“Ethnicisation” of History Writing in South Asia/Sri Lanka - Part 5

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

by Bandu de Silva

Previous Parts: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

3. Political Overview & Conclusion

3.1 Anagarika Dharmapala – the Villain!

(February 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) 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 Dharmapala 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 –“Vellalars 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-Vellalar’s. 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 Vellalar 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. Anagarika Dharmapala’s revivalist movement from the onset did not target other communities or their religions, as observed by the Editor of the Hindu Organ in Jaffna, “…The Buddhist renaissance has not so far been a militant one, antagonistic to every other community, not intolerant of every religion…”. (Russell, p. 144).

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 Vellalar supremacy. For him, the non-Vellalar’s, 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 Vellalar 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 people as a whole have for thousands of years remained loyal to the saintly apostles of Buddhism and to the noble teaching that gave them individuality so full of vitalizing power that they were able to withstand the sledge-hammer of attacks levelled at their faith by persistent propagandists of other religions”. (Russell, p 152). Dr. Jane Russell also observes that Anagarika’s use of the Elara-Dutugemunu story was specifically in context to an attack on the Christian church which Dharmapala identified as a fifth column, “…he was attacking the Christian Church, which he identified as a fifth column of British Imperialists”. (Russell, p 152). She also commented on the close kinship she witnessed between Anagarika and the Hindu faith, “…Dharmapala was not really aiming these brickbats at the Ceylon Tamil Hindus; in fact he spent most of his life in India, lectured quite often on Hinduism, and counted Hindus as some of his greatest friends”. (Russell, p 152)

In light of all this, Anagarika’s role in the nationalist movement and the surrounding issues 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 Vellalar Preoccupation 

The preoccupation of some of the Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship by and large, is to project the academic embodiment of Vellalar supremacy rather than the Sri Lankan Tamil presence per se, this is best described by Bryan Pfaffenberger’s 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..”. 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 Vellalar supremacist stand which was an inherent need to associate a continuous permanent/settled antiquity to a Tamil identity (nascent Vellalar identity) that went back 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 Vellalar 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 Vellalar 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 Vellalar 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 Vellalar (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 Vellalar’s 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 Vellalar’s of Tinnevelley (Irunkal [be seated] Vellalar’s), 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 Vellalar 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 Vellalar’s that has become the problem for defenders of Vellalar 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 Vellalar 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.

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 Vellalar 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.

To be continued.....

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