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Fashioning History in Sri Lanka

| by Michael Roberts

Abstract: Two arrival stories in the long span of the island’s history will provide the foundations for reflections on history-making in the modern era. Episode One will pursue my own intellectual trail in the 1980s in fashioning an interpretation of the story of the arrival of the Portuguese and my subsequent confrontations in print with KM de Silva on this issue in the 1990s. Episode Two essays an interpretation of the advent of Vijaya retailed in the Pali & Sinhala chronicles as a genesis story of the same order as the tale of Adam and Eve: contending that it is not a tale with any factual basis, but one that conveys a mythic truth for its authors and ‘faithful’ listeners. It is, thus, a morality-tale about the magical implantation of civilised culture and state-forms within the island. This interpretation, however, has shortcomings and will benefit from the correctives imposed by Godfrey Gunatilleke’s exposition of the multi-faceted symbolism associated with this myth.

This essay was composed at some point in the early 2000s and I am not sure if it was printed or presented in the public realm. However, it seems useful to make it more widely available in the cyber-world because it displays reasoned academic debate based on empirical data as well as imaginative extrapolation in ways that should stimulate readers.

( June 18, 2014, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Let me stress that these engagements occurred before Kitsiri Malalgoda recently presented an incisive set of criticisms of my interpretation of the kudugal sapākamin lē bona minissu tale of the Portuguese sailors’ first appearance on the shores of the island. Malalgoda’s work of research ranged far and wide over several lands and also involved (involves) creative dissembling and assembling. So readers are encouraged to visit K.Malalgoda, “1505 and all that: varied views on a first encounter,” in Home and Away. Essays in Honour of Sarath Amunugama, Colombo, Siripa Publishers, 2010 –ISBN 978-955-0564-00-2

Vasco De Gama
a caravel

I. A Tale of Resistance: the Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese
When the Portuguese arrived at the open roadstead known as Kolontota in 1505 or 1506 (the year matters not one jot), it is said that the local Sinhala people conveyed their amazement at the sight of the Portuguese in their armoured dress and strange life ways in a tale carried to their king not far away in Kotte. In the English version retailed in school the Sinhalese are said to have depicted the Portuguese as “eaters of stone and drinkers of blood.”

There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron and hats of iron: they rest not a minute in one place: they walk here and there: they eat hunks of stone and drink blood: they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime: the report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock Yugāndhara. Their canon balls fly many a gauwwa and shatter fortresses of granite.
I have challenged this common interpretation. This story, in my reinterpretation, presents the Portuguese Catholics as restless, meat-craving, demonic beings: as phenomena of the same order as Vasavārti Māraya, alias Hūniyam, sorcerer extraordinary, the embodiment of the Buddhist conception of evil. It is a cunning way of presenting the Portuguese as terror. However, the story was not presented in terror. Yakku may be feared by the Sinhalese, but they are also regarded as amenable to control – they can be tricked and subject to ridicule in ways that restore them to their proper place below humans in the hierarchical cosmos. When confronting the tale of the Portuguese arrival as a written text, the silly face of the yakku is not easy to discern. One requires the lilt and tilt of oral recitations to derive this import. In other words, the riddle/parable would have imparted its message most effectively in its oral form: the performance and intonation would capture a spirit of resistance at the same time as they guided the audience towards the hidden plays and symbolic connections.

That is my fully fledged theory. It did not emerge in one step. Around 1984, inspired perhaps by new infusions of anthropological ‘blood,’ I ventured forth on the re-interpretation of this tale in a way that challenged this presentation of Sinhala-speaking locals as simpleton rustics (surely, given the flourishing Indian Ocean trading exchanges, the Sinhalese knew what naan was!!). So, in this reading it was a tale of resistance that depicted the Portuguese as demonic, as yakku.

Critical to this revisionist move in its final form were two speculative leaps: (a) since the tale had first appeared in written-form in the Alakēshvara Yuddhaya penned around 1592 I suggested that it was coined after the Sinhalese had experienced the Portuguese in all their atrocious power directed by cross and sword; and (b) that the cunning parabolic nature of the story would have been conveyed by the nuances of phonetic inflection in oral transmission.
More specifically, I conjectured that the reference to kudugal sapākamin, lē bona minisun – people who gobble stone and drink blood – was a derisive reading of the Catholic sacrament and was thus an affirmation of the dangers to the existing societal dispensation posed by the crusading, evangelical Portuguese imperialists.

My initial steps in presenting this thesis were tentative ones and not quite as fully developed as in the summary presented above. When I presented my initial version at a conference in Perth it was dismissed majestically by my two former colleagues, CR de Silva and Shelton Kodikara – with the only support in some measure coming from Arasaratnam and McIntyre (coincidentally two Tamils).

I persisted nevertheless and a nearly full-blown version of this interpretation was written around 1987 and appeared in the first few pages of the chapter on “Pejorative Phrases: the Anti-colonial Response and Sinhalese Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers” in my book People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, 1989) – with the final touches being added in the version that appeared as a separate article in Ethnos, 1989.

This interpretation clearly got under the skin of my friend and senior colleague of yesteryear, KM de Silva, the doyen of Sri Lankan historians. In a scathing review of People Inbetween, he dismissed this particular interpretation as wholly “whimsical.”[1] When my reply contended that the arguments he had peddled were directed by a form of diehard empiricism, his subsequent reply took the label on board: “yes, I am diehard empiricist,” said KM as he metaphorically thumped his chest and stuck to his guns.[2]

However, I had encountered positivist resistance to my explorations earlier. So let me set this dominant strand in the reasoning of Sri Lankan academics within its temporal context.

Sri Lankan historiography in particular and Sri Lankan scholarship in general developed in the British positivist and empiricist traditions implanted in the schools by numerous schoolteachers from the early 19th century onwards. A more sophisticated and fruitful version of British empiricist history governed the teachings communicated by such personnel as GC Mendis, WJF Labrooy, Karl Goonewardena and Sinnappah Arasaratnam at University College and Peradeniya Campus from the 1930s to 1950s. This was part of my training too, though ventures into agrarian history, processes of social mobility and intellectual history during the 1960s and 1970s enforced expanded horizons.

It was still something of a surprise to me when I faced empiricist reasoning within the august portals of the Sri Lanka branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, a form of “practical reason” that rejected the speculative thrusts of my re-interpretation. Many people in the audience were of Sinhala nationalist disposition, but – with the single exception of Mahen Vaithianathan — they were openly hostile to my drift. Take one instance: one of the clues pointing towards my conclusion was the reference to the great desire for lime and fish among these (supposedly) strange Portuguese sailors. One person in the audience immediately told me and those present that the Portuguese needed lime to combat the scourge of scurvy. Truly, a reaction directed by a form of practical reasoning that foreclosed other options.

To repeat, then, that particular example represented a form of empiricist reasoning that rejected my imaginative leap in treating the symbol of lime as a metaphoric and parabolic allusion to the smell of the viper, and thus of Vasavārti Mārayā, the embodiment of evil resistance to the Dhamma in the Buddhist traditions and of normal human life in the compositional picture within many yaktovil, viz, healing rituals.
The best illustration of this positivist reluctance to embrace a potential ‘truth,’ however, occurred earlier. As part of my research I went Vidyodaya University to meet AV Suraweera, the author of the printed Sinhala version of Alakēshvara Yuddhaya. It was our first exchange and I proceeded to lay out the several clues within the short text that led in the direction of my reworked thesis. At the end he sat there pondering and I asked him; “what do you think?” He was non-committal: after a pause, he asked “how do you prove it?”

“How does one prove it?” That is surely a perspective in the best empiricist and positivist tradition. However, Suraweera had kind of supported my thesis already: when I referred to lime being the smell of the viper and Vasavārti Māraya, his eyes had widened and his face had lit up. He was well-versed in Sinhala culture and had seen the possibilities. As a footnote, let me also stress that that he encouraged my pursuit of this path in subsequent months and has even translated the essay (in Ethnos) that eventuated into Sinhala.

A final note: a few years after my stoush with KM de Silva in 1990 and 1991 an article from a total stranger Richard Young landed in my mail-box with indirect but strong support for my position. It was based on the story of the “carpenter-perētayā,” with its virulent anti-Catholic commentary, imprinted within an ola-leaf manuscript penned in 1762. The full version of the series of tales in this manuscript is now available both as transcript and translation in a book by Young and Senanayake, entitled The carpenter-heretic. A collection of Buddhist stories about Christianity from 18th century Sri Lanka and published by Karunaratne and Sons in 1998. Though available in the island, it is perhaps a damning measure of Sri Lankan scholarship that few scholars who write on the politics of identity over the centuries seem to have read this work.

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II. Vijaya as Founding Father: The Force of Primordiality, the Uhrsprüngliche Moment

Some letters from the Kandyan court to the British began with the phrase “from the great King Vijaya born of the noble … Race of the Sun …”. President JR Jayewardene seized on this tradition in numbering the line of kings leading up to his Presidency. In different fashion, when visiting South Africa President Chandrika Kumaratunga spoke of the Sinhalese people being “the original inhabitants” of Lanka – immediately provoking a howl of protest from Tamil spokespersons.

There are Tamil propagandists who seek to out-Vijaya Vijaya by claiming that Rāvanā was Tamil; but they are ‘matched’ by Sinhala propagandists, such as Nalin de Silva, who make equally fabulous claims by majestic leaps to the pre-Vijayan period on the basis of literal twists on the figures in the Indian epics. But every one of these history-makers treats Vijaya as a historical figure, a fact.

So the past is clearly seductive, beguiling. Primordiality and antiquity are writ large and are used as foundations for claims to sovereignty. The Uhrsprüngliche moment becomes an instrument of legitimacy in contemporary political rhetoric.

It is not difficult, of course, to de-bunk the Vijaya story. There isn’t a single shred of evidence from the centuries BC to support the appearance of this figure in the Pali chronicles of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. Even if we allow for the probability that it was part of the Sīhala-Atthakatā-Mahāvamsa that was the basis for the Pali chronicles, the point at which the latter text emerged (to surmise, say, in the second century BCE) seems so distant from the supposed moment of Vijaya’s advent that our scepticism must be extreme.

Vijay means “conquest” – a clue to its symbolic meaningfulness to the creators of the oral traditions that then became chronicles. On this ground and with positivist scepticism about the empirical factuality of Vijaya’s advent I presented a ‘thesis’ on this subject in a journalistic intervention around the year 2000.[3] The story of Vijaya, I said, was a genesis story. He was invented in the Sinhala-Pali traditions as an eponymous ancestor, a civilising immigrant bringing culture and state-forms to the uncivilised peoples who dwelt in Siri Laka. He was no more empirical fact than Adam and Eve. Both tales were didactic parables about original points of genesis-cum-culture, that is, culture in the sense of civilised culture.

While my empiricist perspective in this particular article was leavened by the interpretative twist that highlighted its didactic purpose, my concluding note to the effect that we should enter the new millennium without “such archaic baggage” re-inserted the practical reasoning of modernism.

Till Godfrey Gunatilleke intervened.[4] Let me quote him: “To me the myth of Sinhabahu and Vijaya has a powerful and unique symbolism. It depicts the violent transition from a condition of brute nature to a primary human condition. This has to occur through a tragic act of parricide of the brute father. This is the primal Freudian drama set in a context of humanisation and liberation. As in a Greek tragedy the spiral of violence must continue through Vijaya whom the father has to exile for his criminality and who must create his new kingdom through treachery and the abandonment of his consort and his children. Thereafter Vijaya gives up “his evil ways” and reigns righteously. This is the pre-Buddhist state before the conversion, before the preaching of the Dhamma which begins with the sermon on “spiritual calm.”

A critical facet in this intervention on Gunatilleke’s part is his insistence that the Vijaya legend cannot be understood in isolation. It is part of a developmental series and requires the conversion of Dēvānampiya Tissa [in the 3rd century BC] to crystallise its implications to the full.
Likewise, Gunatilleke observes that there are many Dutugämunus in the Mahāvamsa: “the triumphant warrior; the victor stricken with Asokan grief over those slain in the war; the righteous king who ordained that no work be done for the Lohapasāda without the ‘work being appraised and wages being paid;’ the monarch who had scruples about levying taxes to build the Great Stupa; the dying king who said that ‘all his benevolence while he reigned did not gladden his heart, only the two gifts he gave without care for his life while he was in adversity…’ gave him solace; who after death becomes the first disciple of the Maitreya Buddha.”[5]

Such sensitive readings of ardent Sinhala recollections of their past mark the route we, today, must take. The dismissive responses of secular, rationalist scholars only alienate and sponsor chauvinist fundamentalism in opposition to the extremism of the secularists. It is not necessary to expunge Vijaya in the clinical empiricist manner adopted in my initial essay. Rather the pathway lies in the approach taken by Gunatilleke with his call for “a reasoned liberation from the past” that does not totally jettison the morals encoded symbolically in mythic tales. Gunatilleke’s route opens the possibility of both appreciating and limiting the myths of the past by recognising their emotional relevance for many Sinhalese today; by granting that they contribute to some cherished values and serve as an anchorage that stabilises the sense of collective Sinhala being; and yet noting their mythological moral-making character.[6]


De Silva, K. M.
1986 Managing ethnic tensions in mulit-ethnic societies. Sri Lanka 1880-1985, Lanham: University Press of America.
1988 “Political crisis and ethnic coflicts in Sri Lanka. A rejoinder to Michael Roberts,” Ethnic Studies report, 6/1: 63-74.
1990a “The Burghers in Sri Lankan history,” Daily News, 19 September 1990.
1990b “Why the Burgher exodus?” Daily News, 20 September 1990.
1991 “Lawyers, clients, caste and red herrings,” Sunday Observer, 7 April 1991.
Dharmadasa, K.N.O.
1992 “ ‘The People of the Lion’: Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, 10: 37-52.
Roberts, Michael
1988 “Sri Lanka: ethnic conflict and political crisis: A review article,” [reviewing KM de Silva] Ethnic Studies, 6: 40-62.
1989a “A tale of resistance: the story of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka”, Ethnos, 55: 1-2: 69-82.
1989b “Pejorative phrases: the anti-colonial response and Sinhala perceptions of the self through images of the Burghers,” in Swedish in Lanka. Tidskrift om Lankesisk Kultur (Uppsala), vol 2.
1989c “Apocalypse or accommodation? Two contrasting views of Sinhala‐Tamil relations in Sri Lanka,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 12/1: 67-83.
1990 ‘The migration of Burghers,” The Sri Lankan, April 1990, page 5-6.
1991 “People inbetween and Professor K. M. de Silva’s diehard history,” Daily News, 21 March 1991.
2000a “Lanka without Vijaya. Towards the new millennium,” Lanka Monthly Digest, Jan. 2000, vol. 6: p. 27.
2000b “History as dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no. ?, pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.
2000c “The Sri Lankan identity,” Lanka Monthly Digest, November 2000, vol 7: 4, pp. 43-44.
2001a “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [Wicked-cum-vile Tigers to the south and the turbulent sea to the north], Pravāda, vol 6, no. 11, pp. 17-18.
2001b “The burden of history: Obstacles to power sharing in Sri Lanka.” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 35/1: 65-96.
2001c Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism, pamphlet, Colombo: Marga Institute, A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, No.4.
2002a “Vijaya: Interpreting the Civilizational Myth.” Sunday Observer, 1 September 2002.
2002b “Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhala Nationalism in Sri Lanka: Urumaya as Ur,” Colombo: Marga Institute, A History of EthnicConflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, No. ?.
Tambiah, S. J,
1986 Sri Lanka. Ethnic fratricide and the dismantling of democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Young, Richard 1995 “The Carpenter-Prēta: An Eighteenth-Century Sinhala-Buddhist Folktale about Jesus,” https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/140, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama.
Young, R. F. and G. S. B. Senanayaka 1999 The carpenter-heretic. A collection of Buddhist stories about Christianity from 18th century Sri Lanka,Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons.
[1] KM de Silva, “The Burghers in Sri Lankan history,” Daily News, 19 September 1990.
[2] KM De Silva, “A diehard empiricist historian responds,” Daily newss, 1991 [details misplaced].
[3] Lanka Monthly Digest, Jan. 2000, 6: 27. Also now available in Roberts: Fire and Storm, 2010, pp. 1-3.
[4] This friendly incursion occurred during the course of the meetings organised by the Marga Institute in 2001-02 in connection with its monograph series on “A History of Ethnic Conflict.”
[5] My memory has faded and I cannot recall how Godfrey Gunatilleke sent this comment to me –presumably by letter.
[6] These concluding paragraphs are a verbatim reiteration of ideas expressed in 2002 in my article in the Sunday Observer of 1 September 2002 under the title “Vijaya: Interpreting the Civilizational Myth.” The verbatim text is reproduced in