“Punchi”: A Font of Cultural Knowledge so Generous in His Aid to One-and-All

Michael Roberts

Punchibanda Meegaskumbura would not demand a Professor’s title before his name if he could see us today. He was of the Sinhala people and a man for all peoples – rooted in simplicity, but blessed with many skills. These knowledges he readily made available to all and sundry as his colleague in arms within the Sinhala literary field, KNO Dharmadasa has made clear in The Island. My own plaudits will appear below…. BUT Chandra R. de Silva has provided the world with as succinct and incisive summary of Punchi’s contribution to research and scholarship as anyone could ask for.

An Appreciation from CR de Silva, 22 October 2020

  I am fortunate to have known Punchi for over a quarter century while we were both at the University of Peradeniya. The History Department office was right next door to the Sinhala Department and we saw each other quite often. Punchibandara Meegaskumbura was a dedicated and beloved teacher. His deep knowledge of Sinhala language and literature was a treasure to all of us because of his willingness to share his expertise with us. I particularly benefitted from his comments on sixteenth and seventeenth century Sandesa Kavyas (Messenger Poems). Above all, he was kindly, generous and full of good spirits. His passing away leaves a void in our hearts. Chandra R de Silva      

Michael Roberts: Many a Tale in Appreciation of Punchi’s Expertise and Generosity in Aid

My interaction with Punchibanda Meegaskumbura in our undergrad days at Peradeniya University and when I was teaching there from 1966-75 were limited, albeit friendly. It was when I began analysing Sinhala nationalist thinking at some point in the 1990s that I sought hm out during my research visits to Sri Lanka and benefited immensely — in fact immeasurably– from his knowledge of Sinhal literature and the living culture of the Sinhala people.

As the phrase “living culture” indicates, his readings were not just bookish but embodied – that is, they were rooted in daily lifeways and living practices. As my work moved backwards beyond the British period to the pre-modern period extending from the 13th century to the early 1800s, the practices of oral communication involving such modalities as teravili and hatan kavi[1] became vital. And Punchi became one of the hands[2] vital to the expansion of my knowledge of Sinhala culture. As proof, note the index of “names” in the book eventually produced in 2004 entitled Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815.

To this day I remember one moment when I was picking his brains about these oral modalities of exchange and he indicated that during the night in his village area –I now gather from KNO’s essay that this was Ravatagoda in Kotmale — one heard a sound of drums followed by the chant of a verse from one house in the neighbourhood which was then met with another verse in response from some other household in the vicinity. These, in my speculative reading, would have been “everyday exchanges of viewpoints, perhaps even ripostes, that impinged strongly within the memory of listeners.

Thus, at one point in my study I present this statement: “ On the authority provided by Meegaskumbura and Dolapihilla,[3] it can be noted that in the long duration of Indian civilisation performances of song and poetry precede written media in conveying key messages of powerful forces,” (2004: 22). This sentence is just one illustration in support of two key assertions:

A “Speaking broadly, I assert that in the middle period 1232-1818 oral forms of communication were of greater significance among the generality of people than palm-leaf texts.” (2004: 22)

B “On the basis of twentieth century personal and teaching experience I cleave to one axiom in the study of ethnic relations …. namely, that face-to-face exchanges centred around verbal communication are of critical significance in the emergence, reproduction and/or amendment of identity, especially identities of a collective sort.” (2004: 22).

Again, further along within the same chapter in Sinhala Consciousness, I dwell on a famous poem extoling the manner in which Leuke Disava confronted the Portuguese enemy forces and draw upon the expertise of Ananda Wakkumbura, CR de Silva, Asoka de Zoysa and Meegaskumbure. De Zoysa and Meegaskumbura both underlined the importance of the last line in Sinhala poems. Thus interpreted I was led by these two scholars to the conclusion that “the poem likens Leuke’s fate to that of the Buddha in sturdy isolation confronting Mara” [his arch enemy].[4]

Those seeking further detail should visit my book. For my work in this field Punchi was a godsend. But, let me now move at a tangent and record an amusing ethnographic incident which involved Punchi and presents a reading of cultural difference that – in my appraisal – is itself a contemporary ethnographic ‘fact’ of the type that anthropologists and sociologists deploy.

An Aside: This incident occurred when I banged into Punchi at London University at some point in the 1990s. We greeted each other like long lost brothers and stood in the corner of a hallway and chatted. There was a staircase leading down into the hallway which brought people down to join streams of university personnel moving in all directions – at pace. The hustle and bustle of movement was intense, hectic. Whereupon Punchi deviated from our chat and noted in wonderment: “pudhuma lōkaya nēdha!”

What Punchi was marking here was the difference in the pace of life between personnel at Peradeniya University and those in the British world. Note my restricted compass: not a difference in the lifeways of Sri Lanka and England; but rather the difference in the university worlds that does involve ethnic contrasts.  There is pedestrian hustle and bustle in Sri Lanka’s cities yes. But is it of the same character as British cities? I cannot answer that question. But that the student population of Sri Lanka’s campuses did not (and do not?) rush to lectures or rush here and there in the same frenetic manner that we observed at that moment is an ethnographic contrast that I will stand by. A minor point of cultural difference? Yes.

Whether it is a contrast that carries wider import is an issue we must address. Punchi has begotten this issue. Thank you, good man! The academic world will miss you.

[1] Teravili are riddles in verse – usually in quatrains (viz. sivpada); while hatan kavi are war poems.

[2]  Others included Ananda Wakkumbura, Srinath Ganewatte, KBA Edmind, JB Disanayake, RC Somapaala, Sumanasekera Banda, Darshani Gunatlleke, Asoka de Zoysa, Ananda Tissakumara.

[3] P Dolapihilla; “Sinhalese Music and Minstrelsy,” in Ralph Pieris (ed.) Traditional Sinhalese Culture. A Symposium, Peradeniya, Ceylon University Conference on Traditional Cultures, 1956, pp. 34-46.

[4] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004, p. 35.

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One response to ““Punchi”: A Font of Cultural Knowledge so Generous in His Aid to One-and-All

  1. chandre Dharma-wardana

    When I was looking at the origins of place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka, there were several occasions when I consulted Prof. Meegaskumbura by telephone (calling him from Canada), even though I had never met him personally. There were many instances when he helped me out. Here are two examples, as it would take too long to recount all the occasions that I rang him up (many are noted in https://dh-web.org/place.names/ interspersed within the place-name discussions)

    1. I had assumed that “Aru-gam-Bay” had a Tamil origin with an anglicizing “bay” added to it, and meant “Aru-kam” or “four-villages” in Tamil. But Prof. Meegaskumbura pointed out that there was no literary, or any other evidence for it, while there IS literary, textual evidence from the 17th century for the village name to be “Aruna-gam”, where “Aruna” means “dawn”. This village is the Eastern-Most point in Sri Lanka and so dawn arrives here first! He gave me a reference to the textual details that I had jotted down on my computer screen in 2001, but failed to follow it up, to my regret. Hopefully, some Sinhala scholar might be able to find that reference for us to further firm up the origins of the place name..

    2. I was intrigued by the origin of the place name “Yaala”. And hear again Prof. Meegaskumbura explained to me over the phone the linguistics of the origin of the place name. I have recorded it as follows:
    “The Sanskrit (also Pali) word, ‘Sakala=cart, becomes ‘Hayala‘in Sinhala. By a process of inversion known to linguists, ‘Hayala’ becomes ‘Yahala’, and ‘Yaala’ in popular usage.
    Thus, according to Prof. Meegaskumbura (Sinhala Dept., Peradeniya),
    ‘Yahala’, and ‘Yaala’ connote an extent of paddy land which requires a cart load of seed paddy for sowing. A small area within the present ‘Yala sanctuary’ was originally called ‘Yala’. The sanctuary, also called the Ruhuna National Park, or Yaala national Park, was established in 1898, becoming the first “protected area” in Asia, according to Prof. S. Ekaratne (Zoology Dept., Colombo).

    And so on.

    How ever, as you see, inquiring into the origins of each place name is quite a task as it involves much diligence, many issues, and many disciplines ranging from history to linguistics, botany and here even Zoological history. So the help of people like Prof Meegaskumbura was indispensable. I do not believe that Sri Lanka makes adequate use of scholars like Prof. Meegaskumbura.
    Here, en passant, I must also mention Meegaskumbura Jr. whose contributions to zoology (in identifying new amphibian species native to Lanka ) have been impressive.

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