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Midweek Review

Christopher Columbus and Islam



By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Epigraph: Despite the narrative handed down by generations of historians, “Columbus’s life simply cannot be understood without taking Islam into account” (Mikhail, p. 90).

What follows is taken from God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World by Alan Mikhail, Professor and chair of the Department of History at Yale University. Page reference is to this (Faber, 2020) publication. Professor Mikhail’s subject is the Ottoman Empire and Salem, (1470-1520), “the ruler of the world’s largest empire, sultan and caliph, God’s shadow on earth” (p. 353); grandson of Mehmet 11 who took Byzantine Constantinople in 1453, thereby sending shock waves through the Christian West. However, my focus here is on Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), born in the same year as his patroness, Queen Isabella of Spain, both of whom saw themselves as Matamoros, “slayers of Moors”, with “Moors” standing for all Muslims.

“Whether politicians, pundits and traditional historians like it or not, the world we inhabit is very much an Ottoman one” (p. 12) – I may add: If not directly, then indirectly. The word “Ottoman” is traced back to Osman (died 1320s) who led a loosely bound tribal group. “Every sultan down to the twentieth century” was a blood descendant of Osman (p. 6). Until it expanded into Muslim countries, the Ottoman Empire ruled more non-Muslims than Muslims. One factor leading to their success was that they were pluralistic, allowing minority entities maximum freedom possible: an accommodation particularly extended to Jews and Christians. Thessaloniki under the Ottomans was the largest Jewish city in the world (p. 166). The Ottoman political thinking was of a circle composed of four equally important parts: There’s no power without an army; no army without payment; no payment without prosperity; no prosperity without justice and good administration.

Alan Mikhail points out that Columbus lived at a time when the greatest menace to the Roman Catholic West was thought to be Islam, a greater danger than that posed by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Reformation. Luther argued that it was the moral depravity of Pope Leo X that enabled Islam to spread round the world (p. 371). He attacked the sale of indulgences whereby one could literally buy forgiveness and win God’s blessings – not only for oneself but for the dead: as the friar Johann Tetzel pithily expressed it, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (p. 375). Money, not goodness, purchased entry to heaven. An example of the indirect influence of Muslims is that the ‘sale of indulgences’ originated from Christian priests guaranteeing, in advance, absolution from all sin to Crusaders in the event that they died while fighting for the liberation of Jerusalem (p. 375).

For Luther, Christians themselves, and not Muslims, were Christianity’s true problem, and the way was not to fight the Muslims but to struggle against Christianity’s own sins (p. 377). One is reminded of Islam’s Jihad or the saying of the Buddha: Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself. Better to conquer yourself than others. When you’ve trained yourself, living in constant self-control, nothing can turn that triumph back into defeat. And Jesus admonishes that we must first ‘heal’ ourselves (figuratively) before setting out to ‘heal’ others (Luke, 4:16.) Obsessed with the war against Muslims, the destruction of Luther was postponed: ironically, the safety of the Protestant Reformation depended upon the strength of the Turkish armies (p. 373).

Returning to Columbus, the First Crusade against Muslims set out in 1096, to be followed by others: Columbus, we remind ourselves, was born in 1451. Growing up in Genoa, the boy Columbus would run to the docks to wave off men departing for Jerusalem. In short, Columbus grew up “steeped” in the rhetoric of the Crusades. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed as a sailor. Years later, he took part in the siege of Granada which Mohammad X11, the last Muslim ruler of Spain, surrendered on 2 January 1492. Legend has it that when Mohammad turned to take a last look at his beloved city (exquisite even today) his mother said: Yes, weep like a woman over a city you failed to defend as a man. About six months later (3 August, 1492), supported by Isabella, Columbus set sail on his voyage, perhaps the most momentous in human history.

“As every schoolchild learns, Columbus set sail with India on his mind’s horizon. Rarely, though, do schoolchildren learn why Columbus sought to cross the Atlantic” (p. 386). A common, if vague, explanation is that he was a Renaissance man, fired by the spirit of inquiry and adventure: disinterested (as distinct from uninterested) and secular. But Columbus sailed “imbued with a zeal for waging Christianity’s war against its foremost enemy – Islam” (p. 2). His was not some “secular Western march of progress”: Columbus sailed West on Crusade (p. 124). In order to capture Jerusalem (part of the destruction of Islam), he headed West, bypassing the Ottomans altogether (p. 102).

Columbus believed, like many others, that there was a Grand Khan in the East, who was a Christian. The Ottomans controlled the Mediterranean but if by sailing west, this Khan could be contacted and his help enlisted, then Jerusalem and Islam could be attacked from both sides. Columbus also believed in the existence of the Seven Cities of Cibola and their “vast repository of gold that could fund the holy army needed to retake Jerusalem”. According to this belief, when the Muslims first seized Spain in 711, seven bishops and their followers escaped and built on an island seven cities fashioned entirely of gold (p. 95). This island was thought to be somewhere in the West, and the failure to find it, rather than destroying the fantasy, “only served to fuel hopes even more” (p. 96). Columbus set sail determined to find it and, with that wealth, fight Islam.

His obsession with Muslims led Columbus to identify Taino weapons as “alfanjes”, derived from Arabic for “a curved metal scimitar inscribed with Qur’anic verses” (p. 131) – even though the Taino had no iron and knew nothing about the Qur’an! (The Taíno were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean, inhabitng what are now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Island. By 1550, they were close to extinction.) The scarves of a group of indigenous women were compared to Moorish sashes, and offered as evidence of contact between “Asia” and Spain. Decades later, Herman Cortes wrote that the Aztecs wore Moorish (Muslim) robes, and that Aztec females resembled Muslim women (p. 131). Crusader Columbus spent his final years compiling a book about a Spanish messianic figure, one who would defeat Islam and convert the whole world to Christianity (p.138).

Muslim power led to other entirely unintended consequences. As a result of Columbus’s discovery, 90% of the native population died: never before in world history has genocide occurred on such a scale (p. 163). Then there was the appalling cruelty of the slave trade. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull giving Portugal the right to enslave Muslims: “the first legal basis for the European enslavement of Africans” (p. 108). North and West Africa was Muslim, so slaves abducted from this region were Muslim. “Muslims led the first ever revolt against European slavery in the Americas” (p. 153). America was founded on violence, expropriation and genocide. As for the present, Professor Mikhail points out that, since “9/11”, white nationalists, most of whom are Christian, have unleashed far more terrorist violence in the USA than Muslims. It’s the USA which has invaded Muslim countries, and not the other way round: see pages 394 and 395.

In short, Professor Mikhail claims that “If we do not place Islam at the centre of our grasp of world history” (p. 12), we will “miss major features of our shared past”. The popular narrative about Columbus doesn’t mention Islam at all. In contrast, Alan Mikhail argues it had everything to do with that religion and its followers. His book offers a challenging perspective, and adds to our awareness.

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Midweek Review

A message from Keith Noyahr at the launch of ‘Notes from the battlefield’



Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, flanked by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, C. A. Chandraprema, at the 51 sessions of the ongoing Geneva sessions ( pic courtesy Foreign Ministry)

The 51 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is underway. Sri Lanka is again in the focus with Western powers and their lackeys targeting the war-winning Sri Lanka military.

Successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent administration, failed to address core issues. Their failure to counter accusations that over 40,000 Tamil civilians died in the hands of the military is inexcusable. The Foreign and Defence Ministries, without further delay, should review Sri Lanka’s strategy or fall victim to unceasing Western machinations against the country for militarily crushing the LTTE, against their advice.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lankadeepa journalist Ratnapala Gamage had been with the late General Rohan de S. Daluwatte, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), in Sept. 2001 at the latter’s Colombo office when the one-time Army Commander (May 1996-Dec 1998) was informed of the killing of Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias ‘Colonel’ Shankar.

At the time of his death the 51-year-old former Air Canada employee commanded the ‘Air Wing’ and ‘Marine Division’ of the LTTE.

The 20-minute call interrupted the exclusive interview Gamage was having with the CDS as Daluwatte had to rush for a meeting which was also to be attended by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Ex-Lankadeepa journalist Gamage, now domiciled in Switzerland, dealt with the high profile ‘hit’ carried out by the LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) aka DPU (Deep Penetration Unit) in the eastern part of the Vanni region. The raid carried out so deep, within the LTTE-held territory, sent shock waves through not only the enemy’s rank and file but the Colombo-based diplomatic community as well. Gamage in his maiden book ‘Rana Bimaka Panhinda’ (Notes from the battlefield) discussed the war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009, with the focus on his experiences and visits to operational areas. The launch of ‘Rana Bimaka Panhinda’ took place at the J.R. Jayewardene Centre on Sept 13 with the presence of Lankadeepa Editor Siri Ranasinghe. The gathering was told a Tamil translation of the book would be available later this year. Gamage had an opportunity to meet one of those intrepid men who participated in that particular operation on the Oddusuddan-Puthikudirippu road, east of Kandy-Jaffna A9 hi-way on the morning of Sept. 26, 2001. Gamage reveals his failed bid to convince one of those Long Rangers to give him one of the four pictures he had of the ‘hit’ on Shankar, one of Prabhakaran’s closest associates. Gamage explained as to why the soldier declined to give him a photograph. At the time the LRRP unit triggered the claymore mine that blasted the heavily guarded vehicle, the attackers had believed Velupillai Prabhakaran was on the move in it. Operations behind enemy lines that developed over the years involved elite men, including Muslim military personnel and ex-LTTE cadres. During the Eelam War IV, the Air Force, on more than one occasion, evacuated several teams of Long Rangers who had got trapped in enemy territory. Did such highly successful operations carried out behind enemy lines prompt Prabhakaran to return to the negotiating table in Feb 2002? The Norwegians finalized the one-sided Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) that included a clause specifically meant to halt all LRRP/DPU operations. Due to an oversight on the part of Gamage, the unprecedented crisis caused by the raid on a safe house at Athurugiriya Millennium City housing scheme, operated by those conducting operations behind enemy lines, didn’t receive the attention it deserved. The UNP government crippled the clandestine operation in spite of assurances given by no less a person than the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle that LRRP/DPU didn’t target UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Interestingly, Gamage wasn’t at the launch of his book. The ex-Lankadeepa defence correspondent addressed the gathering from his home at Aarburg, Switzerland at the onset of the event attended by several retired military officers. Retired Maj. Gen. Sanath Karunaratne, who led the defence of the Elephant Pass base way back in July 1991, in his then capacity as a Major, was among the guests at the launch. Gamage discussed the heroic defence of Elephant Pass base and the largest ever sea-borne operation ‘Balavegaya’ launched to save those trapped therein.

The beleaguered men of the sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR) under Karunaratne’s command held the strategic base till seaborne ‘Balavegaya’ troops fought their way in from the Mullaitivu coast to break the siege. ‘Balavegaya’ involved 10,000 men and was considered the largest action undertaken before ‘Operation Riviresa’ (Oct-Dec 1995) that brought Jaffna and its suburbs under government control.

If not for the successful suicide attack on an advancing armour-plated LTTE bulldozer carried out by Lance Corporal Gamini Kularatne, the garrison could have probably fallen before the Army launched Operation ‘Balavegaya.’ Kularatne received Sri Lanka’s highest gallantry award ‘Parama Weera Vibhushana’ for the supreme sacrifice he made on the battlefield. Kularatne was the first recipient of the decoration.

Referring to the fall of Kokavil detachment south of Elephant Pass in June 1990, Gamage quite rightly blamed the military top brass for the shortcomings. The second recipient of the highest decoration was Captain Saliya Upul Aladeniya also of the Sinha Regiment. Aladeniya commanded besieged Kokavil detachment established for the protection of the Rupavahini transmission tower there. However, the LTTE attacks on isolated detachments along the A 9 road north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass should be examined against the backdrop of the then President, late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s foolish attempts to reach a consensus with the LTTE by even transferring truckloads of arms to it. In June 1990 the government lost control of the A 9 road north of Vavuniya up to Elephant Pass. That stretch of the road overland route remained inaccessible to the government until the Army systematically liberated it in the final phases of the war in January 2009.It would be pertinent to mention that though 6 SR valiantly held Elephant Pass base in 1991 with less than a battalion of troops, a Division plus troops couldn’t repulse multiple LTTE attacks on Yakachchi and Elephant Pass base in late April 2000. The 54 Division abandoned the base and retreated in all directions. The LTTE killed well over 1000 officers and men. The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Balagalle made a vain attempt to portray the humiliating Elephant Pass defeat as a strategic withdrawal. Many fighting personnel also perished as they ran out of potable water after the LTTE destroyed their sole water source at Yakachchi

Keith Noyahr’s commendation among the well-wishers who couldn’t attend the book launch but chose to issue a recorded statement commending Gamage’s work was Keith Noyahr, the Deputy Editor of now defunct ‘The Nation. Noyahr recalled his close association with Gamage during the conflict and when he earlier worked at the Daily Mirror, the sister paper of Lankadeepa. Noyahr fled the country following his abduction and subsequent release in May 2008. The then Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was accused of targeting ‘The Nation’ journalist over his column ‘Military Matters’ that questioned the conduct of war-winning Army Commander the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Unidentified persons abducted Noyahr on the night of May 22, 2008 in the wake of a provocative piece titled ‘An Army is not its Commander’s private fiefdom’ on May 11, 2008. Noyahr wrote the column under the pseudonym ‘Senapathi. ’Fearing Noyahr’s fate would also befall him, Gamage quietly left the country with his only son in Dec, 2008. His wife died a few years earlier and in spite of political changes never returned to the country. The then joint Opposition comprising UNP-JVP-TNA-SLMC-CWC backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election must have been quite a shock for those who criticised Fonseka ‘s controversial strategies, that however brought about the unbelievable crushing of the LTTE in the battlefield, which many a pundit claimed was not within Sri Lanka’s military capability.

Gamage declared in his foreword, his close working relationship with the then Daily Mirror Editor Lalith Alahakoon (having joined The Island in June, 1987, the writer worked under Alahakoon who was the Night News Editor at that time) and his Deputy at the Daily Mirror Noyahr.

Acknowledging his weekly contribution to the Sunday Lankadeepa greatly enhanced his capacity, Gamage appreciated the opportunity and support extended by both Alahakoon and Noyahr for him to do a weekly article that dealt with ‘Military Matters. According to Gamage, it had been a joint effort by him and Noyahr. By the time, Noyahr was targeted ‘Military Matters’ was penned by Noyahr for ‘The Nation.’

Having joined Lankadeepa in late 1993, Gamage moved overseas as Fonseka’s Army was making headway on the Vanni east front. Close on the heels of Gamage’s departure on Dec 18, 2008, the 59 Division brought Mullaitivu, once considered impregnable, under its control. Mullaitivu had been under LTTE control since July 1996 after the LTTE massacred well over 1,000 officers and men in a devastating assault on that isolated base shook the country.

Gamage hadn’t been with the Lankadeepa to report the last phase of the combined security forces campaign that brought the LTTE to its knees.

Wijeweera’s execution

Gamage hadn’t even thought of joining the staff of the Lankadeepa at the time the UNP battled the second JVP inspired insurgency. The government brought the counter

insurgency campaign to an end in late 1989 early 1990 with the elimination of the JVP leadership.

Controversy surrounds the circumstances, the late Somawansa Amarasinghe escaped with the help of an Army officer. The rest, including the Marxist Party’s leader, Rohana Wijeweera were apprehended and summarily executed.

Gamage recalled him raising Wijeweera’s execution with the late Brigadier Janaka Perera (the much decorated officer was killed in an LTTE suicide attack in early Oct. 2008 at Anuradhapura as he came to address an election rally after having retired as a Major General) at his quarters within the then Army headquarters (the war winning Mahinda Rajapaksa government sold that land. The Yahapalana government (2015-2019), too, sold the adjoining land).

Brigadier Perera had been the head of one of the three teams that were assigned the task of eliminating Rohana Wijeweera. Then DIG Premadasa Udugampola (He passed away in January 2019), the late Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama (killed in LTTE suicide blast in Dec 2001) and the then Colonel Janaka Perera had been in charge of the teams that eventually hunted down the JVP leadership. Gamage recounted his stimulating conversation with Perera while sipping wine. Gamage was there on the invitation of the officer to share a meal with him. The arrest of a JVPer in the Dehiowita area by an officer attached to Perera team, his interrogation that led to the capture of JVP politburo member Disanayake Mudiyansalage Nandasena alias D.M. Ananda who revealed Wujeweera’s hideout at Ulapone. Did Janaka Perera participate in the execution of the JVP leader? What was the assurance the celebrated the army officer gave Wijeweera soon after he placed a pistol at the JVP leader’s head? Where did Janaka Perera detain Wijeweera? Who accompanied the then Army Chief Cecil Waidyaratne when he visited Wijeweera? Gamage answered all these questions and also revealed why Janaka Perera accompanied the journalist to meet a soothsayer in Anuradhapura. This was years before Gnana Akka’s entry into the scene. Gamage’s reportage of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s press conference in the Vanni on April 10, 2002 captures the attention of the readers. How a police intelligence officer infiltrated the LTTE defences on the pretext of being a journalist from Colombo assigned to cover the much-touted media briefing and unprecedented security measures that were in place therein to prevent an attempt on Prabhakaran’s life was certainly exciting. Gamage discussed how the LTTE turned the media briefing to a propaganda exercise by non-stop screening of footage of their battlefield victories. The stunning attack on Pooneryn-Nagathivanthurai base established in the early 90s to intercept boat movements across the Jaffna lagoon spurred the LTTE. Those directly responsible for the failure weren’t punished though Army Chief Lt. Gen. Waidyaratne resigned after having accepted responsibility. The LTTE smashed the base in early Nov 1993.

A visit to Vanni

Among other issues addressed by Gamage, perhaps one of the most important was the deficiency in the infantry. The ex-Lankadeepa journalist underscored the extreme difficulties experienced by the Army for want of sufficient men under arms. Gamage dealt with the issue against the backdrop of a visit organized by the Army for a group of Colombo-based journalists, including photographers to visit Army lines in the Vanni during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency. Ravi Ladduwahetti had been on The Island editorial at that time and was among those were taken there. Veteran journalist Ladduwahetti who had served many English newspapers passed away last week. He was 64 years old. The then Divaina Defence correspondent late Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi and former UNL photographer Siripala Halwala were also in that media team.

Kasthuriarachchi, whose brother, an officer of the Vijayaba Infantry Regiment (VIR) died in the July 1996 Mullaitivu battle, had covered the conflict extensively and was one of those who always joined such arranged visits.

Like many other journalists Gamage, too, experienced flying with bodies of military personnel killed in action, when he was returning to Colombo from Palaly. The writer experienced the same on more than one occasion over the years.

Gamage shared his experience in flying to Palaly after the LTTE brought down two Avros with heat-seeking missiles on consecutive days in late April 1995. Among those who perished in missile attacks were three Lake House journalists. Gamage was lucky to avoid a Sam 7 hit as in spite of speaking to the then Commander of the Air Force he couldn’t secure a seat on an ill-fated Avro that flew out from Ratmalana air base. Instead, the Commander had offered him the opportunity to board the flight at the Anuradhapura air base when the Avro touched down there. Perhaps the second Avro disaster could have been avoided if the Air Force didn’t take the risk of flying there the day after the mysterious destruction of an Avro while taking off from Palaly.

There had been several other books on the conflict since the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability. The books authored by our Permanent Representative in Geneva C.A. Chadraprema (Gota’s War) and the late Subramaniam Sivakamy alias ‘Col’ Thamilini (‘Thiyunu Asipathaka Sevana Yata’/In the Shadow of a Sharp Sword) are must read. Sinhala translation of ‘Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil’, life story of high ranking LTTE cadre, ‘Col’ Thamilini, took place at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on May 13, 2016.Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil’ was launched on March 19, 2016, in Kilinochchi, the one-time LTTE bastion.

Gamage’s coverage of UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake’s assassination should be examined taking into consideration his assessment that the LTTE did so to facilitate Kumaratunga’s victory. At the following presidential election in 1999, the LTTE tried to assassinate Kumaratunga to pave the way for Wickremsinghe to secure the presidency and in 2005 engineered polls boycott to help Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the presidential poll.

Gamage refrained from commenting on why the LTTE helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to win. Perhaps, the LTTE miscalculated Mahinda Rajapaksa’s capacity.

Chief of LTTE procurement ‘KP’ in his first interview with the media given to this writer in the ‘custody’ of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) declared the LTTE calculated they could take an irreversible upper hand in the battlefield within two years.

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Midweek Review

Brahmi on Potsherds in Anuradhapura



#uதுකම් (#Duty):

By Laleen Jayamanne

Somewhere online, I found this simple but startling composite, multi-scripted, word-slogan of the aragalaya; (#duty#යුතුකම්). Written with letters (akshara), drawn from all three languages of the country, it appears to be by an anonymous artist during the earlier GOTAGOGAMA PHASE of the aragalaya. It’s a key word expressing an ethical sentiment addressing all Lankans at this moment of political and economic upheaval and momentous social transformation.

The longer I look at this strange word many thoughts flash through my mind, though I don’t know Thamil. The letters of the three languages sit close to each other in amity. No hint here that that ‘u’ could cut like a ‘kaduwa’ (sword), or that the Thamil letter might be tarred or that Sinhala is allied to the word sinhaya (lion). Rather, this linguistic sign, as I see it, suggests a desire at the heart of an ethical impulse of the aragalaya (the struggle), a desire for a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, free of ethno-linguistic-religio-supremacist nationalist violence. But, the fact that the word itself is Sinhala points to the obvious, the taken for granted centrality of the Sinhala folk in the aragalaya. A Tamil letter has also been dutifully included. As for the presence of the English ‘u’, it goes without saying.

It’s just one little word-image, but silently it does speak volumes about non-violence, avihimsa, which has never been part of Lankan political vocabulary, until the Aragalaya made it so. Despite the Buddhist idea of non-violence, Gandhi’s political idea was never a part of Lankan politics in the way it was for Martin Luther King in defining the non-violent ethos of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Few know that Gandhi’s friend Tagore came to Ceylon in 1933 to open Sri Pali (modelled on Shantiniketan), and had spent time in Kandy completing Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) which was his poetic critique of the fascist turn in the Indian independence movement in Bengal. Young freedom fighters went on killing sprees while also

Words and Clay

“Ceramics is the memory of human kind,” Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Words. Paul Mathieu

Kumbha in Sanskrit means pitcher, jar, pot and Kumbha-karaka is a maker of pots. ‘Kumbal’ in Sinhala is also the caste name of potters. If we knew the etymology of the word it would conjure up a well-crafted pot rather than a low status caste, according to feudal Sinhala custom. A pot is useful, and also considered a symbol of the womb in some religious rituals as in the Kumbha-mela in India celebrating the life giving powers of Ganga nam ganga. I don’t know whether a pot carries this symbolic meaning in traditional Sinhala Buddhist culture and ritual as well. In addition to the every-day use-value, and extra-daily ritual-value of pottery, Paul Mathieu draws out the civilizational link between pottery and writing with its powerful abstract-value.

“The relationships between ceramics and text, pottery and words, are very old and very new. These relationships may not be too obvious at first, but it is my intent to show here that there is a very intimate connection between clay and language, ceramics and the written text, and that this symbiosis between the two cultural phenomena is very ancient and profoundly meaningful. Much has been made of the use of words and text in art and in contemporary culture, especially in new media technologies, but that has been true of ceramic objects since the very beginning of recorded history.

The earliest examples of ceramic objects related to language and writing are clay tokens from Mesopotamia dating from 8000 B.C. (see Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing). These tokens were part of an accounting system used in exchange and commercial transactions.” Paul Mathieu

In Search of Lost Time

Closer to home, when reading several obituary tributes to the distinguished Lankan archaeologist, Siran Upendra Deraniyagala, in 2021, I learnt about his many remarkable achievements. Foremost among these is the unearthing, in the late 80s, in Anuradhapura, of potsherds inscribed with the Brahmi script. These were radiocarbon dated to about 4th or 5th Century BCE, confirmed by a team from Cambridge University and later corroborated by similar findings in Tamil Nadu. It is considered to be the earliest known script in South Asia. This dates the Brahmi script to about a century or two before Mahinda Thera, the son of Asoka, brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, in 3rd Century BCE. While the epigraphs on the famous Asokan pillars across India are also inscribed in Brahmi, the form discovered in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are considered to be of a much earlier variant of the script. As such, linguists consider it to be the ancestor of several modern vernacular scripts in the region. This period is described as proto-history, the script pointing to a literate culture and trade links with both India and beyond in West Asia, prior to the arrival of Buddhism. With such a long history, proto-history and pre-history recorded also in the palaeo-archaeology of Paul Deraniyagala, Siran Deraniyagala’s father, we have been given a powerful vision of temporal-duration of this little Island home of ours, at the tip of the Indian subcontinent, initially geologically linked to it.

Brahmi Script and the Aragalaya

The early period of the Aragalaya felt like an auspicious moment to explore some aspects of the implications of the ‘earth shattering’ Deraniyagala discovery, beyond the highly specialised domain of archaeology. One hopes that the chauvinist fear (of finding evidence in the depths of the earth’s womb, which might dispel the myth of Sinhala-Buddhist ‘manifest destiny’), might be dispersing. Pottery with writing is on another level or stratum from the fossil record. It helps to calculate time and value in relation to the development of human culture, specifically, the expansion of its powers of abstraction. The creation of a heady variety of abstract visual lines on clay, corresponding to sounds and meanings, makes language and drawing tantalisingly close to each other. Writing is linear and formalised into sound and meaning; language. Whereas, ‘line-drawing’ appears to activate a vagrant line. Or to put it differently, a line drawn by an artist moves without a known destination; art. On one hand, an encoding of the line precisely, on the other, a freeing of the idea of the line, which carries us away into the unknown.

“Dr. must be the most influential archaeologist in Sri Lanka after Prof. Senarth Paranavitana. Introducing a new historical paradigm to the Sri Lankan past, undoubtedly, it was only he who presented a systematic – theoretical framework to the Sri Lankan past and tested a hypothesis through several decades until it developed into general acceptance. The results of the quest have been momentous.

If someone seriously examines his landmark publication of 1992, they will be able to find a road map to the future studies and pointers to raise new questions.” Thilanka Siriwardana, (

Deraniyagala, SU, 1984, “A classificatory system for ceramics in Sri Lanka”. Ancient Ceylon 5, 109- 114.

Art and Ecologycal Consciousness

Maybe, some contemporary artists with an interest in science and ecological thinking might feel like glancing at the fossil collection of Paul Deraniyagala in our katuge (House of Bones or Museum!) and who knows where that might lead! There might be a lateral connection to be made between Siran Deraniyagala’s momentous archaeological discoveries in Anuradhapura, of potsherds with the Brahmi script inscribed on them, and that of his father’s archaeo-paleontology and physical anthropology! This may appear to be a fanciful idea, but it is the case that artists working in the new media, including musicians are now working with scientists, at places like MIT, Cornel University and elsewhere, to develop projects, in the broad area of ecological thinking, that require collaborative team work across disciplines and skills. Ecological thinking now also includes, what Felix Guattari the psycho-therapist called, ‘mental-ecology’. Such collaboration may give artists with an ecological bent some lateral ideas to think with about interrelations of script (as movement), language (as sound), ethnicity, material culture, custom, the human body, nature and technology as ‘second-nature’, in Sri Lanka’s pre-history and proto-history, as they might relate to contemporary concerns. Siran Deraniyagala’s dig at Anuradhapura was 30 feet below ground level and it is said that he only uncovered a fraction of what is thought to be there. Can we imagine (certainly not another myth of origin of the lion race of the Sinhala), other ways of understanding the interconnectedness of all life forms and minerals, ‘transversally’, rather than hierarchically on this ancient island situated so propitiously on east west trade routes?

Siran U Deraniyagala, The Prehistory of Sri Lanka; An Ecological Perspective, (Colombo: Dept. of Archaeology, Government of Sri Lanka, 1992).

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Midweek Review

Empire’s Enchantment



By Lynn Ockersz

For the Isle’s local Sires,

On whom the reins of power,

Were bestowed with caution,

By a tactically retreating empire,

The umbilical tie with the latter,

Was never brought asunder,

For, the departing big power,

Wanted a faithful local agent,

And our Brown Sahib class,

With its zest for adulation,

Meets the empire’s wishes,

As is now clearly visible,

In the ‘Mother Country’s’ capital,

Where local servants of the empire,

Scramble to be counted as present,

At the funeral of their ex-empress,

Lest their shrill pleas for succour,

Are trashed by the prime powers,

Presiding over a skewed global order.

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