Almost every newspaper and all Television channels highlighted pictures of the ‘peasants’, backed by the JVP-controlled Sri Lanka Govi Sammelanaya, demonstrating in the city clad in traditional field dress, the amude (Loin cloth) on Thursday. The protest was to convey to the public and authorities on negative aspects of the fertilizer subsidy withdrawal. However, some media appears to be a little cautious, quite understandably, over mentioning the term ‘amude’, which is an obsolete word. The Finance Minister thinks most of ‘Farmers’were from Pettah and Kotte area.
W Dahanayake Ex PM, once decided to protest the scarcity of textiles during Sirimavo’s rule in 1960s, by attending Parliament clad in amude.
President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Premadasa, both wore this simple dress, a square piece of cloth, which the ancient peasant of our country invented, to adequately cover the non-exposable parts of male body, at annual Vap Magul or the traditional commencement of Mahaseason’s paddy cultivation ceremony replicating the ancient kings.
Glancing through the newspaper photographs, I reminisced my kindergarten days in the late 1940s, how the mother of my classmate, together with the teacher struggled to dress him ‘Goviya, for the fancy dress competition; but had to seek the help of Head Mistresses’ a rickshaw-puller to do the job.
Then, I recall the introduction of Paddy Lands Act of 1958, an important piece of socialist reform by Phillip Gunawardena, Minister of Agriculture and Lands under SWRD Bandaranaike. This progressive legislation was designed to remove injustices caused to the peasantry, as one thirds of island’s paddy lands were cultivated by non-owners under the age-old Ande system. The main feature of the proposal was the increase in AndeGoviya’s share from the traditional half of the harvest to three-fourth, unless the owner or his family are directly involved in the work on cultivation or made a reasonable contribution to costs.
The vast land owners who declined to lie down and accept such a self-sacrificing ‘beating’ the way Philip and SWRD wanted to, got around the right wing faction of Cabinet led by CP de Silva, Stanley de Soyza, Maithripala Senanayake and Wimala Wijewaradene, the famous ginger group who even staged an unprecedented Cabinet Strike in 1958, which is unparalleled in the history of parliamentary democracy, conspired to sabotage the attempt.
They had a secret meeting at Buddharakkita’s Kelaniya abode, the same venue where the two conspired to assassinate the Prime Minister an year later. As planned, a group of about 50 men, most of them never had been to a paddy field was brought into the temple premises by Health Minister, Wimala Wijewardene, the 6th accused in Bandaranaike assassination case. The men were dressed in amudes, and were given a training on the art of holding the mammoty.
The ‘Farmers’ dropped opposite the treasury at old parliamentary complex in Galle Face, commenced the protest shouting anti-Philip slogans. Before they could approach the entrance to Parliament building, a significant section of the 15,000 strong Philip’s Harbor and Dock Workers Union men from the port were unleashed by trade union bosses to do a Matara ‘Kurundu Polu’ styled attack on Amude clad Govias,for some to leave the unfamiliarloin clothes behind and run for life.
I yet remember our coconut plucker Sethun, who charged only -/08cts per tree in the 1950s, who never wore any other dress apart from the amude. The only instant we saw him in a sarong was at his wedding. The other person who wore amude was Haramanis Singho, an old man who did vegetable cultivation. The harmless man walks up and down the road collecting cowdung as quite a few bullock carts used to ply then. The first and the last occasion we saw him in a different dress was at his demise at 97 years.
In the late 1990s as a Senior Executive in a corporate body, I was compelled to reveal statistics in answering queries by directors, pertaining to some unscrupulous dealings by the Chairman himself for the crafty lawyer to ‘cross examine’ me, until I declined to answer off-hand ; the embarrassed man chose to insult and constraint me by saying,
“You have come in amude, no shirt and tie”. I rejoined, “Chairman, my amude conceals well, the objects you are exposing at this forum”
It is not only the village peasant, but habitually every male six or seven decades ago, as Robert Knox once wrote, unless on a special occasion, were seen in amudes, a quite respectable casual dress, especially among the hill country peasantry. Let’s close this chapter, with that famous anecdote on the Kandyan polygamists of good old days where the two brothers shared one wife under one roof for reasons best known to them, [I believe some sociologist will take up a research] and each one used his amude to indicate to the other of his presence in the room, by hanging it over the lockless door.
Should we fight shy to call it amude? After all it is our respectable ancestor’s traditional casual wear.