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Cultural Relationship between Indonesia and Sri Lanka



Indonesian National Day falls on Aug. 17

by Dr.P.G. Punchihewa

In spite of Sri Lanka and Indonesia (Java and Sumatra) having a common heritage based on Buddhism, the evidence of political, religious and cultural relationship that existed between the two countries in ancient times, is meagre.

It is presumed that Buddhism was established in Java by the 5th century A.D. The earliest evidence in Buddhism in Indonesia is found in an account of the voyage of a Chinese monk Faxien, who having spent two years in studying Buddhism in Sri Lanka on his return trip on a merchant ship in 414 A.D visited Java. With both countries being placed on the sea route from Far East to India and to West there would have been close links between the two. In the 14th century Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited both countries

Reports by the travelers particularly the Chinese and the archaeological monuments in situ and excavations done both in Java and Sumatra indicate the extent Buddhism influenced the culture of these islands and the links they had with the outside world, including Sri Lanka.

J.G. De Casperis in Artibus Asiae Vol 23 no 3/4 (1961) refers to an inscription found in Ratubaka Plateau in West Java which mentions “This Abhayagiri Vihara here of the Sinhalese ascetics was established”. He further says that “In the present state of research there is, however one important conclusion that may be safely drawn from the inscription: the existence of cultural relations between Java and Ceylon in the Sailendra period (around the 8th century).This means that the possibility of Sinhalese influence upon Old Javanese art and architecture should be kept in mind.”

Incidentally the famous Borobudur Temple was built during the time of this dynasty. The Buddha statues of Borobudur temple have a very close affinity to early Sri Lankan Buddha statues and to those about the same time. Two inscriptions from Palembang Sumatra dating 682 and 684 A.D belonging to the Sri Vijaya period contain references to Buddhist influence. The first one refers to setting up of a park to be planted with coconuts, arecanuts, sugar palm, fruits of which can be had by the people. Though they are dated according the saka era, months are according to the lunar Buddhist calendar. It says on the eleventh day of crescent moon, Citta (April).The other refers to the eleventh day of the crescent moon of Vaisakh (May). (Incidentally, Culavamsa refers to establishing a coconut garden three yojanas in length, about the same time in Sri Lanka by King Aggabodhi 1 who reigned from 571 to 604 A.D.) .What is more important is that the two inscriptions have been written in Pallava script also used in Sri Lanka about the same time.

Buddhism prevailed in Indonesia up to the time of the introduction and expansion of Islam from late 13th century in Sumatra and 14th century in Java. From then onwards the religious and cultural relationship between the two countries diminished.

But a different kind of relationship developed between Indonesia and Sri Lanka due to their occupation in part or full by the Dutch. The household objects like lemari, arloji,meja, kemaja, kuvitansi, notaris, sendok, and food items like achcaru, dodol have their parallel in Sinhalese. But there are others as well. For example, the word “asik” meaning nice, attractive, infatuated in Indonesia, in Sinhala is now common among the average Sinhala folk. Meaning in Sinhala too is a close one.

The word ‘mara’ in Sinhala must be as old as the ancient times meaning death. But now how come it means anger? When one is very angry one says “mara tarahai”. Strangely the word “mara” in Indonesian means anger, wrath. Some of the Indonesian words that have found their way to Sinhala vocabulary have acquired a secondary meaning. In Indonesia the word “pendek” means a short or small. It applies to animate as well as to inanimate objects but does not connote a derogatory meaning. When in a shop a short-sleeved shirt is called kemeja pendek. But in Sinhala it means a timid, effeminate person who cannot do anything by himself. Sarong in Indonesia is worn by ladies. Sarong no doubt introduced to SrI Lanka from Indonesia, is an attire here for men. Over the past century the Indonesian art of batik-making has become firmly established in Sri Lanka.

Reflecting on the past we recall how our parents used to keep us on their laps and rock us to and fro, crooning ‘ aspaya goyang, goyang goyang, kolomba duwang, duwang, duwang.’We were thrilled by the movement of our body, this way and that way as our beloved ones rocked us to the rhythm of this ditty.

What does ‘goyang’ mean? What is its connection to ‘aspaya’.What we really did was not to ride a horse. But to rock on the lap of a parent. ‘Goyang ‘in Bhasa Indonesia according to Indonesian –English dictionary is to ‘shake, swing, to rock’ (a cradle).

This is one of the many foreign words that have crept into the Sinhala vocabulary about whose origin we have not paused to ponder.

In urban colloquial Sinhala one word which is often used is “nakkal”.We hear people saying “nakkalayak damma.”In Indonesia the word nakkal means disobedient, rowdy and mischief.

In course of time it is natural for words to acquire a different meaning and some of them even get a derogatory connotation. The word “bang” in Sinhala is still being used. There is a similar word “bang” or “abang” in Indonesia meaning older brother and is even used by the wife to address the husband. The word “ado” in Sinhala is certainly derogatory. In Indonesia “adoo” means “surprise.”

During the Sinhala New Year it is a common sight to see children as well as adults indulging in a game of “panchi.”The chart used here is called “peta.”In Indonesian peta means a “map” “chart”. The ‘peta’ used here is like a map where according to the points gained the contestant go higher.

Leekeli is now considered to be a national game in Sri Lanka. No Buddhist procession (perahara) can be had without lee keli players. In leekeli when the players reach a certain point the leader calls “habis.”In Indonesian habis means “finish.” In any case lee keli is a sport which has its origin in Malaysia/Indonesia.

In Indonesia one finds certain varieties of fruits which have their origin in Indonesia or Malayasia., along with the name. Rambutan means the fruit with hair and durian means with thorns/spikes.

There are many varieties of mangoes in Indonesia and the most sought after is the one called Harumanis’, Haru means smell and manis is sweet meaning the one which is sweet and fragrant. However it does not seem to have any connection to Haramanis, the personal name. There is no trace it being used in Indonesia although we get such names as Padmavathie common to both countries.

Sinhala language has been enriched with words from numerous sources. The words we have from Indonesia are not many. Some of the words mentioned may have a common origin like Dutch. It calls for a separate study.

With both countries achieving independence in mid-20th century, there was the initiative to commence closer diplomatic relations. Sri Lanka established diplomatic relations with Indonesia in 1950. Indonesia reciprocated with the establishment of a Consular Office in 1952. Indonesia was one of the five countries along with Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Burma to initiate the Bandung Conference which subsequently developed to be the Non Aligned Movement.

Buddhism in Indonesia received an impetus with the declaration of Vaisak Full moon Day as a holiday in1983. Therevada Buddhism too has revived due to the untiring efforts of Ven.Narada Maha Thera from Vajiraramaya , Colombo. After many centuries, he was the first Theravada bhikkhu to visit Indonesia. The movement of Buddhist pilgrims between the two countries is now a common feature.

A Bo sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura planted in Borobudur in early 1980s heralded the revival of Theravada Buddhism in Indonesia and renewing the cultural and religious links between the two countries.

One area where the impact of Indonesia had not been felt in Sri Lanka is in literature. Indonesian writers were highly involved in the Indonesian fight for freedom from the Dutch and Japanese and some of their literary works speak of their struggle. Sri Lankans are hardly aware of such Indonesian literary giants as Pramodeya Ananta Toer,Mochtar Lubis or Madelon H.Lulofs. Although they wrote in the Indonesian language, their work has been translated into English by Western writers mainly from Australia.

The New York Times wrote thus on Pramodeya’s first novel, the Fugitive. “Mr.Toer is a master and a brilliant one at setting out an intricate web of motivation, character and emotion (the prose) owes much to the sensitive translation of William Samuels.” Prof.Anthony H. Jones of Australian National University in his introduction to Mochtar Lubis’s, “A Road with No End” says “He writes in the tradition of Swift – hard, incisive, belligerently honest and merciless in the exposure of corruption and humbug.”

Dr.P.G. Punchihewa

The original article appeared in my book “A String of Archaeological Sites in the East.” I have added more material to this article particularly the last paragraph.( I have translated “the Fugitive” to Sinhala which was published sometime back. The writer lived and worked in Indonesia for many years, heading what was the Asian Coconut Community following his retirement from the position of Secretary to the Ministry of Coconut Development here)


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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