”Storms make trees take deeper roots.” Dolly Parton
A no-nonsense prologue to Sri Lanka’s story might carefully begin 1.5 million years ago. But 1470 offers a much more iconic, and intriguing date. The year is laden with symbolism; and symbolism, like cricket, is something the country does with ease.
As years go, 1470 was actually a rather modest year, the world over: little that would matter later, happened then. But for Sri Lanka, it was the year of the Great Storm – a tempest of unforgiving fury. It fell like a guillotine across the Palk Straights, that modest sea channel that separates India from Sri Lanka.
Like longitude or time itself, India, the island’s great northern neighbour, is an inescapable reality, its influence felt from pre-history, right the way through such great dynasties like the Guptas, Mauryas, Pandyas, Cheras and Cholas; and into the present day. The colossal SE Asian trade India helped generate also ensured that Sri Lanka could never, like Japan, simply turn its back on the rest of the world. With an almost mandatory magnetism, its shores, ports and seas connected it to everything else, everywhere else.
To the east of the Palk Straights stretches the Bay of Bengal; to its west the Laccadive Sea. And running like a vertebra across the Straights are low islands and submerged reefs - a salty oasis of shallow shoals known as Adam’s Bridge.
The storm that raged then across Adam’s Bridge’s 48 kilometres of partially sunken limestone banks would have a more profoundly symbolic impact on the island than anything since India and Sri Lanka had first separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana, millions of years earlier.
Even the ending of the Ice Ages, and the subsequent rising of sea levels had not been able to effect so great a change. At extreme low tides, and before the limestone stacks had been so eroded, it has still be possible to simply walk from India to Sri Lanka.
The Storm of 1470 changed all that. It ripped into the limestone, shattering it – leaving behind just a few islands and a watery thoroughfare that is still, to this day, too treacherously shallow for most ships to dare a crossing.
Adam’s Bridge was a bridge no more. From 1470 onwards you would have to swim, or sail across. Emblematic of what was or might have been, but is no longer, it sits between the two countries, hinting at a unity that had already, hundreds of years before, fragmented so completely as to be missed by the earliest founding myths of both cultures.
Its destruction made symbolically plain what was already nakedly obvious. Despite their proximity, their shared history and even their similarities, the two lands were wholly different. As the lost magnetic pull of the sub-continent become more remote, Sri Lanka continued on its journey forward, one in which it would continue to put down its own unique roots, to create a history to dwarf that of most other countries, ten times larger.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.