When viewing the Tamil or Sinhala-majority arenas in pre-colonial times in Sri Lanka one can perceive manifest symbols of lordship and hierarchy existing amidst layers of caste and class differentiation. The penetration of Portuguese and Dutch colonial powers in certain coastal areas from the 16th century onwards merely complicated, amplified and strengthened these practices of superordination and subordination. Fortunately, the English prisoner Robert Knox observed these modalities of hierarchical power and provided us with classic ‘engravings’ of King Rajasinha the II’s imposing regality and autocracy in the mid-seventeenth century.
The picture of lordship accruing to the kings of Sihale located at Mahanuvara (Kandy) was accepted by the Dutch who had control of the coastal areas from the mid-seventeenth century. They sent embassies to Mahanuvara periodically to mark this subordination in the rite of dakuma – seen here in General Hulft’s dakuma in 1656 and in the abject gestures of subordination displayed in a painting of a dakuma by Brandes in 1785.
General Hulft’s dakuma before the King of Sinhale,1636 … a painting by Brandes of a Dutch dakuma before the Sinhale king circa 1785
These marks of superordination and subordination were not restricted to the apex of society or the customs of court. An array of demeanours and practices were inscribed in socio-political custom at all levels of society – as illustrated in a line drawing from the early 19th century that depicts an Adigar in procession in the Kandyan regions.
Again, numerous sources and our own observations indicate that the gates and verandahs of aristocratic lords were sites where these gestures of subordination/superiority were displayed. Indeed, a noble lord in his walauwwa was the epitome of power and hierarchy at the local level. One needs to absorb the details provided by Gananath Obeyesekere in his Land Tenure in Village Ceylon (1967) on the foundations provided by his ethnographic work in 1961 in Hiniduma Pattuwa in the Southern Province to fully comprehend the resonances of hierarchical power in everyday life.
The profound mark of hierarchy was also etched within the concept of pirivaraagena that is so central to Buddhist teaching and practice. The Buddha is understood to be, and represented as, a benevolent lord surrounded by respectful followers in positions of subordination. The spatial location of Buddha statues, as well as the demeanour of faces and gestures in the personnel surrounding him, denote a tale of superior benevolence.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the presentations of self that are pursued by ministers of state today are imbricated with notions of primacy and/or superiority …. And sometimes with marks of paternalistic benevolence extended from above to those down below. Nor is it surprising that the Rajapaksa clan from Hambantota have provided us with several illustrations of this political practice. It is with these instances that I conclude my argument.
As President in 2009 Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over one of the most significant moments in Sri Lanka’s recent history: namely, the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. He was abroad when the final stages of the battles were taking place. On his return to the motherland, in the full glare of lights and cameras, he descended from his plane and knelt down in obeisance to the land. The Lord was dedicating his subordination to the Motherland.
…. And then, when his armed forces, Sri Lanka’s armed forces, had marched into the last bastion of the LTTE beyond the waters of Nandhikadal Lagoon, and finalized the military subordination of the Tamil Tiger forces, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the site and presented the journalists and the world with a magnificent picture of a Rajapaksa crossing a bridge with key personnel pirivaraagena. This was lordship etched in the media at its most optimal moment.
Again, the ‘casts’ presented below could even emulate the tale of the walauwwa hamu (the manorial lord) in a hansi putuva (armchair) absorbed in a book and thus affirming the ‘lesson’ of a ruler steeped in learning.
But, always grounded in local custom, Mahinda Rajapaksa also took steps to limit his claims: just as he loved the maubima Lanka, he also subordinated self to the good Buddha. His own magisterial power had to be seen as a force imbricated with patriotism and a Buddhist aura.
So, to conclude, the good paternal lord is presented as all things to all potentates and all personnel.
The degree to which this picture is accepted by the populace is another realm.
The term dakuma (dakum) means “appearance” and describes an act of obeisance or homage involving gifts to a superior …and in specific contexts signified subservience — namely acceptance of the lordship of the superordinate party
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