At 6 am Mr Goonetilleke the Younger’s workers were already busy tapping the rubber; and as I shot past them, four dogs on a single lead, I waved a good morning.
The wave I got back reminded me that hand gestures in Sri Lanka are rarely like this – of the usual kind. Simple, easy to interput, quick to deliver.
To mention “Hand Gesture” in England is to imply the semaphoring of indelible insults. The “V;” the single finger, the waggling little finger, the nodding sideways fist, it’s a menu to delight those for whom actions speak louder than words.
But here in Sri Lanka, hand gestures are more likely to connect with the wisdom and life of Lord Buddha, than they are to deliver slights, slurs, and abuses.
Everyone, of courses, knows the two palms pressed together as if in prayer, as a greeting that negates the sticky bacterial swopping of a western handshake. This is known locally as the “Anjali Mudra” - a 1 on 1 respectful gesture of greeting.
But there are plenty of others beyond that, used in temple, home, and office to convey a feeling or thought. And, in dance too - for traditional Sri Lankan dance is nothing without the many complex hand gestures that have been passed down the centuries like a piece of supra-DNA choreography.
Sometimes, as in an auction when you want to take care not to let your fingers brush some invisible fluff on your jacket or face and so be mistaken for a serious bid for the School of Canaletto on sale, it can be prudent to simply sit on your hands until you know what your random hand gestures might really mean.
To get an inside track on island hand gestures, its as well to spend a little time with Lord Buddha. Even his most serene and pacific statues offer a dynamic lesson in the evangelising of fundamental Buddhist beliefs. For if ever hands can speak, those of Lord Buddha most certainly do.
There are at least 11 core messages encoded in such hand signals, known as “mudras,” some with the most subtle of further variants; and most, but not all, in common use in Sri Lanka.
The most popular Mudra is probably the “Karana Mudrā,” made by raising the index and little finger and folding all other digits, to ward off evil, negative thoughts – and demons. And not a hundred miles away from this is the “Abhaya Mudra” – or “gesture of fearlessness," a pose made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, arm crooked, palm facing outward, fingers upright; left hand hanging down at the side of the body. In this pose, Buddha represents protection, peace, and the dismissal of fear. Popular too is the “Bhumisparsha” – or “Earth Witness Mudra.” Here, all 5 fingers of the right hand touch the ground, to symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The left hand - held flat in his lap - symbolises the union of method and wisdom.
At the other end, and not for the faint hearted, is the “Uttarabodhi Mudra.” Here, index fingers touch and point up; all other finger entwin at heart level – a bold gesture of supreme enlightenment, brought about by connecting oneself with divine universal energy. This Murda finds its nearest cousin in the “Jnana” or “Wisdom Mudra” - thumb tip and index finger touching as a circle and facing inwards, representing spiritual enlightenment.
The remaining 5 Mudras are more complicated, eclectic, or doctrinal - or, quite possibly, all three.
The “Varada Mudra” is a largely one-handed affair. Here, the left hand hangs at the side of the body, palm open, facing forwards with all fingers extended – a representation of charity and compassion, one finger each for: Generosity; Morality; Patience; Effort; and Meditative Concentration.
The “Dhyana” or “Meditation Mudra” is made with one or both hands resting on the lap and is a gesture of mediation made when concentrating on Buddhism’s substantial body of “Good Laws” and the attainment of spiritual perfection.
The “Vajra Mudra” symbolises the unity of all Buddhist beliefs, the erect left hand of the forefinger being closed into the right fist, the tips of both fingers curled together.
The “Vitarka” or “Discussion Mudra” has the thumb and Index finger touching, the remaining fingers pointing straight, the gesture reflected with both hands and indicative of talking about and communicating Buddhist teaching.
And last of all is the famous “Wheel of Dharma” or “Dharmachakra Mudra.” Here the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle that represents the union of method and wisdom. To really complicate (or enrich) things, the 3 free fingers of both hands are also extended, and carry their own separate meanings. The 3 extended fingers of the left hand symbolize Buddha, the Dharma (the doctrine of universal truth), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order, of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). Those of the right symbolize the 3 main tools for his teaching – namely: the Hearers - who practice the teachings they listen to and – after 3 lifetimes - achieve "small" enlightenment; the “Solitary Realizers” who cultivate merit and wisdom over a 100 eons to achieve "middling" enlightenment; and the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle' - collectively, Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices.
“Uses promptos facit”. Practice makes perfect. Shut the door. Pull up a chair in front of your bedroom mirror, and begin. Within a week, you will be hand gesturing with flawless confidence, and opening up an entirely new channel to communicate with yourself, and others. And even God.