HAWAII AND SRI LANKA: INTERESTING INTERSECTIONS
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
The similarities between Hawaii and Sri Lanka are many and varied ranging from climate and vegetation to cultural contacts. Both inhabit island cultures with all the connotations they carry. The climate of Hawaii is similar to that of Sri Lanka and coconut palms, mango and breadfruit trees are common to both topographies. Over the years, there developed varied and complex interactions between Hawaii and Sri Lanka.
The highly treasured Bo tree in the Foster botanical gardens in Hawaii symbolizes in many ways the cultural interconnections between Hawaii and Sri Lanka. The Bo tree at the Foster Gardens in Hawaii was donated to Mary Foster as a sapling by the famous Sri Lankan national revivalist and activist Anagarika Dharmapala. She, lived in Hawaii, and was a close friend of Dharmapala and sponsored many of his religious and welfare activities.
As we scan the evolving relationships between the citizens of Hawaii and Sri Lanka many interesting snippets of information begin to emerge. For example, in the leper colony in Molokai – an institution closely associated with Father Damien, it is reported that a number of Sri Lankan doctors were active participants in treating the lepers.
When discussing the interconnections between Hawaii and Sri Lanka, the East-West Center in Honolulu deserves a special mention. Over the past fifty years or so it has brought a large number of students, scholars, policymakers, journalists, administrators, writers and artists from Sri Lanka. Many students were able to obtain their M.A and Ph. D degrees from the University of Hawaii thanks to the generosity of the East-West Center. I stated earlier, that many artists and writers from Sri Lanka have participated in the various activities organized by the Center. The names of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Lester James Peries, Siri Gunasinghe, A,V. Suraweera, Wimal Dissanayake, Sunanda Mahendra, Tissa Abeysekera, Vasantha Obeysekere and Sumitra Peries spring to my mind.
Similarly the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has played a crucial role in fostering the close bonds between Sri Lanka and Hawaii. Large numbers of students, over the years, have passed through the portals of the University of Hawaii. Distinguished Sri Lankan scholars contributed significantly in this effort. For example, Professor David Kalupahana played a central role in promoting Buddhist philosophical studies at the university. Similarly, certain Sri Lankans distinguished themselves in the fields of business and real estate development. For example, Colin de Silva, who was also a novelist, was responsible among others for the construction of the Ilikai Hotel.
The Hawaii International Film Festival is one of the most important cultural events in Hawaii. It had its origins at the East-West Center. What started out as a small festival, initially showing seven films, later grew to be one of the most important film festivals in the world dedicated to showcasing Asian Pacific cinema. A Sri Lankan film scholar, Wimal Dissanayake was closely associated with the running of this film festival from the very beginning.
The intersection of Hawaiian and Sri Lankan cultures takes place at different levels of apprehension and sensitivity. For example, in the following poem of mine titled The Old Poet, which was published in the Hawaiian poetry magazine Bamboo Ridge , we see the blending of characteristically Sri Lankan and Hawaiian sensibilities in interesting ways. The poem is based on a Hawaiian experience, but the imagery is recognizably Sri Lankan.
An old man of ninety
Poetry has dried up in his veins,
His colleagues have all departed
Into a fading echo.
As he stands amidst
His shapeless memories.
While the moon is out hunting for
Phantoms in the back garden
He looks out of the window
And sees only the rush of the wind
In the hedges
And moonlight dropping
From leaf to leaf.