Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Reconciliation

What must it be like to live behind these Kovil gates?

[Authors note: This is something I wrote a few months ago, that still resonates I believe with our society today.]

I was on my way for practice yesterday, when I passed the Bambalapitiya Kovil, all lit up, and people thronging the entrance. I was a bit early, and also realized that I’d never set foot into a Kovil in Colombo before, so I thought, why not? Having criss-crossed past the entrance three times or so, I asked the flower garland kade man if there was some sort of special festival going on at the Kovil. He said, yes, that there was a Pooja going on. I asked if anyone could walk into the Kovil, to which he promptly nodded a ‘yes, of course.’ So, I mustered up some courage and walked in.

I watched the ladies in front of me leave their slippers at a certain point, so I followed suit. I then proceeded to walk towards the entrance of the Kovil and there I was, back-pack and all, standing at the entrance of the Kovil wondering, ‘What now?’ One side of the Kovil was alive and bustling with people worshipping and praying fervently, the other, had a lone man seated on the floor against a wall and three Kovil musicians making their contribution to the Pooja, whilst seated against the opposite wall. I opted to seat myself in the general vicinity of the lone man and observe my environment.

An environment where I wasn’t sure what to do, how to act, who to turn to? An environment where I couldn’t understand the language being spoken, the rituals taking place, the customs and traditions being practiced. A cursory glance or curious stare in my general direction was as much recognition as I received in the forty-five minutes I was there. I knew no one and no one knew me. No one said a word against me, (there was even a friendly old lady who told me which hand to hold the thread in, for the Swami to bless it), but somehow I felt like a fish out of water. You know how sometimes, nobody really has to say anything to you directly, but, you just feel as though you don’t belong? It was as though everyone just knew I wasn’t one of them. I saw their quizzical looks. I felt like I was encroaching on someone else’s terrain.

I guess I felt like I was a minority.

It was a new and strange feeling. I felt a bit discomforted, a bit unsure. And most of all, it all felt so real. Even though I knew that once I walked outside of those Kovil gates, things would be back to “normal.” I’d feel like I belonged again. People would know me. Accept me. Everything would be familiar again. I would be more confident of myself. No one could question my presence or my existence. Even though I knew all that, I just couldn’t let go of the feeling of absolute vulnerability I had felt before, (as fleeting as it might have been.) And that’s with me knowing full well that my reality lay very much outside of those gates.

What then must it be like to live your entire life from inside those Kovil gates?

  • myil selvan

    Marisa Thank you for this piece. Putting yourself in another’s shoe can do wonders. When you are part of the majority community it is easier to forget that there are minorities. This piece clearly brings out the feeling of inadequacy when in an unknown environment. It also brings out ‘the other’s’ perspective. We need more writing like this one, instead of the usual pedestrian piffle from nationalist chauvinists.

  • Suren Raghavan

    Simple, socialand surgical. therefore superb,

    Sicne I dont know you believe this is honest. you can be the Arundathi R that Lanka never had! I hope you focus more on the social anthropology of our fallen society and write more analytically.

    best

  • Atheist

    Marisa,

    You said: “You know how sometimes, nobody really has to say anything to you directly, but, you just feel as though you don’t belong? It was as though everyone just knew I wasn’t one of them. I saw their quizzical looks. I felt like I was encroaching on someone else’s terrain”.

    A brown person who attended a country club said the same thing to me once.

    Getting back to the topic, what took you so long to go inside a Kovil? I hope it wasn’t some sort of taboo that kept you away from Kovils all this time. Your write-up gives me the impression that you don’t even have a basic knowledge of Hindu customs. Yes, not only upon entering a Hindu Temple, but even when going into a Hindu home one is expected to remove all foot wear for the purpose of cleanliness. This is nothing to get spooked out about. As for the devotees, they probably did not pay you any special attention because they probably took it for granted that you are simply another fellow Sri-Lankan citizen. I don’t see anything unusual in this scenario!

    As for the language you don’t seem to understand, perhaps it was the beautiful Sanskrit chanting of the Hindu priest. Living in Sri-Lanka, I am sure you must have heard at least a wee bit of Tamil that helped you differentiate between Tamil and Sanskrit. Perhaps you don’t even understand Tamil? How sad! Tell me, dear Marisa, what made you feel alienated in a Kovil amongst our people? Are you scared of Hindus? When you were growing up, were you by chance frightened into believing that Hindus are some kind of “aliens” or idol worshippers?

    It is sad to know that “Colombians” are alienated from all of us ordinary folk. That said, even a foreigner would not feel this “alien” in a Kovil.

    As for your final question put to us: “What then must it be like to live your entire life from inside those Kovil gates” – I would also like to add, “What then must it be like to live your entire life “othering” one’s fellow Lankans?

    An early Feliz Navidad to you all!

  • Belle

    Marisa,
    Moving, sensitive piece. I hope you are able to reach the yet unconverted as well as the converted.

    Strikes me that you would never have attained your vision if you hadn’t made the decision to go into the Kovil in the first place. So you had to already be pro-multiculturalism, open to encounters with cultural difference, willing to go against the grain. It will be interesting to see how anyone who is not yet convinced about the need to accommodate minorities responds to your insight in the Kovil.

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Marisa, You write well. As I read I felt I was following an artist sketch series of scenes quickly and precisely. I saw each one of your characters in colour. I could hear the sounds in the temple. Smell the garlands and the camphor. Most interesting was the old man sitting and reflecting.
    Though you had not gone into a temple, you have given your readers who had been there looking at the scene with new light through your eyes and mind. You had made the temple scene have a fifth dimension.
    Hope you continue to go where you had not gone before and write your impressions for those who had been there but not captured the nuance and meanings of the scenes. It will also expand your perceptions.
    The best part of the writing is that you were not analytical nor judgmental.
    Keep on writing.

  • Marisa de Silva

    Atheist, you obviously haven’t understood the crux of my post, so maybe I can help shed some light.

    “..what took you so long to go inside a Kovil? I hope it wasn’t some sort of taboo that kept you away from Kovils all this time.”

    I believe I’ve said, its the first time I’ve set foot into a Kovil in Colombo. (It was only later that I realised I had in fact been inside one before for my friend’s wedding.) Nevertheless, I’ve been into Kovils outside of Colombo plenty of times, so no, it wasn’t some “sort of taboo” that kept me away.

    “Your write-up gives me the impression that you don’t even have a basic knowledge of Hindu customs. Yes, not only upon entering a Hindu Temple, but even when going into a Hindu home one is expected to remove all foot wear for the purpose of cleanliness. This is nothing to get spooked out about.”

    One, of course I’m aware of these customs, I’m sorry if it came across as though I was ignorant of them. As for being “spooked,” I really think you’re just desperately looking for reasons to somehow solidify your impressions.

    “As for the devotees, they probably did not pay you any special attention because they probably took it for granted that you are simply another fellow Sri-Lankan citizen. I don’t see anything unusual in this scenario!”

    I never said or implied that this scenario was in fact “unusual.” I was merely telling it as I saw it.

    As for the language you don’t seem to understand, perhaps it was the beautiful Sanskrit chanting of the Hindu priest. Living in Sri-Lanka, I am sure you must have heard at least a wee bit of Tamil that helped you differentiate between Tamil and Sanskrit. Perhaps you don’t even understand Tamil?

    As much as I don’t think my knowledge of languages is of any relevance, or need be subject to your scrutiny, I do in fact know more than a”wee bit of Tamil,” and I don’t see how your whole reference to “Sanskrit chanting” has any relevance to my post

    “How sad! Tell me, dear Marisa, what made you feel alienated in a Kovil amongst our people? Are you scared of Hindus? When you were growing up, were you by chance frightened into believing that Hindus are some kind of “aliens” or idol worshippers? It is sad to know that “Colombians” are alienated from all of us ordinary folk. That said, even a foreigner would not feel this “alien” in a Kovil. As for your final question put to us: “What then must it be like to live your entire life from inside those Kovil gates” – I would also like to add, “What then must it be like to live your entire life “othering” one’s fellow Lankans?”

    I shouldn’t even dignify this “assumption” of yours (as that’s as much as it is), but, now that I’ve come this far, I may as well. Firstly, I fail to quite comprehend who precisely you mean when you say “our people”? Could it be the possible “alienation” of this elusive group of people you’ve claimed ownership to, that seems to have offended you? Cos’ as far as “othering” goes, I think you’ve just shot yourself in the foot mate. If that’s not “othering,” I don’t really know what is. As for the fear factor and the idol worshippers factor, I think you need to let go of your own prejudices first, cos’ they seem to have taken on a life of their own now, so much so that you don’t seem to be able separate them from your ability to reason (if at all,) and remain objective. Also, I find your ‘non South American country people’ reference to the “Colombians” of Sri Lanka more amusing than anything else. I guess, you first need to look past your own prejudices before you try and judge my motives and mindset. Good luck in your attempt and hope you do it fast, cos’ it’s if at all, the likes of your mindset that propagates “othering,” more so than anything else.

  • Atheist

    Marisa,

    Holly Toledo! I didn’t mean to drive you up the wall.

    In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, like Sri-Lanka, I don’t think it’s wrong for one to assume that people of the land will be acquainted with each other’s customs/beliefs/languages at least to some degree. So you can imagine how shocked I was to read that the kovil symbolized an “alien” world to you. It’s also strange that, Tamil, spoken by a large number of people in the country, sounds too foreign to your ears.

    I would like to explain my use of “our people” since this seems to have added to your current agitation. To me, “our people” represents the whole of Sri-Lanka – all Sri-Lankan citizens. So, relax, buddy!

    Hindus have been in Sri-Lanka for thousands of years, and the Kovils are going to stay solid as a rock. Devotees within those said Kovil gates don’t need anybody’s sympathy either as they are also part owners of the city. No one takes well to “boru”/ “poi” sympathy that is clearly intended for political maneuvering.

    As for “Columbians”, I believe this is the fashionable term for Colombo people among a segment of Sri-Lanka’s city slickers. Don’t know about that either? Sorry, can’t help you there…

    The Church, Kovil, Temple, and Mosque – though I don’t subscribe to any religion – will be permanent fixtures in the Lankan landscape in spite of do-gooders trying to portray a bleak picture of the country.

  • Observer

    You felt vulnerable inside a Kovil? What sort of a mob do you take these people for? Clearly you got the stares because you probably weren’t dressed appropriatly for the function that was going on. You actually say it was an unplanned drop in. You felt uneasy because it was a culture shock! It’s a basic human feeling you experience when you come across something new.
    I had a similar sort of an experience when one of my school friends passed away and I had to go to a slummy area for the funeral. Up until that day I only whizzed passed such areas.

    “Even though I knew that once I walked outside of those Kovil gates, things would be back to “normal.” I’d feel like I belonged again. People would know me. Accept me. Everything would be familiar again. I would be more confident of myself.”

    This paragraph is very divisive and it is exactly the reason communities in this country become polarised. How do you know some of the people who were in that Kovil would not feel belonged once they left the pooja? You are kind of making a presumption here aren’t you? An unwarranted one. At least take a survey?
    Why would the Kovil going Hindu folk there who are most probably from the surrounding neighbourhoods not find the environment out there unfamiliar? If anything they probably find it more familiar than you who just went past.
    This piece reflects your inner psyche of Hindu’s in Sri Lanka more than anything else. I guess I know now.

  • Perviz

    Marisa,

    A wonderful piece of writting. Simple but enlightening.

  • I have visited hindu temples,buddhist viharas,christian churches – both catholic & protestant, and even a mosque in sri lanka. I also have visited similar places of worship in india,burma,thailand,malaysia,philipines,
    USA &UK only as a sightseer/tourist – during my official travels. I never felt strange.
    In sri lanka, many buddhists visit/pray/make vows & donate cash at Vishnu Shrines in the premises of most buddhist temples. They also break coconuts & curse their enemies at these shrines. These shrines are a good source of income for the viharathipathis.I was informed that Vishnu is a Protector of Buddhism. Many buddhists also visit hindu temples and take part in poojas and donate cash. All these people are ‘quite at home’ during these visits.
    I have also taken part in Pirith Ceremonies and Hindu Poojas held on anniversaries of state corporations. Once I took part in a Bothi Pooja in a buddhist vihara, organised by the catholic director of a state institute,on request by the employees,to obtain blessings on the muslim minister in charge, who had had a heart attack – he survived. Nowadays, there are photos in the media of buddhist politicians visiting hindu temples in sri lanka and india and taking part in poojas.
    One’s reaction on visiting a place of worship other than that of his/her religion,only for curiosity, can vary widely. This writer’s feelings/reactions are his own. His interpretations of what happened and how he felt are conditioned by his social interaction with communities other than his own.
    He/she needs not to worry about them. Nor should others.
    But it is strange that this account has been included in this forum.

  • Belle

    I am quite amazed that Marisa is being taken to task for not feeling at home in a Kovil, in a place of worship that is not her own. We all have visited places of worship other than our own, particularly through sightseeing. Usually, the place of worship only has a few worshippers, and so we don’t feel alien or overwhelmed. But to go to a place of worship other than one’s own during a festive event when the place is full of worshippers, and still feel at home is, to me, very unusual. Surely one would feel alienated since one does not belong to that passion of worship, to that specific context of belief. That feeling of alienation is not about othering the worshippers, but having the ability to see oneself as the ‘other’. That to me was Marisa’s experience. To be able to see oneself as the ‘other’, one has to recognize and respect the cultural difference of the worshippers from oneself. Furthermore, it involves recognizing and respecting the ‘space’ of other communities as not one’s own.

    It has been said that Marisa should have felt at home in the Kovil because in Sri Lanka, Buddhists too worship at Hindu temples. I know Hindus who sometimes attend mass and prayers at Christian churches in Singapore, and worship there. But they don’t worship there as if it is THEIR space–they take up the position of GUEST. I hope when Sri Lankan Buddhists worship at Hindu temples, they too take up that position of guest, grateful for being allowed by that community of believers to worship there–and not think that the space belongs to them. This is how colonization happens–when the guest starts to believe that he is the host.

    Marisa’s article is to be commended in terms of her attempts to imagine what it must be like to be a member of a minority community. Recognizing that the minority person’s position is different from that of the group in power is the first step towards providing equal rights for all–so that all can feel at home, wherever they are in the country. Marisa writes from that sense of obligation. That, I believe, is why Groundviews featured Marisa’s article.

    It is not at all surprising that Justitia, who negates Marisa’s feelings of ‘otherness’ at the Kovil, also says that those who visit places of worship other than their own “need not worry” about these other communities. That is the abominable attitude that has prevailed in Sri Lanka since independence.

    Rajapaksa’s visit to the hill shrine at the Tirumala temple, his taking his entire entourage through an entrance reserved by the temple only for VVIPs, was extremely disrespectful. His visit to the temple itself was disrespectful, considering that the temple is attended by Tamil worshippers, given the situation with Tamils in Sri Lanka. He was thumbing his nose at this community and asserting his power to be there despite their displeasure. I am sure he felt entirely at home at the shrine! This is the attitude Justitia is recommending.

  • Observer

    belle, no one expects her to feel at home. That’s not the point. Just don’t be surprised about it. No one expects her to get down with what went on there. It felt unusual when I first went to a Kovil too when I was about 12, instead of feeling vulnerable, the colourful, hectic, noisy atmosphere gave me a sense of a rush. Dwelling on the minority attitude and overly dramatise it just because she experienced a bit of culture shock? Then twist that somehow into a sense of inferiority towards their belonging to their homeland? Hardly necessary.
    Do you disagree with me if I say that she’d be more comfortable had she been to a Kovil few times before in her life? Don’t you naturally feel at least somewhat uncomfortable first time you step into a new experience?
    I just hate it when people use literary skills with devise tones. It’s the least of which we need right now! How convenient to step into a Kovil for once and to draw all these conclusions!

  • Marisa de Silva

    Observer, Justitia and Atheist, obviously all of you have completely misunderstood and misinterpreted what I’ve written. The post was not about my visit to the Kovil or how vulnerable or insecure I felt at the time. The Kovil was only a metaphor, which could very well represent anything really. A tourist in a foreign country, a person from H’tota visiting Jaffna or vice versa, visiting your in-laws to be for the first time…whatever. It’s about acclimatising yourself to things/people/lifestyles/languages that you’re not particularly familiar with. It was an attempt at identifying with/relating to what it must feel like to technically have all the right to be some place, but still feel as if you really don’t belong there. for some reason. It was about seeing life through someone else’s eyes. My visiting a Kovil had little or nothing to do with what I was actually trying to say. Hell, I was brought up in the plantations. My earliest interactions were with ppl from the Tamil community, so pls let’s not try to assume things about each other. It’s not that due to my upbringing I claim to be some sort of expert on minority rights and grievances, but, I’m sure as hell not so out of sync with them that I would even imply to be “other-ing” or feel “alienated” in their midst. I hope I’m better understood at least now. Thanks!

  • Atheist

    Marisa de Silva,

    Metaphor? Like the ‘potato famer’? Hmm…nice cover, but you’re a day late and dollar short!

    We can all fall on the “Oh, it was just a metaphor!” or “I am not into hate literature/speech. Can’t you see it’s just a metaphor?” Please, we are not that gullible. We are not going to be taken in by your last ditch attempt at damage control.

    I don’t care where you locate your story – in a Kovil, temple,mosque, church or in a nudist nightclub – as long as it addresses some unity of vision in human existence – not cheap propaganda disguised as a human interest story.

    I don’t care where you were brought up; but I can see without a doubt that as far as being “in sync” with the people living in Sri-Lanka – that you aint!

  • Marisa de Silva

    Lol 🙂 And I’m sure you are very much more “in sync” with the people of SL, Atheist. Also considering you’ve got me all figured out, I see no reason to further attempt to engage with you. Good luck and tc! God knows you’re going to need it with that tightly shut mind of yours 🙂

  • Atheist

    Marisa de Silva,

    When one has close contacts with ‘just one meal per day people’ and with children who have been fed oft times on just mallung with a little rice, I guess you could say one is somewhat “in sync” with the forgotten people of the land.

    Another thing – I am not into “Lol”, “tc” and happy faces. I thought these gimmicks are only used by high school kids. I guess I was wrong!

    My “tightly shut mind” is not into: bogus human interest stories, religious fundamentalism, racism and culture vultures.

    My “tightly shut mind” I, hence, earned without help from any God. I think YOU never had any of the luck that came my way early on in life!

  • Off the Cuff

    Dear Marisa de Silva,

    Quote from your post of November 30, 2009 @ 4:33 pm
    Hell, I was brought up in the plantations. My earliest interactions were with ppl from the Tamil community, so pls let’s not try to assume things about each other.

    Quotes from your article
    I watched the ladies in front of me leave their slippers at a certain point, so I followed suit.

    An environment where I wasn’t sure what to do, how to act, who to turn to? An environment where I couldn’t understand the language being spoken, the rituals taking place, the customs and traditions being practiced.

    Unquote

    The quotes from your article appear to conflict with your post.

    Any explanation?

  • Shantheni

    Marisa,
    Tut-tut, do you mean to say that you wrote this piece without checking with the thought police first? How can you claim that you are in sync with the people of the land when you have forgotten the forgotten people of the land, the ones with just one meal per day? Aren’t they the only ones that count? What makes you think that Tamils/Hindus are the ‘other’ in Sri Lanka? I hope you are not misled by the LTTE-SL Army conflict of the past 30 years and Sinhalese pogroms against Tamils from the 1950s to the `970s into thinking that way. No, indeed, in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese not only remove their footwear when entering a Kovil, but also when they enter Hindu homes. So, relax, buddy! There is no ethnic friction in Sri Lanka—it’s only those nasty do-gooders and Western conspiracists that say so.

    Also, please don’t use “lol”, “tc” and happy faces–they are juvenile. But you can use “Columbians” for people living in Colombo, as that is adult city slicker talk, and perfectly permissible.