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Discovering Traditional Drum Making in Rural Sri Lanka

Discovering Traditional Drum Making in Rural Sri Lanka

The entire village plays a role in the business of manufacturing these drums. To start work on the drums wood is cut, mainly from the Jack Fruit tree. Some other woods used are from Ehela (neem) and coconut trees. The artisans use the wood which, is most readily available at the time. The carving of the shape of the drum thereafter begins, where the raw logs are carved to the required shape of each of the drum types. After the cutters and carvers have done their job, the product goes to the finishers and shavers – who smoothen the other layer and scoop out the insides of the drum to form a hollow cavity after which the polishers will apply varnish to give the drum colour and protect the wood. Thereafter the goat and cattle skin is used for the drums itself, where the skins are cut into circles and tightly bound onto the drum. Afterwards, the grinder will grind up a black porous rock which is pasted only to the centre of the leather on each side of the drum.

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Some of the most popular drums used are mentioned below.

GETA BERAYA:

This hill country drum is called the Geta Beraya (a drum with a knot) according to its shape. This is the main drum used to accompany dance sequences in all Kandyan rituals. The two faces of the drum are described as ‘left’ and ‘right’. The right side is covered with the hide of a monkey or monitor lizard and the left side is covered with cattle hide, which is used to provide a finer sound. Since the drum is usually played at open-air venues, the sound carries to quite a distance. This drum is turned out of wood from Ehela, Jak, Kohomba and Milla trees. Various parts of the drum have separate names and are played by tying around the waist.

YAK BERAYA:

This low-country drum is also called the Ruhunu Beraya, Yak Beraya or the Goshaka Beraya. It is used in the southern coastal areas known as the Pahatha Rata’. The Yak Beraya is the main drum used to accompany dance sequences in this region of Sri Lanka. This cylindrical drum is covered with the stomach lining of cattle and turned out of wood from Kitul, Coconut, Kohomba, Ehela and Milla trees. The drummer plays the instrument by hand whilst tied around the waist. Some players decorate the trunks of their drums with various motifs or fix stainless steel bars around the body.

THAMMATTAMA:

The Thammattama consists of two separate pieces. It is called the Pokuru Beraya and is also referred to as the cluster of drums. This twinset of drums is of different sizes. As this is a twinset, it is termed `Ubhayatala’. The top side is covered with cattle hide, and the body is made out of wood from Milla, Kohomba, Jak and Ehela trees. The left side produces low pitched tones while the right produces high pitched tones. These drums are played with two special sticks fashioned out of Kirindi. The Thammattama is an essential instrument during religious services at Buddhist temples and shrines.

Exploring a Forgotten Kingdom

Exploring a Forgotten Kingdom

When thinking about an ancient Kingdom in Sri Lanka, many think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. But little do many visitors who visit this island know there exist a historic kingdom and its remnants lying in suburban Colombo. A visit to ColomboIMG_5108 usually involves a tour of the city, its colonial past and busy markets and streets. Yet around 30 minutes out of the city you will come across several ancient archaeological sites of one of Sri Lanka’s last kingdoms – the Kingdom of Kotte.

Kotte stood in the vicinity of our current suburban-capital of Colombo for over 2 centuries. During its height, the kingdom was one of the most powerful on the island. In the year 1419, Parkramabahu VI succeeded in subjugating the Jaffna Kingdom and ruled over a united Sri Lanka and he was the last native king to do so.

Withstanding internal conspiracies and breakaway fiefdoms, the Kotte Kingdom continued to be IMG_4972the island’s major power for over hundred years, but the arrival of the Portuguese invaders in 1505 soon led to the kingdom’s collapse. The once mighty and powerful city was looted by both the Portuguese and rival local kingdoms. The decline of the Kingdom was quite sudden, and it virtually disappeared into history.

Due to the kingdom being sacked and virtually erased from memory, Kotte does not hold an exalted place as a historic site compared to Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. But taking aside the complexities of historical judgment, searching for remnants of a lost Kingdom in a modern suburb makes for a great day out during your stay in Colombo.

But this tour would not be like walking among revered antiquities as in most cases you might find historical stupas with homeless people sleeping next to them or ancient ramparts with clotheslines running across from the homes right in between them with day to day life carrying on as normal in suburbia.

A visit to the Archeological Museum in Kotte though seldom visited will help to get an idea of where the sites are located.

The Alakesvara Palace Compound is thought to be where the remnants of the foundations of the Royal Palace of which sadly very little remains. But making your way through the wire fence and moving over stone blocks and clearing some long weeds you will see the remnants of a tank and you will feel like a real-life archaeologist exploring a lost kingdom.

Weherakada Ruins are an impressive structure which you will find after bouncing along maze-like lakes in Kotte which are two well-preserved stupas which overlook the lake Diyawanna Oya. With a height of 10 feet, they are made of Kabok stones. From the structure, it does not seem to be a temple but it is believed to be the mausoleum of King Parakramabahu IV.

The Kabok Tunnel has evidence of an ancient tunnel complex which are believed to run down towards several parts of Colombo. This complex was believed to have been built by a princess whose father was held as a prisoner by the Portuguese in Colombo.

Your ancient city tour can end with a visit to the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya. Originally built by King Parakramabahu VI this quiet and shaded temple is home to some well-preserved 15th-century frescoes. The kings of Kotte along with the Portuguese are well depicted on these walls.

The story of this forgotten kingdom can be brought to life by your excellent host from Classic Sri Lanka, we will enthral and showcase a new and unique facet to your stay in Colombo. Two ancient stupas in a clearing overlooking a man-made reservoir. Hemi-spherical red kabook mounds that have weathered the elements for centuries – an out of the way clearing in Anuradhapura you might think, or perhaps somewhere in the plains beyond Kurunegala? Not quite. This is actually suburban Colombo.

The Veddah’s of Sri Lanka

The Veddah’s of Sri Lanka

The last of a disappearing race, they are a people who date back well beyond the arrival of the Kings from India in the 5th Century BC. They are the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Archaeological and anthropological studies have revealed that they date as far back as the stone-age.Veddah with Bow & Arrow

Over the years the Veddahs began to conform to their colonizers, and adapt the customs and practices of the Sinhalese and the Tamil settlers such as subsistence farming.

The remaining Veddahs live in reservations in the jungles of Sri Lanka and still practice some of their traditional ways of life such as honey gathering and hunting which they are permitted to carry out.

Majority of the Veddahs live in the South Central jungles of Mahiyanganaya. Others are scattered in regions nearby such as Rathugala which is close to Gal Oya National Park. Some Veddahs live along the East Coast of Vakarai and have adopted most of the customs and language of the Tamil people in the area.

DSCF4912The Veddhas are a Paleo community and live off the hunting and gathering they carry out in the jungles and wilds they live in. One of their staple food is wild honey, which they collect by climbing trees where the beehives are, and using smoke from burning dried leaves to ward off the bees. The honey is used to preserve the meat they hunt. In the modern age, they also carry out basic subsistence farming to supplement their hunting, such as corn and millet.

The traditional tool for hunting is bow and arrow which is used with great skill and precision, along with the hand axe which every Veddah uses for protection against dangerous animals in the jungle such as the Sloth Bear who is well documented to attack and maul people walking in the forest.IMG_20200222_161455

Ancient song and dance is still practised today and passed on to their younger generations as oral traditions. They are people with a close connection to nature, and their ritualistic songs communicate with the elements. They have their own language, which is different from the widely-spoken Sinhalese, and it is passed down from generation to generation.

If you would like to visit these enigmatic people, a very special experience can be arranged in either Mahiyanganya, in the region of Dambana or at Rathugala in the region of Gal Oya, where both of these tribes welcome visitors to see their way of life. A walk in the jungle with the Veddahs will reveal the incredible harmony between man and nature, and the nature of these communities and experience firsthand their ways of life.

Unique experiences can also be arranged to venture deeper into the jungle with the trip in search of wild bees honey, or an exclusive private dinner with the Veddah-chief where you can converse with him on the history of his people, their ways of life and philosophy of life, and the challenges of preserving them in the modern world.

The real treasure of Sri Lanka is its people, and the Veddahs are part of a vibrant kaleidoscope of communities which make Sri Lanka an island like no other.

Angampora -An ancient martial art facing a revival

Angampora -An ancient martial art facing a revival

IMG_0984Sri Lanka is an ancient land which dates back even beyond the arrival of the first Sinhalese King Vijaya 3,500 years ago. The fighting arts of the island date well beyond this period and literally translates “fighting with the body”. The origin story of this ancient art has many versions and has never been documented but passed down from generation to generation, from master to pupil. However, some ancient chronicles do shed some light into this ancient practice.

The ancient Indian saga of the Ramayana gives an insight which leads us to believe that Angampora dates back beyond 5,000 years ago to the time of the mythical king of Lanka, Ravana.

Legend states that Ravana himself was a masterful practitioner of the deadly art and used it in the battle against Prince Rama. Another legend states that the art was perfected by the Yaksha or Yakkha tribe and used as self-defence to protect the island from foreign invaders.

Whatever the origins maybe the art is a holistic fighting form which incorporates, Hand to Hand Combat (Angam), Weapons (Ilangam) and Mysticism (Maya), all of these three elements combine to be referred to as Angam Satan Kala (Fighting art of Angam).

Besides the fighting forms, practitioners of this art also learn the arts of healing and natural medicine techniques, meditation techniques as well as astrology, making this more than a mere fighting art, but rather a way of life.

The art was widely used in the golden age of the Kings and helped to protect the island from foreign invaders. Famously Sri Lanka’s most loved ruler King Duttugemunu, had 10 great warriors by his side known as the “Dasa Maha Yodhaya’s” or 10 giants, they were believed to be masters of Angampora, and are akin to the knights of the round table in Arthurian legend.

Practice thrived during Sri Lanka’s medieval period when Bhuvanekabahu VI of Kotte’s successful campaign to conquer the Jaffna Kingdom included fighters who excelled in this art. Descendants of a heroine named Menike or Disapathiniya who lived around this time is credited with the art form’s survival in the ensuing centuries: dressed in male attire, she is said to have defeated the killer of her father in a fight inside a deep pit known as ura linda (pig’s pit), during a historic fight.

The practice of this art helped to combat the colonial powers to Sri Lanka, with many successful battles and skirmishes won against the Portuguese, Dutch and later British forces. One of the most famous battles was at Mulleriyawa, which is modern-day Colombo suburbs, wherein the mid-16th Century many Angam practitioners were able to defeat the Portuguese.

During the time of British colonial occupation, the practice was banned by a special announcement in 1817, and this art was relegated to mystery and legend. Any caught practising the art were shot on the knees so they can never do so again. Despite the cruel practices of the colonials, the art did not die but rather was practised in secret. With this ban, the fighting art was hidden in many forms of traditional dance. These dances hid many techniques such as footwork, striking forms within the dance itself.

With the onset of Independence from British Colonial Rule, these practitioners were once again able to hone and develop this ancient art form once again. But despite being free from Britain, the art was yet known only more by legend and still practised in small pockets of communities who kept this art alive, passing it on from generation to generation. Many Sri Lankans themselves do not truly know or have witnessed this art, which is taught to only a select few, and this too is practised with many traditions and only the truly worthy are allowed to learn this art form.

Currently, there are few schools which practice this art form in the island, steeped in tradition, the art is kept alive by these dedicated families of practitioners who helped to preserve these invaluable traditions which our island can truly be proud of.

Classic Sri Lanka, has the privilege of working with two of these ancient schools, one located in the outskirts of Colombo and the other in the remote region of the North Central Province, whereby we are proud to showcase the art and its rich history and traditions to our clientele.

A Legend of a Millennia – King Ravana

A Legend of a Millennia – King Ravana

Valmiki, the Indian Sanskrit poet wrote an epic legend called Ramayanaya around 5th Century BCE. The legendary storyline has two different cultural views on the great battle between Rama and Ravana.

According to Ramayanaya, Ravana is called as the Demon King of Lanka and said to have ruled the country over 5000 years ago. The Indian text depicts the king as a villain and tyrant who cruelly kidnaped Rama’s wife Sita as an act of vengeance from Rama and his brother Lakshman for cutting off his sister Surpanakha’s nose.

Although he’s shown as a vicious figure, Ravana is portrayed in Lankan myth as a Noble king, a devout follower of Lord Shiva, a mighty warrior and an intelligent scholar.

As the Hindu mythology reads, Ravana is a son of a sage. Lanka was an idyllic city built by celestial architect, Vishwakarma and was the home of Kuwera, the treasurer of Gods. Ravana was a great ruler who bloomed the country, and he has said to have ruled Lanka a several hundred years before the Ramayana took place.

Legend states that Ravana was a great scholar, a master of Ayurveda medicine and an Inventor. The story tells about a certain flying machine he possessed, called, Dadumonara – a golden peacock. Thotupola Mountain in Horton Place National Park was believed to be one of the landing places of this magical machine. Apart from that, he’s also mentioned in several Hindu literature as a ‘Ten-Headed person’, which is given said to mean his immeasurable intelligence.

However some folklore, historians and archaeologists believe that the legendary character of Ravana was in fact associated around a real king who once ruled Sri Lanka from 2554 to 2517 BCE.

The Mysterious Rumassala Mountain

The Rumassala Mountain, located in the Southern of Sri Lanka, is where unique rare herbs grow, none like anywhere else in the country. Legend says that a part of this mountain was allegedly brought to Sri Lanka by Hanuman-the monkey king from the Himalayan Mountain range, to treat the fatal injuries of Rama, during the great battle. The herbs were left there and the plants grew into the Lankan soil with time.

The Adam’s Bridge

A trail of limestone shoals between Rameswaram Island and off the south eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India plays a huge role in the legend of Ramayanaya. This bridge is believed to be created by the Monkey king Hanuman to make a path for Rama and his army to enter Lanka. Investigations by the ‘Indian National Remote Sensing Agency’ has discovered that these shoals were man-made and was created over 5000 years ago.

Though this legend was never proved, there are many instances of sites and beliefs that stir up doubt. The location of Seetha Eliya next to the Seetha Amman Kovil is also a part of the legendary storyline. The famous stream here is said to be where Sita used to bathe while held captive.

In Hasalaka, there is a site called Seetha kotuwa, which is said to be the place where Seetha was held captive.

The Ravana Cave

This Cave has a series of secret passageways that lead to various places which are said to have provided quick transport through hills during the time. Studies regarding the cave shows various evidence of its man-made influence as well. Located in between Bandarawella and Ella, this tunnel may contain some truth regarding the legend after all.

Travel to Sri Lanka this holiday and unveil the Ravana mystery by yourself!            

Masks of the South- By Rajiv Welikala

Masks of the South- By Rajiv Welikala

Ambalangoda has always been the center for the manufacture of traditional masks in Sri Lanka. Used in a variety of dance forms from the devil dances, to the entertaining Kolam or comedy performances. Masks are used in varying degrees in Sri Lankan culture and an intricate part of the nation’s folk lore. We visited the Ariyapala and Sons mask museum to learn more about this traditional art.

The museum is well maintained and showcases a vast variety of unique masks from the fearsome Mahasohon (a name of a demon with a bears head) Mask fully dressed on a dummy to the bizarre Kolam masks with their misshapen faces. The carvings and final touches on these masks are truly intricate and only a skilled hand can create such amazing works of art. One of the most stunning pieces on display are the giant masks depicting the King and Queen. Not only does it take great skill to create such a masterpiece but only true dance masters could perform with such heavy props.

Up in the main showroom we were entertained to a puppet dance, all carried out manually by a skilled master puppeteer who manipulated the strings to the rhythm of the music. Down at the workshop one gets to see the transformation of a bare block of wood into the intricate complete work of art. These artisans are a last of their kind who struggle to maintain their traditions and skills in an era of modern technology.

We were humbled to have witnessed this dying art which showcases a side of Sri Lanka which needs to be preserved in order to maintain its identity as an art form for the world to see.

Words and Photos by Rajiv Welikala