In his latest book, ‘Kalutara –An Odyssey’, Bradman Weerakoon has embarked on a journey to the district of his paternal grandparents and of his late wife Damayanthi to “discover what the real heart of this district is.”
For a man known to many as a bureaucrat, who has led more than half his life in the public service, that too working with the most prominent political personalities in the country, this seemed rather an unusual undertaking, but the past two years he spent completing the book has been one of self-discovery and a way of occupying his time after the death of his wife.
“It was made personal by the sad death of my wife. She was from Payagala in Kalutara and she passed away about three years ago. Then there was a gap of time and a feeling that maybe I should use that time profitably,” Weerakoon reminisces.
His idea is to get a series of books going on the different districts, to depict them in a new light unlike the drab manner in which administrative reports on the districts are usually compiled by Government Agents.
“Mine was a search. I wanted to find out about the people, what they do, about the rivers and lakes, the sociology and history of the area.” And indeed he found a refreshingly new way of looking at the district which starts at the Panadura Bridge and extends to the Bentara Bridge along 22 miles of coast line and has an interior of about 1670 square miles.
It’s a district that Weerakoon has known from his childhood. “I was born in Colombo but till I was about seven years I lived in Kalutara. I have gone on those rivers, bathed in the wells, visited relatives and the temples,” he recalled. Later the connection to the district became stronger when he married a lady hailing from the same area. “I’ve dedicated my book to her which is one way of expressing my feelings.”
Weerakoon took a cue for his books from the manuals of the districts and provinces that were compiled by British officials who served in Sri Lanka. He had never worked in Kalutara despite his nearly 50 years of service as a public official and this he feels helped him to look at the district away from the typical GA angle of work.
Although “very little” of the book is autobiographical, Weerakoon discovered that his wife’s family had close connections with the Rammanna Nikaya which originated in the area around the mid 18th century with the main temple being situated on a land gifted by that family. This Buddhist sect played an important role in the Buddhist reformist movement in the country.
The visit there gave me a very interesting window into Buddhism, said Weerakoon who was brought up as a Christian but converted to Buddhism around the age of 17- 18 as he found “more meaning in it.”
He also discovered that even though the Portuguese and Dutch were said to have occupied mainly the maritime areas, their penetration into the district was deep and there had been inter marriages with locals. Anguruthota in the interior of Kalutara was the place where coal was unloaded and here stands a Dutch fort, a testimony of their strong presence.
Weerakoon traced the routes of the old travellers by road and river going up the Kalu Ganga which leads all the way to the border of the Ratnapura District and fringes on the Sinharaja forest. He also travelled along the coast from Panadura southwards up to the Bentara bridge.
Unearthing some interesting facts about the district’s Muslims who live mainly in Beruwela and in small pockets in several other areas, he says, “The Muslims there continue to speak Tamil in their homes despite living among Sinhalese for generations.” The reason, he discovered was that Arab traders who settled in the area around the 10th to 12th century had continued to trade with South India and had married women from there and then returned to Sri Lanka.
This unique feature has been recognized by the government by designating the Beruwela Assistant Government Agent (AGA) division as having a high enough percentage of Tamil-speaking people that it requires government officials to carry out their correspondence in Tamil as well as Sinhala. Other than the north and east and the Kandy area, this is the only other area to be so recognized.
There was also “strong local flavour” among the Sinhalese who lived in the area. “It was interesting to see the older people introduce themselves as “Api pasdun korale” (We are from pasdun korale) or “Api Raigam korale” (We are from Raigam korale). “This is very significant because we assume that we are one fantastic homogenous race but in fact there are very distinct differences even within one district,” Weeakoon said.
From the Kalutara Bodhiya to Richmond Castle, Weerakoon sought out the architectural landmarks of the district. The castle had been built by a wealthy man, Siriwardena, who was known as a “Padi mahattya” –a man with a paid retainer from the government who built the castle for his wedding. He married a Kandyan lady around 1896. Sadly the marriage did not last and Siriwardena put the magnificent castle in the hands of the Public Trustee and spent his last days at Queen’s Hotel in Kandy. In his will he wanted the home converted to an orphanage only for male children, probably a reflection of his longing for a child which was unfulfilled.
Another surprising discovery for the writer was Pahiyangala in the Bulathsinhala electorate which has come to be named after the renowned Chinese traveller Fa-Hien, who had lived there around the 5th century on his way to Adam’s Peak. Fa-Hien spent two years in Anuradhapura studying Buddhism and in his accounts of his travels has said he travelled to Adam’s Peak. “Pahiyangala is situated quite close to the Kalu Ganga and the footpaths from there lead all the way to the Adam’s Peak range. Fa-Hien travelled many centuries ago but the story is very current,” Weerakoon said.
These are some of the fascinating but little known stories that a reader will discover as he/she turns the pages of Kalutara- An Odyssey. Like for Ulysses, for Weerakoon who is nearing his 80th birthday, it too has been a journey into un-ventured territory.