Origins of Sri Lankan Nationalism

Upali C Wickremeratne, presenting a critical review of  Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period: 1590s to 1815, by Michael Roberts, (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2003)…. originally presented in Ethnic Studies Review, vol. XXI,  No. 2, July 2003, pp. 207-20…. with pictorials imposed by Roberts against the grain of this article. NOTE: the title is that chosen by Wickremeratne … and is in fact a misnomer.

It is hard to think of a book, amongst those written by those affecting to be scholarly, which is based more on conjecture than this. The criteria for evidence should be considered. It is not a question of whether the sources are oral or documentary.  After all the evidence in a law court is mainly oral.  It is a question of considering the arguments for and against any particular point of view.  It is a question of weighing the evidence. A civil case is decided on a balance of probabilities and a criminal case on whether there is a reasonable doubt.  It is not a question of facts or the truth. Law draws a distinction between hearsay, opinion and evidence based on cross-examination.  Collingwood wanted an army of questions led into the sources. They would enable one’s own biases and predilections to be questioned.  It would supply the place of cross-examination.

This attitude is all the more important in Sri Lankan historiography because of the lack of strictness shown in assessing the evidence in the British period of Kandyan history.  It is based mainly on the writings of the enemies of the Kandyan kingdom.  It is based mainly on hearsay.  It could be said that a proper history of the Kandyan history British period has not been written.

What should be considered next, chapter by chapter, is how the author deals with evidence.  Chapter one is concerned with setting out the view of two schools of thought, those who consider communal and racial discord to have been caused by developments during British rule and those who consider it to have been more enduring, with roots in an earlier past.  The author takes the side of the latter but leaves the elucidation of his views to later chapters. However, there is one revealing comment. The author says that he expects his views to be challenged and amended by others enabling them to reinterpret the material in different ways.  He himself is not going to evaluate them.  It is an admission by him that he intends his views to be partisan and tendentious. This he says is the practice of anthropologists, “a dictum in social anthropology.”

In the second chapter, the author describes numerous forms of non-literary communication. However, he mainly offers conjecture and speculation to support his view that their use was widespread.  Here are examples. “It takes little imagination to argue that dance and song were easily combined to make a powerful mode of transmission” (p 23).   “It is feasible for a scholar to take up a stock of tales, residing in the mind of say an illiterate kavikaraya (bard) in twentieth century Lanka and to enter the mentalities of the late middle period” (p 35). The author says that when a person looked at a wall painting he did so unreflectingly at first, later he would reflect on it and even later, “it would crystallize on subsequent occasions when it was rendered vivid by an event or by an act of textual reading” (p 20).  Needless to say no evidence is offered to show that these imagined reactions took place.  According to the author, the people of a putative Batgama village would regard their Govikula neighbours as more foreign than the Portuguese or the British (p 34). This is imagined. He further says “speaking broadly I assert that in the middle period 1232-1818 oral forms of communications  were  of  greater  significance  than  palm  leaf  texts” (p 22). His evidence does not justify such a conclusion.

The author adds to the number of topics which Knox purports were talked about in ambalamas (rest-houses) by villagers.  To begin with Knox’s statement is a generalisation.  It is not based on a study of conversations in all ambalamas or on a representative sample of them. The author extends the topics discussed to include religion and others by saying “one can speculate that the discourse at such sites ranged beyond topical matters of the moment to stories of religious edification, local folklore” (p 28).   This is unsupported by evidence and is an unwarranted use of imagination.

The question which Jayatissa asks Rosalin in Piyadasa Sirisena’s novel, Jayatissa Saha Rosalin, “are you from the rata” (country) or “from the tota” (port) is interpreted by the author to mean “are you Goigama or Karava.”  This is an unwarranted speculation as are the views which the author attributes to Sirisena but which he appears to share, that the Goigama caste lived in the country and were less affected by foreign European ways than the Karava caste, who lived on the coast (p 31 ff).

The celebrated poem describing Leuke disava’s death in a paddy field is taken by the author, as showing that he was killed by the king. The poem does not say so expressly. It could show, equally, that he was killed in battle by the British. This is an aspect which the author does not consider.

Chapter three examines the origin of the Kandyan kingdom, the nature of its monarchy and its administrative and social institutions.  Here too there is a great use of conjecture. It is claimed by the author and others that the abhiseka (coronation) transformed the Kandyan king into a god.  The evidence offered is the name used to address him after the coronation and the obeisance shown him. This evidence is not convincing. A question which can be asked is whether the same obeisance was shown to the king before his coronation.  Although less abjectly, obeisance was shown to the English monarchs and they were believed to have the power to heal by touch.  However, for these reasons they were not considered to be divine.

The author adopts Seneviratne’s view that “when a king is a Buddhist he automatically becomes Sinhalese” (p 48). Neither he nor the author provides convincing evidence of this.  The Nayakkar kings themselves and their ministers and others should have had something to say about this. Furthermore, then as now, there are Buddhists who were not Sinhalese. Buddhagosa is a case in point.

  Hulft’s Dakuma

The author does not stop at this. He says that the abhiseka (coronation) transformed the Nayakkar kings into Sinhalese persons (Ibid). The only evidence he advances for this view are references to the last king as the “great Sinhala king” and “the great king of the Sinhala.” This evidence is not sufficient for such a far sweeping claim especially in view of what he goes on to say.  He shows that rebels denounced Sri Vikrama Rajasinha as Vaduge (Tamil and vile) and did not regard him as Sinhalese. The author speculates that this king could have been both Sinhalese and Vaduge to the same person. The author’s reply to those, who would baulk at this, is to say that they have become too imbued with Western rationality which clouds “our readings of the world view of that era” (p 52). There is no evidence that there was a world view of the time and that Kandyan rationality was different from Western rationality.

The author says that the last king became afflicted with smallpox, which in the view of North had not happened to a king of Kandy and was regarded as a manifestation of divine displeasure.  In the plethora of complaints received by British officials against the king this is not mentioned by anyone. North should not be regarded as a reliable source of information about the views of the Kandyan people.  The author however regards the affliction as serious enough to make his subjects believe he had lost iddhi (supernatural power).  This is a conjecture, as his view that “his frenetic building projects in later years may have been an attempt to compensate for this ultimate stigma” (p 50 ff). There is no evidence that his building projects were done frenetically or that he was trying to compensate for the affliction. Obviously he recovered. The significance of this is not considered.

The Sinhalisation of the Nayakkar kings is obviously a tendentious attempt by the author to counter the views of those who argue that the acceptance of Nayakkar rule and its popularity, shows the lack of animosity among Kandyans to the Tamils or Telugu people.

The author claims that the king’s Nayakkar relatives gained “increasing influence” with the last king and points to the allocation of Kumaruppe Veediya (Malabar Street) for their habitation as proof of this. The evidence countering this view is not considered. The evidence shows that all through his reign every post of importance, including those of the inner chamber, was held by a radala (noble) person. The British laboured hard to spread the view that the Kandyans were being tyrannised by a foreign Malabar ruler and that they were going to liberate them.  Allowance should be made for the strength of this propaganda.  Generally communities lived in different areas and it is not strange that the Malabaris lived in Malabar Street.

The main themes of chapter four are the chakravarti (world rule) claims by the Kandyan kings, the Tri Sinhala view, the mandala (core) state concept, the political significance of the annual festivals and the dakum relationships (the relationship between superiors and subordinates).

The chakravarti claim of the Kandyan and earlier kings, as represented by the author are not based on conjecture. However he makes it enigmatic. He says it is both chakravarti and chakravarti-like. The same contradiction is shown when the kings are referred to as both god and godlike. The author will censure, those who object to this ambiguity, by saying that they suffer from an “either or” mentality. To him a ruler can be both chakravarti and chakravarti-like and god and god-like. To others this shows the tenuousness of both claims.

The Tri Sinhala view, according to the author, shows that Kandyan ideology spread to the whole island.  To be valid this ideology would have had to be accepted by the Sinhalese in the Maritime Provinces. The evidence seems to show that they accepted the rule of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.  They do not seem to have regarded them as para saturo (foreign enemies).

According to the author the Kandyan state was a mandala state with an inner periphery and an outer periphery.  Here again much conjecture is used to sustain this view.  With regard to the influence exercised by the centre on the outlying periphery the author says “In my speculative assertion the practices and ideas within this arena counted for more than those in the surrounding peripheries” (p 40). Here the author himself admits to the speculative basis of his view.  He goes on to say that the local chiefs acknowledged the chakravarti king at the centre by either “occasional or regular acts of homage” (p 76).  It matters whether they were occasional or regular. The more occasional it was the more autonomous the local chiefs would have been. Again, he says “it is not clear whether the Vanni chieftains were expected to turn up at the capital annually during rituals of world renewal (or send messages with excuses)”(Ibid).  Here too is shown the tenuousness of these relations.

He uses the rebellion of 1817/18 to reinforce this view.  He says that the rebellious chiefs and headmen of the Vanni showed their allegiance to the centre (Ibid).  Evidence which controverts this view is ignored.  Walapane, Bintenna and Wellassa formed the centre of the rebellion. Far from being unaffected by British rule these were areas in which an intense search for prize property was conducted by British soldiers. The administrative privileges granted to the Hadju Muttu infuriated chiefs like Butave Rala. In any case Doreswamy was with them. There was therefore no need for the rebels to turn elsewhere for leadership. Furthermore, if the rebels wanted to show allegiance to the central government, it was to the British they should have turned, for they had been invited to rule.

Along with others, the author takes the view that the annual festivals had a political significance. The author adopts Seneviratne’s view that the Asala Perahera (procession) was intended to create “a picture of armed combat and military advance” (p 66). This view can be questioned.  It was only in 1755 that the Dalada Vahanse (Tooth Relic) was introduced into the perahera.  Did it become militarily more powerful then than before?  A procession is more likely to be regarded as military if soldiers participate in it. What of the processions of pre-Nayakkar kings?  Were they less significant?

The author says further “It is my conjecture that the annual rites of medicinal unction and bathing centred upon the king during the New Year were consecration ceremonies of world renewal” (p 47). This is an admission of conjecture.

This whole view would be more convincing if there were opinions expressed in support of it, by the kings, their ministers and other participants in these ceremonies.

The author adopts Obeyesekere’s view of dakum (appearance) relationships. According to both of them they were a series of relationships involving almost the whole society. The evidence indicates that, except for the payments made by dissaves, they were, as the name suggests, nothing more than acts of courtesy. Moreover a wife enjoyed the rights to own property and to divorce her husband. A tenant could alienate his holding without gaining his landlord’s consent. Administrative officials, however highly placed, could be dismissed at the King’s will, despite dakum gifts.

 Dakum does not appear to have been compulsory. It does not seem to have created relationships only betokening existing ones. A superior relationship did not depend on an inferior relationship. In 1818 the British government abolished dakum.  This did not cause a social upheaval which it would have done if dakum had been as integral to society as the author makes it out to have been.

Obeyesekere seems to hold the view that dakum relationships were feudal relationships similar to those in Europe. It need hardly be said that this is not true. Feudalism could not have existed without serfdom, without bondage, without greater lords and lesser lords, joined to each other in mutual dependence, without lords with military retainers and without a weak king.

The author does not believe that feudalism existed in Sri Lanka but he uses the language of feudalism. He speaks of lords and of homage. His close reliance on Obeyesekere and the importance he accords to dakum does not make his disavowal convincing.

The main theme of chapter five is the purported tributary overlordship of the Kandyan king over the Dutch. The author rightly says that the King and court wanted the Dutch to send annual embassies which would bring gifts to them and lead them to ask for permission to peel cinnamon in the Kandyan Kingdom. They regarded the Dutch as watchers on the coast, who were holding the maritime provinces on their behalf. According to Abeyasinghe the Dutch did not share this view. He says that the claim of the King to sovereignty of the coast was fictional. The author however, takes a different view. He says “in opposition to Abeyasinghe one can speculatively argue that they were alive to the political implications of their acts of obeisance” (p 81). Although not expressly said, he implies that the Dutch accepted Kandyan overlordship. He takes this view further. According to him when the Dutch insisted on Yalpannam paying annual tribute to them they were not denying Kandyan overlordship over them.  He says “The latter action should not be construed as a denial of Kandyan claims to overlordship. Rather it was an affirmation of levels of authority and overlordship” (p 77). What started off as a speculation is now regarded as an established fact. This is not the only instance where this happens in the book.

A further rebuttal of the authors view is to be seen in the treaty of 1766.  It expressly denied Kandyan claims to sovereignty over the maritime provinces. It diminished Kandyan power more than before. It drove the king and the court to take the side of the British in the 1795 war and to urge them to restore territory which they alleged had been taken from them wrongly by the Dutch. The Dutch had betrayed their trust and let them down. All this would not have been said and done if the treaty of 1766 had become a dead letter.

Chapter six deals mainly with the relationships between the kingdom of Kandy and the British, the development of British nationalism and its effect on Kandyan nationalism.

British policy towards the kingdom of Kandy is not presented accurately. It is represented as having been intended to prevent other European powers from entering into alliance with it by making it into a British protectorate and, contradictorily, to annex it “though the correspondence also reveals ambivalences, variations in position and a considerable degree of discrimination that seems to have been directed towards convincing themselves that their own motives were above board” (p 87). At first British policy was aimed at entering into an alliance with the kingdom to gain its support against the Dutch, secure provisions for its troops in the ensuing war and secure commercial advantages for it.  These were embodied in the Preliminary Treaty of 1796 but North wanted it abandoned when he saw that the Dutch Treaty of 1766 gave the British more power and the king less than it did.  After his sojourn in Mysore with Wellesley, for almost four months, North became converted to the policy of subsidiary alliance, which he pursed obsessively until the disaster at Vatapoluwa. After that he sent punitive expeditions into the Kandyan kingdom, which he was restrained from trying to annex by the lack of troops.  Maitland despised the Kandyan kingdom from a military point of view and baulked at an alliance with it, for that reason. He was driven, however to enter into relations with it to secure the release of Major Davie. The Home Government counselled against annexation and wanted Brownrigg to follow the same policy as Maitland but he was drawn into intervention by the defection of the Kandyan nobles and the disintegration of the Kandyan government. The British government acquired the Kingdom of Kandy ultimately by invitation. There was no self-deception in this policy. It was clear and dictated by self interest which, in the view of Butterfield is a criterion nations have always followed and is the best for them to follow.

The author claims that Brownrigg committed a great diplomatic blunder by having the “audacity” to send a letter directly to the king. This is not the whole truth in the matter. Others had done the same. Both Stuart and Andrews at the beginning of the British invasion sent letters directly to the king, to which, according to them, replies were received. North announced his appointment in a letter to the king which was not conveyed by an ambassador and which, according to him, was received well and which led to the embassy of Pilima Talauve. After the Macdowal embassy North tried hard to communicate regularly with the King through the medium of priests, sometimes through messages but through letters too. At the time of the arecanut dispute letters were sent of one of which the ministers said “We have duly received your Excellency (sic) letter….  We have on a good hour informed His Majesty of the said letter and His Majesty praised your Excellency very much” (North to Macdowal, 18-2-1803, CO 55, (Vol. 27), p 258 ff). The letter was taken by Appuhamies who, in their report, said that the Adigar told them that the king was pleased with the letter (Report of the Appuhamies 18-2-1803, CO 66, (Vol. 27), p 261 ff). It is true a fuss was made by the Court at the manner in which Brownrigg addressed his letter to the king. Doyly found this recalcitrance puzzling and attributed it to the death of Davie by which the King lost his bargaining counter. A corrected letter on the lines advised by the king’s ministers was never sent. The author implies that the British showed subservience to king and court in this matter. This is not true. It is a fantasy. The author would have discovered the truth if he had taken the trouble to study the written material in the Public Record Office and not relied on a selection of documents.

The author’s view of British history, confessedly adopted from others, can be looked at askance. His view that war promotes nationalism is questionable. It can be argued that the United States of America did not fight a major foreign war before the second world war or, for that matter, that Russia did not do so either before the first world war. This can be said of many other nations.

The author adopts the view of Colley that “a British sense of British national identity was forged between 1707 and 1837” and of Newman about the Gallophobia which prevailed in Britain at the time. The writers relied on are Fielding and Sinollett and the work of Hogarth. They are minor literary figures compared to the great ones ignored. The work of Jane Austen and George Eliot show no animosity to the French. They were giants whose work was a school for others, as shown in Leavi’s The Great Tradition.

The wars between Britain and France in the period referred to, concerned rivalry over the colonies and the balance of power in Europe. It can be argued that ideologically they affected Britain little and that the ideas generated by the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution were limited, too in their impact. It can be argued, too, that extensions of the franchise in nineteenth century Britain owed themselves to the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and that equality before the law had been established in it already.

It is appropriate to consider here what the author says in a later chapter in relation to Britain. “It was only around the 1980s that British scholars began revisionist work that has been reshaping the reading of their own history in reflexive styles that had been absent at the moment of Britain’s glory or during the twilight period 1945-60s” (p 145). Leaving alone the matter how far British history has been revised, one can surely ask what Britain’s “moment of glory” was or what its “twilight years” were. If this is a reference to the British Empire it can be argued that economically it benefited from it little during the nineteenth century. One can ponder too, over the import of Disraeli’s statement that the colonies were millstones round Britain’s neck. If the “twilight years” refers to Britain’s abandonment of empire, it can be argued that it was mainly voluntary and motivated by the idea of self determination generated by the Treaty of Versailles.

The author, although he admits that Bayly is a specialist in Indian history and not British history, adopts his view that “royalism was a central feature of British nationalism in the era 1780-1830” (p 101).  This view is questionable in the light of monarchy becoming established in Britain by the end of the civil war and the coming into power of Charles II. From then the dominant elements in British politics were the safeguarding of Britain from Catholicism and the Stuart pretenders, the increase of Parliaments power in relation to the monarchy, through the Revolution of 1688 and the Act of Settlement and the emergence of the office of Prime Minister and the Cabinet system.

There are other tenuous views held by the author. British administrative officials in Sri Lanka and, presumably, in other parts of the empire, were monarchist, a view which can gain acceptance only if the opinions of a representative sample of them had been examined. The author says that British officials had a greater respect for monarchical states like the kingdoms of Mysore and Kandy, even though they fought wars against them, than for the Malays, Malabaris and Africans who lacked state power. This view lacks evidence. Even more unfounded is the claim that British nationalism imbued the Kandyans with a nationalist sense. He speculates later that the British government’s rule of the Kandyan provinces and the migration of South Indian estate workers fortified, what he then calls, “Kandyan distinctiveness” (p 104). The Kandyans were administered by their own headman and the estate workers lived separately from the Kandyans. These aspects cast doubt on the author’s surmise.

Chapter seven is concerned mainly with an examination of the war poems. There are related themes which should be looked at, too, because of the extent of conjecture shown in them. The author argues that a lack of “Sinhalese consciousness” is not shown by the cultural transformation of Tamils into Sinhalese. It could be shown only, he says, by an opposite development, the cultural transformation of Sinhalese into Tamils, of which he purports there is no evidence. What is left out of this assessment, however, is the cultural transformation of Sinhalese into Europeans from the Portuguese to the British. Macaulay’s statement in the Charter of 1833 debate that an English education would make Indians British in everything but the colour of their skins, is pertinent. Westernisation does not detract from Sinhalese “consciousness.”  It enriches it.

The author adopts the view of others that the fervour of devotees made “the sculptured figure or pictorial image alive immanent and imbued with akarsana or magnetism” (p 111 ff). It need hardly be said that the physical transformation, implied here, could not have taken place.

According to the author when people went on pilgrimages they would have adopted “a walking pace” communicated with each other “profoundly” and repeated what they said to each other. It is suggested they talked about “tales” (p 113). These things might well have happened but there is not a scrap of evidence that they did.

The author draws a distinction between “dominance” and “hegemony” and says that it was cultural hegemony which the Kandyan government exercised. The only evidence offered to show it are pilgrimages, popular folktales and festivals, called “religio-political festivals” (Ibid) now, by him.

He says that the Sinhalese who heard snatches from the Ingrisi Hatana (The English War) would have linked them to accounts of how their ancestors repelled all invaders beginning with the Tamils (p 112). Again there is not a shred of evidence that they did this. What is more, why, if this were so common place, should the author have found the collation of enemies in the war poems and “the two letters of Kandyan state” “quite staggering” (p 130).

The main themes of chapter eight are what the author calls “association allogic,” the intellectual process by which the Sinhalese joined all their enemies together and the extent to which the war poems were disseminated.

The author gives great importance to a letter from Ahalepola in 1811, which shows this association. Even this says that the Portuguese “obtained leave to remain” and that the Dutch were brought to Sri Lanka. They were regarded generally as watchers on the coast, looking after the maritime provinces for the king. The Kandyan tried hard to persuade Andrews to acknowledge the king’s sovereignty over these areas.  The author tries hard to show that the king was the tributary overlord of the Dutch and that the Dutch ambassadors to Kandy were performing dakum. These concepts conflict with the concept of para satura. This is the great contradiction in this book. The author should try to associate himself with ordinary logic.

In “wild speculation” the author postulates that three types of stories were more popular than the war poems. The first were religious stories, the second, astrological information and incantations and the third, local folk tales and gossip. As the author probably would agree, there is not a scrap of evidence to support this conjecture.

With the same scantiness of evidence the author “insists” that the war stories in poem and prose provided “a significant strand of narrative” from 1590 to 1815.  With the word “insist” he tries to provide for the lack of evidence (p 139).

The author asks a number of questions in rhetorical form, as to whether the non-Govikula castes did not share the views of the Govikula caste with regard to the above mentioned ideology. He implies the answers are affirmative and show their views to have been the same, which is a rhetorical trick and should not be used in an academic discussion (p 137).

He concludes the chapter with the view, for which he does not offer enough evidence, that the Kandyans, whether engaged in war or rebellion, fought not as Kandyans but as Sinhalese “motivated by Sinhalese patriotism” (p 140).

In chapter nine the author, as he says, looks back and forward. He mentions a number of vocational practitioners, who in the course of their work “talked culture” with their clients and acted as “folk historians.”  Without evidence, he claims they spread knowledge of Sinhalese history.

He speculates that the war poems were “one of the most powerful forms of communication in Sinhala society in the middle period” (p 149) and makes “bold to suggest that they were in wide circulation in the twentieth century” (p 153). As he implies himself, there is no evidence for this view.

Adopting the views of others, he claims that the manner in which the rioters mutilated corpses of their victims shows their belief that they were asuras (demons) and the influence exercised over them by the war poems. Lack of corroboration from the rioters themselves weakens this claim and makes it, in the main, unacceptable.

Para saturo are purported to be not just foreign enemies but foreign enemies who were despicable and vile, deserving only to be pursued, killed and mutilated when dead. The author’s claim that this concept prevailed in the middle period is refutable. As has been shown the claim rests not on evidence but on conjecture. It is refuted, too, as has been pointed out by the concepts of tributary overlordship and dakum. Their implementation required foreigners to be friends.

It is refuted, too, by the Buddhism of Metta which enjoins the avoidance of all hatred and killing of every kind. If the author had shown how this Buddhism can be reconciled with the killing of foreigners and Tamils he would have helped in the understanding of a puzzling aspect of Sinhalese ideology.

It is refuted, too, by the length of foreign rule. Evidence shows British and Dutch rule not to have been governments kept in power by brutal police forces and armies.  They were helped to rule by headmen and their own adaptation to Sri Lankan institutions, particularly caste.  They were in this sense Sri Lankan rulers. This is probably true of Portuguese and Tamil rule too.

There is another aspect. If the Tamils are a detested para saturo is it wrong for them to ask for Eelam, a separate state?

The author’s attitude to documentary research is reprehensible. There is so much documentary material in the Sri Lankan Archives and even in the Public Record Office at Kew, which has not been examined properly and which, if imaginatively used, can provide the author and others with the answers they are looking for.

The author calls himself a historian and an anthropologist.  This book cannot be regarded as a history because it is not based on a balanced objective assessment of evidence. Evidence is manipulated to suit his preconceptions. It should not be regarded as an anthropology too because conjecture is used in place of documentary evidence when it need not be. The author relies on the work of like-minded academics. His conjectures are built on theirs, his castles in the air on theirs. Excogitation is substituted for painstaking scholarship. This kind of work runs the risk of being regarded as gamay katha (village tales).

*****  ****

UC Wickremeratne is [2002] a Barrister-at-Law from Lincoln’s Inn and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon [when he wrote this review]. He was a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh (1963-65); Assistant Lecturer at the University of Ceylon (1965-66).  He now lives in London and engages in historical research.

Yapa Publishers 2014

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