For many Sri Lankans, Kerala is the mystical land of magicians and people with supernatural powers. It isn’t uncommon to see English and Sinhalese bills on Colombo walls promising special magical solutions for financial and personal problems. Some of these bills in Sinhalese even advertise black magic to overcome enemies. There are also regular reports of magicians flying in from Thiruvananthapuram being stopped by Sri Lankan Customs officials at the Bandaranaike Airport for possessing “strange” objects in their checked-in baggage.
The Buddhist majority island nation has its fair share of superstitious people, many of whom carry forward beliefs that were a part of the island from the time when most of its inhabitants were animists. In his 2004 book 'Tortured Island', Malinga Gunaratne writes about how one politician hired a group of black magicians to overcome and cast spells on a rival, while the enemy on finding out about this hired his own set of tantriks! Among the several anecdotes in the book, Gunaratne cites an incident when a charlatan met president J R Jayewardene and offered him a talisman that would protect him from getting shot. The president’s son then asked the magician to wear that talisman and said he would take out his revolver to see whether the talisman worked. Needless to say, the charlatan fled!
It would take a Malayali immigrant to confront these kinds of people in Sri Lanka. Abraham Thomas Kovoor, born in Tiruvalla in 1898 in a traditional Syrian Christian family (his father was the Vicar General of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar), would become one of the greatest proponents of rationalism in South Asia. After studying science in Banganasi College in Calcutta, Kovoor worked as a botany lecturer in Kerala before moving to Jaffna in what was then the British Crown Colony of Ceylon in 1928. Over the next three decades, Kovoor taught in some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country. After 15 years in Jaffna, he taught at Galle’s Richmond College as well as the elite St Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. While working as a professor, he took a great interest in hypnotherapy and psychology.
During his academic career, Kovoor took up Sri Lankan citizenship and chose to live in Colombo after his retirement. Furious with the superstitious beliefs that were prevalent both in Sri Lanka and India, Kovoor decided to dedicate the rest of his life promoting rationalism.
This long journey began with meeting all sorts of godmen, fortune-tellers and magicians. In his books 'Begone Godmen' and 'Gods, Demons and Spirits' Kovoor wrote in detail about his meetings with these people.
He was also not afraid to take on the rich and powerful of both countries, many of whom were devotees of those Kovoor considered charlatans. His approach to unscientific and unverified beliefs could be best summed up in this quote: “He who does not allow his miracles to be investigated is a crook; he who does not have the courage to investigate a miracle is a gullible; and he who is prepared to believe without verification is a fool!”
The Abraham Kovoor Challenge
In June, 1963, the Ceylon Daily Mirror published the Abraham Kovoor Challenge, where the rationalist offered Sri Lankan rupees 1,000 to 25,000 to anyone who could use their mystical powers to reveal the serial number on a currency note in a sealed cover. He then upped the stakes and raised the amount to one lakh rupees, a princely sum in the 1960s!
No one was able to win this challenge and there were apparently cases of counter challenges where followers of mystics deposited the money for a bet, only to have the mystics not turn up. This Kovoor challenge was renewed in 2012 by Dr Carlo Fonseka, former Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Kelaniya. Fonseka, who passed away in 2019, increased the challenge amount to $1 million!
Kovoor dedicated the last two decades of his life to the Ceylon Rationalist Association. He edited the association’s annual publication. Copies of the magazine are available at the Sri Lankan National Library and definitely worth a read, along with Kovoor’s books, which have Sinhalese, Tamil, Punjabi, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi editions.
Kovoor would regularly visit India for lecture tours and had a wide following in a country where a large number of people believed in the concept of a scientific temper. Such was his popularity in Kerala that K S Sethumadhavan decided to adapt a case history of Kovoor into an erotic psychic thriller 'Punarjanmam' in 1972. The controversial film starring Prem Nazir and Jayabharathi should be listed as one of the classics to be made in India. The film was remade in Tamil and it is believed that Aamir Khan’s protagonist is the film 'PK' was inspired by Kovoor.
The rationalist passed away in 1978 and it was his last wish that his body be donated to Thurston College, Colombo, (where he was a professor) for the use of research by medical students. He had also pledged his eyes to an eye bank.
The Ceylon Rationalist Association survives to this day as the Sri Lankan Rationalist Association. Under heavy pressure from politicians and religious groups, the association continues its mission to promote scientific thinking.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana' and 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')