I Was I Am

I was commissioned by Groundviews and the Centre for Policy Alternatives to produce a piece for 30 Years Ago, a curated online platform of content produced for the 30th anniversary of the 1983 pogrom in Sri Lanka. I invited fellow photographer/writer Natalie Soysa to join me and the following is the 3-part documentary produced by us. (Click the concept note for larger, readable version)

Concept Note IWASIAM (Short)


Silent Victims

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“Silent Victims” at the entrance to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Felt that this was fitting for the crisis that our country (Sri Lanka) is going through right now, although I wonder how many actually consider it to be a crisis.


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Morning Puja at Koneswaram

A few months ago we visited Koneswaram just before sunrise, only to find out that we were on time for the morning puja (in fact even the priests arrived after us!). It was a surreal experience, with all the rituals, the sounds of different bells and chants, the colours and the devotees. These are some of the photos I captured in all my excitement. It was definitely worth waking up early for and completely different from my previous visit in the middle of the day.



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The Ceylon Traveller – Magul Maha Viharaya, Lahugala

Originally published in The Sunday Leader on 01/04/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/04/01/the-ceylon-traveller-magul-maha-viharaya-lahugala/)

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I visited Magul Maha Viharaya in Lahugala back in 2009. It is yet another place that has so much history behind it and lots of interesting tidbits but isn’t flaunting any of it, preferring to exist quietly.

Lahugala is ten miles inland off the East Coast town of Pottuvil, an area believed to have been part of the Ruhunu kingdom. It is home to several tanks, beautiful green vegetation, a National Park (with a good chance of seeing elephants frolicking near the road) and the Magul Maha Viharaya, which is also known as Ruhunu Maha Viharaya.

During the war, many civilians from adjoining villages had left the area for safety and it is only now that the temple is once again being patronized regularly and is visited by pilgrims and tourists.

The history of the temple is a bit muddled and there are different versions on how it came about to be. One is that it was built by King Dathusena who ruled the Anuradhapura kingdom from 516 AD to 526 AD. There is a stone inscription at the site that dates back to the 14th century, which proclaims thus. This is also supported by the fact that the architecture of the temple,  especially the stone pillars, is very similar to the architecture of the Anuradhapura era.

Another version is that it was built by King Kavantissa in the 2nd century BC on the location where the King married Princess Vihara Maha Devi. Supporters of this claim that one of the ancient ruins found at the premises are the foundation of the “Magul maduwa” where the wedding ceremony took place. This is sometimes dismissed as folklore and it is said that the actual location where the wedding took place is the nearby Muhudu Maha Viharaya at Arugam Bay.

Regardless of its founding, it is evident as soon as you enter the Magul Maha Viharaya that it is a valuable ancient ruin with beautiful and sometimes unusual architecture. It had clearly been a thriving institution with the site currently spanning to about 10,000 acres with ruins of a palace, moonstone, monastery, stupa, ponds, etc.

The most interesting element I came across at Magul Maha Viharaya was the moonstone. At first glance it looks just the moonstones you may see at other temples but upon close inspection, it is most unusual and is supposedly the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. What makes it stand apart is the fact that every fourth elephant in the line of elephants in the moonstone (elephants are a regular feature on moonstones) has a mahout on its back. This is a highly unusual feature but so far I have not been able to find out if there is an explanation for this.

Other ruins found at the premises include the remains of a stupa, the remains of a structure which is called the “Magul Maduwa”, ponds, etc. These are decorated with carvings such as the one shown in the photo of the face of a monkey. It is notable that most of these carvings are very basic and lack the intricacies of carvings from later eras. This again confirms that the founding of the Magul Maha Viharaya goes back to very ancient times.

The Ceylon Traveller – Kantharodai, Jaffna

Originally published in The Sunday Leader on 18/03/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/03/18/the-ceylon-traveller-kantharodai-kadurugoda/)

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It’s always pleasant to detour during a trip and stumble upon a place you had never heard of before.

Kantharodai in Jaffna (also known as Kadurugoda) is such a place and as you can see from the photos, it is surreal to go to Jaffna and come across so many dagobas in a town more famous for its Hindu architecture.

Since it’s not a place I had read about or knew about and because there was no information available there from the Department of Archaeology, this edition of Ceylon Traveller will feature information sourced from the internet.


Kandarodai (Tamil: கந்தரோடை, Kadiramalai Tamil: கதிரமலை or Kandurugoda – literal Sinhala translation of Kadiramalai[1] Sinhala: කඳුරුගොඩ) a small hamlet and archaeological site of Chunnakam town is a suburb in Jaffna District, Sri Lanka. Known as Kadiramalai (from Kudiramalai) in the ancient period, the area served as a famous emporium city and capital of Tamil kingdoms in the Jaffna peninsula of North Eastern Ceylon from classical antiquity. Located near a world famous port at that time, Kandarodai was the first site the Archaeology Department in Sri Lanka excavated in the Jaffna peninsula.

Black and red ware Kanterodai potsherd Tamil Brahmi scripts from 300 BCE excavated with Roman coins, early Pandyan coins, early Chera Dynasty coins from the emporium Karur punch-marked with images of the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi from 500 BCE, punch-marked coins called puranas from 6th-5th century BCE India, and copper ‘kohl’ sticks similar to those used by the Egyptians in 2000 B.C found in Uchhapannai, Kandarodai indicate active transoceanic maritime trade between ancient Jaffna Tamils and other continental kingdoms in the prehistoric period. The parallel third century BCE discoveries of Maanthai, Anaikoddai and Vallipuram detail the arrival of a megalithic culture in Jaffna long before the Buddhist-Christian era and the emergence of rudimentary settlements that continued into early historic times marked by urbanization.[2] The chief Pittan-Korran of Kudiramalai further south, a commander-in-chief of the Chera king, administered the locality under the Chera kingdom from the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE and is described at length in the Purananuru.[3]

A group of Dagobas situated close together at the site served as a monastery for Tamil monks and reflect the rise in popularity of Buddhism amongst Jaffna Tamils and the Tamils of the ancient Tamil country in the first few centuries of the common era before the revivalism of Hinduism amongst the population.[4] Recent excavations of Sivaganams in the stupas suggest Tamil Hindus also worshipped at the site. The domes were reconstructed atop the flat bases of the ruins by the Archaeology Department. The similarities between the finds of ancient Jaffna and Tamil Nadu are indicators of a continuous cultural exchange between the two regions from classical antiquity.[5] These structures built over burials demonstrate the integration of Buddhism with Megalithism, a hallmark of Tamil Buddhism. Outside Andhra Pradesh in India, Kanterodai is perhaps the only site where such burials are seen.

In 1970, the University of Pennsylvania museum team excavated a ceramic sequence remarkably similar to that of Arikamedu, with a Pre-rouletted ware period, subdivided into an earlier “Megalithic”, a later “Pre-rouletted ware phase,” followed by a “Rouletted ware period”. Tentatively assigned to the fourth century BCE, radio carbon dating later confirmed an outer date of the ceramics and Megalithic cultural commencement in Kandarodai to 1300 BCE.[6] Further excavations have been conducted by the University of Jaffna.

The Yalpana Vaipava Malai also describes the rich port of Kadiramalai in the ancient period.

From – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kandarodai

Where is it?

Near Chunnakam, West of the main Jaffna-Kankesanturai Road.

The Ceylon Traveller – Medirigiriya

Originally published in The Sunday Leader on 04/03/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/03/04/the-ceylon-traveller-medirigiriya/)

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The first time I went to Medirigiriya, it was because of my father whose travel bug is still infectious. He had a professional interest in the place after reading about the ruins of an ancient hospital that are located there so we made a stop during a trip. And Medirigiriya became one of my favorite places to visit in Sri Lanka and so far I have revisited it a few times.

The main reason why I love going there is because it is unpretentious. Most ancient ruins have a touch of modernity, or dare I say pretense, in them, whether it is the renovations or the throngs of people or the signboards, gift shops, etc. But Medirigiriya has remained largely untouched and unchanged from my first visit many years ago. It is like visiting a slice of history that is not making a spectacle of how ancient or valuable it is. While it has been ravaged more than once by treasure hunters, there are still lots of interesting sights to be found.

It is generally quiet with not many visitors (though sometimes large groups of pilgrims could turn up so it all depends on your luck) and you can meander around in peace, looking at the remains of an ancient civilization.

The main attraction at Medirigiriya is the Vatadage. A vatadage is the outer housing of a stupa and were built back when stupas were quite small in size. The vatadage at Medirigiriya is unique, not only because of its longevity but also because it is built atop a small hill and is therefore different to those you find in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, etc which are on ground level.

While the roof of the vatadage that covered the stupa no longer remains, the stone pillars that held it up are mostly intact. Their workmanship is not as intricate as those found in other locations but are still beautifully constructed. To get to the top of the vatadage, you have to climb some steps carved out of the rock and while I didn’t count them at the time, I later read that there are 27 steps.

Once you get to the top of the vatadage, in the centre you see what remains of the stupa there once was. But before you wonder why you climbed all the way up, four Buddha statues around the stupa will grab your attention. They are beautifully preserved and are all in the seating position.

Another attraction in the Medirigiriya site is the Pichcha-mal Viharaya (as it has come to be known locally). This consists of two image houses built close to each other, each containing Buddha statues, both in standing and seating positions. These are not as well preserved and statues have limbs or heads missing. And it is evident from some of the ruins that entire statues are also missing.

The area is strewn with many other interesting ruins. On the opposite side of the vatadage, there is a small stupa to be found which is also built on a rock. Near the main entrance, there is what has been identified as remains of an ancient toilet. Medirigiriya is often cited when discussing the existence of sanitation systems in ancient civilizations.

There are also three stone inscriptions (one in Tamil) though apparently many others have been destroyed, both by man and nature. They refer to the management of the hospital, proper conduct of hospital employees, etc.

The ruins of the hospital are a short walk away from the rest of the ruins. The foundation of the hospital can be found which was restored after discovery of the Medirigiriya ruins in 1897. From what remains, it is clear that the hospital was highly functional with rooms, medicine boats, etc.

There is a well-preserved medicine boat to be found, which is essentially a trough carved from a rock. The trough is carved in human shape and is big enough to fit persons of different sizes. They are very similar to those found at the ruins of the Mihintale hospital.

All in all, Medirigiriya is well worth a visit and while it is disheartening to learn that many of the various ruins that used to be at this site have been stolen or destroyed, there is still an untouched quality about the place that would etch it in your mind as permanently as the beautiful stone carvings that are found at Medirigiriya.