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Sacred Modernity

Sacred Modernity: Nature, Environment and the Postcolonial Geographies of Sri Lankan Nationhood

Tariq Jazeel
Volume: 12
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 204
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  • Book Info
    Sacred Modernity
    Book Description:

    Sacred Modernity argues how everyday non-secular experiences of the natural world in Sri Lanka perpetuate ethno-religious identitarian narratives. It demonstrates the relationships between spaces of nature and environment and an ongoing aesthetic and spatial constitution of power and the political in which Theravada Buddhism is centrally implicated. To do this, the book works consecutively through two in-depth case studies, both of which are prominent sites through which Sri Lankan nature and environment are commodified: first, the country’s most famous national park, Ruhuna (Yala), and second, its post-1950s modernist environmental architecture, ‘tropical modernism’. By engaging these sites, the book reveals how commonplace historical understandings as well as commonplace material negotiations of the seductions of Sri Lankan nature are never far from the continued production of a post-independent national identity marked ethnically as Sinhalese and religiously as Buddhist. In the Sri Lankan context this minoritizes Tamil, Muslim and Christian non-Sinhala difference in the nation-state's natural, environmental and historical order of things. To make this argument, the book writes against the grain of Eurocentric social scientific understandings of the concepts 'nature' and 'religion'. It argues that these concepts and their implicit binary mobilizations of nature/culture and the sacred/secular respectively, struggle to make visible the pervasive ways that Buddhism – thought instead as a ‘structure of feeling’ or aesthetics – simultaneously naturalizes and ethnicizes the fabric of the national in contemporary Sri Lanka. Sacred Modernity shows the care and postcolonial methodological sensitivity required to understand how ‘nature’ and ‘religion’ might be thought through non-EuroAmerican field contexts, especially those in South Asia.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-997-6
    Subjects: Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Map and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Nature is something of an obsession in Sri Lanka. Visitors to the island and residents alike never stop marvelling at the abundance of flora, fauna, and the succession of staggeringly beautiful landscapes with which the country seems to have been blessed. But if Sri Lankan nature captivates, it has rarely ever been strictly ‘natural’. Commonplace understandings of the country’s nature are deeply entwined with narratives of history, culture, and religion. As Michael Ondaatje remarks in his novelAnil’s Ghost, even theNational Atlas of Sri Lankaseamlessly intertwines aspects of Sri Lanka’s non-human composition – rainfall, winds, water – with...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Sacred Modernity: Nature, Religion, and the Politics of Aesthetics
    (pp. 9-24)

    The epithet to the introductory chapter of this book quotes a passage from Michael Ondaatje’s novelAnil’s Ghost: a passage that refers toThe National Atlas of Sri Lanka(1988), whose very first lines – as I stressed in the last chapter – forcefully assert the historical rootedness of Buddhist monasticism in Sri Lankan stone and soil. It is significant that such bold historical statements about the nativism of (Therevada) Buddhism within Sri Lanka are made within the pages of the country’s first national atlas, for national atlases are precisely those kinds of texts that inscribe with cartographic authority the...

  7. Part I Ruhuna (Yala) National Park

    • CHAPTER 2 Landscape, Nature, Nationhood: A Historical Geography of Ruhuna (Yala) National Park
      (pp. 27-46)

      Deep in Sri Lanka’s arid southeastern coastal fringes, some 309 miles from Colombo, is Ruhuna National Park, or ‘Yala’ as it is more commonly known. The park itself has five ‘blocks’, although the area known as ‘Yala’ comprises a contiguous system of nine National Reserves (Map 1) covering 377 square miles. Because of the civil war and the security threats posed by the LTTE, between the late 1980s and early 2000s only Blocks I and II were open to the public. Through the late 2000s, in a bid to protect wildlife from the disturbances of tourism, only Block I was...

    • CHAPTER 3 Inscription and Experience: The Politics and Aesthetics of Nature Tourism
      (pp. 47-71)

      Upon entering Block I of Ruhuna National Park, visitors pass through a gate upon which is a portal inscription. Yellow letters painted on a dark green board announce that:

      Through these gates you enter a Protected area. The animals, birds, trees, the water, the breeze on your face and every grain of sand, are gifts that nature has passed on to you through your ancestors so that you may survive. These gifts are sacred and should be protected. Whisper a silent prayer as you pass through for the protection of wilderness around you and ensure that what you see and...

    • CHAPTER 4 Political Geographies: Promoting, Contesting, and Purifying Nature
      (pp. 72-92)

      The last two chapters have evoked the historical striations and aesthetic terrains of Ruhuna National Park, stressing how together they constitute a politics of nationness instantiated through landscape and nature. In the next part of the book, I go on to suggest how aesthetic practices in Sri Lanka’s contemporary architectural modernism similarly constitute a cosmopolitan Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. In both instances – park and architecture – the politics of nature lies in the structures of feeling that both sites spatialize. In Ruhuna National Park, however, there is also a more obvious political, and politicized, geography that this chapter works to tease...

  8. Part II Tropical Modern Architecture

    • CHAPTER 5 Built Space, Environment, Modernism: (Re)reading ‘Tropical Modern’ Architecture
      (pp. 95-120)

      In a quiet spot on the banks of Lake Deduwa on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast, lies the sprawling estate of Lunuganga, the home and garden of the late Geoffrey Bawa, perhaps the best-known of Sri Lanka’s ‘tropical modern’ architects. Now owned and run as a boutique hotel by the Lunuganga Trust, this twenty-five-acre assortment of stunning landscapes and eclectic architectural experiments (Figures 5.1, 5.2, and 5.3) was Bawa’s country retreat from 1948 until his death in 2003. Set amidst a backdrop of unceasing tropical growth in this wettest and most fertile region of Sri Lanka, the estate straddles two hills...

    • CHAPTER 6 Architecting One-ness: Fluid Spaces/Sacred Modernity
      (pp. 121-144)

      Reading the politics of nature from Sri Lanka’s tropical modern architecture is not just a question of situating the effort and inscriptions of its authors. It also requires considerable work to tease out the built space’s semiotic materialisms; that is, the combination of the building techniques that characterize the style, and, importantly, the common structural and narrative qualities of the environmental experiences those building techniques afford users. The task of this chapter then is to delineate the entwinedness of tropical modern style with dominant structures of feeling and being. By considering the work of architecture, and how architecture works, the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Over-Determinations: Architecture, Text, Politics
      (pp. 145-165)

      Just moments after the architect Channa Daswatte spoke of a ‘sacredness’ inherent in good design (see Chapter 6), I asked him whether he thought there was anything at all political about tropical modernism in the context of Sri Lanka’s national question. He was vehement that there was nothing either religious or political about the materiality of the architecture itself. However, at once he stressed that the problem is that tropical modern architecture can be, and has been, one of those things that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists latch onto, co-opt, for their own political ends; like education was, like language was. His defence...

  9. Conclusion: Sri Lankan Nature as Problem Space
    (pp. 166-170)

    Not long ago, I boarded a Sri Lankan Airlines flight at Katunayake International Airport in Colombo, bound for London Heathrow. I had been on a short visit from the UK, one of the aims of which was to discuss draft sections of this book with colleagues and friends in Colombo. The politics of Sri Lanka’s nature was very much on my mind. It was the front cover of the Sri Lankan Airlines in-flight magazine,Serendib, that first caught my attention: a high-resolution photograph of a wild leopard in Ruhuna National Park drinking from a water pool. Beneath was a list...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 171-184)
  11. Index
    (pp. 185-192)