A bhikkhu’s tryst with pen and paper | Sunday Observer

A bhikkhu’s tryst with pen and paper

27 October, 2019
ARRESTING SIGHT: Dawn at the stretching paddy fields of Botalegama village
ARRESTING SIGHT: Dawn at the stretching paddy fields of Botalegama village

Today we rarely find bhikkhus who spend an exemplary and virtuous life in the fast changing topsy turvy society. Politics corrupt them not only in urban areas but also in unpolluted rural villages.

In an isolated temple in the wooded village of Botalegama in the Bulathsinhala electorate north-east of the Kalutara district, I stumbled upon a bhikkhu, Ven. Botale Ghanissara thera, (76), who spends his whole life to preserve his passion of literally writing for posterity.

Botalegama is important to me for two reasons. First, it is my birth place. Secondly, it is the birth place of a great novelist and newspaper editor, the late Gunadasa Liyanage (affectionately known as Guli). who made his mark in the world of literature and journalism in Sri Lanka.

To meet this simple bhikkhu, I drove down to the rustic village of Botalegama last week.

It was difficult to walk around in Ven. Ghanissara’s office room in the temple without stepping on something that is made for writing. There were notebooks and writing pads of all kinds: files, newspapers, magazines and books among others filled every available inch of space.Today, Ghanissara Thera is the proud author of over 13 books including three poetry books, four children’s books and four Dhamma books.

Ven. Ghanissara Thera’s ancestral temple is Botale Sri Keththaramaya, which dates back to 1885, one of the ancient temples in Botalegama. The temple got its name as Keththramaya because it is built on a hillock surrounded by lush green paddy fields.

Ven. Botale Ghanissara Thera joined the Vidyodaya Pirivena (university) where he became seriously engrossed with studies. It was the beginning of his academic life, having obtained the B.A. degree in Pali and Sinhala at the Vidyodaya Pirivena in 1967.

Ghanissara thera got his first appointment as a teacher at the Hingurana Government school in Ampara in 1976, to teach Buddhism . Having worked as a teacher in various provinces in the country, finally he came to serve his village school at Botalegama as Vice Principal. After retirement, he settled down in his ancestral Sri Keththaramaya temple.

In his Avasa Ge (Bhikkhu’s residence) the thera pulls out a file from the drawer of his desk. Fastened with a red strip which says ‘manuscript’, the file contains his new book, a historical work that reflects life in the village during the bygone era. The thick file is a result of many years of research.

He has been writing books on various subjects since his young age and writing is his passion. He published his first book, Rattharan Kumari (Golden Princess), in 1980. Work life was hectic, but he kept his passion alive, writing through the night. “It comes naturally to me. Writing keeps me going,” he says, flipping through the pages of his most recent work, Gamey Viththi, a collection of true stories.

He prefers to write on paper. “I believe writing with a pen stimulates the brain and I usually make two drafts.” The village scenes in Gamey Viththi he particularly enjoyed writing. He would write and make drawings side by side. “It is not an imaginary version of the village, it is a real life scene of many years past. I look at my village from a completely true perspective.”

The Ven. Thera’s literary craft is evident in the way he articulates his passion. Most of his works are simple recreations of complex and chaotic life situations. He draws inspiration from life around him; being a Bhikkhu and a writer has its advantages. ‘We often see the other side of the story, the stark realities of human lives.’ He has always loved to read and believes that anyone who loves to read can write. Though a prolific writer, inspiration does not come all the time. “It does not work easily always. When an idea forms in the mind, it automatically flows out in words.”

He has spent much time researching. “Writing has been my leisure activity since my student days. When I was an undergraduate, I was a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and periodicals,” he adds. He has contributed articles and poems to the now defunct, ‘Kalpana’ Sinhala monthly magazine, which was edited by Gunadasa Liyanage, a close associate of the bhikkhu.

“In our country, the life of the villagers – simple and genuine – is free from tricks. As a country rooted in Buddhist culture, they live an exemplary life and make their livelihood by paddy farming and fostering their children,” says Ghanissara thera.

“After the Industrial Revolution engulfed the country, electricity reached each and every village, and the age-old customs and rituals vanished from society. Villagers often seek ‘Wedamahattaya (physician) or Kattadi mahattaya (evil healer/exorcist) when they are affected by mental or physical diseases. Sadly today, all these customs are vanishing, he laments. Especially, the utensils in the village kitchen – kulla, nebiliya, mati coppaya, hiramanaya, mirisgala, wangediya, molgaha, liggal lipa and kirigotta – are not seen in the modern kitchen”, says the Bhikkhu emphasizing the value of preserving folk-culture.

He says he was happy to reminisce about his childhood experience and write them down as a book. Some stories in this book portray the determination of the early monks who tried to protect the ancient cultural norms over the fast-changing society. He expects that the folk- culture in the surrounding villages of the Sri Keththarama temple would be preserved in the future.

As a bhikkhu, guiding the villagers and managing the temple, he balances the enormous responsibility with his literary works. Ghanissara thera, the chief prelate of both Pasyodun Korale and Hewagam Korale, has won the hearts and minds of readers in the country as a writer. Gamey Viththi, is written using his real experiences in an artful, simple language to cater to those in all ages portraying folk-culture, traditional customs and lifestyles of the villagers. The book will be released to celebrate the bhikkhu’s 65th year of priesthood.

Gamey Viththi vividly portrays the lifestyle of society in an era gone by and would be a fine example to newcomers who enter the literary world. This book has been written in a different perspective compared to others written by the Ven. thera. It is a must-read for those who enjoy village life, folk tales and traditions.

So, is he a Bhikkhu first, or a writer?

“I will say I am a Bhikkhu first.”