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Sri Lanka: Is recolonisation the final solution?

The most powerful factor, next to genetics, that distinguishes one race from another is its language. In the case of Sinhalese, it is the Sinhala language with its unique vocal sound system, its own grammar and vocabulary.

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Lankatilaka image house of Polonnaruwa is a vaulted type temple. The image house dates back to the 11th century and it was built by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186 A.D.) [ Photo: Special Arrangement ]

First of all, let me express my sincere respects to Mr D.L. Sirimanne, the writer of the interesting article entitled ‘Celebrating 75th Anniversary of Independence’ (The Island/Opinion/January 18, 2023). He struck me as a venerable old man, who, at 103 years of age, still thinks about the welfare of his fellow Sri Lankans. It is rare for a person of that age to be so clear-headed and lucid in his writing. His generous spirit and his literary activity may be one reason for his healthy longevity, I think. His mention of retired aviator turned writer Elmo Jayawardana, whom  I highly admire for the same altruistism of character and the same literary gifts that Mr Sirimanne displays, made me check out whatever other information is available about him online. Actually, I had never come across the name D.L. Sirimanne before I read his Sat Mag feature in The Island ‘An epic Air Ceylon charter flight…….’ on October 24, 2020, which I re-visited today and which enabled me to relive the delightful experience of reading it. I also watched an old TV interview uploaded to the You Tube, featuring him. We have very few unsung heroes like Mr Sirimanne. It was time well spent, I thought, although I do not share his views about the history of Sri Lanka, the hallowed and historic homeland of the Sinhalese, their inalienable Motherland, or his opinion about the primary cause of the economic mess that Sri Lanka is currently undergoing. But the old ghosts he recalls in the otherwise excellent essay that he’s written had better be exorcized once and for all, for denigrating the majority Sinhalese community and belittling their history which is synonymous with that of their island home, based entirely on wrong assumptions, will definitely undermine all attempts to bring political stability, economic prosperity, and intercommunal harmony to Sri Lanka.

Please rest assured, Mr Sirimanne, my writing this will not detract in the least from my deepest admiration for you. You are not wrong in holding the views that you are sharing with the readers, given the time that you spent your youth, the most vibrant years of your life. It is only that times have changed, new discoveries have been made in science leading to the emergence of new technologies, and corresponding advances in the ever expanding universe of human knowledge, including such domains as astronomy, psychology, social sciences, art, culture, politics, history and archaeology and so on, in the light of which we are developing a better, more accurate idea of our past among other things. Something that has not changed, though, as far as our country is concerned, is the interfering ghost of departed Western colonialism, that is largely responsible for our problems. 

The fact that we are surrounded by the ocean has determined the nature of our evolution as an independent civilization, and the character of our commercial, cultural and political/diplomatic relations we have had with the outside world. As island dwellers, quite naturally, we have always been wary of foreigners though we have always treated them hospitably; we have been always independent spirited, and protective of our land, and our Buddhist culture. Before the depredations of European occupation, we, as an island nation had an extensive global reach on account of trade and our Buddhist spiritual culture. Groups of people and individuals travelled into as well as out of the island in connection with the last mentioned. The main body of the original inhabitants of the island were saved from being numerically overwhelmed by the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the relatively less hospitable or less inhabitable lands around, due to the sea barrier. Foreign commercial-cum-military powers that made incursions into the island from the legendary Vijaya to the British mercantile/imperial power at the end of the 18th century had first come as traders, attracted by the natural riches of the country. (According to new scientific findings in historiography and archaeology, the legendary Vijaya and the later invader Elara who ruled at Anuradhapura (205-161 BCE) were actually connected with trade.)

Mr Sirimanne seems to come from the minuscule Westernized,English speaking, Christian ‘elite’ society, the comprador class of the native population, that lived in relative comfort and  probably didn’t worry too much about independence from the British.They were akin to the ‘mimic men’ in Trinidad-born English novelist V.S. Naivpaul’s novel by that name, who tried to be what the imperial British did not allow them to be. But this was at the expense of the vast mass of the downtrodden  colonized ‘natives’, who were subjected to flagrant exploitation and relentless dehumanization, something that reminds me of what journalist and novelist Robert McCrum says about the lack of moral justification for the comfortable lifestyle of the rich upper crust of the Anglo-American society today: “No one dwelling in comfort on the higher ground of Anglo-American society should ever forget that a brutal trade in human lives was a motor of the British and American economies throughout the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth century….”. (Globish, Viking, 2010). McCrum, of course, is referring to the slave trade.

In the case of Sri Lanka and its large northern neighbour India, this period of European imperial exploitation became most virulent for the two centuries from around the mid-18th to the mid-20th century. (It looks as if, in the West dominated global media, this history is being fast sanitized.)  Former Indian diplomat and writer Dr Shashi Tharoor (who served at the UN for twenty-nine years, ending his stint there as Under Secretary General), in his ‘INGLORIOUS EMPIRE: What the British did to India’ (Scribe, Melbourne and London, 2018) tells the thoroughly researched true story of the British in India – from the arrival of the East India Company to the end of the Raj – and reveals how Britain’s rise was built upon its plunder of India. However, the careful reader understands that Tharoor’s purpose is not to narrate a sequence of events and tell a story as such, but to critically study the legacy the British left in India and to demolish arguments that try to support claims for alleged benefits of colonial rule. (However, Tharoor does not deny that the British did leave, incidentally though, a few treasures, such as a democratic form of government, and the English language.) Delhi-based historian William Dalrymple’s ‘THE ANARCHY: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company’ (Bloomsbury Publishing Company, London, 2019) is a riveting narrative that tells the story of how the (British) East India Company transformed itself from an international trading corporation into something quite different: an aggressive colonial power in the guise of a multinational business run by English merchants collecting taxes from the impoverished natives using a ruthless private army. 

Sri Lanka is very small compared to India in terms of area. India is roughly 46 times the size of Sri Lanka and its population roughly 64 times. But internationally, we are accepted as an independent sovereign state similar to India that enjoys full fledged membership of the United Nations. There is nothing unusual about this. There are dozens of countries with even smaller populations than ours, such as Burkino Faso, Chile, Malavi, Mali, Romania, Zambia, etc., that stand as independent sovereign states. We are not, by any means, inferior to India as a sovereign nation.     

To liken Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) to ‘a brilliant emerald on the beautiful pendant of Mother India’ is to imply that our country is/was an appendage of India! It never was, but present day Indian politicians appear to wish it was, and even to behave as if it already is, and some of our own worthless unpatriotic politicians seem to agree! How can a Sri Lankan celebrate a ‘Mother India’, instead of Mother Lanka? To be colonized by foreign invaders is not an experience that can be or should be forgotten with glib talk. No self-respecting nation in the world will relish that humiliating experience. We are a people with an honourable history. Our country has been called Sihele or Sivhela or Sinhale or Sinhaladipa (the europeanized ‘Ceylon’ is a derivative of Sihele), or Lanka, as it is often referred to in the 5th century CE Mahavansa or the Great Chronicle and as it is usually called in colloquial Sinhala even today, and Tamilized as Ilankei. (Incidentally, all the quotations from the Mahavansa and its continuation the Cuavansa found in this essay are from Mudaliyar L. C. Wijesinghe’s translation of 1889.) 

Sri Lanka had survived 17 invasions from South India before the European phase of colonization actually started at the beginning of the 17th century (1602), though the fortuitous arrival of the Portuguese happened almost a century earlier in 1505. The Portuguese were in Sri Lanka till they were driven away in 1658 by the Dutch, who in their turn gave way to the British in 1796. The British helped themselves to the maritime provinces of the country previously occupied by the other two European powers. All these invasions and occupations met with the fiercest resistance from the native Sinhalese  population. They did not bring Tamils from South India to fight these wars. Jayantha Somasundaram claimed in an article published in The Island a couple of months ago that the Sinhalese did not go to war against invaders because as Buddhists they did not want to kill. This is a deliberate falsehood. Of course, it is true that when there was internecine strife, Sinhalese kings sometimes brought in mercenaries from South India as when Mugalan did in order to challenge his half-brother Kasyapa of Sigiriya in the 5th century CE. Invader Magha of Kalinga brought an army of Kerala mercenaries (according to Chapter 80 of the Mahavansa (in the form of Culavansa written in the 13th century CE by a Buddhist Bhikkhu named Dhammakitti) to fight against the ruler of Lanka at the time Parakrama Pandyan of Polonnaruwa in 1215 CE. By the time of the British advent at the end of the 18th century, the interior part of the island formed the Kandyan kingdom or the diminished kingdom of Sinhale hemmed in all sides by occupied territories; but it had itself repeatedly and heroically foiled European military occupation. It was only through subtle diplomatic intrigue that it was annexed to the British Empire in 1815.  

Even my father (who was of Mr D.L. Sirimanne’s generation), though he was no historian, scoffed at the implausibility of the Mahavansa story about prince Vijaya. “How could we be descendants of a lion, an animal, and still be humans?” he used to say. He also ridiculed the Aryan claim in the Hitlerian sense. He only believed in the word ‘Arya’ as it is used in Buddhism, that is, to refer to a spiritually advanced person. But Mr Sirimanne seems to have no issue with the ‘Aryan’ identity of the Sinhalese, who had allegedly come from Sinhapura in North India.  Mr Sirimanne believes that the tribes that inhabited the place when prince Vijaya landed at Tambapanni, known as Yakkas and Nagas, were ‘probably Hindus from South India’. He has left out the Devas and the Rakshas, the other two of the four indigenous tribes who are believed to have inhabited the island then. 

However, the Vijaya legend must have a nucleus of historical truth in it. It might be based on an actual invasion by a north Indian prince, who initiated a dynasty that imported princes from the mythical Sinhapura to rule at Tambapanni. The subject Yakkas’ Sinhalese identity must have derived from the natural admixture at that stage of the native Yakkas with the members of the invading north indian ‘Aryan’ clan. There definitely had developed a struggle between the invaders and the local elite over sovereignty by the time of the death of king Panduvasudeva (who reigned at Tambapanni from 504 to 474 BCE). In fact, Pandukabhaya (born in 474 BCE, the year his grandfather died) who ascended the throne at Anuradhapura after a protracted military struggle against his uncles is considered the first truly Lankan monarch (but the 6th king overall) since Vijaya. The Mahavansa story (found in Ch. 10) about the emergence of Pandukabhaya features a number of real Yakkhas and Yakkhinis, who are shown to be as much human as those who had come from Sinhapura (though they are presented with a supernatural touch.) 

But today we know for sure that the Yakkas were the real ancestors of the Sinhalese (Kuveni was a Yakka princess), and that they were also contemporaneous with the Veddas. The fake classification of the Veddas as ‘aadivasin’ (aborigines) by Western anthropologists was probably meant to deny the Sinhalese their autochthonous origin in this island.  Yakka language inscriptions have been found and deciphered, one of which, according to archaeology Professor Raj Somadeva, declares “api yakku” we are yakkas. The Mahavansa says that the missionary Mahinda Thera preached Buddhism ‘in the language of the islanders’, which was undoubtedly, the Yakka language, the ancient version of Sinhala, that was in circulation then. 

The most powerful factor, next to genetics, that distinguishes one race from another is its language. In the case of the Sinhalese it is the Sinhala language with its unique vocal sound system, its own grammar and vocabulary. (Words like vatura for water, vee for rice paddy, haal/sahal for(rice, bath for cooked rice, kamata for threshing floor, gala  for rock, and so on are original Sinhala words, not borrowed from any other language; another original Sinhala word is ‘wewa’ (turned into Pali form in the chronicles as waapi)), meaning an artificial water reservoir constructed by building a dam across a valley for storing water for agricultural irrigation during rainless months. However, down the ages, contact with the North Indian languages of Pali or Magadi and Sanskrit has heavily hybridized the Sinhala vocabulary. This is the reason why Sanskrit-derived Hindi and Bengali languages sound more familiar and are more easily intelligible to the Sinhalese than the Dravidian languages of South India such as Tamil or Malayalam (a few elements from the last two can also be detected, particularly in spoken (non-formal, non-literary) Sinhala…

Continued   

Source: The Island

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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