Concretes & Abstracts Faith, Wayside Shrines & Urban Sprawl

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By 2017-12-17

by Narada

This is a simple, sad story about our 'upasakapiety' and modern mobility. The Rajagiriya Flyover is close to completion. The design of it, we are told has taken note of current traffic flows as well as projections up to 2035.

Rajagiriya town has two main arteries that bifurcate at the point referred to as the Ayurveda Junction. It is a visual representation of our kind of progress.

A grudging compromise between orthodoxy and modernity - Ayurveda and McDonald's.

Dr. N.M.Perera stands sentinel ironically with his middle finger and another of his left hand up, at the point of entry to Sri Jayewardenepura. The old road runs through the Rajagiryia bazaar. The new Asphalt thoroughfare runs direct in to the waiting choke point at the Bo tree opposite which another high storied edifice nears completion - a new home for the Kotte MC we are told.

The Rajagiriya choke point has three junctions. Each contributing its share to swift mobility - the modern insanity. The issue is further compounded by Buddhist botany.

There are three intersections past the Ayurveda Junction on the Sri Jayewardenepura road - Police station junction, Bo-tree junction and the Kohilawatta road junction.

The focus of this column is on the Bo Tree Junction.

When the flyover is commissioned, surrounding asphalt space will gain some semblance of order and system. The wayside Bo tree and shrine will be preserved as an island surrounded by vehicle traffic on ground and overhead. The Traffic Police if they decide will paint yellow stripes on the new road to provide a pedestrian crossing to the shrine. – A stupid arrangement given the billion spent on easing the traffic flow.

In Buddhist belief system, Bo tree is supremely sacred. It is the evergreen sanctuary under which the Buddha attained 'Bodhi' – enlightenment. It is said that the Buddha spent the first week after enlightenment in one placid posture contemplating the tree that offered him shade in the quest to vanquish samsara. In the typical Buddhist consciousness, worshipping the Bo tree is the same as worshipping the Buddha.

The Bo tree is called Ficusreligiosa. It is revered as a symbol of sanctity and offered Bodhi pooja for prosperity, good fortune and relief from pain, misery and misfortune.

At Rajagiriya Junction where the Spanish designed gleaming white overhead bypass is under construction a plant of Ficusrelgiosa has turned in to a Ficusurbana obstructio.

In the current chaos and cacophony of demolition, construction and attendant indiscipline of tooting horns nobody offers prayers at this wayside shrine. Motorists and Tuk Tuk drivers are Sumo wrestlers on wheels trying to get past it.

Wayside shrines have shown a stubborn resilience to withstand urban modernity. In the context of modern change, they are often at odds with city planners. Very often Bo trees and shrines adjoining are public space that are appropriated by neighbourhood parties and developed as social capital serving local interests.

Road side Siddhasthanayas are a ubiquitous feature not only in the old city of Colombo but also in planned environments of greater Colombo. The small shrine and Bo tree at the 'Palam Thuna Junction' on the wide approach road to Pelawatte is an example.

This is a parallel process of developing sacred real estate in the urban sprawl.

First comes the Bo Tree- Ficusreligiosa. Then comes a parapet wall. Then an archway. Behind the miniature shrine is the abode of the ecclesiastic entrepreneur. Then comes the marble flooring, the grilled enclosure. This is devotional urban sprawl.

That these are illegal encroachments on public land is never raised. Socio political compulsions are cost immune. It is inconceivable to expect urban planners who decided and designed the flyover at Rajagiriya to have even dreamt of the option of removing the Bo Tree at Rajagiriya.

According to Buddhist legend, prince Siddhartha was born under a 'Sal' tree – (Shorearobusta Roth). He passed in to Nirvana under the spreading branches of another 'Sal' tree. The Sal tree is native to sub-tropical northern and central India. The tree does not grow in tropical Sri Lanka. It has no significant presence in Sinhala Buddhist iconography. What we regard as the 'Sal' tree is the Cannon-ball tree (Couroupitaguianensis Aubl) which was brought to our soil most likely by the Portuguese from its native Brazil.

Intensely flagrant and ravishingly mesmeric the Cannon -ball flower was the unchallenged substitute for the Sal tree during the Buddhist revival in 19th century Sri Lanka. The 'Stupa' shaped nodule in the Cannon-ball flower made it a perfect Buddhist icon.
Joseph Campbell who has many authoritative books on mythology and belief systems has made a startlingly provable definition of these sacred spaces. "A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. In the secular context, one is concerned with pairs of opposites: cause and effect, gain and loss, and so on. Sacred space has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation. Practical use is not the dominant feature of anything in the space"

Integrity, Opinion & Expediency

It is not often that university dons offer to defend newspaper reports. This paper in its edition of last Sunday 10th December carried a report captioned Professor Hapuarachchi accepts responsibility, says: 'Mawbima news item correct.'

The Mawbima news report was about a survey undertaken by research team under the direction of Professor Ajantha Hapuarchchi who is teaching a course in communication and development.

The purpose of the survey was to explore and assess public opinion on likely political leadership in year 2020. Nayakaya Kawda?

Was the question. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena, Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were the options.

The survey found 8.4 % preferred Ranil, 9.18% wanted Maithripala, 28.64 % stood with Sajith and 39.18 % desired Gotabaya.

Dear reader, please not the discretionary adjective this columnist used. Preferred Ranil, wanted Maithripala, stood with Sajith and desired Gota. Narada being the iconoclast he is decided to amuse himself in the indisputable conviction that all of us think wisely and act absurdly.

Professor Ajantha Hapuarachcchi deserves praise and recognition for speaking truth to power. "The course unit I teach is communication and development. Here, the two components of people's participation and political development are part of sustainable development."

She then makes the withering remark.

"A university is a research centre and not a school classroom. The main task that it should carry out, in addition to teaching is research. "

Human beings are complicated, and their opinions are complex. Humans who take to politics are more than complicated. They are insanely complicated. Politicians presently in power did not like the findings of the survey. The state media embarked on an overdrive to condemn the news report and blame the academic responsible for the survey. That is understandable. Politicians lose their moorings when public opinion moves in the opposite direction. More on the subject next week.

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