Thursday, May 12, 2016

Another look at Jaffna

The village is an island among cultivated fields. Or it was. Jaffna is encroaching from the south along the  KKS Road and people have begun building at the edges of the fields on the other three sides. New land is in demand as there is so little of it. Old land uses give way to new land uses. You ask. Is it good? Is it bad? The people do it with no guidance, no limits from the government. It must be going the way it's meant to go. Words and thoughts you struggled to find. 

Ironically the village population shrank during the conflict. Maybe by one third? My guess. You can't say. It looks like that many houses may be abandoned. But you say no, not abandoned. Only less population. I don't know the population. Three thousand? Ten thousand? You think 30,000?

There are something like 20 temples in the village. There are three or four major ones and many smaller ones. You explained that the village grew outward from these kovils but some are at the edges too. Kovils at the edges of a village might have been built for protection. Also to demarcate boundaries. Boundaries were also demarcated by wells and markets. The large market in Chunnakam, just to the north, is an example. A well stood at the juncture of four village boundaries. A market too. A shrine, large from cut stones was built by a local person with a European wife. The place was controversial. But people use it now. Not as many people as use the "real" shrines. The well? The well was paved over just a few years ago you explain, when the road was widened and the market moved behind, away from the traffic. There was an old woman who tended the well and also looked after the temple, which was seen as a public space. 

The well behind your compound reaches 30 feet before water seeps in. This is the state of the water table on the Jaffna Peninsula. A "bubble" of freshwater rides on top of the denser sea water but that bubble, or more appropriately lens, is growing thinner as water is more scarce. 

You took me to a small region of paddy fields where there are kovils next to well developed tanks. The tanks flow from one to the next along the bed of a submerged river that sometimes flows aboveground in the wet season. Every word I've ever read about Jaffna is that there are no rivers, not even intermittent ones. Another lie blown away. And yet another: as I've long suspected, the much-touted "tank cascade system," said to be an indigenous socio-geographical feature of the Sinhalese "dry zone" of Sri Lanka is found in the Tamil East and North as well. I've seen and noted a similar system just outside Batticaloa town in the ancient Arasady District, a place-name that coincides with the name of the most ancient district in Jaffna. 

You explained to me that old Jaffna town, which is actually a group of now-amalgamated villages, lies north of the British precinct, which ran along the major east-west  Kandy Road up to Hospital Road. Kandy Road was heavily disrupted and damaged during the war when the Indian "peacekeeping" force was here. Major commerce moved north to Hospital and Stanley Roads. Ancient Jaffna lies north of there, about a mile north of the sea. I noted this when we were here last time and I walked through and throughout the city. Maybe this was far enough away from where the Portuguese landed to maintain some religious and cultural autonomy. Maybe not. 

You told me your village, Inuvil, is a new one. It lies 7 km north of Jaffna and people came here from coastal zones to escape the Portuguese. So it's only about 500 years old. Not old enough to pass as "ancient." The temples also count as "new," as most of them date from that time. The landscape here is a palimpsest in its truest sense. So much has been erased, partially or completely, that tracing a linear history of this place is impossible. But you know more than any person from a landscape perspective. And you have professional training in urban landscape. With some documentation, some photos, some interviews, and some careful bike rides around the village you should be able to reconstruct a lot. When I suggested this to you you wrinkled your nose thinking I meant literally rebuild the village the way it was. No. I want you to give the village built environment your best shot to reconstruct what was here. In words, on a map, in diagrams--conjecture is OK because you're basing it on good evidence--and I want you to develop a predictive eye. That's why you're getting your degree in urban design. 

By predictive I mean, what do you see happening here in the next five years? The next twenty years? You are in a prime position to trace the development of this peri-urban space and to foresee where it's going. For example, in our discussions of the cultivated belt around the village, you said these were a sort of open space where whoever was working the fields could keep an eye out for whoever entered the village. Portuguese or internal enemies. The open space made your village a sort of fortress without ramparts. You didn't need to build a physical fortress because you could repel enemies from your warrens of lanes. Or just hide from them. Make yourselves invisible behind your fences. Nowadays you don't need to do that. So land use is changing. People are land hungry and there's not much of that in Jaffna. That cultivated space. Will it be here in 20 years?

You mentioned internal enemies. People from rival villages. So I wonder, were other villages built this way? You claim Inuvil to be unique. Were no other villages in the interior of the Jaffna Peninsula modeled in this way? What about "island" villages like Sammanthurai, far to the south and east near Kalmunai? Might this be a Tamil village form? Or is Inuvil, as you claim, unique?

The interior of the village is amazing. Paved and unpaved roads, wide and narrow roads, narrower pathways, crooked roads and straight roads, all the way I've observed them in my "home" villages of Kallady and Tiruchendur. So much variation in width, angle, materials allocated and realized in each road. Maybe there ten kinds of roads. Maybe there are more. Maybe a typology of roadways in your village is unimportant. Maybe it would give is information about the origins and uses of particular roads. For example, you mention that these roads grew from footpaths. How did this change occur? Why? Where? Why in certain roads and not others? This landscape grew as you say, "without people's knowledge" of what they were doing. The landscape is changing now just as it has always  changed. 

I've noted before the variation in fences, ranging from coconut thatch to palmyra leaf to living fences of coppiced shrubs, then on to beaten oil cans, corrugated metal materials and pressed cement bricks. Finally the bricks are covered over, painted, decorated, "completed." It's a process of closing in, making semi-private places private. What are the motivations behind this? You mention money as a driving force. What else makes people close themselves in this way?

You mention that the closing in changes the environment of the village. It changes air circulation, the visual environment, and the way sound travels. It also changed social interactions. You notice materials in a creative and analytic way, also with an historic eye, so that you noted the solid walls and interpreted them as a recent phenomenon. Part of a recent availability (and in many cases influx from abroad) of money. So with more money formerly open spaces are closing. Semi-private becomes super private. Bicycles are replaced by motorbikes. Relationships and their dynamics are changing. You noted that you are related to almost everyone in the village. You greet everyone and everyone greets you. How will that be for your four children if they stay in this village?

You note that your extended family compound does not have fences or barriers. You chat with an auntie. She tends to a family shrine. The shrine, you tell me, is typical from the Portuguese times when traditional rituals were forbidden in public by the Catholic conquerers, when kovils were destroyed by the conquerers. Maybe these home shrines reach further back in time to older traditions?

You show me different temples and you explain, if I understand correctly, that the kovil style of building is not the original style. That older shrines were supplanted by kovils. That kovils have become wildly decorative only recently. That even the red and white striped walls you see everywhere are a recent phenomenon. I observe the scalloped  ceilings under eaves. No you tell me. They're not traditional. They derive from some workmen and suppliers who knew how to make these shapes and could make a profit by selling them to people. Your viewpoint is a lot like mine. I wonder how much your interpretations are influenced by your own slightly ascetic lifestyle? You make the daily curd for your family just like I used to bake my family's daily bread. 

Like we did, you raise your kids without TV. You don't pay for tuition classes the same way as we didn't send our children to private school or pay for extra SAT "tutorials." The stakes are about the same. You trust that your kids will turn out alright. A little bit you are swimming against the tide. But you are gaining confidence in yourself and you are taking a vitally important stand, given the trends in your world that you see. 

We visit your relations, your mother and sister, your auntie and uncle out on the island, your bachelor uncle and your bachelor secular guru who lives with his two sisters. You are everyone's pet. You stayed. You are making a life. Building a new community. That's why. 

At the same time as you live like an optimist you are deeply philosophically pessimistic about your society and about your physical space. We share this too. And we share it with my guesthouse manager, Mr. Gregory, with whom I got to have some long conversations between times seeing you. Gregory worries over his kids. Changing values, changing mores, a changing economic environment. In a twist, he tells me that the really good people in this country are the Sinhalese, gentle, generous, good hearted people. The worst people, he tells me are his own Tamil people. Selfish. Mean. Backbiting. The worst of all are those from Tamil Nadu, the worst place he's ever been, "cities on fire," he describes them, a thinly veiled reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Children these days he says, are unfaithful to parents, indifferent or hostile to religion, tempted by smartphones and drugs. Unsafe to go in the streets day or night. They sit on the chairs in back of church and fiddle around instead of sitting on mats on the floor for two or three hours at a time. The girls would never consider marring a local boy. There are no high caste families left in Jaffna. Everyone's gone. Diaspora people bring in money and ideas that are unsuitable. They stay for a day or two and complain about the climate, the noise, the dirt. They bring fashions and gadgets that are unsuitable. 

You, like Gregory, have a lot to say about money flowing in and money being used to renovate or erect religious centers people barely use. You have a lot to say about the way people use, abandon, and sell their property. The money from outside builds buildings but how and if it builds community is a different question. You, like Gregory, remind me that Jaffna is an old rich place and a lot of people have a lot of wealth. In land, in gold. There is pent up demand here for consumer items, wide screen TVs, large vehicles. Will Jaffna become Nugegoda? 

In a surprise discussion you ask me what the true capital of Sri Lanka is. It only takes a split second for us both to agree, Jaffna. You feel it here. And you can attribute it to vasthu shastra. The "head" is on top. Bad things, effluents, move through and out of the southwest, where Colombo is. No one disagrees that Colombo is a cesspit. Kandy is quick on its heels. How will, how can Jaffna avoid this? 

You spoke of awnings. Old buildings had them, deep and long like Sri Lankan eyelashes. They protected the buildings and the people inside and blocked the light and lessened the heat. Now they've "forgotten" how to build them and soon enough AC will come to be the necessity and not the exception. Your critical eye misses little and your judgement lies sharp on the world you see. I count this as good, very good, exceptionally good in a country blind to past or future and only feeding on the present. You will have to guide in frustration and struggle but you will guide and you will set an example and you will build.  

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