Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in Comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan history

Michael Roberts ... presenting a refereed journal article from the year 2001** as a foundation for reflection and fresh pursuits because it addresses the work of Edward Said, a renowned social theorist-cum-political scientist.

Edward Said  Leslie Gunawardena

Abstract: Disenchantment with the excesses of nationalist and ethnic claims in recent decades has directed the analysis of ethnicity presented in academic writings in recent decades.  Ethnicity is seen as pernicious, “primordialist” and “essentialist.”  Other scholars as well as nationalist spokespersons are castigated for reading the present into the past.  This line of criticism has entered the scholarship on the Indian subcontinent and been extended to surveys of the literature on the pre-British and British periods of Sri Lankan history.   Yet these critics themselves are governed by the either/or epistemology of 20th century rationalism.  They are unable to decipher the worldview and the political ideology that organised the socio-political order of the Kingdom of Sihale, better known as the Kingdom of Kandy.  Their bias is “presentist” and “modernist.”  With little patience for historical puzzles, their readings of the pre-British period are simple-mindedFor the most part they rely on the severely flawed interpretation presented in Leslie Gunawardana’s “People of the Lion.”  This dependence marks their ignorance.

** presented in Ethnic Studies Report, Vol XIX/1, 2001 … ICES and kindly supplied by Iranga Silva

In the past two decades the writings on nationalism and ethnicity in the corridors of Western academia have been coloured by disenchantment with the excesses that have been attached to their expressions in most parts of the world. The responses are also informed by the de-centred and anti-structuralist position popularised by Michel Foucault. The latter perspective encourages a view of society that highlights its disordered fragmentation. The spirit that directs such readings, nevertheless, remains within the time-honoured paradigm that has dominated Western intellectualism for centuries, that of secular rationalism. This has encouraged several writers on ethnic politics in the colonial and post-colonial eras to adopt a self-righteous position of political correctness and epistemological superiority.[1]

One of the works partially influenced by Foucault was Orientalism[2] authored by the Palestinian-American, Edward Said.[3] This line of argument in its turn has been extended to India by a number of writings.[4]  In an ambitious article John Rogers has attempted to summarise the manner in which the intellectual framework introduced by the British raj shaped the categories of caste, race, religion and ethnicity in India and Sri Lanka. Rogers leans excessively towards developing classificatory coherence,[5] while his readings of the world are far too transactionalist for my taste,[6] but his essay conveniently summarises the literature that I am referring to under the label “post-orientalist.”  The more general point to note is that this region-specific literature shares theoretical affinities with powerful currents of interpretation in the general literature on ethnicity.

Broadly speaking, these lines of revisionist argument emphasise three strands, usually in overlapping ways.  Firstly, they highlight the degree to which the institutional form and intellectual activities of the British colonial state created the categories of ethnic and/or religious identity around which people mobilise today.  In effect, this is a theory of discursive determinism that marks the shaping of indigenous consciousness by modern epistemological frameworks of difference.  Secondly, the processes set in train by the colonial order are said to have produced the “invention of tradition” to bolster the new, or re-shaped, ethnic/religious categories.  Thirdly, the contention in broad historical sweep is that ethnic identities were, and have been, “fluid” and of limited political significance until the colonial processes hardened the sentiments into the collectivised, mobilised and seemingly fixed forms that we see today in the late 20th century.

On these grounds the new scholarship takes aim at both nationalist spokespersons and scholars who read these collectivised identities into the pre-British era.  The latter perspective, it is said, transmits the present into the past in a circulatory move that uses the past to legitimise claims in the present.  In further criticism such an approach is castigated for the erroneous reading of identities as immutable, boundaries as given and fluid processes as fixed relations.  That is, by accepting the emphasis on linear continuity and “tradition” by contemporary nationalist spokespersons, these analysts are accused of taking on the “essentialist” and “primordialist” attitudes of the people under study.  By primordialism is meant an emphasis on a named collective identity as a perennial and natural phenomenon going back to a specific point of origin, the ursprüngliche moment so to speak.[7]  By “essentialism” is meant a line of argument that conveys “the idea that humans and human institutions… are governed by determinate natures that inhere in them in the same way that they are supposed to inhere in the entities of the natural world.”[8]  Such essentialising lines of emphasis on the part of protagonists, it is said, are a means of legitimising nationalist challenges or sustaining existing forms of domination.  As such they are instruments of power.  For scholars to adopt these attitudes is to compromise their position and sustain local forms of power.  This is especially problematic because many of these primordialist lines of legitimation seek to naturalise their claims.  As such, they carry racist connotations and bolster exclusivist forms of nationalism.[9]

In the recent literature on South Asia these themes have been underlined through an emphasis on the influence of the forms of knowledge established by the British colonial state in India.  Well before Said’s book on Orientalism appeared in 1978, Bernard Cohn had identified a process of “objectification” through the institutional practices of the British.[10]  Cohn especially marked the work of the census operations.  As Said’s work became popular in the l980s and the 1990s, a stream of scholarship elaborated on the processes of objectification, the creation of dichotomised oppositions and the insertion of the categories “Aryan” and “Dravidian” into the intellectual firmament concerned with India.[11]  These lines of emphasis meshed with the approach embodied in Gyanendra Pandey’s seminal work,[12] as well as the new directions taken up by the scholars associated with “Subaltern Studies” during the 1990s.

These streams of theory entered the literature on Sri Lanka.  As in India they became part of the ongoing polemics and verbal battles of legitimation and attempted de-legitimation.  The assaults on the Tamils living in the south western and central districts of Sri Lanka in 1983 had been a rude shock to a host of scholars.  Marxist scholars located in Lanka were forced to amend their economic determinism and two-class models of change.  Newton Gunasinghe’s reputation in these circles, his own researches into the formation of Kandyan society and Kapferer’s influence on Gunasinghe injected a transformative readiness to discuss the force of caste in Sri Lankan history and politics.[13]  As the ethnic conflict took a turn for the worse, a number of liberals and Marxist radicals linked hands to develop arguments against the ideological constructs that were part of the heightened conflict.  These efforts included books produced by the Committee for Rational Development (1984), the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) (1984) and the collection of articles edited by Abeysekera & Gunasinghe (1987). Leslie Gunawardana’s 1979 essay[14] was reprinted in the SSA’s 1984 edition as part of this enterprise.

What requires remark here is that for the most part these initial writings were not informed by Edward Said’s work or Foucaultian deconstructionism. However, the stream of consciousness represented by these interventions soon allied with the Saidian and other currents brought in by new and younger scholars[15] who joined the older hands from the mid-1980s to set up a scholarly discourse in Sri Lanka that was firmly opposed to the extreme chauvinism displayed by some local spokespersons for the Sinhalese and Tamils.  In a context in which the state was under Sinhala control, and located as they were in the south of the country, most of their battles at the coalface have been with those deemed Sinhala extremists.

This new infusion of intellectual ‘blood’ involved Sri Lankans trained abroad (for the most part) as well as foreign specialists.  Nissan and Stirrat’s mimeographed article[16] and Jonathan Spencer’s ethnographic study of a Sinhala village[17] were important markers of this line of interpretation.  These works were bolstered by a book edited by Jonathan Spencer, where an expanded version of Gunawardana’s essay is reprinted.  One of the book’s central themes in this edited monograph is the argument that “the roots of present understandings of ethnic identity [lie] in Victorian Orientalist scholarship” so that “Sinhala-Tamil conflict is a product of modern politics.”[18]  Within the same cover Nissan and Stirrat underline this message by arguing, quite pertinently, that one must attend to the character of state forms when deciphering collective identity in different periods.  But on this basis they proceed to the dubious assertion that the conflicts in the pre-colonial period were “dynastic wars.”  In this view it was ‘”the devices of the modern state,” namely, the British colonial state, that rendered previous differences of language, custom and religion “into something new.”‘[19]

The spirit of post-modernism and political correctness that permeates this scholarship is indicated by an anecdote with which one of the editors of Unmaking the Nation begins his own essay.  Through this tale, Qadri Ismail celebrates his lack of attachment to Muslimness and the degree to which he was challenging his Muslim peers to divest themselves of their identity as “Muslims.”[20]  Post-modernism is also extolled by the cover design attached to its revealing title: the aim, clearly, is to celebrate the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny world of certain strands of the post-modern.  “Let fragmentation prevail” is the message etched into the cover.

Many, though not all, of these post-modern scholars are immersed in the modern.  Their bias is presentist.[21]  Many do not have the patience for historical puzzles.  For these and other reasons, their knowledge of the pre-British period is limited.  That is where Leslie Gunawardana’s article became central to their political stance and why it has gone through two reprints and been praised as a “master text” that is marked by its “brilliance” and “extraordinary comprehensiveness.”[22]  Such assessments only serve to highlight the glaring deficiencies of empirical knowledge among the trumpet-blowers and an inability to discern the serious flaws in the middle segment of Gunawardana’s essay.  In more qualified ways this also applies to the reworking attempted by such a knowledgeable commentator as Tambiah.[23]

Gunawardana’s final version of The People of the Lion is organised in three segments.  The first section on pages 45-65 covers the centuries BC to the 13th century, The second, pages 65-69, embraces the 13th to the 18th centuries, falling within an era I call “the middle period.”[24]  The third segment covers intellectual influences in the British period and will not feature in the discussion within my article.

The first period is the field in which Gunawardana is an expert.  Though without these credentials I have raised several general questions about the position he adopts.  No one has addressed these issues to date.[25]  Dharmadasa[26] in the meanwhile identified a critical text from the 10th century that Gunawardana had not consulted and mounted a defence of the more conventional interpretations of the meaning attached to the word “Sihala,” or its synonyms, during the ancient period.  Confronted with Dharmadasa’s critical review, Gunawardana has indulged in fancy footwork (1995) that cannot conceal the fact that he has to concede ground.  In his original essay he had granted that “the term Sinhala had come to acquire a wider connotation” by the 12th century and “denoted the Sinhala-speaking population who were the preponderant element among the residents of the island.”[27]  Now, in 1995, he is forced to shift this date back to the 10th century AD if not earlier, but never admits this explicitly.  But the translation that he himself provides of the textual segment from the Dhampiya Atuva Gatapadaya gives the game away:[28]

How is the term “in the helu language” derived?  That is derived on account of residents in the island being helu.  How is it that they are called hela?  Having killed a lion, king Sihabahu was called Sihala (as in the Pali phrase) “Sihala, on account of having cut (or killed) a (or the) lion.”  On account of his progeny (ohu daru bavin), Prince Vida (Vijaya) was called Sihala. Others came to be called Sihala on account of being their retinue (evuhu pirivara bavin).

In effect, then, this translation grants that “the residents in the island” named helu were “Sihala,” that is to say, in my annotation, mostly Sihala by supposed descent and categorical name.

Dharmadasa has responded to this argument,[29] but for our purposes this ongoing debate can be safely bracketed out.  The critical point is that by the 10th century at the very least, and thus by the beginning of the middle period, most people in the island spoke Sinhala and were known as Sinhala. Gunawardana has now added his authority to that of several other scholars who support such a conclusion.

The implications for the subsequent era are compounded by three developments, developments that scholars have been familiar with for decades and which Gunawardana is fully aware of.  Firstly, by the 12th century the Sinhalese script had to a large extent evolved to what was known by the 20th century, while the language seems to be even closer to the usage of modern times.[30]  Secondly, while Buddhism had persisted in southern India and some Tamil-speakers would have been Buddhist during the first six centuries AD, a militant Hindu revival from about the 7th century AD effected a virtual extinction of Buddhism by about 1000 AD “partly because lay supporters turned towards Hinduism and partly because the Buddhist belief system and cults were [incorporated within] the Hindu realm.”[31]  Thus, Jaini speculates that the “the doctrine of the heavenly bodhisattvas made Buddhism uniquely vulnerable to assimilating tendencies of the surrounding Hindu cults.”[32]  In the third place, the invasions by the “Kerala devils” led by Magha and subsequently by various Pandyan feudatories during the 13th century resulted in the implantation of considerable Tamil settlements in the north that were soon centred around a kingdom, Yaalpanam, under a Tamil dynast.[33]  These developments are represented in Manichean terms of the Bad versus the Good in the Pali and Sinhala texts of that period[34] as well as the oral traditions in the centuries that followed.

In his 1990 version of The People of the Lion Gunawardana allows that the Sinhala consciousness identified for the 12th century “persisted” during the 13th-to-18th centuries, “particularly among certain sections of the literati.”[35]  Remarkably, his summary survey of the middle period then contrives to devalue the political significance of this admission.  This appears to be a deliberate effort to adopt a politically correct position that would cater to his commitments in the verbal debates of the 1980s.  His first step in this devaluation is to emphasise the gap between the literati and the mass of the people in the conventional style favoured by those who overvalue the written modes of cultural transmission.[36]  Secondly, Gunawardana argues that there was a “cultural cosmopolitanism” during this period which “would have contributed to the weakening of the Sinhala consciousness.”[37]  One item of evidence in support of the importance of cosmopolitanism is that Tamil was taught in some of the pirivenas (institutions of learning attached to temples).  The latter fact is not in question, but the conclusion that it is made to bear is ridiculous, being akin to arguing today that those who know English could not be Sinhala nationalists who are hostile to the hegemony of the English language. In the third place, Gunawardana assigns weight to the “feudal ethos” in that era as a factor that would have diluted the significance of Sinhala consciousness.  This is underlined by the assertion that “the Kandyan nobility did not possess a powerful unifying ideology strengthened by myths.[38]  This assertion is a remarkable speculation that is not supported by the considerable literature on the kingdom.  Gunawardana deems the evidence of factional struggle among the Kandyan nobles to be adequate ground for this interpretation.  If one were to utilise such reasoning, no nobility or modern political party, indeed even the Bolshevik Party or the various Eelamist forces that emerged in the 1970s, could be deemed to possess “an unifying ideology.”  Such reasoning cannot allow for the processes by which factional struggles are conditioned by common projects and remake broader unities in the very intensity of their factional struggles.

Fourthly, Gunawardana contends that there was a considerable ingress of Indian peoples and Hindu cultural practices into the Sinhala-speaking areas during the middle period.  There is a considerable corpus of literature, including my own work, which provides evidence in support of this thesis.[39]  But to assume that such a process precludes a parallel process of antipathy is to adopt a monistic, either/or view of the world.  In the fifth place, Gunawardana suggests that the personnel serving in the armies of the Sinhala kingdoms were motivated by the desire for rewards rather than patriotic sentiments.  This speculation is manifestly instrumentalist and takes a mono-causal view of historical process.  A priori one could speculate that both instrumental and emotional attachments could support the actions of soldiers serving an Elizabeth I or a Rajasinha II.  In any event the war poems and other data indicate that a considerable body of sentiment enveloped the activities of militia assembled by kingly decree to fight against the para rupu (foreign enemies) under the kings of Sitavaka and Kandy.[40]

It is in his attempt to meet C R de Silva’s brief references to the anti-Tamil sentiments expressed in such war poems that Gunawardana inserts argument five above.  And it is here where he is dishonest.  He counters de Silva by referring to the presence of Catholics among the Sinhala population on the coast and by elaborating upon the restricted territorial meaning of the term Sinhale.  His citations for the latter point include the Parangi Hatana and verse 76 from the Mandarampura Puvata.[41]  He does not tell readers that the particular Parangi Hatana that he is referring to[42] has traces of anti-Tamil sentiment and that the Mandarampura Puvata is suffused with pronounced anti-Tamil leanings.  Indeed, even a cursory glance at the relevant segment of the Mandarampura Puvata will indicate that verse 76 nestles within a clutch of stanzas that castigate Rajasinha I of Sitavaka because he had laid the foundations for the depredations of demonic Cola-Tamil-Saivite forces led by a person named Giri Tavusa, namely, Giri, the demon.  As such, the verse is preceded as well as followed by references to Sihala sen (Sinhala forces) in ways that undermine the interpretation essayed by Gunawardana.[43]

Recently, however, Malalgoda has provided circumstantial evidence that calls into question the previous dating of the Mandarampura Puvata and suggested that it is a concoction produced at some point in the British period.[44]  It is not possible, therefore, for us to utilise the material in this set of poems.  But that fact was not known to C R de Silva, Gunawardana and Dharmadasa in the 1980s when they deployed the Mandarampura Puvata in their debates and when Gunawardana did not disclose the general tenor of the work to his readers.

Whether informed by Gunawardana’s essay or not, those analysts who deny political significance to the Sinhala/Tamil opposition in the pre-British period invariably attach importance to two items of empirical evidence.  Like Gunawardana, they provide evidence of cultural borrowings from southern India, the considerable exchanges that were a continuous part of the story in the middle period and the absorption of Indian immigrants—as individuals, lineages or castes—into Sinhala society.  They also attach special emphasis to the fact that a supposedly princely, and thus kshatriya, Indian lineage known as the Nayakkars was accepted as the legitimate line of kings for the Kingdom of Kandy in 1739.  The latter event in particular is taken as conclusive proof that the Sinhala/Tamil divide was of little account within the political firmament in the pre-British era.[45]

The interpretative weight attached to the Nayakkar succession cannot be sustained.  It is not attentive to Sinhala political theory. The kings of the Sinhala people in the middle period were imbued with the characteristics of a bodhisattva and were expected to rule righteously according to the dasarajadharma.  They were also treated as devo and thus rendered god-like.[46]  What is more, in the segment of the Culavamsa composed in the time of the Nayakkar kings, Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-82) is explicitly described as amhakam Sihalindo, “our Sinhala king.”[47]  Gunawardana himself notes in passing that the last Nayakkar king was referred to as the “the great Sinhala king” and “the great king of the Sinhala.”[48] This was in keeping with the statement dating from the 13th century to the effect that only a Buddhist could ascend the throne of Trisinhala or Sinhale.[49]  This principle was reiterated in the 16th-century Rajaratnacaraya and the 18th-century Lak raja lo sirita.[50]  As Seneviratne remarks, “the suggestion is that when a king is a Buddhist he automatically becomes Sinhalese.”[51]

I take Seneviratne’s argument further.  A person of suitable kingly status in the legitimate line of succession was made king after an abhiseka, a consecration.  Indeed, he was not fully king till he had married a fully-consecrated queen of royal status.  The initial rituals of the abhiseka were reiterated in principle every year at the ritual bathing of the king, a rite of unction that was an abhiseka in function if not in name.  In sum, the abhiseka was a ritual of transformation that made the person of the prince into a god-like figure with a new name.[52]  A Thai or a Chinese, or even an Eskimo-turned Buddhist, could be made amhakam Sihalindo, “our Sinhala king,” by this cultural act.[53]

The reasoning behind the argument that pronounced syncretism among the Sinhalese and continuous cultural exchanges between the south Indian world and the Sinhala-speaking regions bespeaks tolerance and an absence of collectivised antipathies is also flawed.  It is flawed because its epistemology takes a position that is either/or.  This is typical of modern rationality. It is a principle in Western bureaucratic structures and jurisprudence.  James Clifford has revealed how such a mode of reasoning operated in a legal case involving indigenous land rights in north eastern USA during the 1970s.  In conjunction with the emphasis on written modes of historical documentation the dice was loaded against the tenuous identities held by a tiny group of Mashpee Indians.[54]

In the Sri Lankan case, then, those who accuse contemporary nationalists of extending the present into the past are guilty of the same ‘sin.’  They extend the either/or reasoning of their times into the middle period of Lanka’s history.  Where there is evidence of exchange and tolerance, they imply, there cannot be collectivised enmities, only kingly or elitist ones directed by personal projects.  When British scholars use this line of reasoning one might even suspect imperialist hues.  No one has suggested that the considerable exchange between England and France in the centuries 15 to 18 prevented Anglo-French rivalry, rivalry that could embrace elements of the population.[55]  What’s sauce for the European gander apparently is not good for the Lankan goose.

In the situation of the Sinhalese in the middle period my counter argument is that cultural exchanges must be read in the context of hierarchical principles and the operations of state power.  From the point of view of the kingly court and the dominant Govigama population other religions could be pursued as long as they did not upset the primacy of Buddhism.  Outsiders could be tolerated if they became part of the existing order or accepted niches assigned to them.  Hybridity and ambiguity could flourish at the margins of power, both in geographical terms and in caste-based social terms.  In Sinhale in Kandyan times power was spatially-centred around the kanda uda pas rata and what geographers describe as the Kandy Plateau.  Both in this region and in the kingdom in general the Govigama were the dominant people,[56] with the aristocratic strata known as the radala serving as the ruling elements.

Within such a society and state, therefore, the principle of incorporation organised exchange and tolerance as well as exclusion.  When the Catholics in the Kandyan heartland who were inspired by Fr. Gonçalves and his workers gained too much prominence in the 1740s, their books were burnt and they were evicted as “Parangis.”[57]  One could not ask for a more disparaging characterisation of those deemed alien.  Wickremeratne represents the situation neatly when he observes that the “non-Buddhists became citizens of diminished relevance and importance, children of a lesser god.”[58

Thus, it is my contention that the either/or rationality organising the appraisals of Sinhala-Tamil exchanges in the middle period cannot comprehend the incorporative principles of power that enabled measures of tolerance to co-exist with perceptions of the Tamils as sadi demalu and their incorporation into the ambiguous and potent figures of the vadiga and the demala sanniya in folk rituals.[59]

Nor can such reasoning comprehend adequately the political and cultural significance of the incidence of ‘ethnic’ boundary crossing.  The idea of boundary crossing is a critical tool in the armoury of the post-orientalists as well as authors penning standard works on “ethnicity” in its global context.  Empirical instances of individuals or bodies of people who adopt new ethnic identities become battering rams smashing those scholars and nationalists who allegedly “objectify” the idea of collective identity and treat the boundaries of community as fixed.  Such illustrations encourage scholars such as Banks to contend that (a) boundaries are permeable and (b) that national and/or ethnic identities are “fluid and shifting.”[60]




ts this conclusion on the foundations of a study of German identity in the 1980s by Diana Forsythe and another article on modern Greek identity by Roger Just (1989) which encourage him to conclude that “each of these European states is a kind of jelly-fish identity, constantly wobbling and never fitting into any rigid container.”[61] Forsythe’s study, however, is a brief one and deeply marred by a naive positivism that was on the lookout for “something solid.”  When she could not discover a clear territorial definition of the word Deutschland and unambiguous representations of “who is German,” that is, which people in which territorial space were embraced within the concept Deutsche, she concluded that “Germanness as experienced from within [had] a fragile, ambiguous quality.”[62]  Such “elusiveness” also leads her to “suggest” that “as an identity Germanness is ephemeral.”[63]  That Banks should find this flawed research “convincing”[64] is as significant as worrying.  That he should fix on the quotation on the ephemeral character of Germanness to lead up to his generalisation that ethnic identities are shifting is quite mind-boggling.  Forsythe’s study, for all its glaring deficiencies, does not go that far: its intent is to mark the ambiguous boundaries.  Moreover, her clarification of the distinction between Deutsche and Ausländer refers to “a whole series of categories ranged along a continuum of perceived foreignness” and a summary of the “various attributes of character that [were] looked upon as essentially German.”[65]  Indeed, one could re-interpret some of her data to argue that there were deep concerns about the inadequacy of German national identity that proved how profound a phenomenon it was for some Germans.  Concerns about hybridity and absences point towards essentialising modes of appraisal or ways of being.  Gradations indicate yardsticks of evaluation and values that empower or disempower.

Marcus Banks’s facile reading of Forsythe’s article reveals a more general phenomenon: where a scholar’s political leaning and epistemological bias compounds illustrative misinterpretations.  In such instances, a non-specialist X reads the specialist work of a person Y from the same theoretical camp in ways that extend Y’s interpretation to untenable limits because of ignorance of context or blinkered theory.  Jack D Eller’s recent review of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka on the basis of secondary material is another instance of this tendency.  His reading of a select body of specialist sources enables him to associate the Sri Lankan situation with four other studies in maintaining that “groups exist with vague and permeable boundaries” and that “social ‘identity’ is flexible and negotiable.”[66]

In most instances little elaboration is provided as to what such fluidity entails. It seems to be assumed, too, that a permeability of boundaries means that they are of little moment.  This avoids several questions.  Why are such alterations of collective identity made by those families who “permeate” and the host-people who accept these categorical re-definitions?  How is it feasible for individuals or lineages to transform themselves in this way?  As critically, what do such shifts mean for the categories of interaction?

I raise further questions: (a) what precisely is meant when community identity in pre-British times is said to be “fluid” or “fuzzy”?[67] (b) taking a three-generational span of three-score years, namely 60 years, does the alleged permeability of boundaries mean that a significant minority within group A are becoming B at the same time that a significant minority within B are becoming A?  In other words, are the flows across boundaries two way and significant in numerical proportions?[68]  If the flow is one way, say from A to B, my argument on a priori grounds is that such boundary crossing is an affirmation of the attractions and/or power of B. In these very acts they mark the categorical distinction between A and B.  Such a process also has the capacity to generate distaste among elements within A and to stimulate a re-affirmation of the significance of A.[69]  Without fine-tuned and rich empirical material, brief references to boundary crossing do not serve the arguments of those prone to regard ethnic sentiment as a fluid phenomenon.

The re-categorisation of individuals or lineages or groups over generational time cannot be evaluated without reference to the character of the state (including statelessness where pertinent), the distribution of power and the spatial location of these changes.  Reference to power necessarily implicates the principal factors ordering access to resources, whether lineage, tribe, caste, class, class-fraction or a combination of these relational principles.

Extending these issues to the Kingdom of Kandy (Sihale) in the period 1590s to 1815, the following questions can be raised.  (a) When individual Telugu adventurers or Brahmin purohits and men of rank moved into the various Sinhala-speaking kingdoms during the 14th to 18th centuries and were eventually absorbed into aristocratic or other lineages among the Sinhalese,[70] does it mean that being a Sinhalese was unimportant? (b) When a body of southern Indian artisans were absorbed into the administrative and social order of the Kingdom of Kandy as Navandanna,[71] or, more likely, as a strand of the Navandanna caste, does it mean that the Sinhala/Tamil divide was meaningless and the Sinhala identity of little political moment?  (c) is there any evidence of significant numbers of the Govigama in the agrarian heartlands of any of the Sinhala kingdoms becoming Tamil-speakers at home? and subordinating Buddha to Siva?[72]

In the absence of solid evidence on the process identified as (c) above, my counter argument is that the ingress of bodies of migrants who, for the most part, became Sinhalese re-produced the centricity of Sinhala power in its institutionalised and Buddhistic forms.  What such instances reveal, then, is the absence of exclusive barriers.  Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking men could marry local women and be absorbed as binna (matrilocal) people within existing lineages in a process that would have made their progeny Sinhala-speakers.  This process necessarily enhanced the force of the Sinhala-identity in those areas where Sinhala was the dominant mode of discourse, that is, most of central, southern and western Sri Lanka.  In effect, these are processes of indigenisation as Sinhalese.  The demographic force and the institutional power of the Sinhalese were emphasised by this process.

This process was not as pronounced in certain regional locations at the margins of the Sinhala state, while the Yon (Muslim) traders and settlers in both the littoral and the interior seem to have retained a distinct identity.  These instances make up significant qualifications to my thesis and I take them up seriatim.  But let me observe here that these two provisos indicate the degree to which I emphasise the concept of a centre-oriented state in the perceptive formulation presented by Tambiah.[73]  Not only were the boundaries not policed by principles of exclusivity, there was scope for (a) the parcelisation of sovereignty organised by the principles of tributary overlordship[74] and (b) diversity, ambiguity and heterogeneous plurality subsumed within hierarchical and encompassing ideas.

In other words, there was, in the manner clarified by Tambiah, a “differential incorporation” that involved “inferiorisation.”  Explicitly informed by Dumont’s work, Tambiah’s thesis is important.  He presents it as “a standard South Asian mode of differentially incorporating into an existing society sectarian or alien minorities.”  This process places the incoming bodies “in a subordinate position in the hierarchy.”[75]  In extending this interpretation to the cultural interactions of the late middle period, he therefore speaks of (a) the juxtaposition of “melting plot blendings” and “segregationist separations” as well as (b) the “conversion processes” resulting in the “Sinhalisation and Buddhicisation” of incoming peoples from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts.[76]

It is within such a framework that one should evaluate territorialised marginality.  There were at least two types of spatial margins.  On the one hand there was the sparsely-peopled, malarial jungle areas of the Vanni located on the outer periphery of the Kandyan heartland, where Sinhalese, Vaddas, Mukkuvars, Mukkuvars-becoming-Tamil, Vaggai and Tamils seem to have intermarried in ways that suggest limited ethnic differentiation.  Fragmentary data in a number of works point to the intermarriages and boundary crossings within this vast tract of territory.[77]

There was, on the other hand, the coastal strip extending from Mutwal just north of Colombo to Puttalam some 131 kilometres to the north.  The peripheral character of this belt of land was of the interstitial type.  This area abutted the Indian subcontinent and served as a zone of exchange.  For most of the middle period it was one of the principal regions through which Indian peoples, icons and practices moved into the island.  Within this part of the littoral the ports of Kalpitiya, Chilaw, Salavata Kammala, Negombo and Mutwal were not only trading emporia for goods moving both ways, but also the sites of cosmopolitan diversity. Referring to the Sinhalese who lived within the “maritime districts facing the fishery coast [of India],” one source observed that the “frequent intercourse with the Tamils” resulted in Tamil being “easily understood.”[78]  Mukkuvars, Parava (Bharathas), Indian Muslims from Kayalpatnam and elsewhere, Christian Chetties from Travancore and Indian traders were among those who entered and/or resided along this littoral belt.  The development of a polyglot situation in this locality was consolidated by Portuguese influences from the 16th century onwards.  Catholicism took stronger root here in part because some of the immigrants were already Catholicised.  One suspects that the oratorian priests from the western coast of India who nurtured Catholicism in the Dutch period found it easier to enter this area and to operate in quiet ways among the folk.  It is for this reason, then, that this area sustained bilinguality till the mid-20th century.  In the case of some villages around Chilaw the cycle of generational shifts from being Sinhalese to being Tamil or vice versa during the late 19th and 20th centuries,[79] is in part a product of this interstitiality as it has been linked in different measure to at least four centres of power, namely, Munnesvaram temple, the Catholic Church, Kandy (till 1815) and Colombo (1590s till today).

The instance of the Yon or Muslims in the interior districts of the Kingdom of Kandy is of particular significance to this field of debate.  These people, mostly male immigrants from southern India and speakers of a Tamil dialect, seem to have entered as traders, but settled down and formed hamlets that appear to have existed partly by trade and partly by horticulture or agriculture.  The males were incorporated into the kingly administration as members of the madige badda, or transport department, providing pack cattle and carrying goods on the rotational scheme associated with rajakariya.  As with the local Sinhalese these rajakariya services could be diverted to temples or chiefly lords so that one has evidence that there were Muslim temple tenants holding lands in return for transport service.[80]  There also were Muslim units in Rajasinha II’s armies and he is known to have rewarded some of them with lands for military service.[81]

There were a few mosques in the Kandyan areas and it seems that the various Sinhala Buddhist overlords were attentive to the religious requirements of these Yon people.[82]  The services of the Yon physicians seem to have been particularly appreciated by the ruling elements of the Kandyan state.  The patriarchal order of the day enabled kings or chieftains to reward individual Muslims who had rendered yeoman service with local brides.[83]  At the same time, in my speculative assertion, the oppressions of the caste order enabled ordinary Muslims to secure women from the depressed castes as their concubines or wives.  The Muslim population in the interior developed in this manner.

Their role may have been caste-like, but they were never a caste.  Rogers gets it wrong when he describes them as a “non-Sinhalese group [that was] incorporated into caste, while maintaining non-Sinhalese status.”[84]  They were ‘outside’ the Sinhala order in the sense that their home-language seems to have been Tamil and their religious practices, not least the circumcision of the men, as well as cuisine, tonsorial practice and style of dress, differentiated them from the majority of people around them.  Ralph Pieris suggests that it was this religious barrier that prevented them from being “a caste proper.”  His remark is based on the decisions taken by Kandyan chiefs in the unusual circumstance of a Govigama woman marrying a Moorman (Muslim).  This act meant a loss of station, a loss of caste and all claim to ancestral inheritance on her part.[85]

Such principles of outcasting, of course, would also be extended to a Govigama lady who married a Sinhalese of a lower caste.  Whether Muslims in Sinhale faced greater disabilities than the lowest Sinhala castes, such as the Badahala, Batgam and Kinnara, is a subject that requires further research.  While allowing that the Muslims in the kingdom were not culturally “assimilated,” Dewaraja insists that there was a “structural assimilation” in the sociological sense of integration into its functional form.  While the latter point is arguable, her position is pushed to untenable lengths when she presents the Muslims as “equal and indispensable participants in the mainstream of Kandyan society.”[86]  Equality was never an organising principle in any Sinhala kingdom in the past (and for that matter in any Asian kingdom).

Dennis McGilvray’s description of the similarities and differences in the everyday world of Muslims and Tamils in the multi-ethnic circumstances of the southern Batticaloa district in late 20th-century Sri Lanka should be compulsory reading for all historians of Sri Lanka.  The point is that one must attend to preferences in architectural form, dress, cosmetics, tonsorial style, inter-household visitation and gift-giving, household rites, funerary rites, weddings and other public rituals, before drawing conclusions about equal participation, lack of differentiation, harmony or absence of conflict.

Thus, in sum, the fact that there was space for Muslims in Kandyan society does not mean that distinctions between the Sinhalese and Muslims did not operate at significant sites and moments.  In a hierarchically-conceived society not all situations have equal weight.  Muslim temple tenants would, I presume, have a marginal role in key rituals at the temple.  One can also presume that the children born to women who married or lived with Muslim men would be deemed Muslim.  This meant the circumcision of male children.  One presumes that Muslims have always been aware of the hadith against body hair long enough to grasp—usually demonstrated by using one-third of a finger to mark the length—and that some Muslims marked that which was sunnat, or good, by shaving their armpit and pubic hair every forty days.[87] One can presume, therefore, that most female children were nourished in Muslim ways that would encourage them to consider an uncircumcised penis and flourishing pubic hair to be quite repulsive.  Thus, I speculate that the female children born Muslim would, in normal circumstances, rarely be permitted to marry outside the community.[88]

On the other side of the ‘fence,’ we must also attend to the possibility that their circumcised penis gave rise to disparaging remarks embodied in such phrases as tun kalai (three quarters),[89] though I have no evidence on this point.  Again, though Sinhala Buddhists probably had recourse to the shrines of Muslim saints imbued with power, as they do today,[90] it is unlikely that they entered the precincts of houses or sites designated as mosques.  In brief, the historical evidence as well as a priori speculations point to the Muslims being considered a different category of people, both by themselves and by the Sinhalese, and within the Kingdom of Kandy as well as the maritime provinces.  However observant he may have been on many matters, the British physician John Davy’s claim that the Muslims differed little from the Sinhalese in outward appearance, dress and manners[91] must be viewed with scepticism.

Moreover, some Muslims sided with the invading Dutch forces in the 1760s: so much so that a partisan historian claims that the king “expell[ed] the treacherous Moors” who had aided the Dutch when they occupied the capital.[92]  Again, there is considerable evidence that Muslims served as spies, guides and auxiliary troops during the British military campaigns against the Kandyan state in 1803-05 and 1815 and that they supported the British as the latter proceeded to meet the rebellion of 1817-18 with repressive military might, including a scorched earth policy.[93]  In 1803 Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is even said to have “ordered away all [the] Moors [in the mountainous district of Kotmale] as they were found unfaithful.”[94]

Such clues make it possible for one to speculate that it was precisely because they were at the margins of the Sinhala-speaking social order in the Kingdom of Kandy that these Muslims were ready to collaborate with a powerful foreigner.  Expanding imperial forces have often used the principle of alienage, that is, the co-option of localised, ‘alien’ communities, within their imperial design of control over an indigenous majority.  But such divide and rule is a two-way process: it is aided by the fact that some of these local ‘aliens’ (as well as disaffected or marginalised indigenes) knock on the imperialist door and invite themselves in.  Whoever takes the initiative, the responsiveness of such fractions of the population would seem to be encouraged by the force of hierarchy and their interstitial marginality within the structures of indigenous society and its politics.

** I thank Iranga Silva of the ICES in Kandy for sending me a copy of the article in a form that I could deploy. The incentive to do so was provided by the item taken from — one involving the why and wherefrom of my research interests. As such, this particular article was feasible because my book-length study of Sinhala Consciousness  was taking shape (it was printed in 2004).


[1].         David Scott, Refashioning Futures. Criticism after Post-Coloniality, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999, p 9.  This comment could also be applied to one of his articles (1995), ironically one that is re-printed in the edition of his articles in 1999.

[2].        Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, Vintage Books, 1978.

[3].        For insights on Said, see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988, chap. 11; Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Race & Class, Vol. 27, 1985, pp 1-15 and B Ashcroft and P Ahluwahlia, Edward Said. The Paradox of Identity, London, Routledge, 1999.

[4].   For instance, David Ludden (ed.), Contesting the Nation, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996 and Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (eds), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: The South Asian Experience, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

[5].  This is a criticism I would also extend to my introductory chapter in the first edition of Michael Roberts, “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism” in M Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga Publications, 1979, pp 1-90.

[6].  The theoretical perspective that I call “transactionalist” is best represented among historians by Lewis Namier and among anthropologists by Fredrik Barth.

[7].        Anthony D Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp 12-13. For an attempted critique of the concept, see Jack D Eller and R Coughlan, “The Poverty of Primordialism: The Demystification of Ethnic Attachments,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.16, 1993, pp 183-202.  Thereafter, consult Grosby’s devastating review of the “farrago of arguments” presented by the latter Steven Grosby, “The Verdict of History: The Inexpungeable Tie of Primordiality—A Response to Eller and Coughlan,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.17, 1994, p 166.

[8].        Ron Inden, Imagining India, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1990, p 2.

[9].        This is my summary, embodying a wide body of reading over the last decade.  For instance, see Liisa H Malkki, Purity and Exile; Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp 13-17; Eller & Coughlan, op.cit., and Marcus Banks, Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions, London, Routledge, 1996, pp 13-17.

[10].       See Bernard S Cohn, “The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia” in his An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987, chap. 10.  This paper was available in seminar form in the 1970s and I have a copy that may date back to my stay in Chicago in 1971, but is certainly a product of the 1970s.

[11].       Inden, op.cit., Sudipta Kaviraj, “The Imaginary Institution of India” in P Chatterjee and G Pandey (eds) Subaltern Studies, VII, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp 1-39; Breckenridge and van der Veer, op.cit., and David Ludden (ed.), Contesting the Nation, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

[12].       Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[13].       In early 1986 a full-day seminar that included discussions of caste around papers presented by three of Kapferer’s students was convened by Gunasinghe and his aides at the University of Colombo.  In my view this was a landmark event in Marxist scholarship in Sri Lanka. Prior to that analyses of caste had been carefully circumscribed in written discussions even though caste factors organised the electoral politics of Marxist parties.  See Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of State, Washington, Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

[14].       R A L H Gunawardana, “The People of the Lion: Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vols  1 & 2, 1979, pp 1-36.

[15].       Among them Serena Tennakoon, whose premature death has been a great loss on many fronts.

[16].       Elizabeth Nissan and R L Stirrat, State, Nation and the Representation of Evil, Sussex Papers in Social Anthropology, No. 1, 1987.

[17].       Jonathan Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1990.

[18].       Jonathan Spencer, “Introduction” in J Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, London, Routledge, 1990, pp 5-6 (emphasis mine).

[19].       Elizabeth Nissan and R L Stirrat, “Generation of Communal Identities” in J Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, op.cit., 1990, p 24.

[20].       Qadri Ismail, “Un-mooring Identity: The Antinomies of Elite Muslim Self-Representation in Modern Sri Lanka” in P Jeganathan and Q Ismail (eds), Unmaking the Nation.  The Politics of Identity in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Social Scientists’ Association, 1995, p 55.

[21].       Cf. Peel’s criticism “of the blocking presentism to which so many anthropologists are prone” in the course of an ASA conference on “History and Ethnicity” see J D Y Peel, “The Cultural Work of Yoruba Ethnogenesis” in Elizabeth Tonkin (eds), History and Ethnicity, London, Routledge, 1989, p 200.  This comment is an extension of his brief, but devastating assault on Abner Cohen’s ahistorical, functionalist study of the Hausa and Maryon Macdonald’s obdurate structuralist-cum-circumstantialist reading of Breton nationalism.

A theoretically sophisticated argument for such a presentist stance is found in David Scott 1995.  The position remains functionalist.  What thinking achieves NOW, how it serves the present from a politically correct viewpoint, should be the yardstick for all forms of all research.  Reason must reign.  To use Scott against himself, it is also a position of epistemological superiority, see Scott, Refashioning Futures…, op.cit., 1999, p 9.

[22].       David Scott, “Dehistoricising History” in Jeganathan and Ismail (eds), Unmaking the Nation…, op.cit., pp 16, 17, 20.

[23].       S J Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992, chap. 13.

[24].       In this periodisation the “middle period” covers the years 1232-1815 and displaces the term “medieval period” because the latter is liable to create confusions with the standard time-divisions for European history.

[25].       Probably for the reason that no one has bothered to read this article. Michael Roberts, “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 16, 1993, p 142.

[26].       K N O Dharmadasa, “‘The People of the Lion’: Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 10, 1992, pp 37-59.

[27].       R A L H Gunawardana, “The People of the Lion: Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography” in Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka:  History and the Roots, op.cit., 1990, pp 64, 78.   Note that Tambiah argues that there is a “greater convergence between Gunawardana and Dharmadasa than might appear” and that Gunawardana’s terminal twelfth century can be pushed back “without doing violence to his argument,” see Tambiah, op.cit., p 137.

[28].       R A L H Gunawardana, Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Colombo, Social Scientists’ Association, 1995, pp 41-42.  I cannot find any meaningful difference between Dharmadasa’s and Gunawardana’s translations.

[29].       K N O Dharmadasa, “The Roots of Sinhala Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka: The Debate on the ‘People of the Lion’ Continued,” Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 14, Kandy, Sri Lanka, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1996, pp 137-70.

[30].       Personal communication from Sirima Kiribamune (email, 9 Feb. 2001).  Also see History of Ceylon, Vol. I, pp 394-95, 579-85; Ananda S Kulasuriya, “Sinhala Writing and the Transmission of Texts in Pre-modern Times,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 16, 1990, pp 174-89; C H B Reynolds (ed.), An Anthology of Sinhalese Literature up to 1815, London, Allen and Unwin, 1970, pp 18-23.

[31].       Email memo from Tilman Frasch of the Südasien Institüt, Heidelbrerg University.  Also see Kathleen D Morrison, “Commerce and Culture in South Asia: Perspectives from Archaeology and History,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26, 1997, p 97.  Buddhist monasteries seem to have survived into the early “medieval period,” but one should note that the Hindu order absorbed some monasteries, an example being the Kadri-Manjnatha temple at Mangalore (information from Frasch).

[32].       P S Jaini, “The Disappearance of Buddhism and the Survival of Jainism: A Study in Contrast” in A K Narain (ed.), Studies in the History of Buddhism, Delhi, B R Publishing Co, 1980, p 88.

[33].       S Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna (circa AD 1250-1450), London University, PhD Dissertation in History, 1969, pp 144ff, 155, 164; S Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna, Colombo, A M Rajendran, 1978, pp 91, 103-05, 118 and K Indrapala, Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon and the Beginnings of the Kingdom of Jaffna, London University, unpublished PhD dissertation in History, 1966, chaps. 4, 5 & 6. The soldiers in Magha’s army are referred to as “Keralas” as well as “Damilas” in the Sinhala sources (Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna…, op.cit., 1978, p 103).

[34].       For example, the Pujavaliya, Colombo, Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1997, pp 784-86; the Hattanagallaviharavamsa; A Liyanagamage, The Decline of Polonnaruwa and the Rise of Dambadeniya (c. 1180-1270 AD), Colombo, Government Press, 1968, p 65 and Culavamsa, 1953, I, II, pp 133-34.  Also see Tambiah, op.cit., pp 140-42, 145-47.

[35].       Gunawardana, Sri Lanka: History and the Roots…, op.cit., 1990, p 67.

[36].       This is a fault that K N O Dharmadasa, “The Sinhala-Buddhist Identity and the Nayakkar Dynasty in the Politics of the Kandyan Kingdom, 1739-1815” in M Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga, 1979, pp 99-128; Dharmadasa, “‘The People of the Lion’:…, op.cit., 1992, pp 37-59 shares.  Also note, “Among the Sinhalese, for instance, the pre-colonial ‘Sinhalese ethnic identity’—if such a term could indeed have been used—applied only to the ruling elite,” see Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Introduction: The Sri Lanka Tamils” in C Manogaran and B Pfaffenberger (eds), The Sri Lanka Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity, Boulder, Westview Press, 1994, p 20.

[37].       Gunawardana, Sri Lanka: History and the Roots…, op.cit., 1990, p 69.

[38].       Ibid.

[39].       Michael Roberts, Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp 18-34; D G B de Silva, “New Light on Vanni Chiefs, Based on Historical Tradition, Palm-leaf Manuscripts and Official Records,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka n.s. being the Sesquicentennial Special Number, Vol. LXI, 1998; G P V Somaratne, The Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte, 1400-1521, Nugegoda, Deepanee Printers, 1975, pp 48-52, 97ff., 111, 140, 152; Tambiah, op.cit., pp 144-70 and John D Rogers, “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-modern and Modern Political Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, 1994, p 14.

[40].       This is a conclusion based on my work on the Rajasiha Hatana, Maha Hatana, Parangi Hatana and Sitavaka Hatana with the help of Sandadas Coperahewa, C R de Silva, K B A Edmund, Srinath Ganewatte and Ananda Wakkumbura.  These findings must await the publication of my larger study.

C R de Silva, “The First Portuguese Revenue Register of the Kingdom of Kotte–1599,” Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol. 5, 1975, pp 71-153.  See Rohini Paranavitana, Sitavaka Hatana [The Sitavaka war], Colombo, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1999.

[41].       Gunawardana, Sri Lanka: History and the Roots…, op.cit., 1990, pp 67-68.

[42].       He has used Paul E Pieris’s text (1909).  I have followed its editor, Somaratna, in calling this poem the Rajasiha Hatana so as to avoid confusion with another Parangi Hatana.  See Paul E Pieris, “Parangi Hatane” in his Ribeiro’s History of Ceilâo, Colombo, Colombo Apothecaries Co., 1909, pp 244 –270.  This poem is the same as the Rajasiha Hatana edited by Somaratna, though the verses are adjacent in their numbering rather than precisely matching.

[43].       Labugama Lankananda Thera, Mandarampura Puvata, 2nd edn, Colombo, Dept of Cultural Affairs, 1996, pp v. 93-5, 100, 61-2, 67.

[44].       Kitsiri Malalgoda, “Mandarampura Puvata. An Apocryphal Buddhist Chronicle,” manuscript paper presented at the 7th Sri Lanka Studies Conference, Canberra, 3-6 December 1999.  The Mandarampura Puvata has three segments which were previously dated as 1647, 1702 and the mid-18th century.  C R De Silva (email communication) now grants that Malalgoda makes a reasonable case for doubt.  The fact that there are three segments is a puzzle however.  Does Malalgoda’s claim apply to the whole text or the latter segments?

[45].       Nissan and Stirrat, “Generation of Communal Identities” in J Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka: History and the Roots…, op.cit., 1990, pp 23-44 and Gunawardana, op.cit., 1990, pp 68-69. Tambiah, op.cit., pp 157-70 gives more weight to Dharmadasa’s thesis about anti-Tamil sentiments being expressed by “a small section of the literati” during the period of Nayakkar rule.  But his attempts to minimise the implications are marked by flawed reasoning and inattentiveness to the force of oral transmissions.  He also follows Gunawardana and Dharmadasa in overestimating the gap between “the monk-literati” and the people.

[46].       Ralph Pieris, Sinhalese Social Organisation, Colombo, Ceylon University Press Board, 1956, pp 9, 16; John C Holt, Buddha in the Crown, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp 37-38, 61, 108, 130; Lorna S Dewaraja, The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1760, Colombo, Lake House Investments Ltd, 1972, pp 126, 196, 208-21; and James S Duncan, The City as Text: The Politics of Landscape Interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 123-53.

[47].       The Culavamsa, translated by W Geiger, Colombo, Ceylon Government Information Department, 1953, II, p 292.

[48].       Gunawardana, op.cit., 1990, p 68.

[49].       In the Pujavaliya cited in Alice Greenwald, “The Relic on the Spear: Historiography and the Saga of Dutthagamini” in Bardwell L Smith (ed.), Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg, Anima Books, 1978, p 24.

[50].       Pieris, Sinhalese Social Organisation, op.cit., 1956, p 11n and Lorna S Dewaraja, The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1782, 2nd revised ed., Colombo, Lake House Investments, 1988, p 163.


[51].       H L Seneviratne, “Identity and the Conflation of Past and Present” in H L Seneviratne (ed.), Identity, Consciousness and the Past, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1997, p 10.  For the programme of religious building and reformation initiated by the Nayakkars and especially by Kirti Sri Rajasinha, see John C Holt, The Religious Works of Kirti Sri, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996; Kitsiri Malalgoda, Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1760-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976, pp 62-69 and Dewaraja, The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon…, op.cit., 1988, pp 114-15, 119, 167.

[52].       This is an abbreviated version of an argument that I have developed in an unpublished draft of a book.  The argument is based on the following works: K W Goonewardena, “Kingship in Seventeenth Century Sri Lanka,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 3, 1977, pp 1-32; Duncan, op.cit., chap. 7; Holt, Buddha in the Crown…, op.cit., 1991, pp 178-79; John Davy, An Account of the Interior of Ceylon, reprint, Dehiwala, Tisara Prakasakayo, 1969, pp 126-27; and Seneviratne (ed.), Identity, Consciousness and the Past…, op.cit.

[53].       Whether supposedly Sinhala by bloodline or non-Sinhala of suitable royal status, kings were expected to rule righteously.  If not, they were more likely to face rebellion.  At such moments suitable weapons would be raised against them.  In the instance of the Nayakkars their foreign Tamil origins seem to have been deployed against them in the legitimising rhetoric that promoted dissident action on two occasions.  This is another issue on which Gunawardana (1990) and Dharmadasa (1979, 1992) have disagreed. I believe that Dharmadasa’s speculations are on more solid ground.

[54].       James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988, chap. 12, esp. pp 327, 337-43.

[55].       See Linda Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, London, Pimlico, 1992 and Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1987.

[56].       For the benefit of the uninitiated I note that the Govigama were not only the highest caste, but made up perhaps 50-60% of the population.

[57].       Culavamsa, 1953, Vol. II, pp 252-53 and Dewaraja, The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon…, op.cit., 1988,  pp 102-03.  This occurred in 1745, by which time Gonçalves was dead (c. 1742).

[58].       L A Wickremeratne, Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka, Delhi, Vikas, 1995, p xxxv.

[59].       Rajasiha Hatana v26 and 33 (or verses 33 & 38 in Paul E Pieris 1909); Ahalepola to D’Oyly, 27 November 1811, encl. in Wilson to Liverpool, 26 Feb. 1812 in CO 54/ 42, pp 47-51; Gananath Obeyesekere, “The Ritual Drama of the Sanni Demons: Collective Representations of Disease in Ceylon,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 11, 1969, pp 198-200 and Kapferer, op.cit., pp 88-89.  The term sanni refers to delirious states and convulsions and thus to the most serious illnesses.  In the myths associated with the ingress into Lanka from India of the deity, Pitiye Bandara, this demonic Soli (Chola) prince is said to have “…set forth/surrounded by Vadiga Tamil Priests,” Holt, Buddha in the Crown…, op.cit., 1991, p 134.

[60].       Banks, op.cit., p 151.

[61].       Ibid.,  p 150.

[62].       Diana Forsythe, “German Identity and the Problems of History,” Elizabeth Tonkin, (eds), History and Ethnicity, London, Routledge, 1989, quotations from pp 154, 137-38 respectively.

[63].       Ibid., p 152.

[64].       Banks, op.cit., p 151.

[65].       Forsythe, op.cit., pp 143, 145.

[66].       Jack D Eller, From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on International Ethnic Conflict, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999, p 15.

[67].       One of the few to elaborate on this argument is (Kaviraj, op.cit., pp 20-33).  He asserts that “the earlier [i.e. in pre-British times] conceptions of community” in India were “fuzzy,” even though they had feelings of “intense solidarity” (p 20).  His clarification of this argument is based on four grounds.  First, he claims that they lacked a well-developed sense of otherness because their “contacts with people of other groups were relatively infrequent”(p 20). Secondly, he imposes the gemeinschaft/ gesellschaft distinction borrowed from Tonnies in a tautological fashion to assert that these types of community lacked “a convergence of interest” of the gesellschaften form.  Thirdly, he alleges that these “collective identities [were] not territorially based” (p 26).  Finally, he stresses the lack of demographic enumerations that evoked interest in the number of like-communities in a defined space and their relative strength.

In brief, the thesis is built on an a-historical and modernist conception of isolated village communities.  Modernists consistently underestimate (also see Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble…, op.cit., 1990, p 157) the extent to which Asian people in the past travelled great distances on foot.  For a sharp criticism of the localisation theory for India pressed by Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992 and others, see Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism.  Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994, pp 78-94, esp. 92.

It follows that I do not agree with Chakrabarty’s evaluation of Kaviraj’s argument (Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Modernity and Ethnicity in India,” South Asia, Vol. 17, 1994, pp 149-51).  This said, I do agree with the emphasis on the transformations effected by the British colonial state in shaping ethnic and/or religious forms of collective identity in modern south Asia.

[68].       Whatever its shortcomings, one of the merits of Deutsch’s early study of these processes in Europe (1966) was that it did address these questions.  It is a measure of academic fads that this work is not known to a large number of specialists today who produce books on ethnicity in a global context.

[69].       Speaking as a non-specialist, this is precisely what seems to have occurred in eighteenth century (northern) Vietnam as a result of the process of Sinicisation (Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention, 1858-1900, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1967, Appendices) and in eighteenth century England as a result of Francophobia among the elites (Newman, op.cit.).

[70].       Tambiah, op.cit., pp 144-70 and Rogers, op.cit., p 14.

[71].       H W Codrington, “The Kandyan Navandanno,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Vol. 21, 1909, pp 221-53.

[72].       Rajasinha I of Sitavaka, as we all know, took up Saivism and it is likely that others in his circle did.  But it is precisely for this reason that the greatest warrior king in Sinhala history is not a culture hero.

[73].       Tambiah, op.cit.,  pp 173-77.

[74].       This concept is my formulation and refers to sovereignty secured through acts of allegiance involving gift-giving and obeisance.  These acts were known as dakum, penum and panduru pakkudam.  For relevant details, see T B H Abeyasinghe, “Princes and Merchants: Relations Between the Kings of Kandy and the Dutch East India Company in Sri Lanka, 1688-1740,” Journal of the Sri Lanka National Archives, Vol. 2, 1984, pp 35-58; T B H Abeyasinghe, “Embassies as Instruments of Diplomacy from Sri Lanka in the First Half of the 18th Century,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka Branch, Vol. 30, 1985/6, pp 1-40 and Duncan, op.cit.

[75].       Tambiah, op.cit., p 145.

[76].       Tambiah, ibid., p 139; also pp 158-70.  There is, nevertheless, some inconsistency and ambivalence in his application of this approach.  For one, he evaluates the evidence on the sentiments of the eighteenth century in a manner that insists on ideological coherence in the style demanded by Western rationalism (p 166).  For another, he does not extend this thesis to the debate on the ancient period of Sri Lankan history and poses the alternatives in either/or terms: was Sinhala Buddhist identity “inclusive [and] incorporative” or “exclusionist, separatist, boundary-making and polarising” (p 138).  The possibility of hierarchical inclusivity is not considered at this stage.

[77].       See D G B de Silva, “New Light on Vanni Chiefs, Based on Historical Tradition, Palm-leaf Manuscripts and Official Records,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka n.s. being the Sesquicentennial Special Number, Vol. LXI, 1998, pp 153-204; Gananath Obeyesekere, “The Historical Implications of Vadda Ethnicity,” Mss. Paper presented to the Neelan Tiruchelvam Commemoration Symposium, January 31st 2000; Nur Yalman, Under the Bo Tree. Studies in Caste, Kinship, Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971, pp 310-24; Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, Rutgers University Press, 1953, pp 138, 140-46, 244-45 and James Brow, Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1978.

[78].       Fr S G Perera, “Jesuits in Ceylon,” Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register, Vol. II, Oct. 1916, p 86.  For other evidence on these processes, see C R de Silva, op.cit., pp 87, 102-05; B Gunasekara (ed.), Rajavaliya or a Historical Narrative of Sinhalese Kings, Colombo, Govt. Printer, 1954, pp 61-62; Fr. V Perniola, The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka.  The Dutch Period, Volume I, 1658-1711, Dehiwala, Tisara Prakasakayo, 1983, pp 297 (map), 330-31, 384, 213 and passim.

[79].       Here, I have been helped by ongoing exposure to Rohan Bastin’s work on the locality and Munnesvaram temple itself.

[80].       Dewaraja, The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon…, op.cit., 1988, pp 180, 187.  Regarding the receipt of the getaberiya sannasa by the Gopala family for services rendered, see A I L Marikar,, Glimpses from the Past of the Moors of Sri Lanka, Colombo, Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home Publication, 1976, pp 196-201 and D A Kotelawele, “Muslims under Dutch Rule in Sri Lanka,” M A M Shukri (ed.), Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo, Aitken Spence for the Jamiiah Naleemia Institute in Beruwala, 1986, pp 174-75.

[81].       K W Goonewardena, “Muslims under Dutch Rule in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Shukri (ed.), Muslims of Sri Lanka, op.cit., p 204; Dewaraja, “The Muslims in the Kandyan Kingdom (c.1600-1815): A Study of Ethnic Integration,” Shukri (ed.), Muslims of Sri Lanka, op.cit., p 212; S J Sumanasekera Banda, Uve Dayada, Ratmalana, Sarvodaya, 1986, p xxxvi and Marikar, 1976 where a painting of a camel corps is reproduced.

[82].       Dewaraja, op.cit., 1986, p 228; Goonewardena, op.cit., 1986, p 204 and J P Lewis, “Kandyan Traditions,” Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register, Vol. VII, 1922, p 111.

[83].       Lewis, op.cit., p 187, relating an Arab story; Kotelawele, op.cit., pp 174-75; my interview with S A R Nisamudeen Udayar in the Aranayake area, 17 July 1993 and Dewaraja, op.cit., 1986, p 227.

[84].       Rogers, op.cit., p 14.

[85].       Ralph Pieris, 1956, p 100n.

[86].       Dewaraja, op.cit., 1986, p 215, emphasis mine.

[87].       Dennis B McGilvray, “Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim Ethnicity in Regional Perspective,” Contributions to Indian Sociology n.s. Vol. 32, 1998, pp 470-71 and my conversations with a Pakistani scholar at Heidelberg University and M Sameem in Sri Lanka, both of whom used the finger-measure as part of their clarification.  It would seem that, today, the shaving of pubic and body hair is a wide practice.

[88].       Except where the proposal was from a king: Rajasinha II is reputed to have arranged a liaison with a Yon liya (Moor maiden) from Pangarammana locality who then resided at his Uva residence (Sumanasekera Banda, op.cit., 1986, p xxxvii).  Again, the Sinhala poetical traditions depict Muslim women as particularly attractive (e. g. Kokila Sandesa, v59 as in W F Gunawardhana, “The Kokila Sandesa,” Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register, January 1919, Vol. III, p 163).  I suspect that the latter preference was influenced by the sudu (fair) complexion attributed to many Muslim women.

[89].       This is one of the conventional forms of denigration levelled at Muslim men in Sinhala localities.  The Tamil version is mukkal (McGilvray, op.cit., p 469).  Both may now be displaced by the English term “tip-cut” even in Tamil and Sinhala-speak.

[90].       Gananath Obeyesekere, “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the Canalisation of Aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology, Vol.14, 1975, pp 7ff.  Also see McGilvray regarding Tamilian Hindus visiting shrines in the Eastern Province, op.cit., 1998, p 465.

[91].       Davy is cited in Dewaraja, op.cit., 1986, pp 228-29.

[92].       Paul E Pieris, Sinhale and the Patriots, 1815-1818, Delhi, Navrang, Reprint, 1995, p 88 (orig. pub. in 1950).  In the Maritime Provinces the Dutch used Muslim and Chetty forces to quell rebellions in the interior lands of Mahara, Mabole and Kelaniya in the 1760s (Kotelawele, op.cit., p 184).

[93].       P E Pieris, Sinhale and the Patriots…, op.cit., 1995, pp 73, 294, 332 and 410.

[94].       Ibid.,  p 345.

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