Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tales of fusion under a hegemonic umbrella

Published in my column in The Nation on March 4, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Some historians are good people who are ideologically excited by how harmoniously the multicultural motif lies on the landscape of this country’s past. They contemplate the Nayakkar accession to the throne of Sinhale, the medieval incorporation of South Indian immigrants and religious cults and the whole cultural syncretism thing with uncontaminated delight;
“Dravidian influence on Sinhalese society appears quite considerable…The Sinhalese literature of the period, specially works like the Pujavaliya and the Saddharmalankaraya, bear evidence of Tamil influence in so far as Tamil words are identifiable in these works. Indeed certain whole passages in the Dambadeni Asna are more akin to Tamil than to Sinhalese…..A whole range of personal names in use among the Sinhalese such as those which bear the prefix Tenna, Ponna, Alaha and the suffix peruma, koon and the like are distinctly of Tamil origin…….dictum of the sixteenth century Sinhalese poet Alagiyawanna,….a fool he is who has not mastered the Simhala, Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali languages…Throughout the long history of Sri Lanka Buddhism and Hinduism,…coexisted side by side, literally almost, in an atmosphere of harmony and concord. Hindu deities, particularly Siva and Visnu, in addition to an extensive minor pantheon, were housed in the premises of Buddhist temples and continued to be venerated by Buddhists throughout the island. In the medieval Sinhalese court Hindu ritual occupied the pride of place…”
- (A. Liyanagamage, Society State and Religion in Pre-modern Sri Lanka: 106-107)

When they carry on like this it acts as an incitement for other historians to pour some cold water on their euphoria. For, of course, the whole thing is much more layered and a big part of being an adult is being attentive to layers.

You won’t see the cohabitation of Buddhism and Hinduism in pre modern Lanka in its proper perspective unless you viewed it in the contrasting illumination thrown off by the whole ash thing.
“the sangharajjuruvan (Saranankara) and (other) leading monks, having failed in the attempt to preach and persuade the king to give up his heretical practice of anointing himself with ash, declared ‘we cannot sustain the sasana in cooperation with this heretical Tamil,’ and the monks of (the) Malvatte (temple) and radalavaru (“aristocrats”) taking counsel (decided) ‘Let us place some other worthy person as our king…’”
– (Sasanavatirna Varnanawa/K.N.O Dharmadasa 1979).

This ash episode featured in the 1760 rebellion against Kirti Sri Rajasinha, the second king of the Nayakkar lineage . One outcome of the rebellion was that “… the Sangha were reconciled after Kirti Sri gave up his ‘heretical’ practices and continued with added zeal his policy of being the lavish patron of Buddhism…..The king placed the blame for the rebellion upon himself and not only gave up the practice of anointing ash, but went so far as to ban the use of ash in preparation of ola-leaf manuscripts!...”- (K.N.O.-1979).

 Kirti Sri (as well as all the Nayakkar kings) was probably always in a state of dynamic equilibrium between ‘heretical Tamil’ and ‘amhakam sihalindo’ (this is what the author of the late 18th century installment of Culavamsa calls Kirti Sri, meaning ‘our Sihala king’ and ‘our happy, sublime Sihala ruler’), and after getting over the ash hurdle ruthlessly steered the equation towards ‘amhakam sihalindo’. Apparently as a definitive marker of Saivism, ash was a ricocheting, corrosive motif regardless of how many Hindu gods dwelt inside Buddhist temples. It were to surface again in 1815, attached to Sri Wickrama Rajasinha’s Nayakkar relatives who were all “anointing ash and appearing like matured ash-pumpkins” and “having anointed ash like dogs who had lain in (an abandoned) fireplace”-(Kirila Sandesaya/K.N.O 1979).

If you are partial to the incorporation motif present in Lankan history, however you’d like it served, with layers or without, you will always enjoy the Vanniyars. If you are a genuine multicultural fetishist, their story in Lanka will make you writhe in ecstasy. They came;
“It is significant that in the late thirteenth century some of the Sinhala kings appear to have induced a few immigrant chiefs to move across from southern India in order to re-settle specific districts that had been abandoned. The Malavara dignitaries, for instance, are described in one of the documents as having “cleared the jungle when there was no one else” (D G B de Silva 1996: 158, 172-73, 177). The Sinhala kings granted them land rights to these areas or, alternatively, responded to requests for land in this manner. Parakrama Bahu II (1236-70), in particular, pursued a programme of irrigation works and resettlement that attempted to recover the Nuvarakalaviya and Tamankaduva regions so that this migratory influx seems to have been linked with such policies.”
– (Michael Roberts: Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period: 74).
They fused;
“What language the Vanniyās used; or customs they followed; and private laws they used could have varied according to circumstance; but as Vanni chieftains they had received Sinhalese names on their investiture. They were supported by a hierarchy of local officials in the Rata Sabhās, when they adjudicated over matters concerning violations of local custom including failure to oblige with duties in respect of maintenance of irrigation work and agriculture. Some of them like the Malalas had fully assimilated into the local social and cultural milieu as seen from the positions they held at the Court and outside; one of them as the leading Vanniyā at Kaluvila; and two of them as the prelates of important places of learning. However, one also finds the Vanniyās retaining their original language (as Knox found at Nuvara väva); and some of their laws of succession, (as Hugh Nevill found existing among the chieftains of Hurulla which were similar to those of Malabārs and the Mukkuvās).”
- (D. G.B de Silva 1996: 190-191).
They remained distinctive;
“… Vanniyās formed a single class or caste intermarrying within their families, irrespective of whether they lived in the king’s territory or outside, whatever language they spoke; or what laws and customs they followed, the only exception being the Mukkuvās of Puttalama area and on the eastern coast.”
- (D. G.B:1996: 191).
And they were loyal;
“The “väddan” and “vannilayō” were among the forces of Rājasinha I of Sītāvaka (SH 1999:v.565); and in describing Rājasinha II’s preparations for battle against the Portuguese in the year 1638, for instance, the Rajasiha Hatana describes how he assembled forces from various regions, including

From Ratdala, Kitulāna, Yāla, Panama and Māgampura; from Wellawāya, Pālugama and Tirukkōvila from the Vädipattu and the great harbour of Kottiārama; and from many a land of the famed Vanniyäs.

P E Pieris’ reference to the “King’s Vanniyās,” albeit a passing remark, is in line with this information (1995a: 45).”
- (Roberts: 74-75)

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