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.

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