Tuesday, 25th February 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The Skies are Alive in Lanka

Posted on 30. May, 2010 by in Curious Travel

The Skies are Alive in Lanka

Sri Lanka is Ground Zero for hard-to-explain aerial phenomena

ANGULLUGAHA, Galle, Sri Lanka

I was swimming, just after sunset one night, with my friends Dhanapala and his daughter Vidhisha.  One of us, I forget who, pointed to the clear sky and said: “Is that a plane?”

No, it seemed, it wasn’t.  Nor were about ten other moving lights that shone with the intensity of bright planets but which moved in various directions, taking perhaps thirty seconds to traverse an arc of 90 degrees.  Too slow for shooting stars.  Too fast and erratic to be aircraft or weather balloons.  Just right for UFOs.

Unusual airborne phenomena are not unknown in the southern tip of Sri Lanka.

It was at Kogalle Lagoon near here, some 15 km east of Galle, that a young Canadian reconnaissance pilot performed a feat that Winston Churchill claimed saved “the most dangerous point of the [second world] war.”

On his very first flight in Asia, after being airborne for 12 hours, Leonard Birchall had inadvertently flown his Catalina 450 kilometers off course.  By doing so he stumbled across the Japanese fleet preparing to attack Colombo.  Birchall managed to radio a warning to Allied forces before being shot down.  (He subsequently spent 3 1/2 bitter years in Japanese POW camps).  Churchill applauded Birchall’s actions by noting that “[Ceylon’s] capture and the consequent [Japanese] control of the Indian Ocean and the possibility of a German conquest of Egypt would have closed the ring, and the future would have been black.”

As the familiar post-war irony goes, most of the former Allied air base site at Kogalle to which Birchall never returned is now a free-trade zone where Japanese manufacturers make electronic goods to sell to Europe and America.

Not one to ignore the chance to augment an irony, Dhanapala has purchased the historic airbase island and plans to turn it into “Liberation Island”, an “inter-faith center of excellence” where environmental studies would be encouraged.  It will also serve as a development base where the 14,000 villagers in the region (some of whom staged violent insurrections in 1971 and 1988 due in part to unemployment frustrations) will participate in a fishing cooperative, a nursery for ornamental plants, bakeries and other simple means of raising community funds and morale.

While Kogalle Lagoon faces threats of pollution and indiscriminate mangrove cutting, the air in Dhanapala’s tea estate which overlooks the lagoon is unsullied.  Dhanapala, a former diplomat who now devotes his time to promoting conservation, growing plants used in ayurvedic medicine, and establishing an eco-social-friendly Morris Minor plant, pointed out where he had seen mysterious lights leap between sacred trees.  We sought a clarification from Venerable Metaramba Ratanajothi, a Buddhist monk who lives nearby.

“I saw similar lights myself when I was a young priest.  I had become bored of sitting at prayers and wandered outside.  Then I saw huge balls of fire — light blue and green — dancing between the trees.  The head priest told me they had been sent to frighten me back to the temple.”

We asked if he accepted that explanation.

“Not really.  Later I learned that they were dewata eliya, light spirits, that remind us of how the tree gods lit the sky as they listened to Lord Buddha, and how grateful Lord Buddha was that the trees had given him shade.”

“You only see these holy lights when the environment is conducive to prayer,” added Venerable Panditha Metaramba.  “The air is clean here in the south.  You’ll never see those things in polluted Colombo.”

Illuminated tree-gods?  This makes exquisite sense in this region which is the adopted home of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who predicted extraterrestrial contact in his film  2001.

Not to mention the fact that southern Sri Lanka has physical evidence of one of legend’s greatest aerial exploits.

The event is mentioned in the Ramayana, the epic poem that has the influence on the sub-continent of the Bible, the Odyssey, Tristan und Isolde and Star Wars combined.

Imagine you are Vishnu incarnate, a man-god-king named Rama.  You and your brother Lakshmana are in the fight of your lives against the evil giant Rawana, the ruler of Lanka, who has kidnapped your wife.  Lakshmana is wounded and appears to be dead.  The only cure: four medicinal plants that grow 3,000 kilometers away in the high Himalaya.  Who you gonna call?

Why, Hanuman, the flying monkey god.  Taking off from the Sri Lankan battlefield, Hanuman soars to the medicinal-plant-mountain in northern India, which glows golden in the dark.  But when he gets there cannot decide which are the right plants.  Frustrated, he rips out the entire mountain and carries it back to the evil-empire.  The mere smell of the plants cures Lakshmana, thereby enabling the good guys to win the battle, save Sita and so on.  (Believe me, it’s not as simple as all that.)

But Hanuman’s job is not over.  He might be impulsive, but he is not a litterbug — he flies back to the Himalaya (he is, after all, the son of the wind) and replaces the mountain in its original spot.

It is difficult, however, to soar across a continent with a mountain on your shoulder without bits of earth falling off.  Where these clods landed, according to legend, sacred groves and holy forests appeared.

One of Hanuman’s most famous holy mountain clumps became a prominent forested mound near Galle.  The hill is rich in medicinal plants.  It is sacred.  When the moon is right, it glows at night.  Why should anyone have suspected otherwise?

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