Kirinde and its local legends

The first time I visited Hambantota district was two years after the tsunami of 2004 and it was a school in Kirinde that brought me here.

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Photo credit: Archie Campbell @Travel Journals

As I stood on the beach, I was told a fascinating legend from a couple of millenia ago. According to my storyteller, the King of Kelaniya, in South-west Sri Lanka, had a beautiful wife. His step-brother was said to have had an affair with his wife, with whom he exchanged letters in secret. The King intercepted one of the letters and was outraged, when he recognized the handwriting, even though the letter was not signed. However, he wrongly assumed that the handwriting was that of his priest and had him put to death. It turned out that the priest, who was the King’s childhood friend, and his brother had studied at the same Buddhist school and ended up with a similar handwriting.

My storyteller continued that nature furious with the wrong done to a Buddhist monk had responded in the form of a tsunami. As people ran to the King for help against the advancing sea, the astrologers and other counsel of the King told him that the only remedy was to sacrifice a human being. No-one stepped forward to volunteer for the sacrifice. The Princess, the daughter of the King, finally said that she would sacrifice herself to save the people. She was put in a boat, with lots of riches, to take with her to her afterlife and sent towards the sea. The tsunami however lifted her boat and landed it on the south eastern shore of Kirinde, in the southern Kingdom of Ruhunu.

The fishermen in the area were astonished and ran to their King to say that a boat had been swept ashore with a beautiful woman on board. King Kawantissa came to the beach to see for himself the strange sight that had caused such commotion and he decided to marry the Princess himself, when he heard her courageous story.

A temple, the Vihara Maha Devi pansala, stands at a high point on Kirinde beach to mark the landing of the Princess. The inner walls of the pansala are painted with stories of the arrival of the Princess in Kirinde, her marriage to King Kawantissa. The stories on the wall continue with the stories of the two sons born to them, Tissa and Dutugemunu, famous Kings in the recorded history of Sri Lanka.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

As the princes grow up, the country faced inter Kingdom wars and invasions from Tamil Kings from the North. The peace-loving King Kawantissa extracted a promise from his two young sons that they would refrain from getting caught up in inter-Kingdom wars and killing people, when they become Kings. A wall painting then illustrates the famous depiction of young Prince Dutugemunu lying on a huge bed curled in a foetal position. His mother sits beside him and asks him why he sleeps thus. He replies that he has no space to stretch his legs as the sea surrounds him in the south and east and King Ellalan is pressing from the north and so this is the only way he can sleep. His mother understands his frustration but reminds him firmly of his promise to his father.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

However, after his father dies, Dutugemunu finds himself unable to desist from war. He seeks his mother’s permission to be released from his promise to his father and to be allowed to fight a war with Ellalan, the King of Jaffna, who had expanded his Kingdom to Anuradhapura in the north-central region of the island. He promises her that he will try to minimize the deaths incurred from the war. On that promise, she finally releases him from his promise to his father and he sets off to the north.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

On the battleground, he requests King Ellalan that only the two of them fight, as it is a fight between the two and that the people needn’t suffer unnecessarily. Ellalan acquiesces and both fight. The younger King slays the older King and Dutugemunu sets up his Kingdom in Anuradhapura. At the site of where King Ellalan was slain, he set up a memorial and enforced the law that each passerby had to offer his or her respect to the slain King.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

This is the story that is narrated in South Sri Lanka and the story that makes King Dutugemunu one of the most respected and popular Kings among the Sinhalese.

I also happened to hear the story of King Dutugemunu, as narrated in North Sri Lanka and it is the story of a blood thirsty King, in search of power and land, propelled to war by his mother and thereby leading to the death of the just Tamil King Ellalan. Therefore, King Dutugemunu is not such a popular historical figure in Tamil narratives.

For me, it was interesting to listen to the story of the same person, as handed down in history, among two ethnic groups, and see how the angle of view hugely affects the perspective.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

I find the story houses of pansalas (Buddhist temples) the most interesting part, with tales of local legends painted on the walls. A walk around the walls is akin to reading a book.  Yet without a storyteller, the pictures may well be disconnected paintings. I was fortunate to have a knowledgeable story-teller bring to life the paintings on the walls. Perhaps you will be lucky when you ask someone who works or volunteers at the temple. Kirinde’s Vihara Maha Devi pansala is a little gem on the southern coast and is worth visiting.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World]
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Kataragama Festival

One of my friends, Nancy Yang, was traveling around the south coast of Sri Lanka when she read my blog post on the place of convergence this month and decided to visit Kataragama/ Kathirgamam. As she was visiting the place during the annual festival season, I invited her to guest post her festival experience. This post is Nancy’s series of photos on her experience of the Kataragama festival.

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Discover Beijing

Walking out of the airport into the biting winter cold of Beijing, what greeted me was the thick grey skies. It was with relief that our group boarded the bus, out of the heavy smog and bitter cold, which took us to our Bed and Breakfast place in an old Hutong.

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After breakfast the next morning, our group made our way over to the Sun Temple in Chaoyang district. As we made our way to a central point of the park, the park seemed greener and brighter with its fresh coat of rain. Having always been a fan of Amazing Race, I was enthusiastic about the start of the Discover Beijing team exploration – the activity scheduled for the first day of our three week trip to China under the APLP program. We were soon divided into four sub-groups and each sub-group provided a mini package of essentials for the day – a bilingual map of Beijing, a mobile phone, subway cards and some sheets of papers with the challenge questions we were supposed to answer through our exploration.

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Walking around Sun Temple

Mami, Rachel and I were assigned South Beijing. We decided that the first thing we needed was some hot coffee and a few minutes to strategize our route. Exiting a gate, we came across a shopping mall.

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Photo credit: Mami Sato

Expecting to find a coffee shop inside, we went in, but as it was too early, the shops were not open. The shopping mall, and its immediate neighbourhood, seemed to have a Russian influence.

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We found another café near the park gate and went in for some caffeine boost. While enjoying our coffees, we pored through our maps marking locations that we would need to visit in order to answer our challenge questions. We soon realized that the area we had to cover was too large to do so, within the given time. The team quickly came to a decision. We were doing this challenge for fun and so we should have fun, instead of trying to rush from one place to another. Prioritizing the places we were interested in most, we mapped out a route that we would follow and the time we would stop, wherever we were, to check in with our challenge hub staff who would then provide us with the mystery end destination.

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Planning our route over coffee, photo credit: Mami Sato

We decided to go to the nearest subway station of Yong’anli, from where we could take the train to Jingsong, where the first stop for our challenge – the antique market was located. We passed a street that seemed to have many embassies on it. I have always found it interesting that embassies tend to cluster themselves around a few streets in every capital city. The section of Ritan street that we passed had the Bangladesh High Commission and Brazil embassy close to each other. Thinking it would be fun to send a photo of the respective flags for our APLP friends from those two countries, we took out our camera but the security guards barked out warnings so we quickly moved on. We had difficulty locating Yong’anli because passersby did not seem aware of that station and finally we simply asked for the nearest subway. As we went along the street where the nearest subway was, we passed a bank. Recollecting that one of the artefacts we had to collect for our Discover Beijing challenge was an application form for opening an account, we popped into the bank to change some dollars to renminbi and collect our first artefact.

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At a bank counter, photo credit: Mami Sato

Reaching Jingsong, we realized that it was quite a long walk from the station to the antique market even though it was the closest station to the place. My team agreed that after the antique market, we would take cabs where possible so that we did not overwork our legs on our first day itself. It seemed it was too early for the market as most of the stalls were empty. The few that were open only sold some cheap trinkets and souvenirs. There were some shops at the end of the stall, which seemed to have stuff that looked like antiques. We took our requisite photo souvenir and answered the question in our challenge.

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Antique market

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Souvenir stall at antique market, photo credit: Mami Sato

As we came back to the entrance, we saw a group playing Chinese checkers and we decided to take a photo with them for our ‘interaction with locals’ for our Discover Beijing photo collection. The group was friendly and allowed us to take a photo with them. I had no idea how the game was being played, even after watching for a few minutes, but it looked very interesting.

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Chinese checkers, photo credit: Mami Sato

Our next point for the day was the pearl market and after hailing many cabs, one finally stopped and we were dropped off right in front of the Hongqiao pearl market in Dongcheng district. We took the elevator to the pearl exhibition hall to find the answer for the question on black pearls and to take a photo for our collection. There was delicious smells of food wafting in the air and we realized it was lunch time and that we were very hungry so we quickly wrapped up our challenge question and followed our noses to the food.

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Pearl market, photo credit: Mami Sato

Our noses led us to a hotpot shop in the building. The other two were ecstatic and I was happy to try something I had never had before. It was quite a challenge for me though as it was the first time I was seriously trying to attempt using chopsticks, where there was no alternative cutlery provided. It was quite interesting to have to be patient, when you were very hungry, and try to pick your vegetable from the hotpot carefully.

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Trying out a hotpot lunch, photo credit: Mami Sato

After spending a lot of time enjoying our lunch, we decided to move on to our next location on our route – the Temple of Heaven, which was conveniently right across the road. The temple had been constructed in the early 15th century by the same emperor who was responsible for building the Forbidden city.

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View from the gardens of the Temple of Heaven, photo credit: Mami Sato

We walked around the lovely park area around the temple and came across a group of people clapping in unison over some chorus. I have seen groups undergoing laughing therapy but I had never seen group clapping therapy or whatever that was.

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Mami with the clapping group

We walked around the temple of heaven gardens, finding the answers to the different questions on our list. We decided not to enter the temple precinct to find the answer to one final question on the Temple of Heaven, as we found the entrance ticket we had bought only covered the park area and the queue lines were too long for the temple entry.

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Temple of Heaven entrance

Since we only had an hour or so before the end of our challenge, we decided we would try to cover only two more places. We took a cab to Niujie mosque. The mosque the driver dropped us off in the Niujie area was closed but a kind lady there mentioned it was closed to visitors due to ongoing renovations and posed for a photo for our challenge photo souvenir. I later found that the Niujie mosque in Xicheng district that we were supposed to have visited was not the modern one we visited but the oldest mosque in China, built in 996 AD during the Liao dynasty.

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Mosque in Niujie, photo credit: Mami Sato

We took another taxi to the Beijing south station, which looked like a small airport from the outside and inside. After our requisite photo souvenirs, we sent a text message to the staff member, who was the contact person for the challenge, and received a message to come to Tiananmen Square and to look for the angel in red wings under the flag.

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Beijing south railway station, photo credit: Mami Sato

We took the subway to Tiananmen west and found that we had to walk to the other end of the road to reach the flag. We were tired by this time and we found security blocks preventing us from getting into the area that would take us to the flag area. Apparently, you had to be within the Tiananmen Square area by a given time or wait till the flag ceremony is over before you are let in. So, we had to be content with watching the ceremony from a distance.

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View of Tiananmen Square with the road closed off to traffic

By the time the ceremony was over, we simply wanted to get to a warmer spot. We received a text message asking us to come to the Tiananmen West station. We realized we had to walk the entire way back to the station and I think that was the point in the entire day that our group felt grumpy as we were tired, cold with two of us limping due to having walked beyond our normal walking distances. We slowly made our way back and rejoined the rest of the group.

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View of Tiananmen Square (with our Hawaiian pineapple mascot) as the road was reopened to traffic, photo credit: Mami Sato

Tired and hungry, we made our way back to our Hutong for dinner in the neighbourhood restaurant. Looking back at the day, though we were perhaps not as efficient as we could have been, we had a lot of fun and the right spirit – not that of competition but more of a joint exploration as a team, enjoying each other’s company and our attempts at locating places and undertaking challenge tasks. It was also a fun introduction to Beijing.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of This and What a Wonderful World

**City Tripping #37, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]
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Travel Notes & Beyond

PLACE OF CONVERGENCE

Located in Monaragala district, the second largest district in the country with the highest level of poverty, is a famous and popular pilgrimage site of Sri Lanka. Kathirgamam in Tamil and Kataragama in Sinhala, the unique place is  a site where people from several religious faiths converge. The annual festival in July is a particularly interesting time to visit.

My first visit to Kathirgamam was during the festival time and the place was packed. Our group had to park several blocks away and walk quite some distance through colourfully lit roads lined with street vendors. There was a carnival atmosphere. ‘Kavadi’ dance and music filled the paths leading to the temple where some pilgrims even went to extremes of fire-walking or piercing their cheeks or backs as a penance or for making or having a special request fulfilled. As we came closer, the crowds increased and there were long queues going across the narrow bridge leading to the temple complex. Most pilgrims chose to wade through the river beneath, taking a dip before they entered the temple premises. While my memories of the visit that night during the festival seems to be filled with lots of colour and noise, I have much more clear memories of Kathirgamam during later visits at less crowded times on non-festival days.

Driving in from Tissamaharama in Hambantota district on the south coast of Sri Lanka, we passed lush green fields and beautiful ponds of water lilies.

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Crossing over to Kataragama, one comes across a bridge built over Manik Ganga river, where during the day you can actually buy some fish food from the fish food seller nearby and feed the fish or you could choose to have a dip in the water as the pilgrims do.

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Crossing the bridge on foot, one comes across a compound with assorted modest structures from a mosque to a Hindu ‘koyil’ and a Buddhist ‘pansala’. Despite its modest appearance, the place is steeped in history and legends and is mentioned in 15th century Tamil devotional poems as well as the 16th century Pali chronicle ‘Jinakamali’.

According to the Muslim faith, they associate the site with Hazarat Khizr and believe that the current name comes from the older version Khizr-gama. Hazarat Khizr or the Green One is supposed to have drunk the water of life and gained immortality and eternal youth. Some believe that the secret spring is in this region and come in search of it. An old prayer house is reputed to be the spiritual station of al-Khizr. The main temple complex has a mosque and a Sufi shrine at the entrance where the flag is first raised during the festival season each year.

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Kathirgamam is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka for Hindus and many make special pilgrimages to visit the temple at least once in their lives. Hindus believe that Kathirgamam symbolizes the protection, wisdom and youth of Kathirgamar or Skanda (the many names of Lord Murugan). Right beside the mosque is a temple for God Shiva and along the path to the main temple for Murugan are other Hindu shrines and temples. The annual festival starts on the new moon day in ‘Adi’ (Tamil month of July) and ends with the ‘theertham’ (a special devotional offering involving water) on the full moon day. The casket with the mystic diagram which is preserved in the inner shrine of the Murugan temple is taken out during the festival season by pulling back the seven veils that hang before it in the temple representing the obstacles that one has to pass through to reach the truth. The casket is taken on an elephant to the Valli Amman temple and, after prayers are held there, brought back to its abode at the main temple.

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There is a special practice that some pilgrims take. This is the ‘pada yatra(i)’ or foot pilgrimage, which starts a couple of months before the annual festival in July. The longest route is the one from the north which makes its way to the east coast of Sri Lanka and down to the south east. This foot pilgrimage, according to the indigenous Veddah community of Sri Lanka, is a reenactment of the path that the “wise” person who shared knowledge and teachings took before establishing himself in Kataragama which they consider to be a very special place. Currently, the pilgrimage is undertaken by anyone who is interested in doing so, irrespective of their ethnicity. I used to see long lines of pilgrims setting off barefoot, dressed in yellow and carrying cloth shoulder bags, when I worked in Batticaloa on the east coast of Sri Lanka. I was surprised to hear that they walk all the way to Kathirgamam, a journey that took them a month or two to complete and which they timed so as to arrive at the temple complex in time for the festival.

God Skanda/ Murugan is also considered a Buddhist deity in Sri Lanka and is referred to in the Maha Samaya Sutta as the Sanat Kumara or the perpetual youth. Beyond the main shrine for God Skanda is a Buddhist shrine and a Bo tree.

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In Kataragama, there is also a much revered dagoba (Buddhist stupa), the Kirivehera. There are different accounts as to who was responsible for its construction. Many believe it to have been built by King Mahasena around 500 BC while others believe it to have been built by King Dutugamunu around 160 BC, after the defeat of the northern King Ellalan in Anuradhapura.

There are a few other pilgrimage sites around Kataragama, which the devout might be interested in visiting such as Kathiramalai or Vadihitikanda, a hill around 5 kms away from the main temple complex, which both Buddhists and Hindus believe is the original site of the temple. However, the climb is quite difficult and not adviced for people with mobility issues. Another pilgrimage place in the vicinity is Sella Kathirgama(m) which is also associated with God Skanda.

What I find most intriguing is that the site is a place where three religions converge and essentially merge in their belief that Kathirgamam/ Kataragama/ Khizrgama is the abode of the one with eternal youth and wisdom. Called by different names, the belief transcends barriers and enables the believers to merge spiritually and the annual theertham/Esala Perahera/festival merges the rituals of all three.

With the flag hoisted on July 5th this year, the annual festival is now underway. Check out my friend, Nancy Yang’s photo series on her experience of this annual festival this year.

Have you experienced the festival at Kataragama? Do visit Kataragama/ Kathirgamam during your travels around Sri Lanka!

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of Thisand What a Wonderful World
**Monday Escapes #39, hosted by My Travel Monkey and Packing My Suitcase
***The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
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A Hole In My Shoe

Special Six: A Day in Ho Chi Minh City

Following our visit to Hanoi, my friends and I traveled to Ho Chi Minh city where we spent 24 hours in the city. We fitted this day in between our travel to Hanoi and Siem Reap because one of my friends had Saigon on her travel wish list. While we did not have sufficient time there to explore much nor go on the Mekong delta cruise, which I was keen on, we did have a lovely day in the city where the traffic, especially that of scooters, at junctions is crazy. I mean that literally.

These are my special six highlights that I would recommend for anyone traveling to Ho Chi Minh city for a day.

Walk through the Old French quarter starting from Notre Dame Cathedral and ending at the Opera House. The stretch of road we liked best was Dong Khoi street, which is filled with fashionable boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. We spent a lot of time at several of the shops on this street as I was travelling with two shopaholics. My shopping recommendation is to buy some beautiful silk scarves and shawls at Khai silk at 81 Dong Khoi. I did most of my gift shopping here.

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Side view of Notre Dame Cathedral

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Central post office

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Municipal Theatre/ Saigon Opera House

Eat at Nha Hang Ngon at 160 Pasteur, which is close to Dong Khoi Street. We met up with a former colleague and friend living in Ho Chi Minh city at this restaurant, which she recommended for local Vietnamese cuisine. We especially enjoyed the rice paper wrapped spring rolls here.

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Photo credit: Justin Condon @ So dishy

Visit War Remnants Museum. Any first visit to Ho Chi Minh city needs to include a visit to this museum. I am not keen on war memorials or museums but we decided to visit this museum to learn a little about the Vietnam war from the Vietnamese government perspective. The museum will make you emotional and some photo exhibits are too gruesome to watch. We left the museum pretty much drained of energy.

Read The Sorrow of War (original title – The Destiny of Love) by Bao Ninh and translated into English by Frank Palmos, over some coffee at a local café or at an international chain like Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Or, just relax and enjoy the coffee there and read the book after your visit like I did. Bao Ninh, was part of a 500 member youth brigade during the Vietnam war and one of the ten in his brigade who survived the war. The book’s protagonist is a 17 year old youth, Kien, who goes to war with ideals and a dream of a happy future with the love of his life and fellow-classmate, when he returns from the war. The novel takes you through the abrupt memories of Kien and is basically his lament of his twice lost love and the human cost of war and what he terms the lost generation. The book won The Independent’s Best Foreign book prize in 1994.

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Source: Amazon

Explore Bui Vien Street’s night life and cheap eats and get a custom made ao dai stitched overnight for you at one of the tiny tailor’s shops on the street. I am not sure we would have visited this famous backpacker street, if we were not staying at Beautiful Saigon in this neighbourhood. We soon realized that this place was one busy place in the night with crowds of travelers frequenting the eateries lining the street and shops open late into the night.

Browse through Ben Thanh market for cheap souvenirs and street food. While the current Ben Thanh market structure is an early 20th century construction, the site has been known for its street market commercial activity since the 17th century. It is an interesting place to visit.

Which of the highlighted activities would you enjoy most? If you have visited Ho Chi Minh city, what was your favourite city highlight?

To view this article in the GPSmyCity app, please follow this link on your iPhone or iPad.

I am linking this post to City Tripping #35, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels.

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A Hole In My Shoe

Interview # 5: Selyna Peiris

While developing the business plan for the social enterprise I planned to start up last year, I was trying to identify other social enterprises in the country and their business models and area of focus. Given that Sri Lanka does not have a legal framework for social enterprises, I have been particularly intrigued by how businesses define themselves as a social business or a social enterprise. It was during this online search that I came across Selyn, a handloom company. I had previously come across their showroom in Colombo but had not known the company was a social business.

It was a coincidence, that soon after I became interested in learning more about Selyn, I met Selyna Peiris. Selyna, with an academic background in law, was the one responsible for transforming Selyn into a social business. I asked Selyna if I could interview her for my blog and she agreed. So, here’s my interview with her.

  • How would you describe yourself?

Focused. I always know what I want and I go for it. I don’t get distracted easily.

  • I understand that Selyn was started as a handloom company by your mother in 1991. When was Selyn transformed into a social enterprise? Why did you feel the need for this transformation?

Selyn turns 25 years old this year. It was always a company run for a social mission from the outset. With my knowledge and interest in social enterprises, we put in the systems and processes necessary to run as a social enterprise such as departmentalization, visualization, projecting ourselves, having a unique selling point. I did the easier bit – repackaging.

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Source: Selyn

  • How do you define Selyn as a social enterprise?

We are running a business but entrenched in our business model is the mechanism to work for society. For eg: day care center facilities in our workshops. It impacts society but it’s a business strategy to get younger women to join the industry. A social business is where business strategy impacts society.

  • Please do share an anecdote on how Selyn impacts the local community.

Our main target group is middle-aged women. Providing alternatives for this target group to have the option of work in their own villages as opposed to possibly the only other option of migrating as domestic labour. Particularly in the areas we work, Batticaloa, Kurunegala where they are highly susceptible to migration. This has been the key area of greatest impact.

I recently participated in the international visitor leadership programme and thereafter applied for the alumni innovation fund and won the funding for the 100 hands initiative, where 100 women who are potential migrants or migrant returnees are recruited and retained by Selyn, following a screening and psycho social support process. This is again a business strategy that at the same time looks at how it impacts society.

  • From your experience, what are some of the challenges that social enterprises in Sri Lanka face?

Recognition as a separate entity. The awareness legally and among consumers as to why a social enterprise is different. Selyn is one of the founding members of Good Market and is part of the board that vets new applicants. Many applicants think that giving women employment is being a social enterprise. It is about changing lives, not only in terms of providing employment.

  • What needs to be introduced, modified or expanded to enable a more supportive environment for social entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka?

Biggest factor is legal recognition. Currently, there is no option to register social enterprises. One has to either register as a NGO under Section 34 of Companies Act or as a private limited company. One does not allow making profit, the other does not have legal obligation to serve society. Selyn is registered as a private limited company. Except for our ethos, we don’t have to do what we do.

We need a hybrid model, like the community impress in the UK, Bcorps in the US. We are used to people’s company and we are used to cooperatives in Sri Lanka. We need to see how we can incorporate and create a space for social enterprises to flourish.

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Source: Selyn

  • Would it help social enterprises to have tax incentives or not? What are some of the challenges that startups face?

Not sure whether tax incentives would lead to the flourishing of real social enterprises. What we need to encourage is innovation and startups to address societal problems. A social entrepreneur should not be encouraged by tax incentives.

Currently, the cost of startup is expensive. Lot of people are scared to invest financially in something when they don’t see the value of what this can bring about. Simple ideas have helped communities and made money for the people who have started these ventures. Exposure to such thinking and taking initiative is limited.  We just don’t have a conducive environment for innovation and startups. We need to grow the space that can encourage social enterprises.

  • What are some of the other initiatives that you are currently involved in?

I also work for the government of Sri Lanka at the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation on both education and women programmes. I bring my private sector experience into those programmes. At Selyn, we can only target 1000 women so it is important to work with the system and bring about changes, if one wishes to impact larger populations.

  • What do you do to de-stress or recover your equilibrium when things do not go according to plan?

I exercise. I have gotten into it in the last couple of years since that is the only time I have for myself where I don’t have to think about anything but just work out.

  • Wrapping up this interview, do share a favourite quote or verse that inspires you whenever you are in need of some inspiration.

I always think about something mom and dad taught me, to always go into something with a learning attitude. When things get difficult, I don’t take it personally. When I present an idea or initiative and when someone slashes it, I just take it as part of a learning curve. Especially at Selyn, where it is more difficult as it is a family run business.

 

Special Six: Temples at Angkor

The Angkor archaeological park, considered one of the most important archaeological sites of South-east Asia by UNESCO, can be quite overwhelming. The 400 square kilometres of the park area is filled with ancient temple ruins of the Khmer Kingdoms from the 9th to 15th centuries. After seeing one temple after another, it can be easy to stop appreciating the differences and nuances in the temple styles and the history behind them. Aware of this, my friends and I chose a few temples we wished to see, both within and outside the Angkor park area, during our three days in Siem Reap. Even though our guide tried to persuade us to fit in more, we stuck to our choice which I believe enhanced our appreciation of the temples we did see at Angkor.

We started our temple visits at Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, established by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.

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The south gate with its 54 asuras (demons) and devas (gods) lining each side of the path to the gate, pulling on the snake’s tail and head respectively, was depictive of a Hindu mythological story regarding the creation of the earth.

The south gate had three faces facing each direction, with the central facing both in and out.

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The Bayon, the state temple during Jayavarman VII’s reign, is at the centre of Angkor Thom. With over 200 gigantic smiling faces carved on the towers of the temple, it is certainly a fascinating piece of architecture. My impression when seeing the smiling faces was that it was representative of Buddha, as there is a serene expression on each face, even though it might have been images of King Jayavarman VII.

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The bas-reliefs at the temple were also very interesting. I was wondering if it was illustrating the work that went into building the temple or whether it was depicting the King’s journey to the celestial Kingdom, as it was then believed that the King was a representative of the Gods.

Leaving the north gate of the Bayon, the guide took us to the Baphuon, which had been the state temple of Yasodharapura, the capital city of the Khmer empire during the early 11th century reign of Udayadityavarman II.  In the 16th century, the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple and several parts were demolished to reconstruct a reclining Buddha statue. It is difficult to see the Buddha statue clearly but when I looked closely, I could distinguish the face lying on a hand.

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Next to the Baphuon is the Terrace of the Elephants, which was used by King Jayavarman VII, the one who built Bayon temple, as an audience hall as well as a platform to view his victorious returning army entering through the victory gate.

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Exiting Angkor Thom through the victory gate, we made our way to Ta Prohm, a monastic complex built by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. The guide preferred referring to it as the Angelina Jolie temple though.

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It was an amazing sight to see the ruins with massive trees, fig and silk-cotton, that had taken over the complex.

Ta Prohm
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It was the massive trees that commanded one’s attention here. Ta ProhmAfter lunch, we made our way over to Angkor Wat. I feel we should have started our day at Angkor Wat and ended it at Ta Prohm, simply because the afternoon heat in Siem Reap can be quite draining and the gigantic trees at Ta Prohm does offer a lot of shade.

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Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century, as the capital city and state temple dedicated to Vishnu. It was subsequently converted to a Buddhist temple.

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Angkor Wat, the best preserved within the Angkor archaeological park, has the special distinction of being the only religious monument that appears in a national flag. Several countries, including Sri Lanka, have religious symbols in their flag but not a historic religious monument.

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On the second day, we had insisted upon visiting Kbal Sbean. Our guide had been less enthusiastic about it as it was about 40 kms away from town and he kept insisting there were many more important temple complexes closer. We were insistent however, as I personally believed, that the Kbal Sbean was the hidden gem or rather less visited gem of the ancient temples around Siem Reap. I strongly felt it would turn out to be best of the Siem Reap experience.

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Photo credit: Danny Yee @Wandering Danny

Kbal Sbean, located in Phnom Kulen, is a river bed carved with Hindu and Buddhist religious images between the 11th and 13th century. To reach the riverbed, one needs to climb a little hill. For anyone without mobility issues, it is an easy climb. For me though, it gradually became tougher as the incline increased and the path was not clear. The ankle, that I had twisted in Ho Chi Minh city, also started hurting. I reached a point when I realized that I could not climb further without assistance.

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Especially given that were I to slip and injure my leg further on those rocks, it would be difficult to access help. I did not want to detract from my friends’experience of the place so decided to stop where I was and asked them to proceed. Initially reluctant, the two of them finally left after I reassured them I was completely fine with it.

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I sat down on a little rock to rest my feet and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. I tried to regain my equilibrium after the upset I had felt at not being able to see what I had wanted to see the most during my visit to Siem Reap. The silence around me and the calming trees helped. Occasionally, there were groups that passed me by. After seeing the different responses of the first few groups that had passed by, I became interested in trying to predict how a group would respond to seeing me sitting along the path. There were many who simply averted their eyes, after the initial glimpse of me, and moved on quickly as if I were invisible or someone to be avoided. There were several who politely nodded their heads or murmured a good morning, without a single expression of surprise on their face and without a break in their walking stride, as if they came across someone sitting alone on a jungle hill path every day. A few though did stop to ask if I was alright. And then, a very few even offered to help me climb the last 100 metres of the hill, when they heard that I had stopped as it was too difficult for me to climb. Unfortunately, those that offered to help were in their 70s or 80s and I was not going to risk injuring them as well in case I fell.

So, while I did not make it to the riverbed to see the Kbal Sbean carvings, I did have an interesting experience sitting on a rock on the path and observing human behavioural responses to an unanticipated situation on their hike. The reason why this photo means a lot to me.

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After lunch, we made our way back stopping at Banteay Sreay. This temple complex, built in the early 10th century is the only one in Angkor, not built by a King, though he was part of the royal family and a counselor of the King.

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A Hindu temple, this little architectural gem came to be known as the Citadel of Women with many stories as to how it got its modern name. Most references to the origins of the name assume it is because of the numerous carvings of females at the temple, though there is a story that a female carver was responsible for the more delicate carvings at the temple.

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In Hindu images, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty is often drawn or carved with two elephants on either side as in the carving above. The temple also has intricately decorated libraries. Again, knowledge and books is represented in Hindu imagery by Saraswathi, the goddess of wisdom. So perhaps the temple came to be known as the citadel of women because it was dedicated to women goddesses?

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Irrespective of the origins of its name, Banteay Srei is a little gem worth travelling to the outskirts of the Angkor park area for.

Each of the six temples visited was unique and amazing in its own way and if you have only three days in Siem Reap, I would certainly recommend visiting these special six.

Which of the special six intrigues you most? Is there another temple at Angkor that you would include in this list?

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