An Exploration: Discerning How a Sinhalayā in Kandyan Times BECAME Sinhala

Michael Roberts, reproducing here an old draft that is entitled “Becoming Sinhala” ***


The scene is somewhere early in 1984 and the location is the building housing the Social Scientists’ Association on the road to Nawala off Narahenpitiya in Colombo. The late Charlie Abeysekera and the late Newton Gunasinghe are reflecting gloomily on the pogrom of July 1983 that had victimised Tamils living in the capital and elsewhere in the south. Charlie is one of the founder members of MERGE and both are among the few personnel in Colombo who had taken an active stand in public forums against the atrocities that had occurred.* Now, in the gathering dusk, Charlie looks at Newton and asks: “what makes you think that you are a Sinhalese?” Newton immediately grasps the serious import and analytical purpose behind this question. He considers the issue gravely before venturing upon an answer.

One day in 1986 when we were assembled at some watering hole,[i] Gunasinghe related the story to a few friends and summarised his answer. I forget that detail. I remember the question well. It remains a pertinent question for the situation today in mid-2002. How does any Sinhala-speaking person today believe that s/he IS Sinhalese? And how has s/he BECOME Sinhalese? Unravelling this seemingly silly question would indicate the many and diverse agencies, processes, events and experiences that have moulded the collective identity of each person who bears the self-conviction that he or she is a “Sinhalese” and thus differentiated from SL Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers, et cetera, namely, other like ethnic categories,[ii] who dwell in the island state of Sri Lanka. In locating conventional patterns in this moulding work, an analyst could potentially discern some of the critical arenas of social interaction, including those competitive or abrasive and thus prejudicial to good relations.

One can, of course, as with so many people, believe that one is a Sinhalese without carrying any animosity towards Burghers or Tamils or Muslims or foreigners. In other words, it is likely that self-awareness and affective attachment to one’s ethnic/national identity would be held in different measure by different persons. But the track initiated by Abeysekera and Gunasinghe would lead an investigator to strategic terrains of social inquiry that could illuminate the roots of extreme forms of nationalism, of zealotry in other words.

It would be a fruitful set of tracks today. Its fruitfulness would reside in part in the agentive focus it will enforce. It would be methodologically inductive, from the bottom up, generating empirical data rooted in persons even as one expands the investigation to large-scale facets such as the content of school text-books, radio jingles, television advertisements and everyday linguistic metaphors. It would bring anthropological methods, cultural studies, sociology and political science together. In this procedure it would be replicating some of the insights provided by scholars analysing moments of ethnic killing from a position at the grassroots during the very moment of such incidents or from rich data gathered close-to-the-ground immediately afterwards. I am thinking here of works by Veena Das, Uma Chakrabarthy, Gyan Pandey, Elizabeth Nissan, Jonathan Spencer and Pradeep Jeganathan (see References). Such studies are best undertaken by investigators who live and work within Sri Lanka and thereby participate in everyday activities. It is the hidden power of the everyday taken-for-granted world that Abeysekera was highlighting with his acute question.

      Here, however, I will extend this question backwards in time to the period 1590s to 1818, the world of Sinhala-speakers in the kingdom of Sinhalē, a state that is more widely identified today as the Kingdom of Kandy.[iii] Such a procedure will not have the advantages of face-to-face encounters with the social actors under study. One cannot have follow-up questions probing into the ideas carried in peoples’ heads after an incident or a speech act has revealed some point of significance. One has a further problem common to many lands, but less common to Western Europe where archival records in some spheres enable amazing detail on peoples’ lives. [e.g. Richard Cobb; Le Roy Ladurie; Natalie Davis; History Workshop Journal] We do not have diaries from that era and hardly any archival records on the daily routine of ordinary people, though we are fortunate to have a book** written by Robert Knox, an Englishman of Puritan leanings who was a kind of original Malinowski** and forced to spend nineteen years in the third quarter of the seventeenth century as a prisoner in two Kandyan villages before he made his escape.

Thus baulked, I will nevertheless take a series of conjectural paths. The fiction is not out of thin air. It is informed by a survey of the modes of cultural transmission in the pre-capitalist era in what I have called the “middle period,” namely, 1232-1818 (Roberts 2002), a review that was assisted materially by the advice tendered by several historians and literary specialists. That survey in its turn was critical to my analysis of the Kandyan state formation and the ideology expressed by both ruling classes and people in letters of state, war poems and folktales. The analysis was necessarily an overview, thus sweeping in scale and inclined to present summarising generalisations from the position of an analyst outside the order. The advantage of the track pushed by Abeysekera and Gunasinghe is that it forces one inside — among the entrails of a collective identity and it’s shaping so to speak. In this sense this article presents a counterpoint to my book-length work that yet serves as an embellishment to that work. So, I begin with a bald summary of my analytical overview because it is that particular ‘mass’ that I propose to penetrate from another angle through the path suggested by Abeysekera and Gunasinghe.[iv]

The Political Ideology of the Kingdom of Sinhalē. Social Interaction and Cultural Transmission

In reviewing the dispensation of the state of Sinhalē in the particular temporal form known to us today as the Kingdom of Kandy the focus was necessarily a distilled, composite one that was not attentive to temporal variation in the period 1590s-1815. The methodology was also that associated with an analytical summary. It is therefore a “static and coherent picture” from the outside. In order to provide it with some dynamism and some agentive dimensions, I shall attempt to take a worm’s eye view by taking a speculative tack and placing myself, as well as readers, in the position of a generational cohort of young male kandaudayo (Kandyan Sinhalese) at a particular point of time and asking how they could have been nurtured to recognise their caste identity as well as their other obligations, including the collective identity that I have labelled “Sinhala.”

This review will be entirely hypothetical and based on first principles, albeit principles informed by the data, processes and events identified in my previous book-length study. While inspired by the track suggested by Abeysekera and Gunasinghe, it is also guided by the issues and directions taken by Peasants into Frenchmen, that well-known work by Eugen Weber (19xx). This Peasants into Frenchmen is set in the nineteenth century and examines the growth of collective sentiment within the emerging capitalist order of France. Along one dimension it can be regarded as a study of modernisation. It examines the manner in which parochialism-cum-regionalism was broken down and how the diverse individuals and peoples of France became “French.” In this view, the framework of France as a nation state may have been established by the French Revolution and the work of Napoleon Bonaparte, but the cement was not in place.** [likewise in a famous bon mot from Cavour …] In this view the mass of the people, the peasantry in particular, were not yet French at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their localism had yet to be reduced and brought within an overarching network of affiliations with the nation state writ large. Weber’s book is a study of this process and the title encapsulates the idea. In pursuing this question of historical sociology, however, Weber’s approach is that of an analyst outside the order. His perspective is also rational secular and focuses on the processes of bureaucratic and market penetration.

These are vital processes and his bias is a necessary methodological tack. But it could be embellished and usefully complemented by a more anthropological and agent-focused perspective that elaborates on the way particular speakers of French, or such dialects as Occitan or Lyonnais, became “French” in so far as they became aware of state-wide issues on a regular basis and developed a sentimental commitment to state and society. I am arguing here that it would have been fruitful for Weber or another scholar to focus not only on say, the expansion of state agencies or the extension of print technology in the Andersonian style,** [pre-Anderson, but ..] but also to look at the many modes of cultural transmission involving the visual, aural and oral senses, thereby embracing the impact of performative moments within the peoples’ universe of being.

Oral communications have their aural inflections, involving, for instance, different phonetic spins and rhythmic modes. In other words, there is a performative dimension to communication that anthropological awareness brings into one’s evaluations. This awareness is pertinent even when one is dealing with dead people who are not within one’s immediate observational compass in a corporeal sense. It is because of this awareness that Holt stresses “the situating experience” engendered by a shrine room at a temple for devotees, even as he is surveying the significance of eighteenth-century religious paintings. Where it takes root, collective identity, whether related to caste, people or religious sect, is always an embodied identity. Dramatic performances and dramatic moments of interpersonal exchange, including conflict, war and funeral rites, are critical sites at which such attachments can be nourished.

For Sinhalē I will pursue this hypothetical path by placing myself in the position of a cohort of males from the social strata of “working people” (väda karana minissu) within the numerically-dominant and ritually superior Govigama caste. With necessary changes, of course, this hypothetical track could be attached to the life journeys of a body of youths from one of the intermediate or depressed castes, or alternatively, for young women from a similar range of castes.

There are three related questions: (A) how did they learn that they were “working people” and not “radala,” that is, not from the aristocratic ranks of the Govigama? (B) How did they learn to assume the airs of the Govigama in their exchanges with those Sinhala of lower caste? And (C) how did they know that they were Sinhala and not some other like category, namely, Yon, Demala, Kannada, Kaberi, Ja, Parangi, Landēsi, that is, respectively, Muslim, Tamil, Kannada people (from Mysore), Black, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch? One should note here that even within the territories directly administered by the King of Sinhalē there were a few scattered Yon settlements and that these Muslims had a service role in the transport department besides functioning as traders. Likewise, there were a few renegade Portuguese living in the kingdom, while Brahmins, holy men, fighting men and other immigrants from India (more often than not Tamil-speakers?), were among the residents or travellers in the social order of the seventeenth century. The terms Kannada, Kaberi and Ja, as we saw, were among the disparaging epithets deployed in the war poems of the era because such personnel were amongst the troops in the service of Portuguese power. A Landēsi ambassador had visited the King of Sinhalē in 1605 and the Dutch forces entered the scene in the 1630s as allies of Sinhalē, in an uneasy alliance that sometimes involved fighting between the two.

The first two questions are related and can be answered in one sweep. To those familiar with the pre-capitalist Sinhala social order the questions may seem silly, because the differentiation into castes was inscribed into social practice in numerous, crosshatching ways supported by the imprimatur of the state: in terms of address, in the word-form of “you,” in seating arrangements, in the organisation of some temple rituals, in the type of services (rājakāriya) rendered to the state, temple or local lord, in sumptuary rules, et cetera. As this summary description indicates, the aristocratic Govigama were immediately marked out by their dress and demeanour and by the type of service (if any) they provided the state. The working people among the high-status Govigama were precisely that: cultivators and menials. In this sense the distinction between the aristocrats and the rest has similarities with the distinctions that prevailed in medieval and early modern Europe. But, unlike Europe, it would appear that refined speech-forms were not a mark of difference. We have it on Knox’s authority that the courtesies and verbal capacities of the ordinary ploughmen were exemplary.

However rough their work, and however much they were liable to provide forced labour to maintain the pathways, provide goods for travelling officials, fight wars or contribute labour for state and religious festivals, the able-bodied Govigama workmen were a cut above the Navandanna, Radā, Wahumpura, Badahala, Batgam, Beravā and Panikki working people, while they were way superior to the despised Rodi people. Most of the these ‘lower’ castes (but not the Rodi), I stress for the benefit of those who may be misled by the Indian caste practices, were cultivators first and foremost, but held their lands on condition that they rendered their caste services to the state, lord temple and even higher status Govigama families in their locality. Thus, a Radā household would be linked with several Govigama families in their locality as their washermen at ritual occasions.

I have brought caste identity into the picture for two reasons. Firstly, to show that I am not suffering from tunnel-vision by occluding this highly meaningful facet of everyday life in the course of a study of Sinhalaness. But, secondly, it is critical to the latter trajectory. One became Sinhala through one’s caste and within one’s caste. The Sinhala caste structure was a relational and functional scheme of things. A Rada or Wahumpura person would not be Radā or Wahumpura outside this scheme of relations, say if and when they ended up in the Jaffna Peninsula, whereas a Yon person would remain Yon. In effect, a young man – and indeed, a young woman because the strictures on sexual liaison, cooking and serving were stricter for women – would be nurtured as Sinhala by learning the significance of differentiating caste practices. Caste nomenclature and the intricacies of caste interaction, in other words, was one facet of the process by which one became Sinhalese and learnt who was Sinhalese and who not. The Yon living within the state of Sinhalē may have had some caste-like functions, but they were not a caste.**[John Rogers is quite wrong on this issue.  For some data on service roles, see Dewaraja 1988 and Pieris 1956]

The more critical issue for my purposes is that relating to (C), the degree of localism and the ways in which it was transcended by linkages with the Sinhalē state and wider society in ways that may have inscribed historical traditions in the ordinary person’s consciousness. In brief, I am addressing the issue raised by the Abeysekera-Gunasinghe discussion and by Eugen Weber’s study in another context, a pre-capitalist one. However, we lack the detailed empirical material available to Weber or anyone researching nineteenth-century France with the theoretical perspectives that I propose to follow.

I address the question, therefore, in hypothetical ways, though these speculations will be informed by my book-length study of the Kingdom of Sinhalē and especially by the work on modes of cultural transmission.* This hypothetical track will focus on three hypothetical cohorts of male youths from the male ranks of the Govigama in three villages (a) Opalgala in Palesiya Pattu, Matale East, in today’s Central  Province and (b) Soraboru near Mahiyangana in the Bintänna district on the eastern reaches of the kingdom; and (c) Okampitiya in the southern section of Wellässa in Uva Province and assume that they reached the age of twelve in the year 1632.* [clarify reasons for choices] The further assumption is that they did not die of some affliction or during some battle with the Portuguese and thus were alive and well in the 1670s as seniors in their locality. How did these fellows become Sinhala through the nurturing they received from their infancy as well as their involvement in cultivation and other work from a youthful age? And though their daily round of engagements in village, district or wider order? It is by raising this speculative set of questions that I take a methodological track that is agentive in focus.

Growing up they would have been exposed to the nalavi gi (lullabies), familial and household rituals of their siblings and cousins. These would range from the moment when a child’s first mouthful of rice was marked to Sinhala New Year rites and to puberty rites and the first shave for males. It is possible, though not certain, that one of the lullabies they heard was that which referred to the famous story of Prince Dutugämunu railing against the cowardice of his father, the King of Ruhuna, for his failure to challenge the Tamil ruler, Elāra, ensconced at the heart of Anurādhapura; for the prince could not stretch his limbs in bed because they, the Sinhala people, were sandwiched between “the vile-cum-fierce Tamils in the north and the turbulent/unfathomable sea to the south,” dakunen sädi demalui, uturen golu muhudai.** Among the activities they would be exposed to would be those involving consultations with astrologers, äduro (exorcists) and vedamahatmayo (ayurvedic physicians) when a close relative was ill or deemed to be possessed by yakku (‘demons’) and perētayo (ancestor spirits). They would also have participated as attentive audience in the curing rituals that occurred in their village or those of relatives in neighbouring villages.

As youngsters they would have been taken by their elders to the nearest vihāra (temple) on many occasions. As adults they might exercise their freedom to avoid such regular participation, but as they reached their 40s and began to consider their after-life, even some of those previously irreligious would begin to take up the devotional attitudes of upāsakas (religious devotees) and attend to their religious duties assiduously. Such participation over their life-span, therefore, would involve visits to regional religious centres, such as Aluvihara and Dambulla for the villagers of Opalgala and Mahiyangana and Senkadagala (Kandy) for those of Soraboru. In the shrine rooms of the temples they would see wall paintings depicting jātaka tales,* the sites associated with the solosmastāna (the sixteen places visited by the Buddha when he flew to the island) and pictures of the underworld inhabited by yakku and perētayo arranged as a bottom layer in the hierarchical scheme so intrinsic to the Buddhist world view. During such visits they would also hear stories of this or that king, a figure long dead, who had bestowed specific lands to the temple they were visiting or sponsored the construction of one of its buildings or religious artefacts as a work of merit.

As members of their households these cohorts would develop a familiarity with the practices of dānē, sil and pirit, respectively almsgivings, ceremonies binding one to specific moral undertakings and the protective chanting of Buddhist texts. A few members of these cohorts would also assist their elders, or participate themselves, in the more elaborate ceremonies associated with katīna pinkamas and sati pirit.** On both these occasions there would be moments when the texts explicating Buddhist virtues were recited in the Sinhala medium rather than Pali. Among the favoured texts on such occasions was the Pūjāvaliya, a twelfth century work. This is written in simple Sinhala and is amenable to recitation and memorisation. Several villagers, as likely as not, would have the capacity to reel off whole chapters. And among the chapters the last two provide a summary version of the history of the Sinhala kingdoms state as found in the Mahāvamsa, with a twist that gives the popular Dutugämunu story an even sharper anti-Tamil hue.**

As they grew older, the more devout individuals among the three cohorts would, in all probability, have ventured forth on a pilgrimage to Srī Pāda (Adams’ Peak) or on an extended tour that involved visits to several of the solosmastāna, not least those located at Anurādhapura. This would be a momentous and arduous journey, a striking one that would remain etched in their memory. It would bring alive the island’s sacred topography and their own village’s location within a “moral community” of Buddhists in the manner elaborated so vividly by Obeyesekere by taking the instance of the villagers of Rambadeniya deep in the hills of Lunugala an isolated region even in the 1950s.

Once every year … some of the villagers would go to the great pilgimage center of Mahiyangana, about thirty five miles away, which the Buddha himself consecrated by his presence and which now houses the collarbone relic were enshrined in an imposing stupa. As they proceed through the forest, they hang branches or twigs on trees sacred to local deities, implicitly acknowledging that they are no longer under the care of the local deity, but under the aegis of another whose sima (boundary) they are now crossing. In a matter of a few hours other villagers taking different pilgrim routes join them, and there is a literal and dramatic expansion of the moral community, which ultimately becomes a vast sea of heads in Mahiyangana. Right along the pilgrims sing religious songs mostly in praise of the Buddha, since this is the shared idiom that makes sense in the context of an expanded community.

At the pilgrimage site they bathe in the river and purify themselves and pray to the two guardian deities represented there – Saman and Skanda – and then worship the Buddha and perform exclusively Budddhist rituals. An important shift in allegiances has occurred; villagers have temporarily renounced their local deities and are united under the common worship of the Buddha and the guardian gods. The once separate and discrete moral communities now subsume their identities in the larger moral community of sinhala Buddhists (1995: 238).

Here, then, as so explicitly specified by Obeyesekere, localism would be subsumed and yet connected to the wider order in a relational and territorially marked manner. During some of these pilgrimages, especially those to Anurādhapura and Tissamahārāma, they would invariably learn about the great kings and culture heroes of the past who had restored some of these sites or made some magnificent act of social welfare (e. g. building an irrigation reservoir).

The overarching figure of speech, here, more implicit than explicit perhaps, was the island, in its various synonyms Lankadīpa, Sīhaladīpa, Heladiv. In effect, the idea of a Dhammadīpa formulated in the Mahāvamsa and other chronicles of Sinhala society would be vivified by the experience of pilgrimage, the vandanā gi (pilgrimage songs), the folk tales heard and the territory covered on foot.

Where members of our cohort did not participate in a pilgrimage they would nevertheless be among the many villagers listening rapt to the tales brought back by the elders who had earned so much merit by participating in such a journey. In the process of becoming Buddhist in this manner, then, these men of Opalgala, Soraboru and Okampitiya were also becoming Sinhalese or, rather, reproducing their Sinhalaness.

Equally significant in the universe of being surrounding people in Sinhalē during the Kandyan era were the propitiatory and protective rituals on behalf of the collective good that were organised annually or whenever some serious affliction was threatening people or crops in the region. These ceremonies included a series of rites over a month long known as gammaduva as well as specific forms of folk drama called sokari and kohomba kankāriya. These were serious functional events, but they were also entertaining and even riveting events. It is entirely possible that they allowed for impromptu moments of topical social commentary by the performers that extended to impromptu banter between audience and performers.

Among the performative events that may have been attended by some of our men would have been the interactive poetic performances known as kavikāra maduva.** The aristocratic lineages in the state of Sinhalē are known to have maintained sites for such performances in the environs of their manor houses (valauvva), while the King of Sinhalē maintained a body of  minstrels bearing the same name (Roberts 2002: 000). Listening to the royal kavikāra maduva, and even daily recreation among the courtiers. Dolapihilla’s oral history discovered that that the compositions of aspiring poets were analysed by the king and his staff after their debutante performance and those deemed worthy were then strung unto to the palace repertoire” inscribed on palm-leaf (1956: 41).

Sinhala society, then, was one that appreciated aesthetic capacities, whether in the form of poetic composition, dance or drumming. By the early nineteenth century, for instance, the people of the district of Alutnuvara, for instance, had earned a reputation for their poetic capacities as well as their dancers (P E Pieris 1995c: 107). Thus, it is possible that some of the men from our three villages became adepts at this form of exposition. Where drawn to the aesthetics of poetic performance as listeners, they may have heard recitations of the fifteenth century praise poem known as the Pärakumbā Sirita. They would have then marvelled at its composers’ capacity to render the same words amenable to two different modes: one being recitation, and thus one sonorous and calming, the other percussive and stirring. [info from Sandadas Coperahewa; also Sannasgala 19xx] But in this very act of aesthetic appreciation the contents of the poem would be imprinted in their memory banks. This content exalted the figure of Parākrama Bāhu the Sixth, King of Kottē, during whose time there was a literary renaissance as well as territorial expansions demonstrating the state’s power. In other words, the linear connections of their kingdom and that of Kottē would be implicitly conveyed by this tale, thereby re-asserting the historical trajectory inscribed in Sinhala traditions.

The life of these men of Opalgala, Soraboru and Okampitiya would not, of course, have been one of ritual and performance. There would have been the hard daily tasks of life sustenance and agricultural activity according to the seasonal demands. Where their tenurial rights were linked to that of a local temple or local lord of aristocratic stock, they would have to provide specified services to these land-controllers. Paddy cultivation on wetland, however, may not have been their principal mode of subsistence. It is likely that swidden agriculture (hen) would have been the principal practice, especially at Soraboru and Okampitiya. This work would not only have involved sojourns away from their village, but the need to sit on their treetop crow’s nest at night during the growing season in order to guard the crops from elephants. On these occasions the men would compose tēravili, riddle poems involving word play (usually in quatrains), in order to keep awake and while away the time. Most of these would be about local fauna, flora and people, but one must allow for the possibility that they contained historical allusions and brought the culture heroes of past and present into the compositional fun.

Workloads were not confined to one’s village or immediate locality. All able-bodied men were liable for conscription (rājakāriya) as a people’s militia for war or to render service to the king and his state officials at centres far, perhaps even at one of his palaces in Senkadagala, Hanguranketa or Alupota (in Uva).  Apart from the weight of such appropriations, the social and political experiences gathered in the course of the journeys must be brought into our purview.


The people of Sinhalē, therefore, did not dwell as isolated beings in self-sufficient villages. Agricultural activity took them into their immediate surrounds. Corvee labour of various sorts and pilgrimages took them further afield. There may not have been roads, but there were well-seasoned pathways criss-crossing the Kingdom of Sinhalē as well as the Low Country to the west. Ambalamas, namely, wayside resting sheds with pots of water, dotted these pathways. The upkeep of such sheds was an obligation as well as an act of merit accruing to a neighbouring hamlet or segment thereof. Travellers carried some of their victuals, but officials probably had the privilege of receiving supplies from those assigned to such tasks. In brief, there was a system to maintain the needs of both state and travelling people. [Coomaraswamy; Dassanayake; Knox; Roberts]

Such travels would have brought the workers and pilgrims into the knowledge of their landscape and society in ways that embellish the clarification presented by Obeyesekere from his tale of the “obligatory pilgrimage” and its significance. One of the abiding interests among the Sinhala folk seems to have extended to ruminations on the origin of place names as well as deities, lineages and castes, “onomastic discourse” as it is called. The investigations of J. P. Lewis and Deborah Winslow into folktales about place names indicate that a significant proportion, as much as 37 per cent in one regional study, connected the name with a king, queen or some high official of past time (Winslow 1984b: 81). This tendency should be located within the context of Winslow’s conjecture that the onomastic stories were concerned with the legitimising of claims to status and land, an interest that thereby encouraged links with state structures (1984b: 79). In the other direction the imprint of state power would also be marked if any of our travellers chanced upon such places as Walahandeniya in Medisiya Pattu of Harispattuva, a village that had is believed to have been degraded into gattara status by royal fiat for some alleged misdemeanour.[v]

Storytelling was another abiding interest it seems. Whether resting at the ambalama in the course of some journey or whether gathered together at some spot, even perhaps the ambalama nearby, with one’s mates during the many breaks in working schedule available to the menfolk (as distinct from the women whose workload was consistently greater), our cohorts of men would indulge in such tales as well as gossip. Knox’s unequivocal evidence affirms that locals were wont to gather at suitable sites, including ambalamas, to chew the cud and discuss “the Affairs at court … what Employment the People of the City are busied about… [as well as] their own affairs, about Catel and Husbandry, Laws and government of the Countrey” (1911: 159). Travelling men would have been doubly encouraged to pursue such concerns.

Giruwa Ambalama & Panāvitiya ambalama today

Gossip and tall tale also carried the didactic moral tale. As elsewhere in the world, the story of wise kings who circulated among the people in disguise in order to decipher their concerns appears in Sinhala lore. In one version that seems to have travelled into the twentieth century Rājasinha in beggarly disguise seems to have received some critical advice from an old woman about not proceeding into battle in haste without solid preparation after he burnt his tongue in gobbling at a morsel (Roberts 2002: 23). This old folktale could conceivably be a ‘modern invention,’ but it could also go way back because it an eminently transposable tale and can be attached to any kingly story.

Travel and storytelling, therefore, brought people into some awareness of their island’s topography. The Sinhala people may not have possessed the technological methods to depict cartography in the manner highlighted by Benedict Anderson on the basis of comparisons between western techniques and Thai ways of depicting landscape on plane surfaces.** But Abeywardena’s work on the vitti pot ( provincial boundary books) and  kadaim pot (1978 & 1999) indicate a considerable awareness of directionality and location.

This conclusion is supported by the topographical detail within the sandēsa poems (message poems) of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. These, to be sure, were kāvya, eulogising the king or other big men and thus replete with fabulous imagery. But the journey of the messenger was tethered in local topographical space. Nor was it a haphazard chaotic route: the path of the messenger’s journey was linear and would have made sense to contemporary listeners.

Travel and storytelling, likewise, would have brought people into knowledge of stories of state, both present and past. These stories could embrace tales about big men of their day or perhaps their grandparents’ time. Those who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century would surely have picked up some of the tales associated with the famous court jester and poet Andarē and would almost certainly have learnt the tale of great Leuke Dissāva’s fate in the face of the king’s wrath,

Leuke mätindhu ada taniyama vela mäddē …… [Forsaken and all alone,buried in the middle of a field [vi]

Residing in Soraboru our generational cohort would certainly here of those moments when the king and entourage sought refuge in the Vädda country of Bintänna whenever the Portuguese gained control of the city of Senkadagala.* As likely as not, some of their corvee duties may have been demanded on such occasions. Again, in the third quarter of the century, those at Okampitiya in Uva are likely to have heard on their grapevine that Rājasinha II had decided to enjoy a change of scenery and moved into his palace at Alupota. They would also hear the gossip about the king’s acquisition of a concubine from the Yon (Moor) village of Pangaragama (Sumanasekera Banda 1986: xxv-vii, xxxvii).

Virtually all of them would marvel at the comet they had seen in the sky one day in 1664 (Knox 1911: 000). And, a little later, stories would filter through about the unsuccessful rebellion mounted by Ambanvela Rāla and associates. They would be told that Ambanvela Rāla’s party had hoped to place the child crown prince on the throne and had even surrounded Rājasinha II, but hesitated to strike a blow against the royal body.** They would listen in awe as the gruesome details of the retributive  executions that followed were retailed. It would be whispered that the prince child was no more, put to death, it seemed, as a threat to the king. The power of the kingly state was here made vivid. And only few of our friends would be alive in 1687 to discover that the tale of the prince child’s killing was a clever royal ruse, for the young man was brought out from hiding to receive his inheritance on Rājasinha’s deathbed and take on the mantle of Wimaladharmasuriya II.


From the 1590s if not earlier the Kingdom of Sinhalē was more or less continuously at war till the 1650s as it struggled to maintain it’s survival in the face of the Portuguese expansionary programme or attempted to oust them from the substantial territories they administered in the south western lowlands. Those who fought for the King of Sinhalē were a mostly a people’s militia recruited by the system known as rājakāriya; and are accordingly described as Sīhala sen or Sīhala senaga in the war poems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[vii] It is a fair presumption that most of our three cohorts were recruited to support the war effort in some capacity during their able-bodied adult life span and they witnessed the deaths of some comrades. The battle of Randenigala against De Sa in xxxx after all, involved some 0000 troops on the Sinhala side.**

Fighting these wars therefore forced travel from our young men, and travel in clusters that would encamp in wādiyas (temporary camps, usually all-male but supported by young boys rendering menial chores) at night. Here, they would bring out their udakki (a small drum) and cymbals, sing, and indeed, coin hatan kavi (war songs) and gird their loins for battle.[viii]

War was not always a matter of battle in distant places. It poured over and subsumed many a Kandyan village, especially in (a) the Four Korales and Sabaragamuva, that is present Kegalle and Ratnapura districts, much of which was controlled by the Portuguese; (b) the Kandy Plateau and (c) parts of Harispatuva, Mātalē and Udapola districts to the north and north west of Senkadagala. Senkadagala was itself occupied and/or sacked by the Portuguese on several occasions. This means that several villages were ravaged by war and its consequences. Thus, men women and children would have been internally displaced “refugees,” though perhaps such a term did not exist then. Episodic war, then, was an event that people experienced. It is not too much to conjecture that it moulded collective consciousness.

The content of the war poems, as I have shown, embodied these feelings of solidarity and the allegiance to the king who embodied the state. They also embodied hatred for the Parangi,** the para rupu or vile and low enemy alien. Invective and disparagement of the Enemy Other, embracing all those named ethnic groups fighting on the Portuguese side, was one part of this body of collective sentiment. The stacking up of decapitated heads and the cutting up of the bodies of these aliens was one theme that ran through the celebration of triumph.**

War meant the destruction of one’s crops and property. More vitally, it probably involved rape[ix] and certainly meant death among one’s own people. Death meant funerals, events that were not one-off occasions, but marked subsequent and regulated almsgivings to appease the departed spirits of connected others. Where feasible, the funeral of local leaders and men of note would have been a marked event with eulogies in verse. These are usually referred to as prasasti stotra or panegyric felicitations in verse, sometimes as couplets known as shloka.[x] Such moments would not have been confined to the immediate moments of war. When great commanders died much, much later, it is likely that the prasasti stotra praising their career in exaggerated terms dwelt on their great feats in battle.[xi]


In speculatively depicting the life journeys of three cohorts of men in the seventeenth century, I do not claim that every one of them experienced every one of the events or channels of cultural transmission identified in this imaginary recapitulation. Nor do I claim that their responses would have been homogeneous and exactly similar. My project has been directed towards revealing the several conventional channels that could generate (1) an awareness of a wider Sinhala state society with a pertinent history and lineage and (2) experientially provide the potential foundations for collective sentiments of attachment to this order. In brief, the idea is to show how ordinary villagers were connected to their existing state and its past, how parochialism was transcended and yet strengthened by its connectivity to a wider regional and all-island sensibility.

The force of conventional channels of cultural transmission lies in their very conventionality. One does not listen to one’s uncle or father reciting aloud the Saddharmaratnāvaliya in order to become Sinhalese or Buddhist, but, in doing so, one is nurtured in a manner that could build a person into being Sinhalese and Buddhist. It is the potential possibilities that I am marking in this conjectural exercise.

I stress, too, that the power of cultural messages arises from the intermedial — aural, oral, visual and performative — cross-hatching of communication. What event or experience, what message and what modality, will evoke affective chords and plant itself in the heart cannot be predicted easily beforehand. It would obviously vary with the individual, but this variation would not be infinite and there would be a clustering that generates collective attachments among a significant body of persons because of the very conventionality, the repetitiveness and the interlocking of these channels/messages.

Albeit unlikely, it is possible that in the course of their travels a few men from our hypothetical cohorts may even have come across some kandaudayo who, quite unusually, had visited the powerful deity shrines at Devinuvara and Seenigama in the south-western coast to make some supplication to the gods of those abodes. These visits, let us further conjecture, had been during the height of the south western monsoon. As they listened to the awesome description of these visitors’ first experience of the sea, the muhuda, that hō gāna pokuna, or pond that generates terrible sounds, they would perhaps comprehend how Prince Dutugämunu of Tissamaharāma had felt unhappy at being pressed between the sädi demalu to the north and the golu muhuda to the south, for they understood now that the sea was not so much “dumb” or “silent,”** but rather turbulent.


*** This month of April 2021 I came across this incomplete article in my files. The text seems to be complete; but asterisks mark intended footnotes that have not been inserted and there is no bibliography [an essential support in my way of working]. The latter missing dimension can be ADDED without too much effort ……. but the missing footnotes remain missing [though I have added some when feasible via the symbols a, b, c, et cetera]

The other issue is this: when was this draft composed? At a guess, I would say that it could be the draft of the essay published in 2002 as Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism in the Marga Monograph Series – following the series of “Workshops” in Sri Lanka organised by Godfrey Gunatilleka and Marga in the period 2000 to 2002(?). Note that all this work on my part led to the book Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004. The latter work, clearly, is the core foundation for this essay.

A BIBLIOGRAPHY …. composed in 2021 to service this article and including Works NOT cited

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Abeyawardana, H. A. P. 1999 Boundary divisions of medieval Sri Lanka, Pulgasovita: Academy of Sri Lankan Culture.

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

Chatterjee, Partha 1994 ‘Claims on the past: the genealogy of modern historiography in Bengal,’ in D. Arnold & D. Hardiman (eds) Subaltern studies VIII. Essays in honour of  Ranajit Guha, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-49.

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

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

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

Dart, Jon 1990 ‘The Coast Veddas: dimensions of marginality,’ in K N O. Dharmadasa and S. W. R. de Samarasinghe (eds.) The vanishing Aborigines, Delhi: Vikas, pp. 67-83.

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De Silva, C. R. 1977 ‘The rise and fall of the Kingdom of Sitawaka,’ Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies n. s. 7: 1-43.

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Ingrisī Hatana 1951 [The war with the English], Matugama: Viyasiri Press for K. R. Jayatunga. Original composer Väligala Kavisundara Mudali.

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Kirimätiyāwē Mätidun 1896 Maha hatana, [The Great War] ed. by Albert de Silva, ?: Vidyasagara Printers. This is Maha Hatana II in Sannasgala’s review of Sinhala literature.

Knox, Robert 1911 An historical relation of Ceylon, ed by James Ryan, Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons.

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[i] Of course! [By a strange quirk of memory I now recall that this exchange was at the Orient Club opposite Royal College].

[ii] The term “Muslim” is a religious category when juxtaposed with “Christian,” “Hindu” and Buddhist,” but becomes ethnic situationally in the context that I have placed it within. Note that “Muslim” is now commonly used in Sinhala oral-speak as well [rather than “Marakkala”]. Both terms are distinct from “Ja” which is the Sinhala name for the Malays.

[iii] The best studies are those by Ralph Pieris (1956) and Lorna Dewaraja (1988).

[iv] Deane Fergie must also take some of the ‘blame’ because she ignited my memory re the Abeysekera/ Gunasinghe episode by raising a challenging question at a seminar on the subject of Sinhala identity at the Dept. of Anthropology, University of Adelaide 20 August 2002.

[v] ‘Sinhalese traditions’, Ceylon National Review March 1910, vol. 9: 113-14. Also see Lewis 1922 for another example.

[vi] This is not a literal translation and has been based on advice from Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura [alas no more with us].

[vii] Sītāvaka Hatana, v. 0000; Rajasīha Hatana, v. 000 and Maha Hatana, v. 000.

[viii] Based on his conversations with minstrel octogenarians, Dolapihilla claims that every man carried udakki and cymbals (1956: 4, 43).

[ix] There is no evidence on this score as far as I am aware.

[x] Shloka is the Sanskrit word for the Pāli term gātā.

[xi] Thus, several of the war poems, from the Sītāvaka Hatana of the 1580s to the Ingrīsi Hatana of the 1800s, have specific verses devoted to the exploits of named chieftains.


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