Sinhalaness in the Middle Period and in Wars Against Colonial Intrusions

Chris Speldewinde, in the The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. r19, No. 1, 2008, reviewing  Michael Roberts. Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815. Colombo 4, Sri Lanka: Vijitha Yapa Publications. 2004. Pp.xx +274, bibliog., index. US$60.00 (He), ISBN 955-8095-31-1.

Having spent a considerable period during my undergraduate studies of anthropology concentrating on cultural aspects of Sri Lankan society, I was enthusiastic to have been given the opportunity to read and review this work by Michael Roberts. In this latest addition to his many volumes of work on his native Sri Lanka, Roberts, has provided a rich tapestry of the period pre-dating the formalisation of British colonial rule on the island of Sri Lanka. He examines the forms of reaction of a society affected by migrating Indians from the north and European colonial expansion, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century and later, the Dutch and the British. This book provides a considerable amount of both historiographical and ethnographic material, from a wide range of sources to keep the reader engrossed in the development of distinct ethnic identities on this island nation. The use of verbal history passed on through poems and songs from the period is used extensively to substantiate Roberts’ theories of the development of a definitive Sinhalese ethnic identity.


I found two common themes in Roberts’ work. One is the structural and political development of Sinhala consciousness; the other is the cultural expression of the inhabitants. It is through the lens of these two themes that I will reflect upon Roberts’work.

Following his introductory chapter, which explores Sinhalese identity, its development and its differentiation, Roberts examines Sinhalese culture through his consideration of communication in the aptly-titled second chapter ‘Modes of Communication, Orality and Poetry in the Middle Period’. He cites a range of oral communication methods that became ritualised within storytelling, chants and poetry and recited in varied situations such as in battles and in cross-country marches by royalty, to more regular aspects of daily life such as harvesting songs, lullabies and eulogies. This early chapter is a precursor to later chapters that focus on War Poems (chapter 7) and Popular Culture (chapter 8) and gives the reader a broad overview of communicatory methods. Roberts admits that this exposition of the forms of cultural transmission is ‘brief and inadequate’ (p. 34). However, I still found it to be an adequate basis for the suppositions he provides in the later chapters.

Roberts, in these later chapters, uses examples of war poems todemonstrate the relationship between Sinhalese and colonial rulers. The variety of material gathered here provides strong evidence of the use of oral communication by a native people to label and differentiate ‘Others’. He also discusses the way in which such poetry was used to solidify the attachment of the populace to the hierarchical structures in place and provides some background to the beginnings of the enmity between Tamil invaders, who at the time were associated with Europeans (pp. 130-3), and the Sinhala people.

In the more historiographical sections of the book. Chapters 3 to 6, Roberts covers issues such as the development of ritual within this society. The political landscape, the development and independence of the Kandyan state and its rulers, as well as the way in which those same rulers were deified are also examined in detail. The administrative and hierarchical stmcture that sustained the Kandyan kings is similarly considered. The conceptualisation of the Sinhala nation state is discussed and well substantiated by comparing it to similar developments across nineteenth-century Europe and Asia. Roberts’ citation of the cosmological modelling of the Sinhala state upon the Tibetan mandala comprising a core and an enclosing element (pp. 63-4) was enlightening, to say the least.


Roberts also devotes space in the book, prior to his later chapters on War Songs and Culture, providing evidence detailing the impact of European colonisation and the overlordship role played by the Kandyan king (see chapter 5). The text is rich in examples of the developing relationship between the Sinhalese and Europeans and Chapter 6 is devoted entirely to the early days of British rule. In part, this chapter considers the effect of the English vocabulary upon the Sinhala language. For scholars wishing to research the impact of British colonialism on indigenous people, this section of the work, coupled with later chapters, provides an excellent insight into colonialism’s impact.

Roberts has added a valuable piece of work to the literature available to scholars on the use of ritual in reinforcing political ideology and subordination. I highly recommend this book as a vehicle for studies in not only this facet of the social sciences but also for evidence of the transmission of oral history through poetry and the development of the concept of nation in a society. It is also a noteworthy work as an example of the impact of ethnicity in society and the outcomes of the effect of changing ethnic demographics.

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Asoka De Zoysa:Covering the Female Body: Transition seen in Buddhist murals from the 18th to 20th centuries 22 August 2013,

Michael Roberts, “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” 28 January 2012,




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