Life Abroad – Part 112 FROM WHISKEY TO PIRITH IN LONDON
Posted on January 9th, 2015

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Sri Lanka, originally known as ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, with full of spiritual values and treasures had appeared as a magnet for travellers from around 350 BC. After going through a complete metamorphoses of names ranging from Taprobane, Simundu, Salike, Sila Diva, Serendib and Zeilan, finally the island was known as ‘Ceylon’ at the time she became independent on 4th February 1948.

Until 1972, Ceylon had a Commonwealth government with Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of State and Queen of Ceylon. William Gopallawa (MBE) served as the last Governor-General of Ceylon from 1962 to 1972 and became the first (non-executive) President of Sri Lanka when Ceylon declared itself a republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. William Gopallawa was well known as an austere, nonpartisan and statesmanlike figure that commanded the respect of all political parties.

Mr. Monarawela

In 1978 J. R. Jayewardena introduced the existing Presidency and assumed the position as its first Executive President.

February 4, 1987 became a distinctive day for Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK not simply because it was the 39th anniversary of ‘Ceylon’ becoming an independent nation, but the commemoration was expertly performed, with the blessings of the then High Commissioner, Chandra Monarawala, from the Sri Lanka High Commission building at 13, Hyde Park Gardens, West London, in a completely different manner surpassing decades old traditions observed up to then.

Stereotypic

It has been the normal practice throughout the years to celebrate the Independence Day at the Sri Lanka High Commission office in the UK, from day one, on an annual basis by stereotypically hoisting the national flag.

The celebrations consisted of two parts i.e. – during the morning session, Sri Lankan religious leaders (Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim) based in London were invited along with a selective crowd of Sri Lankan expatriates for the occasion.

After observing Sri Lankan traditions, such as hoisting the national flag officially and lighting of the traditional oil lamp, the High Commissioner read out the celebratory messages sent by the Executive President (since 1978), Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister audibly to the attendees present, followed by a reception with kiribath (milk rice) and Sri Lankan sweetmeats in a conventional manner before the morning ceremony came to a conclusion.

Evening thamasha

In the evening, it turned out to be a different ‘thamasha’ with Sri Lankans living in the UK, mostly the hierarchy out of the Sri Lankan Associations in the UK, (at one time there were approx. 60 different such associations with the odd one confining only to the husband and wife) and close associates of the High Commission staff, along with some other foreign diplomatic officials represented in the UK, being invited.


Visitors walking up to Board Room for HC party

The Board Room of the High Commission on the first floor was transformed into a large hall to accommodate hundreds of invitees for the evening party where duty free liquor and wine flowed to galore with snacks and short eats. The guests intermingled with each other, in a noisy environment, for two hours or so, in a typical social intercourse.

Austerity

This type of social merrymaking suddenly came to a cessation with the government’s austerity measures implemented by the High Commissioner, the late Tilak E. Goonaratne when the duty free whiskey, brandy and wine days were transformed overnight into fresh fruit juice, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

A certain section of the Sri Lankan community pointed a finger at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London at the time for being partisan and always inviting only the privileged and their ‘buddies’ for any official or social function at the High Commission in London.

During the 39th Independence Day celebrations R. Premadasa, the Prime Minister at the time, in his Colombo speech reminded all Sri Lankans living abroad about the greater understanding and brotherhood amongst communities that made Sri Lanka as one nation; he made an appeal to everyone to work towards fostering peace and harmony.

Emphasising much on the progress the country had made in reviving and sustaining peoples’ liberties and improving the standard of life, he highlighted some of the areas that had progressed in housing, health, education and giving importance to his housing programs that acclaimed the world over as ‘a model to solve the global problem of shelter’.

It was a period when the free and democratic society was threatened by the LTTE terrorists, who were renowned the world over as one of the most ruthless assassins who introduced the ‘suicide belt’ to the outside world as well. Ranasinghe Premadasa emphasised that the motherland could not be allowed to bleed, but all energies and resources needed to be diverted to fight the terrorist menace.

President J. R. Jayewardene in his independence day speech said: “If we have not done well for ourselves in the past 39 years of the history or, if in spite of shortcomings, we have achieved significant progress, the blame or praise, is a harvest we sowed for and will reap”.

Spiritual ambiance

The ‘stereotype trend’ of celebrating the Independence Day continued until the High Commissioner, Chandra Monarawala came out with a brilliant idea of transforming the ‘Thamasha’ evening, where some invitees became merry on a shot of whiskey, cognac or wine during a 2-3 hour social intercourse, into a spiritual ambiance on the 39th centenary.

It is customary in Sri Lanka to invoke blessings from the clergy prior to engaging in any virtuous task. According to Buddhist traditions, recitation of some Sutras has been popular as Paritta Discourses (Pirith chanting) in times of illness, distress, and danger and prior to embarking on any auspicious undertaking. Paritta (in Pali or Pirith in Sinhala) is chanted in all Buddhist countries, as a remedial accomplishment for protection. Maha Rathana and Karaneeya Metta Sutras are specially chosen as the main part of intonation for this purpose. Mahamangala Sutra (which deals with thirty eight factors) is considered as an overall blessing to the devotees.

In the evening of this commemorative day, the Board Room that usually gets packed with an array of foreign liquor was replaced by a resplendent Pirith Mandapaya for an overnight Pirith chanting session by Buddhist monks from the London Buddhist Vihara.

An open invitation to all Sri Lankans living in the UK, who wished to participate in the spiritual ceremony was extended and treated everyone with Sri Lankan traditional sweetmeats, cups of tea and cool drinks throughout the night followed by traditional milk rice and hoppers in the morning.

Pirith Mandapaya, designed by a Sri Lankan group, Art Lanka Association, in the form of a rectangular awning and decorated with Kohomba, Na and Lemon leaves with Pol Mal (coconut flower) along with a tray of betel leaves imported all the way from Sri Lanka, added nostalgia to the occasion.

The Pirith ceremony, followed by a special mass was organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, in keeping abreast with the traditional observations according the United Kingdom’s customs at West Minister Cathedral on the Independence day with a view to help Sri Lankan Christians as well as any other well wisher to attend and pray for peace and harmony in Sri Lanka with the fervent hope that the year ahead would see to an end to fratricidal conflict in the country.

In such a backdrop 1987 Independence Day celebrated at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London under the patronage of the then High Commissioner Chandra Monarawala has gone down in the Sri Lankan history books as one of those commemorative events giving a three dimensional view to the true meaning of Independence.[email protected] 

– See more at: http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/whiskey-pirith-london#sthash.gjxj43Ya.dpuf

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