Memories and Things

How do we remember our dead? This thought crosses my mind whenever our extended families gather together. My grandmothers are no more and they have left behind a void that often goes unnoticed until you notice it and then you cannot not notice it anymore. You see a chair and you miss a smile. You see a book and you miss a conversation. As much as I believe in the Buddhist philosophy of detachment (believe being the keyword), at the end of the day what we are left with are memories and things, things and memories.

My two grandmothers. Habarakada achchi and Pannipitiya achchi as I called them, identifying them by their respective hometowns where they lived after marriage and until they died.

My two achchi’s. One made her presence known, almost always. Whether she was happy or sad or angry or unwell, she’d speak up. Sometimes she’d say classist or racist things, comically cringeworthy as with most people of her generation. Other times she’d say cleverly biting things about her husband, my only living grandparent right now, making all of us laugh. Even as her health deteriorated and reduced her mobility, she still ran the household using her words. During family functions such as alms givings, she’d dictate orders to my mother who for her part would humor achchi and then continue to do things her way because stubbornness is genetically passed down (I’d know).

Most recently, I was thinking about Habarakada achchi as we got ready for a family wedding. I’m sure many of us were thinking about her though we didn’t talk to each other about it. How we wished she could have been there with us, how maybe even if she was alive it would have been too daunting a journey for her to travel so far for the occasion and so on. As the wedding ceremony commenced and parents and elders were invoked, she was present in our memories. While watching the marriage rituals unfold, I turned to one of my aunts and told her how simple and beautiful her necklace was, only to be told that it was achchi’s. Achchi wore it when she got married and then my aunt. It was a bittersweet jolt to realize she was there with us in more than our memories.


My father’s mother was a quiet but constant presence. She was the older of my grandmothers and was a rockstar in her own right. She had a very sharp memory and while her short term memory began to slip as she entered the tenth decade of her life, she’d recall and share things from the past. Recall, she probably always did, as she sat in her usual chair tapping her fingers on the armrest. Share, she usually did when prompted by someone because she used her words sparingly (clearly not a trait I inherited though stubbornness was passed down from this side as well). While I never knew my paternal grandfather (who gave me musicality, writing and a short fuse), some of his lyrics show that achchi was his muse. Or at least the dormant romantic in me likes to think so.

Five years ago, she was in my memories and close to my heart when I got married. I had my reasons to enter into an institution I remain dubious about and goes against some of my deepest convictions, I had my reasons to do it at 25 (while hearing the horrified shrieks of my 15 year old self) and I’ve since been proud and constantly amazed by how my partner and I have deconstructed and made our own this institution (not to be taken as an endorsement of said institution). But I was also trying to find, and remain, myself in a wedding that escalated from a simple ceremony at home to a full blown big fat Sri Lankan wedding and while whiskey helped a lot, what also helped was keeping my gentle grandmother close to me.


Achchi gifted me this brooch many years ago with a note that said my grandfather gifted it to her for her 25th birthday while he was courting her. It was a reminder to my young(er) self that your 85 year old grandmother too has romance in her life and with my disinterest in new and/or branded wedding trousseau, it was the perfect piece of jewelry to wear that day (along with my mother’s wedding sari but that’s another post). I have no idea what the stone is, I have no idea how much the brooch is valued at but I like to think that its true value is that it kept her present at the wedding in addition to our collective memories.

Things, sentimentality and heirlooms are all overrated. If not our social class then our names are definite proof that we are not the kind of family who have heirlooms that go back great many generations though were she alive Habarakada achchi will remind us that her lineage goes back to King Mayadunne. We are also not the kind of family that has hoarded too many things from the past (a reminder to my father that most of the random things he buys off Amazon will be discarded one day except maybe the Reacher and Grabber, trust me it’s worth Googling). But what we do hang on to, whether it’s a piece of ordinary looking jewelry or a library of books or a rusty gramophone or an old pen, are a true testament to the power of memories and things.

My two grandmothers. My two achchi’s. I wouldn’t say not a day goes by without me thinking of you because that is not true. But I do think of you more often than anyone would assume and sometimes it helps to have something to hold on to other than the memories.



The Ceylon Traveller – Magul Maha Viharaya, Lahugala

Originally published in The Sunday Leader on 01/04/2012 (

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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 (

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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 –

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 (

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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.

The Ceylon Traveller – Nagadeepa

Originally published on The Sunday Leader on 19/02/2012 (

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For the longest time, “Nagadeepa” was a word that came up in school textbooks, whether it was History, Social Studies or Buddhism. It was yet another place that could not be visited due to the war but made more special by the mythical aura surrounding it because of all the stories about Nagadeepa; the early inhabitants of the island called the Naga people, it supposedly being one of the three places in the country visited by Lord Buddha, etc.

Nagadeepa, also known as Nainativu, is one of the islands belonging to the cluster of small islands off the Jaffna peninsular in the Northern Province. It is a special place, not just because of the stories surrounding it, but because it is one of the few places where a Buddhist temple (Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya) and a Hindu temple (Sri Nagapoosani Amman Kovil) have coexisted peacefully for many years, including during a long drawn war.

The two temples are famous for joining each other’s religious ceremonies and celebrations, especially during the annual festival of the Hindu temple which coincides with Poson poya. While the almost 3000 population of the island are mostly Tamil, there has been very little internal strife.

The island came under attack in 1958, 1986 and 1990, resulting in damages to both temples. But both have been rebuilt and are regularly visited by pilgrims.

How to get there

The journey to get to Nagadeepa is as interesting as the island itself. From Jaffna, you have to travel along the causeway leading to the island of Kayts and then take the causeway that leads to Punkudutivu. The scenery while travelling on the causeways is breathtaking. The flat and sandy landscape spreads across all sides as far as the eye can see with palm trees popping up here and there and if you leave Jaffna early enough, you can catch a beautiful sunrise over the Jaffna lagoon.

The next part of the journey is by sea. At the village of Kurikadduwan in Punkudutivu, you can take a boat to Nagadeepa. Finding a boat is not a problem, especially since the boat departure times are coordinated with the times buses arrive at Punkudutivu. There are two points of entry to Nagadeepa, one near the Buddhist temple and the other near the Hindu temple but the two jetties are not far apart.

Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya

Although the historical stories about Nagadeepa go back centuries, the residents of the island built the current temple in 1944. The stupa looks unusual as it is painted in silver but this is actually in order to protect it from sea wind. Some parts of ancient ruins found in the area are displayed next to a Buddha statue. There is a concrete slab bearing the legend about Nagadeepa (see textbox). All the structures in the premises are fairly modern but it is still beautiful and peaceful and you can wander around on the sandy ground strewn with seashells.

Sri Nagapoosani Amman Kovil

Similar to the Buddhist temple, the Amman Kovil has also been rebuilt and the ancient structures are no more, except for a few monuments. There is a stone inscription from 12th century CE that shows that this had been an ancient port and was the first stop for foreign merchants trying to enter the country. The Amman temple was destroyed by the Portuguese but was rebuilt in 1788. As mentioned earlier, it was again attacked during the war but is now restored (see textbox).

The statue of the Nayanair deity that is kept in the inner sanctum is supposedly ancient and was kept in hiding during the times the temple came under attack. Taking photos inside the temple is not welcomed although there were no signs informing visitors about this. However, if you speak to a priest, there is a chance of being permitted to take a few photos without intruding the worshippers and the ongoing ceremonies.

Legend surrounding Nagadeepa

According to the chronicles, in the 5th year after enlightenment, Lord Buddha visited Nagadipa to settle a dispute between two Nàga Kings – Chulodara and Mahodara regarding a gem throne. The Buddha preached the virtues of non-violence to the warring factions. He urged them to forget hating each other and be united. The two kings surrounded by their followers listened patiently to the Buddha and decided to end their enmity. After the two warring kings made peace the throne was offered to the Buddha, who returned it to the Naga kings. It was later enshrined in the Nagadeepa Stupa and soon became a place of Buddhist veneration and one of the 16 sacred places of worship in Sri Lanka.

Legend has it that a temple was built at the Naga Shrine by a trader who received Ambal’s blessing when passing by in the sea. The temple was demolished in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese but it is said that the Nageswari Ambal Statue was kept hidden in a tree. It is then recorded that Ramalingar Ramachandirar rebuilt the temple in 1788 and it was later renovated and a gopuram (ornate tower) added in 1935. The statue of the Naga deity kept in the sanctum is said to be very ancient, the followers who worship here seek the blessings of the Goddess Ambal Devi for the well-being of their progeny and for this reason many parents bring their new-born here.

The Ceylon Traveller – Somawathiya

Originally published on The Sunday Leader on 12/02/2012 (

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I visited Somawathiya in early 2010 during a trip to Polonnaruwa. It was a much-anticipated visit because this area was inaccessible and dangerous during the war and I had never been there before. But another reason I looked forward to it was because Somawathiya featured heavily in one of my favourite books as a child and it was a childhood dream to one day visit the area 

The Somawathiya area consists mainly of the Somawathiya Chethiya and the surrounding thick forest, which is the Somawathiya strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary. 

How to get there 

I travelled by a private vehicle from Polonnaruwa but for the benefit of others who may travel differently, I’m quoting an excerpt from

“It is possible to get Somawathiya on the A6 highway from Colombo, and then you have to take A11 Highway from Habarana Junction to Minneriya to your right side. From Minneriya, you should take left turn to the Higurakgoda. The distance from Higurakgoda to Somawathiya is about 40KM and you have to turn to the Sungawila road which was a dusty gravel road during the time I visited). The drive from Colombo is approximately 6 hours by a private vehicle. Buses travel along this highway but there are no buses from Sungawila to Somawathiya.”

It should also be noted that the gravel road is difficult to travel in during the rainy season and only heavy vehicles and four-wheel vehicles manage to make it across during such times.

Somawathiya National Park 

The Somawathiya strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary is under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. It is 37,645.5 hectares and was established first as a wildlife sanctuary in 1966 and then as a national park in 1986. The park is one of the four national parks belonging to the Mahaweli River Development Project.

It is home to a wide variety of animals, the most commonly sighted being elephants. Somawathiya is famous for huge herds of elephants (although they have reduced in number in the past few years) and this is mainly because the area consists of villu (marshes with water tolerant and aquatic plants) which the elephants love to eat.

Other species found here include leopard, jackal, deer, sambar, water buffalo, etc.

History of the Somawathiya Chethiya 

It is believed that one Prince Giri Aba who was married to Princess Somawathi, sister of King Kavantissa, built the Somawathiya Chethiya in 2nd Century A.D. They lived in and ruled over an area called Somapura which was situated at the bed of the Mahaweli River and the Somawathiya Chethiya was built upon the request of the princess who wanted a temple to perform religious activities.

The right tooth relic of Lord Buddha is enshrined in the relic chamber of the stupa and is believed to be the one of the two remaining tooth relics in the world, the other being the one at the Dalada Maligawa.

Somawathiya Chethiya was maintained by several kings who succeeded Prince Aba but it was later abandoned during foreign invasions. It was again discovered in the 1940’s and archaeologists began excavations in 1964. They unearthed many things including stone inscriptions, moonstones, flower pedestals, etc.

In 1987 the Somawathiya area came under terrorist attack. The monks and civilians who resided in the Somawathiya Chethiya and the surrounding area fled for safety after the nearby Seruwila Raja Maha Viharaya was attacked by the LTTE resulting in fatalities. The Somawathiya Chethiya also came under attack and a massacre was carried out in a nearby village. The caretaker of the temple was also killed during this massacre.


The entire area was largely abandoned for the next 15 years until the temple was renovated in 2002 during a ceasefire with the LTTE and reopened to the public. Now it is regularly visited by pilgrims and has become a fairly popular tourist attraction as well.

However, on a personal note, I was slightly disappointed when I visited it after years of waiting. It was probably partly due to high expectations set by a book that described a Somawathiya from years ago. But it was also because some of the new additions to the temple were, simply put, tacky and was not built in keeping with the simple architecture of the temple.

Interesting facts 

Mahaweli River changing course 

–       Ancient texts state that the Somawathiya Chethiya was situated on the Eastern bank of the Mahaweli River. However it is now situated close to the west bank of the river and there was speculation as to whether this was the same temple referred to in ancient texts. This was later resolved when it was discovered that as the years went by, the river had gradually changed its course. It is believed that the gravel road that leads to the temple was the original course of the river.

Eric Swan Rock

–       The Eric Swan rock is located close to the entrance to the temple. It is so named because a man called Eric Swan (supposedly a photographer!) who shot (unfortunately with a gun and not his camera) at the reclining Buddha statue carved into a rock was killed on that rock by a wild elephant who was agitated by the sound of the gunshot. I didn’t get to see the rock but heard the story from a caretaker at the temple.

Buddha rays

– It has been alleged in several occasions that beams of light (budu res or Buddha rays) radiate out of the stupa, the most recent being during the President’s visit to Somawathiya Chethiya in January, 2012, as reported in one newspaper. This phenomena was first reported in 1977 and then in 1981, 2002 and 2006. While there are eye witnesses and photographs of this, it remains an unexplained phenomena.

In conclusion, whether you’re a believer or a non-believer of such phenomena, Somawathiya is an area worth visiting if you’re a history and archeology buff or a wildlife enthusiast or both, like me. If you visit early in the morning, you can have the added bonus of watching the Sun rise over the stupa. It would be advisable to leave aside at least two hours to explore the temple and its surroundings.

Happy travels!