Theme – Body, Mind and Healing: Reflections on Post-disaster Responses in Sri Lanka

Date – from 21 to 23 August 2015

Venue – South Eastern University of Sri Lanka

The Colombo Branch Office of the South Asia Institute (SAI), Heidelberg University, Germany in collaboration with SPARC, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka organized this conference, along with a photographic exhibition of Pattini-Kannaki in the Ashraff Memorial Library, at the South Eastern University (SEU) of Sri Lanka. Our aim was to initiate a dialogue on post-disaster responses in Sri Lanka, and to assess their comparative and relative effectiveness on healing the body, mind and affected communities. Seven research papers were presented.

♦ Traditional calming techniques and other cultural practices in post-war healing by Prof. Daya Somasunderam (Prof. of Psychiatry, University of Adelaide and Jaffna) – Guest Speaker

♦ Healing the Person, Healing the Nation: some thoughts on the relationship between individual and collective healing by Prof. William Bo Sax (Deputy Director, South Asia Institute (SAI) Heidelberg University)

♦ Post-war Suicide Trends in Northern Sri Lanka: Outcome of War Trauma or A Manifestation of Social Anomie? by Tudor Silva (Prof. of Sociology, University of Peradeniya)

♦ Commoditization of Health Care Seeking Behavior: A study based on Kalmunai Divisional Secretariat Area by Ms. A.W.N. Naleefa (Lecturer, Dept. of Sociology, South Eastern University of SL)

♦ Religiosity as Last Resort: ‘Disappearance’ and Disconsolation by Malathi de Alwis (Socio-Cultural Anthropologist)

♦ Ritualising the Tamil Body in Post-War Sri Lanka: Multiple Displacements of Violence, Migration and Community in Crisis by Thanges Paramsothy (PhD Candidate, University of London)

♦ Healing the Hurt by Sivathas (Psychiatrist, Vavuniya)

♦ Mind at the centre of post-war healing process: A Buddhist Perspective on the significance of mind for communal healing by Ven. Deegalle Mahinda (Reader, Bath Spa University)

Pattini-Kannaki photographic exhibition by Dr. Malathi de Alwis and Sharni Jayawardena

This exhibition concerned various worship practices and rituals performed for local goddess who, until recently, was unknown to non-Hindu Sri Lankans. This lack of awareness was “perhaps an indication of the extent to which the two main ethnic communities (Sinhalese and Tamils) in this small island have become alienated”. In addition, a number of additional ritual and performative practices were documented, all of which can be seen as responses to the trauma of the recent civil war. The exhibition visualised how to find solace in such religious practices, so as to cope with the deep wounds created due by the ethnic conflict lasting 26 years. The exhibition was the zenith of the themes that covered through conference papers.

Reconciliation and the Conference Resolution

The South Asia Institute’s presence at South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (located in a predominantly Muslim area) was helpful in creating an intercultural understanding and relationship among university staff and students in Sri Lanka. Consistent with this goal, the group came up with the following resolution to be submitted to the office of national unity and reconciliation.

“A group of scholars who participated in the conference on “Body, Mind and Healing” organized by researchers drawn from University of Colombo, University of Peradeniya, University of Jaffna and Southeastern University of Sri Lanka and University of Heidelberg from August 21 to 23, 2015 unanimously decided to request the authorities in government and civil society organizations to erect a non-partisan memorial in a suitable location to enable all citizens of this country to remember and pay respect to all those who have died due to ethnic conflict and the civil war”.

Visit to Religious Sites in Ampara District

Sociology students from South Eastern University of Sri Lanka and some participants from Jaffna, Peradeniya and Colombo Universities visited 3 religious sites situated nearby. It was not an easy task to gain access to these sites, but Ms. Naleefa (lecturer from SEU) ensured that our female guests were accommodated.

1. Beach Mosque in Kalmunai

2. Deegawapi

3. Kannaki Amman Kovil in Karativu

Dr. Malathi discussed the dynamic nature of these religious sites, and the ways in which they have been influenced by different religious rituals throughout history. Even though the students were residents of Ampara District, they had not visited any sites other than those associated with their own religion. This experience was indeed not only a lesson on sociology of religion but an eye opener for the students in a post war society.

The conference with its associated exhibition and excursion was supported by Prof. Tudor Silva from Peradeniya University, Prof. William Sax from SAI, Heidelberg University, Mr. Radu Carcirumaru from SAI Delhi Branch Office and Ms. Naleefa Najfar from South Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

Future plans

The group decided to work on the broad theme of indigenous knowledge systems encompassing all forms of indigenous knowledge from technology to healing/medicine to agricultural practices to early warning systems. Also it was decided not to limit this research and discussion to university academics but to open it for interested professionals in government institutions.