretch; many children have to practise without shoes and their torn net is held up by bamboos. Often they have won in a competition, but have not been able to play at the next level, because they have not been able to raise the necessary funds.

There is something even more special about the St. Mathew’s team - a characteristic of the greatest importance and value at this time in Sri Lankan history: the team combines Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim players and fully reflects the population of the Deniyaya Education Zone.

Long may the team prosper; and may their fine characteristic become the norm everywhere in Sri Lanka!

Well wisher, Deniyaya

Torrential rains are a warning from the angry gods

The torrential rains last week were a warning from above to say the gods are not happy about the way things are going in this country. The rains started at about 7 pm, the day the controversial Betting/Casino Bill was passed in Parliament. The next thing we knew, Parliament was flooded and unapproachable, and sittings had to be postponed.

This is a predominantly Buddhist country. Although there is no concept of direct god worship in Buddhism, the Jathaka stories mention 33,000 gods, led by Sakra Devendra.

God Sakra helped Lord Buddha, and to show His gratitude Lord Buddha visited Sakra when he was seriously ill and close to death and cured him. That is why he lives on, according to Buddhist scripture.
It is significant that the Meteorology Department was taken unawares by the heavy rains that night.

It started pouring shortly after the anti-Buddhist Betting/Casino Bill was passed, with the support of a Buddhist monk in the Jathika Hela Urumaya, which people are now calling the Hela Karumaya.
Many say the storm was a warning to Sri Lanka, and that natural calamities will follow if the people don’t change their ways.

David G. S. Ratnayake, Via e mail

2003 Flood victim appeals

Our two homes were completely destroyed by the May 2003 floods. We were paid Rs. 10,000 and told that this was the first instalment of a Rs. 100,000 relief package.

We have not yet received the balance Rs. 90,000, although the full payment was endorsed by the Divisional Secretariat Pasgoda (Matara).

We have made repeated requests to the authorities to obtain the balance money, but nothing has happened.

We appeal to the President to make the relevant authorities make the payment soon so we can put the finishing touches to our new home.

H. M. Premadasa, Urubokke

Corrupt prison guards

Prisoners seem to have easy access to anything from hand phones to alcohol, heroin, ganja, babul, and so on. Prison guards provide the needful in exchange for a “substantial” bribe.

One way to check these abuses is to have Police Anti-Vice Squads conducting surprise raids at prisons.

If banned items are found on the prisoners, the prison guards should be grilled by the police. Corrupt officers should be transferred to other prisons with immediate effect. Prison officers with five years’ service in one prison should be transferred. This is a matter that demands immediate attention.

Concerned, Dehiwela

The beginnings of JHU

The Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks, came into being because political parties that had dragged monks into their politics had failed to keep their promises. The monks thought that by entering politics they would be contributing towards Panchaseela.

The idea of a Dharmista State was mooted by the late President Junius Jayawardene. His Constitution gave state recognition to Buddhism and its rightful place. The Vinaya lays down the rules for Buddhist monks to follow. Some religions prohibit their priests from practising politics.

Bandula Nonis, Via e mail

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