Historian, art historian and academic
Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda is indeed one of the few non-combatants allowed into the war zone during the final stages of the Eelam War. On his own initiative, he made an application to visit the operational areas and was granted permission to do so by the Defence Ministry. He toured these areas on three occasions between March and April 2009. His work has been published in international media and military journals, and presented to audiences in the U.K., India and Canada. Dr. Tammita-Delgoda has never been an employee of the Sri Lankan Government nor the Defence Ministry. These impressions and supporting photographs are original and based on firsthand experience in 2009 when the war was still raging and had
entered its final stages.
Outside the sprawling Army base at Vavuniya in Northern Sri Lanka stands a great Nuga (Banyan) tree. Its branches tower over the road, casting a spreading shadow over the line of vehicles parked beside. Underneath the tree is a small stone Kovil, a shrine to the Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha. Every vehicle heading North towards the war zone stops here and every soldier, Buddhist and Christian alike, gets down. Piling out of their trucks, lorries and jeeps, they make their offering to the Elephant God, seeking his blessing and protection. Sometimes, the Pusari (Hindu priest) himself comes out to bless them, daubing the flaming vermilion paste on
Religion is still a vital part of life in Sri Lanka and Buddhist temples, Hindu Kovils and Christian churches are found everywhere on the island. Despite the heavy fighting which has raged throughout the North, most of the Hindu shrines in the region remain intact. Although empty and abandoned, they lie untouched amidst the debris of war. Almost as numerous are temples of another kind. Modern, colourful, drawing on a blend of influences, they propagate a new religion.
Outside the ruins of Pudukuduirippu Hospital is another shrine. Although the surrounding area is littered with bricks and shells, with its bright psychedelic colours, it is a cheerful sight. At its heart is a smiling young man with a halo around his head. He has large, round glasses, a moustache and a beatnik hairstyle. Although he looks more like a hippy poet, this smiling youngster was one of the very first martyrs to the LTTE cause. His name was Thileepan, a medical student from Jaffna. Suffering from blood cancer, he had gone to India for treatment. However, treatment had failed and Thileepan returned to his home town, weak and ailing. At the time, Jaffna was occupied by the Sri Lanka armed forces and to protest at their presence, Thileepan began a fast
At Pudukuduirippu, Thileepan’s likeness is surrounded by shades of heavenly blue. A parasol above his head confers special status on his portrait. Painted below is a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddhism and Hinduism. On the wall on either side are larger pictures of Thileepan, with a burning candle, several feet long. To one side a young woman in the garb of a temple maiden, kneels at his feet. Gazing at Thileepan in adoration, she offers flowers in her cupped hands. Shrines like this are found all over Tamil Eelam. Thileepan Day was declared a special day and every year on the anniversary of his death, lamps were lit and offerings made. The air is alive with the rattle of machine guns and bursts of rifle fire. Now and again, there is a heavy thud and Thileepan’s smiles widen slightly as his image seems to dance from side to side. Over the last few months, the once-invincible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been driven from stronghold after stronghold. Pudukuduirippu is the last town under their control and here the LTTE are putting up desperate resistance, standing and fighting to the death. Despite the daily losses, there is an endless stream of reinforcements.
We are killing and wounding them everyday, yet there are still people coming forward to fight. Even now, they are willing to fight and die: General Kamal Gunaratne, Commander, Division 53, Pudukuduirippu.
This relentless determination in the face of impossible odds has very deep roots. Its origins lie in the way in which the guerillas were able to mobilise the population in areas under their control.
In every corner of the globe, the exercise books given to children are adorned with pictures, cartoon characters, animals and all kinds
In Sri Lanka, however, they have a particular fascination for children who love the bright, shiny pictures. Remaining with their owners from day-to-day, they are hoarded and treasured, carried everywhere and tended with loving care.
The schoolbooks of Tamil Eelam are slightly different in character. One depicts a beaming young cadre in his Tiger stripes. This is Lt. Colonel Deva Rasiah Kannan from Vavuniya. Born on December 25, 1971, he died a hero on March 29, 2007.On the back cover is a parody of one of the most famous scenes in World War II -- The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Standing on a mound of helmets, a group of cadres raise the flag in jubilation. One shoots his T-56 off into the air, another brandishes a rocket launcher. Sprawled at their feet is the body of a Sri Lankan soldier.
It is a special souvenir edition. Inside a series of entries lists the injuries which Rasiah sustained in the course of his duties. Beginning at Neriyakulam in Vavuniya in 1988, it goes down the page, chronicling the story of his wounds. All told, he was injured some 56 times.
The back cover carries two more portraits which appear above the “Raising of the Flag.”
One is of Rasiah and facing him is a girl in uniform, his cousin Rasiah Tamilchelvi, who also died in battle.
Both man and woman are given an equal place in the afterlife. Tamilchelvi, however, appears to have sprouted whiskers and been given bags under her eyes. Boys, even would be cadres it seems, will be boys.
The Tiger creed dictated that every family must give at least one child to the struggle and every family who lost a child in battle were known as “Mahaveeras,” the great heroes of the Liberation struggle. Idolised in death, their flesh and blood were also looked after in life, treated with great honour and given special privileges. Government Agents in areas under the control of the LTTE were ordered to give them special consideration, channelling food, money and clothing to the surviving members. Exalting them in the eyes of their peers, the Tigers tied these families ever more closely to the cause, creating a group within the community which formed the backbone of their support.
Once they lost Pudukuduirippu, the LTTE fell back to Pudumathalan on the seashore. At Pudumathalan, the most imposing permanent structure is a low squat building on the sands. Even in the glittering glare, it makes a splash of lurid colour. At first sight, it resembles a little church, reminiscent of the brightly-coloured buildings scattered up and down the island’s coasts. Like a village chapel, a little iron gate leads into a space lined by flowerpots. The flower pots form a circle around a podium in gaudy red and yellow. Behind the podium is a pavilion in ocean blue. Above the threshold is a Tiger, his face a snarling mask of white and orange. Framed against a ship’s wheel, he claps an anchor between his paws. The lines of the anchor behind him form a cross and there is the suggestion of a crucifix. It is not a church but a memorial hall, a monument to the Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE. Drawing on the people of the seashore, the Sea Tigers operated from bases dotted up and down the coast. Using small, very fast lightweight boats as suicide vessels, they posed a serious threat to the larger, heavier vessels of the Sri Lanka Navy.
This hall was dedicated to Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Anthony, one of the first military leaders to lay down his life in the early days of the Tamil Tigers. In order to procure weapons for the movement, Charles led an attack on a police station in Jaffna. However, he was badly injured during the attack and his men wanted to carry him back to base. Deeming that the struggle was more important than his life, Charles ordered his cadres to shoot him so that they could complete their mission and return with the captured weapons. Moved by his sacrifice, Prabhakaran named his first son Charles Anthony. He also gave his name to the first attack unit formed by the LTTE. Known as the Charles Anthony Brigade, it was to become one of LTTE’s elite regiments.
This perhaps explains the two life size Kalashnikovs painted on either side of the doorway. Camouflage caps rest on their barrels and they are preceded by tall, burning candles. Inside there are no icons, no paintings and no candles, just a cavernous emptiness. A long low space, it was dark and empty, like the innermost sanctum of a Hindu shrine. In the Hindu temple however, the inner sanctum was the womb of fertility, the sacred, mysterious centre of all creation. Here it was the centre of extinction, a place of worship dedicated to the cult of death.
Like so many other coastal villages, Pudumathalan was a fishing settlement. Seagoing by nature, its inhabitants were all converts to Catholicism. Prabhakaran himself, many of his lieutenants and numbers of the rank and file were not in fact Hindus but Catholics. Taught from an early age by Catholic padres, they were firm believers of death, crucifixion, martyrdom and resurrection. Appropriating the forms and symbols of Catholicism and fusing them with the Hindu tradition, the Tamil Tigers created a new religion.
Emerging once more into the brilliant glare, one is struck by the empty flowerpots, vivid in luminescent green. Each pot has several figures painted on the side. Largest of all is a woman with a rifle across her shoulder, her hair cropped short in the fashion of female cadres. On either side, holding her hand, are a boy and a girl. The woman is leading the
children to war.
In South Asia, the sight of a farmer taking his children to work is common and all over Sri Lanka, both boys and girls help their parents in the fields. In Tamil society, women had traditionally been very subservient. It was the man who was seen as the breadwinner and head of the household.
Reversing the position of the woman in Tamil culture, the LTTE liberated them from their customary role. Not only were they given an equal place in afterlife, they were respected, honoured and treated as equals in this life too. The woman was not only the wife and the mother, she was also the warrior. It was she, the mother, who led the way, mobilising not only her fellow women but also the
The source of all fertility, she was the lifeblood of the Tamil revolution. As the mother of its cadres, it was she who would inspire the children to give their blood for the cause.