Colombo, Foreign Relations, Human Rights, Media and Communications

Sri Lanka: Spice Island or Bland Nation?

Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was a hub in the maritime silk and spice routes for millennia. It drew traders from the east and west for both business and pleasure. Notable among the attractions were spices, whose many aromas and flavours formed an integral part of the tropical paradise experience.

The traditional Lankan curry contained up to 13 spices and herbs. Most plants were not native – cardamom came from South India, cloves from Indonesia and chilli all the way from the Americas. Cinnamon was Sri Lanka’s unique contribution to this delightful mix. The origins didn’t really matter: the islanders knew just how to mix the native and the foreign to achieve legendary results.

As Sri Lanka embarks on national integration after three decades of highly divisive war, it is worth recalling these aspects of its heritage. For the war not only devastated our economy and blighted the prospects of a generation; it also nurtured high levels of insecurity, insularity and mutual suspicion. In recent years, democratic dissent has become ‘unpatriotic’. Everything foreign is suspect – especially if from the west.

Suddenly, the spice island is in danger of turning into a ‘bland’ nation with xenophobia the only condiment in use.

Connected but not engaged?
Paradoxically, Sri Lanka today is more closely linked to the rest of the world than ever before. Geography is still a strong part of our destiny: more than a fair share of shipping pass through our ports. Some vessels bring what we cannot produce on our own; others carry away our tea, rubber and other exports.

Sri Lanka also markets hospitality, dexterity and genius. In the wake of peace, the travel industry hopes to attract half a million tourists a year. One out of every 20 Lankans works overseas, remitting billions of dollars that keep the economy going. Partly fuelled by this Diaspora, thousands of voice calls and terabytes of data flow in and out of the island every day.

All this suggests that Lankans have found their feet in the incessantly chattering, moving and trading global family. But looks can be deceptive: many are still very uneasy in engaging the world.

Such apprehensions provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists, which the island has aplenty. They constantly warn of elaborate international plots to ‘undermine and destabilise’ poor little Sri Lanka. The usual suspects include the CIA, MI5, (Indian spy agency) RAW, multinational corporations and UN agencies involved in human rights or humanitarian work. The Vatican, IMF and the World Bank get honourable mentions. In true X-Files style, we are asked to Trust No One.

Such paranoia could be dismissed if not for their mass appeal. An alarming number of Lankans readily believe in these imaginary scenarios. Not just wars but elections are waged on these assertions. High levels of literacy and schooling make little difference. Most of our media outlets peddle and amplify them with no critical examination.

This is not how Lankans engaged the world in the past. For much of our 25 centuries of recorded history, we had open frontiers that welcomed traders, scholars, pilgrims, artistes, missionaries and others. This was the ‘ehi-passika‘ (come and see) formula in Buddhism, which made the rulers open minded and accommodating. Such transactions had their pros and cons, but on the whole, the island nation was richer for the free flow of genes, ideas and technologies. It was only in the last five centuries that the balance was lost due to European colonialism. That isn’t statistically very significant.

As with spices, ancient Lankans knew how to mix the home-grown with external elements. Indeed, the island’s fauna, flora and people would be radically different today if such influences and cross-fertilisation were somehow blocked out. Excepting the aboriginal Veddahs, now numbering a few hundred, all other races are immigrants who came from somewhere else. All religious faiths were also ‘imported’. Sri Lanka today is the product of endless assimilating and remixing over many centuries.

Those who advocate cultural hegemony should re-read their own history. For two thousand years, the spice island practised this advice eventually articulated by Mahatma Gandhi: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

As we leave the war’s legacy behind, we need revive our intellectual curiosity and spirit of tolerance that once distinguished this land. We have to resume rigorous public debate on policies, choices, alternatives and trade-offs on the road to peace and prosperity. An inevitable part of this pluralism is dissent – which was brutally silenced during the last stages of the war.

Any justifications for suppressing dissent ended on the battlefields of Mullaitivu, northern Sri Lanka, in mid May 2009. We yearn to start breathing again. Will our state once again make itself open to scrutiny, critique and question by voters and tax payers? Can our media, civil society and intelligentsia now take up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s definition of dissent — “the right to protest for right” – and resume their suspended (and sorely missed) cacophony?

Throughout history, the spice island nurtured plurality without losing its identity or integrity. It withstood numerous invasions, colonialism and tsunamis. Sri Lanka is more resilient than many of its citizens think — and more vibrant and diverse than it appears at first glance. That’s the legacy of good geography and open frontiers.

Let genes, ideas and spices flow freely again! We have nothing to lose – except our temporary blandness.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is still hopeful of mastering the art of Lankan cooking when he grows up. In the meantime, he keeps blogging at

A longer version of this essay appears in Himal Southasian magazine, July 2009 issue. 935 words