A Few Comments on J.L. Devananda’s Response –Part Two
By Bandu de Silva
3. Political Overview & Conclusion
3.1 Anagarika Dharmapala – the Villain!
For the purpose of this article, it is not proposed to engage in a discussion over present day thinking among some of the Sinhalese, whether they be Buddhists or otherwise, but suffice it to point out that this ‘post-modern’ argument of associating Anagarika Dharmmapala as the villain of the alleged present day Sinhala-Buddhist prejudicial perception of the “other” has gone too far. It is time to call off this misdirection and call for a reappraisal, pointing out that this idea of finding suitable candidates responsible for giving birth to revivalism/nationalism in Sri Lanka is the result of applying Western sociological models of the 19th and early 20th century, which started blaming the petty bourgeoisie for nationalist movements throughout Europe and other parts of the world. The subject will be discussed below to some extent and also under 3.3 –“Vellalas and Sinhalese Nationalism”.
For academics oriented by Western models, like S.J. Tambiah, R.A.H.L. Gunawaradana and others, Anagarika Dharmapala presented the most eligible candidate who would fit into this model in the case of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). The backdrop was the colonial environment, more particularly, that of British imperialism under which the new political model of ‘inferiorisation’ of the numerical majority, in this case, the Sinhalese, and uplifting the minorities, like the Tamils, went along with attempts to substitute an alien population (the Indian Tamils) in place. That was not just a model chosen for Sri Lanka (Ceylon) but one applied in all other colonies starting with Ireland. (UNESCO, Sociological Theories, 1980).
No one in international academic circles looked at an even more forceful personality within the Tamil community named Arumuga Nalavar, who mounted a different type of revivalist sentiment from the point of view of discrimination in respect of a section of the society, i.e. how he looked at the “other”, in this case, Non-Vellalas. Has anyone compared/contrasted Anagarika’s revivalist sentiments with those of Arumuga Nalavar in Jaffna; or of the Gandhiyan movement in India? I have not seen any so far except recent comments by Prof. Michael Roberts on Anagarika. So it would appear, the scholarly or any other interest for that matter rests only if it affects an ‘ethnic’ community and not a section within the same community. This seems to be a flaw in modern scholarship. The point is, there was no danger perceived to British imperialism by Nalavar when compared to the threat Anagarika presented. Nalavar’s preoccupation was consolidating the Vellala hegemony at the expense of other Tamils. (Read Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and others).
It is true that Anagarika Dharmapala engaged himself in trying to purify the Sinhalese thought from within, from the outside influences to which it had succumbed. He was not alone in that. Tamil intellectuals like Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy through his public letter addressed to Kandyan Chiefs tried to address it. So did Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan through his critical statements of the Sinhalese elite.
It is also true that Anagarika Dharmapala did not resort to such refinements but went down to grass root levels to address the problem. He did not engage the Sinhalese elite in direct dialogue, though he published much through pamphlets and through the newspaper “Sinhala Bauddhaya” which were never read by the Sinhala elite, and through lecture tours which the elite avoided. His platform was in old Maria-kade, “working class” as many of the IGP’s reports on his lectures at the time reveal. That is also what Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathhan wrote, when asking the Governor to permit Anagarika to return to the island when he was seriously ailing in Calcutta. Sir Ponnambalam could not have been joking when he wrote that Anagarika had no following among the Sinhalese and his influence was inconsequential; and the Governor, the recipient of his request, could not have been unaware of the same as many IGP reports were submitted to him.
Nalavar was different in the choice of platform, which was the Vellala supremacy. For him, the non-Vellalas, particularly the untouchables, were like the drum (Parai), meant to be beaten! That was the ethos that guided the later 20th century Tamil political leadership like the Sittampalams, Sundaralingams and Ponnambalms, who were not only in the forefront of Tamil politics, but also in the Vellala supremacist movement preventing temple entry and the use of wells by ‘low caste’ Tamils.
Not so in Anagarika’s programme, if what Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan told the then Governor is any indication. He had no elite following. Here lies a big difference in the influence of Anagarika and Nalavar in their influence over the respective societies. Whether the LTTE megalomaniac, Prabhakaran, succeeded in eliminating that difference in the Tamil society as Mr. Devananda asserts, I cannot say. That calls for in-depth examination. I will leave it to the Sri Lanka Tamil community to debate over it.
A point that should be explored further by future analysts is if the Sinhalese revivalist movement would not have taken place even if Mahavamsa was not there. How was it that a greater revivalist movement arose in India, where there was no national identity as presented by the Sri Lankan chronicles? That movement, in which Mahatma Gandhi and others were in the forefront, later arose in a country which then had a lesser claim to a national identity as a result of being divided into multiple ethnic and linguistic groups and having had no continuous political state as Sri Lanka could claim.
The answer to this has been provided by a number of Indian scholars, first articulated by D.D.Kosambi and commented upon by more recent historians/sociologists like Dr. S.Gopal, and historian Romila Thapar. Dr. Gopal wrote that though Hegel might have treated the countries of the East with contempt, and James Mill in the early 19th century regarded the religion and philosophies of India as decadent, there had been, more recently, acknowledgement by scholars like Max Muller, “of the depth and vitality of Indian culture and that these were the well-springs of Indian national consciousness”. Political subjugation could not destroy them, and changing circumstances were producing a novel expression of a perennial feeling. Dr. Gopal observed that “though unhistorical, this sentiment too had a long life, as it appealed to nationalist sentiments and nostalgic romanticism, subjecting even a liberal like Jawaharlal Nehru to subscribe to it in the 1940s when he realized that British might well stay in India indefinitely”. (Gopal UNESCO,p 87-91).
The issue for me for the present purpose is to what extent did Anagarika use the Mahavamsa to arouse nationalism in his time? As a polemic point, I have seen only a single reference, not in his addresses to the working class Sinhalese, but in a contribution to the elite publication, “Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon” where he cited the Elara-Dutugemunu story to argue that “the Sinhalese had for thousands of years remained loyal to Buddhism and that gave them individuality so full of vitalizing power that they were able to withstand the sledge-hammer of attacks levelled by persistent propagandists of other religions”. (Edited –quoted by Russell). Russell observes that he was attacking the Christian church which was identified as a fifth column of the British Imperialists but his precept to “let Mahavamsa be the guide” portended disaster to the Ceylon Tamil Hindu community. (Russell, p. 153). This despite the fact Anagarika was one who lectured on Hinduism and was friendly to the Hindu religion.
The issue calls for an in-depth study, rather than paying lip service to a view emanating from 19th/20th century Western sociological theories of the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie being responsible for nationalist revivalist movements. That is how the likes of Dr. S.J. Tambiah and R.A.H.L. Gunawardana have advanced their ‘superficial’ arguments, arguments that are now being repeated by Mr. Devananda, without even such declared scholarly credentials to back him.
I am not suggesting that the debate on Anagarika’s role in creating a so called ‘Mahavamsa mentality’ should be closed. On the contrary, it is good to open it with an open mind to remove/qualify present day simplified concepts attached to his role. It is only after we bring to the surface enough substantial evidence, can we bring in the ‘theory’ of the Mahavamsa as being the real spoiler of the ethnic pot in Sri Lanka.
As historian Rebeiroux whom I quoted in my first article observed, mere presence of certain forms of superiority referred to in texts did not point to superiority of “race”. There is no such situation in the Mahavamsa. If Anagarika borrowed such thoughts, as Dr. Gopal observed, even Nehru resorted to it. The point worth making is not the presence of such use in his utterances, but whether or not that made the society he addressed follow him, as the Tamil political/cultural elite followed Arumuga Nalavar’s infectious Vellala supremacist views.
Stanley Tambiah, in his ‘historical gaze’, has over-stated the case in his book “Buddhism Betrayed” when he tried to find evidence of exclusion of the ‘Damila’ in the post 13th century literature including the 3rd part of Mahavamsa (complied during the Kandyan period), using the hypotheses that the trauma of long Cola occupation and oppression by Kalinga Magha marked the point of departure. During the late Kandyan period there seemed to be some conflict at the elite level over the Nayakkar domination, but there is no evidence of an animosity at the peoples’ level. That even the elite accepted Malabar culture is seen from them signing in Tamil.
The real situation was that many of the Kandyan chiefs were in financial debt to Nayakkar relatives of the king who practiced usury. So even the Kandyan elite’s response may have then had its genesis in economic factors than in racial/ethnic considerations.
3.2 Tamil Vellala Preoccupation
The preoccupation of a section of the Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship by and large, is to project the academic embodiment of Vellala supremacy, best described by Bryan Pfaffenberger observation that the “…position portrays a key element in Vellalar thinking: Jaffna is, by dint of tradition and history, a preserve for Vellalar culture and Vellalar privileges..”, rather than the Sri Lankan Tamil presence per se. The general migration pattern throughout history in the case of natural migration is for sea faring people like maritime traders and fisher folk to migrate seasonally. Land based migrations as one saw taking place in the central Asian Steppes was a different proposition. So were the situations created by land centred territorial aggrandizement.
In Sri Lanka, there were attractions like the pearl fishery nearby as well as natural sources like precious stones to attract seafaring people like fishermen and traders. Trade in beads had been common throughout the ancient world. In the gem mining lands of Sri Lanka, even today, earlier exploited deposits are still referred to as “Mukkara-walaal” which could point to earlier employment of an immigrant people known as ‘Mukkaru’ in the exploitation of precious stones.
What the chronicles reveal about the early migratory patterns of people into Sri Lanka was that they were predominately maritime folk like Vijaya and later Sena-Guttika, the horse-shippers. So is the evidence of early Brahmi cave inscriptions which refer to [foreign] elements like ‘Dameda’ and ‘Kambuja’. They were “Ga[ha]pati” (House-holder or leader), “Puga” (corporation or Guild), “Navika” and “Bata” (soldier).
But the history of these “other Tamils” is secondary to a section of the Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship. Even a scholar like Sitrampalam, who commented on the BRW pottery found on some pre-historic coastal settlements in the Jaffna peninsula, and tried to relate them to Sangam times – [which] points to the presence of a mobile population; but instead he was keen to argue that an agricultural base could have been there in the hinterland of these coastal settlements. His argument was that the low shrub vegetation and easy access of water in the peninsula was an attraction for agricultural settlement. The proposition of associating early agriculture in the Jaffna peninsula with people who were a mobile population is a mere hypothesis which is wanting in a scientific foundation. Nevertheless, it is clear to see that the emphasis on agriculture rather than other vocations associated with the sea was satisfying the Vellala supremacist stand which was an inherent need to associate a continuous permanent/settled antiquity to a Tamil identity (nascent Vellala identity) that went to the megalithic phase in the Jaffna peninsula.
Siran Deraniyagala’s conclusion that “the prehistoric Iron Age in Sri Lanka and southern India was probably not manifested in a mere scatter of small-village scale settlements [chroniclers’ version in Sri Lanka] based on rudimentary irrigated farming, as is generally assumed, but by an extensive and sophisticated network of settlements linked by trade in manufactured iron with West Asia and beyond” does not support an agricultural base for early visitors to the island.
Even Dr. Indrapala’s conclusion that the Megalithic remains in the North West could be those of who came for the pearl fishery (JRAS, 1969), which he since modified quoting Sudarshan Seneviratna’s research which accords the authors of these remains an earlier antiquity, also appears to be supportive of the Vellala presence by removing the [pearl] fishermen’s label from those human skeletal remains. Even if Dr. Indrapala may have not so intended, his revised idea could make the road clear for the Vellala supremacy theory but unfortunately even Mr. Devananda cannot pitch that presence earlier than the 13th century!
Mr. Devananda’s emphasis on Vellalar’s at the expense of “other Tamils” makes his own bias for Vellalar dominance clearer. Even the 19th century revivalist movement in Jaffna led by Arumuga Navalar emphasized Vellalala supremacy. So was Mylvaganam Pulavar’s 18th century Jaffna chronicle, Yalpana Vaipava Malai. The complaint of Mudaliyar Rasanayagam and Fr. Gnanapraksar was because not enough was said by Pulavar about Vellalar supremacy.
The first impartial evidence available for the presence of a group of people that can be identified as the Vellalar in Jaffna, is found in notes of Queyroz. This Portuguese historian made a rather frank assessment of this people “They are very poor people and extremely weak, because they are Balalaz, a race different from that of the Chingalas, and they are said to originate from Bramenes of the continent a people who never fared well at arms, because they never professed them … and neither in language nor in religion are they at all like the Chingalas, though they are equally superstitious…”. (Queyroz: Bk I, Chap.7, p.50). It is clear from Queyroz’s account that the Vellalas (Balalaz) during Portuguese times were not a ‘dominant’ community in the peninsula. They were then not a people considered capable of hard work and their later claim to successful agriculture could have depended on several changed factors. Which included, the importation of slaves from Southern India, land being made available to them; and the release of more local labour resulting from the Dutch land policy which deprived the chieftains and peasant cultivators (Goviyas) of their traditionally held land, e.g. It was noted that the chieftains left the peninsula threatening never to return except with a Sinhalese army when the Dutch commenced preparing land registers.
Mr. Devananda also takes up the Vellalar case of Jaffna when he tries to establish that from the 13th century the economy of the Jaffna kingdom had been based exclusively on agriculturalists, predominantly the Vellalar caste (note the caveat); and that they were the land owners and dominated the entire peninsula. The Portuguese records do not support this claim. Not only Queyroz but also Portuguese records of “Service and Castes” of Valikamam, point only to non-Vellalar’s like “Carears, Timilas, Chandas, goldsmiths, potters, muccuvas, weavers [of Nalur], carpenters and iron smiths, pareas, ulias, native and paradesi chetties, Moors, milkmen and washers”. If there were Vellalar’s, there had to be a reason for their absence in the records of the important administrative district of Valikamam for exclusion/exemption from paying rent? If so, was it because they were so “poor and weak” to engage in any occupation including agriculture as Queyroz observed; and they did not possess land? Or did they escape taxes because of higher caste they claimed? What this indicates is that the idea of a landowning Vellalas in Portuguese times becomes difficult to maintain not to speak of their being a “dominant people”. (see Portuguese records: Queyroz and P.E. Peiris: The Kingdom of Jaffnapatam, p.49 – “…….Recoveryship in detail according to the services and castes of the various races”)
Mr. Devananda’s claim of the Vellalar’s as the “dominant people” then could not have arisen until tobacco gold earned in Tanjore made them rich. The prospects of the Dutch increasing their ranks by inducing the Vellalas of Tinnevelley (Irunkal [be seated] Vellalas), as the Cambridge social anthropologist, Prof. J.H. Hutton observed, to migrate in large numbers and assigning them land taken away from the Vanniyar chieftains and inhabitants and introduced them to the Egyptian/Persian system of well irrigation and while providing them with slaves imported from Tinnevelly cannot be overlooked as ‘pure myth’. It can be then assumed that it was when the tobacco brought gold from Tanjore where the Raja held the lucrative monopoly of the trade that made the Vellalar’s rich and assume predominance and supremacy over other inhabitants in contrast to their “poor and weak” status under the Portuguese.
Before going any further, does Mr. Devananda mean that the Jaffna slaves have now merged with the Vellala in recent times? Is that the reason that he argued that Prabhakaran eliminated the caste differences? It is not the myth created by the ‘Educated’ Sinhalese about the recent large scale migration of the Vellalas that has become the problem for defenders of Vellala supremacy but the problem of providing evidence of predominant early Vellalar presence. A point that was highlighted by Bryan Pfaffenberger in his paper ‘The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple-Entry Crisis in Northern Sri Lanka’,“…Vellalar’s found it more difficult to prevent subordinate castes from liberating themselves – or changing their identities. One result was that the ranks of Vellalar’s swelled significantly: from 1790 to 1950 the proportion of persons claiming to be Vellalar rose from 30 to 50% of the regions population…”. It is clear from Mr. Devananda’s conclusion that what is paramount to him is defending the early Vellala presence (from the 13th century), however weak the evidence, rather than the earlier presence of Tamil traders and fishermen in the island from the early historical period. He also accuses ‘Educated’ Sinhalese for making myths about the Dutch inducing Vellala migration in the 17th and 8th centuries when even foreign scholars who have made special studies on Jaffna observe the increase in the Vellala population from the 18th century onwards. .
The paper presented to the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon in 1908 by V.J. Thambipillai (English Tr. of Essay by Raghava Ayyar) did not try to establish such an early presence but the burden of that writer was more to argue the ‘Kshatriya’ origin of the Vellalar’s. The paper was down graded as unscientific.
Whatever little evidence that there is about Vellala presence is that they were migrants, first from a trickle to later large scale movement, and not indigenous people, as Mr. Devananda would wont to say, with no history earlier than the 13th century.
Indians from Coromandel coast continued to be settled even as late as the 19th century and early 20th century in the Tank country and in the East as Governor McCullum’ 1911 Durbar with Tamil chieftains indicate and earlier as Administration Reports of the Govt. Agent of Trincomalee have documented.
3.3 Vellalas and Sinhala Nationalism
The Tamil political scientist and son-in-law of the Federalist leader S.J. Chelvanayagam, A.J. Wilson once argued that Tamil nationalism was defensive and rose as a result of Sinhala chauvinism.
However, a more thorough and inclusive reading of Sri Lanka’s political past will reveal that the undercurrents of extreme Tamil Nationalism, although claimed to be defensive and a reaction to Sinhala Nationalism, were there well before Sinhala Nationalism of the kind seen in 1956, surfaced in Sri Lankan politics.
The awakening of this nationalism within the Jaffna Vellalar ranks can be seen in the decade preceding 1931, or the Donoughmore years, ushering in a new chapter in Sri Lanka Tamil politics. Led by G.G. Ponnambalam, the Colombo lawyer from the Vellalar community in Jaffna, this nationalism was based directly on a sense of “Dravidianism” designed to copy and yet counter the “Aryan” nationalist politics that was raging the European continent in the 1930s. Thus G.G. Ponnambalam, and following him Natesan, declared in the State Council that they were “proud Dravidians” (Hansard 1934, Column 3045). G.G. Ponnambalam carried this “Tamil-superiority” politics to the public platform, beginning with the attack on the “Mahavamsa”, as well as the Sinhalese people, calling them a “mongrel-race”, descendent from the Tamils. Several books re-writing the history of Jaffna, and Sri Lanka, claiming a long historical domination of the land by Tamils had already come into print. G.G. Ponnambalam’s “Mahavamsa bashing” was the public face of what was brewing among Tamil intellectuals who sought to nullify the Sinhala-majoritarian reality of Ceylonese politics.
The reasons for singling out the Mahavamsa can be seen in the observations of the British historian Dr. Jane Russell, when she said that “Ceylon Tamils had no written document on the lines of the Mahavamsa to authenticate their singular and separate historical authority … a fact which (they) found very irksome”. (Russell). The many stone inscriptions and Buddhist ruins attesting to this irksome history was also very inconvenient. These were the primary reasons that inspired the early campaigns of G.G. Ponnambalam against the “Mahavamsa”, which later developed into the extensive territorial claims regarding which K.M. de Silva says “in less than a decade of its enunciation in 1949, [this] theory became an indispensable and integral part of the political ideology of the Tamil advocates of regional autonomy and separatism”.
It is this “irksome” feeling of the Sinhalese possessing a written record going back at least to two millennia that started the Mahavamsa bashing. At the end of the day, the Mahavamsa stood in the way of the Vellalar Tamils showing the British they were an equal majority with the Sinhalese and hence power should be split 50:50. It would not be far from the truth if one says that the Mahavamsa did not feature in Sinhala politics until G.G. Ponnambalam brought it into the forefront with his brand of confrontational Sri Lankan politics. So if such a thing called “Mahavamsa Mentality” does exist today on some level, it’s a direct result, or rather a defensive result of a campaign of Mahavamsa bashing that began with G.G. Ponnambalam, not the other way around!
It is then wrong to isolate the Mahavamsa as being responsible for Sinhala nationalism. The root of Sinhala nationalism has been construed as a fear of being engulfed by a much larger South Indian presence across the straits, and if the memory of the story in the chronicles was rekindled, for which G.G. Ponnambalam was no less responsible (Russell), there were far greater reasons which affected the people directly. Even if the demographic changes that British colonialists effected by introducing South Indian labour to the central heartland of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries which accentuated the problem of landlessness among the Kandyan peasantry, the point was brought to the fore especially during the economic depression in the 1930s which created mass unemployment among the Sinhalese (Kodikara/Russel), the importation of South Indians as ‘scabs’ in the early 20th century to break Sinhalese trade union action saw the Sinhalese working class taking to the streets against Indians, both the traders and others.
There was also the emotional environment caused by the British imperialist policy of supporting missionary activity which saw the rise of the 19th century response to the Christian missionaries and other agents of western civilization. The oppression during 1915 Martial Law sealed the situation. I pointed out in the early section under Anagarika Dharmapala how the Tamil revivalism took place and Indian nationalism grew without an influencing factor like the Mahavamsa. Anagarika Dharmapala did not create these situations. The causes for the rise of Sinhalese nationalism were inherent in the British imperial policy which Sri Lankan Tamil elite “eagerly welcomed…….. as it elevated them to the [junior] ranks…..” (Terminology in Italics borrowed from Mr. Devananda) in British administrative hierarchy and brought other benefits like the offer of land in the Tank country and the Eastern province. Even land at Gantalawa was offered to South Indians and Jaffna Tamils in preference to hapless Sinhalese peasants in the most difficult parts of Nuwarakalaviya. (Records of Governor McCullum’s Durbar with Tamil Chieftains, 1911, and Administration Reports of the Govt. Agent of Trincomalee).
True, some scholars like Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa have tried to trace roots of Sinhalese nationalism even to the Mahavamsa, but these are argumentative scholastic propositions more than popular acceptance of actual situations and have not resulted in a mass response to exclude the ‘other’, far from taking the people to the streets. Only a very few even among educated Sinhalese even know about the existence of such literature.
As Dr. Jane Russell noted the Tamil politicians have exploited the Elara-Dutugamunu story even more than the Sinhalese. It was G.G. Ponnambalam who brought the Mahavamsa into modern politics in the 1930s, claiming that it was a false piece of propaganda, and in the next instant claiming that it was really a history of the Tamils, with the aboriginal ‘Veddas’ taken to be Tamils, Vijaya transmuting into Vijayan, Kasyapa into Kasi-Appan and Parakaramabahu a 66% Dravidian. His utterances went to incite the Sinhalese in Navalapitiya for the first Sinhala-Tamil riot in 1939! (Russell).
The literature of the early Sinhala nationalism emphasized the fact that the Sinhalese were being marginalized in their only home. The attempt to attribute Sinhala awakening to the influence of Mahavamsa as Mr. Devananda and others have done is an over exaggeration which does not take in colonial period developments.
The following comments by Jane Russell and Bryan Pfaffenberger are worth noting:
“…the Ceylon Tamil community perpetrated a social system whereby a significant proportion of the population were regarded as outcastes. These people were considered by the high caste (and the socially acceptable non-Vellalar castes) to be so intrinsically unworthy that they could be deprived of the most basic rights of citizenship without any compunction whatsoever. This social system encouraged an attitude of innate superiority among the Vellalar’s, the highest caste, and the majority community in the Northern Province. As most of the Ceylon Tamil elite were drawn from this caste, the attitude of the elite was permeated with this sense of superiority”
“As they were unwilling or unable to recognise the democratic rights of certain members of their own linguistic-religious community, their inability to recognise the legal sanction of a democratic majority was therefore not wholly unjustified” – Dr. Jane Russell, ‘Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Tissara Publishers, Colombo 1982
“…The tradition that Ceylon Tamils wish to preserve is redolent of the ancient patterns of caste and regional discrimination favouring the powerful and conservative Vellalar caste of Jaffna, a caste that has for centuries dominated the political and economic affairs of Tamil Sri Lanka. While Tamil separatists no means aim to renew the ancient forms of Vellalar predominance, it is nonetheless true that the cultural conservatism that helps to justify the separatist drive is insidiously tied to the legacy of Vellalar domination…”– Bryan Pfaffenberger, ‘The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity’, Boulder: West-view Press, 1994
The push for separatism is therefore influenced by a rather deep-seated insecurity amongst a section of the high-caste Sri Lankan Tamils that sustained Sinhala domination after independence will result in the erosion of their culture and the inter-communal dominance of the Vellalar elites. It is on the same basis of Vellalar supremacy that the Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship’s refusal to recognise the “distinguishing features” of the Sinhalese culture can be justified.
3.4 Twisting History across Palk Straits
Dr. Shinu Abraham’s observations quoted at the beginning are relevant in this connection. She observed how Tamil historians had not only treated archaeology as secondary which, curiously enough, is a charge, that Sri Lankan Tamil scholars like Dr. Sitrampalam, now joined by Mr. Devananda, are re-levelling against Sri Lankan [Sinhalese] historians. Unscientific cliché like “must have been”, “couldn’t have been otherwise” and “there are enough evidences” (Devananda in “Section on Tamil Presence”) are often found in the vocabulary employed by Tamil scholarship when concrete evidence is wanting.
At another level, the proximity factor between South India and Sri Lanka is often exaggerated, overlooking situations around the world, like for example, that Mongolian races had migrated to both North and South America, and Melanesians could have travelled to East Africa and formed impressive civilizations in Malagasy and now as research has revealed, African Palaeolithic age man had actually crossed a long stretch of sea and travelled to Crete (Ministry of Cultural affairs, Athens,7 Jan.2011).
The effect of such negative thinking that only close proximity was the determining factor in influences over the island ignores the oceanic factor which had been of primary importance even as observed by early foreign observers like Ptolemy and Pliny. Such negative thinking has even been employed to question the veracity of traditional accounts in Sri Lankan chronicles that the primary influences that affected the island in the pre-historic and early historic period came from the Northern part of India while Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary historian, K.M.de Silva, like a few others earlier, has confirmed that “beneath the charming exercise of myth making, lurks a kernel of historical truth – the colonization of the island by Indo-Aryan tribes from northern India” and even K.S. Sitrampalam, a strong critic of the origin story found in the chronicles of the Sinhalese, after using the evidence of the Mesolithic and Megalithic phases to construct a Dravidian phase, himself seems to agree that a “super-imposition of the North Indian cultural penetration associated with Buddhism took place in the third century B.C”.
While accusing Sinhalese scholarship of North India oriented Sinhala-centicism, Tamils scholarship in its own pursuit of Tamil-centricism and over-zeal to record scoring points for the “Tamil homeland” theory, has gone to the extent of refusing to recognize what Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa pointed out as ‘distinguishing features’ of another culture. This is evident in the claim now that the hydrological work and monuments built by the Sinhalese as substantiated not only by chronicler tradition but also lithic inscriptions in situ as the work of a common South India-Sri Lanka (SISL) cultural zone, (Indrapala) and more crudely put by Mr. Devananda as the work of [Tamil] Nagas and Tamils!
As such, Mr. Devananda’s pious declaration that “we in Sri Lanka have had the benefit of several waves of cultural influences and that it is necessary that we should assess them with a certain amount of objective impartiality and admit the contributions made to our country by others; that our culture in the past has been a synthesis of different cultures, and in evolving a new culture these influences have to be taken into consideration” remains hollow. While asking for recognition of the benefit of the influence of others, it is obvious that there is no evidence of preparedness to recognize the contribution within the country itself, the ‘distinguishing features’ of the Sinhalese civilization, in this case. The case of the hydrological network is one such. There is no study of the similarity presented by hydrological work in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, two countries which have had long historical ties. (Cambridge scholar, Prof. Statrgaart’s Research). There is also no recognition of the fact that Sri Lanka was the centre of Buddhist influence from very early Christian centuries in China and countries in South East Asia which recognized the ‘distinguishing features’ of the Sinhalese-Buddhist civilization.
The arguments used by Mr. Devananda were presented by Sri Lankan Tamils in different forms in the first part of the last century too (see Russell). As such, today’s interpretations of Sinhalese chronicles by Sri Lankan Tamils/allegations are nothing new. Some of the Vellalar Tamils even formed what was called the “All Ceylon Aboriginal Inhabitants of Jaffna” (Hindu Organ, May 13, 1940), which not only reflected an imaginary situation of Sri Lankan Tamils being reduced to “Veddas” but also emphasizing their claimed “older ancestry”.
The Sinhalese too speak of prospects of their extinction. That is what would have happened if the British succeeded in completely substituting south Indians for Sri Lankans under the colonial thesis presented by men like Huntington and Locke (UNESCO: ‘Sociological Theories’, p.293/4) and the favouritism shown to minorities at the expense of the Sinhalese throughout British rule.
The present paper was written as a response to Mr. Devananda’s mis-construction of the history of the island, especially, his perception that Sri Lankan chronicles are responsible for creating a certain mind-set among the Sinhalese. It does not in any way deny the great contribution made by Tamils and other Indians for the evolution of the Sri Lankan society, language, culture and even to religion as the great Cola Buddhist scholars did. The Sinhalese contribution has been recognized in countries like China, Myanmar, Thailand, Kampouchia, Vietnam and Indonesia and even in Kashmir where according to the 13th century Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangani’ (modelled after Mahavamsa), Sinhalese engineers were invited to undertake irrigation work.
Even the compiler of the Mahavamsa part II and III (Culavamsa as Geiger called it) from the reign of Mahasena to Parakramabahu II is thought to be a Colan Bhikku and not a Sinhalese! (B.C. Law, Chronicles, p 17). That possibility cannot be excluded when one finds both the style and the knowledge of Kautilyan strategy in describing Parakramabahu’s warfare, as well as such details of his long protracted campaigns in Pandya and Cola country with such elaborate accounts of every battle fought along with names of adversaries, intrigues and reversals. The account even included such details as the Sinhalese General, Lankapura, having to withdraw his troops finally because they were afflicted by a social disease called “Upsagga” (Upadamsa”?). Not even in Herodotus’ or Xenophon’s ‘Persian Wars’ doe’s one find such details!
The Tamil contribution has to be placed in the proper perspective not undermining the ‘special characteristics’ (Dharmadasa) of the Sinhalese contribution to culture, religion and technology. This cannot be done through envy against them or on the contrary, through ‘Vellalar supremacist’ perspective which even refuses to recognize the contributions of “other Tamils” to the society. Mr. Devananda has to recognise the relevance “the Vamsa chronicles have for many contemporary Sinhalese; by granting that they contribute to some cherished values and serve as an anchorage that stabilises the sense of collective Sinhala being; and yet noting their mythological moral-making character”. (Prof. Michael Roberts: Vijaya Myth).
Such reinterpretations of the Sinhala past, will encourage a similar readiness among extremely pro-Sinhala spokespersons to abandon claims to extreme-majoritarian supremacy based on primordial originality. Hopefully, this will enable their equally ardent opponents, the non-Sinhalese (Tamil) scholar-patriots – Devananda et al- to disengage themselves from combative historical warfare. It would then be easier for the latter, these non-Sinhalese, to accept the historical evidence that indicates:
(1) that the state civilisation in the 5th century A.D. was predominantly Sinhala in complexion;
(2)that the religio-symbolic mythology of the Vamsa chronicles is meaningful for the collective identity of the Sinhalese.
To sum up, “…..the Sinhala spokespersons, hopefully, can respond in kind and take note of the ways in which Tamil, Hindu and Islamic peoples or streams of consciousness entered into the making of Lanka’s history over the last two millennia.” (Roberts). Once the worth of their respective pasts is identified and recorded as meaningful, then – and perhaps only then – can the respective protagonists discard their battles over history and address their contemporary differences.