Sinhalaness and its Reproduction, 1232-1818

 Michael Roberts reproduced from Asanga Welikala (ed.) The Sri Lankan Republic at Forty: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, Colombo, Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2012, Volume I, pp. 253-87………….. ISBN 078-955-1655-93-8

I address the issue of Sinhala identity over time[1] with a focus on the period 1232-1818, the middle period as I shall call it in order to escape from European periodization. This periodization begins with the decline of the Polonnaruva civilisation and the shift of the principal Sinhala kingdoms to the hill country and south west; and ends, quite deliberately, with what has usually been termed (misleadingly) as “the Kandyan Rebellion” of 1817-18.[2] Within this broad span of time the emphasis is on the period 1400-1818. The analysis has an eye on the subsequent re-working of the Sinhala sentiments displayed in the rebellion during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a result of the processes of capitalist transformation and modernization in a world era marked by the consolidation of nation-states.

Pl 24 Adigar processionAddressing such a large span of time involving a substantial scholarly literature which has had to cope with mere fragments of source material for certain stages and localities poses a methodological problem of generalization. Conclusions must necessarily be cautious and suggestive. The definitive hues permeating some statements that follow are subject to this preliminary caveat.

The terms “sinhala” or “sīhala,” or its synonym, “hela,” were used as a self-reference by the people who spoke hela or sinhala (Sinhala as language). This twinning of language and people was consolidated, as we shall see, by the use of the terms “Lankā,” “Laka,” “Sīhalē,” “Heladiv,” “Sinhaladvīpa,” Tunsinhala,” et cetera[3] to identify the island territory as a state. The Sinhala language in its erudite forms had variations marked by what one can term Palicized-Sinhala, Sanskritized-Sinhala and Elu (Hela) forms of Sinhala. Nevertheless, it retained a remarkable degree of uniformity over time and locality, so that the thirteenth-century Pūjāvaliya can be read and understood by literate Sinhalese today.

This literature was penned on palm leaves (ola). However, its dissemination was aided by the flexibility of the Sinhala language and its amenability to chanting. Most prose texts can be turned into an oral chant by people with a modicum of skill. The people were versed in mnemonic capacities so that folk tale, song, kavi (poetry with various sub-types) and tēravili (riddles in verse) were powerful modes of cultural transmission.[4] These understandings were seconded by the meanings embodied in sculptures, architectural form and wall paintings at temples. Such dissemination of knowledge was compounded by the degree to which ordinary people travelled long distances on foot – as indicated much earlier in the centuries six to nine AD by the verses written on the wall of Sigiriya Rock by individuals from all parts of the island.[5]

Pilgrimages and tales brought back by travellers were one modality that generated a wider awareness. The mobilization of men for war through corvee duty (rājakāriya) was another mode that came into play sometimes and with great frequency in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On occasions bodies of troops numbering 12,000 to 15,000 — a “peoples’ militia” drawn from wide stretches of the country — were assembled for battles.[6] This highlights not only mobilizing capacity, but also implies the dissemination of the sentiments aroused by war. Again, the breadth of geographical knowledge reposing within the literati is attested by the boundary descriptions and the lore in the kada-im-pot, bandāravaliya and vitti-pot[7] as well as the travelogue-poetry known as sandēsa kāvya.[8]

The sandēsa kāvya span the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. The early poems were mostly written by bhikkhus and usually described a journey from the king’s capital to a shrine of a guardian deity in order to seek a specific boon for king or kingdom. These poems mostly originated in the low country of the south west. Anoma Pieris contends that those coined during the Kottē period “stressed the importance of geographic belonging.” In this evaluation the “us-ness” embedded within the poems emerges in association with an emphasis on “the processes of unifying … territory.”[9]

The diversity embraces ethnic differentiation, noting the presence of Muslim trading emporia at such ports as Weligama, Matara and Beruwala; and referring, for instance, to Tamil, Malayāli, Tuluvar and Sinhala men in Prince Sapumāl’s army. Such references are mostly descriptive, and identify the enemies to Lak Diva from specific parts of India, suggesting a sense of a national geography and reminding one of the previous reference in the Pūjāvaliya (1266) to Māgha and his invading force as para saturan (alien enemies).[10] However, this is a battle-specific reference and Pieris has found no generalized hostility to the demala (Tamils) in the sandēsa kāvya she has studied.[11]

A little later, when Sapumāl (himself of mixed Malayāli/Tamil lineage) secured the kingship of Kottē after a tussle with other contenders, he encountered a revolt in the heartland that is intriguingly referred to as sīmhalasamge (“Sinhala war”) and sīmhala peraliya (Sinhala insurrection) in two different sources. The implications of this label have proved to be a puzzle for historians. Strathern’s recent overview suggests that the most plausible reading of the scant evidence is that it was an effort “to invoke an indigenist sensibility by referring to the foreign displacement of Sinhalese,” that is, focusing upon the extent to which Sapumāl relied on a coterie of Tamil and Indian courtiers whom he had brought along with him from up north where he had ruled as a yuvaraja after its subjugation.[12]

Such fragments of historical data from the fifteenth century herald sentiments that recur in the centuries that followed, Sinhala sentiments that gained in political sharpness from the enmities and sufferings associated with episodic warfare against the Portuguese (1560s-1650s) and, thereafter, on the odd occasion against the Dutch and the British.

Alan Strathern has identified currents of “indigenism” and “Sinhalaness” in his studies of the Portuguese period,[13] thereby linking up with my elaboration of Sinhala consciousness in the seventeenth-to-early nineteenth centuries. Thus far, both of us have refrained from imposing the term “nationalism” to describe this ideological strand because of the meanings that accrued to the concept after the principles of the French Revolution secured dominance in an era when a capitalist market relations established primacy. Strathern is prepared to refer to this body of sentiment as a form of “politicized ethnicity” and as “patriotism.”[14] However, I would now go further and describe it as a form of “nascent national consciousness” as long as it is understood with adjunct caveats (see below and note the emphasis).

Any corpus of political thought, and any tale, has ingredients in its composition. In tracing the picture of Shaka Zulu that has been bequeathed to southern Africa, Carolyn Hamilton studied the existing tales with an eye on discerning “their residual continuities with ancient materials.”[15]Continuity involves the reproduction and re-working of “materials” (or “ingredients” in my conceptualization) across generations and in new circumstances. Where any “ingredient” appears with some frequency over a period of time, one can also treat it as a “thread” (understood and qualified always by evaluations in relation to context).

The source material in the middle period enables one to compose a picture of the main ingredients and threads in Sinhalaness over that long span of time; and to mark some of the processes and moments which implanted such sentiments within segments of the Sinhala-speaking people who had voice and power. This argument does not mean that all Sinhala-speakers in all localities adhered to these sentiments throughout their life-span. Collective identity is rarely that catholic.

There were jungle localities such as the Pānama area in the south-eastern corner of Sri Lanka and the Nuvarakäläviya and Bintänna regions of old where the residents eked out an existence for many centuries and where modern anthropological work has indicated that Sinhalese, Tamil and, in some instances, Vädda families were intermarried and did not adhere to strict ethnic differentiation.[16] In brief, these were localities of “subsistence hybridity” where we can surmise that politics was organised around shifting familial factions.

A different form of hybridity, “entrepot hybridity” as I shall term it, was probably found in the north-western coastal belt extending from Mutwal to Pooneryn – a region which served as an entry point for traders, mercenary soldiers, migrant clusters, pearl fishermen and fishermen from the neighbouring Indian subcontinent. This was a polyglot area where some peoples were bilingual in Tamil and Sinhala and sometimes polyglot in identity. It must be recalled that bodies of Indian migrants who became incorporated into Sinhala society as Karāva, Salāgama, Durāva, Ambätta (Panniki) and Navandanna castes (or, rather, parts thereof) moved into Sri Lanka at various moments between the fourteenth and eighteenth  centuries.[17]

The kings of Kottē and, later, those of Kandy-as-Sīhalē brought people from India to colonise depopulated territory, while Indian mercenary troops were hired by the Sinhala dynasts at various moments.[18] Again, the island residents and powers had close ties with Kerala. Brahmin pantarams, purohits and men of learning were among those that were part of the court society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Strathern has shown and one can follow Anoma Pieris in speaking of “the hybrid culture of the Sinhala court” in the time of the Kottē Kingdom.[19] This form of “elite cosmopolitan hybridity” was compounded by the process of Luzitanisation once the Portuguese gained a foothold in the Kottē court circles from the 1540s and once their missionaries succeeded in converting some Sinhalese in the coastal lowlands.

Needless to say, the polyglot cosmopolitan aspect of the port settlements, such as Hambantota, Tangalla, Devundara, Weligama, Galla, Dodanduwa, Beruwela, Panadura, Kolontota, Mutwal, Negombo and Kalpitiya,[20] was compounded throughout the middle period by the seafarers and traders traversing the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, so that Indians of varied ethnicity, Chinese, Malays, Arabs, Maldivians, Mapillas and Iranians would have been among the diverse people who came within the awareness of some coastal Sinhala-speakers, and thus sparked a sense of “Us Sinhala” in differentiation from these specific others in the course of interpersonal exchange.

We must not only allow for different forms of hybridity, but note that it can sharpen ethnic difference especially where it interlocks with competition for resources, power and status. Indeed, I stress that hybridity in such contexts is one of the conditions of ethnic conflict. Leslie Gunawardana’s implicit argument that the widespread use of Tamil in the Kottē literate circles indicates a limited degree of Sinhalaness[21] is astonishingly naive. Cosmopolitanism does not preclude prejudice or xenophobia.[22] Strathern has revealed how “many of the most redoubtable [Sinhala] rebels [against Portuguese rule in the low-country] came from strongly Lusitanised backgrounds” and concluded that “indigenism co-existed with strong cosmopolitan tendencies; so that the “xenophobia [that appeared] was … inconsistent and spasmodic rather than generic.[23]

It is only after displacing the erroneous paths[24] propagated by arguments about hybridity, print technology and collective identity as a form of fragmented fluidity that we can review the threads that helped constitute “Sinhalaness” as a form of “politicized ethnicity” through the middle period, with particular emphasis here on the stage 1400-1818. Sinhala patriotism was especially marked during the Kandyan period (1593-1815/18) – a period that can be distinguished from the Kottē period because the sixteenth century was characterised by the existence of several sub-kingdoms and the prevalence of dynastic feuds that raise doubts about the breadth of loyalty to any concept of Lankā or Sīhalē.

Since this is a composite summary it requires a fundamental caveat: we require more nuanced work from many historian-hands in order to mark the temporal variations as well as the processes that re-worked, or reproduced, these component ingredients and threads at different points of time within the span covered here.

Summary Overview

In overview one can mark several ingredients in the thinking which constituted Sinhalaness during the middle period, ingredients which often – though not always – threaded together and folded into one another. I shall number them alphabetically for convenience:

A. the terms “sinhala” and sīhala, or the synonym hela, for the principal body of people and their language;

B. the term Sīhaladvīpa (and equivalent variants) for the island as entity, both a geographical unit as dvīpa (or dīpa) and a political entity;

C. the idea that people and place were invested with a special inheritance destined to preserve the Buddha sāsana (‘order’ in its Theravāda form) for posterity – in brief, the Dhammadīpa concept identified by Tambiah and others as a central ingredient in what has been depicted as “political Buddhism” and/or the “vamsa ideology” in today’s context:”[25]

D. the vesting of this inheritance in the hands of a cakravarti figure[26] who was ideationally overlord of the whole island as a single entity – a persona who was regarded as the living representative of a line of kings emanating from the mythical founder of Sinhala civilisation, namely, Vijaya, himself a figure that has been implanted in folk tales as well as wall paintings (such as those plastered at the Dambulla rock temple in the eighteenth century), all adding up to practices marking the “historical self-consciousness” of the Sinhala people.[27]

E. the episodic threats to this inheritance from Tamil invaders in the past, heightened by the relatively recent memory of the “Tamil conflagration” under Māgha that had engulfed the Polonnaruva civilisation in the thirteenth century.[28]

These ideas were transmitted over time and interlaced powerfully to sustain a “We-ness” among the Sinhala-speakers that was heightened from the sixteenth century onwards by the violent threats posed by the Portuguese imperial thrusts, which included periodic assaults on Buddhist edifices and the Buddhist priesthood.


The Sinhalaness seen in the sandēsa kāvya developed in an era when Parākramabāhu VI of Kottē (1412-67) revealed a capacity to weld the whole island into an entity through military force. The subjugation of the kingdom of Yālppānam in the north by Prince Sapumāl Kumāra was one aspect of this process. At the same time Parākramabāhu VI sent six tributary missions to the Chinese emperors who had extended their imperial overlordship to the island through Zheng He’s (1371–1433) huge expeditions in the service of the Ming dynasty.[29] As Biedermann suggests, “paying external tribute to the Chinese completed the internal overlordship, as the king could control the means of symbolic … interaction with a distant state known to [have the capacity] to overthrow anyone in the island.”[30]

What we see here, therefore, is the layered overlordship so characteristic of the mandala model of “galactic polities.”[31] This form of “tributary overlordship” may have often been ideational rather than rigorously enforced by ritual or administrative acts. The ideational concept was nevertheless significant and sometimes marked by the act of homage/vassalage known as däkum, panduru pakkudam et cetera.[32]

The acceptance of the Kottē king’s overlordship by the various sub-kingdoms and the vannirajavaru within Lanka after Parākramabāhu VI passed away seems to have been fitful. There is no evidence that the kings of Yālppānam accepted the claim through emissaries or acts of homage in the late fifteenth or the early sixteenth centuries; and the Cinkaiariyan dynasty established in 1467 seems to have been an independent entity.[33] Despite this, “the monarchs of Sītāvaka [in the late sixteenth century] considered themselves … to be emperors of the whole island” and, half a century later, Rājasinha II of Kandy-as- Sīhalē asserted that “the black people of this island … wheresoever they might be [are] my vassals by right” – in effect presenting a “constitutional proclamation.”[34]

In both prose and verse texts in Sinhala, says Strathern, “it is the island of Lanka and the overlordship over it that is exalted.” Even in the Alakesvara Yuddhaya of the late sixteenth century, a text that is free of xenophobia and we-ness, there is “a generic reverence for kingship.”[35] The kings were seen as a source of order and associated with the sustenance of the Buddha sāsana. Thus, some forty years or so later, the king Senarat of Kandy-as-Sīhalē was praised thus in the Rajasīha Hatana: “[Senerat was told that he] is a king who should be cakravarti of the island, having united the Tri Sinhala and protected the sāsana and killing many enemies.”[36]

While the cakravarti concept appears only at one point in the Sītāvaka Hatana, the terms naranindu and nirindu mark the exalted respect accorded to the Sinhala king, namely, Māyādunnē of Sītāvaka, who was vested with the island’s overlordship. This act of eulogy sat alongside the emphasis on “Siri Laka” – blessed Lanka – as another ideal. Thus, concludes Strathern, “the Sītāvaka kings and Lanka were conflated via the cakravarti ideal, and there seems to be a similar conflation of the Lankan with the Sinhala.”[37] Rājasinha I of Sītāvaka is not only termed rajasinha devi (god Rājasinha), but his campaigns against both the Portuguese and the sub-kingdom of Senkadagala (Kandy) are depicted through “images of unity and harmony.”[38] Significantly, his forces are never depicted as “men of Sītāvaka,” but as troops of Lanka (lankāvē senaga) or Sinhala forces (sīhala sena) motivated by love of their polity – “nitarama rata ālēy.”[39] There are many references, therefore, that indicate “a deep connection between the ‘us’ and the land of Lanka.”[40]

The Portuguese personnel who were at the interface of their programmes in Sri Lanka had no hesitation in seeing the “Chingalas” as a nacao, or nation, in the vocabulary they used for themselves in its early modern Portuguese sense. While the seventeenth-century Portuguese historian Queyroz never visited the island, unlike several modern scholars beset by Benedict-Andersonitis and postmodernism,[41] his assiduous use of varied sources enabled him to perceive that oral transmission was a powerful medium that fostered a sense of nationality in its contemporary sense among the Sinhalese. This perspective was shared by several Portuguese chroniclers – all of whom came to the conclusion that “the Sinhalese had long held a clear sense of themselves as a distinct people.”[42]

The recent researches by Strathern and Pieris, therefore, confirm the verdict presented in Sinhala Consciousness (2004), a conclusion derived on the foundations of (a) the war poems of the seventeenth century and the Ingrīsi Hatana of 1803; (b) assorted and fragmentary material from Dutch sources and (c) documentary material in English and Sinhala from the period 1796-1818.

Pl 9 RAJA II Pl 13--DAKUMA colour Pl 10-hulft's Dakuma Pl 17 front PALACE++

As argued therein, this data supports a picture of cakravarti figures vested with superhuman capacities, devotional followers and fighters, sīhala sen, all oriented towards defending a valued territory that was variously referred to as Lankā, Lakdiva, Heladiv, Sīhalē, Tun Sinhalaya, Siri Laka or uda pāta rata. Such indications added up to a collective identity of Sinhalaness linked to territory. Underpinning this sentiment was an explicit notion of sovereignty, as Gananath Obeyesekere has noted[43] — though I add here that it was not a form of sovereignty that was supported by a theory of self-determination based upon the principles of jurisprudence that were developed in Europe after 1789.

Nor was there the egalitarian ideal and democratic thrust associated with the idea of popular sovereignty. That was impossible in a deeply hierarchical society.[44] But the resistances mounted by the people of Sihalē in support of a hierarchically constituted dynastic state did amount to practices of liberation oriented around the king, the polity, the island territory, the people and the Buddhist dispensation. Provided, then, that our reading is hedged with the caveats outlined above, we can speak of a Sinhala patriotism that amounted to a nascent national consciousness.[45]

Sinhalaness as “Us” versus “Them”

The evidence marshalled by myself and Strathern also elaborates upon CR de Silva’s early suggestion (1983) that warfare and interaction with the Portuguese was a major factor in promoting a sturdy attachment to the collective identity “we Sinhala” among significant segments of the Sinhala-speaking people during the Portuguese era. Once the king Dharmapāla of Kottē became a client Portuguese vassal, Sinhalese resistance to Portuguese imperialism was led by Māyādunnē of Sitāvaka and his son, Rājasinha I. Thereafter, from the 1590s, resistance was mounted by the Kingdom of Sīhalē centred on Senkadagala, a polity that adhered to the idea that it was the legitimate overlord of the whole island (and one that is referred to in modern thought as “the Kingdom of Kandy”). Thus the period 1560s to 1650s was marked by episodic warfare that could be seen as more or less continuous in its implications – justifying Strathern’s reference to the militarization of society in this phase of history covering the period 1550s-1650s.[46]

In consequence, the literature — especially the war poems — is marked by a virulent disparagement of the Portuguese that accompanies the expression of loyalty to polity and place. The Portuguese are represented as violent, cruel and thereby unethical.[47] Worse still, they are repulsive beings addicted to flesh, alcohol and opium. In one of his letters to the Dutch in 1676 Rājasinha II referred to them as prone to “send forth from their stinking mouths some stinking words (as is the custom of that nation).”[48] The war poems sometimes refer to them as parangi rather than the more neutral collective noun, pratikal. In the Sri Lankan context this term was also a designation for the suppurating syphilitic disease of yaws; so its usage in this manner was disparaging in the extreme.[49]

Such abusive word-pictures of the Portuguese enemy are compounded by the denigration of the various foreign elements making up the Portuguese armies: so that in one verse in the Sitāvaka Hatana the Vadakkara, Mukkaru, Doluvara, Kavisi and Uruvisi who came with the “vast foreign armies” (para senega) are depicted as being cut into pieces in battle.”[50] Again, in the seventeenth century Rajasīha Hatana the collection of personnel fighting for the Portuguese are denigrated thus:[51]

gerimas kannata ek vū erata upan tuppā                       sit

pirivässan ändaka sinnarukam karanā aya pā              sit

mari mastaka Kavisit Kannadi Parangi nandē             sit

sulu mas väda kotana lesin damā tänin täna pā            sit

Those country-born Thupāssis who feed on beef and ape the senhors in their trousers — Kavisi, Kannadi, Parangis and men from many a land — all are struck down as when fishermen kill their prey at night.

Such data leads Strathern to the conclusion that “the result of generations of constant warfare was an indigenous discourse that can only be described as patriotic and xenophobic, in love with the shining image of the island of Lanka and exulting in its kings.”[52] Needless to say the demonization of the enemy in such a pejorative manner sustained an emphasis on “Us” meting out awful punishments upon an intruding body of “Them” outside the legitimate fold of the Sinhala polity.

These motifs appeared again in 1803 after the Sinhala troops of the Kingdom of Kandy vanquished the English regiments who had seized the capital Senkadagala. The Ingrīsi Hatana paints the English as jada (filthy and ferocious), nivata (weaklings) and similar to elephants-in-must (rupu madätun);[53] while verse 33 embraces others in its denigration:

“Impelled by ambitions beyond their country by greed directed towards one’s own country the English enemies engaged in battle, uttered words of challenge and brought kavisi [Blacks?], Ormuzi and other foreign soldiers and built ramparts [only to be] vanquished by our king who emerged triumphant. Aho, is there any other king who is like our king (and who) radiates so much wealth and glory?” (emphasis added).[54]

While the war poems were a means of inspiring and mobilizing men for war, the expression of such oral refrains would not have been confined to men on the march. It is probable that they featured in the kavikāra maduwa organised at the court or at stately mansions (valavva). It is equally probable that some fragments entered the commentary of exorcist ceremonies (tovil) and other performative rituals. Quite centrally, we know from Knox’s experience as a captive in the seventeenth century that the villagers kept him awake by their episodic singing late at night; while Davy’s travels in the 1810s led him to conclude that “every Singalese (sic) is, more or less, a poet; or, at least, can compose what they call poetry.”[55] One can confidently surmise that some popular lyrics were disseminated along rural circuits by the militiamen who survived the wars.[56]

The war poems, I stress, were panegyrics[57] in praise of specific kings — acts of devotional submission. They were also like mantra. As Inden has indicated for the kāvya tradition in India, such fare carried illocutionary force.[58] They were meant to reproduce the potency of the king. Their constitutive power also embodied expectations, demands. Obligations were cast upon the king-on-high. Power/potency had its price.

Historical Heritage & Associational Logic

The expressions of Sinhalaness in the verse and prose productions were girded on occasions with references to their historical inheritance — incorporating specific ideas embedded in the Mahāvamsa. A letter to the British from the Kandyan court dated 27 November 1811 commenced with “King Wijaya” and the manner in which he brought human culture to Lanka. Vijaya’s sovereignty, it is said, passed on to Dēvānampiyatissa in whose reign the light of Buddhism took root.[59] It then proceeded to relate the Dutugämunu episode:

“Dutugeymanu God and Lord Supreme, like the great Prince of Lions cleaving the crowns of Elephants, as foreign Enemies attaining to the Sovereignty, having destroyed and expelled the Host of Seyde Malabars, like a gross mass before a gigantic Wind (?), increas[ed] the Prosperity of the World and Religion in the happy Isle of Lanka.”

What we see in this letter is a distilled history that covers some 23 centuries and in effect reiterates the main theme of the vamsa chronicles by presenting – in effect though not in so many words — the island as a Dhammadīpa associated with the Sinhalese and their kings. A subsequent letter dated 8 February went on to assert confidently; ‘besides, not only the English host, although the Dutch, French, Caffre, and many foreign Hosts united should come and make war against the happy isle of Lanka, most assuredly they cannot conquer. This is for no other Cause, (but) by the Power of the Gods called Vishnu, Sumana, Karttika, Wibhisana who protect the entire Religion of Srighana, and by the Power of our God and Lord Supreme.”[60]

Even more remarkable is the reference to the Tamil enemy of past time with the trope “Seyde Malabars” (or “Seyde Demala” in the letter dated 8 February 1812). This simile is one that had been embodied in the story of the Sinhala king Dutugämunu in the 5th/6th century Mahāvamsa. In this tale the young prince tells his mother the queen that he could not sleep stretched out because the rump Sinhala kingdom was compressed between “the fierce Tamils to the north and the unfathomable sea to the south” (uturen sädi demalui, dakunen golu muhudai).[61]

The telling word here is sädi (also rendered as hädi). It is a powerful invective that can be translated as “filthy,” “cruel,” “wicked,” “fierce” and “unruly.”[62] Thus, metaphorically speaking, it is a hammer with multiple heads. Insofar as “filthiness” (kunu kasala sahita) and “savagery” are both vile, it could be rendered as “vile-cum-fierce.” However translated, there can be no doubt about the disparaging implications attached to this trope.

It was not an isolated moment. The epithet crops up in some of the war poems directed at the Portuguese. Take just one example from the Rajasīha Hatana.[63]

sebalun saha lata                                   ra

sädi demala sen puvata                        ra

goda bäsa vit nohä                                ra

näsu vilasin pera Anurupu                     ra                                                        

As when long ago the cruel Demalās did land and sack our city Anurapura.

At times, too, this classical opposition could be framed within the vast mythological canvas of outstanding enmities, namely the conflict between the Asuras and Suras and that between Rāma and Rāvana. Take verse 130 in the Rajasīha Hatana:

mahat  vānara rakus ganimin Rāma Rāvana kala                      yudek dhō

nohot vepasit Asura sen saha esak Sura sen kala                        yudek dhō

yalit upata va Gämunu niriňdun Demala senangat kala             yudek dhō

viyat kaviyara balā pavasati meyudha kavurun kala                   yudek dhō                                           

Is this a war fought between Rāma and Rāvana where the great monkey defeated the demons?

Or is it a war fought between the Asura and Suras of the god Sakra?

Or is it a war fought by Gämunu reborn against the Tamil armies?

Oh poets of wisdom, gaze with your muse and tell us whose was this war?[64]

Sädi demala!! I was stunned when I chanced upon this phrase in the letters of 1811/12 during my historical journeys. One could anticipate hostility to a contemporary enemy; but a reference to an enemy whose presence as a political force had long disappeared was beyond my rationality.[65] What we find here, therefore, is a different mode of thinking.

Both Ranajit Guha and Richard Young enable us to break free from modernist fetters and comprehend this mode of reasoning. Guha elaborates upon the analogic reasoning of tribal peasants in British India who saw the moneylenders and officials as part of a ‘coalition’ with their principal oppressors, the landlords, so that their acts of resistance targeted the former as well. This was a form of analogic reasoning that occurred within a synchronic moment of time.[66]

The more apt illustration, however, comes from within Sinhala society in the middle period through the findings of Young and Senanayaka, who coined the concept of “associational reasoning” when deciphering a corpus of Sinhala texts assembled in a palm-leaf manuscript penned in 1762.[67] These texts addressed issues of salvation from a Buddhist viewpoint and took an adversarial stance towards rival religions. Here, textual characters that were represented in one temporal context under one name popped up in “another [context] under a different name without losing their identity in the roll-over from story to story.” One such character was the figure of Īsvara, that is, Sīva, who was presented in these texts as “the fount of all evil.” But Īsvara was also called “Ispittu,” that is, Spiritus or “Lord God” in the Indian world subject to Christian proselytization. It is the “mechanics of associational logic” that explains how the Christian god and the Saivite god were merged “within an environment of intersecting and interacting elements of religion … and language.” Among those Sinhala Buddhists caught up in the adversarial rivalries of religious debate in the late middle period, the Christian heresies of their day, say Young & Senanayake, “would not have seemed dissimilar to the heresies of antiquity,” that is, to the Saivite challenges of the early middle period-and-before.[68]

Parenthetically, one should not rush into a conclusion that religious bigotry was prevalent in the Kingdom of Sīhalē (Kandy). Connecting with a long tradition of measured debates on the relative merits of the various Asian religions King Narendrasinha (1707-39) assembled pundits on occasions to argue the case for their respective faiths. while also permitting Catholic missionaries to actively proselytize for converts in the lands directly under his administration.[69] The Buddhist populace in the kingdom would certainly have indulged in the syncretic forms of worship which have led them — over many centuries — to propitiate deities from the Saivite and Vaishnavite worlds who had been embraced by the Buddha’s varama (warrant) at shrines serviced by intermediaries (including pantarams from India).[70] Again, some Sinhala Catholics from the low-country are known to have found refuge from Dutch persecution within the Kingdom of Sīhalē. There were, nevertheless, limits to tolerance as well. When the Catholic missionaries propagating the faith in Senkadagala town and the Kandyan heartland were deemed to be gaining too many adherents during the time of Srī Vijaya Rājasinha in the 1740s, the king is said to have become “vehemently indignant” and, targeting “the infamous Parangis, the infidels,” ordered “their houses and their books destroyed.”[71]

The picture, therefore, cannot be depicted in black and white terms on all fronts. But there is plenty of evidence to argue that the Sinhala kings were a central pillar in a body of thought with interlocking threads that sustained the notion that there was a long-standing polity embracing the whole island, one associated with the Sinhala people and the Buddha sāsana (order).

This body of sentiments was insidiously supported by a semi-subterranean template in the Sinhala-speaking world that has informed alliance-making and faction-relations over several centuries. An inside/outside metaphor is deeply embedded within the practices of the Sinhala language and sustains a “segmentary form” in language-pattern that is like a Chinese-box, thereby producing a confederative structure of successive inclusions, or exclusions, depending on which way one moves across the schema.

Imagine oneself in a hypothetical village named Paranagama in the interior of Lanka which is peopled mostly by superior Govigama caste families and which has two factions A and B. When faction A assembles at one of their households in order to discuss strategies pertaining to a faction dispute, such phrases as anek aya (other fellows) or pita minissu (outside people) could connote those of faction B as distinct from apēy minissu (our people) representing faction A.

However, in other contexts, apēy minissu would distinguish all the people of Paranagama from the neighbouring villages and all outsiders, namely those gamen bähara (beyond the village), pitagankārayo (other villagers) or pita minissu.[72]

What is critical for our purposes, then, is the inside/outside plus us/them oppositions that the vocabulary sustains. In these overlapping dichotomies one sees the principle of exclusion (a principle that nevertheless operated in ways that allowed incorporation and assimilation).

Where pita is equivalent to “foreigner,” therefore, it would seem to mesh easily with the terms un aya (others) and para.[73] Para, too, is a word that carries multiple meanings.[74] However, the conventional sense of the word throughout the middle period and into the twentieth century has been that of “other,” “alien” or “enemy.” Though disparaging, especially in modern times, para was not necessarily so and could refer to “others” in a neutral sense within the classical written literature of the middle period.[75] Nevertheless, the context of usage in the Cūlavamsa of the early middle period, where it refers to Māgha and his destructive activities, and in the war poems, where it refers to the Portuguese (who are referred to often as parangi), points to a pejorative import in such politicized expressions.

As we have seen earlier, the Portuguese are sometimes referred to in the war poems as para rupu. Rupu means “enemy/ enemies,” and para in this context means “foreign.” But para can also refer to “enemy,” so we have a suggestion here of the force of alliterative repetition, an anuprāsa in the terminology of Sinhala syntax. However, my interest is in the choice of the word rupu on occasions for this coupling rather than the standard prose word saturu/satura. This choice may derive from the alliterative or metric preferences of erudite verse forms. But rupu also introduces a cosmological touch. It would seem to have been conventional for rupu to be used when talking of cosmological forces such as rupu dev (enemy of the gods, i. e. an Asura or Titan) or as rupu asura (enemy of the Asura).[76] Since the war poems occasionally juxtapose the battles of the Sinhala king and his forces with tales of the Rāma-Rāvana struggle and that of the Suras against the Asuras,[77] the Portuguese as para rupu are thereby linked with the demonic forces of the cosmological order.

In review, then, the critical point for our interests is that, in principle, rattu and pita rata aya in the sense “foreigners” could map onto parayo (plural of para) in the same sense, while linking up with the metaphors associated with an awesome enemy. So what we have is a significant semantic pattern of expanding/contracting circles of meaning that sustains a distinction between Us/Them, that is, “Us Sinhala” opposed to alien others.

Equally significant is the fact that I discovered this semantic pattern in the course of research on the British period leading to an essay entitled “Pejorative phrases: the anti-colonial response and Sinhala perceptions of the self through images of the Burghers.”[78] Thus, this semantic pattern is an ingredient that is a “residual continuity” and a “thread” in Sinhala ways of being. As such, it can be treated as an abiding factor in the reproduction of Sinhalaness in its various shades, shades determined in conjunction with other causal processes operative at any temporal moment.

Beyond 1818: Looking to the Present

Tracing the reshaping and transformation of Sinhalaness into its nationalist form in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is beyond this brief. Clearly, one has to consider the considerable influence in the British period of (a) the administrative and communicational unification established by the colonial dispensation; (b) the capitalist transformation of the island’s political economy; (c) the intellectual currents from Europe that were taken up by the articulate elements of indigenous society, including here the concept “Ceylonese” which was an outgrowth of the island name “Ceylon;”[79] and (d) the influence of print technology and modern political associations in disseminating currents of thought.

A caution is in order. There is a danger of oversimplification through a failure to consider the complexities of circumstance and the incomplete transformations of modern times. Take one illustration: in establishing the multi-faceted machinery meant to free the factors of production and encourage profit-making, the British sought to instil the practice of “land-is-to-farm,” namely, the use of land for profit. That development certainly came into being and a Ceylonese bourgeoisie emerged through investments in trade, cash crops and graphite mining.[80] However, as my findings among the entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century and Obeyesekere’s research among the local bourgeoisie in an interior district in the mid-twentieth century reveal, these very elements spent an inordinate amount of time wheeling-and-dealing in land shares and small parcels of paddy land.[81] They did so because they were guided by the notion of “land-is-to-rule” – a concept clarified so pithily by Walter C. Neale (1969). The aim was to build up a pool of clients, thereby maximizing status and clout. So they were amphibians, both capitalist and lord.

Likewise, we must not let the considerable impact of print technology erase the influence of oral and performative modes of transmission among both the Sinhala and Tamil-speaking peoples.[82] Nor should we overestimate the influence of the decennial census enumerations begun in 1871 in sharpening ethnic consciousness simply because Bernard Cohn (1987) and the Indian subalternists have made a meal of this factor for the British Indian world. Ethnic identity is nourished by a complex array of factors, with oral inter-personal exchanges serving as a critical influence within this process.[83]

There is no denying the fact that the studious work of British and European Orientalists brought some of the Asian literary texts, among them the Mahāvamsa after it was translated by George Turnour in 1837, to world light.[84] But for any scholar to think that the Sinhala-literati of that time and substantial segments of the populace were not aware of its main lineaments is quite outlandish; and contradicted by some of the data presented within this chapter. Most Burghers and some English-educated Sinhalese in the mid-nineteenth century may have discovered this literature through Turnour’s work and the schools set up by the British, but the vibrancy of Sinhala scholarship and its oral transmission during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is underestimated at peril.

Where the British administrators and travellers, many of them classicists, wrought significant influence was in the admiration they expressed once they visited the ruins and irrigation works of the Anurādhapura civilisation. This awe was compounded by the artistic work of various European painters, travellers and photographers.[85] When linked to the chronological state history available in the Mahāvamsa, Ceylon was seen to have something that India lacked: a continuous civilisation and unity that stretched far back.[86] In the process these European men of letters spoke with some reverence about
“Ceylonese civilisation” in ways that elided into “Sinhalese civilisation.”[87] This was not dissimilar to the manner in which so many Englishwomen and Englishmen of that day equated “British” with “English.”

As Rogers has stressed, the early British deployed such concepts as “caste,” “race,” “nation and “nationality in an inconsistent and ambiguous manner. But within this backdrop it is significant that in his survey in 1818 Bertolacci referred to four “nations” in Ceylon and identified the “Cingalese” as the “Ceylonese proper.”[88] He was thereby replicating a viewpoint presented by the seventeenth-century English prisoner, Robert Knox who identified the “Chingulays” as “the natural proper People of the Island.”[89] Both Knox and such nineteenth century Britons were obviously incorporating the force of majoritarian weight and political clout when they reached such conclusions. However, the latter-day British were also acknowledging the force of historical claim encoded within the Mahāvamsa.[90]

The distinction between the Sinhalese and the Tamils that was drawn by the British was also deepened in the nineteenth century by the impact of Orientalist scholarship which drew a distinction between the Āryan and Dravidian languages of the Indian realms. In some minds this distinction transmuted into racial categories, which in Sri Lanka differentiated the Tamils and Sinhalese in racial terms.[91]

The Āryan/Dravidian opposition in its racial connotations was certainly one of the new ingredients injected into the Lankan world by European currents of thought. Worse still, this distinction was cast in strict either/or terms, while imparting implications of superiority to those in the Āryan category. These dimensions of thought were adopted by some Sinhala nationalists (for example, Anagārika Dharmapāla) in the British era.[92] Such ideas shored up their nationalist pride in a context of colonial subordinations; but also served to sharpen the boundary lines drawn between the embodied category, “Sinhalese/Sinhala,” and the category of The Other represented by the terms “Tamil” and “demala.”

As propagated in the English-speaking world these categorical distinctions carried the definitiveness hammered in by the either/or epistemology of the modern West. Where the Āryan theory was also impregnated with racial prejudices, that is, with the forms of “racism” that eventually spawned the Nazi movement, it promoted distaste for inter-racial marriages. This particular current within the Western intellectual currents entering Sri Lanka seems to have merged with the indigenous strands of thought which despised cross-caste marriages. Thus, the pronounced opposition to the mixture of blood embedded within casteism was now bolstered by Western racist thinking.

This was a powerful brew which entered Sinhala nationalist thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was embodied in the popular novels penned by Piyadāsa Sirisēna in the early twentieth century.[93] Sirisēna (1875-1946) was the Gunadāsa Amarasēkera[94] of his time. One can argue that the strands of nationalist thought presented by such authors as Sirisēna and his contemporaries, WA de Silva and Charles Dias, exerted far greater influence among the Sinhala-speakers of their day than Dharmapāla. Sirisēna was also an editor and participated actively in the temperance movement and other nationalist organisations from the 1900s to the 1930s. His principal efforts were directed towards arresting the degeneration of Sinhala culture in the face of Westernization.[95]

The following equation was imprinted within his thinking: mixed bloods = unclean = fickle (chapalayo) = disordered.[96] Contrariwise, to be Ārya Sinhala was to be pure (pirisidu) and the epitome of virtue. The virtuous dispensation that was Sinhala nativism was under threat from foreign power (paradēsingē balaya). The Burghers were at the vanguard of this threat. Both the Burghers and those Sinhalese who adopted Westernized ways were depicted as tuppahi (pronounced thuppahi). This term was a searing pejorative in Sirisena’s day and, as we have seen, bears a long history that goes back to the war poems dating from the late sixteenth century.[97] In one of his last novels, Sucaritādarshaya, the term tuppahi is even associated with a long list of ethnic categories outside the Sinhala fold: marakkala, hamba, kocci, demala, tuppahi.[98]

The term tuppahi was an instrument of denigration in the 1950s and 1960s directed against the Westernized elite by such rhetoricians as Philip Gunawardana and Professor WS Karunāratne. The degree to which this strand of thought contributed to the notion that only truly-indigenous Sinhala people should occupy the ruling portals is a question for social scientists addressing the situation in the mid-twentieth century; and needs to be backed up by investigations of Sinhala sentiments today in the twenty-first century.

The part-is-whole equation in the relationship between the categories “Sinhala” and “Lanka” has been one of the critical issues in the contemporary era. In the new context spawned in British colonial times, one featured by the presence of a large body of “Indian Tamils” in the central and southern parts of Sri Lanka as well as a substantial minority of “Sri Lankan Tamils” in Colombo and its environs, such a perspective is  problematic. Its ramifications differ from the circumstances of the sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries when Sīhalē existed as a political entity and was subject to a cakravarti reigning over a populace imbricated with hierarchical notions.

It is my impression, from both historical soundings and personal exchanges of an anecdotal character, that over the last 150 years some Sinhalese have tended to equate the “Sinhala” part of the population with the “Sri Lankan part,” whether explicitly or implicitly; and that Burghers and non-Sinhalese have also been among those who have slipped into this ‘natural slippage’ or equation.[99] This reading requires wider, deeper testing.

In a context, now in 2012, marked by (1) the influence of egalitarian ideas and practices, especially the democratic practice of “one adult-exercising-one vote” and (2) a strong Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism built upon a combination of modern European thought bolstered by experiences of suffering and resistance, the equation of part and whole in a number of Sinhala and Lankan minds becomes one obstacle to reconciliatory accommodations[100] that can rescue the existing Sri Lankan polity from its contemporary impasse.

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Roberts, Michael 2009a ‘Some pillars for Lanka’s future,’ Frontline, 19 June 2009, 26: 24-27.

Roberts, Michael 2009b ‘Sinhala mindset,’ 9 Dec. 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2012 ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa: cakravarti imagery and populist processes,’ 28 January 2012,

 Roberts, Michael, Ismeth Raheem & Percy Colin-Thomé 1989 People inbetween. Vol.1. The  Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing.

Rogers, John D. 1990 ‘Historical images in the British period,’ in J. Spencer (ed) Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 87-106.

Rogers, John D. 1994 ‘Post-Orientalism and the interpretation of pre-modern and modern political identities: the case of Sri Lanka,’ Journal of Asian Studies 53: 10-23.

Rogers, John D. 2004 ‘Early British rule and social classification in Lanka,’ Modern Asian Studies 38: 625-47.

Shukri, M. A. M. 1986 Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Aitken Spence for the Jamiah Naleemia Institute, Beruwala.

Silva, M. H. Peter 1964 ‘Sinhala praśasti ha hatan kāvyavalin pilimbu vana jātika hängīm’, [Nationalist sentiments reflected in war poems and panegyrics] in P B Sannasgala (ed.) Sinhala praśasti saha hatan kavi, Colombo, pp. 281-84.

 Sirisena, Piyadasa 1958 Sucaritādarshaya, Colombo: ?? [a reprint, orig. 1926].

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Smith, Bardwell L. (ed.) 1978 Religion and legitimation of power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg, Penn.: Anima Books,

Somaratna, H. M. (ed.) 1968 Rajasīha hatana, Kandy.

Somaratne, G. P. V. 1975 The political history of the Kingdom of Kotte, 1400-1521, Nugegoda: Deepanee Printers.

 Spencer, Jonathan 1990 ‘Introduction,’ in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp.1-16.

Strathern, Alan 2006 ‘Towards the source-criticism of Sitavakan heroic literature. Part One: The Alakesvara Yuddhaya: notes on a floating text,’  Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 32: 23- 39.
Strathern, Alan 2007 Kingship and conversion in sixteenth-century Sri Lanka, Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, Alan 2008 ‘Towards the source-criticism of Sitavakan heroic literature. Part 2: The Sītāvaka Hatana: notes on a grounded text,’ Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 34.

Strathern, Alan 2010 ‘The role of Sinhala group identity in the ‘Sinhala rebellion’ against Bhuvanekabahu VI (1469-77),’ in G. Perera (ed.) The Portuguese in Sri Lanka and Goa,  Kandy: ICES, pp. 13-27.

Strathern, Alan 2011 ‘Treachery and ethnicity in Portuguese representations of Sri Lanka,’ in Ricardo Roque and Kim Wagner (eds.) Engaging colonial knowledge: reading European archives in world history, London: Palgrave, pp. 217-34.

Sucaritadarsaya see Sirisena.

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Tambiah, S. J. 1986 Sri Lanka. Ethnic fratricide and the dismantling of democracy, London: I. B. Taurus & Co. Ltd.

Tambiah, S. J. 1992 Buddhism betrayed? Religion, politics and violence in Sri Lanka, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wickremasinghe, K. D. P. (ed.) 1970 Pärakumba sirita, Colombo: M. D. Gunasena and Co.

Winslow, Deborah 1984 ‘The onomastic discourse of folk etymologies in Sri Lanka,’ Social Analysis 16: 79-90.

Yalman, Nur 1971 Under the bo tree. Studies in caste, kinship, marriage in the interior of  Ceylon, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Young, R. F. and G. S. B. Senanayaka 1998 The carpenter-heretic. A collection of Buddhist stories about Christianity from 18th century Sri Lanka, Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons.

[1] This essay has profited greatly from the comments on an initial draft provided by CR de Silva, Anoma Pieris and Alan Strathern in April 2012. It also draws on the personal communications from Charles Abeysekera, KNO Dharmadasa, KBA Edmund, Sandadas Coperahewa, Asoka de Zoysa, JB Disanayake, Srinath Ganewatte, Dharshani Gunatilake, Sirima Kiribamune, DS Mayadunne, PB Meegaskumbura, Rohini Paranavithana, R. C. Somapala, A. Tissakumara, Ananda Wakkumbura and DPM Weerakkody that enabled me to formulate my work on Sinhala consciousness in the Kandyan Period (2004), notably its critical second chapter on “Modes of communication, orality and poetry in the middle period.” None of these individuals should, of course, be held accountable for any errors of fact or judgement that remain.

[2] See Roberts 1972 and the revision elaborated in Roberts 2004: 139-40. The term “Kandyan Kingdom’ is misleading because it was known as Sīhalē and the forces that fought “the War against the English” in 1803, for instance, fought as lankāvē senaga of sinhala sena not as “Kandyans” (kandaudayo).

 [3] These words should be transliterated without a capital letter, but I have deliberately adopted the capital beginning to prevent confusion and assist the English-reading public. Note that there were at least 21 variant sīhala (hela) terms for the island of Sri Lanka (see Roberts 2004: 58-59).

 [4] Dharmadasa 1995; Sumanasekera Banda 1986; Wickremasinghe 1970; WA de Silva 1910; Peter Silva 1964; R. Obeyesekere 1992; Winslow 1984 and Roberts 2004: chap. 2.

 [5] R. Obeyesekere 1979: 26 & 1992: 36. Also Holt 1996 and Roberts 2004 for temple wall paintings.

 [6] These figures are after CR de Silva (1972: 106, 119, 134 & 154) discounts the exaggerated Portuguese estimates and relate to the battles of Randenivela (1630), Gannoruwa (1638) and the siege of Colombo (1630) respectively. Note that the siege of Colombo in 1587-88 by Rājasinha I of Sītāvaka’s forces may have involved as much as 30,000 men (CR de Silva 1977: 37). Also see Roberts 2004: 110. In brief some assemblages were larger than those gathered together recently by the LTTE for their assaults.

 [7] Abeyawardena 1999, Kulasuriya 1978: 16-23 and DGB de Silva 1996.

 [8] WA de Silva 1915/16; Godakumbura 1964 and Paul E. Pieris 2009.

 [9] Email note from Anoma Pieris (22 April 2012) amending her earlier article and discarding her reference to “a nascent national consciousness” (2009: 342, 339), while moderating her stress on “ethnic difference and racial enmity” (2010: 356-57).

[10] Pieris 2010: 358 and Roberts 2004: 25.

[11] Pieris 2010: 343 and her email note, 22 April 2012.

 [12] Strathern 2010.

 [13] Strathern 2007, 2008 and 2011.

 [14] Email memo dated 27 April 2012 and 2011: 9.

 [15] Hamilton, Terrific majesty, 1998: 26.

 [16] For instance, G. Obeyesekere 2002; Dart 1990; Yalman 1971: 310-15 and Brow 1978.

 [17] Roberts 1982: 1-2, 18ff, 31-32, 48-50, 62; and, for the Kandyan Navandanna, see Codrington 1909. The Ambättayo barbers seem to have come across as affiliates of the Karāva migrants (Roberts 1982: 92-93). Panniki is another term used to describe barbers.

 [18] DGB de Silva 1996 and CR de Silva 1972: 93.

 [19] Pieris 2010: 357 and Strathern 2007: 128, 185 & 2011. On trading and other exchanges with Kerala and elsewhere as well as the in-migration of peoples from India between the 13th and 16th centuries, also see Pathmanathan 1982 and 1986; Liyanagamage 1986 and Holt 2004: 34-57.

 [20] Also see the essays in the book edited by Shukri 1986.

 [21] Gunawardana 1990: 66-67.

 [22] Anagārika Dharmapāla kept his diary in English and read English novels besides Sinhala and Buddhist texts (Roberts 1997). Some of the most virulent Sinhala nationalists in contemporary times are competent in English. The civil servant ‘Tsar’, NQ Dias, who directed the Sinhalacization of the administrative services for the SLFP governments from 1956-65, may have been the first CCS official to wear the Ārya Sinhala dress; but “he was not fluent in Sinhala, … played tennis at one of Colombo’s elite clubs and lunched regularly at the Galle Face Hotel terrace to the accompaniment of his favourite aperitif, gin and tonic” (Jayaweera, “Into the cauldron of Jaffna,” Mss, 2009).

 [23] Strathern 2011: 7 and 2007: 240.

 [24] Note my criticisms of Marcus Banks (1996) and other post-modernists in Roberts, “Ethnicity after Said,” 2001a. This essay was anticipated in Roberts 1993 and 1996.

 [25] Tambiah 1986: 57-64, 70, 87-88; 1992: 58-65, 102-08 and Spencer 1990: 4-7. For other data pertinent to this interpretation, see the essays in Bardwell Smith 1978; Kemper 1990: 187-88; Kemper 1991; R. Obeyesekere 1992 and Roberts 2004: 21, 25, 44-45, 67, 91, 114, 122, 154, 157ff.

 [26] Apart from the information in Roberts (2004), for this concept and its importance, see especially Strathern 2008: 15, 19-22, 25.

 [27] Gananath Obeyesekere 1995: 232; Holt 1996: 70; R. Obeyesekere 1992 and Roberts 2004: 21, 28. Obeyesekere’s reference to “historical self-consciousness” is directed towards the history of Buddhist lands; and the essay moves on to mark the process by which a community of being developed in particularistic ways to fence off the Sinhalase of Sri Lanka. He suggests that for the pre-British context the term sāsana is the closest equivalent to the English concept of “nation” (1995: 239). While this idea is pertinent, Obeyesekere neglects the use of such terms as sihala dana (people) and sihala senaga (troops, people) in the war poems. The two processes have to be brought together.

 [28] See Liyanagamage 1978: 102-03, 127 & 1968: 110-28; and CR de Silva 1999: 83-84, 98-101.

 [29] Zheng He led seven expeditions across the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, five of which touched Sri Lanka. In 1411 he inflicted a military defeat on the King of Kottē, Vīra Alakēsvera, and took him as captive to China to pay homage (Somaratne 1975: 65-76).

 [30] Biedermann 2005: 191.

 [31] Tambiah 1985: chap. 7 & 1992: 173-76 and Strathern 2007: 27-31, 142, 146, 222 & 231.

 [32] Roberts 2004: 20, 44, 60-64, 70, 75-76, 153-54.

 [33] CR de Silva & Pathmanathan 1995: 105-06, who suggest, however, that King Pararājasēkeram (1472-79) may have “accepted the nominal overlordship” of the Vijayanāgara Empire. By 1619-21 the Kingdom of Yālppānam had fallen into Portuguese hands.

 [34] CR de Silva 1977: 42; Ferguson 1904: 194; Abeyasinghe 1995: 157-58 and Roberts 2004: 78.

 [35] Strathern 2007: 240 and Strathern 2006: 5, 13 resepctively.

[36] Rajasīha Hatana, ed. by Somaratna, 1966, v. 43 which runs thus: “Tri Sinhalayama eka, Satkāyra lev sasun rayka, Nasamin rupu noyeka, Dīpa sakviti wanda nirendeka.” I thank CR de Silva for the reference and the “loose translation.”

[37] Strathern 2008: 16 & 19.

[38] Strathern 2008: 24.

 [39] Strathern 2008: 15, 16 & 25.  The quotation comes from a context where the Sītāvaka forces were pitted against a local Sinhala opponent and not the Portuguese, but “rata seems to mean Lanka” in this verse says Strathern in a footnote caveat.

 [40] Strathern 2007: 240.

 [41] See Roberts 1993 and 1996 for an appraisal of Anderson and Roberts 2001a for an extended critique of fashionable trends in ethnic studies.

 [42] Strathern 2011: 10.

 [43] Obeyesekere 1995: 235. Note Rājasinha II’s explicit encompassment of all “the black people” on the island — an act that I read as “a constitutional proclamation” (Roberts 2004: 78).

 [44] So, there was “a collective identity that was decidedly king-centred and [that] thereby reflected…a hierarchical form of unity” (Roberts 2004: 115). Note the complications within 20th and 21st century democracy in Sri Lanka because of the persistence of hierarchical notions and the practices pirivarāgena (Roberts, “Mahinda Rajapaksa,” 2012).

 [45] Thus, I am going beyond my conceptualization in Sinhala consciousness (2004). Note that it is feasible to refer to “English patriotism” in Shakespeare’s writings and to speak of the development of English national consciousness in the Tudor period. Some historians go further back and highlight the after effects of the Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453). Adrian Hastings notes that: “one can find historians to date ‘the dawn of English national consciousness’ (or some such phrase) in almost every century from the eighth to the nineteenth” (1997:  35). See especially Hastings 1997: chaps. 1 and 2. All this is contested terrain of course.

 [46] Strathern 2007: 7.

 [47] Strathern 2008: 17 and Roberts 2004: 125-30.

 [48] Ferguson 1904: 235.

 [49] Roberts et al 1989: 5, 7, 16, 18-19 and Roberts 2004: 125, 137.

 [50] Strathern 2008: 17 and Roberts 2004: 116-30.

 [51] Rajasīha Hatana v. 395 (i. e. Pieris 1909, v. 405).

[52] Strathern 2007: 7, 182-3 245-47 and 2011: 227.

[53] Ingrīsi Hatana v. 81, 61, 38, 29.

[54] Translation provided by Sandadas Coperahewa and adjusted in consultation with Meegaskumbura. One change was the rendering of siya rata as “one’s own country” rather than “this land.” Another change was the use of Aho! to convey the meaning of sīsi or chī chi. Meegaskumbura indicated that this was a means of registering a sharp rebuke against the English. Coperahewa’s translation of the last line was as follows: “Is there any other king who is like our king (and) glows with glory in a manner that resembles the radiating splendour of the moon.” Meegaskumbura also wondered whether kavisi could refer to a category of people from India rather than Blacks from Africa.

[55] Knox 1911: 131 and Davy 1969: 177.

 [56] For background see Godakumbura 1964; Ranjini Obeyesekere 1991: xi, xiii, xvi, xxiii; R. Obeyesekere 1992: 35-36; Roberts 2004: 23, 25-26, 29-30, 93, 115, 153 and note the authority of most of the personnel consulted for my work on Sinhala Consciousness (see fn. 1).

 [57] On panegyrics among the Sinhalese of this period, also see Dharmadasa 1995: 475-76 and Strathern 2008: 19.

[58] Inden 1990: 232.

 [59] Ahälēpola to D’Oyly, 27 Nov. 1811, encl. in Wilson to Liverpool, 26 Feb. 1812 in CO 54/ 42, pp. 47-51. This letter is not reprinted in the books by Vimalananda Tennekoon where there is a gap in the documents between c. 1806 and 1812.

 [60] Roberts 2004: 159.

 [61] See Roberts for a clarification of this translation. To what extent the categories “Sinhala” and “Tamil” were opposed to each other in the centuries BC is a moot point. The conventional acceptance of this division as an integral part of the political scene can be called into question. The fifth century Dīpavamsa does not mark the antinomy sharply and does not indicate that Elāra, the king whom Dutugämunu defeated, is Tamil, though some previous invaders are described as Tamil. It is in the Mahāvamsa composed in the fifth-sixth century AD that the enmity is emphasised. While this may well be a reading of sixth century conditions into the second century B C, one should note that these Pali texts were based on Sinhala texts known as the Sīhalatthakatāmāhavamsa (now lost) that were repositories of oral tradition.

 [62] Obeyesekere 1993: 152; PE Pieris 1909, v. 31, 38 and Dharmadasa 1992: 46-47.

 [63] Rajasīha Hatana verses 26 with the free paraphrase coined by Pieris and Goonetilleke in Pieris 1909, v. 31 (also see v. 33).

[64] This verse in Somaratna’s Rajasīha Hatana is presented in Peter Silva (1964: 79-80) as part of another text, the Maha Hatana I. I have used the latter version for the precise text because Ananda Wakkumbura indicated that the Somaratna edition has several printing errors. The translation is by Wakkumbura; while the translation found in PE Pieris 1909 (verse 138 in this edition) can be found in Roberts 2004: 134.

[65] Thus, my rationality was (is) at fault.

[66] Guha refers to the reasoning as “the atidesa function” and clarifies it by reference to analogy, because it involves “extended applications, application by analogy, transference of one attribute to another, attraction of one case or rule to another” (Guha 1983: 23n). He shows how “rebel violence tended to spread analogically developing its initial attack on any particular element among the peasants’ enemies into a general attack on all or most of them, a process by which insurgency came to permeate an entire domain constituted by such authorities” (1983: 25).

[67] 1998: 21-22. Though assembled in 1762, several texts were probably coined earlier, albeit after the advent of the Portuguese. The authors were probably bhikkhus.

[68] 1998: 21-22. Note that anti-Saivite expressions entered a range of Sinhala texts intermittently from the tenth century onwards: see Sahassavattuppakarana, Sadharmākāraya and Rasavāhini (personal communication from Tissa Kumara, 3 Feb. 2000). Also see Cūlavamsa 1953, II: 226-7; Reynolds 1970: 272, 269 and Godakumbura 1955: 245.

 [69] Email note from John Holt in May 2012 and Dewaraja 1988: 83-84.

 [70] See Holt 2004: passim and the many works by Gananath Obeyeskere for illustrations of these practices and processes.

 [71] Cūlavamsa, vol II, 1953: 253.

[72] This pattern could interlace with, and be heightened by, caste distinctions. For a fuller clarification of this “segmentary structure,” see Roberts 2004: 30-34.

[73] My speculations on this point gained support from interviews with Charles Abeysekera (6 June 1994) and KBA Edmund (5 Aug. 1998).

[74] Letter from R. C. Somapala of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia Office, 1 April 1985 and a personal communication from PB Meegaskumbura.

 [75] An opinion derived from conversations with Sinhala specialists who have studied that era. See footnote 1 above.

 [76]  Practical Sinhala Dictionary 1984, vol. II: 1433.

 [77]  Roberts 2004: 117; Rajasīha Hatana 1968: v. 103, 130, 207 and Parangi Hatana v. 38-39 for Asuras; and Rajasīha Hatana 1968: v.  130, 177, 195, & 203 for Rāmā versus Rāvana.

[78] People inbetween, 1989: chap. 1.

 [79] It is my surmise that the English term “Ceylon” spawned the adjectival form of “Ceylonese” – which in turn led to a new ‘coin’ in Sinhala, namely, “lānkika” as its translation. When I consulted the Sinhala scholar, KNO Dharmadasa, he said that ‘to my knowledge the word lānkika did not recur prior to the 19th century. There was no need for it” (email, 8 April 2012). Before the British took over, the term lakväsiyan (lakväsiyo) was certainly in use to denote the Sinhalese as the ‘owners,’ so to speak, of the polity; but could not do the same service because the concept “Ceylonese” encompassed clearly differentiated categories, namely, Burgher, Sinhalese, Tamils et cetera.

 [80] Roberts 1979 and 1982.

 [81] Obeyesekere 1967: 211-47; Roberts 1973 and Roberts 1975: 45-50.

 [82] Mayadunne 1999; Winslow 1984; WA de Silva 1915/16 and Roberts 2004: chap 2.

 [83] Roberts, ‘Ethnicity after Edward Said,’ 2001a.

 [84] Rogers 1990, 1994 and 2004.

 [85] Forbes 1840; Raheem 1986; Cave 1893 and Raheem & Colin-Thomé 2000: 52-54, 62.

 [86] Thus, Partha Chatterjee argues that the claims associated with the slogan Hindutva were “possible only within modern forms of historiography which is necessarily constructed around the complex identity of people-nation-state” (1994: 2).

 [87] My experience during my dissertation research, but also see Rogers 2004: 641-45.

 [88] Rogers 2004: 634 referring to Bertolacci, A view of the agricultural, commercial, and financial interest of Ceylon (London, 1817) p. 45 – a perspective that must be understood alongside Bertolacci’s description of the “Väddas as “the only indigenous nation in the island.”

[89] Knox 1911: 97. Knox distinguished the “Malabars” [namely the Tamils] from the “Chingulays;” while noting that the Malabars were “free Denizons who pay duty to the King for the Land they enjoy, as the Kings’ natural Subjects do.” As the next lines make clear, in this view the Sinhalese were “the natural proper People of the Island.”

 [90] Rogers 2004: 641-45.

 [91] Gunawardana 1990: 78 and Rogers 1990: 94-97.

 [92] Roberts 1978 and 1997. However, for anyone to use this new strand of influence to support the conclusion that “the roots of present understandings of ethnic identity [lie] in Victorian Orientalist scholarship” (Spencer 1990: 4) is quite simply ahistorical and farcical. Rogers (2004) does not fall into this error.

 [93] On Sirisēna, see Amunugama 1979; Roberts et al 1989: 16-21; R. Obeyesekere 1992: 37-38 and Roberts 2004: 31-32. He was born Pedrick de Silva, but changed his name in response to Anagārika Dharmapāla’s campaign against Westernisation. This does not mean that his political thinking was a copy of Dharmapāla’s.

 [94] Amarasēkara is a dentist with bilingual capacities who has been a political activist and leading Sinhala novelist since the 1950s. He is one of the intellectuals associated with the Jātika Chintanaya (Nationalist Thought) movement dating from the 1980s..

 [95] Roberts et al 1989: 16-21.

 [96] See Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 16-21, especially Chart II. Also note Ranjini Obeyesekere 1979: 271-72.

 [97] See above: 00. When I composed People inbetween in the 1980s, I was not aware that the term tuppahi had a long history and was wielded in similar demeaning manner in the war poems. In effect, tuppahi is a long-standing ingredient in the forging of Sinhalaness

 [98] Sirisena, Sucaritādarshaya, 1958 (originally 1926): 126, 130.

 [99] Roberts 1978: 365-66.

 [100] For my elaborations on this point, see Roberts, 1978 as well as Roberts, “History as dynamite,” 2000; “Some pillars,” 2009a and “Sinhala mindset,” 2009b.


Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, ethnicity, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, law of armed conflict, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, sri lankan society, world events & processes

6 responses to “Sinhalaness and its Reproduction, 1232-1818

  1. anonymous

    When you read this account of `sinhalaness’ by Michael Roberts (MR), you feel distinctly uneasy – the same feeling that you get when you read Gananath Obesekera and see that he is studying the quaint habits of the lowly natives etc., just as a Victorian British civil servant was trained to report to London.

    This essay by MR could have been written by one of the Colonial civil-servant scholars like E. Tenant or C. S. Lewis. How the `sinhalese’ looked at the `Jada parangi’, or the `hadi Damila’ in a previous epoch, makes no sense if the historian does not turn the mirror around and discuss how the Cholas regarded the Sinhalese; or how the Portuguese, or the author of the Rajasiha hatana on the one hand, or Christian equivalents of Anagarika Dharmapala on the other hand, regarded the infidel natives – in fact there is no shortage of such polemical material for juxtaposition and study.

    Indeed, the writings of, e.g., Dharmapala (often presented as that of a rabid nationalist) turn out to be quite moderate when compared with evangelists who were his contemporaries on the other side; in fact not only in those days, but even today in the Bible belt of the USA.

    Professional historians are supposed to be able to evaluate material and put them in the context of their age, instead of applying today’s mores and standards to a bygone age -be it that of the epoch of Dharmapala or Savanarola. Unfortunately, this historian falls directly into that trap.

    Unfortunately, our historians and anthropologists, trained by Colonials, and working within the academic peer-structure of the West, have to write within the automatic, almost symbiotically inherited Colonial perspective of Fergusen in 1904 or Strathern in 2008. That is their client audience..

    If MR were to match every one of these quotes from the Sinhalaness thesis, to corresponding quotes from the invaders, a more balanced view would emerge. In the case of the Indian Invader, there is material directly aimed at Sri Lanka. In the case of the Portuguese invader, when he was attacking Sri Lanka or Goa, he and other Latins like the Spaniards were already creating genocide in the New World, following the Spanish bandits who were blowing up babies and writing ballads about cleaning up unbaptized heathen from their very womb. So there is no shortage of material.

    However, the optique of this essay fits in well with that of the `Center for Policy Alternatives’, and so perhaps this is an essay written to fit in with the requirements of the customer.

    So I hope this historian would go back and complete the missing half of this shamelessly nude essay by writing another essay dealing with the complementary sentiments of the `Tamilness” (Tamil consciousness of the Raja-rajan Cholas’) during the time when `sinhalaness’ arose; the `Portuguese-ness and its sense of destiny with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other’ as opposed to the sinhalaness , (or the `Englishman’s Imperial sense of utter superiority’ as found not only in Macaulay, but even in early Bernard Shaw or the superiority of the Englishman over the Japanese barbarians in the movie `The bridge over River Kwai’). Furthermore, the way the Germans and Japanese were caricatured in the propaganda songs and pamphlets of the second world war should be an eye opener. British reports of how the Japanese brutalized their children and women, how the Japanese practiced cannibalism etc., should be considered against the nationalism of the poems of the `Parangi Hatana’ war period.

  2. padraigcolman

    This is a very informed and articulate response to Professor Roberts’s article. I would not presume to take sides in this dispute but cannot help but wonder why the writer does not identify himself/herself.

    I would not disagree with Anonymous about the English having a sense of superiority. I am surprised that Shaw is included here. Does Anonymous have any citation to back up the inclusion of Shaw? Anonymous is clearly erudite enough to know that Shaw was an Irishman not an Englishman. In an essay of my own, which I am resurrecting for St Patrick’s Day, I quote Shaw warning English tourists not to visit Ireland because the Irish were determined to resist English illusions about them: “it is a point of honour with the Modern Irishman to have no sense of humour”. Modern Ireland was in full reaction against both servility and the construct of the “stage Irishman”.

    • anonymous

      The reference to Bernard Shaw’s comments around 1900 where he defends British Imperialism, came to my mind from a discussion of it in a book by Élie Halévy, a French Historian (possibly “Histoire de peuple anglais aux dix-neuvième siècle”). If I locate the exact reference I will put it in. Unfortunately I can no longer locate the book, and so rely on memory (which is usually quite good) – anyway I am not a historian or social scientists and so prefer to be anonymous – besides, there are many advantages to the `anonymous referee’ approach used in academic writing.

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