Multi-culturalism is a politically charged word. However, there is no country in the world with one culture only, and Sri Lanka is no exception. There are many, many cultures in Sri Lanka and among the Sinhalese, there are regional, religious and caste cultures. Learning and understanding these cultures is fascinating and most important for social [...]


Ancestral voices from the Kandyan hills


Multi-culturalism is a politically charged word. However, there is no country in the world with one culture only, and Sri Lanka is no exception. There are many, many cultures in Sri Lanka and among the Sinhalese, there are regional, religious and caste cultures. Learning and understanding these cultures is fascinating and most important for social harmony.

These cultures do not remain static and unchanging over the years. What did not change for a long period is now undergoing a rapid transition, in the face of technological change. Barriers are breaking down, and new cultural arrangements are taking their place. In Sri Lanka, it is vital that we retain the memory of cultures past, when there were so many different cultures which added colour and vibrancy to our society.

The volume of Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera (NPW) is an engaging contribution to retaining the memory of Kandyan culture, as it was in the early part of the 20th century.

NPW’s volume is a fascinating story of Kandyan culture and society. It is a personal story, and not a scholarly work. She draws from many sources and especially from her family and individual experience, and distilling from those, she narrates an intriguing story of a changing Kandyan culture, largely based on her traditional village of Boyagama. It is delightful to peep into a lost world in a distant Kandyan village.

Sixty years ago, the Economics Faculty of the University at Peradeniya undertook research in a Kandyan village and came up with a study called the “Disintegrating Village”. That was done by outsiders and NPW’s study is based on her own experience. NPW’s volume is divided into three parts – the first dealing with her life in Boyagama, the second addressing cultural aspects of life like food, arts and crafts and architecture, and always with a personal touch, and the third dealing with several general issues – history of the Kandyan Kingdom, Kandyan identity, marriage and divorce, the caste system and land and cultivation.

Many beautiful photographs and pictures adorn the pages of this volume. NPW is a well known journalist writing her own weekly column, and she has been much more in the past. A teacher, librarian, novelist, social critic, she has written other books, and many and varied issues and subjects are grist to her mill and the object of her learned and learning curiosity.

In part one of the book, NPW offers us many insights into the life of an extended family in a Kandyan village in the 1940s and 1950s. Her mother and brother were key actors during this period of her life. Having lost her father when she was very young, she had to struggle through her early life. Her story of these years offers us interesting snippets into life in an extended family in a traditional village.

When NPW and her sisters had to go to school, her immediate family were anxious for them to go to schools in Kandy while some other members of her family wanted them to attend local village schools. Going to a Kandy school made all the difference. There are beneficial aspects in belonging to an extended family. It is my impression that an extended family can be a heavy burden, holding you back in realizing your life’s objectives.The author says that “extended family ties remained intact, mostly for the good, sometimes adversely due to conservatism, jealousy and men considering that a woman headed family needed guidance and yes, censure too.”

A Kandyan village had its own social structure. There were the top people, and others who were lower down on the social scale. NPW’s volume does not deal with what happened to those lower down, and she came from the upper crust of the village. Even the upper rungs did not have many opportunities, until the British came (NPW does not say so specifically) to move out of the village and seek out greener and more lush pastures. Under British rule, new jobs like Divisional Revenue Officers (DROs) were created. DROs were largely a Kandyan service. Her elder brother who had to join as a clerical officer, because of family financial constraints, now entered the DRO’s service as one of its first members. Then with access to English education and new schools, there were opportunities to be teachers and principals. Her own sister became a teacher. There was the later principal of Hillwood College Kandy (Mrs. Samarasinghe) who was the first Kandyan woman to go overseas for her education at Women’s Christian College, Madras and at Cambridge University. New ladders were being placed for the more enterprising.

Caste is an important presence in this volume. It is a critical factor in the organization of Kandyan society and economy. My impression in reading this book is that caste has more of a central role in Kandyan culture than in the low country Sinhalese areas. Most crafts and occupations – producing handicrafts, jewellery, wood carvings and Kandyan dancing – have a caste base and strong caste relationships. The leading temples in Kandy have caste connections. Until very recently, only the Radala could occupy the high posts in religious places. The author says that Nissanka Wijayaratne was the first non-Radala person to be the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa, and even then, his wife was a Radala. (What NPW does not mention is that Nissanka Wijayaratne’s mother was a Pethiyagoda.)

The author says that it is education which is breaking down caste barriers. My view is that it is universal franchise, introduced in 1931, that is breaking down caste barriers. Expansion of education to the villages was a result of universal franchise. Economic modernization also has a role in the decline of caste. Tea (late 19th century), textiles (1970s), tourism (1980s) are industries which know no caste affiliations. An important question is whether the unique heritage of Kandyan arts and crafts can be preserved at a time when caste and village life are breaking down. Can these traditions and skills be institutionalized, bereft of caste?

Part two of the volume that deals with Kandyan culture – food, dress, jewellery, dancing, music,crafts and architecture – is most instructive. We obtain an understanding of these subjects and their relationships to important social occasions like marriage or activities like farming and harvesting. She remembers the flute being played of an evening, “as the birds flew nest-wards and paddy farmers wended their way home from their fields”.  Similar connections and occasions are described for jewellery and dancing and dress. In her young days, these crafts were mainly for the Kandyan people.

NPW’s charming story of Kandyan culture, personalized from her own and her family’s perspective, is entertaining and instructive. We were a generation who were at the University at Peradeniya in the 1950s. NPW’s village, Boyagama is a little outside Peradeniya, and if we had this book then, undergraduates of that time and later would have got to know more about Kandyan culture than we did then. Scholarly works on culture are important, but even more influential and educative are these personal stories (not weighted by footnotes) related by an informed and curious author.

Book facts
Tradition Adapts to Modernity – A Personal Narrative by Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera
Published by S. Godage & Brothers (2018). 204 pages.
Price – Rs. 1250.
Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva

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