Runners, Royalty and ‘Rali Palam’



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by Tissa Devendra


In January 1948, the long evening of colonialism was drawing to a close in that smug little "model Crown Colony" of Ceylon. The dawn of Independence glimmered ever brighter on the horizon. For us, however, freshly released from the bondage of schoolboyhood on passing the University Entrance exam, what shone even brighter was the prospect of undergradhood and the imagined bliss of sauntering along the shadowy green aisles of Thurstan Road with lovely lasses.


Serendipitously Saldin, Shan and I – Malay, Tamil and Sinhala – had bonded when we joined the school in Race Course Avenue from our earlier schools in Kandy, Jaffna and Ratnapura. We now relegated schooldays (in that now memorable phrase) to the dustbin of history. During this limbo in our academic career, aimless cycling around Colombo was the order of the day. We were not very moved by the hosannas to imminent Independence in the daily press – which we regarded with a supercilious sneer acquired from our pinko – Trot teachers of English. Having read that hardy perennial of U.E. classes – Prof. Appadurai on Government and Politics – we also considered ourselves infinitely superior to the editorial pundits of the day. However, as we watched the race horses thunder past Bullers Road we could not help noticing the various preparations going on in the vicinity of the race course for Independence Day, February 4th.


Preparations


A spacious quadrangle had been cleared on the old Spitfire airstrip opposite the former Lunatic Asylum. A towering flagstaff was erected with four clear avenues leading up to it from the cardinal directions. Multi-coloured bunting fluttered from lamp posts. A capacious airport hangar, on the outskirts of the war-time airstrip was being given a new lease of life as the venue of the ceremonial "award" of Independence. An army of humble Kandyan artisans clambered on scaffolding creating "rali-palam" [ruffled bridges], the traditional temple arches of pleated red and white cloth, whose splendor camouflaged the bilious khaki of the hangar’s corrugated iron roof. These artisans thus set a trend that has never faded, and created a good livelihood for their once dwindling clan.


Cinnamon Gardens Bloom


Meanwhile, in the rarefied environs of Cinnamon Gardens enthusiastic preparations were afoot for the "Pageant of Lanka". Sinhala matrons and their daughters, rehearsed tableaux depicting the courts of King Dutugemunu and Kasyapa. Their Tamil friends prepared to enact the ladies of Elara’s harem. The good ladies of the D.B.U. rehearsed dancing 17th Century quadrilles and cotillions presumed fashionable in the residences of Dutch Governors. Drawing rooms attuned to the genteel tinkling of pianos, now vibrated to the rhythmic thud of ankletted feet keeping time to the heady throb of temple drums and reedy chanting of grizzled "music masters" with unkempt locks.


Choirs of elite girls’ schools rehearsed at full throttle wrestling their genteel vocal chords round the unaccustomed Sinhala of the strange new anthem-in-waiting – "Namo, Namo, Matha". It was a heady period for those who held the reins of power. Cinnamon Gardens and its environs were abustle. So were government offices and newspaper offices, abuzz with the expectation of encountering exotic foreign VIPs, never before seen in Ceylon, except in newsreels. However, Maradana, Kotahena, Dehiwala and other backwaters of the (then) garden city seemed absolutely immune to Freedom Fever and showed no signs of celebratory excitement.


The Great Run


The great day dawned to banner headlines in the few newspapers then around, and special broadcasts from Radio Ceylon. The three of us stashed our bikes away and mingled with the crowd to infiltrate ourselves into ringside positions. There was a crowd alright but far thinner than the packed throngs in the kovil ground during Vel. We had no difficulty in working ourselves to the front in Torrington Square to admire four charming and self-conscious young ladies facing long cleared avenues headed North, East, South and West. Swarnamali was in Kandyan saree, Siromani draped in Jaffna style, Ayn Sally in the full skirted Muslim garb of those pre-Hijab days, and June in a stylish frock. This salute to multi-ethnicity was further emphasized when, to loud cheers four athletic young men – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher – ran up with synchronized grace to their respective young ladies and handed over scrolls of solidarity from the four corners of Ceylon – to the yet unaccustomed ululation of conch shells.


The Ceremony


We next ambled along to the enormous hangar which was the venue of the formal ceremony. Its Spartan bareness had been overlaid with an unaccustomed opulence. The floor was carpeted in crimson. Rali Palam arched overhead. The throne of Sri Wickrama, our last king, (on loan from the Museum) occupied the highest pedestal symbolizing our once lost sovereignty about to be regained. Ornate chairs, framed by an arch of massive tusks, seated the main protagonists.


The elite of colonial Ceylon filled the hall with a riot of colour. Kandyan chieftains stole the show in their regalia of gold brocade and tricorne headgear, leading Tamils favoured turbans and long sherwanis draped with shawls, leaders of the Moors wore red velvet fezzes and Malays in batik caps. The clergy were colourful too – the Buddhist Sangha in a rich variety of saffron robes and foreign Christian bishops in purple vestments. The ladies outdid everybody in a riot of colour and fantasy. In stiff dignity for their last hurrah, there was a sprinkling of English ladies in white gloves and wide-brimmed hats.


No elaborate security barred the curious, so we had no difficulty in trickling into the hall and lining its wall to watch history in the making. The rather bumbling Duke of Gloucester stood in for his brother King George VI. Sir Henry Monck- Mason Moore the Governor, and the Duke, were in full colonial rig of gold braided white with plumed solar helmets. Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake stood burly in a well-filled cutaway coat and sensibly handed over the main oration to Minister S. W.R.D.Bandaranaike.


In striking contrast to all the surrounding colonial flummery his slight figure was dressed in simple white Ariya Sinhala. When he spoke we were transfixed by his impassioned and impeccable oratory – absolutely appropriate to that historic occasion.


The Union Jack was lowered for the last time with the time honoured solemnity that Brits are so good at. The rampant


Lion Flag of now independent Ceylon was proudly run up the flagstaff, for the very first time, to the yet unfamiliar blowing of conch shells, the roll of "magul bera" and massed school choirs singing the new national anthem "Namo, Namo, Matha".


That night Cinnamon Gardens recaptured the limelight with its long-rehearsed "Pageant of Lanka" performed on a huge open air stage, where Independence Hall now stands. Statuesque matrons and their nubile daughters, in a rainbow cavalcade of "ancient" costumes, re-enacted dramatic scenes from olden times. Gallant police officers, bare-chested and begirt with swords and period pantaloons pranced on stage with their Police horses. Humble constables carrying spears and swords provided background colour. We were treated to dances galore – Kandyan, Manipuri, Bharata Natyam, Minuets and quadrilles – from various periods of our history. Meanwhile, amplified voices in fruity accents provided an appropriately uplifting commentary (in English, what else?). A grand old time was had by all – on stage and on horseback.


The hoi polloi watched bemused and, in our case, amused. The revels ended at last and we strolled back home, not (I confess) adequately appreciative that we had been eye witnesses to history in the making.


Since that historic day vast bodies of water (and, sadly, not only water) have flowed beneath the tough old bridge named after a tough old British queen. Shan passed on to the Great Beyond, his last days saddened by the storm clouds of violence that blotted out the bright promise of freedom in the tragic north of our homeland. Saldin and I, grandfathers both, yet meet to peer once more into memory’s shadowy mirror and recall that never-quite-forgotten day in our youth, forever lost.


(From ‘Fiery Finale’ published


by Vijitha Yapa)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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