As we jump on the bus from the road outside the elephant reserve (near Dambula), to go North into Tamil country, we are conscious that it is a newly-gained privilege to travel in this part of Sri Lanka.
Not long ago, travel throughout the war torn island was constrained either by governmental rules and police action, or by the sheer danger of traveling through hot spots of the decades long civil war, which ended in 2009.
We have travelled enough to appreciate that to any national conflict there are various strains of truths and experiences, and that there is never ONE history, but rather multiple histories that cohabit.
The multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious population that makes up Sri Lanka, is both a tremendous asset, a potential source of pride and a historical heritage which has come with a share of political complexity.
What most Westerners know of Sri Lanka typically comes down to two historical data points:
It used to be called Ceylon (and was a colony of the UK) and secondly, the Tamil Tigers waged a civil war.
Let’s add a bit more color:
In the 13th Century, Marco Polo called Sri Lanka the finest island of its size in the world. Over several centuries after Marco Polo’s accounts, European and Arab traders were lured by a plethora of spices, precious stones, elephants and white sandy beaches.
The subsequent European Colonialist dance played out in Sri Lanka as it did in so many parts of Asia, with several sequential empires trading place as Colonial overlords, between the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British…
While Tamils have inhabited Ceylon for two milleniums and this community deserves to be considered as much of an indigenous population as the Singhalese population, there is a common misperception (ours as well, as you can read from a Tamil reader’s comments below) that it was the British who planted the seeds of current day conflict by bringing “foreign” labor from other part of the British Empire, who spoke a different language ~ Tamil ~ and had different cultural and religious practices (Hindu, Muslim)
We are eager to experience first hand this Tamil tapestry, and start the process of adding granularity to our historical and cultural experience of Sri Lanka.
There are multiple former hotbeds of Tamil versus Singhalese conflict. We hesitate between going all the way North to the formerly grand city of Jaffna (hit particularly hard during the civil war) or East to the port city of Trincomalee.
Neither of these places are typical tourist destinations (as of yet) but both of them have scores of fans, as we start to discover when Peta asks Sri Lankans what their recommendations are, for venturing into Tamil country.
We really want to visit both; but this time, we need to select one, due to time constraints. Jaffna is way up at the Northern tip of the country, (a mere ferry ride away from Southern India)… Trincomalee is said to have some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches and landscapes.
And so, we select Trincomalee as we are huge fans of wild and undeveloped beaches; We also want to be in a position to travel down the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
When we get off the bus, the first feeling upon arrival in Trincomalee is that of being parachuted into the colorful streets of small town India.
Suddenly women are wearing bright saris, and all the men are wearing colorful sarongs. Buddhist temples from the South have given way to Hindu temples, in all their psychedlic 3 dimensional splendor. We instantly feel excited and very comfortable.
Before taking a tuk tuk to find a place to sleep for the night, we mingle into the hustle and bustle on the streets, enjoying the experience of being in a new and interesting place. We have definite shades of being back in Pushkar and Kochin, India.
Behind the street with small shop fronts, we see the tall colorful spires of a Hindu Temple rising up into the blue sky. A pantheon of Indian gods and mythical creatures beckons us.
Whereas in India entry into HIndu temples is forbidden to non Hindus, in Trincomalee, we are welcomed to enter into the holy temple and sit in on the ceremonies which are taking place. (Perhaps those who have been rebuffed at Indian temples will appreciate the inclusiveness and rare opportunity this offers…)
We quickly discover a core element to understanding the Tamil/ Singhalese conflict. Tamil is not a religious nor ethnic grouping. It is a linguistic grouping. Some Tamils are Hindu, some are Muslims, some are Christians. Religion is not a divider in Tamil country.
We learn from talking with multiple residents of Trincomalee that the fighting here was extremely harsh and that the Tamil Tigers had taken possession in the nearby jungle. Trincomalee was the scene of repeated bombing campaigns by both sides — the Singhalese Government and the Tamil Tigers, with the Trincomalee population caught in the middle.
There are remnants and hints at the power relationship between the two populations. For instance, all the policemen which are more visible around town than in the South, are Singhalese and more often than not, do not speak Tamil. (Classic case of setting up an adversarial relationship between the government and a linguisticaly and culturally different region.)
After our temple immersion we hop on a tuk tuk to go in search of accommodation and a place to drop our backpacks so we can be unencumbered. Our criteria is to be on the beach.
On the way we do not pass up the opportunity to have a regional chapatti bread being made street side, as breakfast has only been bananas eaten in the back of a jeep while elephant watching in the reserve at dawn, hours ago.
Along the beachfront, there is a handful of other Western travelers and the rest of the visitors are Sri Lankan families who have come to the beach for a weekend getaway.
The hotel we find probably had its grander days, yet it still maintains a feeling of an old fashioned hotel by the sea. (Not very different from places that I (Peta) recall from my childhood with my grandfather in Muizenburg, at the coast in South Africa.)
The beach is long and wide and we quickly befriend a large Tamil family. They are eager to converse with us as foreigners, and clearly this is a first for them! Luckily one of the daughters of three matriarch sisters, is an English teacher and she rises to the challenge. They have many questions for us, as we do for them.
After a few hours on the beach, we are in search of a tasty bite to eat. We discover that the only options available within walking distance are curry and rice, or…. curry and rice, and so we look for a tuk tuk and head into town in search of some good seafood (which we find.)
We discover a network of parallel alleyways that connect from a main street, to the sea front ~ creating numerous micro neighborhoods inhabited by fishermen and their families.
Trincomalee is an eye opening window into Tamil country ~ The colorful buzz of street life will remain vibrant in our minds, as will the feeling of warmth and friendliness offered up by the locals.
~ ~ ~
Certainly, a few days in Tamil country starts to peel away at the easy labels, which are many. The Singhalese population in the South generally considers the Tamils to be “foreigners”!’; The government of Sri Lanka (and other governments) considered them “terrorists”; Many amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil community (As well as India’s Tamil Nadu population), considered them “freedom fighters”.
With regard to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, we are just at the early stage of discovery of the intricacies of the complexity of the situation.
~ Origin of the Tamils : The Colonial British empire “sourced” labour from the Tamil Nadu province of India, also under British rule. It is this twist of history that the SInghalese point to when they claim that the Tamils are “foreigners”. In this sense, it has some basis in history. BUT… and THANK YOU to a Tamil reader of our blog, Jey, who corrected our overly simplistic historical summary with the following comments:’
“The original Tamil speaking inhabitants of north and east Sri Lanka have at least a two thousand year history on the island. The Portuguese and Dutch conquered the Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms but ruled them separately. Please google Rob Morden Ceylon map and Sir Hugh Cleghorn 1799 on Tamils and Sinhalese inhabitants of Ceylon. It was the British who in 1833 decided to join the Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms for administrative purposes.”
~ The Muslim Tamil population pretty much stayed out of the conflict reinforcing an image of Muslims as a peace loving community in Sri Lanka, (as we had started to discover in Fort Galle in 2014). The Muslim community here is Suni and does not recognize itself in the form of Islam that pervades Middle Eastern Politics
~ India’s Tamil Nadu population was an active participant in the civil war as a source of funding weapons etc. and this bit of history continues to stain the relationship between Sri Lankas Singhalese government and its mostly HIndu larger neighbor.
If you enjoyed this post, please follow Green Global Trek.
Comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated!