Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhalese Nationalism: Urumaya as Ur

M-roberts by Eranga  Michael Roberts* This article was composed in 2001 and appeared in the Marga booklet series on A History of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. It is reproduced here without changes, but has also been embellished with hyperlinks to pertinent items on web — some of which may have been presented more recently. Pictures have also been inserted. As of November 2016 emphases have been introduced via highlighting in blue or dark blue;while paragraph separation has been increased.


In recent years* I have been working on the subject of Sinhala consciousness over the last four centuries. In the present context of a hot war between forces that represent the Lankan Tamils and those seen to represent the Sinhala majority in particular [in 2000-01], this interest necessarily forces one to take a stance on the contemporary situation. Broadly speaking, my political position is liberal humanist and favours a devolutionary scheme that recognises the Sri Lanka Tamils as a “nationality” and involves a sharing of power, whether at the centre or through federal units or a mixture of the two. This places me alongside articulate elements in Sri Lanka, including several friends at the Colombo branch of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, the Social Scientists’ Association, the Marga Research Institute and the universities, who advocate this line of politics. In pursuing this interest, however, I have attempted to understand the thinking of Sinhala (Sinhalese) activists in recent centuries in “sympathetic” terms — as an Indian scholar, no less than Dipesh Chakrabarty, said of one such effort.[i] This leaning, therefore, makes my line of argument different to those liberal humanists at the coalface in Lanka and elsewhere who actively combat associations whom they consider to be “chauvinist.”[ii] In contrast with my friends in Lanka I am less interested in overturning the chauvinist people from outside their citadel. My leaning is towards comprehending the chauvinist ideological battlements so that I can address their fellow travellers from a position along the ramparts or nearly-within. It is the middle ground of moderate opinion that is attentive to the circumstances of the Sinhalese qua Sinhalese that is my ultimate constituency. My stance has affinities with that taken by Rustom Bharucha for India in his The Question of Faith (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993) as he addresses a situation, that of India, which shares some similarities with that of Sri Lanka. However, in India this verbal struggle has been represented as one between the forces of “secularism” and “communalism” (or “fundamentalism”), a vocabulary that features less prominently in Sri Lanka.

Moreover, I believe that in the heat of local struggle liberals are prone to their own form of extremism. They adhere to secular and rationalist modes of counter-argument that do not have any mileage among the people they are addressing and only deepen the potential chauvinism of those occupying the middle ground. In brief, I avoid the never-never land of rationalist cloisters as well as the Foucaultian miasma that appears to inform several interventions, however well-intentioned, in this field. Here, I am inserting my own twist to a line of caution that Kapferer has already entered. In summarising the efforts by the Committee of Rational Development (1984) to “demystify the distortions of myth,” he remarked that this was an “essential” exercise. But then added a critical caveat: such an exercise “fails to address some of the crucial ways in which myth and cosmic history achieve their emotional potency [because] the critics … adopt a mode of reasoning that is not of the myths” (1988: 40).

To set the scene for my analysis let me begin with an anecdote. It involves a casual conversation with a Sinhala friend – of a generation that is one notch above my own cohort, I shall call him “Doctor Friend” — in Adelaide during the late 1980s. Referring to the worsening situation in Sri Lanka, Doctor Friend said, “Is it feasible to have two states in one small island? Is Eelam viable?” Sometimes, in these everyday exchanges, it is that which is unsaid that is more ‘said’, more central. Behind this question, as I read it then, there was a traumatic worry haunted by the spectre of a divided island.

I juxtapose this tale besides another anecdote, an apocryphal tale related by Ivan Illich about the fate chosen by the Aztec priests after their people and state had been defeated by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Deemed sorcerers and herded together, they were berated with a Christian sermon that proclaimed the Aztec gods to be dead. Their response was firm: if “as alleged the Aztec gods were dead, they too would rather die. [And] after this last act of defiance, the priests were dutifully thrown to the war dogs” (Nandy 1988: 107).


I am suggesting that there are parallels in these two tales. They mark a world that cannot be jettisoned, a cosmos that is so foundational that its disappearance is difficult to comprehend. But there is also a critical difference between the instance of those Sinhalese who fear their situation today and the Aztecs of yesterday. The latter were at an early stage in their encounter with the power of the West. They had not been subject to a long process of Westernisation unlike the Sinhalese of the late twentieth century who dwell in institutional circumstances bearing the deep marks of five centuries of imperialism. In consequence many Lankans and many Sinhalese, as indeed is the case with my Doctor Friend, have received a secular education in Western-style schools and been subject to a capitalist bureaucratic framework of administration for quite some time. What occurred over these centuries, albeit partially and in varying measure, was a “colonisation of consciousness.”[3]

These very processes, namely the Western institutional structures and their ideological underpinning, are part of the problem that is being addressed here. In what ways have Western intellectual frameworks, especially those institutionalised as the discipline of History, been re-worked and merged with older traditions of storytelling among the Sinhala speech community to make the indivisibility of Sri Lanka into an axiom? Axiomatic because the island as a whole is believed to be the land of the Sinhalese and a land for Buddhism from its meaningful, civilisational inception. Axiomatic because these roots are taken to be an incontrovertible proof that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala possession. Tracing the lineaments of this development will call for many hands working over many moons. This is a preliminary stab at the issue, an issue that has already been addressed by others.[4]

What we see here, then, is the power of a particular reading of the island’s history that has become entrenched among many Sri Lankans – and not only Sinhalese, though it has its most ardent advocates among the latter. The emphasis, as with so much of history writing in the modern era, is on a linear teleology presented through a developmental narrative with a chronology and a series of empirical facts that build causal links and a relatively definitive and coherent picture of what happened, when, where and how. These forms of reading the past, as we know, were spread by the British educational system and received their most systematic development in the Department of Archaeology and the new University of Ceylon founded in 1942. These modalities found rich and amenable material in the vamsa stories of the Sinhalese because the latter possessed a chronological framework and focused on the political history of a state system. The pre-existing tales, as inscribed on palm-leaf, embodied in wall paintings or retailed orally, now received a further impounding through print technology and the imprimatur of modern disciplinary methods in school, university and media. Positivist methods and empirical data were confirmed by positivist self-conviction. Certitude, after all, feeds on itself.

Setting up the scene in this style may suggest a line of criticism that is inspired by Michel Foucault. Let me enter an immediate disclaimer. I am hostile to rhetorical trickery of Magician Foucault, to his considered fusion of ambiguity and enigma,[5] to the combination of aphorism and assertion, the stacking of maxim upon axiom. With Foucault, too, certitude feeds off itself. Nor am I sympathetic to the generalities that defy destruction because they apply to all cases, to the mixture of convolution and involution in his style of composition and to the manner in which Foucault’s narrative mode is permeated by that best French perfume known as ‘Precious.’ Nor do I desire to celebrate rupture just for the sake of nihilist rupture. Attached as I am to empirical particularity, I cannot present any analysis without attention to agency and the insertion of particular agents.

When a discourse analyst such as Norman Fairclough tells me that Foucault’s studies elaborate “two major theoretical insights about discourse,” namely, (a) that “discourse constitutes the social, including ‘objects’ and social subjects;” and (b) “the primacy of interdiscursivity and intertextuality [in so far as] any discursive practice is defined by its relations with others, and draws upon others in complex ways” (1992: 39, 55), I am puzzled. Indeed, I am stunned. It is not that I question these trite comments. It is that is what I thought I was doing as an empiricist historian in the British mould while was attached to Peradeniya University in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It was on such lines – at least in approximate ways and without the theoretical la-de-da — that I deciphered intellectual history relating to agrarian policy and the rise of Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) nationalism in the period of British occupation. These inspirations made it feasible for me to focus on the vocabulary of nationalism and highlight the manner in which the term “Sinhalese” was used as a synonym for “Ceylonese,” thereby subsuming the composite all-island entity within a potential Sinhalese hegemony in insidious ways (Roberts 1978).[6] This argument, I note, has affinities with one of the thesis presented by Gyan Pandey (1999) as part of the new wisdom in his article “Can a Muslim be an Indian?”

My empiricist background was subsequently embellished, strengthened and partially transformed by the inspirations derived from work within the Department of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide. Attention to symbolic “form,” that is, the relations between symbols that are usually patterned and systemic, became stronger. It was from within this mixed intellectual heritage that I commenced in 1983 to re-interpret the famous Sinhala story about the arrival of the Portuguese in the island of Lanka in the early sixteenth century, a classic tale of first encounter. In concluding that it was an allegory and parable, a kind of genesis story,[7] I did not need Foucault or any inspiration from literary theory or deconstructionism.

This said, writings on Sri Lanka in the last two decades that have been inspired by Foucault and Edward Said have been an asset in calling into question the prevalent tendency to read the present into the past. They have also raised pertinent suspicions concerning the linear determinism that sometimes permeates conventional historical narratives (including my past work) and forced scholars to question and unpack the analytical categories, such as “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Tamil” and “Sinhalese,” that have been conventionally accepted.[8] They have also led to a critical stance in the survey of stories that achieve legitimacy, and thus authority, through an emphasis on the original moment or the foundational act, the ursprüngliche Moment or Herkunft as the Germans in the Herderian realm would say.                                           


When learning History at the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon in the late 1950s, I, along with countless others before and after me, was told that the Vijaya story relating to the origins of the Sinhalese retailed in the Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa contain “a kernel of truth.”  That was the received wisdom.[9] Much of the chronology surrounding the vamsa tales of the first millennium BC was dismissed as fictitious and many stories were deemed legendary, but there was a kernel of truth. Vijaya was a living king.

As a struggle over origins has emerged in recent years as a concomitant of the nationalist struggle between some Sinhalese and some Tamils, Vijaya’s significance has grown.[10] Tamil propagandists attempt to out-origin the Sinhalese by claiming that Dravidian speakers entered the island before Vijaya. Thus, one writer asserts that the “Tamils were the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka” by fusing them with the Nāgas and Yakshās of the Mahābhāratha and Rāmayana. Another claims that the “Dravidians were in Ceylon before Vijaya and his followers.”[11] Even those who deride the claims of the extreme Sinhala activists attempt to do so by inserting references to Vijaya, or his consort Kuveni.[12] That is, these figures are treated as living facts from the past even by those who challenge the conventional Sinhala position on this issue.

VIJAYA AT AJANTHA-an-wikipedia-org Vijaya: a section of the mural at Ajanta in Cave No.17,depicts the ‘coming of Sinhala‘. The prince (Prince Vijaya) is seen in both of groups of elephants and riders–Pic from an-wikipedia-org  220px-The_Cconsecration_Of_King_Sinhala-Prince_Vijaya_(Detail_From_The_Ajanta_Mural_Of_Cave_No_17) The consecration of Prince Vijaya (Detail from the Ajanta Mural of Cave No 17)

Thus far, historians and archaeologists have not produced evidence that there is a factual basis for the Vijaya story. In other words, the scepticism shown by GC Mendis and Basham on this point is validated and one must take serious note of Mendis’s suggestion that the Vijaya story qua story emerged only in the first century B. C.[13]

“Vijaya,” however, means “conquest” or “triumph.” This serves as a warning bell. The first literary expression of this story is in the fourth century Pali chronicle, the Dīpavamsa, which is a pot pourri of representations that develop the message that Lanka is the “Island of the Religion,” that is, the Dhammadīpa.[14] The subsequent Pali and Sinhala literary works reiterate this message by celebrating the manner in which Buddhism had been diffused in the island of Lanka and achieved predominance. As such, they begin with fabulous stories of Buddha’s previous visits to the island in ways that emphasise this great victory for the magnificent Buddha Dhamma (sāsana).

These visits entail the subjugation of the wild aboriginal beings, the yakkhās, who occupied the place. Gunawardana has demonstrated how the “most dramatic” depiction of this conquest is found in the later Sinhala prose work, the Vamsatthappakkāsini or Mahāvamsa Tika,[15] rather than the better-known Mahāvamsa (of the late fifth or early sixth century) or the Dīpavamsa. In summary the tale runs thus:

The Buddha uses his supernatural powers [to inflict all manner of afflictions on these yakkhās]. … When the yakkhās appeal to the Buddha for succour, he demands a place to sit in return. They offer him the whole island. [To remove doubts about subsequent revocation, they also promise] that no one would ever hinder the right of the Buddha over the whole island. The Buddha seats himself on his leather rug and restores normalcy except for the fact that the cold continues to torment the yakkhās. The yakkhās appeal to the Buddha to release the heat rays of the sun. In response … the Buddha causes the rug to emit heat. He also causes the rug to expand till, ultimately it covers the whole island. The body of the Buddha, too, expands with the rug and it is said that, finally, the proportions of the island, rug and the body of the Buddha were the “same” (Gunawardana 1978: 98).

In continuation this tale follows the story line of the original vamsa chronicles in describing how the Buddha extended compassion to the vanquished yakkhās and provided them with another island named Giridîpa for their abode. The critical points in Gunawardana’s analysis are that (a) in all three texts the Buddha is often referred to as jina or “conqueror” and that (b) there is an explicit legitimation of violent subjugation.[16] Extending his argument one could observe that the process of justification involves the de-humanisation of the opponents and a Manichean scheme that opposes civilisational order to the associated categories animal/wild/disorder (cf. Kapferer 1988). Clearly, then, we have powerful metaphorical images conveying the didactic message of the chronicles.

In the vamsa traditions both the ruling dynasties and the peoples of the island are associated with this religious project. They are the chosen. In linking Buddhism to the ruling dynasties of the island, therefore, the point of origin of the existing dynasty appears to have been embellished with the plot of an epic and clothed with ornate and majestic vocabulary. “Vijaya,” the founding dynast, is therefore a metaphor for that which follows, that which should be, that which was celebrated.[17]

In this reading, then, the tale of Vijaya is a genesis story. He has been invented by the vamsa storytellers as an eponymous ancestor, an ancestral figure who is presented as a civilisational figure bringing culture and state-forms to the uncivilised peoples who inhabited the island.[18] Vijaya is as much empirical fact as Adam and Eve. Both tales represent didactic and parabolic stories about original points of good culture.

But are all the Sinhalese today, whether illiterate villagers in the backwoods, labouring poor in the slums, graduates in urban centres or sophisticated individuals in the global diaspora, prepared to accept such an interpretation? Among the latter two categories it would seem that such an argument is anathema. Vijaya appears to have been inscribed into some skins as a fundamental tissue and an essence of collective being, a font of association with place and people.

Why do I say this? Because I tested the waters and the outcome suggests such a conclusion. Early in 2000 I inserted two polemic essays written in the popular English-medium press in Sri Lanka. They were

  • “Lanka without Vijaya. Towards the new millennium”, published in a business magazine, the Lanka Monthly Digest, vol 6:6, Jan. 2000, p. 27.
  • “History as dynamite”, published in a leading newspaper, the Island Millennium 2000 Issue, vol. 6, pp. 11-13.

Both targeted the interpretation of the Dutugämunu versus Elāra conflict of the second century BC as well as the Eelamist claims to the North Eastern Provinces as a “traditional homeland.” Both also challenged the conventional picture of Vijaya on lines similar to those set out above.

These essays were deliberately cast in the empirical mould. They also went overboard, lacking caveats and leaning towards the extreme. They were polemical pieces seeking return fire. The Island version drew one such response, a lengthy, serialised article by VK Wickramasinghe (2000) that had a caption that highlighted its opposition to my preference for “a confederated consociation of nationalities.”

Wickramasinghe and I are not acquainted with each other. I have since discovered that he was educated at S. Thomas’ College and is an Economics graduate who is aged in his mid-70s now [2001] and living in retirement after working in government service. As significantly, he is one of Martin Wickramasinghe’s (1891-1976) sons. The latter can be considered Sri Lanka’s leading novelist in the twentieth century. Nurtured in the Southern Province and secular-humanist in orientation, Martin Wickramasinghe’s work explores Sinhala culture at depth and offers social commentary in its plot and content. Though open to cultural influences from other literatures as well as anthropological works, his writings were also informed by a retrospective romanticism that extolled the virtues of folk culture.[19]

I assume that VK Wickramasinghe imbibed some of his father’s perspectives despite an education in the English medium at S. Thomas College. Secondly, because of this background and because he emerged into voting age at some point in the 1940s, I speculate that Wickramasinghe is deeply sympathetic to the two abiding streams of value associated with the socio-political transformation effected in the year 1956, namely, the democratisation of opportunity on the one hand, and the cultural resurgence of the Sinhala-speakers on the other.

The general elections of 1956 marked a dramatic transformation in Sri Lanka’s history and generated or consolidated a series of changes on a wide front. Though debated, this shift is even described as a “revolution” in some quarters.[20] Thus, as shorthand, “1956” is a sign that marks these changes. It is a significant sign for my survey. It is pertinent to a classificatory scheme that I shall be deploying to differentiate the cohorts that are making their voices felt today. This is a five-generational layering that differentiates those Lankans alive today [2001] according to when they became mature or entered the voting registers at 21 or 18 at various stages in the past.

  • Generation A identifies those who reached maturity before 1940 and whose tertiary education was in the English medium.
  • Generation B refers to those who matured between 1941 and 1960. Those securing tertiary education, again, were educated in English.
  • Generation C refers to those who to those who reached voting age in the era 1961 to 1980. These persons were educated in the vernaculars during an era marked by extreme hostility to the English language. It was from the Sinhala-medium layers of this generation that the supporters for the JVP insurrection in 1971 were drawn.
  • Generation D refers to those coming of age between 1981 and 1990. The underground civil war mounted by the JVP in the late 1980s drew on both this Generation and Generation C in mounting its propaganda, preparations, killings and attacks.
  • Generation E refers to those coming of age between 1991 and 2000.

Though one layer older than I am, VK Wickramasinghe belongs to the same generational cohort marked out in my classificatory scheme, namely, Generation B. Most of those “professionals” who formulated the manifesto of the Sīhala Urumaya in mid-2000[21] also belong to this generation. One of them was my teacher for a brief moment and several leaders within the party are friends or acquaintances so that my commentary is informed by personal knowledge.

It is within these parameters, therefore, that I address VK Wickramasinghe’s vigorous and passionate criticism of my article on “History as Dynamite” as an initial step in a wider survey. Though my essay had also assailed the idea of a “traditional homelands” espoused by the Tamils, Wickramasinghe chose to ignore this facet of the article. Nor did he enter the field of ancient history to rebut my interpretation with details of his own. Remarkably, the bulk of the rebuttal is devoted to a survey of the British period of Sri Lankan history in order to reveal how the Sinhalese had been disadvantaged, whereas numerous Tamils had secured gainful employment in localities outside their domains.

Buried within this line of empiricist reasoning, however, are two passing comments that I extract as critical claims. One: in Wickramasinghe’s view my attempt to debunk the Vijaya and Dutugämunu stories “is a pointless gimmick” that glosses over the facts he has outlined [about the British colonial period!] and hides “the need for a strong unitary state to ensure the right of individuals [from all communities] to live anywhere in this island homeland.” Secondly, one has a point that follows: “Thus the ancient and medieval history of Sri Lanka is of direct relevance because it is very clear from its history that it has been an unitary state from very early times.” (emphases mine).

alternative 69a=Chelva at satya -1960s Chelvanayakam and other Tamil activists at satyagraha, 1960s

Lying behind his sharp response to my essay is an ardent opposition to what he regards as the “uncompromising chauvinism” of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi Party – this being the Tamil name of the party that presented itself to the English-speaking world as the “Federal Party” when it was set up by Chelvanayagam in 1948/49. Wickramasinghe, in effect, is offended by my advocacy of “a confederated consociation of nationalities” because it caters to Tamil demands that he finds extreme. His reading of the island’s history precludes any possibility of devolution that involves a loss of centralised unity.

Vijaya is somehow integral to this conception. That he did not see any necessity to elaborate upon his reasoning on this issue may itself be significant. It would seem that Vijaya is an incontrovertible given that establishes the primacy of the Sinhalese and serves as a pillar for a unified state.

Albeit unclarified, the place of Vijaya in Wickramasinghe’s thought processes makes his essay central to my interests. He has affirmed the importance of a sign, the Vijaya icon, within a contemporary debating field that does not regularly display this sign. My intuitive reasoning is that Vijaya lurks behind the political thought of the Sinhala activists of various shades who have been resisting concessions to the Tamils over the years as well as those who resist devolution today. Behind Doctor Friend’s rational question “is Eelam viable?” — as I sensed intuitively — lay the idea that Sri Lanka was and is a Sinhala entity.

Central to this taken-for-granted hegemonic view in the thinking of so many Sinhalese, in my speculation, is the Vijaya story. That is why Wickramasinghe’s public intervention is of significance. It reveals an understanding that sometimes lies below the threshold of consciousness. As significantly, Wickramasinghe did not feel called upon to elaborate on the historical details of the Vijaya story. His unelaborated code of reference marks the degree to which it is a pillar of his reasoning. 15-Mettananda addreses Sinhala crowd 1956 LH Mettananda, an intellectual from Generation A in my schematic presentation, addressing a crowd at Galle Face Green in 1956 and rousing support for Sinhala Only –Pic from Victor Ivan, Paradise in Tears

The significance that Wickramasinghe attaches to Vijaya would seem to be impelled by an emotional attachment to the outlines of Sinhala history provided by the vamsa chronicles. While his article is organised for the most part by the rational-cum-epistemic logic associated with modern education, this is amalgamated with what Kapferer would call an ontological sense of recollection (my paraphrase). Indeed, one facet of Kapferer’s thesis argues that such “distinct … ideological perspectives” could be conjoined (1988: 43). This emphasis is set within the broad thrust of Kapferer’s project: to decipher “the structure of reasoning” within cosmic history in order to display the manner in which such a form secures “emotional potency.” Critical to this analytical approach is its emphasis on working from within the cosmic history rather than from a position outside and thus to go beyond a myth-as-charter type of functionalist analysis that views symbols as epiphenomena.[22] In my view Kapferer has shown convincingly that the structure of interpretation within the key stories in the vamsa traditions can connect with contemporary realities, including notions of personhood.[23] In this light Wickramasinghe’s essay is grist for Kapferer’s mill.

Significantly, Wickramasinghe is not wholly unaware of the subterranean cosmology of being-ness that inspired his intervention. At the outset of his article he notes – quite validly in my view — that “myths and legends are a cohesive force influencing the cultures of different peoples” (his words; cf. Gunatilleke 2000). It is the centrality of Vijaya, Dutugämunu and other culture heroes within the submerged ontological strand of Wickramasinghe’s reasoning that I address here. For I see his thinking as a window to the world view of those Sinhalese today who are ardently hostile to any devolutionary steps that undermine centralised structures of rule favouring the majority. One critical force that emerged to represent this position just before the general elections of 2000 is the Sīhala Urumaya, a title that can be translated as the Sinhalas’ Heritage Party or Party for the Heritage of the Sinhalese or Sinhalas.[24] A fuller understanding of this ideological stream, however, demands a clarification of the immediate context.      

     III  …. 1995-2000

At the previous elections, in the latter half of 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga had been elected President and the Peoples’ Alliance under the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had gained power. Their election platform had as one of its principal planks the negotiation of peace with the Tamil separatists. The year 1995 therefore opened with steps towards the formulation of what came to be known as the “Devolution Package.” This prospect raised immediate concerns among articulate segments of the population. One witnessed the emergence of a battery of associations devoted to the negation of this object, bodies that ranged alongside and competed with those already existing, such as the Jātika Chintanaya and Janatā Mituro.[25]

The very plethora of associations (see below) is a fact of sociological import (bearing comparison with the numerous Eelamist groups that emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s). It marks the depth of concern in specific quarters. Amidst significant differences, the period 1995-2000 can be compared with the immediate aftermath to the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987. No sooner was the Pact announced than protests erupted throughout the southern parts of the island. This agitation attracted support from virtually all segments of the Sinhala population, including the ranks of the ruling UNP government. The protests were immediately violent. An enormous amount of damage was inflicted on governmental buildings and properties, especially the buses of the Transport Board.

This is a subject that has been inadequately researched, but it appears that the JVP of that day, the SLFP and university student bodies provided the organisational impetus and personnel for much of this violence.[26] Be that as it may, that there was popular consternation and participation appears not in doubt. The hostility was directed at India for its infringement of the island’s sovereignty and for presiding over measures that were seen to herald the dismemberment of the country by supporting the Tamil movement for autonomy.[27]

One idiosyncratic moment highlights the depth of anger. When Rajiv Gandhi visited Sri Lanka to sign the Accord and was received by a customary guard of honour composed of a naval squad, a seaman in the front row, Wesamuni Ajit Nandana Kumara de Zoysa, attempted to assault the President of the Republic of India with the butt of his rifle. One cannot underestimate the depth of feeling that must have impelled this man to destroy his career in this ‘murderous’ attempt.[28] In my reading de Zoysa was seeking to teach Gandhi a lesson. It was not so much an attempt at a kill as a blow, an act of chastisement, what one could call in Sinhala “guti dīma.” While guti denotes a strike and could describe an incident of fisticuffs, it can also extend to the chastisement of a youngster by a teacher or parent. In the latter usage it signals just punishment for a moral transgression.[29] Rajiv blow -SL guearidan de Zoysa attempts to brain Rajiv Gandhi–Pic from SL Guardian

What I am emphasising here are the parallels in the depths of anxiety in July 1987 and at specific moments in the period 1995-2000. Whether the range of concern during the latter period extended beyond the articulate voices and embraced the rural and urban poor is a point on which I have no means of essaying an opinion. The vociferous outpourings, however, were as strident as varied. A mere listing of some of the new associations which were set up during the years 1995-2000 is indicative of the worries and strands of thinking motivating the activism.

  • Sinhala Veera Vidahana (SVV), which can be translated formally as “Triumphant Sinhala Heroes” or more usefully as the “Brigade of the Sinhala Destroyers” or “Sinhala Heroes’ Forum,” a movement that was initiated on 5 July 1995.[30]
  • National Movement against Terrorism (NMAT), with Champika Ranawake as its leader, formed in 1998.[31]
  • Jātika Sangvardhana Peramuna, or “Front for the Development of the Nation.”
  • Mavbima Suräkeemē Viyāpāraya, or “Movement for the Protection of the Motherland.”
  • Eksat Sinhala Mahā Sabhāwa, or United Sinhala Council, with Dr. Nath Amarakone as Secretary.
  • Sri Lanka Defense Alliance, linked to the ESMA, and having Dr. Ananda Wjesinghe in USA as one of its mastheads.[32]
  • Sinhalayē Maha Sammatha Bhoomiputra Pakshaya, or the “Sons of the Soil Party for the Great Consensus in Sinhalayē.”

The latter, Sinhalayē Maha Sammatha Bhoomiputra Pakshaya [cf. BBS] appears to have involved a number of bhikkhus in leading roles, while a pre-existing body, the Jātika Sangha Sabha or the “National Council of the Sangha,” also joined in the campaign against devolution in the years 1995 onwards. Such venerable bhikkhus as Walpola Rāhula, Paravahara Pannānanda Gammäddegama Gnanissara and the Mahānāyake of Asgiriya, Palipānē Chandānanda were among those participating at a number of gatherings that condemned the proposals.

Some of them were at the centre of symbolic acts such as the burning of a copy of the devolution proposals and the lighting of three lamps united in a single flame, a lamp that thereby symbolised the unity of the “Threefold Sinhala” as HL Seneviratne clarifies matters.[33] The latter phrase is one way of expressing the concept of Tunsinhalaya or TriSinhalē  (the three provinces of Sinhalē), a term used to refer to both the principal Sinhala kingdom and the island during the middle period (1232-1815).[34]

Again, after “a period of intense debate, the four mahānāyakas (chief incumbents) of the three nikāyas met on 20 January 1998 in Kandy and decided to ‘totally reject’ the government’s draft constitution” (Dharmadasa 1999: 233). Among those who attacked the proposals was an ad hoc body of “Twenty Six Professionals” who presented an open letter on the 18th June 1995.[35] They objected to federalism as “an irrevocable divesting of power by the Central Government.” Their preamble displayed their reasons as well as their ‘reasonableness’. “The entirety of the territory of Sri Lanka is equally the homeland of all her citizens who are, and must always be, entitled to equal rights in every part of that territory. No part of Sri Lanka is, or can ever be considered to be, the “exclusive homeland” of any group of citizens belonging to any particular race. Similarly, while the citizens of Sri Lanka belong to different races, all of them together constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is possessed of an inalienable right of self-determination, no racial group, be it Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Malay or Burgher, constitutes a separate “Nation” with a separate and distinct right of self-determination. It is only the recognition and acceptance of these self-evident truths that can ensure and stabilise the unity and integrity of our Motherland, and peace, harmony and brotherhood among the different racial groups who constitute her sons and daughters in equal measure.”

There is a high moral stance here, almost a Gandhian one.[36] The status of a “nation” or “nationality” is denied not only to the Tamils, but also to the Sinhalese and others. The memorandum as a whole is a very civil document with restrained Sinhala hagiography. But their scheme of reform meant that the protection against discrimination in the future for Tamils (and others) would be solely their fundamental rights as citizens rather than devolved powers and measures of regional autonomy.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this intervention is the body of personnel who put the Open Letter together. They are virtually all from Generation B. In describing themselves as “professionals” they marked their respectability and a high status accruing from distinguished careers and/or educational qualifications. Both the genteel occupational background of this group and the constitutional arguments they presented indicate the degree to which this ad hoc body was a precursor of the new party that emerged in April 2000 under the banner Sīhala Urumaya. Indeed, there was a considerable overlap of key personnel, such as SL Gunasekera, RS Wanasundera, Chula de Silva and SW Walpita.                                                                  

                      IV …. Sīhala Urumaya

The formation of the Sīhala Urumaya about the 27th April 2000 was the culmination of these ongoing concerns. The immediate catalyst was the military debacle at Elephant Pass in April 2000, coming on top of a loss of territory and another military disaster in the Vanni during late 1999. Indeed, the reaction to the battle of Elephant Pass was frenetic. No evaluation can be made of politics in the middle months of the year 2000 that does not attach significance to the depth of anxiety that was circulating in many circles.[37]

As severe defeat was looming at Elephant Pass and the loss of Jaffna Peninsula seemed imminent, four Sinhala associations organised a “mass meeting” at the Young Men’s Buddhist Association at Borella in Colombo on 6 April 2000.[38] These were (i) the National Movement Against Terrorism; (ii) the Sinhala Veera Vidahana; (iii) the Jātika Sangha Sabha and (iv) the National Joint Committee. Among those who addressed the gathering were Madihē Pannasīha Mahanāyake Thera, Madulawäwē Sobitha Thera, Ittapana Dhammālankāra Thera and Champika Ranawake. The speeches are described as “fiery and passionate.” The assembly adopted seven “non-negotiable principles” as their clarion call. The first of these was the continuation of a unitary state and the legislative supremacy of Parliament. The fourth rejected the claim that the North East was the homeland of the Tamils. The speeches also castigated Norway in numerous ways, not least for being the “LTTE’s current godfather.”[39] As with the propaganda mounted in the years 1995 to 1999, it is evident that those assembled at this gathering saw devolution as tantamount to the dismemberment of Sri Lanka. Indeed, on some occasions representations in the public forums present a domino theory of rolling breakaways, a process of infinite fragmentation of the island that would flow on from the initial stage of devolution.[40]

A few weeks after this assembly the Sīhala Urumaya emerged as a party committed to electoral politics as distinct from agitation pure and simple.[41] In effect, it can be regarded as a confederation of some of the forces that had expressed anxieties in the late 1990s about the prospect of devolution. Unlike the Eksat Sinhala Maha Sabhāwa, it immediately garnered articulate support in the local media as well as the internet circuit of the Sinhala diaspora. It appears to have attracted some of the white collar bureaucratic and professional classes as well as (b) middle class ladies who were old girls of such schools as Visākha and Devī Bālika Vidyālaya and (c) a sprinkling of businessmen and estate owners in the south western regions of Sri Lanka.[42]

The NMAT became an affiliate of the Sīhala Urumaya and thereby introduced another body of personnel into its ranks, individuals from Generations D and E who are less proficient in English and more virulent in their style of rhetoric. As such, the Sīhala Urumaya was a disparate body from its inception. Broadly speaking, therefore, one could say that during the initial stage April-to-October 2000 it had two wings: (A) the bilingual, English-speaking, moderate voices and (B) the Sinhala-fluent, strident voices.

With a general election in the offing, the Sīhala Urumaya explicitly anticipated the prospect of winning enough seats to hold the balance in the event, as everyone correctly anticipated, of a hung parliament.[43] The wishful expectations of the Sīhala Urumaya were blown apart at the general elections of 10th October 2000. They secured a total of 127,863 votes, some 1.47 per cent of the total votes. This was enough to secure them one National List Member of Parliament, but they had to face the fact that they had not won any constituency. To compound their problems internal divisions, identified by one of their leaders as a class struggle,[44] surfaced over the selection of their National List member. In the result their best-known leader, SL Gunasekera, as well as a number of the “professionals,” resigned from the party.

These outcomes should not encourage one to write off the SU as a phenomenon of little consequence and to deem it a has-been, a movement of white collar patricians with a limited ability in mobilising votes among the Sinhala-speaking population. That would be a premature conclusion. In opposition to such a view I treat the ideology of the SU seriously, as a force carrying considerable weight. Knowledgeable observers have indicated that the appearance of the SU forced the Peoples’ Alliance as well as the UNP to shift its rhetoric towards the hardline right.[45] In effect, both the principal parties, as well as the JVP, took up some of the ideas espoused by the SU. It was feasible for voters who had similar anxieties to those of the SU to cast their vote in favour of one of these parties in the understanding that they contained elements who would press such a line. Most voters, in any event, favour parties that have the prospect of forming a government and providing spoils to their supporters.

Thus, in my impressionistic and speculative assessment, the representations of the SU embody views that can be found within the JVP, UNP and PA-led-by-the-SLFP, while also stretching across region and class in some measure. The strongest support, however, appears to have been among elements of the bureaucratic and professional classes as well as business people at various levels.

What, then, was the ideological stance of the SU in the lead-up to the general election? I focus largely on the moderate voices of the SU in their English-speak. This is a considered move. If it can be indicated that primordialist, indigenist and chauvinist strands of thinking permeate the reasoning of the bilingual moderates, the import is that much sharper. For one would normally expect more uncompromising strands of the same reasoning to inform the attitudes of the Sinhala-speakers within the SU.[46]

The manifesto of the SU was drawn up by a highly-educated “professional” coterie within the party and committed its members “to crush[ing] northern terrorism by military force and [to bringing] the whole country under the rule of one law which applies to people of all races and communities.”[47] The emphasis was on an uniform framework of law. The party leader, SL. Gunasekera, deployed his legal skills in vigorously elaborating on this line of argument in newsprint as well as platform (2000b and c). “The North and East of this country is equally the property of the Sinhalese of the South as of Tamils of the North and East, just as much as Matara and Colombo are the property of the Tamils as they are of the Sinhalese” (Gunasekera 2000c). In this view, just as Muslims had been elected as members of parliament in Sinhala-majority regions, there was no reason why Sinhalese could not represent the Tamils of Jaffna and Batticaloa.[48] Likewise, Champika Ranawake, a committee member and the leader of the NMAT affiliate, had this to say: “[the principle of one law for all peoples] means the total eradication of terrorism [so that] the writ of the government will apply to the whole country.”[49]

CHAMPAKA Champika Ranawake

In effect, the SU leadership was deploying the egalitarian principle of uniform law to negate the concept of “traditional homelands” and the idea of self-determination that underpins the Tamil demands. The reasoning, a form of legal casuistry that uses one Enlightenment principle against another, is par for a course designed by legal counsellors, administrators and university dons.

Albeit digressive, an interesting sidelight is provided by the use of similar reasoning during the last decade by a range of Australian conservatives and vested interests who challenge the reformative “Native Title” legislation that would extend land rights to specific Aboriginal claimants in localities and places where Crown authority remains. These advocates of the status quo insist on the need for an uniform framework of law. Thus, Ian McLachlan, an Opposition frontbencher at the time the judicial decision on the Mabo case opened the path for this reformative process, argued that it would lead to “a partitioning of Australia.” He added: “I call on you to stand for the ideals of federation – one nation—one–continent; one law, one people, one destiny” (quoted in Markus 1990: 90). Among those who have consistently pressed this argument is the historian and university professor, Geoffrey Blainey, who contended that it would “weaken … the real sovereignty and unity of the Australian people” (in Markus 1990: 89). As significantly, for over two decades Blainey has been an outspoken patriot who has highlighted the importance of Australia’s “heritage” of democratic institutions and legal practices. Heritage once again. This is a line of contention that many liberals read as a legitimating veneer in defence of continued Anglo-Celtic domination within a socio-political scene that is developing an increasing multi-cultural hue.[50] In both Australia and Sri Lanka, it would appear, “heritage” and the egalitarian principle of uniformity link right-wing efforts to sustain existing modes of domination.

In keeping with this ostensibly constitutionalist position, the leaders of the SU rejected all accusations to the effect that they were “racist.” The “Sīhala Urumaya is clearly a Sinhalese nationalist party, but not a racist Party,” asserted SL Gunasekera on one such occasion.[51] But he also insisted on the Sinhalese receiving their due rights on the ground that they made up 74 per cent of the population.[52] In other words, in most of his public expressions Gunasekera builds up a case for Sinhala primacy on constitutional and majoritarian grounds.[53] As significantly, in his reasoning Vijaya and justifications on historical grounds are conspicuous by their absence. Supreme Court decision_1 SL Gunasekera and HL De Silva all smiles when they secured a Supreme Court decison in October 2006 that rendered the merger of the NP and EP “unconstitutional”-

However, tell-tale signs suggest otherwise and point to the unspoken primordialist foundations nesting within his thinking. Gunasekera is quite ready to refer to “sons of the soil’ in his representations,[54] in effect adopting the bhumiputra concept that has been so favoured among Sinhala patriots from the late nineteenth century onwards. Accordingly, the “official proclamation” of the SU ended with the following exhortation: “Join us; trust us to build a Sinhala nation with the true sons of Sri Lanka” (Island, 28 April 2000). Again, the SU manifesto affirms that “this is a Sinhala Buddhist country” and celebrates the fact that the Buddha Dhamma has existed in the island for “over 2500 years.”[55]

This sign, “2500 years,” or the alternative “2000 years,” is a conventional and resonant phrase in the minds of many people, one that marks the original primacy of the Sinhalese. It is a proclamation of occupational right as much as antiquity. Antiquity and founding act together serve as a mark of greatness. Both together provide legitimacy for the primacy and dominance of the Sinhalese. The implicitness of these suggestions assists the taken-for-granted force of such claims. If one had any doubts about the importance of such modes of thought within the SU, all one has to do is to read their representations in Sinhala speech or article. Even the briefest reconnaissance is adequate to reveal a pronounced indigenist emphasis. We are “säbä Sinhalayo,” real Sinhalese, said one SU candidate in explicit denigration of the UNP and PA.[56] In effect he was echoing Gunasekera’s claim that that “the two major parties [were] … composed of people who are Sinhalese in name but not Sinhalese at heart”(2000c, emphasis added).

Professor Madumma bandara Professor Madduma Bandara … Generation C

CM Madduma Bandara, an university professor and a former Vice Chancellor, went further. Rejecting the charge that the SU was “racist,” he affirmed that Tamils and Muslims could join the party. But there was one condition attached. They had to accept that Sri Lanka is the “sinhalayāgē rata, sinhalayāgē mavbima (the land of the Sinhala, the motherland of the Sinhalayā).[57] That Madduma Bandara spoke in such a strain is particularly significant. Trained in the Sinhala medium, but acquiring capabilities in English at an early date, he is from the Anuradhapura region, the heartland of the original Sinhala civilisation and a locality that was an outlying outpost in British times. As vitally, he happens to be from Generation C and straddles the two wings of the original SU.[58] His expressions are suggestive of the streams of consciousness that link the disparate elements within the SU.

A critical element in ‘cementing’ the heterogeneous forces within the SU, in my view, lay (and lies) in its title. The concept urumaya was obviously selected with aforethought. It is an inspirational choice because the term carries evocative resonances for Sinhala speakers. The root uru in Sanskrit identifies the “eminent” and “excellent.”[59] Urumaya is clarified thus in Sinhala-Sinhala dictionaries: (a) pāramparika ayitiya, generational right or claim; (b) himikama, ownership or possession; (c) keneku gē maranayen pasu anikukata pävarena ohugē dēpala nilatala ādiya, the properties and chattels that are transferable as inheritance after the death of the person who owns them.[60] It therefore overlaps and links up with the word paravēni or pravēni, which refers to generational rights or an inheritance transmitted from generation to generation, as invoked in such phrases as mav piyangen urama unä “inherited from (my) parents.”[61]

As such, urumaya has ramifying implications through its connections with meaningful cultural practices in the everyday world of Sinhalese people, especially the ubiquitous land disputes. Because of its associations with inheritances it is likely that urumaya may have less significance for those without any property whatsoever and may have special appeal to the propertied classes. By “propertied classes” I encompass not only the rich, but also smallholders and householders, in other words the petty bourgeoisie, a considerable force in Sri Lanka during the last 150 years. However, the term is a vehicle for all manner of rights: when the Sinhala Buddhist villagers of Munnesvarampattuva contested the Hindu priest’s attempts to get rid of their association with this powerful temple, they spoke of their urumaya.[62]

In the course of the election campaign the SU rhetoricians quickly depicted their battle against the other parties as one between the urumakkārayo and the karumakkārayo — “a catchy phrase” in Ananda Wakkumbura’s estimation.[63] In this Manichean picture, the “We” of the Sīhala Urumaya are the pillar of stable destiny, the urumakkārayo, whereas all others are destined to eternal damnation in their paths of rebirth, for karumakkārayo refers to the karmic fate of those who have caused sorrow.

The seductive appeal of urumaya is compounded by its coupling with Sîhala. As a label of self-description Sîhala and its synonyms carry the affectivity that most such collective nouns possess. Thus, Sîhala urumaya or Hela urumaya have been, and remain, phrases loaded with sentimental value. Hela urumaya was a phrase that was deployed by Munidasa Cumaratunga (1887-1944) and his followers. During the latter part of his career Cumaratunga initiated a movement of linguistic revival devoted to the purification of the Sinhala language. This involved an assault on Sanskritic and other accretions associated with the “Mixed Sinhala” of the classical period (sixth to fifteenth century) and a return to the older Elu or Hela forms of original antiquity.[64]

To fortify the language in this manner, in his view, was to fortify the nation, the hela räsa, or Sinhala people. In 1941 he established the Hela Havula, or “Pure Sinhalese Fraternity,” as an instrument of this programme (Dharmadasa 1972: 136). The Helaī Havula campaigned in English as well as Sinhala. Cumaratunga launched the journal The Helio in 1941 as a companion series to hi Subasa (1939 et seq) and used the term “Helese” rather than Sinhalese. In openly contesting the leading Sinhala scholars of that day, this movement initiated an internal struggle that argued for the superiority of the term “Hela,” over the label “Sinhalese” or “Sinhala” — and thus hela urumaya over Sîhala urumaya.

This battle was part of their effort to reach for an original linguistic purity uncontaminated by Indian words. This emphasis had a racist hue because it was accompanied by an attempt on the part of some advocates to deny Indian racial origins. This meant the undercutting of the Vijaya symbol by reaching back into fabled history of the era before Vijaya. This meant a resurrection of the figure of Râvana from the Râmâyana. Thus, the poet Raipiell Tennakoon denigrated Rāma and exalted Rāvana.[65] Since such infinite regression could, as Wakkumbura observes, “end up in the caves of the early Sri Lankan aboriginals,” this spin involved an effort to forge a Greek link, thereby retaining the alleged “Aryan” ancestry.[66]

The point about this virulent internal debate among Sinhala language activists is that it has functioned, much like the internal conflicts among Irish and Eelamist Tamil nationalists, to promote deep attachments. The reproduction of symbolic value in words such as urumaya is an indirect outcome of this sort of struggle.

Among those who used this phrase in evocative manner was Puranandu Jinadas Gunasekera, who wrote a panegyric poem to Cumaratunaga entitled hela urumaya daelvu, while also publishing a book in 1973 called “Language of the Very Ancient Hela Commentaries.”[67] Though small in number, the personnel comprising this movement seem to have secured a foothold in the Department of Education in the third quarter of the twentieth century and therefore extended an influence that went beyond their numbers. As an educated guess, therefore, I suggest that those who have served in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the administrative ranks of the Ministry of Education during the last sixty years would have provided a number of supporters of the SU in 2000.

Such institutional foundations are a pointer to the ways in which the British colonial order diffused Orientalist frameworks of thought and colonised the minds of their literate subjects. Critical to this process was the subject of history as it was taught in the schools and then expanded at university level. “History,” as understood during the phase of “Ceylonese nationalism” and the parallel strand of “Sinhala nationalism” in the twentieth century, implicated the past civilisations of the Sinhalese, while also focusing on Sinhala culture. German scholars, Burgher gentlemen and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy are among those who contributed to this intellectual firmament.[68] As the indigenist revival among the Sinhalese gathered momentum from the 1940s and moved into the front reaches of politics in the 1950s, these lines of emphasis blossomed.

This article has highlighted the degree to which the generations who entered adulthood in those decades have served as the cutting edge for Sinhala chauvinism, whether inside or outside the SU, in the 1990s and today. In effect, I am pointing to people who are greying, whether in their fifties or in their twilight years of near-retirement or post-retirement. Generally bilingual, highly educated and rendered extremely anxious by the Tiger successes and the prospect of an autonomous Province of Eelam, these greying figures have stepped out as defenders of their land, linking up with younger elements of the Sinhala population in the process.

The importance of the history that they have imbibed over the years is indicated by their participation in history writing and the extent to which historical essays enter the newspapers every now and then. The “political rhetoric is dense with historical allusion.”[69] Anyone, it seems, can dabble in history. Durand Appuhamy (1995) has recently produced a potboiler on the Kandyan rebellions of the nineteenth century. Gamini Iriyagolle is writing a book on early Sri Lankan history. Excerpts in the newspapers reveal that he accepts the details of the fabled Dutugämunu epic in the Mahāvamsa as unquestioned fact (Iriyagolle 2000). These are only two illustrations selected from the category of individuals who have ventured to write on behalf of the endangered Sinhalese in the English-media newspapers.

Iriyagolle is a particularly important example. The son of a politician associated with the “1956 revolution,” he entered government service after graduating from the University of Ceylon. He has consistently written essays in defence of Sinhala interests, especially with reference to land policies. He was among those who took to the streets in demonstrations against the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987. His writings, together with the articles penned for the newspapers or other media in English over the last decade by such persons as Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekera, Kamalika Pieris, Nath Amarakone and Durand Appuhamy, provide a corpus of material that embodies the Orientalised and primordialist lines of argument that have been the focus of this article.[70] The puerile character of the reasoning and the poverty of empirical material in several of these works should not be allowed to cloud the fact that their authors believe in the scientific veracity and rational ground of their efforts.                        

                 V ……..  Primordialism: urumaya and Ur

The concept “primordial” was popularised in the academic world by the political scientist, Edward Shils (1957), and the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. By “primordial attachments” Geertz marked “the givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices. These congruities of blood, speech, custom, and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves (emphasis mine).

In this extension of the concept to the political scene of nationalism Geertz was careful to distance himself from the idea by prefacing this definition with a reference to the “assumed ‘givens’ … of social existence” in the world view of those under analytical survey.[71]  So it was not, ostensibly, a position he accepted. However, writing in the 1960s and 1970s when nationalism was a liberating force in Asia and Africa, he did not adopt a hostile attitude to such expressions and went with the tide in ways that border on the primordial. This was not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s. In consequence a number of scholars tended to read the present into the past in unreflective ways. Thus, in readings of Sri Lanka’s history such scholars as Bechert, Clifford and Obeyesekere blithely describe the ideological strands depicted in the Mahāvamsa as “nationalist” and even apply this terminology to the activities of such kings as Dutugämunu in the second century BC.[72]

Since the late 1980s this viewpoint has been under assault from a range of scholars. Analytical approaches that lean towards the primordial have been castigated for bolstering exclusivist and extreme forms of nationalism. They have been criticised for an 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 nationalist spokespersons, these analysts are accused of taking on the “essentialist” and “primordialist” attitudes of the people under study.

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.[73] 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.[74]

In assailing the primordialist scholars in this fashion, the critics consciously adopt a politically correct position. Several of these anti-essentialist scholars, as David Scott has warned, seem “only interested in establishing their epistemological superiority” (1999: 9). Self-righteousness sometimes permeates their analysis.

In insisting on the fluidity and situationality of ethnic identity, moreover, they treat all situations alike and lose sight of the whole and its relational hierarchies of power and affiliation. To address the analytical failings of these avant-garde writers, however, would call for a separate essay.[75] The shortcomings should not preclude attentiveness to the fruitful warnings that they have initiated. In particular these criticisms point up the exclusions and hegemonic implications attached to primordialist claims. Behind the antipathy of these critics, moreover, is the awareness of the horrific damages wrought within Europe by the manner in which primordial essentialism took shape in the National Socialist Party of Hitler’s Germany.

One of the founding fathers of primordialism in the Western intellectual traditions was the German philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder. “No one argued more eloquently … than Herder that ideas and outlooks could only be understood in genetic and historical terms” (Berlin 1976: xiv). His writings celebrated the capacities of the Volk, the people, and developed the concept of Volksgeist, national character or the spirit of the (ordinary) folk. This idea was intertwined with the notions of historicism and nationalism. Central to this thesis was the idea of Ursprache, mother tongue or root language. “Language,” said Herder, “expresses the collective experience of the group” (quoted in Berlin 1976: 169). This “emphasis upon language as the expression of a shared past [became] common to a whole generation of philologists by the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries” (Mosse 1978: 39). Herder_Gemaelde_von_Johann_Friedrich_Tischbein_1795

I stress here that Herder was passionately anti-racialist and anti-imperialist (Berlin 1978: 164). He celebrated the speech communities of all Volk in Europe. One cannot draw a short and straight line from Herder to the Nazi ideology of a Herrenmensch or superior race of Aryans. That particular transformation of thinking in Germany was probably directed by determinate political and economic circumstances that developed after Herder’s time as much as subsequent intellectual developments.

Among the intellectual twists that re-worked the foundations provided by Herder et al was the influence of Social Darwinian theory and the work of such writers as Gobineau, de Lapouge, Dühring and Nietzsche.[76] Significantly, if one can rely on Foucault’s reading, Nietzsche used the words Ursprung, Herkunft and Entstehung in synonymous and/or overlapping ways (Foucault 1979). Foucault and Nietzsche translate Herkunft as “stock” or “descent” and Entstehung as “emergence,” while dictionaries indicate that both words can refer to “origin” or “birth.” In sum, then, what we see in Germany are intellectual strands that emphasised past origins and traditions in ways that encouraged efforts to secure contemporary security or greatness.

The concept Ur, then, was a central element in the development of German political thought in racist and hegemonic ways. Ur refers to “original” or “ancient” as well as “primitive” and “prime.” It is thereby connected to the idea of Ursprung and Ursprünglichkeit, “origin” or “original;” and carries connotations of essence of being or naturalness.[77]

Speaking broadly, then, Ur links up with a range of words in the German language that have positive connotations.[78] For instance,

urgemütlich: cosy, comfortable

Urahnen: forefathers, ancestors

Urich: special, genuine

Urkunde: document, deed, charter

Urkundlich: documentary, authentic

Urteil: judgment, decision.

Urquell: primary source.

The seductions of that which is Ur, I suggest, may rest in part on such cross-fertilisations.

Though there may well be etymological connections between Ur and urumaya,[79] the German comparison has not been inserted into this article for that reason. Rather, the German case serves as a sensitising device. Juxtaposed together, the Sinhala and German ‘case studies’ indicate that the persuasive power of political vocabulary is assisted by cross-hatching ramifications implanted in linguistic schemes and imbricated within everyday practices.

Kapferer argues that “ideologies have hegemonic power in social practice by virtue of the tacit assumptions located in them which facilitate the wide acceptance of nationalist inventions and re-evaluations.” He asks scholars to “trace [the] force [of such assumptions] in modern historical circumstances” which have enabled specific ideologies to assume a dangerous form.[80]

This essay has indicated that the story of Vijaya works at both explicit and covert levels to sustain the conviction among many contemporary Sinhalese that they have rights of foundational proprietorship to the island of Sri Lanka. Words and phrases that tap into, and reiterate, this vein of thought contain a resonance that mobilises support. Those captured by this mode of thinking can speak with certitude, the power of axiomatic conviction, in deploying this language to harvest more support. In this sense the essay is as much about rhetorical form as anything else.   


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SELECTIVE ADDENDUM TO BIBLIOGRAPHY IN 2014 … possible readings, mostly works after year 2000, which in turn will lead to others

Bartholomeusz, Tessa 2014 “Tessa Bartholomeusz’s In defence of the Dharma,” in

Deegalle, Revd Mahinda 2006 Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka, London< Routledge.

De Votta, Neil 2014 “Parties, Political Decay, and Democratic Regression in Lanka” Commonwealth & Comparative vol 52/1, pp. 139-65.

Grant, Patrick 2009 Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, New York, SUNY. Maloney, Clarance 2013 [1971] “The Beginnings of Civilization in South India,” 20 August 2013, — reprint from Journal of Asian Studies, Vol XXIX, No 3, May 1970.

Muller, Carl 2005 (?) ‘Traditional homelands’ and a charter for violence’ – Book Review of Narrating Tamil Nationalism,

Peiris, Gerald 2013 [1991] “An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka,” … previously in Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. IX, No.1, January1991

Ratnawalli, Darshanie 2010 “Why did Dr. Jehan Perera lie to Dr. Michael Roberts? A Sri Lankan horror story,” 23 November 2010,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “History-Making in Sri Lanka: Problems,” June 2014, A reprint of an earlier composition.

Schalk, Peter 1981 Review of H Bechert, “Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravada-Buddhismus,” Lanka 6, pp. 42-45. Schalk, Peter 1994 “The Vallipuram Buddha Image ‘Rediscovered’,” Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies Vol 12, no.9, pp. 115-121.

Welikala, Asanga (ed.) 2012 The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, Colombo, Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Wickramasinghe, Nira 2006 Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. London: Hurst & Co. and Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press


* This article was drafted in late 2000 and finalised in Jan. 2001. It follows on from my essay on “The Burden of History” which eventually appeared in print in Contributions to Indian Sociology 2001, vol. 35: 65-96 and contains overlaps that are considered repetitions arising from the structure of both arguments.

[1] When in Adelaide early in 2000 in order to present a seminar, referring here to Roberts 2000c.

[2] See articles in Pravāda, items in and Abeysekera et al 1998 for some illustrations.

[3] The phrase is taken from Comaroff  & Comaroff 1989. Also see Scott 1999: chap 1 and Rogers 1994.

[4] For e. g. Spencer 1990 and Kapferer 1988.

[5] See Megill 1980, from a position that is partial to Foucault.

[6] This essay was drafted in Germany in 1975-76 before I went to Adelaide and was published in Modern Asian Studies 1978. It has since been reprinted in Roberts 1994: chap. 10. The argument likened the relationship between “Sinhalese’ and “Ceylonese” to that between the “Magyar” and “Hungarian” during the nineteenth century. It also has parallels with the relationship between “English” and “British” during the last three centuries. However, other determinate conditions have rendered the circumstances of the Celtic minorities in the main island of Britain different from that of the Ceylon (Sri Lankan) Tamil

[7] Roberts 1989a. This interpretation began as a seminar paper delivered at Perth c. 1984. My conclusions have since been strongly supported by Young 1995 and in partial ways by C R de Silva 1994: 313-14

[8] For illustrations of writings on these lines, see Spencer 1990a: 5ff; Rogers 1990: 89-90 and 1994; Jeganathan & Ismail 1995; Eller 1999: chaps. 1 & 3; Scott 1999: chaps. 2 & 4.

[9] Ancient Ceylon history was taught then by Lakshman Perera. See Perera 1961, Mendis 1965: 274 & 1954: 6-41 and the relevant chapters in History of Ceylon, Vol I, 1959. The Pali chronicle Dīpavamsa is attributed to the fourth century A. D., but it an assemblage of many stories and the work of many hands, so its period of composition probably extends from the second century. The Mahāvamsa had only one author and is dated circa 500 A. D. These Pali chronicles are based on Sinhala texts, now lost, especially the Sīhala Atthakatāmahāvamsa.

[10] Vijaya is not set in stone. For some time now, there has been an undercurrent of thought that argues that the Sinhalese people are descended from Rāvana. This claim thereby ‘out-origins’ the Tamil claims to primordial originality within the island. This line of argument has not received academic legitimation as yet, but exists as a strand of contemporary thought. That it surfaced in muted vein at the initial meeting of the Sīhala Urumaya in April 2000, therefore, is of some import (Island, 28 April 2000). Note, however, that this emphasis on the pre-Vijayan origins of the Sinhala language, and thus the Sinhalese, appeared first in the analysis presented by James de Alwis in the mid-nineteenth century, well before the Tamils were part of the local debate (Dharmadasa 1992: chap. 3 & 4)

[11] Ponnambalam 1983: 2, 16-18 and Ponniah 1963: 2-3. Also see Kemper 1991: 116-23 and Gunawardana’s criticism of Velupillai’s fanciful effort to discover the term “îlam” in the centuries B. C. (1995: 19-22)

[12] Article by S. Edisooriya & R. Goyalan, ‘Sinhalese claim to ‘traditional homelands’,” Island, date misplaced [2000]. Also see the quotation from an English-educated Buddhist monk in the 1970s that challenged the idea of Eelam by asserting that both Tamils and Sinhalese were the children of Vijaya (Kapferer 1978: 35).

[13] Mendis 1965; 264-66, 275, with a reference to Basham on p. 270

[14] See Clifford 1978 and Kiribamune 1999: 202ff in particular. Also see Mendis 1965, Perera 1961, Godakumbura 1961 Kemper 1991 and Dharmadasa 1992: 19-26 & 47n

[15] It is not established when this work was written. It has been variously attributed to a date ranging from the seventh century to the twelfth century AD.

[16] Gunawardana 1978: 96-100. Also see Kemper 1991: 52 & 43; and Tambiah (1976) on the significance of the cakra and the manner in which the Mauryan Emperor, Asoka’s, career is split into two parts, that of the conquering king and that of the remorseful king

[17] My readings of these have been informed by Malalgoda 1970: 432-33; Perera 1961; Godakumbura 1961 & 1977; Greenwald 1978; Clifford 1978; Gunawardana 1978; Obeyesekere 1979: 279-89; Kiribamune 1999; Kemper 1991: 2, 33-37 and Dharmadasa 1992: 19-26 &47n

[18] For perceptive readings of the Vijaya story, see Gunatilleke 2000 and Kapferer 1988. For an appreciative summary of Gunatilleke’s views, see Roberts 2000e.

[19] See Martin Wickramasinghe 1973. For an evaluation of this work, see Spencer 1990b: 285-87. Spencer sees Wickramasinghe as a nationalist who helped create a vision of idyllic rural life, but who was nevertheless an intellectual who facilitated cultural borrowing. Note Handler’s and Obeyesekere’s observations on this reading at the end of the article

[20] Mervyn de Silva 1967. Also see Roberts 1989b

[21] “The manifesto was drawn up by a team of professionals which include Prof A V de S Indraratne (Chairman), Dr. Neville Karunatilleke, Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake, Champika Ranawake and Dr. Gamini Gunasekera” (Sunday Island, 17 Sept. 2000)

[22] Kapferer 1988, espec. pp. 39-48 & 79-84.

[23] Kapferer 1988: 45-48. In this connection, note the appreciative comments, albeit qualified, in van der Veer 1994: 83-84

[24] In recent years, inspired, it seems, by influential scholars in USA, the word “Sinhalese” has been rendered as “Sinhalas” in some academic writings. This is technically correct, but marks a purist position. For that reason I prefer the original rendering and am fortified by the style of the journal Pravâda in sticking to this older pattern. I am using the form “Sinhala” for adjectival renderings or a reference to the language.    Sīhala is also a name for the island and thus a synonym for Hela, Trisinhalaya, Lankā Laka, et cetera. In the centuries B. C. the name used was Tāmraparnī (or Taprobane). Lankā was also used and figures most in the early Pali canon. Sīhala or Simhala appears to have come into use only around the fourth century A D (Mendis 1965: 266-67)

[25] The Jâtika Chintanaya seems to be informally constituted, but is widely associated with Nalin de Silva (a former Professor in Mathematics) and Gunadasa Amarasekara (a dentist and a leading Sinhala novelist). Both these men were associated with the Old Left movement in the 1960s. For the Janatâ Mituro, see Seneviratne 2000b

[26] “Both Champika [Ranawake] and Rev. [Athureliya] Rathana were in the forefront of the student movement and its mobilization against the infamous Indo-Lanka Accord” (Seneviratne 2000b).

[27] In the 1980s some Sinhalese, notably those of chauvinist persuasion, regarded the Eelamists as an arm of India and an extension of India’s expansionist policies.

[28] De Zoysa was court-martialled and served several years in jail. Released recently, he joined the SU and was one of the more popular candidates – garnering support in his home locality

[29] In Sinhala guti also means guli, a rolled-up substance, so that it connects with the common usage, behet guliya or medicinal pill (Prāyōgika Sinhala Shabdhakōshaya, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1982, Vol I, p. 649). In archaic Sinhala, significantly, it also referred to a medicinal pill (information from R C Somapala of the Sinhala Dictionary Office). Also see Roberts 1994: chapter on the “slippering” incident

[30] See relevant segment in The last rendering is from Senaratne & Jayasekera, the others were suggested by Ananda Wakkumbura (letter dated 25 Nov 2000). However, Wakkumbura stressed that the term is “untranslatable” and carries “a spectrum of meanings.” Vidahana can refer to the peacock’s sexual display and is also a synonym for vināshakirīma (destroying). In the opinion of those hostile to the SVV, it is an organisation of Sinhala businessmen, who wish to reduce the power of Tamils and Muslims in the world of retail and wholesale business. The SVV is unabashed in proclaiming the following three principles as the first of its priorities: (1) “Sinhalē … must be restored and with it a sense of national identity;” (2) “Recognition of the Sinhalese as the definitive race of the country on the basis of universal principle of so recognizing in any country that race which created its civilization;” and (3) “Other races to be recognized as ethnic groups in the country of Sinhale.” See fn. 24 above for clarification of ‘Sinhale.

[31] As an engineering student Ranawake is said to have been in the higher echelons of the JVP in the mid-1980s, but appears to have become part of a breakaway faction. He was saved from execution in the late 1980s by the Editor of the newspaper Rāvaya. He initiated the Janatā Mituro c. 1990 (see Seneviratne 2000b). Ranawake is a fiery orator in Sinhala. Of all the SU candidates at the elections, he secured the most votes

[32] See and Wijesinghe 2000. Nath Amarakone is an engineer who was active within the Old Left parties in the 1960s and served as Permanent Secretary to Pieter Keuneman, the Communist Party leader of the day, in the administration of the period 1970-77.

[33] Seneviratne 1999: centrefold pictures

[34] The term Tunsinhala and its numerous variants (e. g. Tunrajaya, Trisinhalaya, etc) all convey the same idea. Tunsinhala is conventionally translated as the “Three Sinhalas” in the sense of the three provinces into which the island was divided in the medieval period. However, Seneviratne’s neat rendering of the idea as “Threefold Sinhala” provides a perceptive inflection. This was part of his caption for a picture of a political ritual involving the lighting of three lamps united in a single flame by Gammäddegama Gnānissara Thera in 1996 during the protests against devolution. The unity of three in one flame stands for “Threefold Sinhala.” See fn. 24 as well

[35] Sunday Island, 18 June 1995. The signatories comprised 10 senior attorneys, 2 retired Justices of the Supreme Court, 5 senior doctors, 2 dental surgeons, 2 university professors, 2 senior administrators, 2 civil engineers and 1 accountant

[36] Recalling the position taken by more genuinely Sri Lankan nationalists who abrogated the Mahendra Agreement in 1925. See Roberts 1978: 358 or 1994: 252.

[37] I cannot say whether this extended across class strata to the urban slums and the lower classes in the rural areas.

[38] LankaWeb news, 12 April 2000

[39] Also see Nalin de Silva 2000a and b; and Gunasekera 2000e [40] Gunasekera 2000c; Wijayadasa 2000; and interview with Ranawake, Sunday Island 8 Oct. 2000.

[41] See Roberts 2000e for an impressionistic review of the factors contributing to its emergence as well as bio-data on some leaders.

[42] Information conveyed by Ananda Wakkumbura by phone, letter or email.

[43] A pro-NMAT insider even alleges that, in contrast to the NMAT personnel, some members of the SU thought they would capture 40 seats (Seneviratne 2000b).

[44] See Tilak Karunaratne’s comments reported in the Daily News, 18 Oct. 2000, internet. But also see S L Gunasekera’s statement on the same day and the various reports and letters to the editor in the newspapers in the weeks that followed. A number of “professionals” resigned together with Gunasekera

[45] See analysis by New Left Front in the Island, 19 Oct. 2000.

[46] Indeed, Senaratne & Jayasekera (2000) allege that the SU has become “fascist” since S L Gunasekera and his associates left. On the extremist viewpoints in Sinhala newspapers in the 1980s, see Tennekoon 1990.

[47] Sunday Island, 17 Sept. 2000, emphasis added.

[48] In accordance with this high-minded principle, the SU fielded candidates in the Jaffna Peninsula. One was Malinda Seneviratne, previously an activist in the Janatā Miturō (see Seneviratne 2000a). The degree to which some of the SU leaders lived in the clouds is manifest in this line of thinking (assuming it was not a front). Any three-wheel driver in Lanka would have told them that these principles would favour the Tamils. In the past the ability of the Sinhalese to develop economic interests in the Jaffna Peninsula or the eastern littoral have been minuscule. The pragmatic interests of Sinhalese in these areas remain, now as before, minimal.

[49] Interview, Sunday Island 8 Oct. 2000.

[50] See Blainey, All for Australia, Sydney, 1984. For an analytical criticism, see Kapferer 1988: chap. 7.

[51] Gunasekera 2000b. I could not locate a Sinhala version of this statement. In contemporary Sinhala-speak the word jātivādiyek is used to denote a “racist,” while jātikavādiyek marks a “nationalist.” These distinctions are neologisms. The word jāti refers to race, nation, caste and category and was used in this manner over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[52] Cf. Cyril Mathew: “74 percent of the Sinhala race should not be dominated by the 12 percent minority community,” (quoted in Kapferer 1988: 38).

[53] One should be mindful of the fact that Gunasekera was Chief Editor of the Davasa group of newspapers in the latter’s twilight period, 1977-79. Owned by M D Gunasena and Co., a firm that was closely associated with the movement of cultural nationalism and the triumph of the SLFP-MEP in 1956, the Davasa newspapers were notorious among radicals for their virulent pro-Sinhala line and “racist” positions (information from Ananda Wakkumbura)

[54] Island, 28 April 2000. The concept  “sons of the soil” was deployed by Anagarika Dharmapala among others from the late nineteenth century onwards.

[55] “SU presents its manifesto,” Island, 17 Sept. 2000 [56] Mahes Atapattu in Kalutara District as reported in the Divaina 2000 (details sent by Ananda Wakkumbura).

[57] Speech reported in the Divaina, 5 Oct. 2000 (notes sent by Ananda Wakkumbura).

[58] Significantly, he did not join S L Gunasekera and his circle in resigning from the SU. I note here that Madduma Bandara is a former colleague and that I count him a friend

[59] Information from Tilman Frasch of the Sudasien Institut, Heidelberg University.

[60] Prāyōgika Sinhala Shabdhakōshaya, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1982, Vol I, p. 337.

[61] Paramparāvata ayat or  paramparâven parmparāvata pavatina (Praāyōgika Sinhala Shabdhakōshaya, vol II, p. 1005.

[62] Email memo from Rohan Bastin, who added that the Tamil equivalent “urumai” is also loaded with symbolism.

[63] Email memo, 12 Nov 2000.

[64] See Dharmadasa 1972 and 1992: 261-90. The Elu syllabary has 32 letters composed of 12 vowels and 20 consonants, whereas the Sinhala syllabary has 54 letters made up of 18 vowels and 36 consonants.

[65] Email memo from Wakkumbura, 20 Dec. 2000, with one reference being Vavuluva, the Saga of the Bat.

[66] Email memeo, 21 Dec. 2000.

[67] Email memo from Wakkumbura, 20 Dec. 2000. Gunasekera has also written another booklet entitled Kochchin pännū  vīrayāta sihivatanayak  or “Remembering the hero who drove out the Cochin people.”

[68] Max Muller, Oldenburg and Geiger are among the Germans who contributed to the studies of history and language; L E Blaze and C. W. Nicholas wrote text books or articles on history and Coomaraswamy published an erudite work on Medieval Sinhalese Art

[69] Spencer 1990:  3. Also see Tennekoon 1990.

[70] The representations in Sinhala are probably even more prolific.

[71] Geertz 1973a: 259 (emphasis mine). Also see Geertz 1973b.

[72] See Bechert 1978: 7ff; Greenwald 1978: 13; Clifford 1978: 42-43; and Obeyesekere 1979: 282-83, 292-93.

[73] Inden 1990: 2. Ironically, Geertz himself used the concept of “essentialism,” but did so in a weaker sense — referring to past-oriented world views in distinction from those that are “epochal” or future-oriented (1973b: 243-54).

[74] This is my summary, embodying a wide body of reading over the last decade. For instance, see Eller & Coughlan 1993; Banks 1996: 13-17 and Malkki 1995: 13-17. With reference to Sri Lanka, see the citations in fn. 7.

[75] For ethnographic shortcomings, see Lorenzen 1999; Roberts 2000f; and Malalgoda’s criticism (1997) of David Scott

[76] This arbitrary selection of names marking the intellectual foundations for the development of anti-Semitic thinking in Europe is informed by Mosse 1978. Also see Howard Cargill, ‘The return of Nietzsche and Marx’, in Paul Patton (ed) Nietzsche, feminism & political theory, London: Routledge, pp. 189-90.

[77] Opinion of Tilman Frasch, Südasien Institüt, Heidelberg University (email memo, 14 Nov. 2000)

[78] Information from Peter Mühlhausler, Professor of Linguistics, University of Adelaide. This was expanded by information conveyed by Tilman Frasch of Heidelberg University and the data in the Langenscheidts Handworterbuch Englisch, 1967. Frasch indicated that the word Ureinwohner may be used for “aborigine” or “aboriginal,” though this usage is going out of fashion [79] Sanskrit, Sinhala and German are said to belong to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. The German words for “heritage,” however, are Erbe or Erbschaft

[80] These comments (p. 293) are part of Kapferer’s incisive criticisms of Spencer’s reading of the cultural forms of Sinhala nationalism in Spencer 1990b: 291-94. Kapferer’s emphasis on determinate socio-political circumstances has not been recognised by a wide band of scholars, Spencer included, who have persisted in misreading his thesis (1988). This may be due in part to the few pages that he devotes to such contextualisation on the assumption that specialists would fill in these reasonably well-known dimensions of the contemporary conflict.


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6 responses to “Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhalese Nationalism: Urumaya as Ur

  1. chandre Dharmawardana

    This essay is written in Robert’s usual style which is too slow for busy people (i.e., most of us). In Physics the top peer-reviewed journals like Phys. Rev. Letters allow you only four pages, even if you are Einstein or Feynman. I think nature allows you only three pages.

    So I haven’t digested this whole article at all. But I will make too comments.

    1. Perhaps Goonawardana did not understand the use of “Jina” (conqueror) as a “nickname” for the Buddha, because he did not have a good hold on the Pali texts. Jina is a very frequent appellation for the Buddha and simply means the one who had conquered all desires, and had thereby become an Arhant. The name “Jina” is NOT specific to the “taming” of the yakkas. many other names given to the Buddha tend to mean essentially this feature, said in various ways.

    2. There is a rather interesting etymology for the word “Urumaya” in Sinahla, and “Urumai” in Tamil. (in the following note I use the word “Sanskrit in a generic sense, not restricting to its fully-stylized form).
    The word “Urakaara” or “udakaada” exists in ancient Sanskrit, and signifies the next of kin of a dead person who shoulders the coffin. (Ura = shoulder). Similarly, “Ekarikthin” in Sanskrit is a co-heir. Thus “ura”, (or possible “udara”) or “shoulder” is the operative word here, and exists in Sinhala as well. It is indeed the custom in the villages, even today, to call upon the closest kinsmen to be the pall bearers Thus we see that the word “Ura-kaara” easily leads to “urumakara” and “Urumaya”, and signifies those who would carry the burden of the dead person and also enherit his/her legacy..

    In non-Sanskritized Tamil, the word “ura” is not used for “shoulder”. If we use the overbar to indicate the lengthening of a sound, “Tōl kotu” would be the term used to” take on one’s shoulder”, say, the pole of a palanquin. Hence the modern tamil word “urimai”, and related words like “urimaik-ka~ran”, are more likely to have arisen from the Sanskrit source word. In fact, several words like “urimai-man”, “urimai-k-kanji” are related to funeral rights. Thus urimai-k-kanji” is the “broth poured into the mouth of a dying person”.
    see also:

    As for the german prefix “Ur-“, it is well accepted that this is also derived form Proto-Indo-Europen origins. A standard etymological dictionary says:
    The prefix has the meaning “original, earliest, primitive,” from German ur- “out of, original,” from Proto-Germanic *uz- “out,” from PIE *ud- “up, out” (see out (adv.)) At first only in words borrowed from German (such as ursprache “hypothetical primitive language”); since mid-20c. a living prefix in English.

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