In recent weeks, Sri Lanka’s history of civil war has reared its ugly head in the media just before it prepares to host the Commonwealth Summit, resulting in there being calls for David Cameron and other leaders to boycott the conference due to Sri Lanka’s lack of advancement in human rights. The tension between Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants of the island may still be present in some places. However, the civil war was not a religious one, and, in the case of religion, I would wager that there are few other countries in the world where so many different faiths coexist peacefully in such close proximity.
Sri Lanka has been seen as somewhat special in the eyes of Buddhists since their introduction to the island around 2,300 years ago as the sacred city of Anuradhapura is venerated as the capital of Buddhism. Sri Lanka’s highest mountain is also revered by Buddhists as the footprint which can be found at its peak is believed to have been left by Buddha on a visit to the island. Buddhists are not alone in holding this mountain sacred: each of Sri Lanka’s other three main religions have a claim to the mountain, called Adam’s Peak. Christians believe the footprint is that of Adam; Muslims link it to Adam’s disobedience, and Hindus to the god Siva. Despite that, Buddhism does remain Sri Lanka’s main religion though, while walking around Bandarawela (the hill country town in which I was staying), it is possible to see not only a Buddhist temple but a Catholic church, an Anglican chapel, a mosque, and a Hindu Kovil. The knowledge that all those religions live peacefully together so close to each other was quite startling to me. Even living in England, one of the most multicultural societies in the world, there does seem to be some inherent tensions between particular religious groups, and, though it may be exaggerated by the media and by recent historical events, it is a tension that is clearly not in place in Sri Lanka.
The knowledge that all those religions live peacefully together so close to each other was quite startling to me.
The differing atmospheres in each religious place of worship never cease to amaze me. I have experienced the cold obedience of churches on many occasions, and the homely feel of a mosque’s carpet on my bare feet a couple of times. Neither, however, are remotely similar to the Buddhist pagoda of Bandarawela. I went at sunset, which was not a conscious decision but a glorious accident, high above the town and, surrounded by well-preened tea bushes, the pagoda made for a beautiful sight with the sun dipping behind it. Like in a mosque, footwear should be removed and you might think that the fine gravel surrounding the structure would feel harsh on the soles of your feet but it doesn’t; it somehow adds to the relaxing atmosphere by gently reminding you of where you are as your thoughts drift over the tea bushes into the distance.
The religious situation in the town was reflected perfectly on a smaller scale in the school where I was teaching. Every morning, as I walked to my classroom, I would be reminded of the great religious diversity of the classes in front of me. Silently making my way around the stands, which sit on a ridge of red rock overlooking the school sports field, now populated by blocks of students standing in their respective religious groups, it was possible to hear each group individually as they commenced in simultaneous but radically different acts of worship. The last group to walk past were the Christians, although they were only audible not visible as they sang within the chapel. The school was a Church of England school, though the percentage of Christian students was barely more than that of any other religious group with whom they intermingled after the religious rites had been completed for the day.
Look out for the third instalment in our special Sri Lanka Scenes series by Thomas Seaman.