Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sri Lanka, Languages, and Beads

When Americans think about a vacation spot, Sri Lanka doesn't come to mind.  First of all, it's far away.  But so is Australia, and plenty of folks have it on their wish lists.  Then there is that long bloody civil  war which would discourage anybody.  However, it didn't really discourage Europeans during all those years.  In fact, Sri lanka was a top destination for them throughout that period.

Our family lived there for five years, and the way I always describe it is that it's a cross between Hawaii and India.  It has fabulous beaches and tropical weather, which is not India's draw.  And, it has a rich and fascinating cultural history, which is not why people flock to Hawaii.  This is a small island country that contains four religious groups--Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist. And there was an advanced civilization there in 6000 BC, of which there are still traces for anybody who is sunburned, and bored of the fun-in-the-sun- beach- life, to go see.

Ceylon, as it was known before 1970, was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British until 1948.  While the Prime Minister , Senanayake, tiptoed around the issue of a national language, English, the colonial language was used in the schools, as a common language.  In 1970, Bandanaraike, a Sinhalese  Buddhist, became the Prime Minister, declared Sri Lanka  a free republic, and took great pains to establish Sinhalese as the national language.  This immediately disenfranchised the Tamil (largely Hindu) population. Their children could not cope with the Sinhala texts in school, and subsequently lost out on good jobs.  This is a classic example of a language issue preceding a civil war.  English, though a symbol of the yoke of colonialism, kept the economic playing field level.  Tamils would speak Tamil and English, and the Sinhalese would speak Sinhalese and English.  Only with the intoxicating declaration of nationalism, and the symbolic hoisting of the en-slavers'  language, did Sri Lanka start down the path of civil war.
Above are two necklaces from Sri Lanka .  The one on the left features Sinhalese beads, and the one on the right was sold as a Tamil piece, though is has strong Islamic influence with its Hirz boxes.

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