COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's top meteorology official on Tuesday apologized for naming a deadly cyclone after a king who built massive irrigation tanks well over a millennium ago and was venerated as a god.
Political leaders and civil groups have protested the naming of a cyclone after King Mahasen, who ruled Sri Lanka in the 4th century. At least 18 deaths related to Cyclone Mahasen were reported in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka before it weakened by May 16. Bangladesh alone evacuated 1 million people from coastal areas.
S.H. Kariyawasam, director general of the meteorology department, said Tuesday that he apologizes "if any insult was caused to King Mahasen or the country's proud history."
Mahasen built 16 large reservoirs, including the massive Minneriya tank, and two irrigation canals that even today are part of the irrigation system in the north-central region. After his demise, people started venerating him as "God of Minneriya."
Groups such as the National Council for the Protection of Historical Irrigation Cultural Heritage, Buddhist monks and political leaders have said it was an insult to name a cyclone after Mahasen. The council even threatened to take legal action if the meteorlogy department fails to conduct a proper inquiry.
The department decided to drop the name Mahasen from the cyclone May 13 and requested that other countries follow suit, but the name continued to be used across the region.
In a letter addressed to the council Tuesday, Kariyawasam said Mahasen was among 23 names submitted by Sri Lanka in 2003 to the Panel on Tropical Cyclones for the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, which is responsible for naming tropical storms in the region. Eight other Asian countries also submitted names.
He wrote that the names "were merely proposed as Sri Lankan names and their selection did not have any basis, explanation or intention."
The president of the council, Buddhist monk Kamburugamuwe Vajira, accepted the apology but said Sri Lankans were greatly saddened by the use of the king's name.