In May 2017 I bought a parcel of land on the beach at Dondra overlooking Dondra Head Lighthouse, the most southerly point of Sri Lanka. After a lot of prevarication and a crash course in Sri Lankan planning law, I started building myself a house on it in February. Whilst the start of any build is a memorable occasion, here in South Sri Lanka it has extra significance as it is marked by a special and elaborate ceremony for the ground breaking.
I say ground breaking but really a lot of ground needs to be broken in preparation, so strictly it celebrates the start of the foundation laying.
As with most traditions down here, and even more so in the 100% Buddhist enclave of Dondra (in my backlog of blog posts to write is one about the campaign to “Save Dondra”… from the Christians…) it involves monks, ceremony and food.
I had been a bit reluctant to do it as I am a resolute non-believer in any God and so it felt a bit dishonest and patronising to appropriate a Buddhist Ceremony but I was persuaded otherwise in equal measure by my local Buddhist friends who I realised would have been disappointed verging on actively upset if I hadn’t done it, my Muslim contractors who took it for granted that it would happen, and last but not least, my Mother who in so many words said “get over yourself & embrace the community you are living in”.
And so it was that at 7:21am on Thursday 22nd February 2018- an auspicious date and time calculated by the local monks based on my name and birth-date – myself and seven people I had chosen as being significant to my life here along with two monks from a nearby temple and a few other well-wishers from the village assembled to bless the build.
The site had been ringed by white string blessed by the monks and in the corners of the plot were incense burners. Right in the middle of the house was a clay pot of milk over a fire, which when it boiled over signified luck and prosperity flowing in to the house.
In pairs we buried a box containing spices, tea and sand – river sand and sea sand – one in each of the four corners of the house whilst the monks chanted and banged a drum. Afterwards we had blessings from the chief monk who tied white string around our wrists. I am intending to keep mine on until the build is finished however grubby it gets. Finally I presented the monks with a cash donation and Ata Pirikara which is a collection of Buddhist sacred items including orange monks’ robes and a clay pot. Ata Pirikara is given to the monks so frequently that whole shops exist selling nothing else.
Afterwards we were treated to a buffet breakfast provided by my new neighbours. The items on offer included milk rice, spicy sambol and cake, all washed down with the ubiquitous warm, salty, fizzy orange pop.