The Mahatheetha-Punranna (Mannar-Poornaryn) coast and Anthony Jackson's Aba - Sri Lanka Guardian


Home Top Ad

Responsive Ads Here

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Mahatheetha-Punranna (Mannar-Poornaryn) coast and Anthony Jackson's Aba

“All this suggests that the Mannaram-Punranna region may have had a very lively civilization predating Vijaya, but probably not very different from the form that diffused towards North India as the temperatures moved upwards. This same civilization came back to Sri Lanka with Vijaya.”

by Gam Vaesiya

(November 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The capture of the Mannaram- Poornaryn western coast, driving out the LTTE may seemingly have nothing to do with Anthony Jackson's recent movie which had stirred controversy because of the producer's deviations from historical orthodoxy. In fact the Mannar-Poornaryn coast has been the very theater where the early history of the land may have been played out. Jackson places himself in the time period shrouded in mystery and legend, involving Vijaya's landing near Mahatheetha (Mannar) and the unification of the whole of Sri Lanka under one ruler - Pandukabhaya, who is named "Aba" in the movie. Even this shortened name for Pandukabhaya has been reason enough for controversy, as we shall discuss!

The Mahavamsa, in its present form is an astonishing document which records the religious events, court intrigue, love, valor and war. It deals with over 200 rulers, hundreds of princes, ministers, monks worriers and commoners, and arches over a period of two millenia. It is the most important epic poem written in the Pali language, and stands on par with Homer and excels him in historical writing. In its hey day it was probably a "best seller" which was carried along the silk route to the Far East, Cambodia and Burma, where translations and adaptations can be found. Written in the 5th century, and updated later, the historiography is amazingly accurate, especially from the time of the coronation of Asoka. As Kathigesu Indrapala, a well known Peradeniya historian has pointed out, the Mahavamsa writer produced a judicious account which balanced the concerns of friend and foe, historicity and story writing, while maintaining the avowed purpose of exalting the Dharma.

Kuveni and Vijaya

But it is the time before Asoka that Anthony Jackson deals with, and here the history is mostly based on the common heritage of anecdotal material that must have been current in ancient Sri Lanka. When written records, stone inscriptions and other "hard evidence" become sparse, etymological and toponymic considerations, as well as cross-cultural comparisons can sometimes provide interesting illumination. We will work with the legend and the Mahavamsa story, taking them at "face-value", while keeping in mind its lacunae. The name "Ku-veni", i.e., "Kaaka-varni" indicates that she was called the "dark-skinned (one)". It could also imply some sort of lower caste designation from the point of view of the Vijaya's band. However, she was a princess who ruled over a land which had at least two big cities, "Sirisa vaththu" and "Lanka nagara". Kuveni was most probably not her name, but likely to be the nickname used by the presumably fair-skinned members of Viyaya's band of north Indians. We also know that later on, Vijaya himself sent for a princess from Madura. In ancient India, just as it is the case now, Indian rulers placed a high premium on fair-complexioned queens. Even when the Kings were dark,
their wives would be from North India, i.e., fair complexioned Buddhists or Jains. Who ruled in Madura at that time is unknown, except that it was a "Pandya" kingdom. But the story suggests that Vijaya's new queen was a fair-skinned princess, and that Vijaya already had good lingusitc and cultural kinship with the Pandyas.

The Mahavamsa legend has also allusions to a companion ship which carried the women of Vijaya's band. This ship landed at a location different from Vijaya's ship which only carried the men. There was also a separate ship for children, and it landed in Naggadipa. The landing of the ship carrying the female companions is said to have occurred on a close by Island. Geiger and Guruge, in their editions of the Mahavamsa, render the name of this Island as "Mahiladeepa". There is however, sufficient uncertainty in the Pali text to consider the name "Mahisadeep", when we can immediately identify it as the present day island of Erumaitive, since the name tallies with "buffalo", tamilized as "erumai". The accompanying map shows the Punranna
(Poornyn)-Mahisdoova coast which has been the recent battle frontier. The A32 road goes through Meepathoda (illupaikavai), the location used by the kalinga-Magas to invade Lanka. It continues through Naagathudava (Nachchikuda), past Batumunna (Mulliamunai), Tammaenna vaeva (Manniyakulam) and Aththanamada (Adampammoddai) to Punranna (Poornaryn). The costal area in this region is known as the golden beach or Ranvaella (Poonakarai). The name bears out the legend that, on landing on this beach and burning their hands in the sand, Vijaya and companions found that their palms were "copper" colored - "thaambraparni". (For detailed discussions of ancient place names, please see

Vijaya's encounter with Kuveni has strong similarities to the legend of Circe, the enchantress who trapped the followers of Odysseus in Homer's odyssey. Greek mythology has portrayed females having sexual relationships with bears, apes, bulls, goats, horses, wolves, snakes, and crocodiles, while the lion was more exotic.. Thus the story of Sinhabahu, the son of a lion and a Vanga princes, whose incestuous marriage to his own sister fits very well the mythology of the ancient world, be it Indic, Greek, Hebrew, or Egyptian. Thus it is clear that the early chronicles (the Deepavamsa and other early sources) had domesticated the common cultural heritage of the ancient world which had arrived in Sri Lanka, via Maanthota (Mannar) and Gokanna (Trincomalee), two of the most important sea ports of the ancient world.

Sinhabahu or Sinhabapu?

The genius involved in the domestication of the external legends is seen in the way the chronicles handle the name "Sinhabahu". We are told that the son of a lion and a princess had arms (baahu) which looked like those of a lion, hence "Sinha-Bahu". The word "baahu" occurs in many avatars in the languages of the ancient world, and indeed even in the modern world. Here we note that the "b", "v" and "p" sound are often interchangeable. Thus we have "Baahu" cognate with "baapu", "baabu", "paapu", "papa" etc. All these words mean "father", or "Patriarch", and "Sinha-bapu" would just be a perfectly reasonable name to signify the patriarch of the lion clan. To make matters more complex, the word "pa" ("pithra" in Sanskrit) can, according to the rules of early Indic-Prakrit acquire a vowel sound in front of it, to make it "apaa". This rule is equally recognized in the Tolkkapian Tamil grammar of the early Cankam period (perhaps 2nd century BCE). That "Abaa", or "baabu" could also become "Abu" as in Abu Ben-Adam" of Arabic, (or Hebrew) is no longer surprising. Abu Bakker is simply the "father of Bakker", a common naming convention. Thus, by all indications, the Indic word may well have been the older source word for the Hebrew and other present day languages.

The word "Abhaya", often used as a name in Indic cultures, is found even in the oldest Sanskrit work, i.e., the Rig Veda. It could also mean "a-bhaya", i.e., "the one without fear". But then "the one without fear" is precisely the leader of the clan, the "Patriarch", the father, i.e., "Bapu", a word used even today in modern Hindi. So, which ever way we look, "baahu" "Baabu" to "Aba", the universal elemental meaning remains invariant, almost as if a Chomsky had ordained it. Thus we see that Anthony Jackson, perhaps with no attempts at being a linguist, had hit upon a universal word by good intuition. Dr. Nalin de Silva, upset by some of the Christian symbolism contained in the film, had made a more adverse judgment and claimed that the word "Aba" has been used to introduce an Abrahamic message.

Adam and Eve

There are indeed many other primeval Hebrew names like Adam and Eve, which can also be traced to old Sanskrit words. The Sanskrit word "Jeeva", denotes the life spirit and "Eve" is nothing but a personification of "Jeeeva". This clarifies the puzzling account found in the genesis where "Eve" is created from the "rib" of man. The rib cage contains the "life-spirit", and it is this which is pulled out with the rib, a fact lost in the abysm of the formation of the Jewish tradition. The source of the word Adam is "Aathman" or soul, which doubles as "breath" in German (Atmen). Thus, combining Jeeva (Eve), and Aathamn (Adam), we have fertility and genesis.

This does not of course mean that everything comes from Sanskrit, although that is our oldest source, for our historical epoch. One would argue that some words were entirely indigenous. But nothing is ever that simple, especially if you are located on an Island which boasted of two of the best trading ports of the Ancient World, namly Mahathitha and Gokanna. It was Sumerian which was the universal world language for thirty centuries. Even after just one century of English, we see how invasive an effect it has on all other languages. Things changed more slowly in the ancient world. Nevertheless, thirty centuries is a long period, and we see Sumerian words becoming Etruscan words, and they in turn reappearing in Indo-European and Dravidian languages. In the early 1060s, Sugathada de Silva, Hettiarchchi and others used to note that words like "water" are found in Sinhala, German (wasser) and various other places but not in Pali or Sanskrit. They considered Sinhala words like "oluva" (head), and "Kakula" (leg) , and wondered about our place on the ancient sea routes. Unfortunately, very little has been
down in regard to the influence of Sumerian and other languages on early Sinhala-Prakrit. On the other hand, some non-academic Tamil writers (who are more nationalist than linguist) have claimed that perhaps even Sumerian came from Tamil.

Similar spacious claims have been made about the Yakkas and the Nagas. That is, some have claimed that they were "Dravidian", while others have claimed that they are Persians, or that they were the original "Hela" people, with Ravana and other legendry figures coming into the picture. The Mahavamsa and other accounts, when taken with the Ramayana etc., for events prior to the Coronation of Asoka are subject to widely differing interpretations. It is more than likely that the categories like "Tamil", "Sinhala", "Hela" etc., had not differentiated themselves at that time. Vijaya's wish to bring a princes from India was driven more by the need to have a Kshatriya princes to beget a heir to his throne. It was caste, and not race that dominated the ancient Indic world. Royal princes ignored ethnic barriers but never ignored caste. They would rather choose incest than desecrate the Varna (caste).

The Kirats as Yakkas.

The place names in the Mannaram-Punranna (Poornyn) region may tell us something more specific than what is found in the early chronicles. One of the recently captured military camps is known as Naagathudava (Nachchikadu), and such names are a reminder of the Naga inhabitants which are mentioned in the chronicles. Beside the Nagas, it was the Yakkas that Vijaya and his band encountered in the Mannar region. There is evidence for north Indian settlements near Mannar which probably pre-date Vijaya. Place names like "Aalavaka" (Alavakka), "Aalavak-Aasiri-vaapi (Alavakkaisirukkulam) are found in the Mannar region. Aalavaka is a "Yakkha" aristocrat mentioned in the Sutta Nipatha, Samutta Nikaya of the Buddhist scriptures. Thus Aalavaka was a North Indian, living in the region pertaining to the Buddha's ambit of travel. Is it possible that some of these North Indians, known as the Kirat people, had migrated to Lanka even before the advent of Vijaya. The worship of Aalavaka would characterize such people. H. C.
Ray Chawdhary, in "Political History of India" also suggests that the Kirat people were known as the Yakkahs. In Sri Lanka, the Vedda are claimed to be the descendants of the original Yakkahs. The work "Kirat" can indeed mean "Vedda" or "the Kirrhadae of Arrian". If this is so, then we can easily understand why there are place names dedicated to Aalavaka in the Mannar region. There were indeed Yakkhas living here, and the Yakkhas were the Kirat people discussed in the "Kirat vansavali" by Ray Chawdhary. Thus, it is indeed possible that Kuveni and Vijaya spoke essentially the same language, and the civilization of the cities "Sri-savaththu" and "Lanka nagara" harked back to an earlier wave of North Indian immigrants.

Temperature of the Ocean in 8000 BCE

Historians and linguists rarely look at such things as the thermal history of the ocean. However, a plot of the mean temperature of the Euro-Asian land mass is particularly revealing. If we consider such a plot, it would be seen that 8,000 years ago, when the Rig Veda was probably being written, the world was a very cold place. This means there would have been glaciers and very cold climates in Northern Europe and Northern India. By contrast, the Arabian and African deserts may have been pleasent. Also, the cold weather removed large amounts of water from the Northern seas and lowered the sea level enormously. This clearly implies that Sri Lanka and India would have been a connected land mass. Human civilization would have flourished mainly below the tropic of cancer. As the ice melted and the Indian subcontinent warmed, people would have migrated northwards, and the land-link between India and Lanka would have got submerged.

All this suggests that the Mannaram-Punranna region may have had a very lively civilization predating Vijaya, but probably not very different from the form that diffused towards North India as the temperatures moved upwards. This same civilization came back to Sri Lanka with Vijaya. The modern distinctions that people draw, insisting on early-Dravidian, or Aryan, ethnic differentiation etc., seem to have little foundation within this picture. Unfortunately, we have no firm data to say anything more than to make these rather speculative discussions.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

No comments: