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.