Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What to do about Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I am in a moral quandary over what to do about Chandre Dharmawardana. Should I look askance at this professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Montreal, shuddering with horrified wonder as if he is a mutant worm or should I use the situation to cultivate equanimity? The arguments for both courses of action are equally strong in my mind. For looking askance, he has shown himself fundamentally clueless about the history of languages in Sri Lanka. It is pretty shudder-worthy when a person who claims a degree of expertise in the historical development of place names of Sri Lanka (, reveals himself to be clueless about the linguistic evolution thereof. This is why I couldn’t stop shuddering when I read the following communication from Dr. Dharmawardana.
“I personally think there were no Damila or Sinhala in the 2nd century BC. The inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil. The Sinhala has an advantage because the Parkrit is close to Pali, but I personally think the ethnic distinctions came up probably after wars of Dutugamunu…”
In favour of cultivating equanimity and dropping the shudder, Dr. Dharmawardana was very cooperative when I asked his permission to use this personal email note sent by him to a third party. I fully expected him to stall, cringe in shame and invoke his right to keep his email communications private. Instead he was breezy; “Of course, you have the permission to use that material. I assumed that the material was already in the public domain! I am glad this is an easy request.” Indeed he was all “Indeed, I am interested in what Darshanie is doing, and would be very willing to help her where ever I can…” and made me cringe that I had shuddered and not possessed the equanimity to see that sometimes, a mistake just deserves correcting.

Mistake could be too light a word however, to describe the yawning chasm that exists between the current knowledge in historical linguistics and Dharmawardana’s personal take on it. Was linguistics in Sri Lanka ever in the simpleton stage conceived by Chandre? A linguist standing in front of the Brahmi lithic records, scratching head and wondering ‘Sinhalese or Tamil hmm? Reads like Pali. So closer to Sinhala? Doesn’t really sound like either to me.’ Even by 1938, there was Wilhelm Geiger making ‘a proper historical analysis of the Sinhala language’ and giving ‘the name Sinhalese Prakrit to the earliest form’ of the Sinhalese language ‘as found in the Brahmi inscriptions.’ Now it’s advanced enough to tell us that the Prakrit, a Middle Indo-Aryan language that came to the island probably around 6th century B.C. underwent changes that made it different from all other Prakrits in India. By the time inscriptions started being written on stone in centuries 3rd /2nd B.C., these changes had already taken place. These changes were the harbingers of the present Sinhala language; hence the language of the Brahmi stone inscriptions of Sri Lanka is named old Sinhala/Sinhalese Prakrit. Historical linguistics in Sri Lanka is advanced enough to trace which change harbingered which characteristic of the present language. ““Furthermore, the lack of diphthongs in Sinhala resulted largely from changes such as ay(a)>e and av(a)>o occurring prior to the earliest inscriptions...”-(Gair:1985 ). It’s also possible for historical linguists to trace the evolutionary journeys taken by the Prakrit called old Sinhala in contradistinction to all other Prakrits of the Indian mainland. “…Sinhala appears to have retained the OIA (Old Indo Aryan) distinction between retro-flex and nonretroflex nasals longer than any other IA language. The distinction was retained in Pali…but they are merged in one direction or the other in latter Prakrits except for old Sinhala. This by itself, of course, points to the relatively early transfer of Sinhala to the island, in time to miss the general merger on the mainland. The distinction was retained in Sinhala until about the eighth century …then it was lost.”- (ibid)

The source of Chandre’s misdirection would be hard to determine without telepathy. Multiple sources could be involved. One of them is sure to be ‘The Evolution…’ by K. Indrapala. This book is strewn with traps to trip the cognitively careless. Nearly always, Indrapala uses the generic name Prakrit for the language of the stone Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka even when the context cries out for the specific name; “The earliest stone inscriptions in Sri Lanka, datable to about the second century BCE are all in Prakrit… The earliest stone inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, also datable to the second century BCE, are in Old Tamil but betray influence of Prakrit”- (p.89). In contrast, he uses Old Tamil and Tamil interchangeably just as Gair in the above quotes uses Sinhala and old Sinhala interchangeably. The term ‘Sinhalese Prakrit.’ is confined to three far apart pages of the book. Page 91, under the heading Sinhalese-Prakrit, carries several references including “The language of the earliest records is a form of Prakrit, often referred to as Sinhalese-Prakrit…”

Page 337 (an end note page) remarkably uses Sinhalese –Prakrit and Old Sinhalese interchangeably. This refers to recent writings by Tamil Nadu scholars appreciating the flow of influences from ancient SL to their region: P. Jeyakumar- evidence from Tamil Nadu potsherd graffiti ‘showing influences of Sri Lankan Brahmi and Sinhalese-Prakrit.’: Iravatham Mahadevan- ‘among the inscribed potsherds found in Tamil Nadu, a small but significant group’ is in ‘Sinhala-Prakrit language written in the Early Sinhala-Brahmi script’: Some interesting articles by Mahadevan; ‘An Old Sinhalese Inscription from Arikamedu’, ‘Old Sinhalese Inscriptions from Indian Ports…’: S. Iracavelu has read ‘a remarkable graffito in Prakrit from the ancient port of Kaveripattinam’ as ‘a Sinhalese-Brahmi inscription’.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Language problem of the speaking stones

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        The Cobra hood cave in Sigiriya donated around 2nd century B.C. by someone called Naguliya

I went to Sigiriya recently. At the entrance to one of the several caves, at the base of the rock, a guide was doing his thing with his group of white tourists. The cave had been an abode of the cave dwelling Buddhist monks of the 2nd, 3rd century B.C. and sported the typical cave inscription proclaiming whose donation to the Sangha it had been. A Department of Archeology plaque nearby gave the reading of the inscription and the background. The guide reeled off the words of the inscription, first in the original language and then in English, looking straight at the cave wall and not at the plaque. “What’s the language of the inscription?” asked one tourist. “Brahmi” replied the guide (pronouncing ‘a’ as a short vowel). “But I thought it was in Sinhalese” protested the tourist. “No, it’s in Brahmi” asserted the guide. At this point, I almost intervened to inform the tourist that Brahmi is a script, not a language and the inscription was in the language known variously as old Sinhalese, proto Sinhalese or Sinhalese Prakrit. But then, I held back because, for one thing the guides’ guild seemed pretty powerful there and for another, I don’t look ‘knowledgeable’.

Chin up guide, you are in venerable company. The number of academics in history and related disciplines together with those in unrelated disciplines but dabbling in history out of keen interest, who do not know what language the cave inscriptions of Lanka are written in, would fill a good sized tourist bus. This is a bold surmise based on three clues uncovered during my personal investigations. The first clue presented itself to my stunned eyes, while looking through some old comment threads in ‘The Lanka Academic’. In the 21st century, some members of that community had sat around in a cyber ambalama and yarned about ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ by Indrapala and the most voluble fan of the book let out the cat. He uploaded a portion of the Tamil Householder’s (Dameda gahapati) terrace inscription from Lanka (2nd century B.C.), labeled it 200 B.C. Tamil, uploaded a contemporary, but run of the mill inscription without allusions to Dameda, labeled it 200 B.C. Sinhalese, compared the scripts of the two samples and asked throbbing with inter-ethnic fellowship, ‘aren’t these the same?’. It was a ‘duh’ moment, which another blogger used to maximum advantage; brutally pointing out that the Tamil Householder’s inscription is not in Tamil, that the compared scripts were the same because they were the same language. It’s difficult to accuse ‘The Evolution…’ as the source of this misdirection however.

The second clue to the fellowship of the clueless (on the language of the earliest stone inscriptions of Lanka) comes from a higher stratum of academia than a thread on ‘The Lanka Academic’. It’s in a Heidelberg Paper by Michael Roberts. “Older scholarship, including the works of Geiger, deemed the language of these inscriptions to be “Proto-Sinhala” or “Sinhala-Prakrit.” I am not in a position to say whether scholars today would support this conclusion…” – (Blunders in Tigerland: 2007).This is a frank admission of ignorance by a scholar who should nevertheless have done his basic homework in historical linguistics before writing this research paper. This is rather like a scientist saying ‘Even though older scientists like Isaac Newton believed in gravity, I am in no position to know if the present day scientists share that belief’ This lack of fundamental grounding is not beautiful, especially when an entire science, a fertile and vibrant academic discipline called historical linguistics exists, where it’s such a given that the earliest Brahmi stone inscriptions of Lanka are the extant samples of 3rd/2nd century B.C. version of Sinhalese.

Historical linguists tell us that ‘the Indo Aryan and hence Indo-European origin of Sinhala is now a matter of consensus among serious scholars’ (Gair: 1985). One thing they ‘can be sure is that the language was well established on the island by the third century B.C.’(ibid) The reason for this certainty is not only the widespread infestation of a large number of inscriptions ‘in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C.’(Gair:1981) but also the fact that by this time the language had undergone spectacular indigenization (‘by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India’-ibid). The main symptom of this spectacular indigenization is the complete loss of the aspirated consonants. What’s so marvelous about this is ‘To the best of my knowledge, no other IA language has undergone complete deaspiration’ (Gair: 1985). Considering that all other Indo-Aryan languages have held on like leeches to their aspirated consonants, historical linguists marvel at ‘the thoroughgoing and apparently sudden change in Sinhala, apparently following upon its transplantation to the island’ (ibid). What makes them so sure of the chronology of this phenomenon is the language of the earliest Lankan inscriptions, inscribed on stone in the script called Brahmi; “The fact that aspiration was lost in Sinhala somewhere before the third century is attested to by the inscriptional evidence, and particularly by fluctuations and backspellings, such as second century B.C. jhaya ‘wife’… or first century B.C. rajha ‘king…” (ibid)

Friday, December 14, 2012

More understanding and less condemnation

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Ananda Wakkumbura is a man who has recently put behind him a daunting task: translating into Sinhalese ‘Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period’ by Michael Roberts. Here’s the kind of sentence which makes this a daunting task. ‘Secondly he imposes the gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction borrowed from Tonnies, in a tautological fashion to assert that these types of community lacked ‘a convergence of interest’ of the gesellschaften kind.’ When I met Wakkumbura recently, in my negligible capacity as an assister of this work, he happened to mention that Dharmasiri Bandaranayake had mailed him my first article on Indrapala. Wakkumbura expressed his reservations about the need to be so harsh on Prof. Indrapala. He was of the opinion that given the ethnically tense situation, in which the book was begotten, more understanding was required than condemnation. And besides, opposite such atrocities as the pogroms against the Tamils; 77, 83, etc. and the Bindunuwewa massacre of LTTE detainees under the aegis of SLFP stalwarts, the whole subject was of such trivial importance.

Stand on Merit

If Indrapala’s ‘The Evolution…’ was meant to be an academic work, it must stand or fall by its own intellectual and analytical merits and not shelter behind circumstances. However, there are those who feel that it is not an academic work, but a circumspect book that makes allowances for the heightened Tamil nationalism, and should be read allowing for the circumstances. More nauseatingly, there are those who feel that all academic work should be circumspect enterprises that make allowances for (either nurture or refrain from challenging) causes of the right sort. The burden of making allowances gets almost unbearable as the Sri Lanka we know is distorted beyond recognition by Indrapala’s speculations.

Early Languages

We have no idea of the languages spoken by the pre-historic Mesolithic people of this country. We have no idea of the language or languages spoken by the people who propagated the Early Iron Age culture in this country (900-300 B.C.). They are pre-literate societies. But when the literate phase dawns in Sri Lanka, at the start of the early historic period (from 300 B.C. conventionally), it spawns this humongous compass that shows us the linguistic and cultural direction of the country. This compass is none other than the infestation(over 1400) of cave inscriptions found all over Sri Lanka (except in the Northernmost part, where there are no caves), in the language, known variously, as proto-Sinhalese, Sinhalese Prakrit or old Sinhalese.

Indrapala of 1969, the objective scholar unhesitatingly calls this language Proto-Sinhalese as in; "We have also the evidence of three Brahmi cave inscriptions datable to about the second century B.C. for the presence of Tamils, presumably traders, in the Island. But here too the impression given by these inscriptions is that these Tamils were foreigners. Although the inscriptions were set up by the Tamils whose names are mentioned in them, the language is Proto-Sinhalese as in the case of all the other inscriptions of the Island at this time. But more important than this is that the recorders have made special mention of the fact that they were Tamils, which would indicate that they considered themselves to be distinct from, if not alien to, the general population just as much as the Sinhalese donors in the pre-Christian cave inscriptions of the Tamil country made known the fact that they were Sinhalese. In later times, too, we get instances of Tamils who made grants to temples outside the Tamil country recording the grants in the language of the area but making mention of the fact that they were Tamils.”

In contrast, Indrapala, 2005, ‘the allowances scholar’ attempts some shilly-shallying to misdirect the reader on the language of the cave inscriptions. He asks on page 90; “Was Hela the same as the language of the Brahmi cave inscriptions?” He answers a few sentences later; "The few scholars who have worked on the early inscriptions have expressed differing views on the language of these records and generally tended to avoid the issue of its connection with Hela."

Old Sinhala

This is in fact one of the clear-cut instances of naked dishonesty manifest in ‘The Evolution…’ Professor James W. Gair, a pre-eminent authority on South Asian linguistics calls it ‘Old Sinhala’ without any shyness in ‘Sinhala, an Indo Aryan Isolate’-(1981). "Sinhala Tradition has it that the group that brought the languages with them arrived on the date of the parinibbana… traditionally 544-543 B.C. As a matter of fact, somewhere around this time does appear to be a reasonable date, since we have inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C., and by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India." In fact scholars studying the history of Sinhala phonology and the origins and the influences on that language, use old Sinhala of the cave inscriptions as a the specimen for the second major stage in the evolutionary pathway, that goes as Middle indo-Aryan to old Sinhala to Sinhala.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Devolution choices; a common man’s dilemma

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

What does the common man want? He wants among other things to be fair; to keep up at least a semblance of fairness and fair play. When the CFA came into being in 2002, and it looked like they were finally going to wrench Sri Lanka free, from the pincer-like grip of the integrating dynamic it had been held in for millennia, and harness it to a segregating dynamic, how did the common man feel? Did his token sense of fair play cry out or lie quiescent?

I rather think the latter. For one thing, at this stage, the common man was bored and could not be bothered. For another, by this time, certain ideas had floated into the common man’s ideology-sphere, which let him think, maybe a segregating dynamic was not such a bad thing; perhaps, ‘the context’ even demanded it. Let me give an illustrative example. Back in 2009 August, when I was much less informed than I am now, I wrote a long comment to Indi Samarajeeva, the blog editor, gave a response, which was a text book illustration of the insidious inroads the segregating dynamic had made into the common man’s psyche;
“If you go to the North and East they speak Tamil and they have their own culture and ideas. They are not South Indian ‘invaders’. The Sinhalese people were invaders too at some point, and the borders have been pretty porous. Even the Kandyan kings generally married Indian Tamil brides. I don’t think there’s any genetic dominion the Sinhalese have over the whole island.

If there is a blueprint for the country it’s the Constitution, and that calls for significant autonomy in the North and East. I think it is a very different place, especially based on language. They should have a strong Chief Minister and be able to appoint their own police, etc.”
Indi probably did not know it (which makes it all the more sinister), but this response stemmed from and contained an almost a word for word rendition, in layman’s language, of the definition of the ‘Nation’ given in Josef Stalin’s pamphlet ‘Marxism and the National and Colonial Question’. “It is a historically evolved, stable community of people, living in a contiguous territory as their traditional homeland, speaking a common language, having a common psychological make-up, manifested in a community of culture

Nevertheless, in Sri Lanka certain factors undermined the common man’s belief in the autonomy justifying Otherness of the North and the East. A common man in Sri Lanka could get pretty dismissive of that particular Otherness. How?; “Indeed, if one goes further back in time to the era of the Rajarata civilisation in, say, the fifth to twelfth centuries CE, as Wilson and every Sri Lankan knows only too well, the eastern regions as well as the Jaffna Peninsula were ‘the traditional habitat’ of Sinhala speakers. ‘Tradition’ and ‘history’ constitute a cake that can be cut in many ways.”– (Michael Roberts, ‘Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and Issues’)

Indeed, it was possible, for a common man able to access higher frequencies of the Lankan ideology-sphere, to come out of it all saying; “Pah, Otherness, all smoke and mirrors!” Here’s how;
“…to the misintelligence among the Lisbon authorities that Jaffna was inhabited by the Sinhalese, the Jaffna mudaliyars owed their survival…Such misintelligence was not confined to Lisbon. The Count of Vidigueira, after serving as viceroy at Goa for 7 years (in two terms) and after a term as President of the India Council in Lisbon, still believed in 1626 that the inhabitants of Jaffna were Sinhalese. ...Even Fernão de Queiros’ work was not free from this error. See pp. 357, 361, 366, 371 etc” – (T.B.H Abeyasinghe, ‘Jaffna under the Portuguese’)

Something else was also floating around in the ideology-sphere, casting an inescapable shadow. This was a chronic, deep seated inability to see the north as Other. This finds the most striking expression in one of Ahalepola’s long, haranguing letters to D’oyly (27 November 1811, reproduced in Roberts: 2004);
“… the host of Seyde Malabars landing at Jaffna, having offered presents to the Gods and Lords, who at that time enjoyed the Sovereignty, and obtained Permission merely to remain trading on the Sea Coast, and (thus) residing, when a considerable time had elapsed, as the [sic: “they”?] displaying omens of their destruction, commenced War in hostility to the great Command, and capturing also a few Countries whilst they are residing, Dutugeymanu God and Lord Supreme, like the great Prince of Lions cleaving the Crowns of Elephants, as foreign Enemies attaining to the Sovereignty, having destroyed and expelled the Host of Seyde Malabars, like a gross Mass (?) before a gigantic Wind, increasing the Prosperity of the World and Religion in the happy Isle of Lanka…”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

History, Historians and the dustbins of History

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The DPhil (Oxon.) who lent me his copy of ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ by K.Indrapala had written with a scornful pen on the last page of the preface; “So: Indrapala is NOT a charlatan, a political animal. Indrapala seeks intellectual rigour.” This is the impression the author seeks to create by marshalling, in his preface and introduction, a colourful arsenal of invective against historians who slip up. These ‘charlatans and pseudo scholars’ we are told, are ‘political animals’ who ‘have not only compromised the very fundamentals of intellectual decency but are now in the process of subverting the study of history for personal ends and political expediency’. ‘Such lumpen intellectuals’ do not ‘want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose’ and undoubtedly ‘belong in the dustbin of history’. ‘Now, I’, Professor Indrapala seems to say, ‘am above all that’.

But he hasn’t been above all that at all. The real past remains unexplored in ‘The Evolution…’. Even the past that has been explored by the author in 1965 and 1969 is blocked out, not because the findings are out of date or have been superseded by better research, but merely to make way for a past that suits his purpose in 2005. The bitter struggle in ‘The Evolution…’ between the real past and the past that suits the purposes of K. Indrapala of 2005 will inspire many future writers to attain unmatched heights of caustic wit.

What drew me to ‘The Evolution…’ was the following email from Dr. Michael Roberts, sent in response to ‘Communal claims on common land’;
“The use of the Dutch map, supported by Codrington, to reveal the fact that the “traditional homelands” of the Tamils in their heartland were also Sinhala homelands at one stage was both innovative and useful. You should develop the theme further.

But also attend to the “preceding prologue” (and Indrapala’s failures and sleight of hand in this regard.)

1. Given the ancient provenance of Tamil in southern India in the last centuries B.C. and the narrowness of the Palk Strait it is probable that there were Tamil speakers in JP and northwest THEN.

2. But with the development and expansion of the Anuradhapura kingdom from the 1-2nd Century B.C. and especially in the millennium A.D. it is probable that these peoples were Sinhala-cized and absorbed into the demographic majority (though south Indian trading communities emerged newly or remained in Mannar and such places).

3. From memory what I find striking in Indrapala’s work is the ABSENCE OF PROOF THAT TAMIL-SPEAKERS WERE found in JP in the first millennium A.D.; and the total neglect of the indirect evidence from the Sigiiri graffiti. Instead he spends (1) an inordinate amount of time on archeological evidence from the first millennium B.C. – which by its nature says little about linguistic practice and thinking; and (2) Paranavitana bashing –an easy target if you select work from Paranavitana’s lunatic phase.”
The almost staggering scope presented by ‘The Evolution…’ for the exploration of a professional historian’s odyssey from the heights of research acuity to the depths of a lumpen intellectual’s dustbin, remains, as yet, largely unexplored. One person who explored it, was Bandu de Silva (History Writing in an Ethnic Debate Environment. Indrapala on Evolution of Tamil Identity, in The Island). Now on the eve of having a more academic review of ‘The Evolution…’ published in the JRAS, DGB reminisced about the writing of that newspaper article;
“After the article, I had an email from KNO to say that I had done something that our University men do not do. I sent my Newspaper Draft to several historians. None even replied except the late Dr Karl Goonewardene asking me to go ahead. The point is I am no accredited historian though I studied history and taught history at the University of Ceylon for a time. I had to be careful as I was taking on a reputed research scholar. Now I am well equipped to meet Indrapala. I was so annoyed with our historians that I addressed an email circular letter to them…”
“Look, what Sri Lankan historian has written during the past 10 years, except Nira Wickramasinghe? K. M. de Silva had been incapacitated and Leslie Gunawardana died” snapped Michael Roberts to this writer re the silence of the professional historians. Nira Wickramasinghe, of course couldn’t be expected to write on this subject, it being outside her period (which is the British and the modern) and Leslie Gunawardana had his own problems, the most publicized of which was the readiness to assign a late date (12th century A.D.) to the development of the Sinhala identity at the drop of a hat, without doing even the basic home work. ‘Dampiya Atuva Gatapadaya’ a 10th century work setting out the chapter and verse of the Sinhala identity being, literally, a closed book to this ancient period historian was exposed by K. N.O Dharmadasa.

Monday, October 1, 2012

K. Indrapala; Dancing in front of the Sigiri Mirror Wall

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Sigiri. A rock turned into a sitting lion and a secure palace complex by Kasyapa in the 5th century A.D. After his death, Sigiriya stood abandoned to the forest, the palace complex falling to ruins, desolate but not fully. During the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries A.D., the site became a visitor magnet, drawing the populace in un-orchestrated and indiscriminate flow from all over Lanka. During these centuries, the Mirror Wall of Sigiriya received the collective expressionist compulsion of the island peoples on its finely plastered surface. Because it carries the linguistic, cultural and geographic imprint of the island over three centuries, the Mirror Wall can act as a mirror for K. Indrapala’s 'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity'. What will it show? A charlatan or a historian?

One of the most crucial missions of 'The Evolution…' is the Othering of the Northern Territory. Establishing that this part of the island was clothed in a different identity from the rest was vital for this lapsed historian in order to sustain a major premise given in his 6th chapter (covering the period from 300 to 900 A.D); that from about 300 BCE, the Sinhala identity was emerging only in the areas ruled by the Anuradhapura kings and the southern parts of Lanka while, “…In the extreme north of the island a different process, culminating in the emergence of a Tamil-speaking group, was taking place at this time…A number of factors were responsible for the strengthening of the Tamil element in northern Sri Lanka in this period. These worked against the northward extension of the process of acculturation that went on in the areas under the direct control of Anuradhapura.”

And so, the dance for the Northern Territory begins. “From about the seventh century, there are references in the Pali chronicle to three territories in the island, in addition to the ancient regions of Rohana and Malaya. These are the Uttara-desa (the Northern Territory), Pacina-desa (the Eastern Territory) and the Dakkhina-desa (the Southern Territory). There is, of course, no way of definitely identifying the geographical extent or boundaries of these territories. They were no doubt vaguely designated areas to the north, east and south of the core of the Anuradhapura kingdom over which the Anuradhapura ruler claimed overlordship.”- (p204). Here, there is a whiff of an insinuation that these were not islandwide territories. However, we know that the Jaffna peninsula was an integral part of the Northern Territory because of 1) the retention in Jaffna of the old Anuradhapura period territorial divisions like Weligama and Maracci-rata (Indrapala: 1965) 2) the occurrence in an area of only about nine hundred square miles covered by this peninsula, of over a thousand Sinhalese place names which have survived in a Tamil garb (Indrapala: 1965, building on Codrington: 1926). A considerable number of these names incidentally, was still clad in their Sinhalese garb in the17th century even after four centuries of Aryachakravarthi rule; as evidenced in ‘Map of Jaffanapatnam countries and islands and dependencies’ accessible online at

“An analysis of the few notices of the Northern Territory in the Pali chronicle indicates that it was an area different from the other territories.”- (p205). An ancient period historian, who is also a reputed research scholar didn’t however have to depend on a few measly notices in the Pali chronicles to come to conclusions about the Northern Territory. These notices (It was a place where rebel princes or aspirants to the throne found ready support, the dispatch of princes to the Northern Territory is hard to find, invading armies from south India landed here, consolidated their position and marched towards Anuradhapura), do not help anyone (except a wishful thinker) to come to conclusions about the linguistic identity of the Northern Territory.

An infinitely richer source was available to Indrapala; voices from the Northern Territory, reaching us across the centuries through the Mirror Wall. K. Indrapala stands indicted for suppressing them. Let’s listen to the Northern Territory or ‘Utur pas’ through the Mirror Wall. (Paranavitana, Sigiri Graffiti)

Verse 15 (dated 8th century by Paranavitana) – “Hail! I am Samanala-bata, an inhabitant of the Northern Province. I wrote this song… (Utur-pas-vasi Samanala-batimi. Me gi limi…)”

276 (8th century) – “The song of Agala-bati, a resident of the Northern Province…”

585 (8th century) – “Hail! I am Sala Sivala who came from the Northern Province…”

288 (9th century) – “I am Gunakara (of) Ambgam-kuli (in the) Northern Provice…”

450 (1st half of the 9th century) – “Hail! The song of Agal bati, a resident of the Northern Province…”

141(2nd half of the 9th century) – “This song is of Agboy, a resident of the Northern Province…”

388 (10th century. Among the latest verses on the wall) – “I am… (name unclear) a resident of the Northern Province. I wrote this…”

Except for a single verse (558) in Sanskrit (by two traveler siblings from India) the wall speaks exclusively in a literary Sinhalese, the language of ‘a common literary culture’ (Charles Hallisey: 2003), shared between all the scattered locales represented. Hardly any influence of Pali is evident in this Sinhalese; that of Tamil is altogether absent (Paranavitana, p-clxxv). By reason of its abandoned situation, Sigiriya couldn’t filter out an Other linguistic identity. Such discrimination would have been alien during the first millennium. According to Charles Hallisey, ‘admission to Sigiriya’s “Community” was selective only in the sense that a person had to make the effort to get there…’ The Mirror Wall is democratic; kings, villagers, courtiers, monks, even women are represented while Tamil speakers are conspicuously absent. Although Indrapala:1969 too, excluded Sigiriya from his sights, his extensive researches among Tamil sources nevertheless led him to a parallel conspicuous absence; “…it is worth noting that Ceylon is conspicuously omitted in the list of Tamil-speaking areas included in the Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam, written about the fifth century A.D.” Needless to say this finding is conspicuously absent from Indrapala: 2005.

Hail! I am from the Northern Province. I wrote this…

By Darshanie Ratnawalli
“I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories…”
- Antagonist dialogue line from the movie 300-

Here is the storyline given in 'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity'; “The Tamils of Sri Lanka evolved as a second ethnic group. Their evolution was parallel to that of the Sinhalese” (p 31). The start of the evolution goes back to the Early Iron Age (900-300 BC), which was a happening period. During it, ‘the Mesolithic people of the island came under new influences’ (p 56). Prakrit and Dravidian languages accompanied these influences (p147). Prakrit made rapid progress, acting as a lingua franca and unifying the various heterogeneous elements all over the island (p 101,102). The northernmost site offering evidence for unification by Prakrit is Periya-puliyankulam in Vavuniya. To the northeast, it’s Nacciyarmalai. Even Jaffna is represented through a Prakrit record made in Mihintale by a Diparajha (suggested as the ruler of Nagadipa by Paranavithane, with which suggestion Indrapala: 2005 agrees) (p 165).

Representing the diversity of the people being taken under the umbrella of unification by Prakrit are damedas and various groups/clans(of possible Tamil Nadu origin) like the ‘Baratas’, ‘Vel/Velas’, ‘Ayas’ and the people who used the Dravidian kinship term marumakan (changing into marumanaka by the 1st century CE) (p165-169).

Here, I have to interrupt the storyline and insert an explanation that Indrapala does not offer. The Prakrit phenomenon seems to have swept through the island like a whirlwind (or a cancer depending on your perspective), between 300 BC and 1st century CE, with Buddhism running through as the main motif. The evidence for this is the numerous (1234 were published by Paranavithana in Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol 1, some were published later, some remain unpublished) cave inscriptions in the Prakrit language and the Brahmi script, mainly recording donations to the Sangha. Five of these refer to donations by Damedas/Damilas. These are the earliest stone epigraphic records in Sri Lanka. The onset of the phenomenon coincides with the introduction of Buddhism to the Island by Mahinda in 300 BC as recorded by the Pali Chronicles.

The island elites local, foreign, North/South Indian origin seem to have fallen under this strong compulsion to record on stone in Prakrit. That a similar compulsion is not evidenced in Tamil points to a significant direction in the linguistic, cultural evolution of the island.

That they are all in Prakrit, while the contemporary lithic inscriptional record in Tamil Nadu is in old Tamil, marks Sri Lanka’s evolutionary divergence from Tamil Nadu. Despite positing a common cultural region encompassing SL and South India, Indrapala: 2005 lets this slip, in a Freudian way; “…The earliest stone inscriptions in Sri Lanka, datable to about the second century BCE are all in Prakrit. There are, however, traces of Dravidian-language influence in vocabulary and phonology. The earliest stone inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, also datable to the second century BCE, are in Old Tamil but betray influence of Prakrit. The graffiti on potsherds, whose dates have not been precisely determined but which belong to the EHP, are mostly in Prakrit with a few in Tamil as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. On the Tamil Nadu side the potsherd graffiti are mostly in Tamil with a few in Prakrit…”- (p 88-89).

While Indrapala: 2005 rhapsodizes about the unifying effect of the sea between South India and Sri Lanka, telling us that “…before the formation of the states (and even afterwards), people belonging to the same ethnic group would have lived on both sides of the Palk Strait. The IIla (Hela) and the Dameda in such a context, would have been freely moving between south India and Sri Lanka at the time we begin to get written records…”(p144), it’s impossible not to hear the strangled tones of the 1960s Indrapala ghost admonishing 2005 Indrapala; “But there was a difference! Even though freely moving, the same group acted differently on the two sides of the Palk Strait, reflecting the different linguistic climates. Tell this. Tell this..!” At this point, Indrapala of the 2000s would have succeeded in throttling this annoying ghost.

But luckily, he survives in JRAS/1969/Vol. Xiii and tells us that, Damedas in this side indited inscriptions in Prakrit, (the dominant language of the region), mentioning specially that they were Damedas, just like the Helas in the Tamil Nadu side indited inscriptions mostly in old Tamil, making special mention of their name ‘Illa”.

There is a strong parallel between Sigiriya and the Prakrit cave records. Just like the latter represents an expressionist compulsion in the earlier centuries, signifying a particular cultural/linguistic direction, the former represents a compulsion (about seven centuries later), for all Toms, Dicks, Harries and Janes (both elites and not so elites) from all over the island to express themselves in a certain language, once more pointing to a particular cultural/linguistic direction. More next week.

Monday, August 20, 2012

K. Indrapala, a story of a regressive evolution.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Why did Professor K. Indrapala write his 2005 book, ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’? Some people suggest external duress (Nalin De Silva; ‘he became a prisoner of the LTTE’) while some allege duress exerted by the subconscious. Michael Roberts, an old Peradeniya colleague of Indrapala said; “knowing Indrapala's history and the recluse position he adopted after criticism in the 1970s I believe he is trying to reclaim his Tamilness as a final swan song in old age”.

Two critical decisions made by the author at the inception of the writing enterprise, make Indrapala: 2005 extremely vulnerable. It’s these decisions that enable the central premise of the book.

Migratory impulses from various parts of India, electrified the Mesolithic base population languishing in the pre historic Lankan cauldron, causing it to metamorphose. This is well known. The world and his grandmother used to believe that it metamorphosed into a single language based identity leaving behind an un-metamorphosed residue, which eventually became the ‘veddas’. Then Indrapala: 2005 came along and posited two language based identities resulting from the metamorphosis. And now? The world and his grandmother retain the single brand evolution theory; “In brief, proto-Sinhala-becoming-Sinhala appears to have been the most widespread speech form for much of the first millennium CE. The recent book by K. Indrapala, … does not undermine this verdict, despite its convolutions.”- (Blunders in Tigerland: Michael Roberts: 2007).

What are the two decisions K. Indrapala made, which render his book ultimately impact less, create duress doubts and lay him open not so much to peer reproach but (more terribly) to peer pity? The first (and the most critical) decision was to suppress a body of evidence that would have shown that the process of assimilation and acculturation that occurred in the rest of the island during the early historic period, giving birth to the unmentionable (aka Sinhalese) identity went on unchecked even in the northern extremities of Lanka (Probably because an island is a unifier). The second critical decision was to suppress Sigiriya (not easy, it being fairly large).

The first suppression involves a body of evidence, which K. Indrapala himself had a hand in highlighting in 1965, though the provenance of the knowledge can be traced nearly four decades back to H. W. Codrington. “The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date” was how he expressed it in Short history of Ceylon, 1926. How Indrapala expressed it in his PhD thesis was strikingly similar.
“…We refer to the toponymic evidence which unmistakably points to the presence of Sinhala settlers in the peninsula before Tamils settled there. In an area of only about nine hundred square miles covered by this peninsula, there occur over a thousand Sinhalese place names which have survived in a Tamil garb.

The Yalppana-vaipava-malai, the Tamil chronicle of Jaffna, confirms this when it states that there were Sinhalese people in Jaffna at the time of the first Tamil colonization of the area. Secondly, the survival of Sinhalese elements on the local nomenclature indicates a slow and peaceful penetration of Tamils in the area rather than violent occupation. This is in contrast with the evidence of the place names of the North Central Province, where Sinhalese names have been largely replaced by Tamil names. The large percentage of Sinhalese element and the occurrence of Sinhala and Tamil compounds in the place names of Jaffna point to a long survival of the Sinhala population and an intimate intercourse between them and the Tamils. This is also, borne out by the retention of some territorial names, like Valikamam (Sinh. Valigama) and Maracci (Maracci-rata), which points to the retention of the old territorial divisions and tell strongly against wholesale extermination or displacement of the Sinhalese population.”

Indrapala: 2005 deals with this by ignoring it, in the hope that it will maybe go away. That it is a shabby and undignified thing to sneak away, seems to have jarred on his conscience, though not to the extent of motivating a frank and direct tackle of the issue. Buried in an end note (75 of Chapter 6), there is what seems like a mumbled recanting attempt;
“The survival of the word kamam (Pali, gama, village) as a suffix in some place names may further indicate the influence of Pali when Buddhism was a dominant religion in Jaffna. It may well be that this reflects a different Prakrit influence from that seen in the Brahmi inscriptions of the South where the word gama occurs. Such an influence may have come from Andhra, which region seems to have been a source of Buddhist influence in Jaffna. Early inscriptions from Amaravati, in Andhra, have place names ending in gama…”

Recent (17th century) maps of Jaffna in Sri Lanka, also have place names ending in gama (Welligamo, Vimangamo, Lilagamo, etc). Ditto place names ending in watte (Cottiewatte, Malwattoe), moene (Nagamoene), oya (Naloer), pale (Mepale), palle (Pollopalle, Alipalle), pola (Walewitakepoelo), goda (Tangode). In other words, Sinhala place names not yet clad in Tamil garb. This Dutch map sits in Nationaal Archief, Netherlands accessible on, a silent testimony to ancient period historian Indrapala’s lack of holistic knowledge, possibly due to period fixation. Portuguese records also mention ‘Colombagam ferry’, ‘aliyas’ (elephants) and ‘kuruwe vidanes’ (elephant handlers) in Jaffna. That the major Jaffnese territorial division Valikamam was still Welligamo in the17th century seems to have been news to Indrapala: 1965 as well. This may indicate not suppression but a genuine blind spot. Such blind spots about Dutch and Portuguese periods are far from uncommon.

How Indrapala: 2005 has swept under the carpet, Sigiriya, with graffiti inscribed by the un-orchestrated visitor flow from all over the island in the 10th, 9th, 8th centuries, representing valuable data on the language based identities in Sri Lanka is a story for my next installment.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sinhalese Buddhism, an oozing primordial evil or squeaky modern?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“The comparative religious tolerance of Lankan kings, their willingness to perform to the sacral expectations of many moral communities, can be dazzling to modern eyes. But it ought not to blind us to the presence of quite other boundaries, often irrelevant or submerged, but summoned to the surface when the relationship between kingship, samgha and people was placed in jeopardy…” Curiously enough the converse of this statement from Alan Strathern: 2007 is also true. These boundaries and their manifestations can blind a certain type of modern eye to the comparative religious tolerance of Lankan pre-modern States, their willingness to cater to the sacral expectations of many moral communities, their cosmopolitan proclivities, their hunger for foreign groups (Vanniyars, South Indian military, commercial, artisan and aristocratic groups, Brahmins, Malays, Kaffirs, Yons, assorted Westerners, etc.) and their readiness to incorporate them en-mass, without homogenizing pressure.

We have then two types of modern blindness exemplified by two modern schools of thought. One, post-orientalism seeks to fill the pre-modern Lankan landscape with fun-zombies metaphorically carrying a surf board (a pre-modern, Lankan version) in one hand and a joint (the pre-modern Lankan version) in the other; who just wanted to chill without worrying about brand identities and boundaries, who, if asked about religious and ethnic consciousness would have answered “huh?”. The other school of thought casts the majority ethno-religious consciousness of Lanka as a persistent, primordial evil, which oozes across the millennia to make the present political, social and cultural landscape inimical to the minorities. Both schools exemplify a debased scholastic tradition, the defining feature of which is the preference of its disciples for naval gazing over serious research.

Post-orientalists credit the colonial British with filling the pre-modern Lankan zombies with brand-defining animus. Post-orientalists themselves are credited with laudable motivations (political correctness, anti chauvinistic zeal) for coming up with this vision. But ultimately, ignorance fails to impress, no matter how many laudable aims it is coupled with. To illustrate the special nature of this ignorance, let me give an example; to show how supremely unimportant religious boundaries were in pre-modern Lanka, post orientalists point to how Anglican missionaries of the early 19th century used Buddhist temples to preach. Then later in the century (they say), religious boundaries sprang up and this innocent past was no more. If post orientalists had been genuine knowledge seekers and willing to delve a little further back, at least into the Portuguese period, they would have found perspective.

There is evidence of equanimity to other religions; “…comments of the Franciscan chronicler Paulo da Trindade, also writing towards the end of Senarat’s reign (1604-35). The Buddhist monks, ‘though they are pagan, they are friendly towards our religious, since they consider them as men of the same profession, especially since, also like us, they go out each day and in great silence beg for alms from door to door.’”- (Strathern 2007). But this evidence co-exists with evidence of strong brand preserving drives, which came to life in critical moments to ensure that vital boundaries were not crossed; “The fate of Dharmapala is a morality tale on what happens to princes…Even the rumour of his conversion in 1551 and his failure to protect the Temple of the Tooth led many of his subjects to defect to Mayadunne. Observing the general flight from Kotte, the viceroy himself reported, “it was said that all this was due to the fact that the pagoda was going to be turned into a church and that the king was becoming a Christian”. A few months after his baptism in 1557, there was a popular riot in Kotte, orchestrated by Buddhist monks, in which his palace was pelted with stones.”- (Strathern: ‘The Conversion of Rulers in Portuguese-Era Sri Lanka’). Then there was Jayavira, the King of Kandy who ‘dallied with the Portuguese in the 1540s’ and was ‘actually baptized in 1546’ but ‘wanted it hushed up “lest his people should kill him”’. “For when news of it did leak out, rioting followed. In order to pacify his subjects he had to spread the story that it had all been a ploy to deceive the Portuguese.”- (ibid)

The defining flaw in post orientalist arguments has been to see pre-modern Lanka as a dazzling Eden covered with culture incorporative, religiously open landmarks without a boundary in sight to announce the ethno religious serpent. But there were boundaries, not all around, high security, electrocuting ones, but placed strategically around certain select spaces; the ‘king space’ for instance. “ ‘Native’ clearly did not then mean of pure indigenous blood, for kings routinely married brides – or were themselves imported- from abroad.”- (Strathern: 2007). Nevertheless “…some sort of symbolic indigenization is generally required of sovereigns or consorts. In Sri Lanka, one way this was expressed was through the transformative ritual of the consecration ceremony in which the Buddhist commitments of kingship were lent heavy emphasis.”- (Ibid).

On the other hand, the defining flaw in the ‘Sinhala Buddhism -an oozing primordial evil’ school is to fester and ooze and turn sour within mental prisons of their own making and not see the dazzling (albeit complex) pre-modern Lankan landscape. They will try to make out that ethnic superiority of the Sinhalese and a fundamentalist Buddhist bhoomiputhrahood were two major pillars of the pre-modern Lankan state, not knowing (or caring) that South Indian lineages were brought over and settled in parts of pre-modern Lanka and functioned as an order/caste, above the Sinhalese Govigama caste. “…though the Vanniyas and Korale Atto now belong to the Govigama caste, a distinction is still observed on occasions of marriage and other social events, the Vanniyas seeking a superior status.”- (D.G.B de Silva: 1996: “Nuvarakalaviye Samaja Sambandhata: 1815-1900”).

Some people are born to be chartered accountants and some are born to be scholars. The former may have difficulty in reconciling to distinctions, gradations and standard defying behavior. The latter are supposed to welcome those and have fun with interpreting them. Post-orientalist and the oozing primordial evil schools mark an interesting cross-pollination between chartered accountancy and scholarship. That’s why they have each settled on two opposite reckoning standards for pre-modern Lanka; an irreligious acultural big easy and a fundamentalist Buddhist bhoomiputhrahood.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pre-Colonial Sinhala Buddhist Consciousness - Fact or Fiction?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Is religious rivalry in Sri Lanka a modern thing begotten and sustained by another modern thing; the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness? Or is it an old thing, which owes its genesis to something deeper and older? The latter of course. The former is a 1980s 90s delusion of a particular Ism; Post-orientalism. This school of thought, which traces the genesis of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness to the colonial encounter, has been thoroughly licked. Usually in journalese, one can only say smugly ‘that theory is now totally debunked’. Space issues and complexity usually forbid anything else. But in this case, the debunking has been so data rich that one itches to demonstrate.

The reason rivalry and anti-Other discourse get spotlighted so much in discussions on Sinhala Buddhist consciousness is because they are strong and conclusive evidence of a ‘We-ness’ standing out in a sea of ‘Otherness’. The Buddhistness of the pre-colonial Sinhalese, the post-orientalists have claimed, failed to develop into a distinct brand. A brand’s characteristic pre-occupation with maintaining a distinct identity that sets it apart from other brands, they say, was conspicuously absent. The pre-colonial Buddhism of the Sinhalese, insist the post-orientalists, did not maintain sharply defined boundaries (policed by strict brand custodians with false-belief detectors), between itself and say Saivism.

There indeed was an unusual degree of tolerance. Buddhism has borrowed from and incorporated other belief systems and Hindu deities. Siva and Visnu and an extensive Company of minor gods share venerated space within Buddhist temples. At times, due to Hindu influences, even the way Buddhism was practiced by the Sinhalese was changed in essence, not just in trimmings and trappings. Hindu ritual occupied pride of place in medieval royal courts, Brahmin ‘purohitas’ galore and kings dispensed multi-religious patronage.

The defining failing of post-orientalism is in interpreting all this to be proof of an absence of a Sinhala Buddhist consciousness. To them, the proof of a consciousness lies in sharp Othering and unremitting rivalry. Such a love-fest as the above could only have existed because there was no Sinhala Buddhist consciousness, no such brand as ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ to sustain rivalry.

Post-orientalists have been informed by numerous scholars that if only they’d bother to look, Sinhala Buddhism “often appears to be at once conservative and mutable, defensive and tolerant”-(Alan Strathern:2007) and that “sometimes new religious forms were attacked outright and sometimes they retained an integrity that would tug Sinhalese religiosity in new directions”- (Strathern:2007); that far from being evidence of no consciousness, these are the defining features of this particular consciousness; that far from indicating absence of a brand, these comprise important brand attributes. Post-orientalists have not been able to take this on board because multi-layered reasoning is not their thing.

Into this sea of fuzzy logic, other scholars have sailed with plenty of evidence of rivalry and sharp Othering. ‘They want rivalry? We will give them rivalry’ is the spirit that conclusively broke the back of post orientalism. Rivalry that has its wellspring in one major colonial encounter (with the Colas) in the late Anuradhapura period (latter half of the first millennium) and flows like a river across the centuries (carrying Saivism as its main flotsam) until it comes to the second major colonial encounter (with the western powers) and gets its second cargo of flotsam (Christianity) not as an original burden but strangely fused with the first burden.

Michael Roberts: 2004 informs us “ should recall that anti-Saivite expressions had entered a range of Sinhala texts intermittently from the late Anuradhapura period onwards (See Sahassavattuppakarana, Saddharmakaraya and Rasavahini …Also Culavamsa…This list is not exhaustive.)” It was Charles Hallisey: 1988 (we are told by Strathern: 2006) who first highlighted the role of anti-Saivite and anti-Brahmanical discourse way back into the first millennium.

Roberts: 2004; “In the folksy poetry of the Budugunalankaraya the god Siva is even presented as “he … who wears a leather garment around his loins, he who holds the maid Uma over half his body, … [and] who burnt Kama’s body to ash.” In depicting the polluted and libidinous character of Saivism, such expressions were designed to render the religion repulsive to Buddhist listeners and readers”. Strathern: 2007 talks more about pre- colonial Sinhala Buddhist boundary erection against its ideological Other;
“Hierarchs wrote denunciations of the insidious influence of bhakti or ridiculed the behavior of Saivite ascetics, notably in the fifteenth-century texts Saddharmalamkaraya, Saddharmaratnavaliya, and Budugunalamkaraya.

The latter, written c. 1470, reveals a world of religious competition between opposing Saivites, Vaisnavas, devotees of Agni, Buddhists and Jains. The great educational centres- the pirivenas –that flourished in Parakramabahu VI’s reign would have prepared their students for inter-religious debate through the comparative study of Brahmanic texts. (We know also that the Brahmajala Sutta, which discusses a wide range of metaphysical positions as a list of 62 false beliefs, was taught at the Karagala monastery of the vanavasi sect in Parakramabahu VI’s time,…) … We can say then that Sinhala Buddhists could have recourse to something like a conception of heresy, if by that we mean a conception of false and even dangerous doctrines that require vigorous denunciation. The suggestion that it was not until the Christian challenges of the nineteenth century that that Buddhism was configured as a ‘religion’ (or ‘a deployable ideological entity’) can therefore mask a long and vibrant history of theological opposition.”
In a sense, it’s on ground primed by R.F. Young and G.S.B. Senanayaka in 1998 that Roberts and Strathern are playing. It was their work ‘The Carpenter-Heretic. A Collection of Buddhist Stories about Christianity from 18th Century Sri Lanka’ ’that irrevocably undermined the assertion, that the kind of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness required to sustain religious rivalry did not arrive until the modern era. These texts of heresy were inscribed in palm leaf in 1762 and emerged from a background of non-textualized lay Buddhism. They inspired Young and Senanayake to come up with their fascinating theory (what I’d like to call the ‘fused flotsam in the river of rivalry theory’). The theology of these texts fuses and merges Christianity and Saivism together, or assimilates Christianity to long-standing tropes defaming and demonizing Saivism. It’s common in these stories for the same characters to crop up in different contexts under different names without losing their identities. One such character is Isvara or Siva who is presented as the fount of all evil. But Isvara also appears as Ispittu or the Holy Spirit. The Christian God and the Saivite god were thus merged. (Roberts: 2004 and Strathern: 2006). In other words, Christianity did not dig this particular trench in this particular ground, merely stepped into a trench already dug.

Even without all this, there were clues that could have alerted the post-orientalists to the possible unsoundness of their theory on sacred space and false belief as modern concepts. Both concepts; mithyadrushti (false belief) as well as Lanka as a sacred space for Buddhism (dhammadeepa) possess wide and ancient currency in Lankan communiqués. There is that striking and famous passage in Pujavaliya, written in the 13th century in a spirit of resurgence and hope after Kalinga Magha’s ravages and which neatly crossed the written- oral divide by being a galloping good read in simple Sinhala (Personal experience. Read it and Saddharmaratnavaliya at 15. A good many of the stories have a delicious earthy sexuality) and passing easily into the repertoire of the illiterati via memorizing during customary read aloud or chanting at religious ceremonies. Here’s the passage;
“This island of Lanka belongs to the Buddha himself. It is like unto a treasury filled with the triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha). Therefore the residence of false believers in this island will never be permanent as that of the demons (yakkhas) of bygone days was not permanent. Even though a non-Buddhist king may some time rule this island by force, his lineage will never be established in this country. This is a special power of the Buddha. Therefore, this island of Lanka is befitting only for the kings of right belief, and their lineal heritage will certainly be established and flourish.”
- (Translated in Walpola Rahula: 1974.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The ‘Demonic Projection’ of 1983 - a giant exorcism

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The duo Nissan and Stirrat and the solo Bruce Kapferer were the anthropologists who discovered a unique and distinctive dynamic in the way the Sinhalese disposed of their Enemy Other. This, they said, was directed by the compulsions embedded within the Sinhalese cultural DNA. These cultural compulsions, said they, led the Sinhalese to see the Enemy Other as demons and caused them to automatically go into demon subjugation mode, which in turn produced some interesting styles of violence, manifested most memorably in July, 1983.

In 1987, Nissan and Stirrat showcased “strong parallels between representations of the (Tamil) terrorist and representations of the demonic” in the world of the Sinhalese. This demonization, they reasoned was what caused the special “styles of violence” in which the Tamil victims were “cut into pieces” or “doused in petrol and set on fire”. July 1983, said they, was not only about teaching the Tamils a lesson, but also “forcing them to submit to a superior power” just like the demons must submit to the Buddha and his teachings.

Academic hoaxes
Parallel to N and S, between 1985 and 1988, another adventurer ventured into the demon hunting psyche of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. This was Bruce Kapferer. He was believed by his peers to possess extensive knowledge of sorcery myths and rituals of the Sinhalese and to have used such knowledge to expound on how the Sinhalese do to their demonized enemies what they do to their demons. Supposedly clued in by a wealth of esoteric knowledge, Kapferer described how the violent acts of July 1983 “manifest the violence of [the process of] cosmic regeneration” encoded within “the practices of sorcery ritual”, how the passionate acts of assailants can be “likened to a giant exorcism”. He declared: “Acting with the force of their own cosmic incorporation, the Sinhalese rioters fragment their demonic victims, as the Tamils threatened to fragment them, and by so doing resubordinate and reincorporate the Tamil demon in hierarchy.”

After one year spent living in southern Sri Lanka researching and despite being assisted by a local research assistant, now dead but whose expertise in the relevant fields is generally well thought of, Bruce Kapferer ended up believing that Sinhalese folk exorcism ritual involved fragmenting and disintegrating of demons. This was one of the most audacious academic hoaxes of the 1980s and 90s. Its success is due partly to the obfuscating fogs that surrounded Sri Lanka at that time and partly to the nature of Kapferer’s target audience; an exclusive constituency of his peers, mostly nonresident, non Sri Lankan and all beautifully non-cognoscenti. To most of them, the sorcery rituals of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka and the puberty rites of the tribes of the north Amazon would be fully interchangeable if shorn of the costumes and stage trappings.

“In the cultural world of the Sinhalese, the disintegration of demonic beings and naraka minissu is a conventional form of punishment, a just act.” proclaimed Dr Michael Roberts (Roberts 2004:125), a staunch, non cognoscenti Kapferer follower. Most of these, subconsciously primed on the Christian exorcism traditions, where demons are forces of fragmentation and disintegration, found it only too plausible that the Sinhalese too should seek to fragment and disintegrate their demons. What they would have found implausible is the premise that Kapferer, a colleague, would try to pull the academic wool over their eyes. That Kapferer was assisted in his research by Chandra Vitharana, a repository of local expertise, in their opinion, would also have militated against such an idea.

Little did they know when they enthusiastically hitched their wagons to Kapferer’s caravan, that in the sorcery traditions of Sri Lanka, no demon is ever fragmented. Because the demons are mandated by the Buddha himself, to afflict human beings, subject to the condition that when called forth and propitiated with offerings, they should accept the offerings, cure the afflicted and leave. It is this warrant, which gives the Sinhalese exorcism ritual its distinctiveness. The Warrant prescribes an exorcism mechanism of placating, negotiating and dialogue with the demons instead of a Kapferersque ritual involving fragmenting, disintegrating, burning up, torturing or manhandling of the demons.

Buddhist tradition
In common with the Christian exorcism tradition, the sorcery myths of the Sinhalese too, declare that no demon can withstand the power of the Lord Buddha. They cannot stay in a place where the Buddha’s power is in the ascendancy. Invoking His name makes the demons to burn all over. To subjugate the demons entering the world and afflicting humans, the Buddha visited their habitat, ‘Sakwala Gala’ and made it burning hot. Then the demons were intimidated and appealed, “Lord, we are wretched creatures. Spare us. Have mercy”. The Buddha was compassionate and granted The Warrant, which said in effect, “Go forth and afflict but...”

Yet, in the Sinhalese exorcism ritual, this original subjugation scene never finds expression. It starts, stays with and ends with The Warrant, because unlike the Christian exorcism ritual where the priest is a proxy for a Higher Power, the ‘kattadiya’ is merely an executor of the human part of the bargain laid down in The Warrant. The Warrant has two inbuilt limitations, one is that the demons are expected to hold up their end of the deal; cure and leave, if the humans hold up theirs; propitiate with ritual and offering. Demons, also, are forbidden ever to ask for human sacrifices.

Kapferer’s thesis that the assailants of 1983 and 1989 both JVP and State, saw the victims targeted for literal fragmentation, i.e. mutilation and dismemberment, as demons of some sort, metaphorically speaking, is untenable. If those Sinhalese assailants had indeed seen their victims as demons due to some deep-seated cultural conditioning, their physical response to them would not have been cutting, chopping, hacking, stabbing or dismembering. The Sinhalese cultural response to demons flows from the concept of The Warrant and involves recognizing and fulfilling to the extent that is practicable, a basic need of the demon, which has been legitimized by The Warrant. Fragmenting or disintegrating the demon is never an option. The folk Buddhist tradition does not confer even on the Buddha, the will to fragment a demon. All this Kapferer could have learnt by saving his research grant and reading among others, ‘The Folk Drama of Ceylon’ by Sarachchandra, in the comfort of his Australian home.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Communal claims on a common land

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

However it may be defined elsewhere in the world, power sharing in Sri Lanka is about drawing up constitutional title deeds to enshrine communal claims on a common territory. Consequent to this local twist, there are many barriers to power sharing in Sri Lanka. One major barrier is the wide, nonexclusive dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge diffusion is mainly via Sri Lankan dialogues. The following dialogue had the following catalyst;
“The Kokila Sandesaya narrates the longest of the journeys from the southernmost point on the island, Devinuwara (Dondra) to its northernmost city, Yapa Patuna (Jaffna). It names seventy-two places along the journey. Some of the Sinhala place-names on the northern leg of the journey are no longer identifiable, because these areas are now home to a mainly Tamil population.”-
(Pieris, Anoma (2010) 'Avian Geographies: An Inquiry into Nationalist Consciousness in Medieval Lanka', South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33: 3, 336 — 362)

‘I have mailed you that article by Anoma Pieris’.
‘She is the granddaughter of G. C. Mendis isn’t she?’
‘Yes. She is at Uni of Melbourne. Thought the bit about the northern leg of the journey might interest you’.

‘That the 15th century Kokila Sandesaya should list Sinhala place names on its northern leg? Hardly a revelation. Take a look at that 17th century Dutch map; Kaart van Jaffanapatnam en onderhoorige landen en eilanden (Map of Jaffanapatnam countries and islands and dependencies). The manuscript is in the Nationaal Archief, Netherlands, but you can get a fairly large view at Certain browsers let you translate the web page into English. Get it full screen and start spotting the Sinhala place names.

The first name to hit you is Welligamo. As one of the four main divisions of Jaffanapatnam, it’s written larger. No big news there. Everyone knows about Valikamam and Weligama, but everyone may not know the transition happened post 17th century. The real revelations are the smaller print locations; Cottiewatte, Watane, Vimangamo, Walandale, Lilagamo, Tangode, Tambale, Batecotte, Anecotte, Naloer(Nal oya), Oergavature, Nagamoene, Tambegamo, Coylacandy (Kohila Kanda), Mepale, Pollopalle, Alipalle, Malwattoe, Anungay, Walewitakepoelo, etc. etc. These are just the ones that stand out without ambiguity to my naked eye on the computer screen. There are more names that are clear like Kenalavil, Ambellipattoe, Inkelampitty, etc. but with my limited linguistics, I can’t exactly slot them. Yet more names that I can almost identify, but my Times New Roman adapted eye won’t grant 100% certainty. I’d love to go over the original manuscript with a magnifying glass. Better still, I’d love to have someone with an eye for handwritten script and etymological expertise subject the manuscript to a magnifying glass.

And yet, in essence all this is old news. H. W. Codrington for one would have yawned. (The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date, …- Chapter VI, Short history of Ceylon, 1926). I imagine he yawned from The Great Beyond in 1965, when the PhD student K. Indrapala highlighted “the toponymic evidence involving over a thousand place names of distinctly Sinhalese origin ‘in Tamil garb’” presented by the Jaffna peninsula. But then most people are not Codrington. For one thing, primary evidence such as the Kokila Sandesaya and the 17th century map impacts like a bullet between the eyes, while pronouncements by an expert, however respected, merely wait politely by your head for admittance. You can either take it or dismiss it as personal whim or idiosyncrasy of the expert. D. B. S Jeyaraj for example, responding to someone’s web comment about place name evidence went, “oh place names? But that PhD thesis has been superseded now by the Indrapala 2005”. It’s nothing of the kind. 2005 Indrapala merely maintains an undignified and deafening silence about the whole place names motif.

I am pretty sure that even scholars specialized on 17th century Lanka would find Sinhalese place names in 17th century Jaffna a trifle odd. On a purely academic, bloodless level, they may know of the distinctly Sinhalese origin place names in Tamil garb thingy, but in their minds the ‘garbing date’ would be long, long ago; the mid 13th century or the 14th century at the latest. There is this surgical deadline drawn in the time stream of Lanka. By 14th century latest, all Sinhalese place names in Jaffna should be decently covered in Tamil garb, all surviving Sinhalese populations should neatly die by assimilation. A clean amputation followed by cauterization. A definite closure to the Sinhalese chapter of the peninsular.’

‘Why don’t you write an article about these things?’

‘But the people know these things! And I wrote an article, I said; “While a Chechen may have much to celebrate in his historically entrenched, uniform and consistent association with Chechnya, I hold that he is also poorer because he is deprived of the experience of being part of a region with diverse and multi-cultural associations, such as our Northern Province. He will never know the experience of living in a land whose identity exists in layers, where the earlier layer still peeks through the current layer as enticingly as a camisole does through a sheer blouse.”

‘Hmm..I don’t remember this.’
‘You aren’t supposed to forget!’
‘But, do the Colombo intellectual elite know?’

‘Shall we take a specific example, as not to offend any genuinely intelligent intellectual elite? My example is an intellect like a train. A train may be fast or slow but it is not truly mobile. It has to run on a fixed rail. It has to pass promising pathways without turning into them. Supposing that such an intellect comes across the devolution diamond in the course of its reading? In those books, the diamond would be presented in an ideal setting; an Ethnic Other, a Territory, a historically entrenched and exclusively predominant Association. Supposing that just like a train, this intellect is also relentless, maybe to compensate for its limited mobility? It cares little what kind of setting actually exists over here for this diamond. If it’s not here, it must be imagined into being. Mind over matter. Power of suggestion. And that’s what Dayan Jayatilleke was doing in 13/06/2010 Lakbima, when he conjured for the masses, a Lanka that had Ethnic Other areas since 2nd century B.C. with concessions being made even then to the cultural otherness of ‘those’ areas; Dutugemunu appointing a ethnic other Yuvaraj after the war to administer ‘those’ areas.’

Thursday, June 21, 2012

UTHR (J) forges ahead without narrow ethnic agendas!

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

This is a horror story. It follows a classic plotline of the genre; the gradual emergence of the hidden revenant from under the guise of apparent goodness. At night, during a thunder storm, the hero would be necking in the car with his beautiful girlfriend (who is really the female revenant, a malignant supernatural force in human guise). Suddenly, in a flash of lighting, for a fraction of a second, he would see the beloved face as the face of a rotting corpse. The next moment, it would be the familiar beautiful face and he would dismiss the revelation as a trick of the light. But these sightings will intensify during the coming days, until…

The equivalent moment in my horror story comes when an intense bloke with little warmth but earnest and assiduous, a Calvinist to the bone, enjoying extremely good press for passionate defense of human rights, the recipient of an Amnesty International award in recognition of same, tries to straddle the moral high ground and slips. He pontificates in glorious vein (doing the beautiful girlfriend number); “Social and political forces with narrow ethnic or religious ideological trappings continue to undermine democracy in most of the developing nations… There is only one way forward. An initiative to forge a broad multi-ethnic and multi religious movement that challenges these narrow ethnic and religious agendas… While the Government and Sinhalese chauvinism must be fought through alliances with Muslims and Sinhalese who understand the dangers…” And then voila, the sudden glimpse of the rotting corpse underneath in the shape of an earnest invoking of the Tamil community’s claim on the North and the East. The bloke is none other than Rajan Hoole and this horror flick is shown in UTHR (J) special report 34.

The paragraph that afforded me my first, fleeting glimpse of the revenant under the skin of UTHR(J), straddles pages 9 and 10 of the special report 34; “Instead of showing generosity, the Government made maximum mileage of the misery it imposed on Tamil civilians to solicit funds from reluctant donors to pay for the extralegal incarceration of IDPs and for other projects with ulterior aims, such as resettlement or development schemes that could change the ethnic demographics of the north and east to further weaken the Tamil community’s claim on those areas.

The fear that the Government will not allow the IDPs to resettle in all the areas they inhabited before the war, and will instead introduce new Sinhalese settlements and their familiar consequences would remain a real fear for the Tamils. …Meanwhile the Government appears totally indifferent to the squalor of the IDPs. The effect of its actions amounts to the decimation of a people by crippling them from birth through deprivation, routine harassment and dirt.”

What left such a profound impression of horror on me was the fact that they were not even bothering to camouflage the chauvinism with a democratic spin, i.e. ‘demographics confer political clout in a democracy and systematic plans to deprive minority communities of regional political clout they have traditionally enjoyed by changing established demographics are not exactly cricket’. Even that would have sounded dodgy without definite evidence of a systematic agenda. For example it’s not enough to show that the President got up one morning full of plans for Northern development and North-South highways and remarked to his brothers, “you know what all this would ultimately lead to, don’t you fellas?” and they remarked with relish “yes demographic change!” and looked like cats with cream. You need to show systematic manipulation of the system, to exclude or sideline the Tamil component of the population from participating in the enterprise, in order to bring about the desired demographic result.

However, where was I? Ah yes being horrified at Hoole’s chauvinism and hypocrisy. This horror led me to ask the opinion of someone who (in my perception) had always been liberal with the scorn for Sinhala chauvinism but trodden softly, like through fields of Tulip, when it came to anything that could be reasonably be interpreted as Tamil chauvinism. This person is none other than Dr. Michael Roberts who replied to my query in an email dated August 2011;

“Note that Rajan and the UTHR cluster in the north were caught in the middle in the period 1987-2009; and that both Rajan and Sritharan had to go into hiding from the LTTE. In short they were in extreme danger once Rajani T was assassinated. Even in Colombo Rajan moved around and when I set up a meeting with him once circa 2001 had to wait his call via Nesiah and for them to arrange a meeting.

He is an intense bloke with little warmth but earnest and assiduous. A Calvinist to the bone. This does not of course preclude errors of judgment but he will in my view never concoct material in the manner of Channel 4, Darusman etc. Whether he accepts or reprints testimony from liars is another matter.

If Rajan is buying into the standard claims re the Eastern Province as part of the “traditional homelands” then I would challenge him.

Re the present fear that the present govt is going to settle Sinhalese in areas that housed Tamils in the recent past (not just the pre-48 past): in voicing this fear Rajan is moving with the tide of articulate Tamil opinion (and some anti-govt Sinhalese). As far as I know this fear is unsubstantiated and has not come to pass but I have an open mind on the issue.

As for his comments on the IDP camps as “extra-legal” and having terrible conditions, my response would be (a) yes extra-legal but requisite in the interests of the rest of the population on a short-term basis and (b) the conditions were not that terrible and a remarkable job was done by govt and NGO and INGO agencies in catering to those people. On this issue he is speaking from the cloisters in Colombo or wherever.

In 1987-20009 Rajan and Co were in a crunch sandwich situ between Sinhala-dominated state and the LTTE (with latter as greater threat). NOW with the LTTE out their structured political situation is that of a former Tamil dissident faction that pursues its Tamilness by taking up Tamil grievances and thus liable to press exaggerations, pedantic claims and unrealistic demands.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hoole is not cool

Published in my column in The Nation on May 27, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back..” - Friedrich Nietzsche
The testimonies of the hoards of civilians who recounted their NFZ experiences to the LLRC contradict the set of testimonies culled by Rajan Hoole and Co and included in the UTHR(J) special Report 34. It’s not a case of a lot of blind men trying to describe an elephant. The two batches of testimonies are plain irreconcilable. They do not complement but contradict each other on the most fundamental level.

We do not know Hoole’s methodologies of collecting testimonies. The popular impression is that they are insider testimonies culled from a more aware inner circle. For example, a common feature of LLRC civilians is not being able to tell exactly from which direction shells came while being shelled. The typical LLRC dialog on shelling; ““We were running in fear because there was continuous shelling.” In response to a question as to who was shelling – she stated “we can't tell you definitely because shells were being fired by both sides – Tigers and Army.”” Ditto on shelling of hospitals. None of the LLRC civilians were sure who shelled. In contrast Hoole’s insider civilians were extraordinarily aware; “…Within three minutes shells were fired by an MBRL further east of where the first shells fell, just north of Charles Mandapam (Hall), killing all together 16 persons. He is certain that the shells were fired by the Army from Kalliady, which is across Nandikadal lagoon, south of Puthukkudiyiruppu…” However let us concede the point. We know that any civilian community consists of a clueless majority and a sharply observant minority. Only where were the latter when the LLRC was moving around?

The whole point of appointing a public commission and having them move around holding public sittings is to obtain a representative, across the board sample of voices that will accurately represent the slice of life under investigation. We know that of the hundreds and thousands of civilians who wanted to meet the LLRC, not all were given the opportunity. But that opportunity denial was not through systematic screening. There was no pre-LLRC board that the people first had to pass, so that dangerous material could be filtered. Subject to inevitable limitations, people went and told their stories unhindered. They said we surrendered together but now my husband is missing, we were waiting in line in the NFZ to get Thriposha and the Navy shelled us and so many expectant mothers died, we went in a boat with white flags towards the Navy and they fired. One witness even recounted a cluster bomb experience and it was given wide publicity in a Tamil Newspaper. None of these civilians have disappeared.

Meanwhile Hoole’s civilians who told him that much of the government shelling into the NFZs were independent of any LTTE provocation, that NFZs were roomy places where combat and civilian spaces were generally well separated, that SLA shelling mostly fell on these civilian spaces, that punitive, vengeful and indiscriminate shelling was the norm; where are they? They were conspicuous by their absence before the LLRC. Since telling their stories to Hoole these civilians seem to have disappeared. Which is strange, because they can’t have been some niche group of random carpetbaggers. They had to have been a representative cross section of IDPs for Hoole to treat their account as an accurate representation of the general reality in the NFZs and a bedrock to base the conclusions in his executive summary;
“…But this time, from January 2009, indiscriminate brutality causing huge civilian casualties was used when the LTTE was virtually broken and was merely prolonging the war by throwing in conscripts. This time, moreover, the bombing and shelling of areas full of civilians seemed almost vindictive. The largest civilian losses came at the last stages due to indiscriminate fire when the LTTE was virtually finished…”- (Pp.16-17)
Is this bit of executive summary actually based on a representative cross section of IDP testimonies? Less than two years later the LLRC, whose transparency in opening the door to civilian voices remains uncontested, throws the issue into serious doubt. It uncovered a narration, which categorically contradicted not a mere detail but a major pillar of Hoole’s narrative.

Apart from 6 specific episodes recounted by witnesses of shell attacks on civilian assemblies allegedly by government forces, the everyday reality experienced by civilians who came before the LLRC was that the Army never initiated attacks into the No Fire Zones. In the life-world of even an accusing LLRC witness, the ultimate accusation against the Army re NFZs was of retaliating; “…The LTTE infiltrated this security zone and they came inside along with the ordinary people and used it as a base to attack the Army. When this happened the Army retaliated and this act of the Government despite the announcement that they have already announced the area as a security zone, how can they start retaliating when the civilian population was there and this is the main question we wish to pose to you as this cannot be justified. … From my point of view it is the Government that gave the LTTE an opportunity to use the civilian population as pawns and as a human shield... the people went into that area because the Government had made the announcement that it was a safe place. As a result of this that area became besieged by the LTTE…”.- (LLRC 4.58). It was not only from this but from the entire body of the NFZ experiences relived before it, that the LLRC reconstructs the firing practices of the SLA;
“4.271 It further transpired from these and other representations that the Army had never initiated attacks in the Safety Zones and return fire was in response to LTTE attacks.”
Why didn’t Hoole encounter these civilians? There is not a shadow of a doubt that they existed and walked and talked while Hoole was collecting testimonies for his report. Even the US State Department picked up their voices;
“May 14-18 – An organization reported that, at the beginning of the final operation, the SLA used shelling that resulted in some civilian casualties. However, the IDPs to whom the organization spoke were uniformly emphatic that the SLA shelled only in reply to the LTTE’s mortar and gun fire from among the civilians. Civilians also said that on May 15 the SLA stopped shelling when the LTTE began destroying its own equipment. The organization also reported that some LTTE cadres were going to bunkers where civilians were sheltered, asking “So you want to run away to the Army do you?” and then opening fire against them.”-(Report to Congress on SL-Pp. 46)
Why didn’t Hoole hear any of the civilian voices that would have challenged his thesis on vindictive, pointless, brutal SLA shelling of civilians and his conceptualization of NFZs as vast, rolling planes with clearly segregated civilian and LTTE zones?

“Several civilians who were interviewed by the Commission stated that right up to the final stages, the LTTE had used heavy artillery from civilian populated areas in the NFZs to start firing at the Security Forces.”- (LLRC 4.51)

“A civilian, who was interviewed by the Commission referring to the Mullaivaikkal East area, stated that at the last stages there was no space at all and the LTTE and the civilians had been in a very congested area and the LTTE had continued to fire at the Army from this area and the Army had returned fire.”- (LLRC 4.53)

I think it was the abyss. You think you can stare into it with impunity. But it gets you eventually.