It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the passing of Nihal Fernando, photographer, conservationist and reluctant cultural icon of Sri Lanka.
For his entire life, Mr. Fernando recorded the life and times of his beloved island home with the fervour and passion of a true son of the soil. His photographs influenced countless generations, and opened a nation's eyes as to how beautiful and yet how fragile this jewel of the Indian Ocean was.
He fought for her in times of strife, and celebrated her in times of joy and wonderment. For Sri Lanka, in spite of all that has happened in recent times, is still as close as you'll get to Paradise on Earth, and Mr. Fernando always recognised that fact.
On a personal level, he literally changed the course of my life. He was as close as I will ever have to a mentor; a father figure.
When I returned to Sri Lanka after a lifetime spent in the UK, he took me under his wing and re-introduced me to the country of my birth. I am privileged to have travelled and discovered much of the beauty of Sri Lanka in his company. I have photographed wonderful landscapes and wildlife by his side; I have written stories and helped edit his books into the wee hours; listening to his spellbinding tales as I worked. And I was immensely privileged as a young writer to help put together his masterpiece: Sri Lanka - A Personal Odyssey.
Mr. Fernando had always shunned the limelight; always swept aside any notion of the greatness of his accomplishments. He just loved his country. There is little I can say that hasn't already said about him. But he has had a profound effect on my life. And now it is immensely difficult to write about him in the past tense.
The only thing that I could personally say of him is mirrored in the review I wrote of his amazing book during the time of its original release - it seems appropriate today:
"Now he leaves us to dream with Sri Lanka - A Personal Odyssey. It is the culmination of a voyage that began in high forests among the clouds and led along lonely mountain trails, and down through green valleys of tea and teak. And the path found its destination, at the edge of the waiting sea. It is the voyage of a lifetime, the story of a country's fiery heart, a celebration of all we have inherited and all we have lost.
Within these pages, the history of the land unfolds, tightly interwoven with the lives of her people to create a rich tapestry. The book imbues the reader with sentiments of belonging, giving shape to a blend of emotions not easily described, and offering hope for the future."
- Serendib, Vol 17 No 3, May-June 1998
Rest in Peace, Sir. Rest well.