Groundviews

Buddhist Imagery and Clothing: An Unwritten Code

Featured image courtesy AntonO

On July 17, 2017, Deepam and her niece were subject to a bizarre and frightening experience. The family was grocery shopping at the up-scale Crescat Shopping Centre, in the heart of Colombo, when an elderly lady appeared to take an interest in Deepam’s 26-year-old niece, and had asked where she was from. She had responded truthfully that they were tourists from India. The family thought that was the end of the interaction. However, it turned out that the lady had dialed the 119 police hotline and made a complaint because of the dress she was wearing, which had a depiction of the Buddha on it.

A policeman arrived at Crescat and, Deepam told Groundviews, attempted to handcuff her terrified daughter and take her into custody. Having realised that the problem was with the dress she was wearing, Deepam had asked if they could cover the offending image with more clothes, at least until the trip to the police station. This request was refused.

Deepam insisted on accompanying her niece, being afraid for her safety. The police officer had put the two in a trishaw that took them to the Kollupitiya police station. There, the two eventually saw the Officer in Charge (OIC), who ascertained that the family was due to fly out that day. As a result the Officer said they would “let them off with a warning.” The niece eventually signed a statement written by the police. A lawyer who was at the police station said the family was assured they would not be detained at immigration, and had decided not to pursue the matter further. The OIC added that the girl was only taken in to prevent a tense situation from arising.

However, Deepam said she felt the government had neglected its duty.

“If my niece had known wearing clothing depicting the Buddha was offensive, she would not have worn that dress. But we saw no signage at the airport, no information indicating that this was prohibited,” Deepam said.

Deepam and her niece were eventually allowed to leave, although the dress was confiscated.

This incident is notable as it was the latest in a string of incidents involving concerns around depictions of Buddha.

In 2014, a British tourist was detained and eventually deported because of a Buddha tattoo on her arm.

In March 2013, another British tourist was also asked to fly back to the UK because of his tattoo. The UK updated its travel advisory on Sri Lanka following these incidents. That same year, two hotel managers from Beruwala were arrested when they organized a ‘nirvana’ style event featuring Buddha Bar music, resulting in a de facto ban on the latter.

In 2012, three French tourists were given suspended jail terms for pretending to kiss a Buddha statue. In 2010, R n B singer Akon was denied a visa to Sri Lanka because one of his videos had girls in bikinis dancing in front of a Buddha statue.

However, it is worth noting that while countries like the UK changed their travel advisories, Sri Lanka itself has not provided any advisory on clothing to arriving tourists – apart from when visiting places of worship. The Sri Lanka Tourism’s website has only this to say under its “Travel Habits” section.

“In a place of worship, in a forest, in a village, in an ancient place, behave with respect. A civilised person is sensitive to others in terms of noise, words, behaviour, and dress. Insensitivity is a sign of an uncivilised person”

There are also explicit instructions on photography with Buddhist imagery.

Under a separate “Travel Tips” section:

“There are some important restrictions that apply to photography regarding Buddhist imagery. When you visit a temple or other religious site, remember that photography should not be carried out in a manner causing disrespect. For instance, it is strictly forbidden to be photographed in front of or beside any statues and murals. Note that flash photography can damage old murals.”

Yet there is nothing with regards to clothing.

The Department of Immigration and Emigration is no clearer. It notes that foreigners who violate the Immigration and Emigration Act can be arrested, but does not have any specific information about clothing, though Section 12 (b) notes any tourist who “is likely to conduct himself so as to be dangerous to peace and good order… or to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government of Sri Lanka, or to intrigue against the authority of the Government of Sri Lanka” can be prohibited from entry.

Incidents such as those experienced by Deepam and her daughter are worrying, as they show the police acting on unwritten codes of conduct in a broad way that impacts tourists, who may be unaware of local sensitivities.

This also highlights the continued wave of intolerance towards any perceived threat to Buddhism – rhetoric that groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya appreciate and peddle themselves. The fact that the Police felt it necessary to bring the girl in to ‘prevent a tense situation’ is interesting in itself. While the incident was amicably resolved, the questions it raises are disquieting.