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National Vision Committee convenes in Kataragama

Multi-religious Traditions to the Fore

by Patrick Harrigan of the Kataragama Devotees Trust

Kataragama and its multi-religious traditions took the limelight as the Committee for a National Vision conducted consultations in the Sacred City on August 30 and in Matara on August 31. The consultation was conducted in Kataragama in a spirit of consensus and communal harmony, and was well-attended by knowledgeable and articulate spokespersons from the different communities.

The National Vision aims to lay out a road map to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and plural society, where cultural diversity is recognized as a source of national wealth and strength.

National Vision Committee members present included Chairman Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Ms. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, Brigadier Ranjan de Silva, Ms. Nimalka Fernando and Ms. Fara Haniffa. Kingsley Perera of the Kataragama Devotees Trust co-chaired the meeting.

A virtual rainbow of local dignitaries presenting statements to the Committee included Buddhist monks, swamis, and Vedda elders. The public consultation was hosted by Rev. Dr. Aluthwewa Soratha Thera of Kiri Vehera Raja Maha Viharaya, and organized by the Living Heritage Trust and the Kataragama Devotees Trust on behalf of the National Vision Committee.

Prior to the event, in a spirit of multi-religious amity, the participants had first paid respects at Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya before partaking of dana at Śrī Theivani Amman Kovil. The discussions then began in earnest at nearby Kiri Vehera. The consultation opened with Ms. Rajasingham-Senanayake giving a detailed description of the aims and principles of the National Vision, followed by Kataragama Basnayake Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dhala Bandara's statement by his representative Mr. Jayampathy, and statements by the heads of Kataragama's Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities.

All agreed that Kataragama is a sacred site unique in Sri Lanka and perhaps in the world as a place where people of three major religions mingle and worship in a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect.

A common theme in the presentations was the request that the Kataragama region be demarcated as a cultural sanctuary where traditional practices and lifestyles are recognized and protected, and where traditional laws are given precedence over statutory law. Izath Nilar of the Naqshabandhi Tariqat presented the statement of Kataragama Mosque & Shrine Trustee M.H.A. Gaffar, who urged the Government to "highlight and encourage inter-religious brotherhood, particularly at shared sacred spaces like Kataragama and Adam's Peak, by declaring Kataragama Kele and Adam's Peak regions as cultural sanctuaries or zones of pilgrimage, prayer and meditation." Seshadri Swami of Theivani Amman Kovil urged authorities to provide pilgrims with a facility to conduct meditation, and proposed Kiri Vehera as the most quiet place.

Nikaweratiya Mudiyanse Tennekoon stressed that mere well-intending words, without implementation at the local level, would only foster contempt for Government authority.

A common concern among those who addressed the Committee-including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike-was the issue of how best to preserve the atmosphere of sanctity in Kataragama in an era when "curiosity-seekers are replacing pilgrims". It was observed that the problem has two aspects: attitudes and behavior of visitors as well as environmental degradation, including noise and drying or pollution of the Menik Ganga.

One contentious issue concerned the use of loudspeakers in the Sacred City. It was agreed however that the use of amplified sound is justifiable when important announcement must be made to large crowds. The consultations concluded with detailed statements by Wanniyal-atto elders representing the Danigala, Dambana and Henanigala Vedda communities. Each stressed the different history, circumstances and needs of the various Vedda communities. All unanimously reiterated their appeal to be allowed to live their traditional lifestyle in the forests of their ancestors, whether in Dambana or Rathugala or elsewhere.

The Vision for Sri Lanka recognizes that the country's constitution and institutional design should be based on power-sharing that reflects its multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual society with a mixed cultural geography. The Vision also declares that local knowledge and practices embodying traditional lifestyles should be respected, preserved and maintained, without compromising the nation's commitment to equality and social justice.

Courtesy: The Sunday Observer (Colombo) of 7 September 2003