The ‘Thambi’ Boy Who Paints the Temple

Twenty-four years ago, Osman Saldin was born in Grandpass, Colombo. His parents and all his relatives were practising Muslims. Osman’s father’s job was painting temples. Osman grew up watching his father draw intricate patterns of Buddhist imagery and scenes from various Jataka tales on walls and ceilings of Buddhist temples around the island. Later, Osman learnt that like his father, his grandfather and generations of ancestors had earned their livelihood in this way.

When he turned 10, Osman began to travel to temples around the island with his father and help him. Slowly, he too, mastered the art of painting. While studying at Maligakanda Maha Vidyalaya, art was Osman’s favourite subject. Not only did he always have the highest grades in his class for art, but he actually enjoyed learning to draw and paint. While travelling to cities and villages far and wide with his father, Osman learnt various Jataka stories, met many a Buddhist priest and made many friends. He won the village Vesak lantern competition every May and listened to his friends sing Bakthi Geetha every Poson.

Last year, he couldn’t understand the cause and effect of the event, when his village Mosque in Grandpass was desecrated by a racist mob. He thinks that all communities can and must live amongst each other in peace, and that if there are any problems, they should talk them out without resorting to violence.


Today, Osman has gone ‘high-tech’ with his dream of painting and is working as a graphic designer. But he always finds time to help his father with painting Buddhist temples.

Osman’s is a story that clearly personifies the blurred lines that exist between our communities. It’s a story about how closely knit our populace of a little over 20 million is. A story that reminds us about the Muslim vendors opposite the Gangarama who sell pichcha flowers to Buddhist devotees on Full Moon Poya days, the watalappan dishes exchanged from Muslims households on Eid in exchange for sweet- meat plates on Avurudu, and village girls who make Kolam patterns at entrances to their houses on Thai Pongal. It’s one of many examples of how being Sri Lankan transcends narrow, parochial ethno-cultural identities that divide us.

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