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DateLine Sunday, 10 February 2008

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Who said graffiti is bad?


The man we didn’t know

Title: The Mystique of Sigiriya: Whispers of the Mirror Wall

Author: W. J. M. Lokubandara

Publisher: Godage International Publishers

His Excellency Robert Blake, the Ambassador for the USA said it best when he described how he had often wondered what goes on behind the calm countenance of the Speaker when all around him was in turmoil during certain sessions in parliament.

Now he (and the whole world) knows. When the members of parliament were bashing each other, calling each other by unprintable names and creating chaos, the Speaker, W. J. M. Lokubandara, remained calm with that gentle smile on his face because his mind was elsewhere. He was day-dreaming of the Sigiri damsels.

He is not alone. There have been many before him who had fallen in love with these 'long-eyed' golden coloured, heart-shattering ladies; many who had been smitten by their beauty and broken into poetic raptures.

The Speaker, though, is different to these other lovers. Instead of writing his own songs in praise of the damsels he pays tribute to his predecessors, those lovers before him who loved Sigiri with the same passion and who recorded them on the mirror wall, by rendering their innermost thoughts into the English language.

Thanks to "The Mystique of Sigiriya" those who are unable to read the Sinhala version Sigiri gi siri and certainly the inscriptions themselves can now know the thoughts of the visitors to Sigiriya more than a thousand years ago.

Ambassador Blake the next time he climbs the Sigiri rock with his wife and two daughters, would know that a visitor called Tilimala of Ruhuna too climbed the same rock and thought "The slender women among the golden-coloured ones on the mountain side, took my mind solely to themselves. O long-eyed one, what may I do to sustain myself?".


Did Kashyapa’s thoughts fly towards Kalawewa?

“O long-eyed one, what may I do to sustain myself?”

Proving that the graffiti themselves are perhaps more enticing than the damsels His Excellency Alok Prasad, the High Commissioner for India says he spent one whole sleepless night with "The Mystique of Sigiriya".

Could the reasons for this enchantment lie not only in the beauty of the damsels, not only in the skills of the poets who wrote on the mirror wall but in the remarkable manner in which the Speaker, himself, wields his pen? Critics like Prof. Wimal Dissanayake says "Yes".

"His comments, pithy, relevant and always insightful serve to widen the horizon of understanding of the English reader" while Prof. Ashley Halpe insists the author is not a rasika as he modestly calls himself but a 'sahrdaya- an informed critic and a deeply responsive aficionado who has himself drunk deeply of the Pierian spring".

No wonder, for the Speaker recalls growing up on a "staple of classical oriental poetry with the rich imagery of Kavusilumina, the polyphonic rhythms of Mayura Sandesa," as well as the Guttila Kavya and the Salalihini Sandesa. Not satisfied with the few Sigiri verses that were prescribed for his exams he had read Professor Paranavithane's Sigiri Graffiti not once but an uncountable number of times.

The melodic verses on the mirror wall became so much a part of his life that soon he began to see them as an "ever obliging good friend". Whenever he was overcome by loneliness, sadness or adversity, he says it was the Sigiri Graffiti that came unfailingly to his rescue.

And rescue him, they did, more than twenty one years ago. The day was January 1st, 1977. The place, Haputale, or rather to be more precise the Sunday fair at Diyatalawa. In the presence of the late Hon. J. R. Jayewardene, he was about to make his first speech "Standing up to face the crowd my mind went blank.


Did their ancestors too stand here?

The silent stone stairways

I could see nothing, feel nothing and felt certain could say nothing.Then out of the depths of that frightening void...came a verse that escaped my frozen lips "Topa vanavu himin...a graffitto from the mirror wall".

Comparing the suppleness of the graffiti to the Buddharaja Kalka (a therapy used by Ayurveda physicians either with ginger, honey or lime juice depending on the ailment) he says he has used this "pellet" in the academic world, on the political platform and in Parliament - with honey when he addresses his electorate, with lime when he is in Parliament and on the occasion when he was present at the launch of the website at the Attorney General's Department, not with honey or lime but with ginger.

Honey, lime, ginger and melons too. Unlike Professor Paranavithana's Sigiri Graffiti with its intricate, sober, sleep-evoking details on epigraphy, grammar etc., the Speaker imagines what would have taken place in the minds of the poets, as they scribbled their thoughts on the mirror wall, and in doing so brings them back to life.

He believes, for example, the poet who compares the coquettish smiles of the Sigiri damsels to the seeds of a melon was "tormented by the fire of lust as a result of making love to [her] on the false assumption that she possessed coolness". He writes "Her teeth, sweet words and eyes are reminiscent of the melon in one respect or another... Yet, this likeness is only on the outside.

What would it be like after partaking of this melon and tasting it?" He then answers the question himself. "The melon is a fruit that cools the body. It dispels heat too.The very thoughts of the melon bring about a sense of coolness.

On the other hand, thoughts about the damsels usually arouse the heat of passion. They arouse a feeling of heat or fire. The mind is kindled. It starts burning through lust. It torments the mind. There is thus no peace. In a way, though cooling, this is the nature of the melon too. This poem...attracts our mind like the coolness of the melon".

Next, he finds a deeper meaning in the lines and asks "Could it not be that a lesson learnt through experience in life is echoed here in the poem?". The coolness is felt only when one eats the melon. Could this mean that what is seen as similar externally is internally very different?

Who would know? The solitary eagle in the sky? (p.94), the silent stone stairways (p. 8) the shadow of a tree (p.106) the drops of water on a lotus leaf?

Perhaps. The photographs of Patrick Ratnayake, Gamini Jayasinghe, Mahesh Prasantha, Upul Ranepura and Nuwan Duminda, side by side the text enhance the haunting mystique of Sigiriya. Gazing at them it is easy to join the Speaker as he muses what kind of thoughts Kashyapa would have had"as he looked out of the palace window, at the far away moonlit skies". It is sad indeed that the King's thoughts would have "flown across towards Kalawewa without ever being recorded on the Mirror Wall". (p. 11).

Had he but known the visitors to his palace in the centuries ahead would use the Mirror Wall to scribble their thoughts, King Kashyapa would surely have provided a visitor's book instead. Lucky for us that he did not. How else would we know that Mati, Pota Devu, Midhalu Dal and a host of others visited Sigiriya if they had penned their thoughts on an ephemeral puskola?

As it was for Dr. Ananda, W. P. Guruge, Senior Special Advisor to the Director General of UNESCO, as it was for His Excellency Alok Prasad, who were so captivated they forgot the time pass, if at any point during "The Mystique of Sigiriya, you find yourself in your own world, there is a simple explanation; you have reached the end of the book, you are back from Sigiri thousand five hundred years ago and there are several missed calls on your mobile.

Until that moment, it is safe to say the book permits no respite.

So, who said graffiti is bad?


Calling all scribes

Entries for Volume 14 Number 2 of Channels:

The English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka hopes to publish Volume 14 Number 2 of Channels in mid 2008, and is now collecting material for this issue. The EWC invites entries of short stories, poems, translations and excerpts from plays and novels. Members of the EWC are permitted to participate.

Rules: All work should be in English, original and unpublished.

Short Stories: Maximum 2,500 words of creative writing.

Poems: Maximum 40 lines of creative writing.

Plays: Maximum 3,000 words of creative writing (either complete plays or excerpt) Translations: translations from other languages must be in English - maximum 3,000 words.

Submitted with written permission from the original Author if s/he is alive, or from the Trustees of the Estate of the original Author.

Copy of such authorization should be enclosed with entry.

Format : Manuscripts should be neatly typed double spaced on A4 paper, one side only, one inch margin all round.

Pages should be clearly numbered with author's name, address, telephone and email details at the beginning and end of each story, play and translation and on each page of poetry. Pages should be stapled together.

The Editorial Board's decision will be final in the selection of suitable material for publication, and reserves the right to edit where it deems necessary.

Fee: An entrance fee of

Rs 50/= per short story

Rs 50/= per translation

Rs 50/= per excerpt of novel

Rs 50/= per excerpt or complete play

Rs 30/= per poem should be sent with each submission.

Payment should be either by CASH or CHEQUE made out to The English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka. Money orders and Postal Orders will not be accepted.

The entrance fee is non-refundable.

Manuscripts will NOT be returned.

Authors must ensure that a copy of the work submitted is retained.

Entries should be addressed to:

The English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka,

C/o Mrs Anne Ranasinghe,

82 Rosmead Place,

Colombo 7 Envelopes should be marked CHANNELS on the upper left hand corner.

Entries should reach Mrs Ranasinghe before 30th April 2008. Late entries will not be accepted.


Short Story and Poetry Competition 2008

Rules: Short Stories (in English only) Maximum of 2,500 words of creative writing, original and unpublished.

Translations will not be accepted.

Poetry - (in English only) Maximum of 40 lines, original and unpublished. Translations will not be accepted.

Format: All manuscripts to be neatly typed double spaced on A4 paper on one side only, a margin of one inch all round.

Pages should be numbered.

Name, address, telephone/email details of the author should be typed at the beginning and the end of each story, and on each page of poetry.

Pages should be stapled together.

Entrance fee:

Rs 50/- per short story

Rs. 30/- per poem

Members of the English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka are NOT permitted to participate in this competition.

Material submitted will NOT be returned so please ensure that you have the original or extra copy with you.

Please pay either by Cash or Cheque made out to the English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka.

Money Orders/Postal Orders will not be accepted.

The entrance fee is non refundable.

Entries should be sent by Registered Post to reach before 30th April 2008, addressed to:

The English Writers Cooperative of Sri Lanka,

C/o Mrs Anne Ranasinghe, 82 Rosmead Place, Colombo 7

Envelopes should be marked Competition on the upper left hand corner. Late entries will not be accepted.

Winning entries will be published in a subsequent issue of Channels Magazine. The Editorial Board's decision will be final.

Prizes will be awarded to the first, second and third places respectively, in each category.

Names of winners will be published in the English newspapers.

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