“Ethnicisation” of History Writing in South Asia/Sri Lanka - Part 3

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

by Bandu de Silva

Previous Parts: Part One | Part Two

2.11 A reply to Earlier Language and Script

(February 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There has been a long debate by learned scholars on the early language and the Brahmi script of Sri Lanka and Southern India, all of which in their varied treatment cannot be discussed here. Mr. Devananda has reduced all that to a very simple statement that “…Early Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka have all the symbols of South Indian Brahmi … but a considerable number of them appear to be Tamil terms and they could be easily explained as Tamil terms, drawing comparable material from ancient Tamil Sangam literature as well as ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions”. Devananda’s burden is to convince his audience that the language in the Sigiri graffiti, which he says is a “…somewhat developed Elu/Helu/Sihala language was found for the first time only on the 8th century AD Sigiri mirror wall and not before that”, had no associated antiquity with regards to its development on the Island. This simplified statement is not meant for the learned but to confuse the uninitiated.

It is not proposed to open a long debate on this vexed subject but let me say that if one reads the earliest extant Sinhalese literature like the 9th century “Siyabas Lakara Dipani” (commentary), a work on poetics composed by (9th century) King Sena which follows the Sanskrit work of the Indian poet Dandin of the Pallava court, or even the earlier religious work of the ‘Vinaya’ like “Sikha Valanda” and “Sikha Valanda Vinisa”, and “Dhampiya Atuva getapadaya”, one can see that the language had to have been evolving for a considerable period of time for these great and difficult works to be presented in a refined form of the language, and in the case of King Sena’s work, as a guide to poets. They also show that they are only the later products of a language.

On the other hand, one is not certain about the foundations of so called “Tamil Brahmi letters” theory proposed by some Sri Lankan Tamil scholars like Sitrampalam and Raghupathy (Tissamaharama pottery fragment), though it is being flaunted by a few scholars as evidence, against the 1300 odd Brahmi cave inscriptions using Prakrit or ‘proto-Sinhala’, to project not only the presence of a ‘Tamil Brahmi’ but also as “evidence of the presence of ordinary Tamil speaking people in the population of that region (Tissamaharama) as early as 2200 years before present”.(Raghupathy quoted by Tamilnet, 28/7/2010).

The preoccupation seems to be to reject any Northern or Indigenous influence in the development of the Sinhala/Prakrit Brahmi script. It is true that South Indian Brahmi shows a few variations which are also noted in Sri Lankan Brahmi (P.E. Fernando), but whether there is enough grounds to reject the greater North Indian influence on the script of Sri Lanka (Buhler/Paranavitana) altogether is a big question. This subject has to be left to experts rather than to generalists and polemists.

However one fact that even a non-academic cannot refute, is to see that the early Prakritic language, or ‘proto-Sinhala’, and the Brahmi script in which it was written, had been such a unifying factor that almost every community group, which includes the ‘Dameda’, ‘Kambuja’ and even ‘Milaka’ (Mleccha? = Barbarians?) that Mr. Devananda has quoted from Sudarshan Seneviratne, (actually identified by Paranavitana in his masterly volumes, Early Inscriptions of Ceylon) people that were present on the island around the time the cave inscriptions were inscribed (3rd century B.C. onwards, or even earlier if reference to potsherd scribbling found at the Anuradhapura Citadel are taken into account), had adopted the script and the language (proto-Sinhala) in which it was written.

What does that point to except that it was the early Prakrit/Proto-Sinhala language written in Brahmi which was the all pervading medium used in the island during the 3rd century B.C. to 1st century A.C. and that situation cannot be off set by a single claimed “Tamil Brahmi” scribbling found on a potsherd at Tissamaharama (P. Raghupathy/ Iravathan Mahadevan) – which incidentally was a port town that was frequented by many mariners, including ones from South India. Raghupathy himself who depends entirely on Mahadevan’s reading of the script, admits that there could be alternative interpretations. (Tamilnet)
The following quotations taken from James W Gair’s copious writings (selected and edited by Barabara C. Lust, Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan islolate, a paper dedicated to my good friend from the kindergarten days, the former York University Professor of Linguistics, the late Prof. M.W. Sugathapala de Silva (“Sugathe” in Western academic circles) is worth quoting:

“…No one who has worked in Sinhala, Tami, and some Northern Indo-Aryan language such as Hindi can fail to get some global feeling of similarities shared by the first two in contradistinction to the latter. There is a danger, however, in drawing too ready conclusion about massive Dravidianisation of Sinhala, since it is easy to overlook similarities and differences in the opposite direction and ignore the less exciting question of the extent to which Sinhala has remained distinctively Indo-Aryan” – Gair: 1976, p. 260

“…Indeed, Sinhala has retained its Indo-Aryan identity despite the constant contact with Dravidian languages, a persistence that I referred to in the same paper as “minor miracle of linguistic and cultural history” – Gair: 1976, p. 259

“…It has emerged as a language with a unique character within the south Asian linguistic area, a result of its Indo-Aryan origins, Dravidian influences, and independent internal changes … but it is often overlooked in this regard that there was clearly, some other, apparently non-Dravidian, language (or languages) spoken in the island before the advent of the Sinhala … Vedda language and other items in Sinhala which cannot be traced to either Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages (Hettiarachchi and M.W.S.)” – Gair: 1976, p. 259

As Gair/Lust pointed out, the task of sorting out all this in the history of the Sinhala language, particularly when identifying the external influences and internal developments and their interactions, has barely begun though a start has been made (e.g. Silva 1961, Hettiarachchi 1974, Ratanajoti 1975, De Silva M.W.S. 1979, esp. ch 1 – chp.2; Gair 1979b, 1986b). This has to be put in perspective against the tendency, as seen even in South Indian Tamil scholarship as pointed out by Champakalaksmi (1996), Gurukkal (1989), Thapar (1989) and Shinu Abrahams quotes at the beginning, to rush to conclusions, now repeated by Mr. Devananda for the “serene joy and emotion” of the Tamil cheer fan-base, with the slightest evidence of a Tamil presence.
The same applies to interpretation of the megalithic data which has already been touched upon as well as to literary references quoted in respect of the ‘Nagas’.

2.12 ‘Sihala’ and ‘Dameda’

It’s in regard to the “Sinhala” and “Dameda” group identification that we see Mr. Devananada’s true colours come to the fore. The lengths he is prepared to go to deny the “Sinhala” identity formation as being a true epoch making development with regards to the Islands history, is unfortunately revealed in graphic detail.
He starts with this very superficial attack using the Mahabharata as evidence (The Mahabharata text has been provisionally dated to cover the time period 400 BC – 400 AD), to support a claim, as we shall see later, that can only be described as galling, “…the Sinhalas mentioned in the Mahabharata is totally different from the Sinhalas that the Mahavihara monks created…”. The full remark is as follows:

“…Since there was NO Sinhala in Sri Lanka until the Mahavihara monks mentioned it for the first time in the 5th / 6th century AD, in order to create the Sinhala identity (to sustain Buddhism in Lanka) the term Sinhala may have been adopted from the Indian epic Mahabharata which predates the Mahavansa by many centuries. The Mahabharata talks of Sinhalas as the barbarous mlecchas, the natives of Lanka in its Book 1, Chapter 177, in Book 2, Chapter 33 & 51, and in Book 7, Chapter 20. However, the Sinhalas mentioned in the Mahabharata is totally different from the Sinhalas that the Mahavihara monks created (Lion myth) in the 5th century AD. A Tamil inscription found in a Hindu temple in South India during the Rajaraja Chola 1 (10th / 11th AD) also has a very similar statement like what was found in the Mahabaratha with a slight variation, referring to Lanka it say, ‘the land of the warlike Singalas’.”.

Once again, it would have helped the readers if Mr. Devananada had outlined the context in which the word ‘Sinhala’ was used for everyone’s benefit rather than misquoting the text mislead readers through selective quotes and misinterpreting that that the term ‘Mlecchcha’ was used in the text to denote the ‘Sinhala,’ “the natives of Sri Lanka.”

Before we proceed further, here Mr.Devananda whom some one called a “legal mind,” has exposed his confusion and contradiction when he says that Mahabharata , which predates the Mahavamsa is referring to the “natives of Sri Lanka” as Mlecchas; while arguing elsewhere that the term “simhala ‘ was first used by Sri Lankan chronicle Dipavamsa to denote the land and not the people and argues that the term was not used in people’s context till the 7th century!

The more important point is the misquoting the text itself. Any one who could get hold of Mahabharatha even in translation could see that the reference in it to ‘Simhala’ figures along with others including Dravidas, Pallavas, Andhras, Yavanas, Sakas and Murundas, Chinas, Thurkas, Shahi, Shahanu Shahi (Persian), just to mention a few. In Bk.1, Chap,177, it says that the Simhala armies are spoken of as having been born from the mouth of Vasistha’s Sacred Cow with those of Yavanas, and barbarious tribes of Khsas, and Chivakas, and Pulindas, and Chinas, and Hunas, with Keralas and numerous other Mlecchas. . Other people are shown as born from other parts of the Sacred Cow, including the Dung and Urine! For example, Pallavas from the Tail and Dravidas and Sakas from the Udder. Here the Simhala are placed together with ‘Yavanas.’ (Mahabharata, Bk,2,Chap.177)

From this long inventory of peoples given in Mahabharata (there are five references to ‘Simhala’ ) it is not clear who really the Mlecchas were. It is a question of interpreting this ancient text which had been composed at a long period of time running over centuries. The reference to ‘Simhala’, if it refers to the same land mentioned in Dipavamsa, it should be a reference to time after state formation in Sri Lanka; and it refers to ‘kings/armies . According to the argument of Mr.Devananda elsewhere and others like Sitrampalam, not to the people or language. Despite Mr.Devananda’s clam that Mahabharata predates Mahavamsa (5th century) according to great authorities Mahabharatha is a work composed over centuries and the reference in some parts to many peoples, like Sakas and Hunas which are also referred to in Samudragupta’s Allahabad pillar inscription of 4th or 5th century A.C., is a pointer to the late date of those sections. That makes those parts contemporaneous with the dates of Sri Lankan chronicles if not later. Let us not disturb Mr.Devananda in his belief over Mahabharata pre-dating Mahavamsa. He should be left to wallow in his contradiction that ‘Simhala’ did not represent a people/ language till around the 7th century!

It is also interesting to note that Samudragupta, the powerful Gupta emperor does not refer to ‘Dravidas’, ‘Damedas’, or ‘Cola’, and ‘Pandyas’, but refers to ‘Simhala’. Isn’t this an interesting point to probe? The manifest point is that ‘Simhala’ appears to have been better known in the Gupta empire than any of the other south Asian kingdoms. No wonder the Sri Lankan king Siri Megha was exchanging embassies with the Gupta empire!

‘Sihala’ is referred to in the Chinese variants of the Western Han dynasty (205-251 A.C.) as Si-Chin-Pao (Sinhala-dvipa), and in the Eastern Han dynasty records as ‘Si –Tiao’ (Simha-Dvipa). Fa-shien writing in the 5th century and Hieun –Tsang in the 7th century, used the unmistakable terms,”Seng-chia-la” (Simhala) and “Su-tse –kwo” to the island. (Dr. Hao-Wei, visiting Lecturer Sabaragamuwa University, lecture delivered in Sinhala at the Royal Asiatic Society in Colombo, 2010). He pointed out that in Chinese texts Sri Lanka is referred to as “Simhala”“ from or “Simhala-dvipa” from pre-Christian times.

Buddhagosa writing in the 5th century A.C. referred to the Sinhala language as’Manoramam” (pleasant) indicating that the language had advanced in development at the time.

It is against this mass of varied evidence on the presence of the term Simhala in foreign records that Mr. Devananda has misled readers that the term “Sihala/Simhala” was not present till the 4th century (5th century according to him for no reason) Pali chronicle Dipavamsa referred to the ‘island’ (not to the people or the language) as ‘Simhala’. The contemporary record in Nagarjunakonda inscription of Upasika Bodhi Sri and Allahabad Pillar inscription of Samudragupta confirm the Sri Lank’s chronicl’s evidence.

It is also in the Nagarjunakonda inscription that one finds external reference to Damila applied to a land for the first time. Mr. Devananda’s argument that the term Simhala was applied to the land only and not to people or language should also apply to ‘Damila’. That term like the absence of the term ‘Simhala’ in the early Brahmi cave inscriptions of Sri Lanka (3rd century-2nd century A.C), also does not appear in Brahmi inscriptions in Pandya. Does it then mean that the term ‘Damila’ was not used for that land,/ people/ language also around the same time?

Is that also the purpose of quoting the Cola period inscription in South India (Raja Raja Cola’s time) which refers to Lanka as the land of ‘warlike’ people? Colonial writers too wrote on the ‘savage’ nature of some of the island’s people they encountered during their march to Kandy from Batticaloa. (See for example, Queyroz and Captain Johnston’s account). Wasn’t war imposed on the people and they had to fight a defensive war?
Mahavamsa has never called the Tamils by such discriminatory terms despite their causing much damage to their religion, economy and land during invasions.

This is another bit of evidence which exposes Mr. Devnanda’s objective. Based on all this external evidence for the usage of the term “Sinhala” in all its forms and connotations, in addition to Buddhagosa comments about the language coupled with the uniformity in script and the language its in from the 1300 odd Brahmi inscriptions, is it not self evident that the language of the last centuries BC evolved into what became identified as Sinhala or Elu by the 4th / 5th centuries AD, if not earlier, and that this language was becoming a marker of identity by this time?

Now one may argue that all these foreign references are to the land and not to the people. That is to say the people themselves did not call themselves ‘Simhala’. Only others called their land “Simhala” or ‘Simha Dvipa’.

Could the country have derived the name from the people? Mr.Devananda himself has provided the answer by quoting from Mahabharata as referring to ‘Simhala’ kings and ‘Simhala’ armies. That must surely be reference to ‘people!

Absence of “Dameda’ /Damila in South India

Along a similar theme, no one has ever asked the question, why in the South Indian Brahmi cave inscriptions is there no reference at all to ‘Dameda’ or ‘Damila’ or any other appellation to denote the existence of a Tamil ethnicity or Tamil Linguistic group. Why? One of the first such references to the appellation ‘Dameda’ outside the Island records occur in conjunction with the appellation ‘Tambapanni’ in the Nagarjunakonda inscription of Upasika Bodhisri. This inscription talked about how Upasika Bodhisri dedicated a temple “For the benefit of the masters and of the fraternities (of monks) of Tambapamna (Ceylon) who have converted Kashmir, Gandhara Cina, Cilata (Skt, Kirata), Avaramta (Sk. Aparanta), Vanga, Vanavasi, Yavana (?), Damila(?), Palura (?) and the isle of Tamba-pamni (Ceylon)” (Vogel, Epigraphia Indica, XX, pp. 22, 23). In this case, according to the Madras Epigraphist, the terms ‘Damila’ and ‘Tambapanni’ are used to denote countries/lands and not people.

The 3rd century B.C. Rock Edits of Asoka do not refer to Damila but to the tribes of “Coda, Padya, and Ketala puttas and Satiyaputtas”. The 2nd century B.C. Hathigumpha pillar inscription of the Kalinga ruler, Kharavela, refers to him breaking up “the confederacy of the T[r]amira countries of one hundred and thirteen years”. The Hathigumpha inscription is unique because it’s the first and only time the form “Tramira” is used. The Hathigumpha inscription is not without its controversy, Nilakantha Sastri associated Tramira with Damila, (Tramira = Dramira = Damila), this association is now being refuted by many scholars who point to a region in the Bay of Bengal, Tamralipta (Sanskrit: Tamra Lipta [Full of Copper]) as being the area mentioned in the inscription.

So it is in the 3rd – 4th century AD inscription at Nagarjunakonda that we first come across the first definitive evidence of the term ‘Damila’ being applied to a land. It is about that time that we find in the Sri Lankan chronicle, Dipavamsa, the term “Sihala” being applied to the land. (“Lankadipo ayam ahu sihena Sihala iti” – Dpv, IX, 1).

Mr. Devananda’s argument that the form Sihala/Simhala denoting a particular linguistic group was absent during the time of the Brahmi inscriptions, and that even in the Pali sources there are no references to ‘Sihala’ denoting either a totemistic group or a clan, is a direct borrowing from Dr. S.K. Sitrampalam, and supported by Prof. R.A.H.L. Gunawardana or vice versa. Sitrampalam even quoted Dr. G.C. Mendis to show it originally denoted the land and only later a particular linguistic group.

Why go so far when the 4th century Dipavamsa itself clearly stated that the land got its name from the lion?
Dr. Sitrampalam’s assertion that the form “Sihala”, based on the Nagarjunikonda inscription, is only associated with the Island is contradicted by Himanshu Prabha Ray’s reading of this inscription. Himanshu Prabha Ray in his book (The archaeology of seafaring in ancient South Asia), had this to say:

“An important inscription for this study is the Nagarjunakinda record dated to the fourteenth regal year of Virapurusadatta. It is significant that the record refers to the Iksvaku's descent from the mythical Solar dynasty of Ayodhya, to which the Buddha is also said to have belonged. It documents the dedication of an apsidal shrine, a vihara, a hall for religious purposes, a tank and a mandava by Bodhisiri, the femal lay devotee, at Nagarjunakinda to the fraternity of Sihala (Sri Lankan) monks who had converted Kasmira, Gandhara, Cina, Kirata, Tosali, Asparanta, Vanga, Vanavasi, Yavana, Damila and Tambapanni (Epigraphia Indica XX: 23). There seems to be a correspndence between this list and the one mentioned in the Mahavamsa (chapter xii) that refers to missionaries sent to various regions after the Third Buddhist Council...”.

Based on this account, it would appear that “Sihala” is associated with the Sri Lankan Monks present at Nagarjunakinda, whilst reference to Tambapanni is made with regards to the Island. Damila is identified as a region that the “Sihala” monks converted.

Reading these passages one can clearly see that from the way the word “Sinhala” is used, it’s in reference to a dynasty or a people’s identification of itself and their language. When we compare this evidence with other references to “Sinhala” during this same period we can get an idea of a general trend in the evolution of this term.

In contrast to what Paranavitana says, ‘Dameda’ may not have an ethnic connotation but a reference to the land from where they came as in the case of ‘Kaboja’ (Kambuja=East Persia, the horse-country) mentioned in Brahmi/Prakrit inscriptions who were in equal numbers to the ‘Damedas’. Nevertheless, would the argument be, as Paranavitana made with regard to the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, apply equally to the Damila and Tamil Nadu? That there was no need for an identification of their separate Tamil identity in an area they regarded to be their own lands? There is no mention of other ethnic groups in these inscriptions either unlike in Sri Lanka.

What’s even more fascinating is that there is no mention of the terms Dravida, Dravidam, Damila, ‘Dramila’, or ‘Dameda’ and their derivatives in any of the Sangam Literature. It is only in the Tolkappiyam, which Iravatham Mahadevan argues based on the epigraphical evidence as being from the 7th century AD, is there reference to a Tamil speaking region. Tolkappiyam calls the country between the ‘vada vengadam’ – Venkata hills in the North and ‘then kumai’ – Kanyakumari in the South, as “Tamil-kuru nallulagam” – the good land where Tamil was spoken.

Based on this evidence, are we to infer that before the 7th century AD, there wasn’t a linguistic group identity called Tamil or a collective Tamil-speaking region in South India? Surely the rules that are being made to apply to the Mahavamsa deserve to be applied to the Sangam Texts too!

Furthermore, it is not explained why in the 9th century inscriptions also there is no mention of ‘Sinhala’ land (Sinhala–bim) while there are five [isolated] references to ‘Demala’ lands (Demala keballa, Demala gam-bim) which Mr. Devananda quotes to substantiate Tamil presence. Does that quoted evidence mean that there were no Sinhalese in the island but only Tamils even in the 9th century?

So, isn’t it better to avoid ‘argumntum e silentio’ in both Sri Lankan and South Indian cases and approach the subject in less confrontational manner?

“Dameda” as Persian subjects 

No one has ever examined if the origins of the “Dameda” could have been derived from any other source, other than the sources the “controversial” archaeologist/historian Paranavitana – according to Devananda – used to determine his origin theory. For example, the term “Trimili’ found applied to a people in the Lycian inscription [of two lines], indited above a panel of four male figures standing facing the figure identified as Autophradates, the Persian Satrap; and another inscription on the same monument present themselves as candidates calling for recognition. The dates suggested for the inscriptions are 380 – 370 B.C. which corresponds to the dates of the Sri Lankan cave inscriptions (Irano-Lycian Monuments, pp.137, 140, 147). The prospects of a Persian connection presented from this evidence is inviting investigation as there was present in Sri Lanka around the 1st century B.C., other people who figure in the Sri Lankan cave inscriptions, a people known as Kaboja’/ ‘Kabujika’ who too come from the Persian Satrapy of Kambuja which was renowned for the best horses. Reference to them in the cave inscriptions is as frequent as those for ‘Dameda’. Even on the reference to the people called ‘Dameda’, doesn’t Mr. Devananda try to mislead readers when he says ‘Dameda’ is the most frequent reference! Yes, if five out of 1300 plus inscriptions so far published represent a majority and one excludes the equal number of references to Kabuja/Kabujikas.

In this connection one may refer to the presence in Kharavela’s Hathigumpa Pillar inscription, a reference to :”Tramiradesasamghatam” which Nilakanta Sastri interpreted as the “defeat of a confederacy of Tamils” (Tramira- Dramira - Thamil) which is now not accepted. It also does not explain why the Pandyans are mentioned separately.

Even the reference to Sena-Guttika (horse-shippers) and the Elara legend (Anosharvan parallel) could point to a connection with the Persian mainland and maritime activity.

Robert Knox and Tamil Presence

Mr. Devananda quotes Robert Knox’s observations after his escape from Kandy as proof of the existence of Tamils in Anuradhapura in the 18th century. What a discovery? That the Vanni was then administered as fiefs assigned to immigrant and other Vanniyas by Sinhalese rulers of Kotte and Sitawaka is ignored.

Nuwarawewa (Nagore) was assigned to Suriyakumara of Malala family whose progeny (later Bulankulanmes) administered the region as Mahavanniya to the time of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and later under British rule. Suriyakumara’s brother-in-law was Bandara Vanniya of Mullaitivu who later fought the British with a Sinhalese army and cannons supplied by the Sinhalese Dissawa. My friend, the late Prof. Suriyakumaran too claimed [noble] descent from the same family! (See De Silva, D.G.B.: Vanniyas – Hugh Nevill commemoration Lecture published in JRAS, 1995).

True, the Vanniya and his attendants may have spoken Tamil but that does not point to the local population whom Knox did not meet as they remained in their fields and chenas. (JRAS). Why not quote also that in the 19th century, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam in his Memorandum to the Governor over the extension of the railway line to Jaffna, too claimed that Tamils had colonised up to Anuradhapura? And, that the town dwelling Tamils who were perhaps, the majority, were also responsible for using the trench cut by H.C.P. Bell in the so called ‘Elara Sohona’ to ease themselves early in the morning, and during later excavations, Dr. Paranavitana had to remove loads of human excreta from the place!

To be continued.... 

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