Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Significance of Pew’s ‘Religions of India’ Survey

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

When the US-based Pew Research Center published the findings of its Religions of India survey, it left many elite journalists, Marxist and “South-Asia” scholar-activists scratching their heads. Most Indians, including Indian-Americans, however, felt vindicated. 

At the heart of such polar reactions is the disconnect between perception and reality in the presentation of India, both in media and academia. There is this false perception of India deliberately and painstakingly crafted by the Indologists, Orientalists-Colonialists, and Marxists. And then, there is the real India, that is Bharat.

In a massive undertaking spanning over several months, Pew surveyed nearly 30,000 respondents in face-to-face interviews. These interviews were conducted in 17 languages across the length and breadth of India just before the Pandemic (2020). Pew, one of the most reputable polling agencies in the world, conducts “opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research.”

It came as no surprise to most that the survey found India to be a deeply “religious” country, even though the Indic notion of “religion” is quite different (for example, it is not dogmatic) from the Abrahamic one. Native Hindus have preserved and nurtured their indigenous notion of Dharma for over 5,000 years despite foreign invasions, colonization, and Marxist hegemony over India’s educational institutions. 

One of the key findings of the Pew survey was that Indians deeply value “religious tolerance.” The survey reported that it was essential for Indians to respect other faiths. Almost 84% (85% Hindus) of the respondents said that to be “truly Indian,” it is crucial not just to tolerate but also “respect” all religions. Remarkably, 80% of the respondents believed that respecting other religions is a “very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.” 

This “Religious tolerance” is a Western and liberal representation and interpretation of a more nuanced Indic notion of sambhāva. “Respect” for ‘other’ religions is ingrained in the Indic value system. It comes from the quintessential Indic belief that there are many truths but only one Reality. The Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts of the Hindus, proclaims:

ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti 

(Truth is one, wise speak of it differently.)

Another critical finding of the Pew survey was that an overwhelming majority of Indians, almost 80% members of every faith community, reported that they felt free to practice their religion. In an overwhelmingly Hindu majority (80.5%) country of about 1.4 billion people, 89% of Muslims and Christians (each comprising 13.4% and 2.3% of the total Indian population, respectively) also said they were free to practice their religion. 

However, suppose one pays attention to the commentary in the Western media, including the Left-dominated American press and religious/human rights advocates. In that case, it is hard to reconcile with the findings of the Survey. The survey results were in sharp contrast to the portrayal of India in Western media; and seminars and conferences in various centers of South Asian Studies, think tanks, etc.

SN Balagandhar (Balu), a professor of Comparative Science of Cultures at the Ghent University in Belgium, alluded to this chasm in perception and reality in his address to the 2014 Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). While recounting his 40-year academic research journey, Balu said that he discovered very early that there were many problems in his understanding of Indian history. Most of the knowledge about India that makes it to Indian textbooks is a description of India by foreign traders, travelers, and the Christian Missionaries, he noted. He further said that the perception of India these textbooks gave based on those accounts was not the India he “lived in.” Most Indians can easily relate to this statement.

In the last 200 years or so, foreigners and Marxists have dominated the study of India, its culture, traditions, texts, religions, and more. Indology, once a foremost enterprise for the study of India, for example, was based on neo-Protestant theology and their debates over scriptures and their racial prejudices. These prejudices over time, but consciously, were applied to the study of Indian texts where one can easily trace the antecedent of “anti-Brahmanism.” 

The British colonizers played an essential role in, first, creating and then institutionalizing their perception of India based on their understanding and prejudices. In British presentations, Hindus were condemned as “degenerate” and as “slaves.” The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened. As a result, what we ended up getting, according to Arvind Sharma, is a “situation in which a people were made more primitive than they were, or presented as more primitive than they were, or perceived as more primitive than they were, either deliberately or out of ignorance.”

On the other hand, Marxist historiography distorted and weaponized Indian history and the idea of India with its ideology of conflicts and divisions. 

The Pew Survey is one crucial step in setting the record straight and reclaiming the agency in representing and defining India and Indian culture.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

The Wind In My Face: Raj Shahani

What happens when you take a businessman with a keen interest in photography and put him in an artist’s studio? Raj Shahani’s career and creative force is proof that when you live life with a passion, creativity unfurls and takes you soaring upon its wings.

The New York based businessman with a successful career in the finance industry had always nurtured a creative side. Born in Mumbai, to Sindhi parents who held education and stability in high esteem, Raj was raised with a firm belief that a career must be a means to financial security. His early attempts at art were considered a distraction from his studies. He does not remember being exposed to much art, except for one instance when he saw the famed sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work on display. This was a moment he took with him as his life coursed through various career paths onwards to New York. 

Having made a decision to retire upon turning 50, he decided to pursue all the things that inspired him creatively. Photography had remained with him throughout his career mostly as a keen hobby. Now free to explore other avenues, he took a sculpting workshop at the Art Students League in New York. And that was the beginning of a new love affair. This new found passion culminated in his first solo exhibit at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai in November 2019, featuring dancers captured in graceful motion through the medium of clay, bronze and fiberglass. He has also recently unveiled a site-specific, contemporary installation titled ‘Jayanti’ in Mcleodgunj, a small village outside Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh – home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

India Currents caught up with Raj Shahani in Mumbai as he worked on several private commissions. 

IC:    We live in a world where specialization in a particular field of study carries weight – status – respect – identity.  This begs the question – why & how did you choose to leave behind your successful career and change lanes so to speak? 

R.S:   My parents migrated from Pakistan and went through a lot as they made their life in India. So fiscal responsibility and being able to support your family with what you earned means everything to them. As a boy I loved to paint and draw. But since Art was not considered a viable option, my parents and my school discouraged me from my attempts to pursue it. I am a parent now, and I understand where they were coming from!

I ended up majoring in Chemistry and then went on to other things. More and more I was left with a feeling that I wanted to retire at the age of 50. But after that what? All I knew was that I wanted to do something which was not dictated by others. I had never envisioned making art, and only pursued photography as a hobby. Until I stumbled upon sculpting. It became an obsession!

IC:   Did you see yourself working towards a goal while you were exploring sculpting?

R.S:  There was no plan. I just lost myself in the studios sculpting for hours every day! The human form came easily to me, maybe because I have taken so many pictures of people. The form is ingrained in my head and I could translate it into clay. But the results were only for me. I did not intend to show it publicly. Friends urged me to show my work and I remember thinking “what a crazy idea”

IC:   I ask this question of all artists. How difficult was the idea of monetizing your work?

R.S:   I haven’t accepted it as yet! While curating my work at the Jehangir Art Gallery, I wanted to keep all of it – could not let go! Even though I understand money and finance, it is very different when it comes to putting a dollar value to what I create. I cannot believe the response to my work!  This is still something I am learning to deal with.

IC:   Your show at Jehangir Art Gallery titled ‘Caesura/Continuum’ is a celebratory series of the human form captured in the course of executing ballet movements. The work is crisp, highly detailed, and has a wonderful, lyrical tension in some of the pieces. Tell us about your journey with this series.R.S:   I don’t see my sculptures ‘ballet dancers’ – I know that the dance form is ballet, but I have tried to go beyond it. Forms and people are very important. It is more about the emotion, the story behind that moment. The captured moment is just part of that overall story. In my head, the shapes have feelings. The movement, the tension, the emotion on their faces tell a lot more than the dance form itself. Ballet is the medium used to tell that story! It is a very spiritual experience although not in a godly sense. It is meant to transport you into that story – into that world, as a viewer.

IC:   How much of your work is colored by that exhibition of Rodin’s work you attended as a boy?

R.S:   As a kid growing up in Mumbai, we didn’t have much exposure to art or sculpture. At that time I remember going to an exhibition featuring Rodin’s work. I had never seen work on that scale in my life! So it made a definite impact. Having never had formal art training, that first exposure stayed with me. 

IC:   Tell us about your recent work, ‘Jayanti’, the 17 foot site-specific permanent installation situated Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh. Both the sculpture and the location – a place famed for its Buddhist spirituality – are intriguing.

R.S:  I was at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Dharamshala talking to the architects because they were interested in showcasing a series of photographs I had taken of Buddhist monks. The beauty of the locale inspired me to visualize ‘Jayanti’ – which is not a creation, but an energy. It has always existed in that place. I just let my inspiration reflect that energy, giving back and enhancing what was already present. It is like holding a mirror to what exists.

IC:   Your use of the word ‘mirror’ pretty much says it all! ‘Jayanti’ is highly reflective in the choice of materials you have used. It seems almost otherworldly, somehow placed in that area amidst the lushness of nature. How do you go from sculpting the human body in its lyrical and exquisite complexity to creating something like ‘Jayanti’? 

R.S:  Like I said before, ‘Jayanti’ has always existed as Energy in that place. She is the monolithic, Mother Goddess of Dharamshala who has been worshipped for all time. Jayanti is in the trees, the flowers, the beauty of the place itself. The sculpture is made of mirror-polished steel. It is multi-faceted, like a precious gem. You are meant to drive or walk around the installation. The form reflects different things as you drive around it, including the viewers themselves. So for me, it is more of a feeling, an experience. And a conceptual homage to Dharamshala, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

It also carries a Sanskrit shloka inscribed on its reflective facets – a tribute to the Goddess Jayanti. 

IC:  What next? Which aspect of life & creativity do you intend to explore?

R.S:  I am currently working on commissions and enjoying that process. Inspiration comes from everyday things that make me happy. I don’t have the constraints of being dictated to by the world around me, which is a blessing! So, for now, I just want to create. There is a hunger within me which lets me vent out my creativity in new and exciting ways. 

It is a little like jumping off a bridge and feeling the wind in my face… while knowing that I will hit the water eventually! In the meantime, it is all about the present moment! All about the NOW! And about experiencing the wind in my face! 

The installation ‘Jayanti’ is part of Hyatt Regency, Mcleodgunj’s permanent collection, paying tribute and homage to the ethos that is part of its fame.

India Currents wishes Raj Shahani many more travels along uncharted paths, drinking from the well of creativity.

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

Harmonious blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto strains in Japan

The 900 year old Sanjusangen-do Zen temple in Kyoto

Sanjusangen-do (Built in 1164 CE and reconstructed in 1266 after a fire broke out) is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto that’s guarded by around 1000- Armed Human sized statues of Kannon, the Japanese Goddess of compassion. 500 statues sit on either side of the main Deity of Sahasrabhuja-Arya-Avalokiteśvara.

The 1000 armed Kannons

The 1000 life size Kannons carved from wood, have 28 guardian deities in front, that are larger in size. These Guardian deities are of Indian origin and primarily Hindu Gods.

In ancient Japanese Buddhism, Hindu Deities are revered and given their place of respect in the Buddhist realm of deities. The Hindu deities are considered guardian Deities of the Buddhist concept of the ‘Clear Mind Buddha’, which according to them is the Buddha that is of prime importance. The physical Buddha is seen as holy and revered, but he is also seen as an example of human bondage and suffering in samsara. Like a normal human Buddha had to overcome his delusions and finally had to shed the body. The ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ who is pristine and pure in thought (Nirgun as the Hindus say) however, is the primordial state without beginning or end and is the state which all humans must aspire to achieve to get salvation from rebirth. One has to not get obsessed with the physical Buddha, as he is external to you, while the ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ is the object of possible achievement for all humans through meditation and practice of dharma. This realization which arises from within is considered more important than bondage to external objects, however revered or holy they are.

This ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ as the silent observer, is similar to the concept of the ‘Nirgun Bhraman or Paramatma’ in Hinduism, with all other Gods/Goddesses being considered its emanations with specific energies, which is very similar to the Shinto concepts of Kami. The beautiful Harmony with which the ancient Japanese monks have managed to fit all gods and deities from the parent stream of Hinduism into its brilliant offshoot Buddhism is remarkable. It is a brilliant testimony to their abilities and vast intelligence to bring harmony, accommodation, respect and deep understanding to the evolving spiritual streams, as well as merger of existing streams. After all there is only one truth and no one has the monopoly on it. This is something the ancient Japanese masters understood so well.

An achievement, one has to bow down to in deep respect.

Shintoism the original indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto teaches that everything in nature consists of a spiritual essence, or a spirit called a Kami. The Kami resides in all things. But there are certain designated places where the Kami interfaces more intensely with people. There are 8 million kami (not literally, but just a representation of many Kami that exist). The primary Kami is Amaterasu or the Goddess of the sun. Hence Japan is called the land of the rising sun. This is extremely similar to Hinduism where we are considered Suryavanshi (descendents of the sun). In Hinduism, the entire universe is considered an emanation of Paramatma; hence everything in it carries the spirit of the great creator. Lay people get confused that Hinduism has a million deities, and villagers are busy creating one every day. What an outsider does not see is that Hindus consider everything in nature as having a spirit that is derived from that one source to manifest. So having a million deities is the same as having one. Shintoism too is similar to that form and belief system in Hinduism. Ancestors are considered Kami too and just as we worship and follow the system of gotras (descendents of Rishis), they worship their ancestors.

In the next few frames , I shall post pictures of some of the critical Hindu “Guardian Deities “ that have been exhibited in the Great 120 meter hall, which is 900 years old. These Guardian deities stand on either side of the Avalokiteshwara Deity (The Buddhist God of compassion) and in front of the 1000 Kannons. The Hindu deities don’t resemble the Indian versions as there were conceptually transplanted about 900 years ago and are carved based on Japanese interpretations of Indian and Chinese Sutras.

The descriptions are brief and have been copied from the official booklet available at the Sanjusangen-do Centre. It is highly recommended for any visitor to Japan to visit this center and buy this book.

Japanese Name: Naraen Kengo, Sanskrit: Narayana

The original Sanskrit name of this deity is Narayna, also called Vishnu in India, the Hindu God of preservation of all creation. This God/statue is used in many ancient Buddhist temples of Japan at the gates where Narayan keeps his mouth open in conjunction with Vajra Pani (Shiva), who keeps his mouth closed. This according to them symbolizes that the deities swallow all evil and let only virtue pass into the temple through the gates. Another interpretation says they symbolize within lies all the secrets of the universe from beginning to end. The most amazing example of these Deities is at the entrance to the Todai-ji temple at Nara. Amazingly Nara has 7 prime temples (Much like the Tirupathy temple, where the Lord is considered the lord of the seven hills which represent the Adisesha or the serpent of Vishnu with 7 heads that is supposed to hold up creation).

The placement of Narayna (Vishnu) and Vajra Pani (Shiva) in the entrance to symbolize AUM is amazing. A (mouth opens to symbolize beginning of all creation from Brahma, who is born of Vishnu), and M (mouth shuts to symbolize the destroyer and therefore the end of existence) is Shiva, the God of death. The Japanese Buddhist integration with Hinduism is breath taking.

Japanese Name : Raijin the Thunder God, Sanskrit Name : Varuna

This deity has its origin in the God of water Varuna which later transformed into Thunder God as water was always associated with thunder. The iconography of this statue is based on Senju Darani-kyo’ Buddhist Sutra. As per the Rig Veda, Varuna is considered the counterpart of Mitra, Varuna rules the night and Mitra rules during the day.

Japanese Name: Basu senin Sanskrit: Vasu

Vasu in Hindu tradition can be interpreted in many ways. Vasudewa was the father of Krishna. Related to this name is an early Hindu belief system, sometimes called Bhagavatism that was largely formed by the 4th century BC. Vasudeva was worshiped as the supreme Deity in a strongly monotheistic format, where Vasudewa was considered the Supreme Being because he had the attributes of being perfect, eternal and full of grace.

Vasu could also mean God of all the elements in creation which is very similar to Japanese Shintoism wherein they recognize about 8 million Gods of various elements called Kami. Hinduism on the other hand recognizes eight primary elements and all else are its combinations. That is why Vasu is the god of the eight Gods or the various base elements.

Japanese Name: Nanda Ryu-o Sanskrit: Nanda Naga Raja

If the Sanskrit translation were to be applied directly, it would mean The King of the snakes from the Nanda Dewi Mountain (The abode of Lord Shiva). In this carving at some point of time the snakes became dragons through Chinese influence and came to be in Japan, as Buddhism reached Japan via China and Tibet.

Japanese Name: Fujin Sanskrit; Vayu

As introduced in the ancient Indian sacred texts Rig Veda, Vayu is the deity that pulls carriages through the air, defeating armies, bring fame, fortune. The design is completely based on Japanese interpretations of texts from Indian and Chinese sutras.

Japanese Name: Birubakusha Sanskrit: Virupaksha

The Japanese translation means the deity with many eyes and a wider vision. Notice the third eye between the two eyes, and the weapon in the hand is the same as Shiva’s. In Hindu Tradition Virupaksha is a form of Shiva’s and there is indeed a Virupaksha temple in Hampi Karnataka with the same Sanskrit name as in Japan.

Japanese Name: Karura Sanskrit: Garuda

The original Sanskrit name of this deity is Garuda, In ancient India it was believed to be a giant bird that ate cobras and carried the Hindu deity Vishnu on its back. Later on it was adopted in Buddhism as a deity, and was included in the eight guardians of Buddhism. The statue represents a bird headed figure playing a flute while keeping time with the foot.

Japanese Name: Mawara-nyo. Sanskrit: Maha Bala.

Maha Bala in Hindu scriptures translates directly to Durga Dewi, based on whom, many Bala mantras exist. Mawara-Nyo represents the indomitable spirit and the gentle feminine subtle energies of the universe, gentle yet decisive.

Japanese Name: Daibenkudoku-ten Sanskrit: Sridewi

The original name for this deity is Sridewi, also called Laxmi, written in India as Lakshmi. She is born from the sea and is Vishnus (Narayana’s) wife. In Buddhism she is a daughter of the dragon King and Kishimojin (Hariti). As in Hinduism, in Buddhism too, she presides over prosperity

Japanese Name: Taishaku-ten Sanskrit: Indira

According to the ancient Indian writings in the Rig Veda, He is the most significant heroic deity. In Buddhism this deity is supposed to live in Kiken castle As the lord of the realm of Tory ten. He is considered to have helped Buddha in his novitiate years. In Hinduism Indra is the God of the lesser heavens where ordinary mortals reside for limited periods of time in their endless cycles of birth and death.

The very best for the last, This is where the Japanese place Hinduism and Buddhism in perfect equal footing. Literally as parallel similar universes with different tag names.

Japanese Name : Daibon-ten Sanskrit: Maha Brahman

The Highest Hindu god and the creator of the universe is Maha Brahman. Since Maha Brahman was adopted into Japanese Buddhism, it is believed he is a guardian of Buddhism together with the Buddhist Deity Taishaku-ten. They both are equally tasked as partners with running the universe. According to the Japanese legend when Buddha reached self- realization, he was overwhelmed but was hesitant to preach to people. Maha Brahman advised him to start preaching in order to redeem ignorant people and their souls. It is for this reason the Japanese accord Maha Brahman an equal status to the Buddhist diety Taishaku-Ten.

Sanjay Rao is in search of the ultimate truth beyond concepts and notions, in that silence, after 20 years in soulless corporate board rooms. https://twitter.com/#!/sanjayrao1010

Previously published on www.esamskriti.com. Reprinted here with permission.

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The Yakshi of Lanka Enthralls

Stupas at Anuradhapura

The shared histories of India and the isle of Sri Lanka intertwine in the most unexpected and fascinating way. Nearly 2, 000 miles north of Sri Lanka, the first stone structure built in India featured a lady from Lanka, a yakshi that swung from the gate found on the stupa at Sanchi. Four tribes—the Raksha, the Yakshi, the Deva and the Nagas inhabited Sri Lanka about twenty five centuries ago. In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Ashoka commissioned and built the famous stupa at Sanchi in India using knowledge of those who lived in Sri Lanka at that time. The travel of Buddhist ideas between the two nations resulted in the transmission and exchange of knowledge in various arenas including art, architecture and sculpture.

The British museum that now houses the statue, states that as per an ancient Indian fertility rite, beautiful young maidens were said to usher in spring by kicking a tree trunk while breaking off a branch, so as to arouse it into blossoming. The yakshi has a bare torso with a single pearl falling between her breasts. A girdle holds up a diaphanous lower garment across her broad hips. She wears heavy anklets and bracelets, and her hair is tied into elaborate plaits. She is holding up the sandstone beam that was once across Sanchi Stupa’s gateway. Or as the Boston Globe puts it, “the touch of a woman, according to Indian myth, could cause the sap of the tree to run, making it flower and bear fruit.”

In India’s epic tale the Mahabharata, the poet calls out to the lady in the translator’s Shakespearean voice:
Who art thou that,
Bending down the branch of the Kad
amba tree,
Shiniest lonely in hermitage,
Sparkling like a flame of fire at night
Shaken by the breeze,
Oh thou of fair brows?
Exceedingly fair art thou
Yet fearest nought here in the forest
Art thou a devata, a yakshi, a danavi,
an apsara,
Or a fair daitaya girl, or a lovely
maiden of
the Naga king
Or a night wanderer (rakshasi) in the
woods?

Yarshi

The Ramayana tells the tale of Surpanakha who incited her brother, the well endowed powerful King Ravana to avenge her insult.
As I wander around Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital city, there is no sign of these epic stories. However, relics related to Buddhism can be found everywhere.

Towering stupas dating back to the 1st to 3rd century B.C. dominate the landscape. The mahabodhi tree, an imported and re-planted branch of the tree under which Buddha had attained enlightenment holds pride of place. Planted in 288 B.C., it is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world. Seeds from the bodhi tree were disseminated throughout Lanka where they have taken root.

Theravada Buddhism blossomed in Sri Lanka. Even now, over 70 percent of the population are Sinhala Buddhists. The possession of Buddha’s tooth, a relic carried from India, is protected as it bestows the divine right to rule on its possessor. In 1998 the LTTE, a militant Tamil organization tried to capture it in vain. It now resides in a temple in Kandy.

Two hours drive south of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya Fort a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high was a Buddhist monastery from as early as the 3rd century B.C. We scramble up all of the 1200 steps to see a fabulous view of a forest-carpeted vista. Lion claws carved into the rock announce the start of an ancient citadel built by King Kashyapa during the 5th century.

yakshi

In Colombo, another two hour south of Sigriya, the eclectic Gangaramaya Temple houses the Buddha’s hair and the Bodhi tree.

The yakshi continues to fascinate the people of India. The Lady from Lanka now also stands at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India building in New Delhi, an imposing twenty-one-feet high statue, she also holds a bag of money in her hand. The statue was completed in 1967. She guards modern India’s material needs.

The Governor’s Mansion Harbors a Secret
A stay at the Lavinia Hotel tells of the fascinating secret of a love story around 1805 between the English Governor Sir Thomas Maitland and Lovina Aponsuwa, the barechested half Portuguese and half Sinhalese Mestizo dancer.

A secret passageway from the English Governor’s house led to the village of Galkissa, to a well that was not in use, near the home of Lovina Aponsuwa. It is said that she was a frequent visitor to the white mansion atop the hill in the dead of night when caressing waves of the Bay of Galkissa swept up the beach towards the mansion.

srilanka
Governer’s Massion

Across the bay while Colombo, the capital city of the island of Sri Lanka, slept, the lady made her way, hidden from the prying eyes of rigid colonial society, through the tunnel to the cellars of the Governor’s house. The mansion would forever be known by her name, Lavinia.

Two hundred years later, we crawl into the tunnel. Our guide is a diminutive man in a gold-lapeled white colonial shirt under which he wears a white Sinhalese sarong. Chef Publis Silva, who has been with the hotel for 60 years, meets us at the other end. His book Royal Meals of the Last Kings of Sri Lanka sits inside a mother of pearl shell in a cabinet in the lobby.

On a table laden with Sri Lankan dishes twinkles the English Trifle pudding with a red jeweled glint. Juice soaked sponge cake, succulent fruit, ruby red jello, blanket of creamy lemon yellow custard and fluffy white whipped cream lie in layers distinct in their aristocratic demeanour and together hold a promise of creamy, tangy, sweet deliciousness.

The layers in Sri Lankan cuisine reflect the waves of people that have made Sri Lanka their home: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim, Burghers and the Wanniyala-eto, Chef Silva tells us. A typical Sinhalese meal consists of red rice and meat, seafood and vegetable curries, a mallung of diced garden greens and a spicy onion or coconut based sambal. (The word mallung means “to mix up” and is a category of Sri Lankan dishes that feature shredded leafy vegetables, coconut and spices, all cooked in a dry skillet or clay pot, and then finished with a couple of drops of lemon juice.)

Srilanka

The Tamils sometimes eat their curry with a pancake, dosai. The Sinhalese curries are drier than those of the Tamil. The Sinhalese use coconut milk while the Tamil use ground coconut to thicken the curries. Tamil cuisine depends on gingelly (sesame) oil, yogurt, maize, corn, gram, and tamarind.

The Muslims who are the descendants of travellers and traders from Africa, Malaysia, Persia, and Indonesia enjoy biryani which is rice boiled in meat stock, cooked in ghee laced with chicken or mutton, cashew nuts and sultanas.

Wanniyala-eto or those of the forest have a rich meat diet with venison, wild boar and small game often smoked or roasted. The Burghers or the descendants of the colonial Dutch, Portuguese and the British contributed sweet, rich and heavy cakes like the bolo folhado, and love cake.

Governor Tom and Lovina’s love was many layered and deep like the English Trifle.

Recipe for Trifle Pudding

Ingredients
1 Swiss roll, dry sponge cake, or sponge fingers
6 tablespoons sherry (optional)
1 packet of jello
Can of fruit or 1 1/2 cups of diced fruit salad or thawed frozen fruit
(One of the beauties of trifle is that you can use any fruit: mixed fruit, berries, mango, pineapple, banana etc).
Pineapple or orange juice

For Custard
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons custard powder
(or 5 egg yolks with a tablespoon of corn flour)
4 tablespoons sugar
1 cup whipping cream with icing sugar to taste
A transparent glass bowl will showcase the dish.

Method
Slice cake or layer fingers to cover the bottom of the bowl completely. Sprinkle with sherry(optional). Soak the cake with juice. Layer the fruit on top of the layer of cake.

Prepare jello according to the instructions on the packet. Refrigerate until almost set. Pour the jelly over fruit layer evenly. Allow to set. It should not take more than 30 minutes. If you pour the jelly over the cake whilst it is still hot, it will be absorbed by the cake and you won’t have a jelly layer. The jelly forms a strong base concretizing the foundation of the pudding.

Prepare the custard. Take a small bowl and mix the custard powder with a little milk to form a light paste. Heat the remaining milk, cream and sugar in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the custard paste or whisked egg yolks and cornflour into it as you whisk the milk till it thickens. This should be done on low to medium heat.

trifle pudding

The custard should not be runny and should be spooned over the jello when cool. It is the consistency of mousse. Press some clingfilm onto the surface to prevent a skin forming. When the custard is cool, pour over layer of jello. If the custard is too hot, the jello will melt.
Take a chilled bowl and pour the whipping cream into it. Beat it to soft peaks with a hand mixer. Slowly add the icing sugar and continue beating till you get stiff peaks.

Transfer the frothy whipped cream on top of the custard layer and spread evenly. Refrigerate.
Garnish with sliced fruits and serve chilled.

Growing up in India, I used to eat the Trifle at our weekly dinners with extended family members.
The English Trifle made its appearance at our dinner table via Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then called. My mother’s brother who was in the Indian Foreign Service had been posted in Ceylon in 1958. On their return to India from their foreign posting my aunt Urmil had proudly presented the English Trifle and subsequently coached every generation on how to set the pudding.
Any pudding where the jello is missing is definitely non-traditional. The jewel in the crown of the Trifle remains forever the Ruby Jello!

Travel Details
We flew into Colombo from the United States where we visited the Gangaramaya Temple and the IPKF memorial, had lunch at Mount Lavinia Hotel, took a walk down Galle face, dinner at Beach Wadia which seems to be a celebrity eating spot and shopped at Barefoot and Odel. The train tracks that ran along the beach from Colombo to Galle invited us to explore the European quarter. We made a day trip to Galle Fort. The next day, we drove four hours to Dambulla where we stayed at the Heritance Kandalama. The resort is cut into the mountainside by Sri Lanka’s premier architect Geoffrey Bawa. Overlooking the Kandalama Lake and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress the resort is highly recommended. We visited Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa the two ancient capitals as day trips from Dambulla before returning to Colombo.

Ritu Marwah is a frequent contributor to India Currents.