Writing History and Myth

Shanie — in Notebook of a Nobody

This essay appeared first in the Island, sometime back — alas, date misplaced

Many years ago, I remember reading Professor A F Pollard’s Tudor England. One statement by this eminent historian in his Preface to the book still remains etched in my memory. He stated that a Headmaster of a school had once made a statement to the effect that any classical scholar, with common sense, would be able to teach history. Pollard’s comment was that statement probably explained why history was taught so badly in schools and produced such poor results at public examinations. Professor Michael Roberts in an excellent essay in The Island this week (Mid-Week Review 16 April) makes the same point. He says that it is not only classical scholars but any Tom, Dick or Harry feels capable of writing history. He refers to nondescript charlatans, including academics, inventing history to suit a particular political agenda, and in today’s context, to re-write the history of the Sinhala and Tamil people. One academic, a teacher of Mathematics, finds no compunction in venturing into a discipline other than his own and making definitive historical assertions, without a shred of empirical evidence to support them.

The professional historian generally tends to confine his writing to that aspect of history where his academic training lies. But there is certainly a case for a scholar to write a more general history for the lay reader. Professor Lyn Ludowyk, a scholar but not in history, has written a book which narrates the story of two thousand years of our history. But he makes no pretence to it being a work of historical scholarship. His task in The Story of Ceylon, he says, was that of a humble narrator, depending on the work of the scientist for the facts.

Professor Kingsley de Silva, a trained historian but with a specialised knowledge of the British period of our history, has written a comprehensive History of Sri Lanka. This was a long felt need because we required a professional historian to present our country’s history in a readable one-volume form to the lay reader. It is not easy even for the rigorously trained historian to write about periods and subjects of history of which he has neither primary evidence nor even secondary scholarship. But the task of writing a general history needs to be done and Kingsley de Silva has done it so competently, acknowledging his debt to the published and unpublished works of his colleagues in areas of speciality other than his own.

Teaching of History

Michael Roberts is right when he bemoans the teaching of history in our schools. He refers to the first seventy-five years of the last century when school history teachers tended to regard history as a collection of undisputed facts. But perhaps this is true even now. This columnist is aware of an incident some years ago in an international school. A History teacher, who happened to belong to the minority community, had been teaching about the Indus Valley Civilisation and had referred to Harappans as a Dravidian people. One parent thought this racist propaganda and lodged a protest with the Sri Lankan Principal, who sent a letter to the entire management of the school stating that it was ‘a well known fact’ that the Mohenjodaro-Harappan people were Aryans and that the teacher in question was distorting history. He was a well-meaning person but his mindset was on the kind of history that had been taught to him. It was a revelation to him to learn that the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus Valley followed or coincided with the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation. It was also a revelation to him that what the teacher had taught was from the British text book used in his school.

But knowingly or unknowingly, what is taught as history is sometimes not only fiction (deliberate distortions) but also myths and legends (carried forward from oral traditions). There was a recent contribution in the correspondence columns of the Island where the writer was complaining that some of our history, (I think he specifically mentioned the Vijaya story) was being treated as legend. I have no doubt that the writer was being genuine in his concern; but that was the result, as in the instance of the School Principal referred to earlier, of history being left to politico-teachers, as Michael Roberts stated in his essay. Myths and legends are however, as Ludowyk has stated, sometimes necessary to sustain a people. The myth satisfies the unconscious wishes of a people. Its source is not as material as its availability.

Myths and Legends as History

The Mahavamsa is an invaluable source for the reconstruction of our ancient history. It was compiled by Bhikku Mahanama of the Mahavihara tradition sometime during or after sixth century AD and chronicles our story during the millennium following the legendary arrival of Vijaya. It was written therefore based on oral tradition and for the ‘serene joy and emotion of the pious’. As Kingsley de Silva stated, ‘the Mahavamsa and its continuation the Culavamsa were the work of bhilkkus and, naturally enough, were permeated with a strong religious bias, and encrusted with miracle and invention. The central theme was the historic role of the island as a bulwark of Buddhist civilisation, and in a deliberate attempt to underline this, it contrives to synchronise the advent of Vijaya with the parinibbana (the passing away) of the Buddha…. This was to become the most powerful of the historical myths of the Sinhalese.’ To the compiler of the Mahavamsa, civilisation began with the arrival of Vijaya.

Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne has however pointed out that archaeological excavations in Anuradhapura in 1969 have unearthed evidence of ‘the existence of a technology and culture known as the Early Iron Age Megalithic Culture’ around 1000 BC, many centuries before the reported arrival of Vijaya. Dr Siran Deraniyagala, the former Commissioner of Archaeology, has suggested that the earliest humans in Sri Lanka may have an antiquity dating to 80,000 years BPE (Before Present Era). From about 35,000 BPE, ‘material evidence of the pre-historic people is more complete and records the prevalence of a full-fledged Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age culture in most parts of the island with the exception of the Jaffna peninsula and delta areas of the Mahaweli river.’

Sudharshan Seneviratne states that recent paleo-biological studies have indicated that ‘a biological continuum exists between the pre-historic, the megalithic-builders and certain present-day populations of India and Sri Lanka. Rather than a mass migration of imagined Dravidian or Aryan ‘races’, it is therefore possible to infer an intrusion of small communities bringing with them technological and other cultural elements who merged themselves with the pre-existing stone-using communities.’

20th Century Nationalism

Seneviratne goes on to point out that nationalists within the Sinhala and Tamil speaking groups have formalised their identity or group distinctiveness using a range of symbols drawn from the texts or archaeological remains. Such symbols were utilised for the purpose of ‘authenticating’ the antiquity of the community, its region of origin, territoriality and imagined homogeneity. A common language and a ‘racial’ selection as Dravida or Aryan became a basis for providing this group affinity. ‘It is significant that the ‘we-they’ distinction originally maintained against the colonialist gradually came to represent a Sinhala Buddhist-Tamil Hindu dichotomy.’

Scholars have over the years debunked some of the myths and legends emanating from the oral tradition which found expression particularly in the early chapters of the Mahavamsa. But Seneviratne rightly points out that similar critical evaluation has not been sufficiently paid to parochial claims by Tamil nationalists. The identification of Early Iron Age megalithic monuments has been seen as evidence for a pan-Dravidian ‘racial’ migratory movement and homeland in South Asia. The existence of a Dravidian ‘race’ and the theory of mass migration from South India to Sri Lanka are taken as historical fact and as a symbol legitimising Tamil hegemony over a particular geo-political region in our island. ‘Little attention is given to the fact that both Arya and Dravida are essentially linguistic terms and at best are cultural identities and very definitely not racial identities.

Scholars like H L Seneviratne and Michael Roberts have in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities. H L Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 Convention in Tamil. Many communities have changed their ethnic identity within a space of two or three generations. All scholars will agree with Michael Roberts when he states: ‘There can be little doubt that the various ethnic categories residing in Sri Lanka today are all, every single category without exception, of mixed ‘racial’ genealogy.’

All thinking people will also agree with Sudharshan Seneviratne: ‘Ground realities of the sub-continental situation demand that scholarly studies in reading the past must be devoid of parochialism, especially in education to the next generation and in interpretative studies. School text books present some of the most distorted versions of history…. With the evolution of a totalitarian political system in the north of Sri Lanka and an increasing tempo of parochialism in the south of Sri Lanka, it is important that scholarly and balanced studies are undertaken on the political structure, concept of identity and its underlying social ideology.’


Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, world events & processes

7 responses to “Writing History and Myth

  1. Darshanie

    Dear Dr. Michael Roberts. I have been a great admirer of you ever since I read your essay
    Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and Issues. The intellectual rigor displayed by you there was just awesome.

    But isn’t Shani, the writer of this article) actually displaying mediocre scholarship and a lamentable lack of intellectual rigor when she says ;

    “Scholars like H L Seneviratne and Michael Roberts have in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities. H L Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 Convention in Tamil.”

    By placing the second sentence after the first hasn’t Shani made out the second assertion to be some kind proof of the first assertion? But signing the Convention in Tamil is not indicative of any lack of distinctiveness of ethnic identity no? it is actually more an elitist thing isn’t it? Tamil was made the current language of the ‘inner circle’ by the Royal family and their powerful contingent of Royal relations present at court no? It’s rather like the pre revolutionary Russian nobility speaking French isn’t it or the way people speak and write in English in Sri Lanka even when they are among their own with no need of a lingua franca?

    Meegapulle Arachchi, that member of the Jaffna royal family, now that seems to me to be a very telling case of a lack of distinctiveness of ethnic identity or rather a sign of merging or assimilation into a certain national identity (which we may not now name for fear of excommunication by the high priesthood of the politically correct and fashionable strand in the SriLanka ideologisphere)

    Actually there’s another episode smacking of a lack of distinctiveness in ethnic identity that I have noticed again in Jaffna. This is given in Jaffna under the Portuguese by Dr. Tikiri Abeyasinghe .

    Lancarote de Seixas suggests in 1630 that Portuguese casados should be settled in Jaffna on a large scale and the lands there be distributed among them. Goa refers this proposal to Lisbon. Lisbon consults two old Asia hands on them, one of them with a decade of experience as a captain in many parts of the island.

    Then Lisbon makes its decision and that decision …”is also found on misintelligence”

    To quote from Jaffna under the Portuguese;

    “This is clear from a statement in their letter of 15th march 1634 “…se nāo deve fazer novidade….porque de outro modo escandalizar junta tanta gente e de animos tāo inquietos e pouco fieis…” (no innovation ought to be tried…because otherwise people of such restless sprit and little faith will be scandalized…) But in referring to people of restless spirit and little faith, the Lisbon authorities were thinking of the Sinhalese of the Kotte Lands and not of the Tamils of Jaffna, as the phrase “como sāo os chingalas” (as are the Sinhalese) which follows the extract quoted above makes clear. Three decades of rebellion in the Kotte lands had implanted among the Lisbon authorities a wholesome fear of attempting anything likely to cause unrest among the Sinhalese. To that fear and to the misintelligence among the Lisbon authorities that Jaffna was inhabited by the Sinhalese, the Jaffna mudaliyars owed their survival.”

    And in a footnote Dr. Tikiri Abeyasinghe says

    “Such misintelligence was not confined to Lisbon. The Count of Vidigueira, after serving as viceroy at Goa for 7 years (in two terms) and after a term as President of the India Council in Lisbon, still believed in 1626 that the inhabitants of Jaffna were Sinhalese. ANTT Doc. Rem. Livro 24 doc 18 (no folio numbers) Even Fernão de Queiros’ work was not free from this error. See pp. 357, 361, 366, 371 etc.”

    Now as I have heard, amongst all the Western forces to have doings with Ceylon, the Portuguese missionaries were the first points of contact. Those who visited Jaffna also had contact with all other maritime areas of the island and inland as well. Their contact was at the very grassroots and they talked to the natives, how else can you preach the faith. They had to have known the languages spoken in the island and that some natives spoke Sinhalese and some Tamil. So I had always wondered how this mistake could have been possible even by Queiros, specially by Queiros. Now I have the answer! There was a lack of distinctiveness in ethnic identities! Maybe they thought Jaffna was inhabited by chingalas speaking Tamil? Or maybe it really was. Doesn’t add up or does it?

    Any way I am sure you Dr. Michael Roberts shall tell me. Finally, (Not quite finally I may comment here again on this very page. I got things to say. But now I have to stop and go back to making a living), let me express my pleasure that you are in cyber space interacting with the proletariat (the intellectual sort that is, not the sort whose dictatorship Lenin envisioned) and not in some ivory tower as Scholar of your caliber aught to be.

    • Darshanie

      It’s from the blog post above under which my comment appears ‘Writing History and Myth Shanie- in Notebook of a Nobody ’ posted on February 23, 2010…10:35 am, about which you say ‘This essay appeared first in the Island, sometime back — alas, date misplaced’

      It’s the third paragraph under the last subheading ‘20th Century Nationalism’
      The complete paragraph is

      “Scholars like H L Seneviratne and Michael Roberts have in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities. H L Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 Convention in Tamil. Many communities have changed their ethnic identity within a space of two or three generations. All scholars will agree with Michael Roberts when he states: ‘There can be little doubt that the various ethnic categories residing in Sri Lanka today are all, every single category without exception, of mixed ‘racial’ genealogy.’”

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