The historicity of Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka has not been a subject that has captured the public imagination to the extent that it perhaps deserves, at least in the south, though President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks on the matter may have sparked fresh interest.
According to Prof G P V Somaratne, former Head of the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Colombo, the ancient history of Buddhism among Tamils in Sri Lanka has been entangled with prejudices associated with the more recent ethnic dispute between the Sinhalese and Tamils.
In a paper he published titled ‘Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka’, Somaratne notes that a number of Buddhist archaeological sites in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces have given rise to controversial claims and have been subject to a politicised interpretation with the escalation of the conflict.
“Both groups argue with an agenda to promote the claims of their side, overstepping the boundaries of academic impartiality,” the academic writes.
According to Somaratne, archaeologists including a prominent Buddhist monk who famously dabbles in archaeology have attempted to ascribe a Sinhala Buddhist origin to certain archaeological discoveries made in the Tamil-dominated provinces, while other scholars have interpreted a wholly Tamil heritage or Tamil ownership of Buddhist ruins found in the two provinces.
“There are writers who claim the entire island as the heritage of Tamils while there are others who claim the island as Sinhala Buddhist heritage. Even scholars of international fame have fallen into this pit,” writes Somaratne.
The scholar argues that in the wake of the British census, ideas of ethnic division became more deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan society which had otherwise enjoyed relatively cordial relations between Sinhalese and Tamils in times of peace over the centuries.
“Religious differences generally did not add fire to the ethnic tensions,” he writes, adding that during the Dutch period racial distinctions between the two communities were largely unseen in contrast to the sharper caste divisions.
“The conflict about the discovery of Buddhist sites in the North and East in Sri Lanka emanates from the attempt to identify religion and ethnicity as two sides of the same coin,” he says.
Somaratne’s paper, provides exhaustive examples of Tamil Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and a detailed account of Tamil Buddhism’s origin in Tamil Nadu, its evolution and expansion into northern Sri Lanka and its historiography.
An argument put forward by Somaratne in the paper is that both Sinhalese and Tamils, including certain scholars, are hesitant to acknowledge the historicity of Tamil Buddhism for their own politically motivated reasons.
“Some Sinhala Buddhist scholars have assumed that the presence of Buddhist archaeological sites in the North and Eastern Provinces, where Tamils live today, would prove the presence of Sinhalese there. The impression among the Sinhalese Buddhists is that Buddhism in Sri Lanka is exclusively for the Sinhalese.
“In this assumption there seems to be an unwillingness to accept that Tamils too were Buddhists in a bygone era,” he writes.
On the other hand, says Somaratne, Tamil speakers who now occupy these lands are also “uneasy” about the discovery of Buddhist sites due to fears populist Sinhala politicians using it for their own political gains.
“A Buddhist past is unpleasant to many Tamils today. Thus they are reluctant to admit the reality that their ancestors had been Buddhists in the past. Today most Tamils in Sri Lanka are Hindu or Christian. Modern researchers on the Sinhala as well as the Tamil side work on an agenda to prove that their side of the story is true,” the professor writes.
It is against this backdrop that President Wickremesinghe publicly acknowledged the historicity of Tamil Buddhism in the island nation. The president’s remarks were welcomed by, among others, opposition MP Mano Ganesan who said recognising Tamil Buddhism as historical fact is “the key to many deadlocks”.
Wickremesinghe made his comment in what appeared to be a heated exchange of words with Director General of the Department of Archaeology Prof Anura Manatunga who resigned on Monday June 12 after a video recording of the exchange went viral on social media.
The presidential talking-to occurred at a meeting with archaeology department officials and a number of opposition MPs from Tamil constituencies regarding land acquisition by the department in the country’s north and east allegedly under the pretext of preserving heritage sites.
The Department of Archaeology has been at the centre of a controversy going back some years over alleged acquisition of land that critics claim rightfully belongs to Tamil-speaking residents of the areas marked as sites of archaeological importance.
Historian Dr Shamara Wettimuny speaking to EconomyNext on Tuesday June 13 noted that the modern scientific investigation into various archaeological sites in Sri Lanka has roots in the British colonial period.
According to Wettimuny, the origins of the Department of Archaeology can be traced back to British interventions in the 19th century when, in 1858, an Archaeological Commission was appointed by the then Governor to investigate ancient monuments in Anuradhapura, with more state funds directed towards excavation and restoration over time. In 1890, H C P Bell was appointed the first Archaeological Commissioner, the equivalent of the present day Director General of the Archaeology Department.
“The study of the island’s historical sites was not done for the sake of knowledge production alone. Instead, as Pradeep Jeganathan has observed, ‘knowledge of history was quite central in [colonisation] efforts; to know the ‘past’ was to control the ‘present’,” said Wettimuny.
“That applied very much to the British interest in archaeology and indeed, to the post-colonial Sri Lankan state. Nevertheless, the British appeared to prioritise, archaeologically speaking, a Sinhala-Buddhist narrative of Sri Lankan history,” she said.
This colonial legacy of giving pride of place to a Sinhala Buddhist narrative of the island nation’s history, Wettimuny believes, continues to this day.
“A glance at the Department of Archaeology’s official emblem today will leave the curious in no uncertainty about what type of historical site is given state support, often at the expense of other archaeological sites,” she said.
As noted by Prof Somaratne in his widely shared paper, the ambitions of two historically based ethnicities in the new Sri Lankan nation clash, contributing to the conflicting narratives on Tamil Buddhism and its history.
“It is well known that history and archaeology have been put to political uses in nation-building programmes. During the period of politicisation of the Sinhala Buddhist nation, Anuradhapura came to be shaped by a new nationalist consciousness. This view was that the Sinhala Buddhist nation is a historically homogeneous and consistent entity. The purpose of this interpretation of history would assert connections with the past within an imagined history of Sinhala as well as Tamil ethnic groups. This has led to the rise of perilous nationalism (Nissan 1989:64). Both sides are not really interested in the true facts of history as their aim is to use the name of history for present-day needs,” he writes.
According to the academic, Tamil analysts of Buddhist history of Jaffna, too, have used it for political purposes. One has to understand the perception of the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka in the context of the history of all Sri Lanka by the ownership of the Sinhalese, he argues, noting that their presentation of history is to show that they have a right to be in what they perceive to be their homeland.
“They wish to show that they have a right to exist in this land. They seem to feel that the Sinhalese have stolen their history. In order to protect their rights, they use history as one weapon in their defence.
“Since the Tamils attempt to prove their right to exist and their right to be there, then the purpose of historical claims of Buddhist heritage in Jaffna is to prove that point. They want to justify their present homeland, whether Buddhist or Hindu, with the interpretation of historical facts amidst the attempts of Sinhala Buddhists to subsume them under a dominant majority with the help of democratic governmental apparatus,” Somaratne writes in conclusion.