Connecting the South Asia dots through common cultural heritage

How many people know that the Vishwakarma festival is not only celebrated across parts of India but in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan as well?

M.R. Narayan Swamy Feb 25, 2022
India, Sri Lanka and the SAARC Region: History, Popular Culture and Heritage; Author: Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai; Publishers: Routledge

From food to cowries, from popular stories to wooden dolls, and from colonial history to Rabindranath Tagore, historic and cultural relations between India and Sri Lanka go a long way, embracing the two societies far more tightly that most people would imagine. India-Sri Lanka ties are, then, not just about Tamils and the LTTE and the many ups and downs in modern diplomacy. 

This is the sum and substance of this very unusual book, one that examines in minute details the history, heritage and culture of the regions of India, Sri Lanka and beyond in the countries that make up the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This intangible cultural heritage of the South Asian region has taken centuries to take shape but is often shrouded in ignorance. 

A professionally qualified anthropologist and social historian, Bajpai – when on deputation as Culture Specialist at the SAARC Cultural Centre in Colombo -- explored all the various strands that bind India and Sri Lanka. And she concluded that the two countries are linked by geography, geology, history and even God although they are also different – one is smaller and more or less homogenous while the other is a sprawling sub-continent. 

Exploring Lanka 

Unlike many in her position who would prefer to work from closed space, Bajpai toured the interiors of Sri Lanka, mixed with the common people and made fascinating observations of their traditions and rituals, only to uncover a vast storehouse of knowledge that most people, including frequent travelers to Sri Lanka, are unaware of.  

Some of the stories across the famous religious texts from Sri Lanka trace the ancient contacts with the Indian subcontinent. Although Tamils in Sri Lanka have strong ties with their ethnic counterparts in India, the author explores the socio-cultural communication and connections between the island nation and Kerala. 

Kerala, Bajpai says, is woven within the very cultural fabric of Sri Lanka. Houses in Jaffna are modelled in Kerala style. The famous Kandy Perehera has many similarities with the equally well-known Trissur Pooram festival of Kerala. The Indian state has also had an influence on Kandian dance. And the Sri Lankan form of martial arts, Angampora, shows strong resemblance to the Kalaripayattu form of martial arts from Kerala. There is more. Favourite food items including puttu, idiyappam or string hopers, appam and the typical regional paratha are common to both Kerala and Sri Lanka. 


The humble cowrie once tightly bound The Maldives and the erstwhile Bengal region including the present day Bengal, Odisha and Bangladesh. Cowrie shells were used as currency as far back as 200 years before the Europeans came to the region. But these did not get exported to nearly Malabar region or Ceylon as they were not monetized there but were taken to far away Bengal, at times to be exchanged for rice. Balasore (now in Odisha) had six-seven vessels regularly bringing cowries and coir from the Maldives. Even the East Indian Company traded in cowries. Today, however, the cowries are often used as mementoes or in festivals, decorations, games or rites. 

Another common feature of South Asia is the condiment that adds an extra edge to food – call them achar, chutney or pickles. Indeed, pickles and chutneys from the Indian subcontinent reached Europe as early as the 17th century. They may vary in taste in different countries. The Sri Lankan sambol is a deadly attraction in meals, and the one with maximum spice can induce anyone to sweat! 

The British brought railways to Sri Lanka about 12 years after a railway line opened in India. The reason for their introduction was commercial but they soon became a popular mode of transport within the country. The railways also made it easier to transport coffee to Colombo and, from there, to other countries. Equally significant, the railways spurred the trade in commercial ice manufacture in Sri Lanka. 

Poles tell a story 

Unlike most visitors who would either not notice or ignore them even if they did see them, Bajpai found invaluable history behind the many cast-iron ruins of telegraph and electricity poles across Colombo and its surrounding areas. Standing mostly half severed, with only a few metres from the base having survived the test of time, they are sentinels of colonial history that speak of the first experimentation with electricity and communication on the island. The telegraph department in Sri Lanka dates back to 1857, the year when the British battled the first war of independence in India and realized how important it was to have the telegraph to communicate to overcome the rebels and maintain the Raj. 

How many people know that the Vishwakarma festival is not only celebrated across several parts of India but in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan as well? A tradition of scroll painting can be found both in Sri Lanka and parts of India. The theme of Sri Lankan scroll paintings on cloth is often Lord Buddha. Another sub-continental feature in which Sri Lanka excels are wooden dolls and face masks, with the author giving the island nation’s craftsmen full marks for their skills and ingenuity. Sri Lanka is also known for its masked dances, an important part of the region’s cultural heritage. 

Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, paid several visits to Sri Lanka between 1933 and 1935 and ended up shaping its dance drama. Many Sri Lankan dancers were inspired and trained in Santiniketan and learned Kathakali and Manipuri as well as folk dances of India. Sri Lankans were also part of the dance-drama productions at Santiniketan. Few, unfortunately, know or remember these cultural bonds. 

Title: India, Sri Lanka and the SAARC Region: History, Popular Culture and Heritage; Author: Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai; Publishers: Routledge; Pages: 163; Price: Rs 995 

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher)

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