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.