Back when I studied abroad in Spain, one of the first things I experienced was the confusing adjustment to living in another language. The difficulties that arose in that transition weren’t the verb tenses, or the dialect, or even the accent, but the local phrases. There was a lot of confusion.
“La Leche”, which I was taught to mean milk, translated in Spain to “unbelievably amazing!” “Dar la lata” in Español meant to annoy. Literal English translation? To give the can. But the most interesting was the translation for “raining cats and dogs”. Esta lloviendo hasta maridos.
Translation: it’s even raining husbands.
Having experienced this phrasal phenomenon in Spain, one of my first reactions to a tropical downpour in Sri Lanka, was to ask our driver the Singhalese equivalent of ‘its raining cats and dogs’. It took about five minutes to explain but finally it dawned on him our intent. He gave us two phrases, both quite expressive and poetically striking.
Morasurauna – “Sounds of Many Prunes Falling”
Na Kapana – “Cutting of the Ironwood Tree”
“Sounds of many prunes falling” is quite straightforward in its reasoning, but “cutting of the Ironwood tree”? Well, you see, the Ironwood tree, or Mesua Ferrea, is Sri Lanka’s national tree. It can grow up to thirty meters and is extremely strong, making it difficult to cut down. Which is irrelevant because it is illegal to cut one down anyway. It was chosen to be the national tree for extremely important reasons such as color, nature, and the ability to draw and sketch it easily. Sri Lanka is apparently full of artists.
But none of that answers why this tree summons the imagery of a heavy rainfall. It makes no noise when moving in the wind like the stunning bamboo trees on the island. It can’t make any noise falling, seeing as how it is illegal to chop it down. Add that to the fact that it rarely sheds its leaves and fruit, and you have one confusing comparison. In the end, I was unable to find any concrete evidence, so allow me instead to paint a grim but possible reason for such a parallel…
The Sri Lankan Civil War started on July 23, 1983. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, fought against the government to create an independent Tamil state in the North and East of the island. Thousands were being killed in the conflict, but hope sprung eternal, when India deployed a peacekeeping force in 1987. Many believed the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord would aid talks to end the conflict. That idea would prove unfruitful as the conflict would last 22 more years. What many don’t know is why the talks failed. That is where the Ironwood Tree takes center stage.
By 1986, much blood had been shed because of the fighting, and both sides were weary of the unrest. In December of 1986, a ceasefire was called. It allowed the country to breathe. During those months, peace talks began that offered much needed hope to the Sri Lankan citizens. It seemed almost inevitable that there would be an agreement. So much so, that during the talks, the government made the Ironwood Tree the national tree of Sri Lanka.
This might seem unrelated except for the fact that the building where the talks were being held was located next to Sri Lanka’s tallest Ironwood Tree. The tree symbolized the history and strength of the country and the deep roots that they all shared, roots they hoped would allow them to find common ground. Proof that branches could be made, compromises found. Little did they know that that tree would soon become the symbol of heartache and despair to a war torn country for years to come.
Talks had stalled for a few months. A palpable tension spread across the island, which increased with each passing day. During this time, a government general stationed in the north, unbeknownst to the Sri Lankan government, engaged the LTTE in their own territory, pushing the fighters into the northern city of Jaffna. This sparked the LTTE to take drastic and decisive action.
In July 1987, the LTTE carried out their first suicide attack. Captain Miller of the Black Tigers, a wing of the LTTE, drove a small truck carrying explosives through the wall of the fortified Sri Lankan army camp, killing 40 soldiers. The blast, directed at the building that had held the peace talks, also felled the symbolic Ironwood Tree. The tree would take on a new symbol that day.
No branches would grow between the two sides, and the conflict would continue for the next two decades, claiming over 80,000 lives. It is for that reason that the phrase Na Kapana, or ‘Cutting of the Ironwood Tree”, is sometimes used when speaking of such heavy rainfall. As that tree fell to the earth on that ominous July afternoon, so too fell the countless tears of a nation.
*Note – While certain aspects of this account are factual, the exact reasoning behind the escalations in the Sri Lankan Civil War are much more complex than stated above. Please research the costly conflict further here.