Tuesday, June 09, 2009


by Neville Weereratne

Nihal Fernando’s and Herbert Keuneman’s love for Sri Lanka is epic in its proportions and unparalleled in the degree of their devotion. It was to take each of them individually to explore the island to its very limits.

Nihal Fernando has the unerring eye of the poet and the art of the photographer. With these he has gathered reverting images of birds and beasts, fronds and ferns, light and shadow. And that which endows this land with its greatest charm: its people at work and at rest, their children at play.

There is everything about the visionary in Nihal Fernando but one with a practical turn of mind. It is not theory alone that he propounds. He takes action. As with The Handbook for the Ceylon Farmer which he produced in the 1960s. Or the highly successful campaign he led in the late 1990s to save the phosphate deposits at Eppawala from commercial exploitation.

However, a major problem for Nihal Fernando was how to do these things without ostentation. Typically, he sought refuge in anonymity as when, in 1974, he put together The Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller, an enthusiastic guide to the heart and soul of Sri Lanka. It was an anthology written by unnamed experts but it required an even greater mind to put it together. Taking a line from it, we could safely say Nihal Fernando has "travelled the length and breath of this country, seen, heard, experienced and above all, understood the land, its people and their life."

This is what defines Nihal Fernando and what reveals him to be the amiable colossus that he is.

The Insight Guide to Sri Lanka describes Herbert Keuneman as "a former journalist, college instructor, Anglican priest and lifelong resident" of Sri Lanka. For "lifelong resident" read 'one who was born and bred in the island'; and for "college instructor" read 'teacher'.

His lifelong residence led to a passionate love for the island. There is (nor was) anyone with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the country in whatever the detail and in whichever the discipline.

His holidays from teaching, and in the company of one like him who enjoyed Sri Lanka -- his wife, Doreen Jayasinghe, also a teacher -- were spent travelling along every road, path, cart track and by-way and everything gained on these pilgrimages of love were meticulously noted, marked and inwardly digested so that at any time Herbert Keuneman was able to recount and repeat what he had so ardently and assiduously acquired.

In later years, Herbert and Doreen would pick on a neglected piece of history to revive its ancient spirits and give it a new life. Hence, Hammenheil, the ham-shaped island which was once a Portuguese outpost and later a Dutch fortress in the sea west of Kayts in Jaffna, became the Keunemans' home. Shortly after, a neglected estate bungalow in Galaha became the centre of the Keunemans' life. From there it was only a short stretch of the imagination to Ehetuwewa in the North Western Province where Herbert could commune with nature in the retreat he built himself there.

Nothing, indeed, escaped Herbert Keuneman's keen eye and mind. He endowed everything he did in a spirit of inspired discipline, totally dedicated to celebrating all that graced his beloved Sri Lanka.


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