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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

By October 2015, having come back from Sikkim, I had broken the back of the task I had set myself, and a couple of books were ready to go to press. I therefore had some time on my hands when I was approached about helping Mahinda Samarasinghe at his Ministry. I agreed to do so on condition that it would be part time work, and he thereupon had me appointed Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission. I had told him that that might make him unpopular with the Prime Minister, but he said the appointment was in the hands of the President, who had been positive about the idea.

I started work in November and set the ball rolling with regard to what had been his principal priority, the introduction of compulsory English and Soft Skills modules on all Vocational Training Courses conducted under the aegis of the TVEC. In addition we developed an NVQ Level 1 Building Career Skills Course, which was an extended version of the Career Skills module for NVQ Level 3 courses.

Before we started training for this however I went abroad again, for I was still determined that part time meant part time, and I should not be tied down by the position or the work. This trip was also to India, where Aide et Action was having its South Asia Advisory Board meeting in Bhubaneswar.

I had been to Orissa many years previously, in 1970, when I travelled round India on my own. I had fond memories of my two days there, the first in Puri where I had managed to get into the tumultuous Jaganath Temple and then had a lovely day by the sea. The next day I went on one of the cheap tours the various State Tourism Development Corporations organized, covering the Sun Temple at Konarak plus the temple complexes in Bhubaneswar, and also the cave temples at Udayagiri and Khandagiri, which I recalled as being in the countryside outside the city.

This time, having flown a few days earlier into Bhubanewar, I asked AeA to hire me a car in which I went to Konarak and Puri, and then south to Chilika Lake for the bird life, doubling back and then going north to Chandbali, for the riverine reserve. Unfortunately the Park at Similipal which I had wanted to see was closed in December.

The Sun Temple at Konarak, though under repair which took away from the grandeur from some perspectives, was as remarkable as I remembered it to have been. Fascinatingly, I found when I went back to Colombo that some of the photographs I took this time, of animal as well as erotic sculptures there, were of exactly the same specimens I had recorded 35 years previously. The range of objects portrayed was remarkable, massive elephants and dragons, lively horses and horsemen, beautifully symmetrical wheels, and couplings of enormous suggestiveness, in every sense of the adjective.

From Konarak I went to Puri where I found a comfortable hotel overlooking the sea, next to a restaurant with a lovely garden for dinner and breakfast. In the evening I went to the Temple which was in the throes of a festival, massive crowds and palpable energy, and I had a memory of having sensed something similar when I was there 45 years earlier.

Despite much beer on the balcony after dinner, in the company of the loquacious waiter who had rustled it up, I was brought coffee early enough to watch the sun rise over the sea, and then had an early start to Chilika Lake. There I hired a boat to take me across the lagoon to a marshy island from where one could see flamingoes from afar, plus a host of gulls and herons. And the ride across the lake was also reward in itself, a tranquil surface broken by isolated fishing boats.

I stayed at the Tourist Development Corporation hotel, set over a small lake which furnished me with a glorious sunset with my evening beer. I seemed to be the only guest there, which is the sad fate in general of these TDC establishments, which have been allowed to decline in terms of furnishings and service. But they are well situated, and the food is good so, if one is patient and not too worried about perfection, one can be perfectly happy.

Coffee came in time next morning for me to watch the villagers flocking to the lake for their ablutions, and even to walk round myself before breakfast. Then I set off northward, but en route I went to see some of the old Buddhist sites in what had been the area of Asoka’s greatest conquest. It was his victory over Kalinga, it is said, that prompted him then to turn to Buddhism, which was in turn what led to its spread over much else of Asia.

I was astounded at the size, and evidence of what must have been the splendour, of the Buddhist monasteries of Orissa. I went to three, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri and Lalitgiri, in very different settings and with very different focal points, a massive walled temple – and indeed another similar one – at Ratnagiri, beautiful carvings at Udayagiri, a hilltop stupa at Lalitgiri. Sadly the museum at Ratnagiri was closed, but I thought that would give me a good reason to return – not dreaming that I would be able to do this in less than a year.

At Chandbali, the manager of the TDC hotel kindly arranged, despite the short notice, for a boat to take me out on the river at dawn the next morning. Unfortunately the sanctuary was too far for me to enter it and return in time to get to Bhubaneswar that day, so I had to be content with just a short trip. But the timing was perfect and sunrise over the river exquisite.

Back in Bhubaneswar, I went to the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves, surprised to see that the town now stretched to the foot of the two hills on either side of a road I had remembered as deserted. But the caves, a dozen and more, with exquisite carvings, still exuded tranquility despite the large numbers of local sightseers.

I also managed, after the sessions the next day, to get to the several superb temples in the town, some set in sleepy gardens, some still lively and active. Again I found that one or two of the more impressive elements I had previously photographed in 1970, though in tiny black and white pictures that could not capture their elegance.

In the evening, we were taken to the new peace pagoda, for an impressive Sound and Light show about Asoka. I have been to several such shows in India, starting with the show at the Red Fort in Delhi way back in 1970. A few years earlier, again at an AeA meeting, we had been taken to the richly evocative show in the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad. The show in Bhubaneswar did not have as exotic a setting, but it recreated memorably the life and times of Asoka. And it struck me then how sad it was that there was nothing comparable in Sri Lanka, how depressing that fifty years of a dedicated national tourist board had failed to produce anything constructive, but busied itself in rent seeking and pandering to petty profiteering.

On the last morning we went on a field visit to one of the primary schools AeA runs for the children of migrant workers. This is a phenomenon we do not suffer from in Sri Lanka, laboring families going to far distant places where there is work, often in other states. This creates problems for the children, in particular disrupting their education. Usually they cannot be left behind, since there is no one to look after them, when both mother and father migrate. But in the place they move to, education is in a different language, which the children cannot understand.

Fortunately, in India, states cooperate to offer special arrangements, one of which is to use organizations like AeA to run schools and playschools in mother tongue. What we saw, in a little village some miles from Bhubaneswar, was most impressive, as were indeed similar institutions AeA ran for tribal communities, which we saw a few months later in Madhya Pradesh.

On the way back to Bhubaneswar, I persuaded the organizers to take us to a temple that sounded fascinating from the description in the guidebook. I had tried to go there on my own tour before the meeting, but the driver had told me there was nothing to be seen. On the contrary, the Yogini Temple turned out to be a gem, a temple with 64 statues of the goddess to whom it was dedicated, in different poses including in elephant incarnation, with magnificient breasts. There are only four such temples in India, and our Indian hosts were as happy as I was to see the place.

Eight months later I was lucky enough to get back to Orissa. The original plan in 2015 had been for the Board meeting to be held at a resort hotel near Puri, but that had been booked up. In August 2016 then the organization had a retreat for all its staff at that beautifully landscaped hotel, and invited the Board to participate. The event included a magnificient display of traditional dance, unusual in that the performers were all boys, dressed as women – not very convincingly, I should note, given the energetic gymnastics they engaged in, building up pyramids that dissolved and revived to reverberating rhythms.

Once again I went travelling, after the meeting, first to Chandipur, a seaside resort with a delightful if decrepit TDC hotel overlooking the sea. Sunrise there was fantastic, after which I went to the Panchlingam Temple set in forestry over a cascading waterfall. Courtesy of the bargaining powers of my guide, I was able to buy there the most beautiful clay horse, which has pride of place now on the landing of what is now my section of Lakmahal.

I went then to Balasore, to try to enter Similipal, but the very helpful officer in the TDC office, housed in a lovely old house, told me it was difficult and the hotel in the park had long been closed, because of the Naxalite threats. So I went back to Chandbali, where the TDC manager welcomed me like a long lost friend, and arranged another river tour, though again we did not have time to get into the Park.

This was because, instead of crocodiles, which were the principal attractions of the reserve, I thought I wanted to see more of the Buddhist sites. So I went back to Ratnagiri, where the museum was fabulous, and the site as remarkable as I remembered it. Then to a couple of the smaller sites I had missed out on earlier, including the home of a charming stone elephant, now carefully sheltered in a padlocked enclave. But most impressive was the climb to the collection of stupas carved into rocks in the now deserted monastery on Langudi Hill. I could understand now why Sudharshan Seneviratne, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s last inspired choice as High Commissioner in India, had wanted to develop better relations with the Indian states, but alas his paper on the subject had not been shown to the Foreign Minister, let alone the President.

Ceylon Today 7 Jan 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=12554

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