The Dambulla Logs

Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

It's 5am. I am in Dambulla with Navin, and it looks like we are about to get beaten up.

It's my fault of course. It always is.

A bunch of robe-monkeys supported by about 2000 idiotic cunts of misery decide that it would be a wonderful thing to attack an Islamic Mosque during prayers. If you gave two tugs of a dead dog's cock about what is happening in Sri Lanka, you would know about this.

And with the accuracy of all the news we get, Navin and I decide that it was time for a road trip.

Now, Navin and I are like Leia and Han. One relies on planning and diplomacy. The other on a fast mouth and an Indy ploy. So we make plans. Tell friends. Make a run for it.

A ride to Pettah bus station, a long and uncomfortable bus ride to Dambulla, and here we are. At Dambulla junction, totally out of our area, and we are looking like we are going to get into a fight.

We get off from the bus and start looking for a place to start. I have a plan of course, but we get sidetracked by a "hello".

It's a group of about four guys. Wearing yellow polo-neck shirts. Carrying bags. Look friendly.

Seems legit.

[GMsays: roll Sense Motive.. 11?]

We talk to them. They want to know what we are doing there. So I tell them that we are shooting Dambulla (when in doubt, tell the most basic truth).

They want to know if we are media. I say no. Tell them we are geeks, and we are here to do some shooting.

Ask them what the fuck is going on.

They ask if I am media. I say no.

They tell me that they don't want the mosque in Dambulla. "අපි මේක වෙන්න දෙන්නේ නැහැ". "We will not let this happen!"

I ask them why. I get told that there is a mosque near the Temple of the Tooth, and the Call to Prayer is at the same time as the Thewawa (, and the sound interferes with the thewawa. Only thing is, YT has been to thewawa. Thewawa is fucking loud!

They ask me if I am from the media. Things are getting decidedly uncomfortable.

I try to make some small talk. Get the feel of the mood of the city. Not that I am not getting a good feel already.

They ask if I am media. There are more of them showing up.

Navin and I say our farewells, and slowly and calmy walk away.

Back to the original plan. Find an eatery for tea. Navin points one out, but I tell him that is not what I am looking for. I am looking for a Muslim eatery. This is all part of my Cunning Plan.

We find one, and order tea. Navin likes his with milk, I like mine plain. We speak to the waiter. He seems more willing to talk about it. We sit there, drink multiple cups as he tells us many things about Dambulla.

Dambulla, according to him, may have more Muslims than any other race. Makes some sense. The place is a trading town, and trading is one of the Muslims in Sri Lanka do best.

Most of these Muslims are relative newcomers to the area. most of them from the last 2 to 3 decades.

I ask him if there have been issues like this before, and he tells us there has always been demands to remove the mosque. But the demands were never serious. Just temple assholes being asshole-like. I ask him why things got so weird al of a sudden and he shrugs. That extremely expressive shrug that Sri Lankans have learned to do. I ask him where the mosque was, and he points the way. We decide to walk it.

The walk is uneventful. A few kilometers, and there are some good scenes for Navin to shoot. The early morning light was pretty awesome for composition and shooting. So we walk on towards the Dambulla temple, looking for a mosque.

We can't find it. But Navin finds a derelict and ruined shop that would make a good scene to shoot. There are a few cops hanging around the area, but this is near the temple, and with all the activity going on, it would seem cautious and sensible to put a police checkpoint there.

We shoot the building, and look for a mosque. And we can't find it. But we do, however, see a shop owner smiling and waving to us. Since we have nothing better we go to his eatery to have another cup of tea.

Along with our tea he comes and talks to us. Asks us what we are upto. We ask him where the mosque is, and he tells us it is behind the building we were shooting. He assures us that it is possible for us to go and take pictures.

The police tell us otherwise. They are under orders not to let anyone who is not Muslim into the grounds. Navin reciting the First Pillar of Islam didn't seem to help. But we do get told that if we go and get permission from the OIC of the Police station, they can let us in. So we walk to the Police station.

At the Police station we find that the OIC has gone off for the monthly ispection ceremony, and would be back in about 30 minutes. Navin wants to wait. But then he's punctual and stuff. I, on the other hand, am used to operating on Sri Lanka Time, and suggest we head back to the mosque and try to talk our way in.

[GM says: Roll Diplomacy. I get a 7]

We still can't make it in. We head back to the eatery and speak to the shopkeeper. He sits and talks with us for a while and then says that he'll see what he can do. On the TV in the corner they are showing The Return of The King. In sinhala.

We wait and sip our tea as in Pelennor Fields, Elves and Humans fight the Forces of Darkness. A guy comes and sits at our table. He gives out an air of confidence. Looks prosperous. Is barechested. Starts asking us about why we are here. Asks us if we are Media. Apparently Al Jazeera had dropped by last night to do a piece. Having a hight level party snipe your quest is not a good feeling.

We tell him that we are here to see the mosque. To take pictures. To find out the truth, because no-one in Colombo seems to have any idea what the truth is. We tell him that we just want to see what's up. To be chroniclers, not investigators.

He looks at us for a bit, lights a cigarette and starts off by telling us that this is most emphatically not a religious issue. This is not a Sinhala vs Muslim thing. Not a Buddhism vs Islam thing. Not a temple vs mosque thing. He doesn't tell us what it is either. Just that we should make the decisions ourselves. He said that he would get us into the temple. He asks the shopkeeper to get him his shirt. On-screen, Legolas kills an oliphaunt.

The cops are still leery of letting us in, but our guide - lets call him Dragoman to protect the innocent - insists that we are let in. He says we are friends of friends from Colombo. After some grumbling, we are allowed into the mosque area.

The pathway to the mosque is tiny. Six feet wide, maybe 20 feet long. Floored with broken and well-worn bricks. As you step out of the corridor you are met by the mosque. Which is unlike any mosque that we have seen. From the outside it looks like a warehouse, which is what led to so many people cliaming that it is a brand new construction. The inside tells a different story.

While the current and most visible form is a warehouse-looking building made of corrugaed metal and iron grilles, there is a smaller, older brick building along side it. It is obvious that the old building had a long wall knocked down and was extended into the current structure.

There are about 20 cops hanging around the compound, about 15 of them are in uniform. The rest are in plainclothes. They pay us little to no attention as we walk in.

We are taken around the building and told its history. We are shown where the attackers came in. We are shown the place where they do their religious ablutions, where the monks pissed. Broken cupboards and chairs. Torn Korans. We get to see them all.

Navin is shooting up a storm, and I go outside to talk to the people. I spoke to a few cops and many of them are vocal in their unhappiness about this. Of course it is mainly that they are unhappy to have to hang out of here in the hot sun, but every little bit helps.

While I am talking to them a guy comes and introduces himself to me. Says he is the local correspondent for the Lakbima newspaper. He saw Dragoman escorting us to the mosque and waved as he went by. At that time Dragoman said he was carrying a load of papers to the temple. So I say hi. Speak to him for a while, nothing wrong with being polite. Later he comes over with some senior cops to watch them take Navin's and my addresses and ID numbers.

He makes a point of photographing us on his phonecam.

After this Dragoman introduces us to an old man. A trustee of the mosque. Has a proper muslim beard too.

He tells us the tale of the mosque. How he came to Dambulla in the 50s at the age of 20 to work in the now dilapidated shop in front of the mosque. How he and his co-workers used to pray on a table. How they built a cadjan hut behind the shop so they could pray. How in the 60s the shop he worked in and the one next door donated some land so they could build the mosque. How it was made larger into the form that we see now to accomodate more people.

Navin has his shots, and we decide to go look for the kovil. On the way out the gate we are stopped by another senior cop who questions us again. And the reporter videos us again on his phonecam.

We go looking for the kovil. It's not far. Cross the road, up a pathway, and in an open area, surrounded by mud huts, there it is.

Literally mud huts. Huts made of daub and wattle. Thatched with cadjan. Huts the like of which most of us only get to see on the grounds of high-priced, wannabe eco-lodge hotels. Huts like which people pay 10,000 rupees a night to stay in. And these people live in them all the time. Lucky buggers.

The mosque looks like a warehouse. The "kovil" looks like the shanty.

The people are poor. Yet they get the cash together to buy some concrete blocks to build a shrineroom. They have to build their own kovil because they are from the Sakkili caste. The toilet cleaner, shit pot carrier caste. The caste that is still not allowed to enter many major kovils.

The kovil is a temple to Bhadrakali. A demon-goddess who is one of the more deadly goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. In Sri Lanka she is mixed with Kali. The mother and destroyer of the universe. It says something when the deity you pray to is more demonic than deific.

Navin shoots more. He shoots the kovil. Shoots the people. They are happy to let him take pictures of them. They are surprised when he asks permission.

"Why are you asking us?" one asks me.

It never occurs to them that they can say "no."

The place is nice. The people are a perfect hunting ground for Navin's lens. There really isn't much to see here. And that is why they are going to lose it all.

We make our farewells, and head to the Dambulla temple.

I have been here often. And like every such place, it is a massive money-making enterprise. Any form of religion has fucked off. A radio station. A stupa painted in gold. A TV station. A "museum" that looks like a Chinese whorehouse.

The diffrerence between the mosque and kovil and this .. this monstrosity is jarring. It makes us finally realise why we are here.

This is not fight between equals. This is schoolyard bullying at its worst. This is Coca Cola versus the kid running a lemonade stall. This is Anakin Skywalker taking on the Jedi kindergarten.

So Navin takes the shots. And I stand there wishing for a bazooka. A flamethrower. A nuclear fucking missile!

Navin finishes shooting, and I finish my fantasies of what I want to do to this place and the Chief Robewearer who runs it. Fantasies that would make The 120 Days of Sodom look like a child's bedtime storybook.

We decide to go and see Dragoman, so that we can say our farewells. It's time to go home. We have what we came for.

The problem is that we have no idea where Dragoman lives. We go looking for him, and can't seem to trace him. The eatery we found him in is also shut down for the day. I see the Lakbima reporter who tells us where his house is. But when we ask around the area, we are told it is in the complete opposite direction from what we were sent.

We finally meet Dragoman's wife. She is a stereotypical big, bustling Muslim woman. She is also quite friendly. She tells us to stick around while she sends messages via runners to find her husband. Apparently, thanks to this mess his phone hasn't stopped ringing. So he's turned it off.

Dragoman finally shows up, and before we can tell him that we plan to leave, he starts talking to us. Tells us of the main issue about the placement of the mosque. That the so-called "sacred area" given to the temple, and which is the public basis of the conflict, only applies on the opposite, temple side of the road.

He tells us there are more stories to tell, and things to learn. But he refuses to tell them to us. Tells us that he can be considered biased because he is a muslim. He wants us to meet some people.

Sathya (not his real name) is a friend of Dragoman's. He is Sinhalese, Buddhist. Goes to the temple regularly. Has a cow in his garden that Dragoman got released from the abbatoir at his daughter's request. Sathya doesn't go to the Dambulla temple. He would rather go twenty kilometers to Habarana to visit the temple there for his religious activities. His hatred of the Dambulla temple and the "Parachute Priest" is strong. The tales he tells us tell us why.

He tells us the yellow-shirted crew we met on the road are members of a local youth organisation called "Api Dambulla" ("We Are Dambulla") that was organised by the temple. They are the sons of local families. Many of those families own shops in Dambulla. Shops that they rent to muslim traders. During Vesak the Yelowshirts visit Muslim traders demanding 5,000 - 8,000 rupees from each shop for a "dansala".

He tells us other tales. Tales of corruption, rapine, extortion, and murder. And he isn't the only person to tell us those tales that day. Don't believe me. Speak to people from Dambulla. Ask them about the Parachute Priest. You'll hear those tales too.

At the end of it all, we have to almost beg to be allowed to leave. Navin and I are fading fast. We have been awake since the previous day. A speeding bus is no place to catch some shuteye. And there was the problem of memory. Navin's Sinhala is not that good, so I was the translator for the trip. Talking to people, listening to their tales, trying to keep track of complex relationships. All this means that sleeping is not an option. I want to sit down and start dictating notes.

But then the food comes. One thing about Sri Lankans is they know how to feed you. That "eat-eat-eat-eat-eat" that Sri Lankan mothers say applies anywhere you go. Even if the have nothing to eat, they will insist you eat. Dragoman was no different. His wife spent the better part of cooking for us, and there is no way we get to leave without sampling her cooking. So we eat. Not as much as I would like, but by Eris I have a full stomach.

While the table is laid I dictate notes to Navin, and we are shown the recordings of the mosque attack taken from inside the mosque. It is obvious that the Police and the STF troops are doing the best they can to calm the situation while being respectful. That is not a place I would want to be. The anger Navin and I feel at this is immense. If we were there, there would have been a riot for sure. Impulse control is not one of my talents.

Dragoman insists on accompanying us to the bus station. He bundles us into his three-wheeler and takes us through various back roads to a bus stop over a kilometer outside town. He is not paranoid, but he is cautious. We have spoken to too many people. Been seen by too many people. We are private individuals, so we have no corporate backing to cover us if anything were to happen. He stays with us until a bus comes. He calls us later to find out if we are still on the bus. He calls me again much later to make sure we got home

Navin's photos are on Facebook. (And as a presentation on Google Docs) And they have caused quite a stir.

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