Reading through as much of the great philosopher and aesthete Ananda Coomaraswamy as I could in the archives of the National Museum in Colombo, I ran across this quote, which Coomaraswamy himself had encountered while visiting craftsmen of rural Sri Lanka. Coomaraswamy used the quote to underline his lament over the loss of traditional ways in Sri Lanka. The quote translates roughly as "Each country has its own style of work." In itself this may not seem so deeply philosophical. Or is it? Sri Lanka is an old country with old thoughts. This one, doubtless burnished with human wisdom over the centuries it was passed down, reflects a profound understanding of human nature.
The quote was used by Coomaraswamy to highlight the differences between mechanized western manufacturing (as it was practiced at the turn of the 20th century) and the traditional human-scaled manufacture of traditional Sri Lankan crafts. It highlights for me a conundrum I've run across in my three months as a Fulbright scholar in this beautiful, fascinating, sometimes inscrutable country.
Yesterday I asked our guesthouse driver to take me to the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, the amazing temple in Kelaniya, just outside of Colombo, which marks the spot of the Buddha's third visit to Sri Lanka. I had visited the famous Vihara only two days ago during a hiatus in the International Post Graduate Conference at the university, where I had been invited as the plenary speaker. I had to get back and spend more time there, which is why I returned only a couple of days after my initial visit. But before I go on let me digress to say a few words about the IRPC.
The conference supported a very wide range of research papers from applied linguistics to macroeconomics to Buddhist thought and soil microbiology. From the standpoint of a liberal arts education you could say they are doing a good job at Kelaniya. And a brave one. The "jobs" "out there" are not readily available to this kind of graduate. So how went the conference? Most of the papers were the product of recent graduates' work. Many were fairly weak, average products of undergraduate work that needed more than just a bit of polishing. They reminded me of fourth-year student work I've been observing at Moratuwa University, where I'm "officially" commissioned for the Fulbright. At the end of each presentation the moderators, all smiles, asked for comments. It was apparent that they were asking the audience, and in many cases me directly, for constructive comments. As the comments came, all friendly and encouraging, I noticed exactly what I've seen at Moratuwa. At some moment the moderator, actually the student's professor or advisor, would smile and gently sum up the positive qualities of the work that had just been presented. Everyone was praised. No work was allowed to be criticized too deeply. It reminded me of the capstone projects we receive and critique every year at my school. They are pretty bad. They reflect poor organization, poor research, and they lack critical analysis. But everyone passes. Everyone is congratulated. One difference between our system and theirs is that behind the scenes we gnash our teeth over the quality of student work. "Ek eka rata, ek eka veda."
But that's not what I'm here to tell about. Of course I'd expect academics to behave differently in different systems, even though here I have to say there are more similarities in the way we work than differences.
I'm here to write about the conundrum I've encountered in my Sri Lankan experience. And to try to put it into words. Let's go back to the Vihara visit. Long story short I learned more from my driver yesterday than I've learned through weeks of discussions here with academics. It takes me back to my visit to Rajarata University, where the quality of tanks we visited, topo map, van, and academic team in tow, didn't hold a candle to the work I'd done with my "uneducated" local guide a few months before.
It's a conundrum of the Fulbright (not a criticism) that here in Colombo we're encouraged to engage in the highest echelons of society and culture, while (for me at least) real engagement with the treasures of Sri Lankan civilization lie elsewhere.
My work with colleagues at Moratuwa University reflects this too. Their tight curriculum and lockstep schedule has left them with little opportunity to engage me with their students. Again, not a criticism. It's their system. And at the same time as it leaves me underutilized it provides me the opportunity to use my time as I like.
Back to the National Archives where I've been pursuing my question of whether village tanks might not have been designed after the human body. No one I've spoken to here in Colombo has been able to address my question. Everyone has their top dozen or so things to say about village tanks, and many of them are interesting, but none approaches my question. The books aren't a help either. Engineers don't think along these lines. Coomaraswamy comes close, but he addresses culture and craft from a different perspective. My sad lack of Sinhala prevents me from delving into that literature, but I think if there were knowledge of this I would have read it in Brohier or in one of the dozens of publications I was referred to at the International Water Management Institute.
So it takes me to the source, the people who live among the tanks. I don't mean to romanticize them or their life. Traditions in cultivation here have undergone profound changes over the past decades. But my discussion with my driver yesterday reminded me. There is so much native knowledge that is buried here in Colombo. I think it's more out in the open in the countryside. And I think mining it may be easier, given my habit of quiet listening, by letting simple people, drivers who have enough English for me to understand, express what they know.
Whether I ever find out if tanks were designed on the basis of the human body is perhaps irrelevant. It's getting a deeper understanding of Sri Lanka that counts. I'm not so interested in the way contemporary Sri Lanka is shaping a non-western culture that's accessible to the west--literary fairs, music events, visual arts. I know as well that resurrecting Sri Lanka's past is futile and perhaps misguided. But it's an understanding of that past, a unique treasure with a unique human landscape, that seems to me the best way I can spend my time here. Academia, politics, and contemporary culture aside, a return to my study of village tank landscapes is, I think, the best way to understand Sri Lanka's past, present, and future.