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.