Insights and Analysis

Our Stories: Lessons from the Lives of Our Elders

September 1, 2021

By Zahara Dawoodbhoy

Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future.

(The Book of the Beginning)

A grey head does not make an elder. Not by years, not by grey hairs, not by riches or many relations did the Seers make the Law: He is great to us who has learning.

Astavakra (The Book of the Forest)


Much of our understanding of early Sri Lankan history stems from the oral tradition. Sri Lanka’s oldest historical record, the Deepavamsa, is a collection of stories, passed down for generations, that date to the advent of Buddhism on the island. Until these texts were compiled, around the fifth century CE, the practices and teachings of Buddhism were preserved and transmitted by the Bhanakas, monks who specialized in memorizing and reciting specific teachings within the Buddhist canon.

For Sri Lankan Muslims, the oral tradition is central to the history of the Ziyarats, Islamic pilgrimage sites, several of which are located around Sri Lanka. Most of the historical knowledge of these sites and the figures associated with them is unwritten and lives only in the stories and memories of elders in the communities where they are located.

Lessons from our elders

The Deepavamsa is still widely studied by historians today, and while the historical accuracy of the text is debated, scholars generally agree that it contains valuable insights into the culture and attitudes of the past. Its mythical portrayals of the native Yaksha and Naga people still provoke debate in Sri Lanka’s political discourse, and the enduring influence of these texts shows how the past illuminates the present, helping us navigate the future.

Similarly, intergenerational dialogue can preserve and transmit wisdom and practices that have existed in our culture—and in all cultures—throughout history. In the stories and memories of our elders there is a collective memory, and a collective intelligence, that is both a guide to the present and a blueprint for a more peaceful and empathetic future.

A bearded elderly man sits by a garage door in Sri Lanka.

Photo: Arty/Unsplash

Despite its pluralistic history, modern Sri Lanka has become an increasingly fragmented society, not least because of the decades-long civil war and the growing socioeconomic divisions it left in its wake. In postwar Sri Lanka today, there is a deep need for people from isolated walks of life to find a path to common ground.

Out of this need was born Our Stories. The initiative began in 2018 under the umbrella of the Promoting Shared Values, Shared Spaces, and Dispute Resolution project, which works with marginalized populations, young people, and war-affected communities in the districts of Kalutara, Kurunegala, Ampara, Trincomalee, Vavuniya, and Mannar. Our Stories gives a voice to elders and fosters dialogue across generations, in the hope that younger Sri Lankans will find in these voices paths to growth both individually and as members of the community.

For two years, the project collected the life stories of Sri Lankan elders from all walks of life. Many told harrowing tales of displacement, loss, poverty, and addiction, especially in relation to the protracted civil war, which ended in 2009. We collected these stories using a tool developed by The Asia Foundation, the Guide to Accounts: Individual Narratives and Stories, which ensured that stories were collected in a psychosocially sensitive manner and that the elders were treated respectfully as they recollected their sometimes-traumatic pasts.

We took these often-lengthy personal recollections and shared them, in condensed form, in a series of workshops with young, working artists from across Sri Lanka, inviting them to create visual interpretations of these tales that share some of the epic feel of the ancient texts. These young artists are being mentored in their work by the renowned founding members of the Theertha International Artists’ Collective: Pradeep Chandrasiri, Korelagedera Pushpakumara, Bandu Manamperi, Thisath Thoradeniya, and Sivasubramaniam Kajendran.

“It has been emotionally moving to transform these stories into artworks,” said Imaan Jufeer, one of the workshop participants. “Many of these people were from my own community, and I had heard countless stories like theirs from my own friends and family. As I read them, I was able to visualize the struggles and the pain they had gone through, yet they rose from the ashes like a phoenix.”

Men hold up a canvas with two headed elephant carrying people away from soldiers

Two young artists present a large mural.

The power of art

Despite being written first, the Deepavamsa is not as widely read as its successor, the Mahavamsa. This is mainly attributable to the “imperfections” of the Deepavamsa text, which is rife with awkward storytelling and unnecessary repetition.

The Mahavamsa, on the other hand, is deeply evocative in its storytelling and exhibits great poetic control of the Pali language. Similarly, the Mahabaratha, one of the major Sanskrit texts of ancient India and an important work in Hindu culture, is written in the form of an epic poem, rich in its language and artistic significance.

It is this epic, poetical quality that has made these texts enduringly popular and that gives them their continued relevance. Like the great works of other religious and literary traditions, the language and the meaning of these texts are constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted. It was the wish to capture some of this enduring quality in the recollections of our elders that led to the decision to interpret their stories through art.

“We believe that art can bring positive change to society,” said Thisath Thoradeniya, a member of the Theertha Artists’ Collective and one of the workshop mentors. “It’s a way of expressing feelings publicly, and once it’s out in society, it belongs to society. By experiencing someone else’s story, you can better understand your society and even yourself.”

After the first workshop on storytelling through the arts, the project shifted from in-person to online sessions due to the pandemic. Transferring the entire project to the internet has been a challenge, but it is also a metaphor for this time, in which individuals are becoming more isolated and societies more fragmented. We hope that the online exhibition of this work will reach a wide audience and will help Sri Lankans stitch our lives back together again to build a better, more unified future.

Zahara Dawoodbhoy is a program associate in The Asia Foundation’s Social Cohesion and Community Dialogue program in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at [email protected]. the views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Sri Lanka


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