Get subscribed to our newsletter
Get interesting updates to your email inbox.
A few years ago I went for the launch of a premium brand of Sri Lankan Arrack in Delhi. It was a revelation. Till then I had thought Arrack is another name for Toddy. A poor man’s drink. But, there I learned, Vintage Arrack can be as precious as Single Malt Whisky. Matured for up to 15 years in Oak Casks it can give many a tropical alcoholic beverage a run for its money. That set me thinking how little we know about our island neighbor off the southern coast.
In the 1960s, for many North Indians, Sri Lanka meant Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon. Very few Indian tourists traveled to Ceylon (as it was then called) those days. Visitors from Ceylon were also limited to the Buddhist Circuit. Beyond Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka existed only in tales of the Ramayana. Indians, in general, had little idea of the geography and ethnic composition of Sri Lanka. Colombo was the only city most Indians had heard of. Jaffna was an alien name. They did not know the difference between Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. Sri Lanka first entered the larger Indian consciousness with its rise in Cricket. Then came its ‘Civil War’ and IPKF that captured the imagination of Indians.
This backdrop underscores the psychological disconnect we have with our South Asian neighbors. We, of course, had a common heritage with Pakistan and Bangladesh. But, both countries have evolved in different directions due to their internal dynamics. The same is true for Nepal. Despite an open border, we tend to miss the changes inside the Himalayan Republic. In the case of Sri Lanka, the gap is wider than the Gulf of Mannar, which the Ram Sethu has not been able to bridge yet.
Sri Lanka and her past
The history of Sri Lanka dates back to about 40,000 years as per anthropological evidence. Though couched under the Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka was not insulated. Apart from Buddhist connections, it had trade links with Southeast Asia and China. From the 16th Century, parts of Sri Lanka were under Dutch, Portuguese, and British rule. Even after independence in 1948, it remained a dominion of the British Empire till 1972. So, the Europeans also contributed to shaping the sensibilities of the Lankan people.
Thus in the midst of similarities, India and Sri Lanka have a distinct cultural identity. Indians at large are not aware of this parallel heritage. This may not have been the case in the pre-partition era. The Indian sub-continent then operated as an integrated geopolitical unit. Sri Lanka too was a part of the British empire. After 1947, we became preoccupied with the internal challenges of a fledgling republic. Pangs of separation with Pakistan – or withdrawal symptoms as it were – consumed our bandwidth. Ceylon too gained independence around the same time (in 1948). As a result, a slight drifting of minds may have happened without anyone noticing.
It would not be far off the mark if one said that, post the 1970s India has seen Sri Lanka more through a strategic lens. This was for good reason. Because of its vantage location, Sri Lanka has always been of interest to western powers. More recently, China went into overdrive to stitch Sri Lanka into its “string of pearls”. It has further cemented the bonds by making Sri Lanka a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) earlier known as One Belt One Road.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with China is not new. It goes back to many centuries. The two countries have historical links in maritime trade and religion (Buddhism). Other than Indian architecture, Chinese and East Asian influence in Sri Lankan architecture. Chinese migrants came to Sri Lanka during the 18th and 19th centuries. They formed settlements. Being small in number they did not create any feeling of insecurity or animosity. But, India was the proverbial “big brother”.
Thus, there has been a historical trust deficit with India. This IPKF misadventure aggravated it. The relationship is yet to recover from it. The scars will remain for a long time to come. Due to this rift, Pakistan got an entry to fish in troubled waters and continues to play a spoiler. Like some other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka too plays the Pakistan card to keep India in check.
India’s approach to Sri Lanka
Despite our shared past, India’s approach to Sri Lanka has been transactional. Some may argue, it is more from the head than the heart. There are not enough people to people exchange. India has always been a pilgrimage destination for Sri Lankan Buddhists. More Indians started traveling to Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war. But tourist traffic between the two countries remained low-key. Covid19 last year disrupted it again. Affluent Sri Lankans prefer going to Europe and the Americas for vacations. Indians chose other exotic locations in South East Asia.
There have been talks of starting a Ramayana trail in Sri Lanka with Indians in mind. But, it has much more to offer than religious tourism. Its beaches, hills, and historical sites can make it a high-end tourist attraction. In India, improved connectivity can entice Sri Lankans to look beyond Buddhist centers. There is great scope for enlarging socio-cultural exchange. Music, drama, dance, cinema, and sports can be a common ground for interaction. Premier institutions of higher education emerging in India can attract Sri Lankan students. They can also provide the platform of the academic interface. Bonhomie at the grassroots creates the foundation for a positive bilateral relationship.
The second all-important ï¿½T’ of bilateral relations – Trade has remained underexploited. Before the Free Trade Agreement, the Indian market was out of bounds for Sri Lanka. This compelled it to look at alternative markets. In a few areas, such as Tea, Sri Lanka and India were competitors. Over time Sri Lanka expanded its range of export. Value-added products like Apparel surpassed traditional commodities like Tea, Rubber, and spices. The US and Europe contribute to over 40 per. cent of Sri Lankan Export Trade.
Indian travelers abroad bought garments manufactured in Sri Lanka under international brand names. However, it came to them as a surprise when Sri Lankan Tea Brands like Dilmah came to boutique tea outlets in India. Now, Sri Lankan processed meats and seafood brands find space in Indian supermarkets. These are only the taste of things to come. The untapped potential remains huge.
With increasing ease of doing business in India, non-trade barriers are falling apart. This gives Sri Lankan companies greater market access. Economic Integration with the Southern States is now a real possibility. This could further open the doors for services, direct investments, and technical cooperation. Economic reforms in India have created a level playing field for regional players. The spirit has to shift towards partnership and collaboration from sibling competition.
Though Covid has been a setback, it has also brought the countries closer at a humanitarian level. There is a meeting of minds of the top political leadership. Past misunderstandings are out of the way. With a confident and “Atmanirbhar India”, it’s time to start a parallel channel of soft diplomacy. There are vast reserves of cultural assets to mine in mutual interest. A new chapter in South Asian history is waiting to be written. (IANS/JC)
Tenali Ramakrishna, or Tenali Raman as he is more popularly known is Birbal's equivalent in South India. A court jester and a scholar exuding great wisdom, Tenali Raman was known as one of the greatest courtiers in King Krishnadevaraya's court.
The Vijayanagar Empire ruled a large part of South India between 1336 and 1646. In the 16th century, the kingdom rose to prominence under the eminent leadership of King Krishnadevaraya. His continuous victories against his enemies ensured a successful and peaceful reign for his subjects. As a patron of art and literature, many crafts and cultural assets thrived in the empire.
Krishnadevaraya's beloved courtier, Tenali Raman is the finest example of the splendour of the Vijayanagar empire. He was born in Tenali, a town in Andhra Pradesh. He lived here until he lost his father, after which his mother brought him to Vijayanagar. He was discovered for his excellent wit and wisdom, and appointed in the court. He was one of the king's ashtadiggajas (collective name for the eight poets and scholars).
A statue of Tenali Ramakrishna near a Municipal Office in Andhra Pradesh Image source: wikimedia commons
Tenali Raman as a scholar, published great texts of wisdom, which have now become artefacts of the Kingdom of Vijayanagara. But his fame does not lie in these achievements. He is known for the mischievous jester that mythical folklore portrays him to be. Through stories, many writers have used jokes to impart wisdom and morals to many generations of people. The stories of Tenali Raman are almost legendary in the Southern peninsula.
Textbooks have been written with his moral stories in mind, and these days, many self-help book are also incorporating his wisdom. His most popular stories are, 'Mother Tongue', 'Cursed Face', 'Saluting the Donkeys' and many more. Through these stories, Tenali Raman, in some way, brought about social justice. Perhaps this is why he is most beloved by many people even today.
Keywords: Tenali Raman, Vijayanagar empire, Krishnadevaraya, Jester, Wisdom
It must be noted that different religions and societies in Southeast Asia have alternative narratives of Ramayana, one of the greatest epic.
Here are some of the versions of Ramayana!
Dasaratha Jakarta: The Buddhist Version
Interestingly, this version of Ramayana does not mention Ravana at all and in fact, there’s no mention of Sita’s abduction, too. In this version, Dasaratha is the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Also, Rama and Sita leaves kingdom and go to the Himalayas and not forests. Then, after twelve years, Rama and Sita return back to Benaras and get married.
Paumachariya: The Jaina Version
In this version, Lakshamana is the killer of Ravana and not Rama. Here, Rama is an ardent follower of Jainism, and so he cannot be the killer of Ravana. Also, this version states an army of warrior and not monkeys, as stated in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Another interesting feature of this version is that Ramayana is not shown as a villain, rather a magnanimous king and follower of Jainism.
Gond Ramayani: The Gond Version
Gond is an adivasi clan belonging from Madhya Pradesh in India. Interestingly, in this version, the story begins from where Valmiki’s Ramayana ended; when Sita is rescued from captivity. Also, Bhima, one of the Pandavas from the epic of Mahabharata, is mentioned in this version. Unlike Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is not the protagonist in this version.
Ramakien: The Thai Version
This is considered as Thailand's national epic, and is still taught in some schools in the country. In this version, Ravana is shown as a learned scholar and a noble king in this version. Also, Ravana’s pursuit for Sita is depicted as true love. There are a lot of similarities between this version of Ramayana and Valmiki’s version, but this version lays a lot of emphasis on Hanuman.
When a baby is born in an Indian household-they invite hijra to shower the newborn with their blessings for their blessings confer fertility, prosperity, and long life on the child. But when that child grows up we teach them to avert their eyes when a group of hijras passes by, we pass on the behaviour of treating hijras as lesser humans to our children. Whenever a child raises a question related to gender identity or sexuality they are shushed down. We're taught to believe that anything "deviant" and outside of traditional cis-heteronormativity is something to be ashamed of. This mentality raises anxious, scared queer adults who're ashamed of their own identity, and adults who bully people for "queer behaviour".
Hijras are a community of people who include eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people. They worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata. Most hijras, but not all, choose to undergo a castration ceremony known as "nirvana" in which they remove their male genitalia as an offering to their goddess. The whole community is vibrant with hundreds of people with hundreds of ways of expression, the true identity of a hijra is complex and unique to each individual. In India, hijras prefer to refer to themselves as Kinner/Kinnar as it means the mythological beings who excel at singing and dancing.
Hijras worship the Hindu goddess of chastity and fertility, Bahuchara Mata.homegrown.co.in
The hijra community works systematically, the community separates itself from the outside world and teaches lessons to the young ones in secret. Each community has a guru and the other hijras are their disciples or chela. The "hijra ways of life" are taught to the disciples in a secluded environment where they leave their families and live with other hijras in the community. More often than not hijras are thought of as nothing different from transgender and often referred to as transgender; however, scientifically these two terms denote a different class of people. Hijras are a part of the whole community of people with various identities and of spiritual and cultural values meanwhile, transgender merely refers to those people whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, they are a part of the community and do not represent the whole community.
Follow NewsGram on Facebook to stay updated.
Historically and culturally the community has existed in the Indian subcontinent as long as the civilization has existed. There are mentions of hijra in The Mahabharata, a holy book of Hindus. Shikhandi who was neither male nor female is a mythological legend. In another version of Mahabharata Arjuna, one of the Pandavas was cursed to be the third gender by Urvashi, when he refused to be sexually involved with her. In a story by Padma Purana, it is seen that Arjuna transforms into a woman to take part in Krishna's mystical dance which only women can take part in. The Hijra figures are prominent in Indian Mughal History as well, referred to as Khwaja Siras and known for their loyalty to the ruler, they worked as the sexless watchdogs of the Mughal harems. They held important positions in court and various facets of administration during Mughal-era India, from the 16th to 19th century. The Hijra community is a testament to the sexual diversity that is integral yet often forgotten in Indian culture.
If the whole hijra community was looked upon with enamor and respect in our history, what happened that when we come across the community we look at them with contempt and are filled with a mixture of negative, fear, laughter, and odd emotions. It's owing to the fact that under British Raj, the Criminal tribes Act 1871 hijras were criminalized and the law was made to eradicate the whole community. However, these acts were abolished by the Indian government after independence, and by 2014, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh all had officially recognized third gender people as citizens deserving of equal rights where the third gender means individuals categorizing themselves as neither male nor female. Even though the progress is slow but in 2015 Madhu Kinnar became the first hijra mayor in India was elected in the city of Raigarh.
ALSO READ: India's first Residential Transgender
Although the hijra community was revered by society and is invited to births and weddings for religious and spiritual ceremonies, they still become victims of abuse and discrimination. Violence and hate crimes against the community have become common. They are deprived of education, job opportunities, seating in restaurants, etc. leading them to live in poor conditions barely surviving. They often have to resort to begging and prostitution to earn a daily living. The government has tried to address this issue by introducing bills for the protection of the hijra community, with prison terms and other punishments for those offending them, but there is little to no less effect on the social stigma against the community.
In India, the hijra community comes under the umbrella term LGBTQ+ and we notice that they lack voice and representation when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. We need to understand that when we fight for LGBTQ+ rights we fight for the whole community, we fight for hijras who have been victims of violence, hate crimes, and disrespect from none other than the people of our society. And although hijras are a part of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, they have an independent subculture of their own. It is worth every effort to know about them, to study about them, to befriend them, and to smile at them for they are every bit of human as we are and they have nothing but blessings in their heart.