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.