The Heritage of Conflict and Confluence

by Hasini A. Haputhanthri

History was never my favourite subject in school. We hardly studied it, to be honest, thanks to the 1960’s educational policy in Sri Lanka, which integrated history into a broad subject called ‘Social Studies’ that lasted literally till the new millennium. Generations of students could completely disregard the history textbooks and still get a distinction in Social Studies. Why bother memorizing the dates of endless battles and names of ancient kings?

And yet I ended up a history buff. Whenever I visited cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, or even the more historical areas of Colombo, or walked to school in my small hometown of Panadura, past the colonial villas my great grand parents’ generation built at the turn of the 20th century, a strange curiosity gripped me. The landscape and the timescape combined always intrigued me. What is history, actually?

Students from University of Jaffna and University of Colombo in Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site, 2015, Photocredit: GIZ/Sujeewa de Silva 

Years later, when I worked as a development professional in peace building, I asked the same question from the diverse group of participants attending an in situ workshop on the root causes of conflict.  Sri Lanka had been in civil war for over 25 years, a quarter of a century, and animosities ran deep. We had brought two groups of history students from University of Jaffna and University of Colombo to Polonnaruwa, the mediaeval capital of the island whose ruins spoke eloquently of different faiths and ethnicities living side by side. The two groups hadn’t met before. They had two different versions of Polonnaruwa in their minds and a third one they were just witnessing. They were only beginning to understand that they had grown up learning two entirely different versions of history of the same island. Two versions of history they both swore as truth, or couldn’t bring themselves to question. Both versions were histories of wars and animosity between the two groups that glorified themselves and vilified the ‘others’.

As the group walked and talked their way through the Archaeological Complex of Polonnaruwa, often long intense conversations under Mara trees where they forgot to complain about the scorching heat, they were asking the most important and difficult questions from each other. Who were the Cholas? Were they friends or enemies? Are we friends or enemies? If we were friends and not enemies, could we have looked at history differently?

‘Who’s history is it?’ heated arguments at Polonnaruwa site visit, University of Jaffna and University of Colombo 2015, Photocredit: GIZ/Sujeewa de Silva 

In my experience of working in peacebuilding and post-war reconciliation, the most transformative of conversations have always happened, no, not inside a workshop, but out there under the Tamarind trees, or the shadow of an ancient Image House, where people sought specifically to understand the history of a landscape, not merely by historical sources, or what’s left of the built environment, but through critical enquiry and empathic imagination. I realized that historical grievances and glorifications, myths and legends, victims and perpetrators, ‘us’ and ‘them’ were at the heart of identity conflict. Of course, there were perennial issues regarding the distribution of resources and power between groups, but what fueled and justified the war and kept it going, was bitter hatred.

Thus, addressing the root causes of conflict required facing this history of hate and discovering common ground, if there was any. Unsurprisingly, there is always much in common than we had ever cared to admit. By the mere fact of its geographical location amidst the oceanic silk rout, the island known as Sri Lanka today had always been an island of encounters; and of fusion and friendship.

Today, with the end of the war and revival of large scale tourism, Sri Lanka is witnessing a rush of interest and engagement in heritage. While economic development always takes precedence in a country which has been wheeling under war debt, the need to ensure non-recurrence looms even greater. Heritage is not merely income generation, but a cornerstone of peace education and reconciliation. Fortunately, we are witnessing young researchers and activists taking up topics that captivate them to conduct heritage walks in their neighbourhoods in Colombo, Negambo, Galle and Jaffna. We see an increasing number of locals attending the walks and continuing to join, which is a clear indication of the need for such qualitative experiences. The walks provide not only new information and perspectives but also a civic space for discussing, sharing and opinion forming.   

Heritage and Museum Walks thus became a serious engagement for me over the years. Getting people to walk through the Colombo National Museum, exploring the diverse collection of artefacts, and getting them to reflect on why we have never acknowledged the physical presence of something so obvious, in itself was the beginning of a transformative process. Those who joined me at the museum, joined me again as I explored the religious confluence in Kandy.

Statue of Godess Durga from Anuradhapura period, often portrayed as an exclusively Buddhist site in popular imagination, Museum Walk at the Colombo National Museum 2018, Photocredit: GIZ/HistoricalDialogue 

Some time back I was invited by the two student groups that met in Polonnaruwa, to join their visit to the former war zone and last battlegrounds of Mullaitivu and Jaffna, because they wanted to follow through with the conversation they had started. This time the students from Jaffna guided the students from Colombo through a battered landscape and a difficult phase of our most recent history.

Similarly, another event took place this June where again, another such group walked through the ruined Katchcheri building of Jaffna, guided by locals. This time visitors and colleagues from India and the UK had joined, providing new insights into archaeology and heritage. Sanathanan, a colleague from Jaffna University whom I had become friends with through years of work such as the one we did in Polonnaruwa, was instrumental in organizing the workshop, bringing together scholars from University of Exeter and Heritage Walk Calcutta as well as a host of locals from Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna.

In the evening Sanathanan offered to walk us through the Jaffna. He wanted to show us his favorite Film Halls, and talk about the history of entertainment culture in Jaffna and his own memories of how it was all changed by war.  We explored few theatres built in 1930’s art deco architecture to the secret locations where open air-film screenings took place during the war times. History and memory joined hands and walked with us as we sang old film songs to the evening street-life.     

When those who have lived through certain historic moments find their voice to share their stories with those who listen with empathy, we are amidst a process of not just re-writing history from a different perspective but also acknowledging and forgiving, healing and reconciling.

I was moved because I recognize how harmony, even at a very small scale, can make the slightest friendship grow, as much as the lack of it can make the greatest civilizations decay.

about the author

Best known as a development professional and arts manager in Sri Lanka, Hasini is a part of a global network of researchers and practitioners on peace-building, arts and heritage management. Initially trained as a sociologist at Delhi University India and Lund University Sweden, Hasini recently specialised in Oral History and Museum Anthropology at Columbia University New York. Her current research and practice is focused on reinventing museums as sites of representation, innovative pedagogy and civic engagement.  

Author: Tathagata Neogi

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and ethnographer with a PhD from University of Exeter. He is also the Founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, an academic-run for-profit social enterprise offering historical walking tours in Kolkata, India.