Saturday, January 12, 2013

Itinerant Mendicant: Learnings from Lanka

From around the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, members of the British aristocracy would travel to Southern Europe, and in particular Italy, on what was called the Grand Tour. The purpose of these tours was multiple, but at the root lay the belief that the well-rounded gentleman needed to gain familiarity with the culture of what was considered European antiquity. 

While there seems no particular concern among the nabobs of the subcontinent to transform themselves into well-rounded gentleman, should a Grand Tour be contemplated for denizens of the sub-continent, then Sri Lanka must definitely be listed as a must-do on this subcontinental tour. Travelling to Sri Lanka, engaging with its past, especially, but not only, its medieval and ancient past gives one a completely different perspective, not only on South Asia, but Asia as well. Situated at one end of this continental agglomeration, Sri Lanka affords one a vista of two rims of the Indian Ocean world, and perhaps their rather different dominant logics. To the left of the emerald isle lies the largely Islamicate world of the Arabian sea, and to the left, the Buddhic world of the Bay of Bengal.

Drunk on Hindu nationalist fantasies that are fed to us through the schooling system, most Indians carry with them the conceit that it was India that exported Buddhism and Hinduism to other parts of South Asia and South –East Asia. Travel to Sri Lanka however, and engage even superficially with Sri Lankan history and we are forced to reconsider this conceit. Poised on the emerald isle, one realises that the ancient kings of the island were not looking toward India solely for cultural imports. On the contrary, the peninsula of the sub-continent also presented possible areas for conquest. Rameshwaram, for example, was held under the sovereignty of Parakramabahu I, the powerful king of Polonnaruwa for at least about thirty years. Whether these conquests were permanent or not is irrelevant, given that the various Sinhalese kings definitely saw themselves as members of a circle of kings, some of which were in peninsular South-India, while others were dispersed in South East Asia and along the eastern coast of the sub-continent. India then, was not necessarily a centre, but merely contributed a number of points of exchange in Indian Ocean culture in which the kingdoms in Sri Lanka were also members.

But it is not just for ancient and medieval insights that Indian nationals should travel to Sri Lanka. On the contrary, it appears that the contemporary period can teach a good amount to the Indian. One is not ofcourse referring to the appalling manner in which the Sri Lankan State recently dealt with the LTTE challenge to its sovereignty, nor to the uncomfortable manner in which the Sinhalese elements of the Sri Lankan state continue to condescend to the Tamil population of the country. What the itinerant is referring to is the uncanny way in which the island seems to reproduce that old British idea of Sri Lanka, of India without its problems. At the risk of exoticising the country, it appears that the Lankans have an incredible sense of traffic discipline, providing indications when they overtake and return to their lane, the manner in which the horn is rarely used, and the manner in which vehicles actually stop at zebra-crossings to let pedestrians walk across calmly. One could go on and on about the radical difference the Lankans’ civic sense represents to the Indians, but that as Kipling would have said, is another story.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 12 Jan 2013)

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