Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History

Michael Roberts, reprinting an article that appeared initially in Ethnic Studies Report, July 2001, pp. 69-98 and has also been presented in Roberts: Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009

foucault Michel Foucault

 In the past two decades the writings on nationalism and ethnicity in the corridors of Western academia have been coloured by disenchantment with the excesses that have been attached to their expressions in most parts of the world. The responses are also informed by the decentred and anti-structuralist position popularised by Michel Foucault. The latter perspective encourages a view of society that highlights its disordered fragmentation. The spirit that directs such readings, nevertheless, remains within the time-honoured paradigm that has dominated Western intellectualism for centuries, that of secular rationalism. This has encouraged several writers on ethnic politics in the colonial and post-colonial eras to adopt a self-righteous position of political correctness and epistemological superiority.[1]

Edward SAID Edward Said

One of the works partially influenced by Foucault was Orientalism (1978) authored by the Palestinian-American, Edward Said.[2] This line of argument in its turn has been extended to India by a number of writings.[3] In an ambitious article (1994) John Rogers has attempted to summarise the manner in which the intellectual framework introduced by the British Raj shaped the categories of caste, race, religion and ethnicity in India and Sri Lanka. Rogers leans excessively towards developing classificatory coherence,[4] while his readings of the world are far too transactionalist for my taste,[5] but his essay conveniently summarises the literature that I am referring to under the label “Post-Orientalist.” The more general point to note is that this region-specific literature shares theoretical affinities with powerful currents of interpretation in the general literature on ethnicity.

Broadly speaking, these lines of revisionist argument emphasise three strands, usually in overlapping ways. Firstly, they highlight the degree to which the institutional form and intellectual activities of the British colonial state created the categories of ethnic and/or religious identity around which people mobilise today. In effect, this is a theory of discursive determinism that marks the shaping of indigenous consciousness by modern epistemological frameworks of difference. Secondly, the processes set in train by the colonial order are said to have produced the “invention of tradition” to bolster the new, or re-shaped, ethnic/religious categories. Thirdly, the contention in broad historical sweep is that ethnic identities were, and have been, “fluid” and of limited political significance until the colonial processes hardened the sentiments into the collectivised, mobilised and seemingly fixed forms that we see today in the late twentieth century.

On these grounds the new scholarship takes aim at both nationalist spokespersons and scholars who read these collectivised identities into the pre-British era. The latter perspective, it is said, transmits the present into the past in a circulatory move that uses the past to legitimise claims in the present. In further criticism such an approach is castigated for the erroneous reading of identities as immutable, boundaries as given and fluid processes as fixed relations. That is, by accepting the emphasis on linear continuity and “tradition” by contemporary nationalist spokespersons, these analysts are accused of taking on the “essentialist” and “primordialist” attitudes of the people under study. By primordialism is meant an emphasis on a named collective identity as a perennial and natural phenomenon going back to a specific point of origin, the ursprüngliche moment so to speak.[6] By “essentialism” is meant a line of argument that conveys “the idea that humans and human institutions … are governed by determinate natures that inhere in them in the same way that they are supposed to inhere in the entities of the natural world.”[7] Such essentialising lines of emphasis on the part of protagonists, it is said, are a means of legitimising nationalist challenges or sustaining existing forms of domination. As such they are instruments of power. For scholars to adopt these attitudes is to compromise their position and sustain local forms of power. This is especially problematic because many of these primordialist lines of legitimation seek to naturalise their claims. As such, they carry racist connotations and bolster exclusivist forms of nationalism.[8]

In the recent literature on South Asia these themes have been underlined through an emphasis on the influence of the forms of knowledge established by the British colonial state in India. Well before Said’s book on Orientalism appeared in 1978, Bernard Cohn had identified a process of “objectification” through the institutional practices of the British.[9]  Cohn especially marked the work of the census operations. As Said’s work became popular in the l980s and the 1990s, a stream of scholarship elaborated on the processes of objectification, the creation of dichotomised oppositions and the insertion of the categories “Aryan” and “Dravidian” into the intellectual firmament concerned with India.[10] These lines of emphasis meshed with the approach embodied in Gyan Pandey’s seminal work, The construction of communalism in India (1990), as well as the new directions taken up by the scholars associated with “Subaltern Studies” during the nineties.

These streams of theory entered the literature on Sri Lanka. As in India they became part of the ongoing polemics and verbal battles of legitimation and attempted de-legitimation. The assaults on the Tamils living in the south western and central districts of Sri Lanka in 1983 had been a rude shock to a host of scholars. Marxist scholars located in Lanka were forced to amend their economic determinism and two-class models of change. Newton Gunasinghe’s reputation in these circles, his own researches into the formation of Kandyan society and Kapferer’s influence on Gunasinghe injected a transformative readiness to discuss the force of caste in Sri Lankan history and politics.[11] As the ethnic conflict took a turn for the worse, a number of liberals and Marxist radicals linked hands to develop arguments against the ideological constructs that were part of the heightened conflict. These efforts included books produced by the Committee for Rational Development (1984), the Social Scientists’ Association (1984) and the collection of articles edited by Abeysekera & Gunasinghe (1987). Leslie Gunawardana’s 1979 essay on “The People of the Lion” was reprinted in the SSA’s 1984 edition as part of this enterprise.

What requires remark here is that for the most part these initial writings were not informed by Edward Said’s work or Foucaultian deconstructionism. However, the stream of consciousness represented by these interventions soon allied with the Saidian and other currents brought in by new and younger scholars[12] who joined the older hands from the mid-1980s to set up a scholarly discourse in Sri Lanka that was firmly opposed to the extreme chauvinism displayed by some local spokespersons for the Sinhalese and Tamils. In a context in which the state was under Sinhala control, and located as they were in the south of the country, most of their battles at the coalface have been with those deemed Sinhala extremists.

This new infusion of intellectual ‘blood’ involved Sri Lankans trained abroad (for the most part) as well as foreign specialists. Nissan and Stirrat’s mimeographed article (1987) and Jonathan Spencer’s ethnographic study of a Sinhala village (1990a) were important markers of this line of interpretation. These works were bolstered by a book on Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict (1990) edited by Jonathan Spencer, where an expanded version of Gunawardana’s essay is reprinted. One of the book’s central themes in this edited monograph is the argument that “the roots of present understandings of ethnic identity [lie] in Victorian Orientalist scholarship” so that “Sinhala-Tamil conflict is a product of modern politics.”[13]  Within the same cover Nissan and Stirrat underline this message by arguing, quite pertinently, that one must attend to the character of state forms when deciphering collective identity in different periods. But on this basis they proceed to the dubious assertion that the conflicts in the pre-colonial period were “dynastic wars.” In this view it was “the devices of the modern state,” namely, the British colonial state, that rendered previous differences of language, custom and religion “into something new.”[14]

The spirit of post-modernism and political correctness that permeates this scholarship is indicated by an anecdote with which one of the editors of Unmaking the nation (1995) begins his own essay. Through this tale, Qadri Ismail celebrates his lack of attachment to Muslim-ness and the degree to which he was challenging his Muslim peers to divest themselves of their identity as “Muslims.”[15] Post-modernism is also extolled by the cover design attached to its revealing title: the aim, clearly, is to celebrate the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny world of certain strands of the post-modern. “Let fragmentation prevail” is the message etched into the cover.

Many, though not all, of these post-modern scholars are immersed in the modern. Their bias is presentist.[16] Many do not have the patience for historical puzzles. For these and other reasons, their knowledge of the pre-British period is limited. That is where Leslie Gunawardana’s article became central to their political stance and why it has gone through two reprints and been praised as a “master text” that is marked by its “brilliance” and “extraordinary comprehensiveness.”[17] Such assessments only serve to highlight the glaring deficiencies of empirical knowledge among the trumpet-blowers and an inability to discern the serious flaws in the middle segment of Gunawardana’s essay. In more qualified ways this also applies to the reworking attempted by such a knowledgeable commentator as Tambiah.[18]

Gunawardana’s final version of The People of the Lion is organised in three segments. The first section on pages 45-65 covers the centuries BC to the thirteenth century. The second, pages 65-69, embraces the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, falling within an era I call “the middle period.”[19] The third segment covers intellectual influences in the British period and will not feature in the discussion within my article.

The first period is the field in which Gunawardana is an expert. Though without these credentials, I have raised several general questions about the position he adopts (Roberts 1993, reprinted in Confrontations 2009 as chapter 6). No one has addressed these issues to date.[20] Dharmadasa (1992) in the meanwhile identified a critical text from the tenth century that Gunawardana had not consulted and mounted a defence of the more conventional interpretations of the meaning attached to the word “Sīhala,” or its synonyms, during the ancient period. Confronted with Dharmadasa’s critical review, Gunawardana has indulged in fancy footwork (1995) that cannot conceal the fact that he has to concede ground. In his original essay he recognized that “the term Sinhala had come to acquire a wider connotation” by the twelfth century and “denoted the Sinhala-speaking population who were the preponderant element among the residents of the island.”[21] But in 1995, he is forced to shift this date back to the tenth century AD if not earlier, but never admits this explicitly. However the translation that he himself provides of the textual segment from the Dhampiyâ Atuvâ Gätapadaya gives the game away:[22] “How is the term “in the helu language” derived? That is derived on account of residents in the island being helu. How is it that they are called hela? Having killed a lion, king Sîhabahu was called Sîhala (as in the Pali phrase) “Sîhala, on account of having cut (or killed) a (or the) lion.” On account of his progeny (ohu daru bävin), Prince Vidä(Vijaya) was called Sîhala. Others came to be called Sîhala on account of being their retinue (evuhu pirivara bävin).”

In effect, then, this translation grants that “the residents in the island” named helu were “Sīhala,” that is to say, in my annotation, mostly Sīhala by supposed descent and categorical name.

Dharmadasa has responded to this argument (1996), but for our purposes this ongoing debate can be safely bracketed out. The critical point is that by the tenth century at the very least, and thus by the beginning of the middle period, most people in the island spoke Sinhala and were known as Sinhala. Gunawardana has now added his authority to that of several other scholars who support such a conclusion. The implications for the subsequent era are compounded by three developments, developments that scholars have been familiar with for decades and which Gunawardana is fully aware of. Firstly, by the twelfth century the Sinhalese script had to a large extent evolved to what was known by the twentieth century, while the language seems to be even closer to the usage of modern times.[23] Secondly, while Buddhism had persisted in southern India and some Tamil-speakers would have been Buddhist during the first six centuries AD, a militant Hindu revival from about the seventh century AD effected a virtual extinction of Buddhism by about 1000 AD “partly because lay supporters turned towards Hinduism and partly because the Buddhist belief system and cults were [incorporated within] the Hindu realm.”[24] Thus, Jaini speculates that the “the doctrine of the heavenly bodhisattvas made Buddhism uniquely vulnerable to assimilating tendencies of the surrounding Hindu cults.”[25] In the third place, the invasions by the “Kerala devils” led by Māgha and subsequently by various Pandyan feudatories during the thirteenth century resulted in the implantation of considerable Tamil settlements in the north that were soon centred around a kingdom, Yālppānam, under a Tamil dynast.[26] These developments are represented in Manichean terms of the Bad versus the Good in the Pali and Sinhala texts of that period[27] as well as the oral traditions in the centuries that followed.

In his 1990 version of The People of the Lion Gunawardana allows that the Sinhala consciousness identified for the twelfth century “persisted” during the thirteenth-to-eighteenth centuries, “particularly among certain sections of the literati.”[28] Remarkably, his summary survey of the middle period then contrives to devalue the political significance of this admission. This appears to be a deliberate effort to adopt a politically correct position that would cater to his commitments in the verbal debates of the 1980s. His first step in this devaluation is to emphasise the gap between the literati and the mass of the people in the conventional style favoured by those who overvalue the written modes of cultural transmission.[29] Secondly, Gunawardana argues that there was a “cultural cosmopolitanism” during this period which “would have contributed to the weakening of the Sinhala consciousness.”[30] One item of evidence in support of the importance of cosmopolitanism is that Tamil was taught in some of the pirivenas (institutions of learning attached to temples). The latter fact is not in question, but the conclusion that it is made to bear is ridiculous, being akin to arguing today that those who know English could not be Sinhala nationalists who are hostile to the hegemony of the English language. In the third place, Gunawardana assigns weight to the “feudal ethos” in that era as a factor that would have diluted the significance of Sinhala consciousness. This is underlined by the assertion that “the Kandyan nobility did not possess a powerful unifying ideology strengthened by myths.”[31] This assertion is a remarkable speculation that is not supported by the considerable literature on the kingdom. Gunawardana deems the evidence of factional struggle among the Kandyan nobles to be adequate ground for this interpretation. If one were to utilise such reasoning, no nobility or modern political party, indeed even the Bolshevik Party or the various Eelamist forces that emerged in the 1970s, could be deemed to possess “an unifying ideology.” Such reasoning cannot allow for the processes by which factional struggles are conditioned by common projects and re-make broader unities in the very intensity of their factional struggles.

Fourthly, Gunawardana contends that there was a considerable ingress of Indian peoples and Hindu cultural practices into the Sinhala-speaking areas during the middle period. There is a considerable corpus of literature, including my own work, which provides evidence in support of this thesis.[32] But to assume that such a process precludes a parallel process of antipathy is to adopt a monistic, either/or view of the world. In the fifth place, Gunawardana suggests that the personnel serving in the armies of the Sinhala kingdoms were motivated by the desire for rewards rather than patriotic sentiments. This speculation is manifestly instrumentalist and takes a mono-causal view of historical process. A priori one could speculate that both instrumental and emotional attachments could support the actions of soldiers serving an Elizabeth I or a Rājasinha II. In any event the war poems and other data indicate that a considerable body of sentiment enveloped the activities of militia assembled by kingly decree to fight against the para rupu (foreign enemies) under the kings of Sitâvaka and Kandy.[33]

It is in his attempt to meet C R de Silva’s brief references to the anti-Tamil sentiments expressed in such war poems that Gunawardana inserts argument five above. And it is here where he is dishonest. He counters de Silva by referring to the presence of Catholics among the Sinhala population on the coast and by elaborating upon the restricted territorial meaning of the term Sinhalê. His citations for the latter point include the Parangi Hatana and verse 76 from the Mandārampura Puvata.[34] He does not tell readers that the particular Parangi Hatana that he is referring to[35] has traces of anti-Tamil sentiment and that the Mandārampura Puvata is suffused with pronounced anti-Tamil leanings. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the relevant segment of the Mandārampura Puvata will indicate that verse 76 nestles within a clutch of stanzas that castigate Rājasinha I of Sitāvaka because he had laid the foundations for the depredations of demonic Cola-Tamil-Saivite forces led by a person named Giri Tavusa, namely, Giri, the Demon. As such, the verse is preceded as well as followed by references to Sīhala sen (Sinhala forces) in ways that undermine the interpretation essayed by Gunawardena.[36]

Recently, however, Malalgoda has provided circumstantial evidence that calls into question the previous dating of the Mandārampura Puvata and suggested that it is a concoction produced at some point in the British period.[37] It is not possible, therefore, for us to utilise the material in this set of poems. But that fact was not known to C R de Silva, Gunawardana and Dharmadasa in the 1980s when they deployed the Mandārampura Puvata in their debates and when Gunawardana did not disclose the general tenor of the work to his readers.

Whether informed by Gunawardana’s essay or not, those analysts who deny political significance to the Sinhala/Tamil opposition in the pre-British period invariably attach importance to two items of empirical evidence. Like Gunawardana, they provide evidence of cultural borrowings from southern India, the considerable exchanges that were a continuous part of the story in the middle period and the absorption of Indian immigrants — as individuals, lineages or castes – into Sinhala society. They also attach special emphasis to the fact that a supposedly princely, and thus kshātriya, Indian lineage known as the Nayakkars was accepted as the legitimate line of kings for the Kingdom of  Kandy in 1739. The latter event in particular is taken as conclusive proof that the Sinhala/Tamil divide was of little account within the political firmament in the pre-British era.[38]

The interpretative weight attached to the Nayakkar succession cannot be sustained. It is not attentive to Sinhala political theory. The kings of the Sinhala people in the middle period were imbued with the characteristics of a bodhisattva and were expected to rule righteously according to the dasarājadharma. They were also treated as devo and thus rendered god-like.[39] What is more, in the segment of the Cūlavamsa composed in the time of the Nayakkār kings, Kirti Srī Râjasinha (1747-82) is explicitly described as amhakam Sîhalindo, “our Sinhala king.”[40] Gunawardana himself notes in passing that the last Nayakkar king was referred to as the “the great Sinhala king” and “the great king of the Sinhala.”[41] This was in keeping with the statement dating from the thirteenth century to the effect that only a Buddhist could ascend the throne of Trisinhala or Sinhalē.[42] This principle was reiterated in the sixteenth-century Rājaratnācaraya and the eighteenth-century Lak raja lo sirita.[43] As Seneviratne remarks, “the suggestion is that when a king is a Buddhist he automatically becomes Sinhalese.”[44]

Pl 9 RAJA II Rajasinha II of Sīhalē


I take Seneviratne’s argument further. A person of suitable kingly status in the legitimate line of succession was made king after an abhisēka, a consecration. Indeed, he was not fully king till he had married a fully-consecrated queen of royal status. The initial rituals of the abhisēka were reiterated in principle every year at the ritual bathing of the king, a rite of unction that was an abhisēka in function if not in name. In sum, the abhisēka was a ritual of transformation that made the person of the prince into a god-like figure with a new name.[45] A Thai or a Chinese, or even an Eskimo-turned Buddhist, could be made amhakam Sīhalindo, “our Sinhala king,” by this cultural act.[46]

The reasoning behind the argument that pronounced syncretism among the Sinhalese and continuous cultural exchanges between the south Indian world and the Sinhala-speaking regions bespeaks tolerance and an absence of collectivised antipathies is also flawed. It is flawed because its epistemology takes a position that is either/or. This is typical of modern rationality. It is a principle in Western bureaucratic structures and jurisprudence. James Clifford has revealed how such a mode of reasoning operated in a legal case involving indigenous land rights in north eastern USA during the 1970s. In conjunction with the emphasis on written modes of historical documentation the dice was loaded against the tenuous identities held by a tiny group of Mashpee Indians.[47]

In the Sri Lankan case, then, those who accuse contemporary nationalists of extending the present into the past are guilty of the same ‘sin.’ They extend the either/or reasoning of their times into the middle period of Lanka’s history. Where there is evidence of exchange and tolerance, they imply, there cannot be collectivised enmities, only kingly or elitist ones directed by personal projects. When British scholars use this line of reasoning one might even suspect imperialist hues. No one has suggested that the considerable exchange between England and France in the centuries fifteen to eighteen prevented Anglo-French rivalry, rivalry that could embrace elements of the population.[48] What’s sauce for the European gander apparently is not good for the Lankan goose.

In the situation of the Sinhalese in the middle period my counter argument is that cultural exchanges must be read in the context of hierarchical principles and the operations of state power. From the point of view of the kingly court and the dominant Govigama population other religions could be pursued as long as they did not upset the primacy of Buddhism. Outsiders could be tolerated if they became part of the existing order or accepted niches assigned to them. Hybridity and ambiguity could flourish at the margins of power, both in geographical terms and in caste-based social terms. In Sinhalē in Kandyan times power was spatially-centred around the kanda uda pas rata and what geographers describe as the Kandy Plateau. Both in this region and in the kingdom in general the Govigama were the dominant people,[49] with the aristocratic strata known as the radala serving as the ruling elements.

Within such a society and state, therefore, the principle of incorporation organised exchange and tolerance as well as exclusion. When the Catholics in the Kandyan heartland who were inspired by Fr. Goncalves and his workers gained too much prominence in the 1740s, their books were burnt and they were evicted as “Parangis.”[50] One could not ask for a more disparaging characterisation of those deemed alien. Wickremeratne represents the situation neatly when he observes that the “non-Buddhists became citizens of diminished relevance and importance, children of a lesser god.”[51]

Thus, it is my contention that the either/or rationality organising the appraisals of Sinhala-Tamil exchanges in the middle period cannot comprehend the incorporative principles of power that enabled measures of tolerance to co-exist with perceptions of the Tamils as sädi demalu and their incorporation into the ambiguous and potent figures of the vadiga and the demala sanniyā in folk rituals.[52]

Nor can such reasoning comprehend adequately the political and cultural significance of the incidence of ‘ethnic’ boundary crossing. The idea of boundary crossing is a critical tool in the armoury of the Post-Orientalists as well as authors penning standard works on “Ethnicity” in its global context. Empirical instances of individuals or bodies of people who adopt new ethnic identities become battering rams smashing those scholars and nationalists who allegedly “objectify” the idea of collective identity and treat the boundaries of community as fixed. Such illustrations encourage scholars such as Banks to contend that (a) boundaries are permeable and (b) that national and/or ethnic identities are “fluid and shifting.”[53]

Banks presents this conclusion on the foundations of a study of German identity in the 1980s by Diana Forsythe (1989) and another article on modern Greek identity by Roger Just (1989) which encourage him to conclude that “each of these European states is a kind of jelly-fish identity, constantly wobbling and never fitting into any rigid container.”[54] Forsythe’s study, however, is a brief one and deeply marred by a naïve positivism that was on the lookout for “something solid.” When she could not discover a clear territorial definition of the word Deutschland and unambiguous representations of “who is German,” that is, which people in which territorial space were embraced within the concept Deutsche, she concluded that “Germanness as experienced from within [had] a fragile, ambiguous quality.”[55] Such “elusiveness” also leads her to “suggest” that, “as an identity, Germanness is ephemeral.”[56] That Banks should find this flawed research “convincing”[57] is as significant as worrying. That he should fix on the quotation on the ephemeral character of Germanness to lead up to his generalisation that ethnic identities are shifting is quite mind-boggling. Forsythe’s study, for all its glaring deficiencies, does not go that far: its intent is to mark the ambiguous boundaries. Moreover, her clarification of the distinction between Deutsche and Ausländer refers to “a whole series of categories ranged along a continuum of perceived foreignness” and a summary of the “various attributes of character that [were] looked upon as essentially German.”[58] Indeed, one could re-interpret some of her data to argue that there were deep concerns about the inadequacy of German national identity that proved how profound a phenomenon it was for some Germans. Concerns about hybridity and absences point towards essentialising modes of appraisal or ways of being. Gradations indicate yardsticks of evaluation and values that empower or disempower.

Marcus Banks’s facile reading of Forsythe’s article reveals a more general phenomenon: where a scholar’s political leaning and epistemological bias compounds illustrative misinterpretations. In such instances, a non-specialist X reads the specialist work of a person Y from the same theoretical camp in ways that extend Y’s interpretation to untenable limits because of ignorance of context or blinkered theory. Jack D. Eller’s recent review of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka on the basis of secondary material is another instance of this tendency. His reading of a select body of specialist sources enables him to associate the Sri Lankan situation with four other studies in maintaining that “groups exist with vague and permeable boundaries” and that “social ‘identity’ is flexible and negotiable.”[59]

In most instances little elaboration is provided as to what such fluidity entails. It seems to be assumed, too, that a permeability of boundaries means that they are of little moment. This avoids several questions. Why are such alterations of collective identity made by those families who “permeate” and the host-people who accept these categorical re-definitions? How is it feasible for individuals or lineages to transform themselves in this way? As critically, what do such shifts mean for the categories of interaction?

I raise further questions: (a) what precisely is meant when community identity in pre-British times is said to be “fluid” or “fuzzy”?[60] (b) taking a three-generational span of three-score years, namely 60 years, does the alleged permeability of boundaries mean that a significant minority within group A are becoming B at the same time that a significant minority within B are becoming A? In other words, are the flows across boundaries two way and significant in numerical proportions?[61] If the flow is one way, say from A to B, my argument on a priori grounds is that such boundary crossing is an affirmation of the attractions and/or power of B. In these very acts they mark the categorical distinction between A and B. Such a process also has the capacity to generate distaste among elements within A and to stimulate a re-affirmation of the significance of A.[62] Without fine-tuned and rich empirical material, brief references to boundary crossing do not serve the arguments of those prone to regard ethnic sentiment as a fluid phenomenon.

The re-categorisation of individuals or lineages or groups over generational time cannot be evaluated without reference to the character of the state (including statelessness where pertinent), the distribution of power and the spatial location of these changes. Reference to power necessarily implicates the principal factors ordering access to resources, whether lineage, tribe, caste, class, class-fraction or a combination of these relational principles.

Extending these issues to the Kingdom of Kandy (Sīhalē)in the period 1590s to 1815, the following questions can be raised. (a) When individual Telugu adventurers or Brahmin purohits and men of rank moved into the various Sinhala-speaking kingdoms during the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries and were eventually absorbed into aristocratic or other lineages among the Sinhalese,[63] does it mean that being a Sinhalese was unimportant? (b) When a body of southern Indian artisans were absorbed into the administrative and social order of the Kingdom of Kandy as Navandanna,[64] or, more likely, as a strand of the Navandanna caste, does it mean that the Sinhala/Tamil divide was meaningless and the Sinhala identity of little political moment? (c) Is there any evidence of significant numbers of the Govigama in the agrarian heartlands of any of the Sinhala kingdoms becoming Tamil-speakers at home? and subordinating Buddha to Siva?[65]

In the absence of solid evidence on the process identified as (c) above, my counter argument is that the ingress of bodies of migrants who, for the most part, became Sinhalese re-produced the centricity of Sinhala power in its institutionalised and Buddhistic forms.What such instances reveal, then, is the absence of exclusive barriers. Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking men could marry local women and be absorbed as binna (matrilocal) people within existing lineages in a process that would have made their progeny Sinhala-speakers. This process necessarily enhanced the force of the Sinhala-identity in those areas where Sinhala was the dominant mode of discourse, that is, most of central, southern and western Sri Lanka. In effect, these are processes of indigenisation as Sinhalese. The demographic force and the institutional power of the Sinhalese were emphasised by this process.

This process was not as pronounced in certain regional locations at the margins of the Sinhala state, while the Yon (Moor Muslim) traders and settlers in both the littoral and the interior seem to have retained a distinct identity. These instances make up significant qualifications to my thesis and I take them up seriatim. But let me observe here that these two provisoes indicate the degree to which I emphasise the concept of a centre-oriented state in the perceptive formulation presented by Tambiah.[66] Not only were the boundaries not policed by principles of exclusivity, there was scope for (a) the parcelisation of sovereignty organised by the principles of tributary overlordship,[67] and (b) diversity, ambiguity and heterogeneous plurality subsumed within hierarchical and encompassing ideas.

In other words, there was, in the manner clarified by Tambiah, a “differential incorporation” that involved “inferiorization.” Explicitly informed by Dumont’s work, Tambiah’s thesis is important. He presents it as “a standard South Asian mode of differentially incorporating into an existing society sectarian or alien minorities.” This process places the incoming bodies “in a subordinate position in the hierarchy.”[68] In extending this interpretation to the cultural interactions of the late middle period, he therefore speaks of (a) the juxtaposition of “melting plot blendings” and “segregationist separations” as well as (b) the “conversion processes” resulting in the “Sinhalization and Buddhicization” of incoming peoples from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts.[69]

It is within such a framework that one should evaluate territorialised marginality. There were at least two types of spatial margins. On the one hand there was the sparsely-peopled, malarial jungle areas of the Vanni located on the outer periphery of the Kandyan heartland, where Sinhalese, Väddas, Mukkuvars, Mukkuvars-becoming-Tamil, Vaggai and Tamils seem to have intermarried in ways that suggest limited ethnic differentiation. Fragmentary data in a number of works point to the intermarriages and boundary crossings within this vast tract of territory.[70]

There was, on the other hand, the coastal strip extending from Mutwal just north of Colombo to Puttalam some 131 kilometres to the north. The peripheral character of this belt of land was of the interstitial type. This area abutted the Indian subcontinent and served as a zone of exchange. For most of the middle period it was one of the principal regions through which Indian peoples, icons and practices moved into the island. Within this part of the littoral the ports of Kalpitiya, Chilaw, Salāvata Kammala, Negombo and Mutwal were not only trading emporia for goods moving both ways, but also  the sites of cosmopolitan diversity. Referring to the Sinhalese who lived within the “maritime districts facing the Fishery coast [of India]”, one source observed that the “frequent intercourse with the Tamils” resulted in Tamil being “easily understood.”[71] Mukkuvars, Parava (Bhārathas), Indian Muslims from Kayalpatnam and elsewhere, Christian Chetties from Travancore and Indian traders were among those who entered and/or resided along this littoral belt. The development of a polyglot situation in this locality was consolidated by Portuguese influences from the sixteenth century onwards. Catholicism took stronger root here in part because some of the immigrants were already Catholicised. One suspects that the Oratorian priests from the western coast of India who nurtured Catholicism in the Dutch period found it easier to enter this area and to operate in quiet ways among the folk. It is for this reason, then, that this area sustained bilinguality till the mid-twentieth century. In the case of some villages around Chilaw the cycle of generational shifts from being Sinhalese to being Tamil or vice versa during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries,[72] is in part a product of this interstitial spatial location as it has been linked in different measure to at least four centres of power, namely, Munnesvaram temple, the Catholic Church, Kandy (till 1815) and Colombo (1590s till today).

The instance of the Yon or Muslims in the interior districts of the Kingdom of Kandyis of particular significance to this field of debate. These people, mostly male immigrants from southern India and speakers of a Tamil dialect, seem to have entered as traders, but settled down and formed hamlets that appear to have existed partly by trade and partly by horticulture or agriculture. The males were incorporated into the kingly administration as members of the madigē badda, or transport department, providing pack cattle and carrying goods on the rotational scheme associated with rājakāriya. As with the local Sinhalese these rājakāriya services could be diverted to temples or chiefly lords so that one has evidence that there were Muslim temple tenants holding lands in return for transport service.[73] There also were Muslim units in Rājasinha II’s armies and he is known to have rewarded some of them with lands for military service.[74]

There were a few mosques in the Kandyan areas and it seems that the various Sinhala Buddhist overlords were attentive to the religious requirements of these Yon people.[75]The services of the Yon physicians seem to have been particularly appreciated by the ruling elements of the Kandyan state. The patriarchal order of the day enabled kings or chieftains to reward individual Muslims who had rendered yeoman service with local brides.[76] At the same time, in my speculative assertion, the oppressions of the caste order enabled ordinary Muslims to secure women from the depressed castes as their concubines or wives. The Muslim population in the interior developed in this manner.

Their role may have been caste-like, but they were never a caste. Rogers gets it wrong when he describes them as a “non-Sinhalese group [that was] incorporated into caste, while maintaining non-Sinhalese status.”[77] They were ‘outside’ the Sinhala order in the sense that their home-language seems to have been Tamil and their religious practices, not least the circumcision of the men, as well as cuisine, tonsorial practice and style of dress, differentiated them from the majority of people around them. Ralph Pieris suggests that it was this religious barrier that prevented them from being “a caste proper.” His remark is based on the decisions taken by Kandyan chiefs in the unusual circumstance of a Govigama woman marrying a Moorman (Muslim). This act meant a loss of station, a loss of caste and all claim to ancestral inheritance on her part.[78]

Such principles of outcasting, of course, would also be extended to a Govigama lady who married a Sinhalese of a lower caste. Whether Muslims in Sinhalē faced greater disabilities than the lowest Sinhala castes, such as the Badahäla, Batgam and Kinnara, is a subject that requires further research. While allowing that the Muslims in the kingdom were not culturally “assimilated,” Dewaraja insists that there was a “structural assimilation” in the sociological sense of integration into its functional form. While the latter point is arguable, her position is pushed to untenable lengths when she presents the Muslims as “equal and indispensable participants in the mainstream of Kandyan society.”[79] Equality was never a dominant organising principle in any Sinhala kingdom in the past (and for that matter in any Asian kingdom).

Dennis McGilvray’s description (1998) of the similarities and differences in the everyday world of Muslims and Tamils in the multi-ethnic circumstances of the southern Batticaloa District in late twentieth-century Sri Lanka should be compulsory reading for all historians of Sri Lanka. The point is that one must attend to preferences in architectural form, dress, cosmetics, tonsorial style, inter-household visitation and gift-giving, household rites, funerary rites, weddings and other public rituals, before drawing conclusions about equal participation, lack of differentiation, harmony or absence of conflict.

Thus, in sum, the fact that there was space for Muslims in Kandyan society does not mean that distinctions between the Sinhalese and Muslims did not operate at significant sites and moments. In a hierarchically-conceived society not all situations have equal weight. Muslim temple tenants would, I presume, have a marginal role in key rituals at the temple. One can also presume that the children born to women who married or lived with Muslim men would be deemed Muslim. This meant the circumcision of male children. One presumes that Muslims have always been aware of the hadith against body hair long enough to grasp — usually demonstrated by using one-third of a finger to mark the length — and that some Muslims marked that which was sunnat, or good, by shaving their armpit and pubic hair every forty days.[80] One can presume, therefore, that most female children were nourished in Muslim ways that would encourage them to consider an uncircumcised penis and flourishing pubic hair to be quite repulsive. Thus, I speculate that the female children born Muslim would, in normal circumstances, rarely be permitted to marry outside the community.[81]

On the other side of the ‘fence,’ we must also attend to the possibility that their circumcised penis gave rise to disparaging remarks embodied in such phrases as tun kālai (three quarters),[82] though I have no evidence on this point. Again, though Sinhala Buddhists probably had recourse to the shrines of Muslim saints imbued with power, as they do today,[83] it is unlikely that they entered the precincts of houses or sites designated as mosques. In brief, the historical evidence as well as a priori speculations point to the Muslims being considered a different category of people, both by themselves and by the Sinhalese, and within the Kingdom of Kandy as well as the Maritime Provinces. However observant he may have been on many matters, the British physician John Davy’s claim that the Muslims differed little from the Sinhalese in outward appearance, dress and manners[84] must be viewed with scepticism.

Moreover, some Muslims sided with the invading Dutch forces in the 1760s: so much so that a partisan historian claims that the king “expell[ed] the treacherous Moors” who had aided the Dutch when they occupied the capital.[85] Again, there is considerable evidence that Muslims served as spies, guides and auxiliary troops during the British military campaigns against the Kandyan state in 1803-05 and 1815 and that they supported the British as the latter proceeded to meet the rebellion of 1817-18 with repressive military might, including a scorched earth policy.[86] In 1803 Srī Vikrama Rājasinha is even said to have “ordered away all [the] Moors [in the mountainous district of Kotmale] as they were found unfaithful.”[87]

Such clues make it possible for one to speculate that it was precisely because they were at the margins of the Sinhala-speaking social order in the Kingdom of Kandy that these Muslims were ready to collaborate with a powerful foreigner. Expanding imperial forces have often used the principle of alienage, that is, the co-option of localised, ‘alien’ communities, within their imperial design of control over an indigenous majority. But such divide and rule is a two-way process: it is aided by the fact that some of these local ‘aliens’ (as well as disaffected or marginalised indigenes) knock on the imperialist door and invite themselves in. Whoever takes the initiative, the responsiveness of such fractions of the population would seem to be encouraged by the force of hierarchy and their interstitial marginality within the structures of indigenous society and its politics.



Abeyasinghe, T. B. H. 1984 ‘Princes and merchants: relations between the kings of Kandy and the Dutch East India company in Sri Lanka, 1688-1740’, Journal of the Sri Lanka National Archives 2: 35-58.

Abeyasinghe, T. B. H. 1985/6 ‘Embassies as instruments of diplomacy from Sri Lanka in the first half of the 18th century’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka Branch 30: 1-40.

Ashcroft, B. and P. Ahluwahlia 1999 Edward Said. The paradox of identity, London: Routledge.

Banks, Marcus 1996 Ethnicity: anthropological constructions, London: Routledge.

Breckenridge, Carol and Peter van der Veer (eds.) 1993 Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament: the South Asian experience, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brow, James 1978 Vedda villages of Anuradhapura, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh 1994 ‘Modernity and ethnicity in India’,  South Asia 17: 143-55.

Clifford, James 1988 The predicament of culture, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Codrington, H. W. 1909 ‘The Kandyan Navandanno’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch 21: 221-53.

Cohn, Bernard S. 1987 ‘The census, social structure and objectification in South Asia’, in Cohn, An anthropologist among the historians and other essays, Delhi, Oxford University Press, pp. 224-54.

Colley, Linda 1992 Britons. Forging the nation, 1707-1837, London: Pimlico.

Cūlavamsa 1953 The Cūlavamsa, trans. by W.Geiger, Colombo: Ceylon Government Information Department.

Davy, John 1969 An account of the interior of Ceylon, reprint,Dehiwala:Tisara Prakasakayo.

De Silva, C. R. 1975  ‘The first Portuguese revenue register of the Kingdom of Kotte – 1599’, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies 5: 71-153.

De Silva, D. G. B. 1998 ‘New light on Vanni chiefs, based on historical tradition, palm-leaf manuscripts and official records’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka n.s. being the Sesquicentennial Special Number, LXI: 153-204.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1966 Nationalism and social communication: an inquiry into the foundations of nationality, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1972The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1760, Colombo, Lake House Investments Ltd.

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1986 ‘The Muslims in the Kandyan Kingdom (c.1600-1815): a study of ethnic integration’, in M A M Shukri (ed.) Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Aitken Spence for the Jamiiah Naleemia Institute in Beruwala, pp. 211-34.

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1988 The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1782, 2nd rev ed., Colombo, Lake House Investments.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1979‘The Sinhala-Buddhist identity and the Nayakkar dynasty in the politics of the Kandyan Kingdom, 1739-1815’, in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga, pp. 99-128.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1992 ‘ “The people of the lion”: Ethnic identity, ideology and historical revisionism in contemporary Sri Lanka’, Ethnic Studies Report 10: 37-59.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1996 ‘The roots of Sinhala ethnic identity in Sri Lanka: the debate on the “People of the Lion” continued’, Ethnic Studies Report 14: 137-70.

Duncan, James S. 1990 The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eller, Jack D. & R. Coughlan 1993 ‘The poverty of primordialism: the demystification of ethnic attachments’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 16: 183-202.

Eller, Jack D. 1999 From culture to ethnicity to conflict: an anthropological perspective on inter-national ethnic conflict, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Forsythe, Diana 1989 ‘German identity and the problems of history’, in Elizabeth Tonkin et al (eds) History and Ethnicity, London: Routledge, pp. 137-56.

Goonewardena, K. W. 1977 ‘Kingship in seventeenth century Sri Lanka’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 3: 1-32.

Goonewardena, K. W. 1986 ‘Muslims under Dutch rule in the mid-eighteenth century’, in M A M Shukri (ed.) Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Aitken Spence for the Jamiiah Naleemia Institute in Beruwala, pp. 189-210.

Greenwald, Alice 1978‘The relic on the spear: historiography and the saga of Dutthagāmini’, in Bardwell L Smith (ed.) Religion and legitimation of power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg: Anima Books, pp. 13-35.

Grosby, Steven 1994 ‘The verdict of history: the inexpungeable tie of primordiality – a response to Eller and Coughlan’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 17: 164-71.

Gunasekara, B. (ed.)1954 Rājāvaliya or a historical narrative of Sinhalese kings, Colombo: Govt. Printer.

Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. 1979 ‘The people of the lion: Sinhala identity and ideology in history and historiography’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 1 & 2: 1-36.

Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. 1990 ‘The people of the lion: Sinhala identity and ideology in history and historiography’, in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 45-86.

Gunawardana, R. A. L. H.1995 Historiography in a time of ethnic conflict, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.

Gunawardhana, W. F. 1919 ‘The Kokila Sandēsa’, Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register Jan. 1919, III: 157-65.

Holt, John C. 1991 Buddha in the Crown, New York: Oxford University Press.

Holt, John C. 1996 The religious works of Kīrti Srī, New York: Oxford University Press.

Inden, Ron 1990 Imagining India, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Indrapala, K. 1966 Dravidian settlements in Ceylon and the beginnings of the Kingdom of Jaffna, London University: unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in History.

Ismail, Qadri 1995 ‘Un-mooring identity: the antinomies of elite Muslim self-representation in modern Sri Lanka’, in P. Jeganathan and Q. Ismail (eds.) Unmaking the nation. The politics of identity in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, pp. 55-105.

Jaini, P. S. 1980 ‘The disappearance of Buddhsm and the survival of Jainism: a study in contrast’, in A. K. Narain (ed.) Studies in the history of Buddhism, Delhi: B. R. Publishing Co, pp. 81-92.

Jeganathan, P. & Qadri Ismail (eds.) 1995 Unmaking the nation, Colombo: Social Scientists’Association.

Kapferer, Bruce 1988 Legends of people, myths of state, Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Kaviraj, Sudipta 1992 ‘The imaginary institution of India’, in P. Chatterjee and G. Pandey (eds) Subaltern studies VII, Delhi; Oxford University Press, pp. 1-39.

Kirimätiyāwē Mätidun1896 Maha Hatana, ed. by Albert de Silva, ??, Vidyasagara Printers. This is Maha Hatana II in Sannasgala’s review of Sinhala literature.

Kotelawele, D. A. 1986 ‘Muslims under Dutch rule in Sri Lanka’, in M. A. M. Shukri (ed.) Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Aitken Spence for the Jamiiah Naleemia Institute in Beruwala, pp. 167-188.

Kulasuriya, Ananda S. 1990  ‘Sinhala writing and the transmission of texts in pre-modern times’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities16: 174-89.

Labugama Lankānanda Thera 1996 Mandārampura Puvata, 2nd edn. Colombo: Dept of Cultural Affairs.

Lewis, J. P. 1922 ‘Kandyan traditions’, Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register VII: 187-92 & 205-09.

Mandārampura Puvata see Labugama.

Liyanagamage, A. 1968 The decline of Polonnaruwa and the rise of Dambadeniya (c. 1180-1270 A. D.),Colombo: Government Press.

Ludden, David (ed.) 1996 Contesting the nation, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Maha Hatana see Kirimätiyāvē.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese society, 1760-1900,Berkeley: University of California Press.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1999 Mandārampura Puvata. An apocryphal Buddhist chronicle’, manuscript paper presented at the 7th Sri Lanka Studies Conference, Canberra, 3-6 December 1999.

Malkki, Liisa H. 1995 Purity and exile; violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Marikar, A. I. L. et al 1976 Glimpses from the past of the Moors of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home Publication.

McGilvray, Dennis B. 1998 ‘Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective’, Contributions to Indian Sociology n.s. 32: 433-83.

Morrison, Kathleen D. 1997 ‘Commerce and culture in South Asia: perspectives from archaeology and history’, Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 87-108.

Newman, Gerald 1987 The rise of English nationalism, New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Nissan, Elizabeth & R. L. Stirrat 1987 State, nation and the representation of evil, Sussex Papers in Social Anthropology, No. 1.

Nissan, Elizabeth & R. L. Stirrat 1990 ‘Generation of communal identities’, in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 19-44.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1969 ‘The ritual drama of the Sanni demons: collective representations of disease in Ceylon’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 11: 174-216.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1975 ‘Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka’, Ethnology 14: 1-23.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 2000 ‘The historical implications of Vädda ethnicity’, Mss. Paper presented to the Neelan Tiruchelvam Commemoration Symposium, January 31st 2000.

Pandey, Gyanendra 1992 The construction of communalism in colonial north India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Paranavitana, Rohini 1999 Sitāvaka hatana, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs. [The Sitavaka war]

Parangi Hatana 1964 ed. by T. S. Hemakumar, Colombo: ??. [The Portuguese War]

Pathmanathan, S. 1969The kingdom of Jaffna (circa A. D. 1250-1450), London University: Ph D.dissertation in History.

Pathmanathan, S. 1978 The kingdom of Jaffna, Colombo, A M Rajendran.

Peel, J. D. Y. 1989 ‘The cultural work of Yoruba ethnogenesis’, in Elizabeth Tonkin et al (eds) History and Ethnicity, London: Routledge, pp. 198-215.

Perera, Fr S. G. 1916 ‘Jesuits in Ceylon’, Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register Oct. 1916, II: 69-90.

Perniola, Fr. V. 1983 The Catholic church in Sri Lanka. The Dutch period. Volume I, 1658-1711, Dehiwala; Tisara Prakaskayo.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan 1994 ‘Introduction: the Sri Lanka Tamils’, in C. Manogaran & B. Pfaffenberger (eds) The Sri Lanka Tamils. Ethnicity and identity, Boulder, Westview Press, pp. 1-27.

Pieris, Paul E. 1909 ‘Parangi Hatanē’, in his Ribeiro’s History of Ceilāo, Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries Co., 1909, pp. 244 –270. This poem is the same as the Rajasīha Hatana edited by Somaratna, though the verses are adjacent in their numbering rather than precisely matching.

Pieris, Paul E. 1995 Sinhale and the patriots, 1815-1818, Delhi: Navrang. Reprint, orig. pub. in 1950.

Pieris, Ralph 1956 Sinhalese social organization, Colombo: Ceylon University Press Board.

Pūjāvaliya 1997 Colombo; Buddhist Cultural Centre.

Rajasīha Hatana 1968 ed. by H. M. Somaratna, Kandy. [Rājasinha’s War]

Reynolds, C. H. B. ed. 1970 An anthology of Sinhalese literature up to 1815,London:Allen and Unwin.

Roberts, Michael 1979 ‘Meanderings in the pathways of collective identity and nationalism’, in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp.1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste conflict and elite formation: the rise of a Karāva elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1993 ‘Nationalism, the past and the present: the case of Sri Lanka’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 16: 133-66.

Roberts, Michael 2004 Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1815, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Books.

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.

Ryan, Bryce 1953 Caste in modern Ceylon, Rutgers University Press.

Said, Edward 1978 Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books.

Said, Edward 1985 ‘Orientalism reconsidered’, Race & Class 27: 1-15.

Scott, David 1995 ‘Dehistoricising history’, in P. Jeganathan and Q. Ismail (eds.) Unmaking the nation. The politics of identity in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, pp. 10-24.

Scott, David 1999 Refashioning futures. Criticism after postcoloniality, Princeton University Press.

Seneviratne, H. L.1997 ‘Identity and the conflation of past and present’, in H. L. Seneviratne (ed.)       Identity, consciousness and the past, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-22.

Sitāvaka Hatana[The Sitāvaka War] see Paranavitana.

Smith, Anthony D. 1987 The ethnic origins of nations, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

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

Deepanee Printers.

Spencer, Jonathan 1990a A Sinhala village in a time of trouble, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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

Sumanasekera Banda, S. J. 1986 Uvē dāyāda, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha.

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

Truong Buu Lam 1967 Patterns of Vietnamese response to foreign intervention, 1858-1900, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.

Van der Veer, Peter 1994 Religious nationalism. Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wickremeratne, L. A. 1995 Buddhism and ethnicity in Sri Lanka, Delhi: Vikas.

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


[1] David Scott 1999: 9. This comment could also be applied to one of his articles (1995), ironically one that is re-printed in the edition of his articles in 1999.

[2] For insights on Said, see Clifford, 1988: chap. 11; Said 1985; and Ashcroft & Ahluwalia 1999.

[3] For instance, Ludden 1995 and Breckenridge & van Der Veer 1993.

[4] This is a criticism I would also extend to my introductory chapter in the first edition of Roberts (ed) Collective Identities (1979).

[5] The theoretical perspective that I call “transactionalist” is best represented among historians by Lewis Namier and among anthropologists by Fredrik Barth.

[6] Smith 1987: 12-13. For an attempted critique of the concept, see Eller & Coghlan 1993. Thereafter, consult Grosby’s devastating review of the “farrago of arguments” presented by the latter (1994: 166).

[7] Inden 1990: 2.

[8] This is my summary, embodying a wide body of reading over the last decade. For instance, see Malkki 1995: 13-17; Eller & Coughlan 1993 and Banks 1996: 13-17.

[9] See Cohn 1987: chap. 10. This paper was available in seminar form in the 1970s and I have a copy that may date back to my stay in Chicago in 1971, but is certainly a product of the 1970s.

[10] Inden 1990; Kaviraj 1992; Breckenridge & van der Veer 1993 and Ludden 1996.

[11] In early 1986 a full-day seminar that included discussions of caste around papers presented by three of Kapferer’s students was convened by Gunasinghe and his aides at the University of Colombo. In my view this was a landmark event in Marxist scholarship in Sri Lanka. Prior to that analyses of caste had been carefully circumscribed in written discussions even though caste factors organised the electoral politics of Marxist parties.

[12] Among them Serena Tennakoon, whose premature death has been a great loss on many fronts.

[13] Spencer, 1990b: 5-6 (emphasis mine).

[14] Nissan & Stirrat 1990: 24.

[15] Ismail 1995: 55.

[16] Cf. Peel’s criticism “of the blocking presentism to which so many anthropologists are prone” in the course of an ASA conference on “History and Ethnicity” (1989: 200). This comment is an extension of his brief, but devastating assault on Abner Cohen’s a-historical, functionalist study of the Hausa and Maryon Macdonald’s obdurate structuralist-cum-circumstantialist reading of Breton nationalism.

A theoretically sophisticated argument for such a presentist stance is found in David Scott 1995. The position remains functionalist. What thinking achieves NOW, how it serves the present from a politically correct viewpoint, should be the yardstick for all forms of all research. Reason must reign. To use Scott against himself, it is also a position of epistemological superiority (Scott 1999: 9).

[17] Scott 1995: 20, 17, 16.

[18] Buddhism Betrayed, 1992: chap. 13.

[19] In this periodisation the “middle period’ covers the years 1232-1815 and displaces the term “medieval period” because the latter is liable to create confusions with the standard time-divisions for European history.

[20] Probably for the reason that no one has bothered to read this article. See Roberts 1993: 142.

[21] Gunawardana 1990: 64, 78. Note that Tambiah argues that there is a “greater convergence between Gunawardana and Dharmadasa than might appear” and that Gunawardana’s terminal twelfth century can be pushed back “without doing violence to his argument” (1992: 137).

[22] Gunawardana 1995: 41-42. I cannot find any meaningful difference between Dharmadasa’s and Gunawardana’s translations.

[23] Personal communication from Sirima Kiribamune (email, 9 Feb. 2001). Also see History of Ceylon vol. I, pp. 394-95, 579-85; Kulasuriya 1990 and Reynolds 1970: 18-23.

[24] Email memo from Tilman Frasch of the Südasien Institüt, Heidelberg University. Also see Morrison 1997: 97. Buddhist monasteries seem to have survived into the early “medieval period,” but one should note that the Hindu order absorbed some monasteries, an example being the Kadri-Manjnatha temple at Mangalore (information from Frasch).

[25] Jaini 1980: 88.

[26] Pathmanathan 1969: 144ff, 155, 164; 1978: 91, 103-05, 118 and Indrapala 1966: chaps. 4, 5 & 6. The soldiers in Māgha’s army are referred to as “Keralas” as well as “Damilas” in the Sinhala sources (Pathmanathan 1978: 103).

[27] For example, the ­Pūjāvaliya 1997: 784-86; the Hattanagallavihāravamsa (Liyanagamage 1968: 65) and Cūlavamsa 1953, I, II, pp. 133-34. Also see Tambiah 1992: 140-42, 145-47.

[28] Gunawardana 1990, p. 67.

[29] This is a fault that Dharmadasa (1979 and 1992) shares. Also note: “Among the Sinhalese, for instance, the pre-colonial ‘Sinhalese ethnic identity’ – if such a term could indeed have been used – applied only to the ruling elite” (Pfaffenberger 1994: 20).

[30] Gunawardana 1990: 69.

[31] Gunawardana 1990: 69.

[32] Roberts 1982: 18-34; D G B de Silva 1998; Somaratne 1975: 48-52, 97ff., 111, 140, 152; Tambiah 1992: 144-70 and Rogers 1994: 14.

[33] This is a conclusion based on my work on the Rajasīha Hatana, Maha Hatana, Parangi Hatana and Sītāvaka Hatana with the help of Sandadas Coperahewa, C R de Silva, K B A Edmund, Srinath Ganewatte and Ananda Wakkumbura. These findings must await the publication of my larger study [now in print: see Roberts 2004].

[34] Gunawardana 1990: 67-68.

[35] He has used Paul E Pieris’s text (1909). I have followed its editor, Somaratna, in calling this poem the Rajasīha Hatana so as to avoid confusion with another Parangi Hatana.

[36] Mandārampura Puvata, v. 93-5, 100, 61-2, 67.

[37] Malalgoda 1999. The Mandârampura Puvata has three segments which were previously dated as 1647, 1702 and the mid-eighteenth century. C R De Silva (email communication) now grants that Malalgoda makes a reasonable case for doubt. The fact that there are three segments is a puzzle however. Does Malalgoda’s claim apply to the whole text or the latter segments?

[38] Nissan & Stirrat 1990: 23-24 and Gunawardana 1990: 68-69. Tambiah (1992: 157-70) gives more weight to Dharmadasa’s thesis about anti-Tamil sentiments being expressed by “a small section of the literati” during the period of Nayakkar rule. But his attempts to minimise the implications are marked by flawed reasoning and inattentiveness to the force of oral transmissions. He also follows Gunawardana and Dharmadasa in overestimating the gap between “the monk-literati” and the people.

[39] Ralph Pieris 1956: 9, 16; Holt 1991: 37-38, 61, 108, 130; Dewaraja 1972: 126, 196, 208-21; and Duncan 1990: 123-53.

[40] Cūlavamsa 1953, II, p. 292.

[41] Gunawardana 1990, p. 68.

[42] In the ­Pūjāvaliya cited in Greenwald 1978, p. 24.

[43] Ralph Pieris 1956, p. 11n and Dewaraja 1988, p. 163.

[44] Seneviratne 1997, p. 10. For the programme of religious building and reformation initiated by the Nâyakkars and especially by Kirti Sri Rajasinha, see Holt 1996, Malalgoda 1976, pp. 62-69 and Dewaraja 1988, pp. 114-15, 119, 167.

[45] This is an abbreviated version of an argument that I have developed in an unpublished draft of a book [now printed—Roberts 2004]. The argument is based on the following works: Goonewardena 1977; Duncan 1990, chap. 7; Holt 1991, pp. 178-79; Davy 1969, pp. 126-27; and Seneviratne 1997.

[46] Whether supposedly Sinhala by bloodline or non-Sinhala of suitable royal status, kings were expected to rule righteously. If not, they were more likely to face rebellion. At such moments suitable weapons would be raised against them. In the instance of the Nayakkârs their foreign Tamil origins seem to have been deployed against them in the legitimising rhetoric that promoted dissident action on two occasions. This is another issue on which Gunawardana (1990) and Dharmadasa (1979, 1992) have disagreed. I believe that Dharmadasa’s speculations are on more solid ground.

[47] 1988, chap. 12, espec. pp. 327, 337-43.

[48] See Colley 1992 and Newman 1987.

[49] For the benefit of the uninitiated I note that the Govigama were not only the highest caste, but made up perhaps 50-60 per cent of the population.

[50]Cūlavamsa 1953, vol. II, p. 252-53 and Dewaraja 1988, pp. 102-03. This occurred in 1745, by which time Goncalves was dead (c. 1742).

[51] Wickremeratne 1995, p. xxxv.

[52] Rajasīha Hatana v. 26 and 33 (or verses 33 & 38 in Paul E Pieris 1909); Ahälēpola to D’Oyly, 27 Nov. 1811, encl. in Wilson to Liverpool, 26 Feb. 1812 in CO 54/ 42, pp. 47-51; Obeyesekere 1969, pp. 198-200 and Kapferer 1988, pp. 88-89. The term sanni refers to delirious states and convulsions and thus to the most serious illnesses. In the myths associated with the ingress into Lanka from India of the deity, Pitiyê Bandāra, this demonic Soli (Chola) prince is said to have “… set forth/ surrounded by Vadiga Tamil priests” (Holt 1991, p. 134).

[53] Banks 1996: 151.

[54] 1996: 150.

[55] Forsythe 1989, quotations from pp. 154, 137-38 respectively.

[56] 1989: 152.

[57] Banks 1996: 151.

[58] Forsythe 1989: 143, 145.

[59] Eller 1999: 15.

[60] One of the few to elaborate on this argument is Kaviraj (1992: 20-33). He asserts that “the earlier [i.e. in pre-British times] conceptions of community” in India were “fuzzy,” even though they had feelings of “intense solidarity” (p. 20). His clarification of this argument is based on four grounds. First, he claims that they lacked a well-developed sense of otherness because their “contacts with people of other groups were relatively infrequent””(p. 20). Secondly, he imposes the gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction borrowed from Tonnies in a tautological fashion to assert that these types of community lacked “a convergence of interest” of the gesellschaften form. Thirdly, he alleges that these “collective identities [were] not territorially based” (p. 26). Finally, he stresses the lack of demographic enumerations that evoked interest in the number of like-communities in a defined space and their relative strength.

In brief, the thesis is built on an a-historical and modernist conception of isolated village communities. Modernists consistently underestimate (also see Spencer 1990a: 157) the extent to which Asian people in the past travelled great distances on foot. For a sharp criticism of the localisation theory for India pressed by Pandey and others, see van der Veer 1994: 78-94, espec. 92.

It follows that I do not agree with Chakrabarty’s evaluation of Kaviraj’s argument (1994: 149-51). This said, I do agree with the emphasis on the transformations effected by the British colonial state in shaping ethnic and/or religious forms of collective identity in modern South Asia.

[61] Whatever its shortcomings, one of the merits of Deutsch’s early study of these processes in Europe (1966) was that it did address these questions. It is a measure of academic fads that this work is not known to a large number of specialists today who produce books on ethnicity in a global context.

[62] Speaking as a non-specialist, this is precisely what seems to have occurred in eighteenth century (northern) Vietnam as a result of the process of Sinicisation (Truong Buu Lam 1967, Appendices) and in eighteenth century England as a result of Francophobia among the elites (Newman 1987).

[63] Tambiah 1992: 144-70 and Rogers 1994: 14.

[64] Codrington 1909.

[65] Rājasinha I of Sītāvaka, as we all know, took up Saivism and it is likely that others in his circle did. But it is precisely for this reason that the greatest warrior king in Sinhala history is not a culture hero.

[66] Tambiah 1992: 173-77.

[67] This concept is my formulation and refers to sovereignty secured through acts of allegiance involving gift-giving and obeisance. These acts were known as däkum, penum and panduru pakkudam. For relevant details, see Abeyasinghe 1984 and 1985/6 and Duncan 1990.

[68] Tambiah 1992: 145.

[69] Tambiah 1992: 139; also pp. 158-70. There is, nevertheless, some inconsistency and ambivalence in his application of this approach. For one, he evaluates the evidence on the sentiments of the eighteenth century in a manner that insists on ideological coherence in the style demanded by Western rationalism (p. 166). For another, he does not extend this thesis to the debate on the ancient period of Sri Lankan history and poses the alternatives in either/or terms: was Sinhala Buddhist identity “inclusive [and] incorporative” or “exclusionist, separatist, boundary-making and polarizing” (p. 138). The possibility of hierarchical inclusivity is not considered at this stage.

[70] See D G B de Silva 1998; Obeyesekere 2000; Yalman 1971: 310-24; Ryan 1953; 138, 140-46, 244-45 and Brow 1978.

[71] Rev. S G Perera 1916: 86. For other evidence on these processes, see C R de Silva 1975: 87, 102-05 and 1970; Gunasekara 1954: 61-62; Perniola 1983: 297 (map), 330-31, 384, 213 and passim.

[72] Here, I have been helped by ongoing exposure to Rohan Bastin’s work on the locality and Munnesvaram temple itself.

[73] Dewaraja 1988: 180, 187. Regarding the receipt of the getaberiya sannasa by the Gopala family for services rendered, see Marikar et al 1976: 196-201 and Kotelawele 1986: 174-75.

[74] Goonewardena 1986: 204; Dewaraja 1986: 212; Sumanasekera Banda 1986: xxxvi and Marikar et al 1976 where a painting of a camel corps is reproduced.

[75] Dewaraja 1986: 228; Goonewardena 1986: 204 and Lewis 1921: 111.

[76] J P Lewis 1922: 187, relating an Arab story; Kotelawele 1986: 174-75; my interview with S A R Nisamudeen Udayar in the Aranayake area, 17 July 1993 and Dewaraja 1986: 227.

[77] Rogers 1994: 14.

[78] Ralph Pieris 1956: 100n.

[79] Dewaraja 1986: 215, emphasis mine.

[80] McGilvray 1998: 470-71 and my conversations with a Pakistani scholar at Heidelberg University and M. Sameem in Lanka, both of whom used the finger-measure as part of their clarification. It would seem that, today, the shaving of pubic and body hair is a wide practice.

[81] Except where the proposal was from a king: Râjasinha II is reputed to have arranged a liaison with a Yon liya (Moor maiden) from Pangarammana locality who then resided at his Uva residence (Sumanasekera Banda 1986: xxxvii). Again, the Sinhala poetical traditions depict Muslim women as particularly attractive (e. g. Kokila Sandēsa, v. 59 as in Gunawardhana 1919: 163). I suspect that the latter preference was influenced by the sudu (fair) complexion attributed to many Muslim women.

[82] This is one of the conventional forms of denigration levelled at Muslim men in Sinhala localities. The Tamil version is mukkāl (McGilvray 1998: 469). Both may now be displaced by the English term “tip-cut” even in Tamil and Sinhala-speak.

[83] Obeyesekere 1975: 7ff. Also see McGilvray re Tamilian Hindus visiting shrines in the Eastern Province (1998, p. 465).

[84] Davy is cited in Dewaraja 1986: 228-29.

[85] P E Pieris 1995: 88. In the Maritime Provinces the Dutch used Muslim and Chetty forces to quell rebellions in the interior lands of Māhara, Mābolē and Kelaniya in the 1760s (Kotelawele 1986: 184).

[86] P E Pieris 1995: 73, 294, 332 and 410.

[87] P E Pieris 1995: 345.



1 Comment

Filed under centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, ethnicity, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Indian religions, Indian traditions, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real

One response to “Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History

  1. Pingback: History-Making in Lanka: Problems | Thuppahi's Blog

Leave a Reply