Finders Keepers: On Sex, Tara the Buddhist Deity at the British Museum and Brownness in the Colonies

“Your victory

Was so complete

Some among you

Thought to keep

A record of

Our little lives

The clothes we wore

Our spoons, our knives”

 —Lenard Cohen, Nevermind

 

I am at the entrance to the British Museum and the path separates into two. I take the path which appears to be less crowded and a guard interrupts me saying this entrance is for ‘members only’. I apologize, take the other and stand in a queue for several minutes. I pass through barricades that separate the members from ‘the other’ which leads me to a checkpoint. It’s my turn to have my bag checked and suddenly I’m conscious of my brownness. Soon, I find myself facing the British Museum. The building’s personality is intimidating and reeks of power. As I walk in, I am reminded that the history of this building and this city is intrinsically entrenched to my own and that of my ancestors and I am reminded of my place in the world and its hierarchies. As I walk in, I see a sign that reads ‘The British Museum —  collecting the world’.

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Soon, I am lost in the midst of glorious looted treasures – the mummies of Egypt, Samurai armour from ancient Japan and a Moai statue from the Easter Islands. Even the biggest cynic cannot deny that the museum is a grotesquely impressive custodian of memory, preserving people’s fears, broken dreams and fantasies; like a tragic yet magical cemetery. French art theorist André Malraux once noted, that ‘a museum has always been an artificial concept, a wrenching of objects not into context but out of it’. However, there is very much a context to the British Museum — it’s an institutional legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, slavery and genocide.

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I collect a headphone, the piece of technology that would guide me across the museum. Odd euphemisms are used to refer to how the artefacts were ‘acquired’ —‘governed South Asia’, not ‘colonized’, protectorate not colony, ‘suppressing unrest’, not mass killing. Soon, I am drawn to the Museum’s long South Asian Gallery where I see Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction dancing on a circle of fire, Saraswati the goddess of knowledge and a shadow puppet of Mahatma Gandhi. I feel a strange sense of solidarity with these inanimate artefacts. At the end of the gallery, I find the infamous Tara,  standing tall atop a plinth gazing at me. Tara is a Buddhist and Hindu mother goddess of mercy and generous compassion. Her bronze statue plated in gold was stolen from Sri Lanka’s Kandyan Kingdom when the British colonized the island in 1815. Tara’s upper body is completely naked with a sarong draped around her hip concealing her body waist down. Her right hand is in the gesture known as varadamudra – of granting a wish.

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At the museum, almost everyone passing by stops to take a look at Tara. A young white couple stands adjacent to me. The young man whispers something in his female companion’s ear. They both giggle. I’m inclined to assume it was a joke laden with some sexual innuendo. Many aren’t aware of Tara’s genealogy or her divinity. Many wouldn’t care. She fulfills an exoticized oriental fantasy. The audio explains that Tara was ‘given’ to Robert Brownrigg, the third Governor of Ceylon (as the British referred to Sri Lanka) who ‘donated’ it to the museum ‘perhaps finding her voluptuous form rather out of place in his English country home’. However, Tara was considered to be too obscene and perverse to be exhibited to the public. Her exposed bronze breasts too big, her waist too narrow and her hips too curvaceous for the respectability of the white gaze. As such, she was locked up in a discreet storeroom, aptly named ‘the Secretum’ for nearly thirty years. The Museum was mandated to create the Secretum, colloquially known as ‘the porn room’, through the 1857 Obscene Publications Act which gave the state power to destroy material it deemed offensive and obscene.

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Here was a Sri Lankan mother Goddess worshipped by her devotees, stolen and taken by force to a foreign land where she is treated as some pornographic knick-knack only to be locked up in a storeroom along with phallic antiquities and European erotica that display orgies, bestiality and whatever else was deemed too indignant for the holy white gaze. Only adult white male specialists of ‘mature years and sound morals’ who constituted the very apex of the social hierarchy had access to enter the ‘Secretum’ for their pathologizing intellectual gaze. These scholars probably used Tara to enrich their knowledge system of ‘scientific’ racism that drove colonialism — the libidinous, ‘out of control’ non-humans were vice-indulgent and so were their vain gods. For the natives in the ‘Orient’, she represented mercy and compassion. The brown devotees who wanted to escape the illusion and suffering of the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth of samsara would stare into her bronze eyes and meditate. This would have perplexed the white missionary slave masters for whom she represented a sinful profanity. How could a naked woman be a God? A God so religiously venerated that even the most powerful of men would kneel before her image, join their palms and pray? They were convinced that these queer emasculated leaders weren’t capable of governing their lands and people and as such, colonialism was not only justified but also inevitable.

For their white gaze, Tara wasn’t any woman, she was pornographic. How could one meditate while watching porn? For the Asians, the sensual and the spiritual were always interconnected and interdependent, perpetually producing and reproducing each other. In Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, sexual yoga is treated as a form of meditation. However, the British, who failed to comprehend this hypersexualized dichotomy, concurred that the effeminate natives needed the white masters to civilize, not just them, but their Gods. As the missionaries ‘civilized’ the brown Buddhists, they inadvertently ‘civilized’ their Buddhism, and a new kind of rehabilitated Buddhism emerged– a Protestant Buddhism.

The language of conquest was taxonomically allegorized by gender and sexuality. The manly and bold Europe penetrates the effeminate ‘orient’ with exotic landscapes and strange non-humans who worshipped licentious naked Gods. Attempting to meditate looking into Tara’s bronze eyes, I was reminded of what Sri Lanka would have once been, before the island and its inhabitants were marked by colonialism. For the white colonial masters, the island was full of sin and vice. Like Tara, the brown Asians audaciously exposed their bodies in the tropical sun with only a ‘small bit of cord round the loins from which hung a piece of cloth … covering their natural nakedness’. Polyandry was customary as men had ‘but one wife; but a woman often had two husbands’. ‘The sin of sodomy’ was ‘so prevalent’ and with the absence of binarized performances of gender, the colonial masters often found themselves looking at the brown natives under tropical palm trees in confusion wondering ‘men or women?… these males are so perfectly beautiful that one’s gaze can be fooled’.

The audio in my ear whispers that Tara was perhaps buried in soil for protection from invaders causing the scars across her face and body. The image of Tara’s body traumatized by scars reminds me how Sri Lanka continues to be marked by colonialism. In order to please our colonial masters, we learnt to regulate ourselves and each other and to be ashamed of our brown bodies and conceal them in shame. The same temples that were home to female deities like Tara, now deny women access as they ‘sinfully’ menstruate ‘dirty’ blood. We memorized the masters’ language and started sharing their obsession with hierarchies such as heteronormativity, patriarchy and capitalism. We now perform their binarized gender roles for them better than the masters themselves. Our militarized nationalisms treated the minorities within our own communities the way our slave masters treated us. We appropriated their monogamous marital family as the primary site of surveillance of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. Our state institutionalized colonialism in all its arms, from the military to politics and education to tame its populations and massify them into these moulds, using biopower to regulate every raised eyebrow, every condescending giggle and every embarrassed look. Our legal infrastructure is a residue of colonialism, not one based on Buddhist or Hindu jurisprudence. Our Obscene Publications Act is much like the one which mandated the creation of the Secretum. Our penal code criminalizes homosexuality and the Vagrants Ordinance criminalizes sex work. These laws were mobilized to punish deviance and most of us abided through ‘self-governance’ in fear of the carceral state. The post-colonial monolithic Sri Lankan state metamorphosed itself in order to please the masters’ understandings of chastity, virility, domesticity, and respectability and we ‘emulate and simulate’ these ‘moral codes’ as if they are our own culture. A new post-colonial brownness was recreated to be in a perpetual struggle to achieve whiteness both physically & ontologically.

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The audio tells me that the precious gems that decorated Tara’s hair are now missing. Colonization robbed us not only of our gems but our soil, our air, our sexuality, our language, our culture and our gods. We complied in order to please our colonial masters and to show to them that we are respectable and are capable of governing ourselves. Today, the same master looks back at us and says we are too illiberal, unenlightened and conservative, our masculinity too toxic, our femininity too servile and our culture and religion too backward, for practising these very things we appropriated from them. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. When will we admit that this purity is a performance? That we are erotic? That we were the original ‘free the nipple’? That some amongst us are queer? That some of our ancestors were sex workers?

Museums construct certain ‘narratives’ of history, and the British Museum’s narrativization is one of a history as written by the victors, of the ‘executioner having the last word’. Representations of colonialism as adventurous expeditions to ‘collect the world’ erase the struggle of the natives and reproduce orientalist fantasies. We need to reclaim these stories, our brownness and our erotic which is our power.

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However, unmoved and unaffected, Tara stands tall as a silent yet deeply political act of resistance and a reminder of a pre-colonial past where a naked woman was a goddess who brought the most powerful of kings, priests and generals in ‘the Orient’ to their knees. There have been several requests from Sri Lanka calling for the return of Tara and other artefacts. Looking into her eyes, I am unsure if Tara should to be brought back to Sri Lanka. Colonialism has erased something so intrinsic about the island that I am no longer sure if she is even welcome. The audio in my ear concludes voyeuristically, ‘before you move on, admire her from every side’. I look at Tara’s left hand, the varadamudra, and say a prayer for my beautiful country.

Senel Wanniarachchi

I got into a fight with Iraj

I got into a fight with Iraj.

On Twitter.

Over Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.  Anti-climatic, I know.

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I must admit, growing up, I often found myself listening to Iraj’s music . We sang his songs from the back of the leyland bus during school trips and found ourselves rather miserably break-dancing to his music with other kids at annual “parties” we had in school when the academic year ended!

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So when I found myself in the middle of a Twitter feud with him, it was rather …. well awkward.

Of course celebrities, like the rest of us, are entitled to their political views but it turns out, Iraj genuinely believes that the primary solution to crimes taking place across the nation is enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and is religiously advocating for the authorities to restart the notorious white van abductions.

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Not only does our beloved pop star believe that disappearances should be enforced on criminals, but also those with different forms of dissent. What does he invoke to justify this… “patriotism”, of course.

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(I was just playing along for fun to be honest! I don’t have a position on LTTE leaders being given high posts in the government. On the one hand, if they’re responsible for war crimes and such (which they are), they need to be held into account with any others in government who have similar accusations, on the other hand it’s also positive that people who felt the need to take arms against the state enter a democratic process.)

Due to decades of armed conflict, two youth insurrections, a tsunami and years of political instability, Sri Lanka has thousands of “missing people”. According to one UN report from the 1990’s, after Iraq, Sri Lanka has the most number of disappeared people in the world.

White van’s were used as a political tactic to abduct critics and dissidents of the then Rajapaksa government from their homes or off the streets.

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Those abducted were never seen again. Most victims are believed to have been tortured and killed. White van’s without number plates became a symbol of terror and impunity. The LTTE also used abductions as a tactic of war on those in the military as well as civilians. There are also some reports that such abductions continue under the Yahapalana government.

Families fall apart as there is no closure for relatives and loved ones who are unsure if the victim will ever return. Many still find it difficult even to access benefits which would be available in the event of a death of a family member as they cannot prove the death of their loved one. The chilling effect, however, is not just on the victim and the family, many people resort to self-censorship due to fear.

Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was a prominent anti-disappearance activist during and in the aftermath of the 1987 – 1989 JVP led Marxist insurrection and the then UNP Government’s crackdown on the same where thousands of young people who were members of the JVP or suspected of being such were abducted from villages across Sri Lanka’s South. Many weren’t seen again. The Paada Yaathra which Rajapaksha organized with his then colleague Mangala Samaraweera, which both Iraj and I are too young to remember, travelled from Colombo to Kataragama in the island’s South bringing attention to these disappearances. Rajapaksa also travelled to the UN Office in Geneva to lobby Diplomats at the then UN Human Rights Commission on the issue of disappearances in Sri Lanka. The UNP then accused him waging an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Sounds familiar?

Iraj and others believe that crime rates in Sri Lanka are on the rise. While this is not hard to believe; it’s far from being true. Because of the exponential expansion of information communication technologies which have shaped how we consume news, we are exposed to a lot more information than we traditionally have and seeing news reports of crime scenes on SMS news alerts, Facebook, Twitter and prime-time news bulletins can make anyone believe that crimes in Sri Lanka are on an upward trend. However, if one compares the grave crimes in police reports in 2017 (35,978) to the same statistic in 2014 (50,962) the number of crimes has substantially reduced. If you go back to 2006 it’s as high as 61,196. Almost double as it is now. All this information is publicly available in the Sri Lanka Police website.  

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Iraj, and others who believe disappearances are the most practical method of dealing with crimes and dissent find them utilitarian —have the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is of course, until, you or someone you care about, face a similar situation.

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For me (and others), its flabbergasting that, in 2018, a celebrity can publicly advocate for enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings. It’s a crime under Sri Lankan law and international law and advocating for the same should also be a crime. The government has set up at Office of Missing Persons investigate into disappearances as part of the process they call post-conflict transitional justice and when people with substantial social influence like Iraj speak out against it, it could harm these processes which many are already sceptical about.

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It’s equally disappointing that there aren’t many mainstream celebrities with the kind of reach that Iraj has, who use their art, influence and social capital to speak up against enforced disappearances and on the pain anguish of the families and the loved one’s of the disappeared and their right to know the truth, to hold those responsible into account and access reparations.

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Senel Wanniarachchi

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.

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He says it won’t happen again

This is a story I’ve been meaning to tell for a while now.

While the story itself is set in the recent past, there is a bit of a backstory that encapsulates the series of events that led to it.

September 2009 —home

It was a Thursday and my father had just returned home from work. That night at the dinner table he tells us about the new boy who started work at his office. ‘He is a smart chap, committed to work and very respectful. What more could one expect?’

His name is Sahan.

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For Adhil

(Opening remarks made at the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation’s Inaugural Youth Dialogue on the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies )

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A very good morning everyone. On behalf of the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to welcome you all to the Foundation’s inaugural event: this Youth Dialogue with His Excellency Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Former Prime Minister of Turkey, who will speak to us about something extremely important to us and something that our dear friend Adhil cared so much about– the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies.

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How Elitism In Access To Education Is Failing Our Young People

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

The Budget for the fiscal year of 2017 has been presented before the Sri Lankan Parliament. Once capital carrying costs are deducted from last year’s allocation, there has only been a marginal increase in the allocation for education. While some noteworthy steps such as increasing the student intake to universities, the provision of student loans and scholarships to top graduates, steps to uproot ragging and incentivise students to pursue technical and vocational education have been taken, I believe that the policymakers of the country could use some introspection on the inequalities in the education system at the school level.

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Why Facebook Won’t Help Heal War Torn Sri Lanka’s Wounds

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: one of the world’s most protracted and destructive conflicts of our time was brought to a bloody, military end in May of 2009. Seven years have passed since, but the communities in the island remain divided along narrow ethno-religious lines. In many ways, this is a result of the conflicting narratives held by the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities as well as others on Sri Lanka’s history, the beginnings of the conflict and how it was brought to an end. Many Sinhalese people in the South only see the conflict as a separatist war that was initiated by terrorists who happened to be Tamil and do not recognize the years of discrimination and suppression that the Tamil people had to undergo under successive majoritarian governments in post-colonial Sri Lanka who turned the two communities against each other for narrow political wins. Many Tamils in the North have witnessed the violence they saw in their backyards but fail to recognize that thousands of bright and innocent men and women in the South were also killed by the LTTE and do not see the woundedness of the Sinhalese. In a sense, there is almost a competition between the communities to emerge as the ultimate ‘victim’ of the conflict. These narratives have sustained overtime and have been passed down from generation to generation  cemented by the media, politicians, textbooks, literature, the arts and so on. This is only exacerbated by various conspiracy theories and hate propagated by racist politicians who thrive on our differences.

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Becoming me

Kumudu and I studied together at our all-boys college in Colombo.  We weren’t friends, really- he was one year senior to me: but I knew of him (everyone did). While we practiced for the Shakespeare Drama Competition at the college main hall, Kumudu and his friends practiced for their Sinhala dramas for the national level competitions. Kumudu would almost always play the female lead. For us- teenage school boys, this was quite a spectacle and Kumudu and his friends would often be made fun of. They called him the ‘p-word’ (a Sinhala expletive) and all other kinds of names.  While in my first encounters of Kumudu, he seemed taken aback and clearly distressed by the unending bullying; as time passed by it seemed like Kumudu was unaffected by the endless name-calling and bullying: he even fought back a couple of times: almost as if the bullying made him stronger and more resilient.

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