Sunday, March 11, 2012

History from under the carpet

Published in my column in The Nation on March 11, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

In 1984, Gamini Iriyagolla accused C. R. De. Silva of suppressing something. Some evidence. Historical not litigious. Probably because Gamini Iriyagolla was a lawyer, it looked a bit convoluted. So that at first it confounded even me. (And I am quite brilliant). But finally I got it. (I always do). The charge was, on the first count, that C. R. de Silva being a historian and in full possession of all the facts, deliberately set out to deceive the public that the Arya Chakravarthi who ruled Jaffna in the mid 14th century enjoyed suzerainty over the king of Gampola and that this is Senarath Paranavithana’s own conclusion, knowing full well but covering up the fact that Paranavithana’s final word on the matter(1961 The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon JRASCB Vol. VII (New Series) Part 2) was the exact opposite.

Paranavithana had actually shown 10+ years before C.R.’s intervention that force alone could not change vassal-overload equations, that they were much more entrenched and stable because sustained by de-jure convictions and conventions rather than who had the de-facto power advantage of the moment. Paranavithana, basing his conclusion on the Madavala inscription (1359 according his computation) had said;
"A noteworthy point in the Madavala inscription is that Marttandam, the Arya Chakravarti is referred to as a perumal only, while Vikramabahu is styled Chakravarti Svamin. This indicates that the Arya Chakravarti, though he was powerful enough to dictate terms to the Gampola monarch, had not assumed regal titles. The de jure right of Vikramabahu to the sovereignty over the whole island is recognized by the treaty…The Kotagama and Madavala inscriptions are thus witnesses to the utmost expansion of the Aryachakravartis of Jaffna".
On the second count, Gamini Iriyagolla targeted the following statement by C.R, "However, what Iriyagolla does not mention is that in the mid-fourteenth century 'the chieftain of this remote province' was powerful enough to control the Western coast of Sri Lanka almost up to the Kelani river, and to force Vikramabahu III (1357-74) king of Gampola to accept his tax collectors in the Sinhalese king's domains". Iriyagolla charged that C.R. in a deceptive sleight of hand, cited Rajavaliya as the source for the historical information contained in this statement, knowing full well that the bit about Vikramabahu being forced to accept the Arya Chakravarthi’s tax collectors into his domains did not come from Rajavaliya at all, but from the Madavala inscription (which records Vikramabahu III agreeing to have the Aryachakravarti's tax collectors in some of the hill country districts). C.R. de Silva, charged Iriyagolla, intentionally refrained from mentioning this inscription because doing so would let the Chakravarthi Svamin vs Perumal equation out of the bag. The whole sprawling article by Iriyagolla is accessible here

For a long while I thought Gamini Iriyagolla was being paranoid and ungracious. Didn’t he understand the impossibility of suppressing anything while the twin flowers of print and cyber capitalism were in full bloom? But a recent occurrence (not at liberty to disclose) has convinced me that nothing is impossible, that the list of scholarship on Sri Lanka specially foreign based and foreign to whom the Madavala inscription is a closed book would be as long as it is impressive containing DPhil (Oxon.)s from the 1960s as well as the 2000s. 

This practice of artificially compartmentalizing the time stream into periods; the Portuguese period, the Ancient period, the Kandian period, etc? So not working for foreign and foreign based scholarship on Sri Lanka. Among them, especially those whose interest in things Sri Lankan was sparked by topical concerns, we see too much of this parachuting into a period. Their ‘period’ would exist in a vacuum. In reality, there would be roots and threads mooring it to the previous and subsequent periods. But they would not see. A more distressing problem with foreign scholarship is that, some of them in addition to being short of holistic knowledge, are also a little short of analytical skill.

Let me give a telling example. This is a Dennis McGilvray citation from ‘Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict Asia Report N°159 – 15 October 2008’ by International Crisis Group (Working to prevent conflict worldwide);
“That Buddhist remains can be found throughout the east is not necessarily evidence of Sinhala political control. Given its coastal location, Batticaloa and Trincomalee regions “would also have been accessible to immigrant traders and settlers from South India, many of whom would have been Buddhists as well, since both Tamil Nadu and Andhra were major centers of Theravada and Mahayana teaching for the third to the seventh centuries CE”. Crucible of Conflict,: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka (Durham, 2008)., p. 57.”
This is an example of a foreign scholar’s mind at its most flexible and nimble due to being unencumbered with unnecessary knowledge. The blocks of knowledge that could have weighted down McGilvray’s mind and cramped its acrobatic style are; 1) this region in addition to the Buddhist remains also manifests a pretty hard to miss embodiment of a centre oriented state apparatus and political control, the extensive irrigation network with all that the concept of 'network' implies 2) Buddhist remains that are to be found throughout the east do not exist in a context less vacuum. There is an accompanying lithic record of who built them and why with extensive cross referencing with the chronicles.

Dennis McGilvray is an American anthropologist specialized on the Tamil and Muslim society (along matrilineality, thus kinship, inheritance, etc.) in the eastern province, that is Batticaloa and further south. Since then he seems to have established himself as an all-round expert on the eastern province and cited as such by the Crisis Group. By 2008, when his ‘Crucible of Conflict’ came out D. G. B de Silva’s ‘New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection’ had been10 years in print. He has not glanced at it even once and thought that Vanniyars were Vellalas (Crucible of Conflict, op. cit., p. 9). Dennis is in his 60s so that hot headed imprudence of youth is a non issue.

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