Halal controversy shuts down iconic Sri Lankan club

Sri Lanka’s Halal controversy has claimed another victim. This time it’s the permanent closure of a club that was a part of the country’s early anti colonial era resistance. How this came about is a complicated story. The details are easily lost amidst charges of islamophobia, cultural exploitation and the manic news cycle. It also marks an ironic end to an institution that brazenly defied the British empire while overcoming social and cultural barriers ahead of its time.

According to veteran member Mr Ranil Boothayagoda, the Halal dispute is just the tip of a very large iceberg of tensions over the club’s identity. At the core of these tensions is a generational clash over deeply held traditions and a lot of history.

Past president Lionel Katussawatte described the reasoning for closing the club as:

The proposal to remake the club as a Halal certified establishment is sickeningly disrespectful of Islamic religious beliefs. It is also a deception for financial gain cynically used at a time when attacks on Halal certification is used to intimidate Muslims.

We must resist such despicable acts. They are against our cherished traditions of unvarnished honestly. If the club is unable to survive by up holding its values and traditions then it does not deserve to exist.

These sentiments were apparent at the emotionally charged special general meeting, where the required majority of members voted to dissolve the Ceylonese Bare Handed Wild Boar Hunting Club (CBHWBHC). Thus ended a fierce struggle over eliminating all wild boar related aspects of the club’s identity to get high net worth Muslims to become members.

To get a perspective on how this came about, it is necessary to look at the history of the club.

The CBHWBHC was founded by “Jan” Groot Wildevark, one of many Afrikaner POWs sent to Ceylon during the 1899 – 1902 South African War. Deemed too radical for repatriation to South Africa, he was allowed to settle in Ceylon. In 1912 he married into a minor Kandian aristocratic family and established a small plantation in Kotmale.

The authorities used his rabidly anti British views to ban him from owning fire arms. His vocal support for Germany during WW1 and unwavering advocacy for complete Ceylonese independence from the British Empire didn’t help. The ban seems intended to leave the plantation defenceless against the area’s wild boars. Mr Wildevark responded in typical fashion by killing wild boars with his own hands. In doing so created a legend and an informal social movement.

Mr Wildevark’s defiant story and ostracism by other colonial planters endeared him to the Ceylonese community. He gathered around him a multi ethic group of young intellectuals that was rare in those times. This group of “hunters” included aviation pioneer K.S Ravanaratne, eminent ENT surgeon Dr P.G Askannasaya, feminist writer Sue Kirisekara, the botanist Beatrice Karunalingamswamipeli and many others. In fact “miss Sue-kiri” was the highest scoring bare handed wild boar hunter. The club was formally founded in 1919.

Along with the practical matters of hunting wild animals, the plantation became a laboratory of social experimentation. Reports of poly-amorous activity, homosexuality, racial mixing, and drug use are among the accusations investigated by the bullying local government agent. Despite (or perhaps because of) many bumbling raids, no convict-able evidence was ever found. Subtle support from a growing number of “hunters” who were influential Cinnamon Gardens luminaries helped.

Members are filled with fond memories that paint a vivid pictures of the CBHWBHC’s early days. Stories of vigorous physical activity, mixed with sharp wit and a cast of colourful creative personalities abound. Years of sketchbooks and photographs depict the beauty of the pristine environment and the seemingly carefree life on the plantation. Less public documents depict jovial nudist weekends and the new year “naked hunt” which became a much loved tradition. Stories of wild Jazz, wine and local grown hasheesh fuelled moonlight parties seem tame by comparison.

Yet there was a darker side to the club. Widowed and childless, Mr Wildevark had a string of affairs with other “hunters”. He also had several children with different estate workers. The dangerous side of bare handed wild boar hunting led to fatal injuries. The plantation’s isolation and the state of medical science of the time were directly related to almost all the deaths. Mr Wildevark never fully recovered from these sad events. He was inevitably badly injured and was forced to sell the plantation to a gun owning member.

Many cite this as a turn to a gentler, more intellectual period in the club’s history. Mr Wildevark turned to Buddhism, became vegetarian and contemplated becoming a monk. However the out break of world war 2 gave the British authorities an excuse to interned Mr Wildevark as a dangerous alien (he had unwisely praised the Indian National Army in a pro independence pamphlet). He died behind barbed wire, weakened by his wounds and stubborn struggles with his wardens.

The club had by then become a more mainstream social institution. Mainly remembered in weekend family trips and now famous wild boar recipes. The changing times also brought different challenges. An impending slide into a hippie ashram was halted by quick thinking members. Hunting stopped when the JVP stole the remaining rifles during the 1971 insurgency. They were revived briefly in the face of the socialist shortages of the Bandaranayaka regime. Busier lives created by economic liberalisation led to a gradual erosion of members. Revival in the mid 80s ended abruptly when the club premises was abandoned during the 2nd JVP uprising.

The decline accelerated during the 1990s and early 2000s. Valiant attempts at revival never got beyond the holiday bungalow stage. The old guard and a new generation of members clashed repeated over issues such as animal rights, environmentalism, vegetarianism, and ethnic inclusion.

The club by then had run into financial difficulties. Younger members (after extensive data crunching) wanted to address the financial problem by targeting wealthy Muslims for membership. They proposed to “rebrand” the club to make it acceptable to this supposedly lucrative demographic. Parts of the plan appears to be an attempt at crude cultural exploitation through glossy marketing.

However, this detail was lost on the uproar that followed. The older generation was tired of constantly battling with the younger members over compromises to cherished traditions due to financial pressures.

More tellingly they felt that sweeping the wild boar element under the rug was disrespectful to followers of the Islamic faith. Particularly since the kitchen contains a piggery that had seen decades of use.

Mr Katusawatte summed up the situation as:

To even think of window dressing a piggery as a halal kitchen is wrong at many levels. This is exactly the sort of decline in the club’s traditions that we have faced in the name of finances.

We have collectively channeled the sprit of our founder and make our stand against the rising tide of bigotry in this country. You might say we are being pig headed. But we don’t care. Limits to compromise ends when our values are at stake.

The closure means that the club’s only asset, its priceless Kotmale property, will be sold. In a parallel with the now defunct All Ceylon Russian Roulette Club, the new owners plan to preserve the legendary turn of the century club house as a world class eco-friendly boutique hotel. They remain tight lipped about rumours of applying for a Halal license.

Ok so this is a weird one but The Voices have been reciting the sentences in my head for weeks so I have to give it. What to do. Its getting stranger. Most infuriating part was having to include marginally relevant details that pad up the word count. I no longer ask why.


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