“Ethnicisation” of History Writing in South Asia/Sri Lanka - Part 1

A Few Comments on J.L. Devananda’s Response

by Bandu de Silva

 By contrast, the role of archaeology in the consideration of early Tamil identity has been more or less secondary. The common tendency is for South Indian historians to appropriate the archaeological data as a source of correlates for information gleaned from the texts – in other words, to use the material record to search out “known” historical patterns, events, or places…

 Archaeologists are equally culpable; it has become customary for South Indian archaeologists to label sites and objects in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as “Tamil”, without considering whether signifiers exist in the material record that substantiate or refute this notion of cultural separateness. The underlying assumption continues to be that the documentary record serves as the best and most reliable source for knowledge about past identity. As will be demonstrated here, the archaeological data from protohistoric Kerala and Tamil Nadu is not so clear-cut and, in fact, appears to challenge the very notion of separate culture region… Dr. Shinu Abraham

* “........similar critical evaluation has not been sufficiently paid to parochial claims by Tamil nationalists. The identification of Early Iron Age megalithic monuments has been seen as evidence for a pan-Dravidian ‘racial’ migratory movement and homeland in South Asia. The existence of a Dravidian ‘race’ and the theory of mass migration from South India to Sri Lanka are taken as historical fact…”. 

“…The megalithic burials in south India represent one the of the most racialized monuments in South Asia”. - Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne delivering the Henry M. Jackson lecture at Whitman College, USA in 2006,

1. Introduction

(February 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The above quotations from an American Archaeologist and a Sri Lankan academic, the latter much quoted by Sri Lankan Tamil academics like Dr.K.Indrapala and others to support their favourite theories, are cited not as a critique of the methodology of Tamil historians, but to highlight the problems one encounters in interpreting history in the sub-continent, including Sri Lanka. It is then not surprising, that the interpretation of Sri Lankan history too has veered away from scientific considerations, and over the recent years, become subjected to ethnocentric considerations. This parochial view is well reflected in many recent contributions to the discussion of Sri Lankan history, in particular, from writers within the Sri Lankan Diaspora outside the Island and others. The twisted interpretation of Megalithic burials found in certain places in Sri Lanka has now become almost the Sri Lankan Tamil answer to the origin story of the Sinhalese found in the Mahavamsa, supported by south Indian Sangam literature. Just as archaeologists in Sri Lanka starting with European archaeologists like H.C.P.Bell and a host of others to S. Paranavitana are accused of using archaeology to substantiate the evidence in Mahavamsa, - the same accusation is made against south Indian Tamils by Dr.Shinu Abrahams - (no longer the case in Sri Lanka), there has been an equally parallel endeavour to fit in archaeology to support Sangam literary evidence. Even the discipline of numismatics is today replete with using Sangam age as a referral matrix. (Sitrampalam on Kantarodai and Raghupaty on Tissamaharama pottery fragment).

Meanwhile a very old friend from Kerala who has seen my writing on the Internet has sent me an e.Mail stating that Sangam literature which is considered the oldest extant Tamil literature, never uses the word “Damila” or “Dameda, ” found in the chronicle and early cave inscriptions in Sri Lanka. My knowledge of Sangam literature which I gained at the University of Ceylon listening to Prof.Kanapathipillai and others in the Tamil Department as part of my Indian History studies and my later readings is not sufficient for me to engage in a discussion over this point though it is pertinent to discussions which follow. However, I myself do not recall having come across a reference to “Damila” of Sri Lankan chronicles or “Dameda” of Sri Lankan early Brahmi inscriptions or “Trimira” (of Kharavela’s inscription) in the Sangam literature. This is an important point to keep in mind in addition to the absence of the term in contemporary South Indian Brahmi inscription when one says there is no reference to “Simhala’ in the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island and before its mention in the island’s early chronicles.

1.1 Polemic in historical definitions

Even if one wanted to avoid reference to polemic, with the idea of keeping the debate on the Ancient Chronicles of the Sinhalese confined to an academic discussion, one finds examples like Mr. Devananda’s response, couched in Mahavamsa-like ornate poetry compiled for the “serene joy and emotions” of its cheering fan base – the “Eelam” Tamils who are out to find myths in support of the Tamil Homeland theory. As such, despite its loose style and many unrelated digressions where the author has treated lesser issues with disproportionate importance, his response more than beckons one to join in the debate; as the Mahavamsa itself has attracted.

Despite him disarming prospective critics by saying that his response is not a ‘rebuttal’, and making a pronouncement that he did not claim the Mahavamsa or its compiler were ‘racists’ as has been alleged, his response cannot be treated lightly given the nature of what was actually written.

His claim that he did not engage in a “...deep analysis of Sri Lankan historiography (which many number of academics and scholars have already done)...” exposes the fallacy even more. He remains very much engaged in trying to present a critique of the chronicles on what he thinks are historiographic issues. Despite his pious explanations, he is still looking intensely for loopholes in the chronicles to fit into his thesis. That is to look at the Mahavamsa, as he says, “...for the purpose of [only] a political overview to highlight the belief system (Myths and fallacies) of the present day Sri Lankan society or rather the Sinhala-Buddhist majority due to the influence of Mahavansa, which has manifested into a prejudiced way of thinking known as the Mahavansa-mindset [Rata (Sinhala Country) – Jathiya (Sinhala Nation/Race) – Aagama (Sinhala Buddhist Religion]. The outcome of such a state of mind … has lead to Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, one of the main causes for the unresolved ethnic crises in Sri Lanka that has resulted and continue to cause misery to our Sri Lankan nation…”. In this confused thinking, the chronicle remains the victim.

Mr. Devananda’s historical presentation, though claimed not to be one, contain three basic beliefs which he has subtly tried to introduce:

1. The antiquity of the Sri Lankan Tamil identity is equal if not older than its Sinhalese equivalent.
2. Sri Lankan Tamils were a majority in “their” districts from time immemorial.
3. All of the Islands unique historical attributes, hydraulic civilization, Buddhist remains, are a shared legacy of equal weighting between the Islands Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil identities.

As one reads further into his reply, the lengths Mr. Devananda goes to assert these three points is clearly visible. Ironically enough, these three elements form the core of the “historical homeland theory”, used extensively by the extreme nationalistic elements in the Diaspora to argue for a separate homeland for the Islands “Eelam Tamil” inhabitants.

1.2 Some housekeeping details – The Layout

Mr. Devananda’s arguments will, consequently, be examined here in two parts. The first will address his subtle efforts to delegitimize the usefulness of the Mahavamsa, a chronicle which greater authorities have claimed as having served “in unravelling the history of southern Asia”, and more importantly, as a useful primary source for reconstructing the history of the island, which Mr. Devananda has done through his use of selected strands of historical research and deliberate distortions, for example like his treatment of statements by Dr. B.C. Law and misinformation on the Mahavamsa-Tika.

The second will be to address his primary motive for penning his first article, as put by him, “...the political overview to highlight the belief system” which concludes with the accusation that the Sinhala-Buddhist community is guilty of using the Mahavamsa to racially discriminate against the minority communities, especially, the Tamil community.

2. Delegitimizing Mahavamsa

2.1 Pious Proclamations

I have no cause to join Mr. Devananda in an adversarial battle over history. Besides, there is no level field despite his initial suggestion 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.”.

That pious proclamation, with which I agree one hundred present, has but evaporated into thin air as soon as it was expressed. What else could one infer from the following conclusion of Mr. Devananda?

“The entire body of claims of Sinhala chauvinism, and the Sinhalese and their entire historical perception, all their inflated claims are based on this cooked up and concocted historical work called Mahavamsa”.
That expression nullified all his pretentions in favour of a measured reading of the chronicles of the Sinhalese, and demonstrated, as the historian Dr. Jane Russell wrote in respect of G.G. Ponnambalam’s Mahavamsa bashing, (Jane Russell: Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1976, Tisara, Colombo), a latent envy over the presence of such a unique work whose value for the reconstruction of the history of the island has been of no little consequence, in addition to the contribution it made in unravelling the mystery of Indian chronology itself being only a small facet. Even the worst critic of the chronicles, Vincent Smith, admitted the contribution the Mahavamsa played in unravelling the mystery of the ruler named “Devanampiya” Piyadassi and the confusion over Indian chronology. (Incidentally, “Devanapiya-tissa” King of Sri Lanka is “Deva-Nambiya-Tissan” according to followers of Mr. Devananda who says he was Naga/Tamil).

What would Mr. Devananda and others say if one were to make a similar assessment as he did on the so called Jaffna chronicle “Yalpana Vaipava Malai”? Mudaliyar Rasanayagam and Fr. Gnapragasar subjected the compiler, Mylvagner Pullavar, to ridicule. Perhaps they did not like him ascribing the origin of the Jaffna Tamils to Vijaya, the ‘bandit prince’ from North India whom the chronicles of the Sinhalese claim to be their progenitor; or his claiming of a strong Sinhalese presence in the peninsula. Dr. K. Indrapala and Dr. S. Pathmanathan too did not attach much significance to it as a reliable source of history.

2.2 Caveat

Why limit the objectivity/impartiality with the caveat “with a certain amount of objective impartiality and admit the contributions made to our country by others”? Why not total objectivity/impartiality in examining the chronicles of the Sinhalese? Is there something to hide or to misrepresent?

That caveat is introduced after stating in the introduction that he did not engage in a “...deep analysis of Sri Lankan historiography (which many number of academics and scholars have already done)…”. That looks like a bluff when one reads on. True! The objective was not to follow the standards in international scholarship when examining the usefulness of the chronicles from a historiographic point of view, but a condemnation of it as a “...cooked up and concocted historical work...”. 

2.3 A Silver Lining

So despite his earlier declaration that he did not accuse the Mahavamsa or its compiler of practising ‘racism’ as I had conceived he was doing, he has once again plunged into a wholesale examination of the Mahavamsa thematically under the following subheads:

1. Is Mahavamsa the History of Sri Lanka?
2. The status of Chronicles
3. Theravada glorified
4. Bias towards North India
5. Bias against Mahayana

This was a good start, and Mr. Devananda could have proved his credentials had he continued on that line. These form preliminaries which any Mahavamsa scholar could use in analyzing the text. Mr. Devananda touches on each of the points briefly in the beginning, but the discussion quickly deviates, on many occasions along completely irrelevant directions, to denigrate the chronicles in accordance with his stated theme which is that the chronicle is “cooked up and concocted”.

One example of such a deviation is his attempt to downgrade the chronicles by trying to shift (post-date) the dates ascribed to the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Mahavamsa Tika (commentary), dates which have otherwise been corroborated by a galaxy of Pali scholars. He has deferred the dates of the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa each by a century; and that of Mahavamsa Tika by 5 to 3 centuries. This is discussed below.

2.4 Manipulating chronology of Vamsa Literature

One can understand some scholars trying to give an older antiquity to literature they are interested in. The chronology assigned to Sangam literature is one such example. I quoted Prof. Nilakanta Sastri for a 1st – 3rd century AD date for the Sangam mythology which appears to be the counterpart of the Mahavamsa mythology. The preference for a later date for these chronicles, which runs in contradiction to the conventional series which is accepted by a galaxy of European/Sri Lankan and Indian scholars, should be supported with evidence and reason; without which questions over the motives of Mr. Devananda arise.

Is one to understand this preference to shift chronology as a subtle manipulation, done in order to fit into the writer’s theory that the chronicle were compiled during a turbulent period when Buddhism was under threat from Hindu revival? I contested this idea of the Hindu revival occurring around the time the chronicles were compiled on the ground that such a revival did not pose a challenge to both Buddhism and Jainism even in India till the 7th century AD, when the Bhakti movement assumed full ascendency. Gananath Obeyesekere, quoting Nilakanta Sastri, even quotes a much later date (10th century) for the decline of Buddhism in South India as result from the ascendancy of the Bhakti cult. (Obeyesekere: Pattini Cult, p.519)

I see Mr. Devananda in his response has quietly dropped the reference to “Hindu challenge” and confined it simply to [an undefined] “threat”, while still bringing the date of composition of the Mahavamsa closer to the time of the ascendancy of the Bhakhti movement. I have already stated that the threat was from the Mahayana sect, and not from Hinduism, which is clear from the internal evidence of both the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, which ended with the destruction of the Mahavihara by King Mahasena under Mahayana influence.

The discussion of this issue is of critical importance, because one sees that the larger effort here is to undermine the credibility and value of the chronicles as one of the major sources for reconstructing Sri Lankan history. So in effect, lowering the antiquity of the Sinhalese Vamsa literature serves the purpose reducing its purpose as a historical document. How interesting in this connection is it then to see the subtle attempt to accord an earlier antiquity to the so called Jaffna Tamil chronicles, going even to the extent of saying that the [Jaffna] Olas were lost in the fire at the Jaffna Library! Whilst one should without reservation condemn such a dastardly act, one should ask how strange that these Jaffna Olas remained unpublished even after a galaxy of scholars starting with Britto, Rasanayagam, Fr. Gnanapragasam, K. Indrapala and S. Pathmanathan, who have made profuse use of them to reject them as of little historical value, remained unpublished even after a long search for a Sri Lankan Tamil identity?

Though not citing Dr. B.C. Law directly, but using his observations, Mr. Devananda seems to question the acknowledged view of all reputed Mahavamsa scholars that have suggested that the chronicles were based on the earlier ‘Atthakatha Mahavamsa’. Is this because Dr. Law claimed that the reference to the earlier source material for the Mahavamsa was only found in later Mahavamsa Tika? Whilst this is highlighted, it is ignored that the Tika itself quotes not only from these “Attahakatha Mahavamsa”, but also other traditions maintained at the opposing Abhayagiri School (Uttara Vihara). It is not only the Tika, but earlier works like Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya also cite quotations from these now extinct early ‘Atthakatas’.

Using the same argument, is one to reject the antiquity assigned to Sangam literature because the beginnings are no longer traceable? (Sastri). There is a certain methodology used in textual criticism which has to be adhered to. Why is this issue being raised by Mr. Devananda except to gain more debating points?

2.5 On a ‘Hot Rock’ – Digression on Mahavamsa Tika

Mr. Devananda’s discussion of the Mahavamsa Tika, quoting Dr. B.C. Law, makes his attempt to shift chronology /antiquity of the chronicles abundantly clear. A single sentence from Dr. Law is used to support his entire theory, which says “...they (the chronicles) offer a cheap fantastic explanation for the origin of the name of the Island ‘Sinhala’ because of Vijay’s father Sinhabahu since he had slain a lion.”.

Is Mr. Devananda actually quoting from Dr. B.C. Law or is he himself spinning a long yarn whilst presenting it under the name of Dr. B.C. Law? In fairness to Dr. Law, whom he cites as a great authority, and deservedly so, he should have divulged the complete source, but what did he do – only quoted the page (p.49), but not the name of the work. I am bold enough to say he has mischievously misquoted Dr. Law by extracting only part of the sentence to make it appear that Dr. Law was questioning the accuracy of the chronicles.

This is what Dr. Law stated in his work On the Chronicles of Ceylon:

“…They will offer us cheap and fantastic explanations for the origin of the two names of the island, [Sihala and Tambapanni], Sihala because of the epithet Sihala earned by Vijaya’s father Sihabahu since he had slain a lion, and Tambapanni because of fact that on their landing on the island the hands of Vijaya’s companions were coloured with the dust of the red earth”.

Mr. Devananda does not refer to the etymology of the name “Tambapanni” to which Dr. Law refers to because it does not serve his purpose, besides the fact that the scholar’s argument on that other name being very weak. What he has written under this theme is to mislead readers by presenting all what is stated as Dr. Law’s writing by manipulating the accepted practice when an authority is quoted.

Dr. Law, as Mr. Devananda said of Prof. Nilakanta Sastri, “...was over 50 years old...” when he made these remarks. It is now widely accepted that Dr. Law’s later views, made in the twilight of his career, have been revised in the light of more evidence and new methodology. For example, Dr. Law’s idea that the chronicler was playing on the idea of “red hands”, [of Vijaya’s followers] is something that one notices on the North Western sea coast even today. One can see how one’s clothes and body becomes red coloured within a short time after landing there. (Read “Tambapanniyo” by Deraline Brohier or visit the area now that it is accessible). So the chroniclers seem to have to have had a better knowledge of local geographical factors than the last mid century scholar.

Mr. Devananda’s misdirection did not stop with misquoting Dr. Law on the chronicles. It went further. For example, writing on the Mahavamsa Tika, while manipulating Dr. Law’s commentary about the chronicles, Mr. Devananda claims the Tika is the result of an interpolation, “…an interpolation crudely effected during the period the Tika was composed (circa XIII C). Besides this single Ola manuscript, ‘not more than 200 years old’ we have no other copies to check the authenticity of its contents”.

Isn’t this latter remark about the Mahavamsa Tika another attempt to deceive? To suggest that Dr. Law assigns a more recent date for the Tika, had to be supported with evidence from the scholar. Mr. Devananda’s intention here is to try to ascribe this comment to the learned scholar. If Dr. Law has said so Mr. Devananda should, in fairness to this great scholar, divulge the source without allowing him to be badly contradicted.

Dr. G.P. Malalasekara in the 1935 introduction to the PTS edition of the Tika listed 15 sources used in its preparation, which included 14 mss beside the 1895 edition by Ganissara-Batuwantudawe. The mss were obtained from varied depositories including the British Museum, Cambridge University, Bibliotheqe Nationale, Paris, Royal Library, Pnom Penh, Royal Library, Thailand, The Colombo Museum, and a number of leading Buddhist temples in the island including Parama Dhamma Chetiya Pirivena, Ratmalana, Vidyodaya Pirivena, Ambarukkharamaya, Welitara and Sailabimmbaramaya, Dodanduwa. Some of these Olas were written in Burmese and Cambodian scripts and others in Sinhalese script.

This Roman-script PTS edition of 1935 was carried out at the request of the then Archaeological Commissioner A.M. Hocart.

Here is what the erudite Pali scholar, Ven Akuretiye Amaravamsa Thero and H.W. Dissanayake, the joint editors of the Sinhala translation of Vamsatthappakasini (Mahavamsa Tika), 1994, says in the introduction:
“...The Pali Text Society of London published the Critical Edition of Vamsatthapakasini (Mahavamsa Tika) in 1935 at the Oxford University Press in Roman script. It is the most erudite edition published so far and took about seven years to complete. Much effort was made to find a copy of the text. 15 copies were consulted in the process…”.

True, none of these mss could claim to trace back to the 8th, 11th or 13th centuries in which the compilation is dated by respective critics. For that matter none of the extant texts in the Sangam works, which was collated by a French scholar as far I remember, for which great antiquity is assigned, were of the period in which the Sangam work is assigned, but more recently copied Olas. They had gone through a re-copying process similar to the Tika.

Is Mr. Devananda not trying to make another issue over this with ulterior motives, rather than engaging in a textual criticism?

In view of the above contradictory information which points to 14/15 mss., some written in Cambodian and Burmese script being utilized by Dr Malalasekera for the compilation of the 1935 edition, an explanation is needed from Mr. Devananda as to how he says that “Besides this single Ola manuscript, ‘not more than 200 years old’ we have no other copies to check the authenticity of its contents”.

Did Mr. Devananda, or who ever the author of that information, get this idea from the Gnanisara-Batuwantudawe edition of 1985, for which a single copy of the (Burmese) mss. had been used (but foot notes point to the use of other copies)? Yes, the Burmese copy of the text had been copied about 150 years earlier by an Elder named Kavisiha after an extensive effort.

This all may seem unnecessary detail, but it’s very important to understand Mr. Devananda’s mind-set if his bona fides as a serious scholar is not to be doubted, and that he has not tried to mislead readers through inadequate research or confusing them if not resorting to subterfuge.

What is the object of referring to the Tika as a late document? Not even of the 13th century as Mr. Devananda preferred to accept, but the Ola as one of a little over 200 years of age? There is no reference to the other 14 mss. used by in the PTS edition or their age. Similarly, the reference to the extant copy of Mahavamsa as a 19th century document must be with a purpose. Is it to meet the argument that the so called Jaffna Tamil chronicle, ‘Yalpana Vaipava Malai’ of the 18th century has an older date/tradition?

His manipulation of Dr. B.C. Law’s writing itself can be seen as an attempt to confuse readers and further question the authority of the Sri Lankan chronicles besides bringing discredit to the learned scholar.

2.6 The Mahayana Factor, Nagas and Tamil Buddhists

Three out of Mr. Devananda’s five chapters are reserved purely for discussing historiographic issues with regard to the Mahavamsa, a road he claims in his introduction, he had no intention of travelling down. Nevertheless, what Mr. Devananda tries to do in Chapters 1 – Is Mahavamsa the History of Sri Lanka?, 2 – Imagined ‘Tamil Presence’ or ‘Sinhala Presence’?, and 3 – How Sinhalese becoming Majority and the Tamil ‘Vellalar Migration’ theory, is to subtly impose his three beliefs on the reader. His attempt to discredit the Mahavamsa is purely tactical. To him, the chronicle stands out as the most prominent impediment in the way of legitimizing a continuous uninterrupted Tamil identity, stretching from the megalithic phase right down to advent of the Magha’s invasion. His goal is to some how demonstrate that during the period 300 BC to 500 AD, there was a sizeable Tamil speaking Buddhist community on the island, comparable to its Sinhala “other”, which, as he says, the Mahavamsa deliberately ignored mentioning, hence, its authority as a historical document should be void due to this “partisan nature”.

In this endeavour, Mr. Devananda’s choice of subject matter on the The Mahayana Factor, the Nagas and Tamil Buddhists Epics, all feed into substantiating this claim of a sizeable Tamil speaking Buddhist presence.

Broad Dismissive of Mahavamsa

Mr. Devananda begins his critique of the Mahavamsa with this broad dismissive, “…From the archaeological/epigraphic evidence and the chronicles itself, it is clear that during the same period there also existed other religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Saivism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, etc but they were all left out” - from the choice of religions highlighted – faiths that are commonly associated with South India, It is very clear at this point the conclusion Mr. Devananda wants his readership to draw; these “others” the Mahavamsa allegedly omits are, according to his reading, all “Tamils” . That is while accusing the Sinhalese of claiming every Buddhist monument in the island as being “Sinhalese-Buddhist”. 

Mr. Devananda dishes out copious streams of text couched in flowery language, however immersed in this verbal-diarrhoeic onslaught are his main themes, which are highlighted below:

“…It has been trying to minimize the South Indian component of the Lankan culture, adopting an anti-Tamil attitude and trying to maximize on an imaginary North Indian component of Lankan culture…”

“…In reality, there is no objective evidence of an Aryan migration from North India; the ethnic structure in Sri Lanka is quite South Indian with close affinities to Tamil Nadu and Kerala…”

“…The latest Archaeological and Genealogical discoveries in Sri Lanka using modern technology show that not only the Flora and Fauna but the people of South India and Sri Lanka are of the same stock…”

“…team of archaeologists discovered a very large number of inscribed potsherds with Brahmi writings going back to the 4th century BC, very clearly indicating that Anuradhapura was settled by people who have adopted the South Indian Megalithic culture. Nevertheless, the modern archaeologists and historians accept that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Dravidian Language family and followed the Dravidian (Megalithic) culture…”

“…The intrusion of Pali and Sanskrit languages and their spread among the ancient Tamils of Sri Lanka and their Dravidian culture, as well as the origin of the new language from Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil languages known as Elu/Helu (Sihala Prakrit)…”

“…There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula…”

“…The ancient Tamil literature and the excavations (archaeological findings) in Jaffna proves the existence of Tamils including Tamil Buddhists (Theravada and Mahayana)…”

What is clear from this series of statements is how Mr. Devananda, in one fell swoop, turned an entire series of cultural developments in Sri Lanka – which includes not only endemic development, but also areas that were traditionally assigned to being North Indian inspired, to now wholly being South Indian influenced, and under Mr. Devananda’s default setting, hence Tamil.

Megalithic Misconstruction

Mr. Devananda’s treatment of the archaeological evidence unearthed for the period encompassing the Megalithic to the proto-historic phase, as being culturally Dravidian is astonishing. Logic and science have taken a serious beating with that statement. In this regard one is reminded of a comment made by Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne to The Island Newspaper in 2008, …Seneviratne rightly points out that “similar critical evaluation has not been sufficiently paid to parochial claims by Tamil nationalists. The identification of Early Iron Age megalithic monuments has been seen as evidence for a pan-Dravidian ‘racial’ migratory movement and homeland in South Asia. The existence of a Dravidian ‘race’ and the theory of mass migration from South India to Sri Lanka are taken as historical fact…”. The racialising of Megalithic monuments in Sri Lanka and South India remains an issue serious scholars working in the field have identified as being a real threat. As Sudarshan Seneviratne himself said at the Henry M. Jackson lecture at Whitman College, USA in 2006, “…The megalithic burials in south India represent one the of the most racialized monuments in South Asia”.
The attempt to transfer modern ethnic identities to people that lived close to 3000 years ago is puerile and unscientific. Through comparison, it is possible to link some Mesolithic and Megalithic stages in the island with those of neighbouring Southern India. But considering that Sri Lanka stood in the midway of oceanic traffic, prospects of Megalithic connections with other regions of the Indian ocean region, notably, with the Persian Gulf area which was politically far more active than the Indian Sub-continent, calls for future examination of interlinks with the whole Indian Ocean region, before any definitive conclusions on the origin and route of megalithic movements into Sri Lanka could be established. Rushing to conclusions based on our present day limited knowledge of megalithic sites on the two sides of the Palk Straits alone can be limiting the study.
After analyzing the evidence that has emerged from excavations carried out at the citadel of Anuradhapura by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala and British and French teams, and in other places like Kantarodai and comparing them with evidence from South Indian sites, Deraniyagala has concluded 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”.

Megalithic Evidence/ Origin Stories - Correlation 

What is significant is the reference in the Mahavamsa to a formally planned city at Anuradhapura, built by Pandukabhaya in the 5th century BC, which comes into focus after these findings. The Mahavamsa chronology was suspect on the ground of chronology (the long years of reign assigned to rulers before Devanampiyatissa and the relative antiquity of the events in relation to the date of compilation of the text). Deraniyagala observes that the findings at the Citadel of the first Capital since 1948 have vindicated the assertion that “there was indeed a town, if not a city, in Anuradhapura by 700 – 600 BC”.

On this correlation alone, one can then recognize a kernel of truth in the origin story given in the chronicles of the Sinhalese if not starting with Vijaya but in the second origin story of Panduvasudeva and the females from the Buddha’s clan, even if the details and the link to the specific Indian groups are set aside. The chronicles speak only of the accidental migration of the first band of a hundred people. Even if one were to ignore the symbolic significance to the number ‘seven’ and ‘seven hundred’, that is still not a large number when the chronicle itself describes the vast assemblies of Yakkhas at the time. Nowhere in the chronicles has it been suggested that ‘there was ever a large scale immigration, not to speak of an Aryan immigration as has been assigned through imagination to the Sri Lankan chronicles’. Even as the first chronicle Dipavamsa states in its introductory stanza, the idea was to relate the story of the arrival of the dynasty (narindagamanam). No mass immigration of people is suggested.

In essence, the story as told in the chronicles of the arrival of two bands of immigrants from the Northern region of India received some support from the use of Brahmi characters and a variation of the Prakrit language in the earliest lithic inscriptions in the island which have been dated around the 3rd century BC to 2nd century AD. These inscriptions (len-lipi) which are scattered over a large part of the island (not close to megalithic sites as Sitrampalam misleads his readers) where there were rock formations which provided shelter to early Buddhist Sangha [to arrive in the island]. The presence of these inscriptions in large numbers (around 1300 have been published) which record donations to the Sangha, point to a large scale Prakritic influence over the island from about the 3rd century BC. The finds of Brahmi in the potsherds discovered at the citadel and a detailed study of the Sinhala language has now pushed the date back from the traditional 3rd century BC by several centuries.

It should also not be forgotten that vast empires were rising and falling to the West of India while Indian Vedic Brahamiins were only weaving imaginative fantasies of wars fought by monstrous peoples with ten heads etc. (Monier Williams). Stretching from the from the Indus in the East to the Balkans in the West and to Egypt/Sudan/Libya in the south was the empire of the Achaemenieds of Persia which replaced earlier empires of the Assyrians and the Mesopotamian civilization and that of the Pharaohs of the Nile valley. The fleets of the Persians manned by the Phoenecians, Arabs, Ionians and others each consisting of no less than 500 to 700 vessels (Herodotus) were traversing the Indian Ocean.

These origin stories, of which Mr. Devananda complained as forming the basis for reconstructing the peoplisation of the island are no longer taken as providing the single clue to the problem of peoplisation of Sri Lanka.. But what they do contain is some apparent ancient memory of a steel using people who also knew the use of horses, migrating to the island in the 1st millennia before Christ. The archaeological excavations have provided evidence (Deraniyagala) to stabilise the story of the chronicles that the first capital of the island had been an imposition on the environment and not one of an evolutionary growth. Similarly, one can come to the conclusion that the first colonists referred to in the chronicles were a people with an organizational capacity able to impose their hegemony over the local population and who established settlements in several places.
With regards to Mr. Devananda’s remark about the early language of the ancient people being Dravidian, this shall be addressed in more detail in a later section in this paper.

Mahayana Factor

Mr. Devananda uses the Mahayana factor to develop another pressure point against the Mahavamsa, saying that the Mahavamsa is highly biased against Mahayana tradition. His sole grievance is that the chronicle failed to mention the influx of Mahayana Buddhists from South India. Anyone that has studied the Mahavamsa can see that the chronicle documents several Mahayana incursions, culminating with the return of Ven. Samghamitta in the time of Mahasena, and causing serious harm to the Mahavihara. If the chronicle was deliberately partisan, would these events have been documented in the Mahavamsa? Nevertheless, the chronicle was the work of the Theravada school, as a result it cannot be expected to glorify Mahayana influences in a similar manner to Theravada influences.

One can see that Mr. Devananda’s sole intention in introducing the Mahayana tradition in this context is his underlying theme of attempting to show the presence of widespread Tamil Mahayana Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and the Mahavamsa deliberately avoiding any reference to the presence of these “other” Buddhists – more powder to grind against the Mahavamsa. Whilst it is acknowledged that some Mahayana Buddhists in Sri Lanka would have been Tamil speaking, to insinuate that all Mahayana relics in Sri Lanka belong to Tamil speaking Buddhists is nonsensical. The Mahayana tradition, whilst being popular in South India, was equally embraced in Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka monk named Aryadeva, a disciple of Nagarjuna (Nagarjuna who lived in the first century AD in Andhra, South India was influential in the development of Mahayana), wrote several commentaries on Mahayana theory. Mahayana ideas arrived periodically from Eastern and Southern India. Mahayana teachers such as Gunavarman visited Sri Lanka in the 7th and 8th centuries AD and propagated the Mahayana doctrine. There was a “wave of Mahayana” between 8th and 10th century AD. Many of the Mahayana centres established along the east coast and its interior were during this period. There is no evidence in the epigraphical records to substantiate a claim that the practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism during this time were exclusively Tamil or Tamil speaking. Another interesting point worth mentioning with regards to the Mahayana establishments in the North and the East is the silence of all Tamil scholarship in hiding the fact that the Portuguese chronicler, Fernao Qeyroz’s repeated references to the three shrines at Trincomalee as being under the Maha Thera of Arakan and administered by a Terunnanse and Ganinnanses whom Francis Xavier converted to Christianity.

To be continued .....

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