Archive | October, 2014

Acing it for Sri Lanka

26 Oct


It’s not just our cricket team that we need be proud of as world class. Just returned to Sri Lanka after a triumphant series in which they emerged the Asian Champions is our Girls’ Netball team. They solidly defeated the defending Asian Champion, Singapore by a resounding 77-48. We are justly proud of all our girls.

This victory is due in no small measure to the fact that Sri Lanka has Asia’s tallest netball player, Tharjini Sivalingam who is quite likely also the tallest person in Sri Lanka with her amazing 6 ft 10” height. Out of the 77 shots in the winning play off, it was Tharjini who scored 74. She was also named the best shooter of the match with a total score of 380.


Having known Tharjini personally for a while now having lived with her in the same hostel, I knew her to be an extremely balanced young woman. Even then a netball star, she had no airs and graces about herself nor did she ever take offence at the numerous teasing remarks or open stares that her height engendered. For a young woman to experience both celebrity status on one hand and incredulity and idiotic remarks on the other and still remain unaffected by either is a remarkable achievement but Tharjini somehow managed it.

Her new found sudden stardom instead of going to her head has only left her a little bemused and disoriented. Though a friendly extrovert usually, the extreme media pressure has driven her to try to keep a low profile. She claims to be very happy for the sake of her country that Sri Lanka has emerged the Asian Netball champion and very happy that she did so well but she still seems a little shocked and mildly irritated by her sudden national fame. The media is apparently not leaving her in peace and right now she intensely requires some peace and quiet.

Tharjini with her nephew at their village temple

Tharjini with her nephew at their village temple

In fact she kept evading me too until I tracked her down and demanded to know what her problem was. Sheepishly, she said she had no personal problem with me but she really had no time for all the diverse media institutions hounding her.

Yet, despite her sudden star status, all the vibes I get from her are that of bemusement and mild irritation and none of smug satisfaction or self glory about herself. This particular lady, despite her extensive height doesn’t easily get her head into the clouds.

Though as a hostel-mate living alongside her, I had seen for myself that she never took offence at seemingly offensive or personal questions, I had never  asked any myself. Now as a reporter, I had to and warned her so. She was instantly amused. “Why, are you going to ask me about my boy friend?”

Er..No, I had no idea she had one to begin with but I would be certainly glad to hear all about him.

“Ha, No – I don’t have a boyfriend. You can ask all the personal questions you want, go ahead” she invited so we got down to it.

Tharjini was born the fifth of six children to a tamil family in the village of Evinai, Punnalaikattuvan, Jaffna, where she did her entire schooling. She then went to the Eastern University in Batticoloa to do her degree in Tamil. It was during her first year at this university, she was ‘discovered’. She had been representing the Batticoloa district at a tournament in Vavuniya. That was just five short years ago – 2004 and the rest is history. Though still at her first year in university, she came down to Colombo to join the National Netball team. The Eastern University authorities were very helpful and accommodating she says and so she went down only for her exams, which she depended on self study to get through.  She had to juggle her self study with strenuous netball practices and employment at Seylan Bank but nevertheless successfully got her degree. Apparently her childhood ambition had not been anything as fanciful as becoming an international star. She had always wanted to be a university lecturer in Tamil, a dream she still aspires to.

Asked where she got her height from, she smilingly answers, ‘God’.

Oh, so it’s not from her family?

“No – everyone in my family is of only average height. This is certainly not genetic.”

Apparently, she had always been exceptionally tall, a tall baby, a tall child and adolescent and now a tall young woman. She stopped growing only when she was 22.

“By the time I was doing A’levels, I was the tallest in school and that includes our principal. He was 6’ 1”, I was 6’2”,” she grins.

She says she felt slightly awkward at first, especially with all the comments and stares she got, but now she has learnt to be comfortable with her height and has learnt to take the comments in stride.


‘I am quite happy with my height now. After all this is what got me into the national team, made me a star and got us the Asian Netball Championship.’

She credits her coach, both at Seylan Bank and the National team, Thilaka Jinadasa for her current success. ‘She deserves the credit for coaching us so well, she was a very strict and demanding coach but that is how she made us into exceptional players’, says Tharjini.  She adds that they were more worried about beating Malaysia than Singapore as it was to Malaysia they lost out in the semi finals for the last championship in 2005. ‘But we planned and strategized and coordinated extensively to win the championship this year and we did.’

Having come beyond her wildest dreams as an internationally acclaimed star, Tharjini should have no cause for unhappiness one would think, but she has a few. ‘It’s very hard to live away from my family in a hostel. To travel by bus everyday is even more of a problem with my height. I have to be half bent if I have to travel standing as quite often happens during rush hours and it is vey difficult’, she says.

What’s happened to all the gentlemen out there? Don’t you know to offer your seats to a lady? Next time make sure you do and bow as you do so, this is no ordinary lady, she is a national heroine who has brought honour to the country.

One would think that a National netball player would be financially well compensated but apparently that is not so, the expenses of living in Colombo and her frequent jaunts abroad for foreign tournaments  is also a source of worry for her. ‘This time Seylan Bank sponsored my trip for the tournament but sometimes I have to depend on my parents and I feel bad about putting that pressure on them,’ says Tharjini. ‘In countries like India, I understand that some companies come forward to sponsor the players and their  expenses and I think it would be a great idea to adopt that practice here too, as I find the expenses are sometimes beyond me.’

But overall she is very happy to be where she is now, grateful to all those who have made her what she is and hopes to keep on bringing in more fame and glory to Sri Lanka. Here’s to many more such championships.


Photos taken from Tharjini’s facebook page with her permission.

Note: I wrote this article in 2009 to be published in the Sunday Times – which published an edited version of this.


Small entrepreneurs’ exhibition in Jaffna

20 Oct

As reported on in a previous issue, the Nucleus Foundation and USAID have been promoting exchanges between industries, particularly small scale industries in the North and South.
The latest of these collaborations was a trade fair held at the Jaffna Central College by both Southern and Northern micro-entrepreneurs recently.

Sea food was one of the most popular stalls - obviously. What was the hottest selling item? Dried cuttlefish.

Sea food was one of the most popular stalls – obviously. Their hottest selling item is dried cuttlefish apparently.

The next fastest moving sales seemed to be at the batik stall. Everyone is united in their love of batiks – whether for shirts, sarongs or dresses.


Meanwhile the erstwhile palymrah industry has a hard time re-inventing itself to keep up with locals’ taste for the new and modern, although it apparently has a fair market down south as well as abroad.


But they do keep trying. Here is Palmyrah fruit pulp, extracted so that you can easily make the trademark Northern savoury-sweet Panagai-paniyarum with it.

bottled palmyrah pulp

bottled palmyrah pulp

Why would a Northern housewife buy this product when she has access to the fresh fruit, I asked the sales rep.
“Because, the fruit is available only seasonally. It is also time-consuming to extract the pulp. With this, they can make their savouries any time of the year, and with much more ease,” he replied.

Plus they now have Palmyrah fruit jam as well.


How does it taste?
“Just like any other jam but with a palmyrah-fruit flavour!”


Next up were natural fruit based cordials – mangoes, papayas, pineapples, mixed fruit et al.

What’s the fastest moving cordial?


“Nelli Crush,” says the Sales Rep

Ah yes, the signature Jaffna cordial, made from local gooseberries. Not many Northerners would have pantries without the lime-green cordial in their stocks. It’s a must-have in most homes here.

Dried and powdered wood-apple is also quite popular apparently

Dried and powdered wood-apple is also quite popular apparently

One of the micro-entrepreneurs who stood out was this young man from Battaramulla who had developed several products from used tamarind

Tamarind candy - one of our most popular items

Tamarind candy – one of our most popular items

According to him, the trade fair-goers loved his tamarind candy and sales were so good, he was considering establishing supplies to Jaffna. “I have ten products based on tamarind – tamarind sauce, candy, jam… even chocolate.”
How did he get the idea for his business?
“I come from a rural area where I see a lot of tamarind go to waste. So I investigated ways of stopping the wastage.”

Next up were some famous local Ayurvedic preparations that had become trade-marked and packeted.


The Kurincha or Gymenma Sylvestre leaf,  has long been used to control diabetes in the peninsula.
“In Tamil, it is also known as chakara-kolli (sugar-killer) says the rep. “Many people in Jaffna have at least one of these plants growing in their gardens. It controls not only diabetes but also menstrual disorders.”

Apparently Professor K. Balasubramaniyam and other lecturers at the University of Jaffna had teamed up to study and promote local medicinal herbs such as the Kurincha and founded a public company, Bio Tech International Ltd, to put them out on the market.

Hair oil to promote hair growth

Cosmetic oil to promote hair growth

Another of their products was hair oil made from locally produced sesame seeds, seasoned with herbs such as Gotu kola, believed to enhance hair growth. It ought to have good sales. Many a local belle is still concerned with having the longest, blackest hair possible.

And finally the clay pots. There was once a time when local people universally stored their water in these clay pots, believing them to have the ability to purify and cool the water – much needed for a people living under a burning sun without access to refrigerators.

Now however, quite a few homes posses modern water treatment systems. Is the clay pot dying out therefore?


Not at all says the sales rep. “People still buy our koosas (clay water pot). And we are keeping up with technology too. See? We even have a tap added.”

Yep! It was an interesting experience overall, viewing the intricate intermingling of the old and the new in Jaffna.

Serendib and Coffee; a tale entwined

1 Oct

Sri Lanka’s new epoch – the battle of the beverages


They are just beverages you might think, but a discussion on Coffee vs. Tea can still get some Sri Lankans hot under the collar.

“Sri Lanka is a tea drinking country”; “Tea is part of our history and culture, coffee is not!” are just some of the arguments to be heard in recent times, over the relatively new phenomenon of coffee houses springing up all over the place, leading to a renaissance of sorts in coffee drinking in Colombo.


Fact 1: Both coffee and tea were in fact introduced to Sri Lanka; by traders in the first case and colonizers in the second.

Fact 2: Coffee was introduced before tea. The British tried mass scale plantations of coffee first, and if not for the blight of 1869 which wiped out most of the coffee plantations, we would be a coffee producing, coffee drinking nation even today.

The British planters then experimented with Cocoa and Cinchona, which were similarly affected by blight, before settling on tea, which was more resistant to fungal attack. And the rest as they say is history.

There was once a time however, when Sri Lanka was known for “Ceylon Coffee’’ well before it became known for Ceylon Tea. As the Los Angeles Times of June 30, 1899 notes: “The coffee of Yemen (Mocha) is esteemed the best in the world, but little Mocha coffee gets out of Arabia, or at least beyond Turkey and Armenia. Ceylon once had an excellent reputation for its coffee, but so many natural obstacles arose to impede coffee cultivation in Ceylon that Ceylonese coffee plantations have been largely converted into tea plantations…”

The 'coffee-rust' blight which re-set the course of Sri Lankan plantation history

The ‘coffee-rust’ blight which re-set the course of Sri Lankan plantation history

While coffee is not native to Sri Lanka, it was nonetheless present here long before colonial powers set foot here; most probably due to the Arab traders who are likely to have transplanted them here. Thus the Dutch found coffee plants already existing in ‘Zeilan’ as they called it, but noted that the native people had no clue of its beverage value. Our ancestors used the leaves to flavor their curries and the flowers as offerings in temples but found no use for the berries apparently.

Before the British, the Dutch too had experimented with coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, but then apparently decided to curtail it in order to keep their supply of Javanese coffee limited and exclusive. The Dutch Governor Jan Schreuder is on record as noting however that, “Coffee succeeded very well in the western parts of the island. It was superior in quality to the coffee of Java, and approached near to that of Arabia, whence the first coffee plants came.”

The word “coffee” entered English language in 1582 via Dutch koffie, borrowed from Turkish kahve, in turn borrowed from Arabic qahwa – an abbreviation of qahhwat al-bun  meaning ‘wine of the bean’.

There are several apocryphal stories to trace the discovery of coffee as a beverage, akin to the Chinese emperor’s story about tea. The most popular to date is the one about Kaldi the Ethiopian goat-herd.
Kaldi, the story goes, found some of his goats overactive and spirited after consuming berries from a certain tree. He tried the berries himself and instantly felt rejuvenated and alert – so he brought his discovery to the monk of a nearby monastery. The monk rubbished his claims and threw the berries into a fire – from which an aromatic smell instantly sprang. This brought the other monks into the room to investigate. The now roasted beans were raked back from the embers, ground up and dissolved in water – giving rise to the world’s first cup of coffee.

Whatever the truth of this story, there is probably some truth to coffee originating from Ethiopia, the only land mass in which wild coffee forests are still found and harvested from.

Coffee has been known as a beverage to the Ethiopians at least since the ninth century, with the Sufis of that country using it to keep awake during their night time devotions. From Ethiopia, it found its way to Yemen, the first country to cultivate coffee. And from Yemen, it spread via Arab traders to the rest of the world.

Coffee houses as a matter of fact are nothing new. They were vastly popular in the Arab world for centuries. Called qahveh khaneh – they functioned quite like the coffee houses of today – not only patronized for good coffee and conversations but also to listen to music, watch performances, play chess and keep current on the news of the day. They became such important centers of intellectual thought and debate that they came to be referred to as the ‘Schools of the Wise.’

Inevitably, European travelers to the Middle East took back stories of the unusual dark black beverage to their homelands. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and became popular across the continent. Opponents however called it the ‘bitter invention of Satan’.

Despite this, the beverage spread like wild fire. The first coffeehouse in Austria opened in Vienna in 1683 after the Battle of Vienna, by using supplies from the spoils obtained after defeating the Turks. The officer who received the coffee beans, Polish military officer Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, opened the coffee house and helped popularize the custom of adding sugar and milk to the coffee – today known as the wiener mélange!

By the mid-17th century, there were over 3000 coffee houses in England and 300 in London alone, many of which attracted patrons with common interests, such as merchants, shippers, brokers and artists.

These coffee houses like their original counter parts in the Middle East served as centers for intellectual thought and debate – both religion and politics were widely debated; so much so that King Charles II sought to ban them.  It is to be noted that coffee preceded tea in popularity even here, in the British Isles. It was Charles II’s wife, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza who popularized tea drinking at the English Court.

In the ‘New World’ meanwhile, coffee was introduced by the British, to New Amsterdam, a location later to be called New York!

Though coffee houses rapidly began to appear there, tea continued to be the favored drink in America until 1773 when the colonists revolted against a heavy tax on tea imposed on them by King George III.  The aftermath of the revolt, known as the Boston Tea Party, was that tea drinking became ‘unpatriotic’ in America, giving rise to the ascendance of coffee in that region. And that in its turn has probably not just a little to do with the ascendance of coffee in the world today.

1d Boston-Tea-Party_print2

Artist’s illustration of the ‘New World’ colonists dumping boxes of tea into the Boston Harbour

On our own shores however, as more and more people turn to coffee drinking and frequent coffee houses, others are left soul-searching on their Sri Lankan ‘identity’. Is it all right to drink coffee? Is it alright to let it take precedence over tea?

Yet, ever since the early 1800s, we have always had coffee plantations in this country. The blight did not entirely wipe out the plantations or the practice in 1869. Some continued to persevere. And as they continued to persevere, they also gave rise to coffee processing and marketing companies; Harischandra, Island coffee, Expo Coffee, and more recently Hansa coffee – all have their fair share of a coffee drinking Sri Lankan clientele to cater to.

“My father, C.A Harischandra, was looking to expand his business interests when he started a coffee grinding mill in 1959 in Matara,” says Ramani Samarasinghe, Director, Harischandra Mills. “We always had a regular clientele although we were not in competition with tea. Coffee was always more expensive than tea –so they had their different markets.”

While Harischandra and Island Coffee were popular in many areas of the South, the North developed a unique coffee blend of its own – the Spiced Coffee. People of the North, especially Jaffna would not dream of drinking their coffee without a few spices roasted and blended in as well; coriander, cumin and cardamom seeds are roasted with dried ginger to make a chukku kopi of a unique spiced up taste believed to have medicinal value.

“In our culture we use it as a medicinal pick-me-up!  Whenever people feel weak, such as girls in their menses or women after giving birth, they are given the chukku kopi to drink explains Mrs. Sivalingam (74). “It serves to warm the body as well as clear it of toxins.”

chukku kappi

Many a housewife in the North takes pride in roasting this coffee on her own but it is also readily available pre-packaged. At about the same time C.A Harischandra started his coffee mill in the south, S.P Nadarajah started his ‘Anna Coffee’ in the north (1959).

“Our spiced medicated coffee has a world-wide market. We even export them,” says Mr. Nadarajah the founder and still active head of Anna Coffee. “There is a definite market for it here. Some communities in the North, such as the Brahmins are hardcore drinkers of coffee. And then there are the households that stock both coffee and tea.”

Asked what he thinks of the sudden phenomenon of coffee’s popularity in the capital, he appears a little bewildered. “I have seen those places in Colombo. It’s all rather surreal. A very long time ago, some of us in the coffee business were invited to Germany for a conference on the future of Coffee. I was to attend but backed out due to other commitments at the last minute.

“Mrs. Sarangavani, one of the original founders of Island Coffee (management has changed now) attended however and came back and told us that one of the issues discussed was that the future belonged to coffee shops. That’s why she started that little coffee shop at the corner of Shrubbery Gardens in Bambalapitiya. That was in 1972. We shrugged our shoulders then. Now it’s coming true!”


The Landmark Island Coffee shop, still in Bambalapitiya