Monday, June 30, 2014

The Vanniyas of Sri Lanka Vs Vanniyas of South India

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 08 December 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I got a query from Tissa Devendra regarding my previous piece, “Memories of the Vanni, Vaddas and Vanniyas”. “Do you mean to say that the Vanni was peopled by a slow influx of Vanniyar caste infiltrators from South India?” he asked. I told him that it’s simplistic to imagine Sri Lanka as a setting where South Indian concepts and conditions get duplicated en mass as if traced by carbon paper. There were in-migrations orchestrated by the medieval central Sinhala states that claimed suzerainty or chakravarthihood over the whole country[i]. But these migrations were from diverse milieus in South India and also Bengal. The key word is “diverse cultural milieus” of South India.

None of the immigrant groups from South India given in the Sinhalese folk historical tradition as appointees to chieftaincies in the Wanni of Lanka can be identified as belonging to the group called Vanniyar mentioned in South Indian records from the 10th/11th century onwards[ii]. The Malavaras, lovingly mentioned in the relevant Hugh Nevill manuscript (Or 6606-182)[iii] as “the first possessors of the very own Wanni kingdom belonging to this Lanka”, are not of South Indian Vanniyar stock. Instead they are “chiefs of certain hill-tribes in the Karnata and Tamil areas of South India” whose warlike habits secured them many mentions in “the Pandya records of the thirteenth century in South India”( Indrapala 1965 thesis p296). The Malavara chieftains are also listed in the Sri Lankan Tamil tradition (in the “Vaiyapatal” and the “Vaiya”) among the more important colonists of Jaffna-(ibid).

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Memories of the Wanni; the Vaddas and the Vanniyas

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 24 November 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli
The Vaddas are of course carriers of the name “wanniyalettho”, the present Vadi chieftain being “Uruwarige Wanniyalettho”. 

I will call him Jayaseelan because I can’t recall his name (Preposterous but bear with me). Jayaseelan is a Tamil speaking Vadda who is an ex-LTTE fighter. Sometime after 2009, Sunday Divaina had done a story on Jayaseelan. It had captured a retrospective inner conflict going on within the man. Jayaseelan confessed to asking himself the question, “I am a Vadda. Why did I fight for a separate Tamil state?” However, that was not what made the story stick in my mind. Jayaseelan had a grandfather who, while recounting the history of their community in the area, had let drop, almost casually, that they were Bandara Vannia’s[i] people.

Sharing the Wanni like they did the Vaddas and Vanniyas intermingled in interesting ways. They married each other, transformed into each other, and became “ruler” and the “ruled over” to each other in unidirectional ways with the Vanniyas ruling over bands of Vaddas. They even came to resemble each other in ways that caused certain 19th century British administrators to suspect a relationship[ii] (S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887).

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Aleas, Kuruwe Vidanes and the Vanniyalettho. The secret history of Jaffna and the Vanni

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 10 November 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The Vanni was the source of elephants to the Kingdom of Jaffna and elephants were Crown Property. By issuing a proclamation dated Lisbon, 3rd Jan., 1612, the King of Portugal had let the natives know that he had cottoned on to that and no one therefore should mess with Crown Property, which right now meant his property. ” Whereas I have learnt that the elephants in the Island of Ceilao are and always have been from ancient times the property of the Crown,…”-(The Kingdom Of Jafanapatam 1645 Being An Account Of Its Administrative Organisation As Derived From The Portuguese Archives, P. E. Pieris, 22-23)

While managing their newly acquired crown property, elephantine and otherwise, there accrued to the Portuguese, a wealth of information, which reveals to us, the modern observers, the threads of cohesion[i] between the centre and periphery of the pre-colonial Lankan state. We learn for example that one such thread had created synergy in the realms of Lanka with regards to elephants and bequeathed the office of Kuruwe Vidane to the Kingdom of Jaffna, a territory which by the 17th century was covered by a diaphanous Tamil garb, through which the Sinhalese inner garment showed much plainer than it does now.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Deciphering the Vanniyas; a people out of the box

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 13 October 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli
A Tank in the Wanni

During the twilight of the Vanniyas, that is, the latter half of the 19th century, the last remaining representatives of that identity were found eking out a living in several villages of Nuvarakalaviya (North Central province) and Northern province (mainly around Vavuniya in Kurunthankulam and Nochcikulam or Chinna Cheddikulam). They were living, breathing fossils of a species of people that have entered case studies of modern historiography as exemplifiers of the incorporating drives of the pre-modern Lankan state. “Thus, in Sinhale on the one hand there existed an incorporative tolerance that a) permitted immigrant bodies to settle in the Vanni and the Eastern Province…”-(Michael Roberts, “Prejudice and Hate in Pluralist Settings: The Kingdom of Kandy”, 2000).

“The case presents a fascinating study of a people originating from different immigrant cultures who were compelled by circumstances and the office and responsibilities they accepted, to assimilate into another culture.”- (D. G. B de Silva, “New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection[i]”-Full Text)

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Into the Vanni and Jaffna of the 17th Century

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 29 September 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

His name was Knox. Robert Knox. English. He was a prisoner in Lanka from 1660 to 1680. Finally he escaped from Kandy or more specifically from Rajasinha II, who claimed to be the sovereign overlord of the whole of Lanka and its people. The world-view Rajasinha II inherited as a ruler of Sinhalē (a perception of pan island Chakravartihood) comes across in his correspondence with the Dutch. He told them that “the black people of this island of Ceilao, wheresoever they might be, [are] my vassals by right”-

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A historian in focus- The Dark Side of S Pathmanathan

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 08 September 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Cognitive problems and knowledge deficiencies of S. Pathmanathan, Professor Emeritus of History? Yes. First, a caveat. Although there is a school of thought that Sri Lanka shows a lack of discernment in the making of her professors emeritus (“X was made a professor emeritus after just one publication” remarked a senior academic grimly), they clearly do not mean S. Pathmanathan. In his chosen area (the middle or the medieval period of SL history), Professor Pathmanathan has enough publications (most of them downloadable here) and his peers mention him respectfully enough. “I stress that Pathmanathan, in his Kingdom Of Jaffna, does not indulge in such outrageous statements. In fact, note the paraphrase of his carefully circumscribed statements in fn.59 above”- (Michael Roberts: 2004).

There is an Other Side though. I first learnt of it from K.S. Sivakumaran in “History of Lankan Thamilians revisited”. It contains a translation of statements from a Tamil newspaper article by Pathmanathan on Brahmi lithic inscriptions of Sri Lanka. Although the translator’s language does not inspire confidence, I will assume that it’s a faithful translation because the statements are bald, simple, without nuance and the least likely to have suffered in translation unless the translator made them up from scratch (unlikely).

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

No, you can’t have jam yet Professor Sitrampalam!

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 18 August 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Professor S.K Sitrampalam is the former professor of history in the University of Jaffna, a vice president of ITAK (euphemistically known as the Federal Party) and a specialist in South Asian history and Archaeology. He can be relied on… To take your breath away by bizarre displays of ignorance that is hard to explain away even with the excuse; ‘nationalist historian’. Unless ‘nationalist historian’ is a polite euphemism that really means ‘unsound operative’. Here is a demonstration from his “Tamils of Sri Lanka: Historical Roots of Tamil identity” (2003).

“At this juncture it is pertinent to quote Geiger who studied the Sinhala language in depth. He has divided its development into three phases. They are: Sinhalese Prakrit (3rd century B.C – 4th century AD), proto–Sinhalese (4th century AD – 8th century A.D) Sinhalese proper (after 8th century A.D). Elu, is the original language from which the later Sinhalese developed. However, data from the Brahmi inscriptions show that the Elu would have been either old Tamil or a dialect of Tamil. In the light of the evidence from the Brahmi inscriptions it is now evident that the proto–Sinhalese speakers, namely the Elu speakers came into contact with Prakrit, the language of Buddhism.”

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Monday, June 16, 2014

What Paranavitana said to McGilvray; “Do your homework son”

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 04 August 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“There are Brahmi inscriptions at Jailani dating to the second century BC, but they appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains. According to Aboosally (2002: 62-3) there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha.”
- Dennis McGilvray, ‘Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka

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Dennis McGilvray In the cozy darkness of a velvet blindfold

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 21 July 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Stupidity is no stranger to academia. It lurks behind reputed and respected scholarly facades and waits for the owner of the façade to lower his or her guard. Then it comes out, so brazenly and without apology that one is struck speechless. Recently I had occasion to be entranced by the outing of (the stupidities of) Dennis MCGilvray and one other, who shall remain unnamed until it’s his turn for my attentions.

Though American, MCGilvray is no stranger to Sri Lankan studies, with which he has been associated since the late1960s. Michael Roberts, an anthropologist, though a historian by training, recalls how McGilvray was a participant in the Ceylon Studies Seminar organized by personnel from Peradeniya University in those halcyon days and how he (Mac not Mike) used to visit Peradeniya to meet Gananath Obeyesekere and was one of the many others who were drawn to that University by its global repute as a centre of excellence and the vibrant discourses centering around a happening sociology department. Roberts also has fond memories of staying at McGilvray’s place in Cambridge during a winter. All this connectedness with Sri Lanka and its academics could not save McGilvray from folly however.

From 1993 to 2002 Mac conducted (what he thought of as) independent ethnographic studies in Kuragala, the site of a Sufi shrine, while enjoying the hospitality of the main trustee M. L.M Aboosally. Now there are scholars who are capable of enjoying hospitality without compromising their independence. Dennis was not one of them. In the midst of his ethnographic survey he also made excursions into archaeology, willingly blindfolded and holding on to his host’s hand for guidance. Evidence of these forays, made in the cozy darkness of that velvet blindfold called hospitality, holding on to the comforting arm of his gracious host jumps at the reader from McGilvray’s “Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka"

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