History-Making in Lanka: Problems

| by Michael Roberts

( June 18, 2014, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian ) Central themes in the understanding of Sri Lanka’s recent as well ancient history have been fashioned by two occupational categories, namely, schoolteachers and politicians. The school teachers of the first 75 years of the twentieth century were mostly well-meaning personnel trained in the British empiricist traditions. Their tendency was to regard history as a collection of undisputed facts that could be juxtaposed along a chronological line. There was limited attention to the interpretive dimensions of the trade and the potential for debates around these interpretations. This heritage has been implanted in recent decades by what masquerades as an educational system (where I suspect that in practice it is a process of rote-learning that is now twisted by pliant teachers in each language stream to suit ethnic claims).

a classroom in the 19th century
NM Perera addressing a protest meeting in 1953 –Pic from Paradise in Tears
The political spokesmen were as categorical, but tailored their interpretations to their partisan requirements, among them the de-legitimisation of opponents. Thus, for example, by weight of articulation the Leftist spokespersons of the 1940s-to-60s were able to perpetuate the idea that the fathers of Sri Lanka’s independence pursued begging bowl politics and only succeeded because India’s independence in 1947 paved the way for Sri Lanka in 1948 (a thesis that is quite fallacious because it neglects the geo-political contours of the two comparative units).[1]

SWRD Bandaranaike speaking in 1956 — Pic from Paradise in Tears
So, HISTORY has been turned into a powerful FACT. It is not only part of the process of litigation seeking to establish property rights, whether paraveni (hereditary), willed by testament or prescriptive. It is also a foundation for claims to territory by states or embryonic states.

Where information is turned up by archaeology and its material products, whether visual paintings, artefacts or buildings in various stages of disuse, history is SEDUCTIVE. These remnants proclaim antiquity. Antiquity evokes respect if not awe. There are two scales here, however. The archaeological artefacts of so-called primitive peoples are increasingly valued in modern times, but have usually gathered less awe and political legitimacy than those of technologically advanced peoples and empires. The imposing ruins of ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Angkor Wat et cetera convey claims to greatness which the supposed descendants of the people who built them can parade with pride in ways less feasible for the ‘primitive’ aboriginal folk.

HISTORY is also BEGUILIING. Any Tom, Dick or Harry (hereafter shortened to TomDH) thinks s/he can write definitive history. Thus, recently in 2008 one C. Wijeyawickrema circulated a paper entitled “Ravana’s land and Tamil Nadu politicians: a brief history,” which not only brought alleged Tamilnādu versions of the Rāmā-Rāvana story into play, but detailed twentieth century events in Sri Lanka and Tamilnādu in order to present a picture of collusion over a long span of time between Tamilnādu separatists on the one hand and Sri Lankan federalists and Eelamists on the other. In short, historical ‘data’ (much of it spurious and questionable) was deployed to sustain his paranoid interpretation of the power wielded by Dravidian separatist forces in southern India as a major foundation for his rejection of federalism in any form for Sri Lanka.[2]

Likewise, the Sri Lanka Guardian recently carried an article called “Vijaya came later” written by an intellectual associated with a movement known as Jātika Chinthanaya (Nationalist Thought), namely, Nalin de Silva, a don in the field of mathematics. In a series of ‘definitive’ assertions de Silva states (1) that there were “Hela people living in this country before the Aryan language speaking people came from North India;” (2) that “from about ninth century BC Indo Aryan speaking people migrated to Sri Lanka and Vijaya could be the name given to the Victor who established some kind of dominance over the Hela people who lived in the country” and (3) that “the Indo Aryans who migrated to Sri Lanka or Heladiva fought and mixed with the Hela people who were neither Aryans nor Dravidians, and in the course of time formed the mixed nation Sinhala.”

Though proclaimed without a shred of evidence to demonstrate that the term Hela was in use before the fifth century BC [BCE], the argument is innovative. In effect, it seeks to outflank the inferential, yet reasonable, speculation that Tamil-speakers were found within the island at the time of the alleged arrival of the eponymous ancestor of the Sinhala people, namely Vijaya, by diving (literally) deeper back in time. The word Hela becomes his magic wand.

In other words, this is a blatant effort to ‘out-primordialise’ the pro-Tamil spokespersons who claim a primordial civilizational presence in the island for Tamils at the time the speakers of what is taken to be an Aryan-language arrived under the leadership of one Vijaya. In the process, Nalin de Silva also ‘out-primordialises’ the conventional Sinhala claim to the island embodied within the Vijaya legend. Vijaya remains as historical fact however, but as the second stage in the emergence of the “mixed nation” of Sinhalese (Sinhalas).

The TomDHs of contemporary times are not only Sinhalese. Tamils attached to the contemporary claims of the Tamils also work print and cyber-space assiduously to claim not only that the Tamil presence in Sri Lanka pre-dated the purported arrival of the Sinhala forefathers (certainly a distinct probability), but also to proclaim a linear genealogical continuity linking these Tamils of centuries BC with those who existed, say, when the Portuguese imperial forces turned up in the sixteenth century – and thus with the Tamils of the twentieth century. The latter is a representation that is as far-fetched as it is preposterous.

By way of illustration let me refer to the cyber-net response to an article on the “federal idea” in www transcurrents.com by one Sebastian Rasalingam, writing in opposition to the general thrust of Tamil claims today.[3] Rasalingam was vigourously challenged on 9 March 2008 by a blogger with the nom-de-plume “ilaya seran senguttuvan.”[4] Among other things Senguttuvan asserted that“the ancient Temple in Trinco [is proof that] the Tamil language-cultural traditions have been there for over 4,000 years.” When such monumental and sweeping claims can be made on the basis of one historical site of uncertain date (and possibly a medieval one at that), we are in the realms of fantasyland. Indeed, there is simply no foundation for meaningful discussion of historical issues with such ardent partisans on either side of the fence.

In this scathing comment on the intervention of TomDH types in Sri Lanka’s historiography I am not suggesting that a postgraduate degree in History is a pre-requisite for historical interpretation. Training in history does not preclude faulty interpretation. Ultimately, the test is in the content of one’s interpretation, its evidential grounding, the reasoning behind the linkages and one’s honesty of purpose. One test of intellectual honesty lies in the readiness to confront opinions and items of data that are counter to one’s argument. Where counterpoints are simply by-passed or glossed over, there it is that readers have room to question a writer’s thesis – the more so if his/her ethnic and other circumstances indicate affiliation with this or that political claim to territory or resource.

Experienced historians will also tell you that in any one subject there is often no agreement among specialist historians on the major issues within that defined subject. “Evidential grounding” is not always positive empirical fact; it extends to circumstantial data. As illustration, let me take a thesis that I presented in 1989 about the story of the arrival of the Portuguese apparently carried to the King of Kotte in 1505, that famous tale about “kudugal sapākana lē bona minissu” – “people who devour stones and drink blood.”[5]

My speculative suggestion was that this tale was a parable, one that depicted the Portuguese as destructive and viperish. In other words the tale cleverly indicated therein that the Portuguese were demonic; they were yakku. In summary, my hypothesis rested on two conjectural suggestions: (1) that the story was concocted in the late sixteenth century AFTER the Sinhala people had experienced the terrible effects of Portuguese imperial activity; and (2) four or five clues within the text in question which pointed in the same direction, clues that are allegorical and cryptic.

When formulating this interpretation I consulted a literary specialist, Professor Suraweera, whose immediate reaction was to ask: “how can you prove your idea?” or words to that effect. This was a typical empiricist reaction. However, his widening eyes and subsequent translation of my article meant his acceptance of the idea. When the article saw the light of print however, it was dismissed by my former colleagues in the Department of History at Peradeniya University, Shelton Kodikara and C. R. de Silva, while it was imperiously disparaged by K. M. de Silva. Fortunately it has received since support in foreign quarters from Akhil Gupta (who uses the article in his teaching) and Richard Young. Indirect support was also provided by Young’s translation and analysis of an eighteenth-century palm-leaf manuscript of older provenance that displayed virulent hostility to the Catholic and Saivite dispensations.[6]

History, then, is a contentious subject among academics. Where the investigation relates to the origins of particular named peoples and goes back deep in time to eras where the data is limited and fragmentary, the scope for contention is greater. The difficulties are exacerbated too at times by the requirement for multi-disciplinary skills that embrace linguistics and archaeological techniques. In fact, multi-disciplinary cooperation is a pre-requisite for rounded analysis of ancient Sri Lankan history.

All this, then, underlines the complexity of historical issues relating to the origins of the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka and the identities that prevailed at various periods. From a logical point of view one can conjecture that many of the aboriginal people of the era prior to the emergence of writing in the Brahmi, Prakrit, Tamil and proto-Sinhala scripts, say, prior to the centuries four and five BCE, eventually intermarried with migrants from the Indian sub-continent who brought the Tamil language as well as those who brought, or developed, the proto-Sinhala language with its Prakrit, Pāli and Sanskrit roots. But there seems to be limited information on the identities (as both subjectively and relationally constituted in each generation of twenty years, and thence continuously re-constituted) prevailing among the peoples of that time. Lacking expertise in this field I cannot say much more.

But it requires little more than common sense to stress that one cannot apply modern concepts to that era. To deploy the terminology of “nation” in this era, as Nalin de Silva does, is simply ludicrous. This concept has a modern connotation and is deeply influenced by the philosophy of the French Revolution, the theory of popular sovereignty and the idea of citizenship – an idea that does not rest solely on putative blood line or language of birth. It is also informed by the institutional practices of countless states in the last 200 years.

Let me conclude by attending to the vocabulary of ‘nation” in the English language. In sixteenth-century England “nation” was synonymous with “a host of persons,” with a “particular class, kind, race and thus with “a family or kindred,” “clan” and “tribe.” These associations continued for several centuries, but within the context of intermittent wars between England (Britain) and France and then because of the French Revolution, the term “nation” came to denote “the political people of a society.” This is to simplify a long and complex story.[7]

The consequence is that the terms “nation” and “tribe” were gradually differentiated during the course of the period extending from 1600 to, say, 1914, with “nation” carrying legitimacy, while “tribe” was associated with a primitive a state of being – so that the twentieth century Leftists in British Ceylon in the inter-war years could disparage the Sinhala and Tamil communalists by depicting them as “tribal.”[8]But this process of language change was partial. As Susan Bayly has emphasised, the British in India used “the terms caste, tribe, nation and race … interchangeably and imprecisely”[9] Again, even in the early twentieth century one found aboriginal people and older generations in Australia equating “tribe” with “nation.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this confusion was compounded by the tendency both in everyday speech and bureaucratic practice for the terms “race” and “nation” (in its modern connotation) to be used as synonyms.[10]This occurred in a context featured by the development of race theories associated with burgeoning imperialism and beliefs in White superiority. Within the Indian sub-continent Orientalist scholars also discovered a difference between the Aryan and Dravidian languages, but spoke about this distinction in ways that encouraged a slippage into racial difference.[11] The result was a widespread belief in the distinction between “Aryan races” and “Dravidian races.”

In British Ceylon this tendency was further compounded by the multiple meanings attached to certain terms in the Sinhala and Tamil languages. In Tamil[12]one would have to attend to the use of the terms inam, thēsam, jāti and kulam; the variations in written and spoken language; the variation between the practices of people in Tamilnadu and those in Lanka; and that between older generations and those of the 1990s and 2000s.

Some of these grounds of variation exist among the Sinhalese as well. In the nineteenth century in Sinhala the term jātiya could equate in relational practice with kula (caste, type). Once the European references to “race” entered the scene, jātiya was utilised for that concept too. Thus, in a setting involving interplay with the English language jātiya could refer to either caste or nation or race. To this day many Sri Lankans, especially those from older generations, use the term “race” freely in English-speak in referring to the Sinhalese or Tamils — entirely oblivious to the manner in which the concept “race” has been exorcised or downgraded in Europe after the Nazi upsurge; and often neglecting the considerable admixture of blood in their own pedigrees.

There can be little doubt that the various ethnic categories residing in Sri Lanka today are all, every single category without exception, of mixed racial genealogy involving Vāddas, Sinhala-speakers and Tamil-speakers as well as infusions of Black African (Kāberi), European, Kerala, Telugu, Kannāda, Bengāli, Arab, Malay and yet other sperm in various measures. Racial purity is simply not a feasible claim within Sri Lanka.

This excursion on my part, then, asks for greater caution in extending modern terminology into the ancient period of Sri Lankan history. This does not mean that the people of that day did not make distinctions between categories of people; or that there was a state of categorical fluidity and confusion generated by continuous boundary crossing and intermarriage, a utopian scenario so prized by today’s post-modernists. Admittedly, over the last twenty-three centuries many Vāddās have become Sinhalese and/or Tamil and a few Sinhalese and Tamils have become Vāddās.[13] Likewise, some Sinhalese-speakers have become Tamils in subjective sentiment and language of preference and some Tamils have moved the other way. It is the specific circumstances that encouraged such shifts of identity among individuals and/or significant segments of each category at particular points of time in specific localities that require historical investigation. That is, as corollary, I hold in speculative assertion that such processes coexisted with attachment to their respective identities among significant bodies of each community, affiliations produced in part by numerical preponderance in specific regions and through a struggle for resources and control of existing states. In the long history of humankind it is war that has consolidated pre-existing identities, identities that, in their turn, contributed in some measure to these very conflicts. Not all dynastic wars were simply dynastic wars.

The basic question at issue for ancient Sri Lanka is linked with the monopoly of violence, namely, the possession of state power and its spatial reach. In these terms, the inter-related issues for non-partisan historians are: (1) during the long span 100 BCE to 1220 CE prior to the emergence of the Kingdom of Yalppānam in the thirteenth century CE [AD], what language did the majority of people in the island — one called variously Laka, Heladiv, Trisinhalaya, Sīhalaya,et cetera[14] — speak? (2) And which speech-community held the reigns of state power in those regions where a sprawling irrigation civilisation was being fostered? It is on this question-raising note that I end.


[1] See Roberts, “Elites, Nationalisms, and the Nationalist Movement in British Ceylon,” in Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon, 1929-1950, ed. by M. Roberts, Colombo: Dept. of National Archives, 1977, Vol. I: lxviii-cxlviii.
[2] Even though Dayan Jayetilleke is far from being an extreme chauvinist of the kind depicted here, he too strays into quite far-fetched fears of the Tamilnadu factor (see http:// federalidea.com/fi/ 2008/08/tamil_nadu_the_indian_model_an.html). For a critical note on this essay, see R. Venugopal, “The Spectre of Dravidistan,” in http://federalidea.com/fi/2008/08/ post_8.html. and “The Global Dimensions of Conflict in Sri Lanka,” draft paper for conference on Globalization at Pomonia College, USA, available at http://www.tamilnation.org/intframe/ tamileelam/030121venugopal. pdf.
[3] Rasalingam is of “Indian plantation Tamil” background and displays a visceral hatred of the LTTE, while presenting quite cogent arguments in newspaper and web-site from within this positioning. Also see Rasalingam, “We need inter-ethnic, inter-religious bridge building, not the political pie-cutting pretext of ‘devolution’,” 10 May 2009, http://www.trasncurrents.com or Asian Tribune.
[4] Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan is regular commentator in such web sites as http://www.transcurrents.com and http://www.groundviews.org. In recent months his position has been relatively moderate Tamil nationalist, but he remains a fierce and extreme critic of the Sri Lankan government
[5] Roberts, “A Tale of Resistance: The Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka”, Ethnos, 1989, vol. 55: 1-2: 69-82.
[6] Richard Young & GSB Senanayake, The Carpenter-Heretic (Colombo: Karunaratne and Sons 1998) and Richard Young, “The Carpenter-Prēta: An Eighteenth-Century Sinhala-buddhist folktale about Jesus,” Asian Folklore Studies, 1995, vol. 54: 50-66.
[7] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004, pp. 95-108.
[8] See Roberts, “Elites,” Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon, 1929-1950, pp. cviii-ix, cx1; Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood, 1994) pp. 252-55 and Y. Ranjith Amarasinghe, Trotskyism in Ceylon, University of London thesis, 1974, pp.55-58, 84-91, and 317-44.
[9] Susan Bayly, “Caste and Race …” in Peter Robb, ed., The Concept of Race in Asia, 1997, p. 175.
[10] Even today, some of the comments inserted in cyber-commentary on issues pertaining to the ethnic confrontation, deploy th term “race’ in speaking of specific ethnic groups in Lanka. This usage is by no means confined to those of extremist views.
[11] Poliakov 1996 and Gunawardana 1990: 70-78.
[12] I have been assisted here by personal communications in 2008 from Maya Ranganathan and S. V. Kasynathan, both residing in Melbourne.
[13] KNO Dharmadasa & SWR De Samarasinghe (eds.) The vanishing Aborigines, Delhi: Voikas, 1990 and G. Obeyesekere’s article in Neluka Silva (ed.) The Hybrid Island, Culture Crossings and the Invention of Identity, London: Zed Books, 2002.
[14] See the list of 21 names utilised during the ancient and medieval periods in Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, pp. 58-59. The variation arises from the use of Hela Sinhala. Palicized Sinhala and Sanskritized Sinhala and the dictates of poetic composition.