Sri Lanka and the Czech Republic
Piyasiri Gunaratna after completing his studies at the Czech Film Academy made a documentary film "Winter in Czechoslovakia", which was shown in Sri Lankan cinemas as well as Rupavahini. Piyasiri is now back in the Czech Republic working as a court interpreter and teacher of Sinhala.
25Dec2006 / @ By Jansen Raichl
The first historically proven evidence of contacts between Lanka and the Czech kingdom are the coronation jewels of the 14th century. It is a well known fact that most of the precious stones decorating St. Wenceslas Crown originate from Sri Lanka, where they had also been processed before shipment.
Thanks to the Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, the Lankan Catholics became acquainted with the most sacred of Czech Christian relics – the Baby Jesus of Prague. Until now, copies of the statue decorate many Lankan homes.
The year 1909 was a particularly important milestone in the relations between the two countries. It marked the arrival of Professor Uzel, a prominent Czech biologist, who took residence on a hilltop above Maha Nuwara, followed by Otakar Pertold, a world famous specialist in buddhism, who travelled round the island visiting prestigeous monastic libraries and meeting the key religious figures. Professor Pertold not only spoke fluent Sinhala, but could read ancient scripts in Pali and Sanscrit. The same year then saw the visit of two Czech painters – Otakar Nejedlý and Jaromír Hněvkovský. These two not only painted valuable art but undertook amazing advantures in the jungles that have become an exciting reading even today.
In 1921, a Czech magazine published a 100 page travelogue by Harris Franck featuring his adventures in Ceylon.
Pertold came to Sri Lanka again in 1924 and wrote an extensive book about the island called "The Pearl of the Indian Ocean", which is supplemented by hundreds of good quality photos. In 1926, the island was visited by A. V. Novák, who not only wrote a book about his own experiences but also a whole set of stories from the life of the local people. He was followed in 1929 by writer and biologist Jiří Baum, whose photographs further familiarized the Czechs with the island.
A very special story is that of Nyanasatta Thera (1908-1984), who came to Ceylon as Martin Novosad in 1938 to become a major buddhist authority stationed near Bandarawella.
All the while, there was some trade going on between the two countries with the Czechs importing tea and exporting machinery. In the 1930, the famous Czech entrepreneur Tomáš Bata opened his operations in Ceylon and soon took over a large share of the shoe market.
After WWII, the island was visited by the famous writers Hanzelka and Zikmund, who wrote an ever- popular book "Paradise without Angels". At that time, there were also five Czechoslovak missionary teachers working at Catholic schools. Jan Filipský, an expert from the Acadamy of Sciences, has done much to inform the Czechs about Sri Lanka by translating books from Sinhala and writing historical survey. Mirko Pašek, after his visit of the island, wrote a story book about Sinhalese children titled "The Island of a Thousand Jewels" (1964).
Czechoslovakia then exported large quantities of weapons and engineering products and participated in the construction of the Maha Weli system of power stations. A certain number of Lankans came to Czechoslovakia to study at local universities. For example, Piyasiri Gunaratna after completing his studies at the Czech Film Academy made a documentary film "Winter in Czechoslovakia", which was shown in Sri Lankan cinemas as well as Rupavahini. Piyasiri is now back in the Czech Republic working as a court interpreter and teacher of Sinhala.
After the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two countries, the Czechs closed their embassy in Colombo. Ironically, the number of Czech visitors has been rising in the last few years and the Czechs are doing all sorts of business there – building hotels, operating a diving school, Czech Airlines fly to Colombo bringing in thousands of tourists each year. There are also a few Czech monks in the buddhist monasteries, for example Kusalananda in Udawattakelle. In recent years, there have been about a dozen books published in Czech about Sri Lanka. A lot of events were held to raise money for the tsunami victims.
Unfortunately, the number of Sri Lankan permanently living in the Czech Republic is small – only half a dozen families and a few Tamil refugees.
There is hope though, that the relations between the countries are going to strengthen in the future.