Sunday, May 5, 2013

A historian who liked admiration too much

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Leslie Gunawardana
Leslie (R A L H) Gunawardana, (not to be confused with Vivien’s husband, Leslie Goonewardena) was a historian specializing in the ancient period (500 BC to 1232 AD) of Sri Lankan history. He was a historical revisionist who aspired for admiration from a certain school and got it. His 1979 essay, “The People of the Lion” was reprinted in the Social Scientists’ Association (1984) and became a guiding star in an enterprise, which sought to deconstruct Nationalist ideologies (almost exclusively on the Sinhala side). This admiration had a potential dark side that could distract its recipient into byways that had dishonesty, suppression and shoddy research as landmarks. And so it came to pass. That Leslie Gunawardana had entered these byways in pursuit of a certain fan base and made these landmarks his pit stops was noticed by his peers.
“Many, though not all, of these post-modern scholars are immersed in the modern…their knowledge of the pre-British period is limited. That is where Leslie Gunawardana’s article has been of critical significance as an empirical foundation for the claims of the post-Orientalists and why it has gone through two reprints and been praised as a ‘master text’ that is marked by its ‘brilliance’ and ‘extraordinary comprehensiveness’... Such unqualified praise only serves to highlight the glaring deficiencies of empirical knowledge among the eulogists and marks an inability to discern the serious flaws in the middle segment of Gunawardana’s essay.”
- (Michael Roberts: 2003:8).

Among these serious flaws in ‘The People of the Lion’ (1979, 1984, 1990) was what could be termed Gunawardana’s Watergate or his Waterloo. He contested the conventional opinion that the term Sihala was used from the outset to refer to the generality of people in the island as well to its ruling elite. He claimed that ‘Sihala’ had extended its coverage from the ruling dynasty to the masses only by about the year 1200. From 1979 to 1992, as Leslie was collecting accolades and going from strength to strength his nemesis lay dormant among the pages of a 900 AD work called Dhampiya Atuva Gatapadaya.

Eerily, as if it had been waiting for a 1000 years to reply to someone like Leslie (perhaps it had), Dhampiya Atuva Gatapadaya gave chapter and verse of Sihala.
“How is (the term) “in the helu language” derived? That is derived on account of residents in the island being helu. How is it that (they) are (called) hela? Having killed a lion, King Sihabahu was called Sihala (as in the Pali phrase) “Sihala on account of having cut (or killed) a (or the) lion.” On account of being his progeny (ohu daru bavin), Prince Vida (Vijaya) was called Sihala. Others came to be called Sihala on account of being their retinue (evuhu pirivara bavin)”
In 1992, Dhampiya Atuva Gatapdaya found a modern outlet to confront Leslie Gunawardana: K.N. O Dharmadasa: 'The People of the Lion': Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 10.

Let’s dissect one more error, to which Leslie had been led in pursuit of admiration. Pali is a basic requirement for any ancient period historian because it opens up doors to knowledge. Pali is also a Prakrit and a middle Indo Aryan dialect like Sinhalese Prakrit, the language of the prolific lithic Brahmi inscriptional record of Sri Lanka. A man who knows Pali is on a firm footing for deciphering these inscriptions.

To confront Leslie Gunawardana’s error, we have to go back to “The Sanskrit word ārya, first occurring in the ancient Indian text Rigveda some 3500 years ago (and related to the word airiya in the contemporary Iranian text Avesta)...”- (Indrapala: The Evolution: 108). In the Rigveda, Ārya is used for a people. “...the evidence in the Rigveda, acclaimed to be the oldest text in any Indo-European language, wherein we find that the people who composed and used the Rigvedic hymns were the Ārya.”- (ibid: 109). There are “references in the Rigveda to the ‘fair-skinned’ Āryans who fought with the ‘dark-skinned’ Dāsas”.-(ibid: 110).

These Āryans apparently did a great job of positioning their brand and built such brand equity that ‘Ārya’ became a byword throughout the Indian subcontinent, synonymous with all that was highest and the noblest. In this sense, almost a millennium after the Rigveda, the word entered the language of Buddhism, a non-racial supremacist religion and gave us the ‘ariya ashtangika margaya’. ‘Ariya’ in Pali is the diaeretic form of the Vedic ārya. See the entry for ‘Ariya’ in the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English dictionary, which gives the racial, social and ethical connotations of the word.

Now we come to the interesting part. The other Pali forms of ‘ariya’ are ‘ayya’ and ‘ayira’. ‘Ayya’ is the contracted (assimilation) form and means gentleman, sire, lord, master, a polite form of address like Sir, milord; amhākaŋ ayyo our worthy Sir. These Prakrit forms of Ārya travelled from the North to Sri Lanka and South India.
“... the most notable linguistic development in north India after the period of Vedic Sanskrit and other Old Indo-Aryan dialects is the emergence of the Prakrits or the Middle Indo-Aryan dialects...It was not Classical Sanskrit but these Prakrit languages that played an important part in the economic and cultural developments of the first millennium BCE... Pali, the most archaic literary Prakrit, became the language of the Buddhist canon, while another literary Prakrit generally known as Arddha-Magadhi became the language of the Jaina canon. It was the Prakrits of the long-distance traders and the Middle Indo-Aryan literary dialects of the Buddhist and Jaina monks that spread to the SISL region in the EIA (900-300 BCE) bringing new influences from the north.”
- (Indrapala: 116).

The Prakrit title deriving from Ārya was prominent in the 2nd century BC social formation of Lanka. ‘Ayya’, the Pali form is used in the Mahavamsa for some of the 2nd century BC nobility. “Now in Kalyani the ruler was named Tissa. His younger brother named Ayya-Uttika, who had roused the wrath (of Tissa) in that he was the guilty lover of the queen, fled thence…”- (Mhv, xxii. 13-22: trn. Geiger). The Sinhalese Prakrit lithic inscriptions are strewn with the title ‘aya’, the Sinhalese Prakrit form. Abi Savera, whom Paranavitana identifies with Vihara Maha Devi was the daughter of Maha Tisa and wife of Aya Tisa and entered the lithic record by dedicating caves in Kotadamuhela in Yala to the sangha.

This Ārya connection survives to date in ‘Ayya’ (elder brother) in Sinhala and interestingly also in Tamil. Which perhaps is not so interesting considering.

The Brahmi script was brought to the Tamil region by the Jainas and Buddhists in the post-Asokan period. The Jainas and Buddhists also fostered the Tamil language and authored some of the most remarkable literary works, above all the two epics - Silappatikaram andManimekalai. Even Tolkappiyam and many of the 18 didactic works, including the Tirukkural, are often assigned to Jaina authorship. There is a significant influence of Jain Ardhamagadhi - and not of Asokan Prakrit - in old Tamil, the language of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions of Tamil Nadu. Also consider the number of Indo-Aryan loan words - mainly Prakrit loan words - derived from standard epigraphic Prakrit, in old Tamil. They are all nouns - names, religious and cultural terms. Some are derived from Jain Ardhamagadhi and interestingly also from Simhala-Prakrit. - (R. Champakalakshmi ).

Yet, Leslie Gunawardana was “… inclined to take the term ‘aya’, the occurrence of which is very widespread in the Brahmi inscriptions, as a ‘word of Tamil derivation which had the same meaning as Rajha and Gamani’”- (Indrapala: 152). How this inclination was born, whether from research laziness, a shaky foundation in Pali and other Prakrits or from an irresistible yen for admiration, we will never know. But what about Indrapala who quotes Leslie on this? His comment is; “The word ayya in Tamil and Sinhalese (as well in other Dravidian languages like Telugu), denoting ‘elder brother’, may well have originally meant ‘leader’ (the older brother as the leader of the younger siblings). It is also still used in Tamil and Telugu as an honorific form of address in the same way as ‘sir’ in English.” (ibid: 363: en12). This is one of the saddest examples of incompetence that I have seen in a couple of accredited historians.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Getting in touch with our inner South Indian

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

We have a bit of a situation over the South Indian connection with the dawn of civilization in Lanka. The Mahavansa traces the civilization impulse to North India. While the historical revisionist school wants us to stop being fixated with this hackneyed North Indian and get in touch with our inner South Indian (read inner Tamil nowadays under dictates of Tamil imperialism, which insists that South Indian is the Tamil, the whole Tamil and nothing but the Tamil; now, then and for all time.) However, during the time that interests us, the pre and the early Christian centuries, Tamil was but a chorus girl (on her way to being the leading lady) in a larger South Indian Musical.

There is a question that intrudes when we get ready to embrace our inner South Indian and it’s the same question that a child brought up by a single parent faces when the missing parent intrudes in adulthood. Why weren’t you there more? Our inner South Indian is hidden. He has to be excavated, surmised, derived and deduced out of the impressively prolific (over 1400 against Tamil Nadu’s 80 odd) stone inscriptional record of this country, which is written exclusively in old Sinhala. He is not out there, upfront in a frankly South Indian way that enables us to get our teeth into him; boldly recording in a Dravidian language (preferably Tamil) his doings, titles and genealogy. For the purpose of this analysis a South Indian presence or influence that fails to manifest independently in Tamil or some Dravidian language shall be considered to have forfeited its South Indianness and entered an Other cultural milieu. I don’t mean that there are no potsherds and coins in Tamil to attest to a peripheral south Indian presence in pre-Christian Lanka. We did have the peripheral South Indian. But what happened to all the early Dravidian potential? Why did our inner south Indian fail to thrive?

The majority of scholars hold that the widespread megalithic tradition that precedes the early historic settlement of Lanka is strongly linked to if not actually deriving from south India, which was a hotbed of Dravidian languages at the time.
“The geographical proximity, the similarity between ecological zones, common burial and ceramic traditions, including other grave ware and skeletal remains…indicate a cultural homogeneity between the megalithic monuments of south India and Sri Lanka. It also suggests community movement, the intrusion of techno-cultural elements (iron, ceramic industry, irrigation) and a new subsistence pattern (based on paddy cultivation) from south India, more specifically from Tamilnadu, well before the 3rd century BC period.”
- (Sudarshan Seneviratne: 1985).

The spread of the Early Iron Age culture (which is the proper name for the megalithic tradition) into Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu during the first millennium B.C. was almost certainly accompanied by Dravidian languages including Tamil.
“It is only when we get closer to the EHP (300 B.C to 300 A.D) that we are in a position to say with confidence that the Tamil language had achieved a dominant position among the languages spoken among the protohistoric peoples of Tamil Nadu. Assuming that the earliest of the Tamil Sangam poems were composed about the second century BCE (which is the date favoured by most modern scholars) and assigning a period of two or three centuries for the language to reach the level of a literary medium, the middle of the first millennium BCE seems to be a reasonable date to mark the emergence of Tamil in south India.”
- (Indrapala: The Evolution: p99).
“… the rise of Tamil as the most dominant language of the present day southern Tamil Nadu may not have occurred later than the middle of the first millennium BCE. It was the time when the EIA culture, with its special features of BRW, urn burials, megaliths and iron tools as well as rice cultivation associated with an early system of irrigation, was spreading in all parts of southern Tamil Nadu and crossing over to Sri Lanka. Speakers of the Tamil language were without doubt associated with this cultural movement. It is possible that there were also speakers of other languages among the recipients, and later distributors, of this culture in this part of south India.”
- (ibid: p98)

In fact when one considers the spread of the Megalithic tradition (or to be more accurate, the EIA culture) in Sri Lanka, “one cannot imagine the Tamil language not being associated with these activities or being part of this cultural movement. Just as Prakrit, and to an extent Sanskrit, was part of the cultural movement that flowed from north India…, so was Tamil part of the EIA cultural movement that spread from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the first millennium BCE.”- (ibid: p99)

Between 900 and 600 BC, when the Early Iron Age culture derived from Tamil Nadu was the dominant cultural milieu, Tamil (and other Dravidian languages) may have been part of (or even dominated) the linguistic scene of Lanka. Unfortunately this can only be a surmise and a speculation (albeit a very reasonable one). Because, this was a pre-literate cultural milieu.
“Without the aid of written records there is no way of determining the language or languages spoken by any pre-literate society. That the people associated with the EIA culture used some kind of writing system for certain limited purposes may not be disputed. They used a set of characters, commonly referred to as non-Brahmi symbols or graffiti symbols, which have survived as graffiti marks on sherds of pottery. These were in use long before a phonetic script, the well known Brahmi, was adopted in peninsular India and Sri Lanka. As long as they remain undeciphered, they cannot provide any clue to the language or languages spoken by the users of these symbols...”
-(ibid: p.88).

When the literate phase dawns in Sri Lanka, not surprisingly it dawns in Anuradhapura, the largest EIA settlement in the island and the most unique among all the other known Lankan EIA sites due to its early urban character. But surprisingly it dawns in Prakrit, not in Tamil. Even more surprisingly, it dawns early (beginning of the fourth century B.C.) preceding the Asokan edicts. The surprises keep piling up and when the literate phase comes of age in Lanka around 200 BC, Tamil and other Dravidian languages have become so peripheral in the island, that even Damedas and other recognizably South Indian lineages are inscribing on stone in old Sinhala, not in Tamil. Hence we come up against the mystery of our inner South Indian, who failed to thrive.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dawn of civilization in an island called Lanka

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Waiting for Vijaya
“Given that possession of a historical homeland helps solidify nationalism, it is hardly surprising that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils claim to be the island’s original settlers. The Sinhalese claim that their Aryan North Indian ancestors were the first settlers to reach Sri Lanka’s shores, almost 2,500 years ago…The Tamils, on the other hand, claim that their Dravidian South Indian ancestors first settled the island.”
This is a bird’s eye view of the historical dimension of the former conflict in Sri Lanka by Neil DeVotta, the Sri Lankan born author of ‘Blowback’, a book which used to be highly recommended by all the social scientists. De Votta presents this reading under the heading; ‘A Mythology of Conflict’. Presents it as an intractable problem of squabbling natives, though at the time of writing (2003) it was not an issue of claim and counter claim left to the discretion of the masses, but an issue on which a wealth of information was available backed by remarkable interpretational consensus among specialized scholarship. He also presents the claim of one set of natives falsely; for since the 19th century when the local pre-Vijayan groups referred to in the Vamsa chronicles as yakkhas (demigods) and nagas (serpents) first came to be interpreted as actual populations already settled in the island, the mainstream Sinhala view has never claimed that the first settlers were north Indian ancestors.

The moment these nagas and yakkhas were interpreted as people however they were ripe for appropriation by the other set of natives. And so they were duly appropriated in the 20th century. This whole ‘who came first?’ was a mock contest scripted into existence by Oriental social scientists for an Oriental purpose; to make research papers more interesting? Who knows. This is the mystical East, so intractable, indecipherable and indefinable. These traits of the Orient are detectable in the following communication by an Oriental social scientist, Radhika Coomaraswamy (‘Myths without Conscience: Tamil & Sinhalese Nationalist Writings of the 1980s’);
“The Sinhalese have always claimed that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, with the Tamil presence always being that of the invader. The Sinhalese chronicles, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, are used as evidence of this claim to priority…”
(This is a lie. The moment the era of rationality dawned in the 19th century and the yakkhas and nagas assumed peoplehood, the chronicles had started giving evidence against ‘first come’ claims. But this is the Orient, where truth is only to be used with extreme caution. To continue the quote ;)
“…To combat this myth of origin, Tamil scholars such as Ponnambalam have this to say. ‘According to tradition the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the Naga and Yaksha people. (According to Harry Williams). Nagadipa in the north of Sri Lanka was an actual kingdom known to historians and the people who occupied it were all part of an immigrant tribe from South India, Tamil people called the Nagars... The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish that the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island long before 543 B.C. which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka.’… ”
The same chronicles that are supposed to have provided the basis for one set of natives to claim original inhabitation also provide the impetus for another set of natives to claim the same (by giving them yakkhas and nagas). This twist is so typically Oriental.

The issue was not really about who came first but how the modern populist Sinhala view factored in the pre-Sinhala populations to their origin theories. Most social scientists preferred to think that the Sinhalese thought that their ancestors (the North Indians) had arrived first, because if it was conceded that the modern Sinhalese (at the popular level) knew about the existing populations, the question arose; ‘what did the Sinhalese think had happened to the existing populations?’ If the social scientists had bothered to ask around, they would have discovered that some Sinhalese thought that most of those pre-populations had been annihilated and the remnant had been driven into the jungles and become veddas (what I too thought at fifteen), while some Sinhalese actually thought that those existing populations too had gone into the making of the Sinhalese and they too were ancestors. If the social scientists had tuned in to these obvious insights into modern Sinhala mass opinion, they would have been unable to formulate simple punch lines like ‘both the Sinhalese and the Tamils claim to be the island’s original settlers’. But simple punch-lines are what capture Western audiences.

This is not to say that there is no issue. There is an issue, one critical aspect, where the popular Sinhala view on the dawn of civilizations in Lanka is at odds with the archeological discoveries, which, if only they had cottoned on to it, the social scientists could have made substantial hay with. True, there is wide acceptance of the existence of pre-indo Aryan populations. Yes, there is willingness to regard them as a primordial civilizational presence, even willingness to claim them as ancestors, sometimes even readiness to feel more kinship towards them than towards the Indo Aryan ethos. But, there is considerable pulling back of ears, significant digging in of heels, remarkable flaring of nostrils and stiffening of bodies at the suggestion of any Dravidian connection for this pre Indo-Aryan heritage. Yet the majority of scholars hold that the widespread megalithic tradition that precedes the early historic settlement of Lanka is strongly linked to if not actually deriving from south India, which was a hotbed of emerging Dravidian languages at the time.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi made easy

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        The Elara Vs Dutugemunu as depicted on a mural from Dambulla

Today the vast majority of common people in Sri Lanka can distinguish between a language and its script. They may not be able to articulate what the difference is, but instinctively they know. I surmise that this instinctive knowledge came with their exposure to European languages, where the Latin script is used to write a multitude of different languages. If their experience had been limited to the two local languages that have their own specific scripts, the Sri Lankan proletariat too would have been trapped in a quagmire of Chandre Dharmawardana like ignorance and been reduced to equating languages with scripts. Luckily, the commonest man has daily dealings with at least two scripts and two languages, often using the Latin script to write native languages in forums that don’t support vernacular scripts. Sometimes the Sinhalese common man writes English and Tamil in the Sinhala script during the course of language lessons given in Sinhala.

Take English and Portuguese, both written in the Latin script. In the Latin-Portuguese script a lot of irritating (to an exclusive English reader) diacritics (dots and squiggles and thingies above and below letters) occur and while some digraphs in the Portuguese Latin script (ch)would be familiar to an English only reader, there are other digraphs (lh and nh) that would be gobble-de-gook. Still there’s no denying that the scripts used to write English and Portuguese are the same. But it would be a rare simpleton in the modern day who would conclude that the English and Portuguese languages are close dialects. But apparently, simpletons are far from rare when the subject is ancient languages.

Speech dialects

See this candid display of ignorance by Chandre Dharmawardana; “The language in BCE Sri Lanka was a form of Prakrit. The distinctions between Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi at the time were perhaps not even that between Brooklyn English and Texan English.”- (The Nation, 10/02/2013). Here we see an academic, albeit in a field unrelated to history, nevertheless commenting on history with an air of authority, hopelessly confusing scripts and languages; likening the distinction between two scripts (Tamil Brahmi and Sinhala Brahmi) to that between two speech dialects of the same language.

Dr. Dharmawardana has been frolicking in public under the staggering misconception that Brahmi is the name of a language and using Prakrit and Brahmi as synonyms. Even his presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society, SL was not free from this error; “Swaminathaiyaar interpreted cave inscriptions in Tamil Nadu as Prakrit. This is the main-stream view. Subraaniya-Aiyar in the 1930s began to make claims for a “Tamil Prakrit”, a minor variant of Prakrit, blown up by Tamil-Nadu Nationalism. Claims of “Tamil Brahmi” potsherds in SL. The Dravidian scholar Iravatham Mahadeva began the spin. Pushparatnam (Jaffna University), and P. Ragupathy have expanded the spin.”

Tamil Prakrit

No one in this world has made claims for a ‘Tamil Prakrit, a minor variant of Prakrit’. The claims have been made for ‘Tamil Brahmi’, the result of specially adapting the original, standard Brahmi script to write the Tamil language, which has sound values not known to the Indo-Aryan language family, the Prakrits.

The following excerpt from a review by R. Champakalakshmi of Iravatham Mahadevan’s ‘Early Tamil Epigraphy. From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D.’ will help unravel many of Chandre’s nonsensical convolutions.
“The early Brahmi inscriptions (of Tamil Nadu) posed a greater challenge on account of their archaic characters and orthographic conventions, which were different from the original Brahmi used for Prakrit. The challenge seemed insuperable even to the most competent among the pioneering epigraphists. The major breakthrough in the decipherment of the cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu came with K.V. Subrahmanya Aiyer (1924). He was the first to recognise that these are inscribed in Brahmi, but with certain peculiarities and new forms of letters, due to its adaptation for the Tamil language which has sounds (phonetic values) not known to the Prakrit (Indo-Aryan) language and northern Brahmi script. Yet, this lead was not seriously followed and was soon forgotten. Even Subrahmanya Aiyer did not pursue his line of enquiry to its logical conclusion.

Other scholars like V. Venkayya and H. Krishna Sastri were constrained by the assumption that all Brahmi inscriptions were invariably in Prakrit or Pali, as Brahmi was used predominantly for Prakrit in all other regions of India from the Mauryan (Asokan) period. Their readings failed to convey any meaning. By reviving Subrahmanya Aiyer's early decipherment and reading and at the same time more systematically studying these inscriptions in all their aspects, including palaeography, orthography and grammar, and seeking corroboration from the early Sangam classics and the Tolkappiyam, … Mahadevan has virtually re-deciphered these inscriptions and shown them to be inscribed in Tamil. Hence the name "Tamil-Brahmi," one variety of the Brahmi script…there is clear evidence of mutual influence between the Tamil-Brahmi and the Simhala-Brahmi, although the latter is used for Simhala-Prakrit, a Middle-Indo-Aryan language, and the former for Tamil, a Dravidian language. Simhala-Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi show certain orthographic similarities and peculiarities. It is interesting that recent Sri Lankan archaeological and epigraphical studies have also recognised this interaction and influence…”
Not everyone believes in ‘Tamil Brahmi’ as a separate and distinctive entity. Raj Somadeva contends  that even the early Brahmi inscriptions in Tamil quoted in Mahadevan’s book confirms that the South Indian Brahmi inscriptions contain in the main, Northern Brahmi characters with a few rare exceptions. He points out during his alternate reading of the contested Tissamaharama potsherd that many of the early South Indian Brahmi lithic inscriptions in old Tamil use the letter ‘ra’ of the Asokan Brahmi script. Only a few South Indian inscriptions actually use the modified letter ‘ra’ (formed by reversing the letter ‘da’ of standard Brahmi) assigned for Tamil Brahmi. While one old Tamil lithic record uses both forms of ‘ra’ in the same sentence. He then shows that reversing of the standard Brahmi letter ‘da’ is seen in two of the Sinhala Brahmi lithic inscriptions from SL as an idiosyncratic usage but is still read as ‘da’. He questions the justification for preferring ‘ra’ over ‘da’ for the contested letter form.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An inexact man in an inexact science

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

                        Taking a tracing

“When it comes to ancient history, historical linguistics and such matters, surprisingly little is known in any tangible sense although much is claimed by the practitioners of such studies. ... We are not questioning the importance of such studies. But we insist that where little is known, little is known.”
So says Chandre Dharmawardana that famous emissary from exact sciences arrived on the social sciences scene to explode the ‘pretense of knowledge cultivated by social scientists’ and show that it’s ‘more relevant to emphasize our quasi-total lack of knowledge’. But there’s a problem. When Chandre Dharmawardana insists that little is known, it usually means that little is known by Chandre Dharmawardana. This is usually due to a substandard facility for acquiring knowledge than to an actual lacuna in the body of knowledge. When Chandre signals us to emphasize our quasi-total lack of knowledge, he is really asking us to empathize with his personal lack of knowledge.

It starts from basics, this personal lack of knowledge and continues upwards. The evidence strongly points to Chandre having missed many of the ‘Elementary my dear Watson’s of the ancient period: i.e. Brahmi is not a language, but a script, Prakrit is a Middle Indo Aryan language while Tamil is a Dravidian language and using the oxy-moron Tamil-Prakrit is an obvious way of displaying your ignorance.

I present exhibit A; “…a form of southern Prakrit known as ‘Elu’ seems to have been prevalent in Lanka, and was close to Asokan Brahmi. Another southern Parkrit (sic), called Tamil-Parkrit (sic) by Mahadevan is also close to Elu-prakrit”- (from Regarding Thamilians and Inscriptions: 2012: Chandre writing as ‘Gam Vaesiya’)

First, ‘Elu’ is not the name of any Prakrit but the name given for poetic Sinhala. Between centuries 10th and 15th A.D. written Sinhala “was internally diglossic, employing one “alphabet” for writing Sinhala poetry and one for Sinhala prose. The script was the same for both; the difference between the two was the number of permitted letters (aksaras), prose having fifty-seven, against thirty six for poetry. The alphabet for poetic Sinhala (elu) prevented the use of many Sanskrit loanwords (tatsamas) because it lacked letters for the aspirated consonants of Sanskrit, although Sanskrit loanwords became… common in Sinhala prose …in spoken Sinhala too, as well as in Sinhala Buddhist discourse: the Sanskritic dharmaya (Truth, the Buddha’s Teaching) is far more common than daham or dähäm found in elu…On the other hand, poetic Sinhala frequently privileged the ä vowel (e.g., dähäm) and the half-nasal, which are not found in Sanskrit or Pali…” –(Charles Hallisey, ‘Works and Persons in Sinhala Literary Culture’). Elu is not a Prakrit, but a spawn of the literary tradition that begot the Sigiri poetry (8, 9, 10 centuries A.D.) and eventually became the ideological ancestor of the language affected by the Hela Hawula.

Secondly, a man who boldly goes public with the statement that the prevalent language in Lanka (a Prakrit) was close to a script (Asokan Brahmi) is a man who has taken ‘pretense of knowledge’ to a level that no man has taken it before. Nevertheless, it is education such a man deserves not ridicule. I fought with my baser instincts to keep the ridicule at bay. It was hard, especially when I contemplated Exhibit B; “…it is very unlikely that such ethnic feelings or differences existed in, say, 5th or 6th century BCE. Those days Lanka most probably had its own form of southern Brahmi or Elu- Prakrit, very close to what we know today as ‘Tamil Brahmi’…” –(e mail note from Chandre to Michael Roberts)

Chandre’s Elu, a southern Prakrit is close to Asokan Brahmi. It’s also close to Tamil Prakrit (a fellow southern Prakrit). Even this is not enough closeness for Elu. It’s also very close to Tamil Brahmi. This is a linguistic ‘Bold and the Beautiful’. Elu is the eternally fascinating Brooke, who was recently accidently close to her daughter’s boyfriend, having been close earlier to the said daughter’s father, who was incidentally the husband of an older daughter, whose father she was also close to in the midst of being close to his son.

In reality the ancient languages are not so catholic and follow patterns more conducive to sanity. First it’s important to understand, in order to avoid gaffes like ‘The prevalent language of Lanka was close to Asokan Brahmi’, that Brahmi is an ancient script used to write many of South Asia’s languages before they developed their own vernacular scripts and is therefore considered ‘the ancestor of most of South Asia's modern vernacular scripts’(Coningham et al:96). ‘The earliest accepted examples of this script’ used to be ‘the pillar and rock inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor, Asoka, dating to the middle of the third century BC’. Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script’, Coningham et al: 1996, displaced Asokan Brahmi from this pioneer pedestal and announced that “Sherds inscribed with this script, recently found at Anuradhapura, with dates of the beginning of the fourth century BC, now represent its earliest dated examples anywhere in the subcontinent”. It countered the model that cast Sri Lanka as merely ‘the recipient of material culture diffused from more northerly regions’ and suggested that ‘Sri Lanka may have played a pivotal role in the development of Brahmi’ . Have to stop now. More next week.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Who is Chandre Dharmawardana?

A response to ‘What to do with Dharshanie Ratnawalli?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I view with extreme concern Dr. Dharmawardana’s efforts to extricate himself from a past indiscretion. This was committed when he confided to Dr. Michael Roberts in an email note that the inscriptions of Lanka in the second century B.C. are really not Sinhala or Tamil and that the utmost that can be claimed was that a betting man would be justified in placing the odds on Sinhala because the Prakrit is close to Pali. This was the gist of the part of his email note, which by reason of its extraordinary asininity impressed me. It goes;
“I personally think there were no Damila or Sinhala in the 2nd century BC. The inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil. The Sinhala has an advantage because the Prakrit is close to Pali, but I personally think the ethnic distinctions came up probably after wars of Dutugamunu…”

The lexical definition of asinine is ‘failing to exercise intelligence or judgment; ridiculously below average rationality’. A more asinine statement than the above cannot be imagined, unless it’s the following written by Chandre to excuse the above.
“This is not a statement of linguistic history, but a judgment about the onset of ethnic consciousness.”
It is indeed a statement on linguistic history. ‘The inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil. The Sinhala has an advantage because the Prakrit is close to Pali…’ brings it firmly into the ambit of linguistic history. The primary purpose of the statement is to declare a personal belief that in the second century B.C. there were no ethnic distinctions, no ethnic labels. While this personal belief represents a new height of asininity, it was not (and is not, even now) my intention to deal with it (It demands its own separate space). My intention was to pass lightly over it and batten down on the real treasure; which is the appalling gap in Chandre’s knowledge about the language of the 2nd century B.C. inscriptions. ‘The Inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil. The Sinhala has an advantage because the Prakrit is close to Pali....’ represents the attempts of a man to fill this knowledge gap with speculation arising from the said personal belief.

Would a man who had heard at least through hearsay, of a Geiger identifying the language of the stone Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka as the oldest form of the Sinhalese language, of a Senarat Paranavithana describing the same inscriptions as being in old Sinhala, of a James W. Gair talking about inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C. of an Iravatham Mahadevan declaring that among the inscribed potsherds found in Tamil Nadu, a small but significant group is in the Sinhala-Prakrit language written in the Early Sinhala-Brahmi script, have written that the inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil? More critically, having said that and upon being exposed, what kind of a man continues to insist that what he said is consistent with what Geiger said? An asinine man. Chandre’s 'The inscriptions are really not Sinhala or Tamil’ is light years from being consistent with Geiger’s ‘The inscriptions are in the oldest form of Sinhalese called Sinhalese Prakrit’. They clash horribly.

I had just remarked in my 9th December 2012 column ‘Language Problem of Speaking Stones’;
“The number of academics in history and related disciplines together with those in unrelated disciplines but dabbling in history out of keen interest, who do not know what language the cave inscriptions of Lanka are written in, would fill a good sized tourist bus. This is a bold surmise based on three clues uncovered during my personal investigations.”
The third clue was none other than this email note from Chandre to Michael. To get permission to use it, I wrote to Michael Roberts first;
“Dear Dr. Roberts following is a note from Chandre D that you sent to me some time ago. In my last article, I talked of 3 clues that led me to believe that people are clueless about the Brahmi inscriptions. This is the third clue. Could you possibly write to Chandre D and get his permission for me to quote the red text as coming from him to illustrate the state of knowledge that exists in the public realm on the language of the Brahmi scripts?”
Here I appended the entire e mail note with the relevant portion marked in red. The whole was then forwarded by Roberts to Dharmawardana with this explanatory note (Cc to me);
“Chandre, I received this note from Darshanie Ratnawalli. Do please respond to her request. I believe both of you will benefit from exchanges of views and research findings. Michael”
The crux of this note, which was the request for the permission was somehow missed by Chandre so I tried again (Cc Roberts);
“Dear Dr. Dharmawardena. I understand that you are busy right now. At this stage, the only assistance I want from you is permission to use the first part of your email note to Dr. Roberts (which he sent to me some time ago) attributing it to you by name, in my next article as an illustrative example of the current state of public awareness on the language of the Brahmi scripts of Lanka. The part of your note I am interested in goes;…I want to clinically dissect the forces that may have resulted in the state of knowledge revealed in the above excerpt from you. May I assume I have your permission to refer to this as a communiqué from you?”

This time I seemed to get through and the rest is history. But after all these explanations, what sort of a man writes; “I was not aware of what Ratnawalli wanted, she gave no clues to it and did not ask for any clarifications… So I was surprised to see a newspaper article!”? An asinine man. .

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gordon Weiss and the dynamics of redemption.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Not for personal gain is this exercise of mine but in pursuit of redemption. Redemption is a curious thing. To counter every wrong pattern that gets drawn on the canvas of existence, it draws some other pattern, next to which the wrong pattern looks so godawful and out of place that it soon gets erased by the collective forces of existence.

Gordon Weiss too has sat in front of his computer and drawn the following pattern;
“The hitherto relatively contiguous area that has formed the basis for a Tamil claim to a historic homeland will be broken up and interspersed with hundreds of army camps, staffed by Sinhalese soldiers…There is nothing new about the creeping erasure of Tamil territorial claims in the name of development…Archeologists and historians, sanctioned by the government, unleashed on to conquered territory and possibly funded by UNESCO, will supply the academic legitimacy for the ‘re-territorialisation’ of Sri Lanka. Eventually, postcards will be printed of newly minted Buddhist sites in formerly Tamil areas, and tour guides will regale sightseers with stories of their discovery and antiquity. Just two weeks after Prabhakaran’s death, the president’s wife unveiled a statue of Sanghamiththa…the woman who – two and a half thousand years before- is said to have brought a seedling of the holy Bo tree to Sri Lanka. The statue now sits in the middle of one of the HSZs, in the heart of Tamil Jaffna…”
-(‘The Cage’, pp.255-256)

Even the sheer godawfulness of this passage generated by the ignorance of its 21st century Australian author is redeemable. A 17th century Dutch mapmaker redeems it by his cartographical representation of Jaffna (held at the Nationaal Archief, Netherlands, but viewable online at He wouldn’t have known that he was being an agent of redemption when he drew up this map of a Jaffna where Sinhalese and Tamil place names exist side by side. He was just exercising his craft in the service of imperial Holland. To him a Jaffna that could be interspersed with a Cottiewatte, Noenavil game, Watane, a Walandale, Lilagamo, Tangode, a Tambale, Batecotte, Anecotte, Naloer, Oergavature, Nagamoene, Tambegamo, Mepale, Pollopalle, Alipalle, Malwattoe, a Walewitakepoelo, etc. would have been business as usual, with no special significance. The fact that four centuries later, demographic changes both colonial state sponsored and natural, would render a major territorial division of his map Welligamo into Valikamam and leave a Vimankamam in place of his Vimangamo and affect almost total erasure of its Sinhalese names, would have, if known, filled the cartographer with indifference. If told that four centuries of political upheaval would make his map an embarrassing skeleton in the cupboard to a political ideology aspiring to own the SL reconciliation space in the global mind map, the cartographer would have tuned out in sheer incomprehension.

Yet four centuries later, the Redemptive Dynamic turns this Dutch cartographer into an agent and his map into a beacon that exposes the human frailty or the psychical darkness behind the Weiss tenets contained in the above excerpt, such as ‘Tamil Jaffna’, ‘Tamil territorial claims’, ‘Tamil claims to a historic homeland on the basis of a contiguous area’. It reveals the plight of men, who accept international postings under global organizations to complex countries swearing to uphold liberal principles, only to get bent by reason of their garden variety intellects into buying ethnic cleansing agendas for multicultural spaces. This agent of the Redemptive Dynamic and his beacon also show the sheer superfluity of ‘unleashing historians and archeologists on conquered territory’ with or without UNESCO funding to give ‘academic legitimacy to the re-territorialisation of Sri Lanka’. All one has to do is to give out framed copies of this map to the sections of the populace entertaining doubts about the legitimacy of the said re-territorialisation. In fact, I am not sure if the Redemptive Dynamic didn’t overdo it a bit with this map. There’s such a thing as having it too easy.

Re Sangamittha, the woman is indeed said by the Pali chronicle of Lanka to have landed in Jambukolapattana with the Bo sapling. But as this same chronicle was instrumental in establishing the identity of even this woman’s father in the inscriptions of India, it seems reasonable to assume that the chronicle was on the ball re the Asokan connection and she did indeed land in Jambukolapattana, which port is widely accepted by historians as belonging to the peninsula.
“……..a brief reference to the regional and not merely Sri Lankan importance of the translation of the Mahavamsa. In time it became the source for determining the identity of Devanampiya Piyadassi mentioned in a series of inscriptions on pillars and rocks in many parts of India, an identification eventually confirmed in the early 20th century, as the great Emperor Asoka. …”
-(‘K M De Silva: Emerson Tennent Memorial Lecture: JRASSL, NS, VOL. XLI, Special Number, 1996’)

Did we really have as a UN official a man who was capable of regarding the celebration of this cultural association in Jaffna, as a violation and an abomination? The shock is fully comparable to seeing running sores on the body of a beauty contestant during the swimsuit round.