Three Historical ‘Journeys’ into the Colonial Past

Geedreck Usvatte-Aratchi, in Sunday Island, 1 October 2017, where the title reads “War, Doom and Re-generation”………………. A Review of three books

  • W.I.Siriweera and Sanath de Silva (2017):Warfare in Sri Lanka
  • Gananath Obeyesekere (2017): The Doomed King
  • Sarath Amunugama (2016): The Lion’s Roar

During the last 12 months three scholarly books have come out and my title refers to them. Each of them deserves a detailed review and they may appear soon in learned journals. My objective here is to bring them to the attention of the local reader and to celebrate this ‘season of mellow fruitfulness’ of scholarship in a land given more commonly to fruitless sterility. Besides, Obeyesekere clearly says, ‘… I am directing this book primarily to Sri Lankan readers. It is they who will benefit most from re-reading our past’. Soon the book will come out in Sinhala. All three authors came out of the erstwhile University of Ceylon within about a decade 1955-65(?), Obeysekere having spent some of his undergraduate days in Colombo. Siriweera is an outstanding historian and like most in the Peradeniya tradition has taken to the study of institutions and processes in the past. Obeyesekere is one of the leading cultural anthropologists in the world. Amunugama is a brilliant scholar, an eminent Civil Servant and the most distinguished intellectual in our Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers. All three works deal with the history of this country although over different periods of time. All three of them deserve to be read with attention and not flippantly.


Siriweera writes the shortest and the least complex of the three books. Of the 187 pages of text in the book, all but 15 are devoted to encounters with colonial powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. There is no mention of military resistance against Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who in the 15th century invaded the land and carried away the ruler. Those 15 pages are occupied by accounts of wars by Gamani Abhaya (Duttha Gamani, a sobriquet he ill deserves) of Ruhuna against Elara and Vijayabahu against the Cholas and Parakramabahu, first to consolidate his power in Lanka and later against kingdoms overseas. There are brief accounts of wars both against invaders and domestic claimants to the throne in the 13th and 14th centuries. Wars of succession to the throne of Kotte in the sixteenth century are dealt with among wars against Western powers. Were there then, long periods of peace over those 17 centuries or so except when kings had to fight against ‘foreign’ forces? That is not the picture that one infers given the very short reigns of rulers over those long stretches of time, except for the mythically long reigns of kings before Devananpiya Tissa. Was it the intention of the chroniclers and commentators to tell us that Sinhala kings fought wars against only those that invaded their lands? Obeyesekere reports that ingirisihatana had Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe rhetorically ask his ministers, ‘When enemies invaded the country, was there any one of them (past kings) that divided the country?’

There are two major wars before 1500 that are discussed in some detail. There are maps showing the routes that the armies of Gamani Abhaya and Vijayabahu took and some discussion of the battles that were fought. In both instances, there are references to fortress cities Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva. Elara left the fortified city and gave battle in Kasagala. Vijayabahu besieged the city of Polonnaruva for six weeks. There is an elaborate story of how a mighty elephant attacked a fortress in the battle against Elara. But we have no information whatever about the material with which these fortresses were built. They must have been sturdy to withstand the battering rams that were elephants. The knowledge and techniques for putting up lasting large structures were evidently available among the people. Yet we have no remains of any such fortress. When Rajasinghe laid siege to the Portuguese fort in Colombo, it had mud walls. All this calls for explanation as, given the common presence of elephants in use in war, mud walls could have offered little resistance and protection. Were not there design and building techniques to meet the challenge of withstanding the force of elephants? The Dutch seem to have changed the technology and some of their forts exist to date. But soon thereafter massive fire power and accuracy of cannon (recall Newton’s parabola) made the whole technology of fortresses obsolete in warfare.

Siriweeera’s book is an introduction to a longer treatise on the strategies, tactics and technology of warfare in Lanka. One hopes that the Defence University will take up that challenge, sources of information permitting.


‘The doomed king’ of Obeyesekere is a very different book. It is argumentative right through and the author invites debate on what it presents. His position is that Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe ‘has had a bad press’ and that he would redress that fault. He presses for ‘a sympathetic look at our last king and as well as the nature of British imperialism at that point in history’. He does this by reading contemporary texts comparing the one with the other and by commenting in detail on the work of other scholars. He studies works written around that bleak time, hatankavya, ehelepola varnanava and kiralasandesya as well as private correspondence of the time and official records kept by the British in both Colombo and London. He spends substantial time exemplifying myth making models at work in instances of the history of the fall of Sinhale. If much of the information on the events and persons is mythical, then one must work through them to observe what took place. That is his work in this book. (K.M. de Silva wrote ‘The precise mode of the execution of Ehelepola’s wife and children has been transformed by legend into a story of incredibly horrible sadism’. S.J.Tambiah in Levelling Crowds has an admirable account of myth making at work in his account of the 1956 riots in the Eastern province and elsewhere.) He analyses that legend or myth to find a model of myth making. John D’Oyly was a ruthless spy for Brownrigg and played the central role exploiting the jealousies and enmities among courtiers in mahavasala. Violence seems to have been almost away of life among these men.

Amunugama writes briefly about the religious practices of the nayakkar kings and the displeasure with which the inhabitants of kandeuda rata lived with them (pp.645-653).Activities of bhikkhu against otherwise seemingly benevolent kings were symbolic of this displeasure. There were several instances where bhikkhu were central to unsuccessful conspiracies and plots against nayakkar kings. Obeyesekere tends to downplay this antagonism to Sri Vikrama and highlights lo sasunvada accomplished by him, including plans for a ‘celestial city’ in mahanuvara. One might speculate whether the British wrote that fifth clause in the Convention where they declared that ‘the Religion of the Buddhoo professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces is declared inviolable; and its rights, ministers and places of worship are to be maintained and protected’, to assure the people of the continuity of their Buddhist beliefs and practices and to appease the displeasure of the prominent members of that society with the religious practices of the deposed king.

Obeyesekere argues well and hard to resuscitate the good name of a much maligned king. He also demonstrates well the impulse to rewrite history answering exigencies of the time. But most important for me is the change in the method of research in anthropology. Gone is the field work with which he wrote Land tenure…., Edmond Leach wrote Pul Eliya…, Clifford Geertz wrote The interpretation of cultures, Benedict Anderson wrote on Indonesia and Thailand and above all Claude Levi-Strauss wrote on Brazil. In its place, Obeyesekere reads texts closely and comparatively. Are we back in the library from the jungles?

Minor quibbles about translations. Lo sasun is translated as ‘world and the religion’. The first instance of that phrase in Sinhala, I find in sasadava: kala lo sasunvada- lilavatiehimisanda palakala dam rajasiri -me vatumhipitubala vi.

Kumaratunga Munidasa translates that as (lo) state and (sasun) church. Rhys Davids has ‘sasun’ as ‘…order, teaching’. The term (lokasasanan) occurs in Pali in the Mahavamsa but I have not been able to locate it and understand the usage. There is lovadasangarava,wherein David Kalupahana translated lo as ‘the world’. But the whole book contains advice to persons, and nothing on ‘the amelioration of the world’. In tracing the ‘kinship between the two treatises (Nagarjuna’s Sahrdalekha and Maitreya’s Lovadasangarava)’, he identifies the former as a letter to his friend, a king, on moral life. Lo vadasangarava, though addressed to a different audience, has the identical objective. More the reason to translate lo as people. There is ‘pitobhavatuloko ca’ in the Pali stanza, beginning ‘devo vassatukalena’. I think it makes more sense to translate lo as people in all these instances. Loksabha in Hindi translated as House of the People as opposed to rajyasabha (the House of States) is a modern use of the term.


‘The Lion’s Roar’ of Amunugama is the most complex and the most successful book of the three and strikingly different from the preceding two. Dharmapala has been much written upon and still occupies a bright spot in the imagination of Sinhala Buddhists, though not as glorious as when they sang, ‘gayava bera rakshakarav thum sri maha bodhi mandale…’. Amunugama gives context to this imagination, analyses changes in the economy including the emergence of new occupations and attitudes of the Sinhala, all within European scholarship in the study of large scale changes in society. The century from1850 to 1950 has been studied by several scholars including Kumari Jayawardena, Michael Roberts, Gananath Obeyesekere and Gombrich, H.L.Seneviratne and, many others. Jayawardena and Roberts are strong in telling us about economic and social changes while Obeyesekere and Seneviratne excel in bringing before us changes in culture particularly in matters of religion as lived experience.

The Lion’s Roar is heard in three long peals, as if it were. The first is an account of the life and work of Dharmapala. He comes out as a man of immense courage and audacity, with deep convictions which he set out to live out. Almost single handedly, he brings back Buddha Gaya to undisturbed worship by Buddhists. He lives in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and makes acquaintance with leading personalities in that city as well as other parts of British India. He travels widely including in Japan and for that eventful conference in Chicago. Amunugama writes strongly to ‘locate Dharmapala’s work within a larger canvas, saving him from the cage of ‘a Sinhala zealot and a Buddhist bigot’ in which he had been trapped by many earlier scholars. The second pela includes his contributions to the re-generation of the cultural life of the Sinhala, which had undergone much depredation during more than 300 years of colonial rule unredeemed even by thoughts of its once glorious history. Piyadasa Sirisena, the novelist, was his great ally in those efforts. John de Silva, the playwright, did no little to feed the incipient spirit of rejuvenation in a people given to decay and degeneration. The Mahabodhi Society which he set up, among other things, established schools breaking into the monopoly of secondary education in the hands of other religious establishments. The third peal, though weaker, is the location of Amunugama’s analyses in the broad field of studies dealing with large scale changes in colonial societies. We are all in his debt for the lamps he lit and for the directions he showed us.

Indifference to technological change

Curiously and strangely for writers in the 21st century, the function of technology in the processes covering the activities that they deal with finds no mention. Strangely, because during the last preceding several decades there has been a large amount of highly acclaimed scholarship on technological change in Europe since the 10th century, and rapid change after 1700, not simply in processes of production of goods and services but also in armaments and warfare. ‘The weapons’ (Chapter 8 of Siriweera) discussing that subject over 2,000 years of history has no mention of technological change, at all. Swords, bows and arrows are mentioned but not changes in their design or the material they were made of. ‘One cannot conclude that there was a naval force worthy of being reckoned in the Island throughout (the two millennia)’. Guns had been introduced to the country by Arabs and of course by Europeans after 1500, but technological stagnation in warfare until recently is clearly evident. Perhaps this was true of the entire neighbourhood. Since early times there had been ‘invasions’ of this land by adventurers from the north. Perhaps the best known to us is the Cola invasion of the 11th century. Parakramabahu of Polonnaruva is reputed to have successfully invaded some parts of present day Myanmar. However, none of them held on to their conquest for long, in contrast to what the European invaders did, notwithstanding lines of communication with Europe, ever so long compared to those of regional invaders. When kings realized that they could not prevail against the fire power of invaders, they imported guns from neighbouring countries, as Rajasinghe of Sitawaka did, precisely as we do now in the 21st century. ‘The superior fire power of the British’ prevailed. (Siriweera)

Those sharp differences in military technology make one question whether Obeyesekere was right to diagnose ‘a doomed king’ in kandeuda rata. Wasn’t his a ‘doomed kingdom’? The treachery and perfidy of courtiers in mahavasala and the trickery and insidiousness of John Davy deserve a place in the tragic drama that was the fall of the two millennia old monarchy. By 1815, the British had mastery over the seas and the craft of ship building to outdo the people of this island and indeed the Arab and other Muslim sailors who had ruled the waters here. Steel hulled ships and the internal combustion engines completed that picture by the end of the19th century. Ehelepola and Davy may have brought down King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe but the kandeudarata kingdom was doomed by far larger and mightier forces. Obeyesekere is well aware of this when he observes ‘…it was inevitable that Kandy would be eventually incorporated into the burgeoning British Empire. The king (kingdom?) was in this sense doomed and it is this personal and cultural tragedy I explore in this book’.

Dharmapala lived at a time when that cycle of mechanization which we call the industrial revolution had worked its way almost 345 degrees. The glittering Crystal Palace Exhibition of London in 1851 was a declaration not merely of the industrial might of Britain but also of the emergence of Britain as an imperial power. The Exhibition in Brussels in 1897 showed up how a little strip of land in North Western Europe ruled over lands in Africa larger than the entirety of Western Europe. Japan had opened the Imperial University of Tokyo and begun to use European technology in production processes. Dharmapala had been to Chicago precisely when the United States was racing to become the world’s leading economy beating Britain to second place. It is true that the subtitle of Amunugama’s book is ‘Anagarika Dharmapala & The making of Modern Buddhism’. Yet he does tell us of ‘..Japan which had modernized its industry and rearmed, leading to the first modern victory of an Asian power against ‘the white man’. Dharmapala had seen the changes in Japan, the industrial might of Britain and the growth in the United States, but never looked at his own society wearing the lenses of those impressions. Amunugama notes that ‘..he (Dharmapala) did not give much importance to economic issues’. Perhaps because, as Amunugama writes ‘…he (Dharmapala) pointed to a mythic, symbolic past which was essentially pre-modern’. That is one of the surviving legacies that Dharmapala left for us.

Excellent documentation and indexes

All three books are exemplary in the ways they document the evidence they adduce in support of statements in the text. Siriweera is meticulous in his references to the chronicles and their commentaries. Obeyesekere provides extensive notes, appendixes (including one written by Professor Gerald Peiris, containing maps of the City of Kandy and of sacred places in the city), a glossary (there is no entry for kodituwakku although the reader is referred to it under gingal), a bibliography and an index. What more can one ask for? Amunugama completes a monumental task. He writes notes and bibliography to each chapter at its end and some of these notes cover more than two pages of small print, (e.g. on Sri Sumangala Charitaya by Yagirala Pannananda). The index running into12 pages is extensive.

History is constantly being re-written

These three books also show up impulses to re-write history. It is noteworthy that Siriweera’s book on warfare came out last year, after the nation had undergone the trauma of a major civil war. There is no way of comparing but it is not wholly unreasonable to surmise that the people of this land had never fought another war as destructive of not only men and material but also of goodwill and amity. Obeyesekere in the introduction tells the reader, ‘In this work I document the multiple discourses or debates relating to the so-called Tamil (Malabar) kings and show their genesis in the political conditions of the time’. His book also shows that there were ‘….some of us natives who not only believed that the king was a cruel Tamil tyrant but also that the British saved the nation from this brutal king’. Arun Shouri attributes roughly parallel sentiments among the untouchables regarding the British when India was to be freed of British rule. These divisions between the Sinhala and the Tamil have prevented the growth of a common loyalty to a nation, surpassing ethnic loyalties. As an antidote as if it were, Obeyesekere ‘paint(s) a positive version of the king….’, in fact ‘a requiem for Sri Vickrama Rajasinghe’ . I had read some long essays in which Obeyesekere had taken a fresh look at the earlier kings of kandeuda rata, from the vantage points of view of the present. In writing a fresh treatise on the life and times of Dharmapala, Amunugama brings in not only a new container (not simply a tool box) of intellectual equipment but also a new outlook on life born out of his own times and experiences. It is as if historians see fresh vistas as they stand on new structures of time from which they look at previous layers and that they interpret what they see in variegated ways, always governed by the ethos of new times.

I have been with these three books off and on during the last several months. They provided excellent companionship. Once in a way, I wandered away to imagine the three authors in the Senior Common Room on the first floor of the ‘Arts Building’ at Peradeniya, joisting with each other with argument. The congenial life that we as students and they as teachers led in Peradeniya was a short lived phenomenon that could not have survived the deluge of growth in population and the subsequent rise in student enrolment following the free education scheme and the change over to Sinhala/Tamil as language of instruction in schools and universities. With those changes ended the dream of Sir Ivor Jennings of a small university of high excellence on the banks of Mahaveli. These three men take you back to that short lived efflorescence. Read them and you will get a whiff of that fragrance.

The Sunday Island 1/10/17


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