Friday, December 14, 2012

More understanding and less condemnation

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Ananda Wakkumbura is a man who has recently put behind him a daunting task: translating into Sinhalese ‘Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period’ by Michael Roberts. Here’s the kind of sentence which makes this a daunting task. ‘Secondly he imposes the gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction borrowed from Tonnies, in a tautological fashion to assert that these types of community lacked ‘a convergence of interest’ of the gesellschaften kind.’ When I met Wakkumbura recently, in my negligible capacity as an assister of this work, he happened to mention that Dharmasiri Bandaranayake had mailed him my first article on Indrapala. Wakkumbura expressed his reservations about the need to be so harsh on Prof. Indrapala. He was of the opinion that given the ethnically tense situation, in which the book was begotten, more understanding was required than condemnation. And besides, opposite such atrocities as the pogroms against the Tamils; 77, 83, etc. and the Bindunuwewa massacre of LTTE detainees under the aegis of SLFP stalwarts, the whole subject was of such trivial importance.

Stand on Merit

If Indrapala’s ‘The Evolution…’ was meant to be an academic work, it must stand or fall by its own intellectual and analytical merits and not shelter behind circumstances. However, there are those who feel that it is not an academic work, but a circumspect book that makes allowances for the heightened Tamil nationalism, and should be read allowing for the circumstances. More nauseatingly, there are those who feel that all academic work should be circumspect enterprises that make allowances for (either nurture or refrain from challenging) causes of the right sort. The burden of making allowances gets almost unbearable as the Sri Lanka we know is distorted beyond recognition by Indrapala’s speculations.

Early Languages

We have no idea of the languages spoken by the pre-historic Mesolithic people of this country. We have no idea of the language or languages spoken by the people who propagated the Early Iron Age culture in this country (900-300 B.C.). They are pre-literate societies. But when the literate phase dawns in Sri Lanka, at the start of the early historic period (from 300 B.C. conventionally), it spawns this humongous compass that shows us the linguistic and cultural direction of the country. This compass is none other than the infestation(over 1400) of cave inscriptions found all over Sri Lanka (except in the Northernmost part, where there are no caves), in the language, known variously, as proto-Sinhalese, Sinhalese Prakrit or old Sinhalese.

Indrapala of 1969, the objective scholar unhesitatingly calls this language Proto-Sinhalese as in; "We have also the evidence of three Brahmi cave inscriptions datable to about the second century B.C. for the presence of Tamils, presumably traders, in the Island. But here too the impression given by these inscriptions is that these Tamils were foreigners. Although the inscriptions were set up by the Tamils whose names are mentioned in them, the language is Proto-Sinhalese as in the case of all the other inscriptions of the Island at this time. But more important than this is that the recorders have made special mention of the fact that they were Tamils, which would indicate that they considered themselves to be distinct from, if not alien to, the general population just as much as the Sinhalese donors in the pre-Christian cave inscriptions of the Tamil country made known the fact that they were Sinhalese. In later times, too, we get instances of Tamils who made grants to temples outside the Tamil country recording the grants in the language of the area but making mention of the fact that they were Tamils.”

In contrast, Indrapala, 2005, ‘the allowances scholar’ attempts some shilly-shallying to misdirect the reader on the language of the cave inscriptions. He asks on page 90; “Was Hela the same as the language of the Brahmi cave inscriptions?” He answers a few sentences later; "The few scholars who have worked on the early inscriptions have expressed differing views on the language of these records and generally tended to avoid the issue of its connection with Hela."

Old Sinhala

This is in fact one of the clear-cut instances of naked dishonesty manifest in ‘The Evolution…’ Professor James W. Gair, a pre-eminent authority on South Asian linguistics calls it ‘Old Sinhala’ without any shyness in ‘Sinhala, an Indo Aryan Isolate’-(1981). "Sinhala Tradition has it that the group that brought the languages with them arrived on the date of the parinibbana… traditionally 544-543 B.C. As a matter of fact, somewhere around this time does appear to be a reasonable date, since we have inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C., and by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India." In fact scholars studying the history of Sinhala phonology and the origins and the influences on that language, use old Sinhala of the cave inscriptions as a the specimen for the second major stage in the evolutionary pathway, that goes as Middle indo-Aryan to old Sinhala to Sinhala.