Avian Geographies: An Inquiry into Nationalist Consciousness in Medieval Lanka

Anoma Pieris

ABSTRACT of article published recently in South Asia, Journal of South Asian Studies 33:3, 2010

This essay traces the rise of ethno-nationalism in Sri Lanka’s medieval period when competing urban centres and territorial politics thrived in the region. It proposes to reconstruct a lost architectural heritage through a literary genre of Sandēsa Kāvyas (message poems), which capture the island’s urban geography prior to its destruction by European colonizers. It intends to match literary sources with physical traces.

In each of fifteen sandēsas, and over several hundred verses, we follow the journeys of birds across a highly contested geo-political landscape, allegorically linked to a religio-mythical universe. In each poem, the bird messenger travels from the capital city to a distant shrine; each tracing a route through the physical geography, identifying place-names, geographical features, flora and fauna. The description of cities, towns, ports and villages suggest that a strong urban sensibility prevailed during the medieval period and was invoked in the centuries that followed.  Descriptions of ethnic groups, religious tensions and allegiance to specific deities provide important insights into the ethno-nationalist political geography and religio-mythical beliefs that were being shaped by successive medieval kingdoms. Reference to other South Asian kingdoms and cities provide a wider map of the regions political contestations.

  This photo has been googled from cyberspace and is not the one deployed by Pieris in her article. This PIC is from http://www.serendibisle.com/travel-a-tourism/cities

 The city that is most carefully detailed in these poems is Jayavaddanapura, the capital of the last kingdom to unify the island under a single ruler. The poems recount how this unification was achieved and perceived. The primary goal of this research therefore is to examine the veracity of the poetic representations by identifying the places and artefacts that are recounted. More critically, these avian geographies map the emergence and dissemination of an urban national consciousness in South Asia, prior to colonization. This essay focuses on the shortest of these poems, the Sälalihini Sandēsaya (hill mynah’s message) to raise questions regarding the methodological scope and historical context of this literary genre.

 Dr. Anoma Pieris: Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Architecture, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne

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Filed under historical interpretation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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