The Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama
By Uditha Devapriya
The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.
Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.
This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.
While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy.
Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival evolved in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival, then, is linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.
Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.
For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.
Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.
This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.
Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.
The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.
A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.
What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.
At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,
“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”
Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.
Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not no dependent on such capital.
In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.
Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.
Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
BY Srilal Miththapala
From time immemorial the female form has been exploited for diverse reasons, to achieve a wide variety of outcomes by various cultures, individuals, groups, tribes and business organisations.
At the same time, women have always been aware of the immense power of their sensuality, and how it can be subtly used to further their ambitions.
The tourism and hospitality is not an exception in this context, where a woman’s presence in the service delivery/customer contact points usually has a strong positive impact.
This discussion tries to analyse this phenomena in an objective manner, with special emphasis on how localised cultural contexts affects it, and the resulting implications
Women and sensuality
Sensuality is about ones sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions and behaviours towards other people. Sensuality is diverse and personal, and it is an important part of who you are. And manifests in various ways such as body language, tone of voice etc.
Many In today’s world believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sensuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. It can also be utilised by women to further their personal ambitions and goals.
History is full of such examples. The very origin of humanity may have been vastly different if Adan did not succumb to Eve’s ‘charms’ in enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit.
Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his brute strength, at the behest of the Philistines.
Eva Duarte, was an illegitimate child with dreams of stardom. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944 and unabashedly charmed herself into his life, ending up as the First Lady of Argentina.
Cleopatra is cast as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined many a good man’s career, with she herself succumbing to the complicated web she wove.
And Harry Belafonte summed it all up in his famous song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”-
“And not me but the people they say
That the man is leading the women astray
But I say, that the women of today
Smarter than the man in every way”
All these examples are of women who have leveraged their sensuality in a rather ‘aggressive’ fashion for personal gain, which often had them labelled as promiscuous, flirty and slutty, and looked down upon.
However in todays ‘sexually liberated’ world, the feminist movements have successfully transformed this thinking by radically removing the arbitrary shackles prescribed by tradition. Today a woman who is aware of her sensuality, and confidently carries it, is considered an emancipated person.
However when a woman’s sensuality and form, is used to achieve some results by a third party, implicitly or explicitly, it could be considered a form of exploitation.
Women in Hospitality and Sensuality
‘Sexual hospitality’ was an ancient custom whereby the host provided a hostess from his household to the male guest for their pleasure.
The Himba tribe of Nigeria, are known to practice the Okujepisa Omuka tradition, which involves a man giving his wife to his visitor for sexual entertainment and pleasure.
While such actions do stem from cultural norms, there are other numerous examples where there is an aspect of domination, where women are forced or coerced to provide these services, rather than of their own free will.
However in today’s commercialised and highly competitive hospitality industry, a women’s sensuality has become a commodity employed to attract customers, although it may not be officially endorsed.
When women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualised, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.
The hospitality industry today, not only legitimises and reinforces these historical gender stereotypes to some extent, but also eroticises hospitality, albeit in a subtle manner. Almost always front-end customer contact staff are attractive, well-groomed and well attired women. An establishment will go to great efforts taken to design ‘eye-catching’ uniforms for frontline female staff. (This is more prevalent in resort hotels in the Asian region, which are seen to be more exotic destinations) .
The hospitality industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.”
There is no doubt that women in the hospitality industry do brighten up and add colour to the industry by their sensuality, charm , physical form …call it what you may. Ask any hotelier and he will conform that the charming smile of a girl at the front esk has neutralised many a guest complaint!
This in turn often attracts sexists remarks and sexual innuendo from customers, which are possibly relatively ‘mild’ and female frontsline staff usually learn to cope with. ( “The food is as good as you” and “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”)
However this environment of the hospitality industry which to a certain extent ‘accepts’ this status, could also lead to other forms of more damaging issues.
Women in Hospitality-The Sri Lankan context
Women in the industry
Women’s under -representation in the labour market is high in Sri Lanka. The population comprises of 52.8% females but when it comes to labour force participation their representation is only 35.6%, which is the lowest in South Asia (Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, 2014).
Howev, Sri Lankan females are among the most literate in South Asia, and the country tops the sub-continental rankings for female literacy. According to the University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka is the only country in the region to produce more female graduates from its local universities.
The Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) – Colombo School in 2017 had a representation of only 21% of female students, 12 % in Kandy Hotel School and only 6% in the Anuradhapura Hotel School. Similarly the three privately managed hotel schools namely Mt. Lavinia Hotel School, The Winstone Hotel School and William Angliss Hotel schools representation is 11%, 10% and 24% respectively.
Sri Lanka’s overall female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation rate is around 35% compared with male participation rate of 75%
Despite its importance to the economy (was the third largest foreign exchange earning Industry before CoVid), Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and its growth was facing several constraints, among which the lack of skilled human resources is prominent.
However, in contrast to the high levels of female participation in the tourism industry worldwide (about 54%), albeit with some regional differences, women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce.
The reasons for this are varied, and often based on cultural issues and norms. Jobs in the industry are considered to be socially unsuitable for women, especially for single females, and are often associated with
safety issues (sexual harassment),
poor prospects of career advancement
lack of job security
poor retirement benefits in relation to the public sector;
long/late working hours and shift work (no flexibility)
sub-standard working environments and facilities.
Some of these are definitely perceptions perpetuated by the media. Consequently, parents and husbands have discouraged their female children from pursuing a career in the hotel sector.
According to a World Bank study on women’s participation in the Sri Lankan labour force, 85% of the respondent stated that women are likely to leave their job in tourism after marriage.
From the aforementioned reasons that women shun the tourism industry, sexual harassment at work is perhaps the most contentious issue.
In a wide ranging study published by Hospitality Management Degrees Net, it is stated that one in every ten women in the hospitality industry in the world, has faced some form of sexual harassment, with restaurant and frontline staff reporting more incidents. The type of harassments ranges from sexist remarks (87%), sexual innuendo (84%), and inappropriate touching (69%). The larger proportion (80%) are from other male co-workers and customers (78%)
In Sri Lanka, there are no specific studies done on the sexual harassment in tourism industry, but there is considerable literature on the general female workforce in Sri Lanka.
However, the same aspects are prevalent in the local tourism scene with restaurant and the housekeeping staff most prone to such issues. The most common acts of harassment were obscene language, sexual jokes and sexually suggestive comments.
In a Sri Lankan context more women in junior positions in hospitality experience sexual harassment which indicates that it has to do with both gender and power issues. With low levels of education, they are less confident than other employees when dealing with difficult people in positions of power.
There are also instances reported of subtle ‘sexual bribery’ where certain ‘favours’ can be demanded by those in higher management positions in return for job related rewards.
However, without specific information it is difficult to comment about the Sri Lankan situation. But definitely harassment is often ignored or taken to be ‘part of the job’, by both the targets of the harassment, and the co-workers who witness it. Unfortunately in the hospitality industry it is taken as the ‘norm’ and exposure to unwanted sexually related attention is considered to be part of the job (Hoel & Einarsen, 2003).
When compared to actual number of complaints on sexual harassment from the employees of the tourism sector to other main sectors, it is seen that complaints received from tourism sector is much lower than some other sectors where the females dominate in numbersss. (such as the apparel industry)
There is no doubt that women play a vital role (knowingly or unknowingly) in marketing and promoting a hospitality establishment through their own sensuality. However this subtle ‘making use’ of women to promote the business can lead to enhanced issues related to sexual harassment to them, both from within the establishment (co-workers) and from without (customers).
This can be managed if there is a good open and transparent work ethic and culture, where professionalism and the dignity of labour is respected.
D A C S & Mendis B.A.K.M. Women in Tourism Industry – Sri Lanka Silva (2017)
Museums through Prof. Thapar’s eyes
Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Lecture:
By Uditha Devapriya
On Thursday, 27 January, Prof. Romila Thapar will deliver the Dr Roland Silva Memorial Lecture to the National Trust of Sri Lanka. Prof. Thapar will be speaking about the museums in India, charting their evolution from private collections to public displays and placing them in the context of similar institutions from other colonial societies.
Museums formed a crucial part of the colonial project, aiding administrators, officials, scholars as well as nationalist elites in their reconstructions of the countries they lived in and governed. Not surprisingly, after Independence the role of such institutions changed. Prof. Thapar would be discussing this aspect as well along with their potential to bring the historian and the social scientist together and their contribution to society.
The event will be the 141st such organised by the National Trust, as part of its Monthly Lecture Sessions. Originally held on the last Thursday of every month at the HNB Auditorium in Colombo, these lectures have brought in various scholars from fields connected to the study of history including archaeology, architecture, and ornithology. The shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic did not bring them to a halt: while the trustees held 10 online lectures in 2019, they held eight in 2020 and another 10 in 2021. Since 2015, moreover, these lectures have all been uploaded online free for everyone and anyone.
The brainchild of two of Sri Lanka’s finest archaeologists and scholars, the National Trust of Sri Lanka celebrates its 17th anniversary this year. Its objectives include the identification, documentation, protection, and conservation of the country’s heritage, defined in terms of physical objects like historic buildings, monuments, artistic and cultural works, as well as intangible artefacts like rituals, customs, and beliefs. More importantly, it seeks to inculcate an interest in these matters among ordinary people.
There it has more or less been doing what such organisations should be doing. The contemporary notion of a National Trust first came into being in late 19th century in Britain, with the establishment of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Founded as a not-for-profit association in 1895 and incorporated by an Act in 1907, it has since become the largest conservation charity in Europe. Its aim has not just been to save important sites from destruction, but also to open them up for public enjoyment. More than 125 years later, it has evolved into a fully-fledged institution, overseeing more than 500 historic sites, 250,000 hectares of land, and 780 miles of coastline.
Since then similar institutions have sprung up elsewhere. In India, a National Trust was established as a registered society, a corporate body with its legal personality, in 1984. Today that country is home to more than one such society: the International National Trusts Organisation lists three, including the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. In other countries these organisations serve different functions: the Yangon Heritage Trust, for instance, focuses on urban heritage, while the Siam Society also focuses on the natural sciences. Whatever function they serve, the International National Trusts Organisation lists more than 80 of these institutions, emphasising their common inheritance.
Though the need for a National Trust had been felt for some time in Sri Lanka, nothing was done about it until Roland Silva and Senake Bandaranayake intervened in 2004. The concept papers reveal that a great deal of thought went into the founding of the organisation. Initially conceived as the “Sri Lanka National Heritage Trust”, it later transformed into the National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage. The concept papers tell us that from its inception, much emphasis was placed on the notion of intangible cultural heritage, based on UNESCO’s classification of customs, traditions, and beliefs as enshrined in a landmark treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, in 2003.
At its inception on May 27, 2005, the National Trust counted 11 founders, including Silva and Bandaranayake as well as Ashley de Vos. To oversee its activities, seven committees were formed; another committee to oversee the management of the society, came into being in 2010. Arguably, the most important of these, the Scientific Committee, branched out to eight sub-committees, dealing with areas such as monuments and sites, architectural conservation, and industrial heritage. These, not surprisingly, reflected the expertise of its founders; since their formation, they have brought together a wide group of scholars, from art historians and architects to musicologists and archaeologists.
Today, the Trust engages in several activities, and not just lectures. In 2006 it organised an inaugural tour to the Botale Raja Maha Viharaya and other areas of historical interest in the region; due to the pandemic, it has not undertaken any historical tours since 2019, when it sponsored a visit to Jaffna. It also took up several conservation projects, one of them involving the Portuguese Fort in Malwana and another Joseph Lawton’s photographs of various national heritage sites. The latter has proved useful to the researcher and archivist of 19th century British Ceylon. These projects, in turn, led to two audio-visual productions: an exploration into the history of Sinhala music based on a lecture by Tissa Abeysekara, and a similar project about the evolution of music theatre in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps, the Trust’s most important contribution has been its publications. About 20 of these have been done so far. Foraying into different fields, they have spurred interest among scholars and readers alike.
These titles include Senake Bandaranayake’s and Albert Dharmasiri’s Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century, Neville Weeraratne’s The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, Nishan Perera’s Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka, Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne’s Birds of Sri Lanka, and Shanti Jayewardene’s Geoffrey Manning Bawa: Decolonising Architecture. Reasonably priced and available at leading bookshops, they underline the need to go beyond just coffee table publications of general interest.
Elsewhere, National Trusts have become a gauge of a society’s intellectual activity. In that regard the Sri Lankan National Trust may have much more potential. Though these tours, lectures, and publications have contributed a great deal, they have not been met with adequate levels of interest. Ambitious as these have been, they have not succeeded in gleaning a response commensurate with the Trust’s objectives.
In this, of course, the Trust is not to blame: there is just so much an institution can do. Yet when one considers that the British National Trust claims a membership exceeding 5.4 million, while its counterpart here claims fewer than 600, one realises the depths to which scholarly activity in Sri Lanka has fallen.
That tells us as much about our people as it does about our intelligentsia. Of late, one leading academic institution after another has been swept up by the rigours of politicisation. Scholars have increasingly turned into yes-men. Original research has become a thing of the past. What little intellectual activity there is now is underfunded and overstretched.
If Sri Lanka is to compete internationally, it must produce scholars capable of taking it to the world. Such individuals cannot thrive in a culture that rewards obeisance and acceptance over scrutiny and critique. This does not apply to politicians only, of course; people have contributed to such a state of affairs as well. In other countries, non-specialists rarely, if ever, have the last word over experts. In Sri Lanka, however, they exercise a more formative influence on the public than do professionals. This can only end badly, for everyone.
It’s not unfitting, then, for the National Trust to have chosen someone like Romila Thapar for this year’s inaugural lecture. Professor Thapar is not just the leading historian in India; she is also one of its most outspoken intellectuals. Of late, she has come out into the open, emphasising the need for nuance and rationality in the study of history.
There she has had to face a situation not too different to what we are facing: nationalist extremists have more or less monopolised discussions, turning the study of the country’s past into debates over who should be determining its future. Lost in such debates is the point that we are what we make of ourselves, that we invent the customs and traditions which we believe define us, and that these must always be placed in their historical context.
The National Trust obviously has a role to play in all this. We are caught in the midst of a severe crisis, and economic problems have taken precedence over everything else. Yet, there probably has been no better time to raise these concerns, to talk about them, to make it easier to understand our past. This is something the Trust’s founding members, especially Senake Bandaranayake and Roland Silva, engaged induring much of their lives. It is the legacy the Trust is heir to, the legacy it bears today. If it cannot live up to its own inheritance, no one can.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sinhalese the result of a tidal wave of migration or long process of non-linear development
Ruminations on Sri Lanka’s ancient past – Part X
By Seneka Abeyratne
A distinguishing feature of the Early Historic Period, between 500 BCE and 300 CE, is the dramatic appearance of lithic Brahmi inscriptions, which indicates a ‘leap’ from protohistory to history, a kind of ‘explosive’ transformation accompanied by the widespread use of the proto-Sinhala language. Brahmi inscriptions represent the earliest extensive writings on The Island. In the 3rd Century BCE, superior iron tools for engraving these inscriptions on hard rock surfaces were developed.
The majority of Brahmi inscriptions were engraved on the drip-ledges of caves in various parts of the dry zone. Since they are mainly in the form of donative inscriptions offered to forest-dwelling monks, they are a key source of information on Sri Lanka’s early historic communities in respect of economic activity, social structure, religious conditions, and political organisation (Senanayake, A.M.P. A Study on Social Identity Based on the Brahmi Inscriptions of the Early Historic Period in the North Western Province, 2017). Brahmi inscriptions are also to be found on rocks, slabs and pillars widely scattered in the dry zone.
As noted by Siran Deraniyagala (The Prehistory and Protohistory of Sri Lanka, 2007), it is the first appearance of Brahmi inscriptions on pottery at Anuradhapura (almost identical to the Asokan script some 200 years later) at ca 600 to 500 BCE that heralds the commencement of the Early Historic Period in Sri Lanka. These ancient inscriptions are in North-Indian Prakrit.
Archaeological evidence also reveals the following: “The settlement at Anuradhapura was over 10 ha in extent by ca 900 BCE and around 50 ha by ca 700-600 BCE. Thus it was already a ’town’. To date no other settlements of the Protohistoric Iron Age have been clearly identified in Sri Lanka though a rudimentary settlement may have existed in Aligala and another in Tissamaharama…In the time of Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE, the city of Anuradhapura was nearly 100 ha in extent…making it (on present estimates) the tenth largest city in India/Sri Lanka at that time and the largest south of Ujjain in northern India…” (Deraniyagala, S. 2007). It is, therefore, safe to assume that urban development in pre-modern Sri Lanka commenced in the Early Historic Period.
The scarcity of settlements in the Late Stone Age continued to persist in the Early Iron Age despite iron and farming technology. This scarcity ended with the Early Historic Period (500 BCE to 300 CE) when numerous settlements sprang up in the dry zone. The growth in the number of settlements seems to have accelerated during the Middle Historic Period (300 to 1200 CE). In addition to iron technology and farming, a third element appears to have entered the equation: “increasing medium- and long-distance trade leading to a corresponding increase in wealth which acted as the catalyst for an exponential increase in the density of settlements” (Deraniyagala, S. Pre- and Protohistoric Settlement in Sri Lanka, 1998).
The contribution the research community has made to our knowledge and understanding of the island’s pre- and protohistory is immeasurable. But as Deraniyagala (Deraniyagala, S. 2007) admits, there is still a great deal we do not know about the transition from prehistory (corresponding to the Mesolithic Balangoda culture) to protohistory (corresponding to the Megalithic Early Iron Age culture) in Sri Lanka. There are others who have expressed the same view as per the following quote: “Only in recent years have Sri Lankan archaeologists placed the investigation of the country’s relatively brief protohistoric period as an important item on the agenda of national research. This research, I must emphasise, is still at a very early and inconclusive stage. Unlike the subcontinent, we know almost nothing about the transitions and transformations of this period in Sri Lanka” (Bandaranayake, Senake. The Settlement Pattern of the Protohistoric-Early Historic Interface in Sri Lanka, 1989). Let us hope the present and future activities of the Archaeology Department and allied agencies (such as the universities and research institutes) will yield fruitful results in this regard.
The traditional view that in ancient times a tidal wave of migration of a linguistically homogeneous cultural group occurred in the island, is based largely on the fact that the language found in the early Brahmi inscriptions was remarkably homogeneous and that it was used extensively in areas where there were well-established agricultural settlements. A more radical interpretation offered by Bandaranayake views the emergence and widespread adoption of a proto-Sinhala language as the apex of several centuries of historical development which had its roots in the island’s protohistory.
We may note, in passing, that the proto-Sinhala language underwent local adaptation and eventually lost its Indian character and identity. Though a large number of dialects are spoken in India, none of them resemble the Sinhala language. The three main languages spoken in Sri Lanka today are Sinhala, Tamil, and English.
The current population of the island is 21.9 million of which around 74 percent are Sinhalese. To quote Samanti Kulatilake (The Peopling of Sri Lanka from Prehistoric to Historic Times: Biological and Archaeological Evidence, 2016): “Sixteen million Sri Lankans speak Sinhala, or Sinhalese, as a first language. It is an Indo-European language (associated with the north Indian Prakrit branch) that evolved from the foundational Sinhala Prakrit (which was in use until the third century CE), to Proto-Sinhala (until the seventh century CE), medieval Sinhala (twelfth century CE), and modern Sinhala (twelfth century CE to the present).” We can assume therefore that the starting point for writing in modern Sinhala is the 12th century CE. All the ancient Brahmi inscriptions found on the island are in Prakrit. The earliest Brahmi cave inscriptions have been traced back to the 3rd century BCE.
Emergence of the Sinhalese
At what stage in our history did the Sinhala language assume a common Sinhala identity? We shall turn to Leslie Gunawardana (The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography, 1979) for an answer: “It is only by about the 12 th century that the Sinhala grouping could have been considered identical with the linguistic grouping. The relationship between the Sinhala and the Buddhist identities was even more complex. There is a close association between the two identities, but at no period do they appear to have coincided exactly to denote the self-same group of people.” In his assessment, Anagarika Dharmapala was probably the first to use the term “Sinhalese Buddhist” in the early twentieth century to define a distinct ethno-religious group on the island (Gunawardana, L. 1979).
The early Sinhalese did not consider themselves a distinct ethnic group as the concept of race to denote a group of people sharing a common identity in respect of physical features as well as biological or genetic characteristics did not exist in ancient times. Gunawardana cogently explains that “the social group brought together by the Sinhala consciousness does not appear to have coincided with a linguistic grouping in the island or to have represented a single physical type, and that it is only after about the seventh century that it could have been linked with a religious grouping. It is the social and political criteria which clearly stand out in an examination of the factors that united the Sihalas.”
To return to the megalithic people of the dry zone, it seems very likely that their culture, which was locally adapted and ‘indigenised’, resulted from a creative synthesis of the indigenous culture with the South Indian megalithic culture. The distinctive features of this culture included burial sites, pottery, and iron technology. In the same way it could be reasoned that the emergence of a distinctive Sinhala culture and civilisation was the result of a similar creative synthesis that occurred during the early historic and later periods, a process initiated by the arrival of the northern Indian settlers on the island. But had not the indigenous population already attained a high level of internal development and dynamism, it is doubtful whether the island would have surged from protohistory into early history in the way it did.
Therefore, according to the radical view (pioneered by Senake Bandaranayake), the emergence of the Sinhalese as a distinctive ethnic group in The Island was the culmination of a long process of non-linear development dating back to our prehistory and not the product of a single, linear historical period associated with a sudden wave of migration. The evidence indicates that even in recent times this synthesis has played a significant role in shaping the evolving character of the Sinhala-speaking people and the culture associated with them.
What is true of the Sinhalese is also true of the two largest minority ethnic groups, the Tamils and Moslems. The distinctive culture and ethnos of each of these groups could also be viewed as the product of an exotic ‘blending’ of exogenous and endogenous elements. It is reasonable to assume that the ethnic composition of the Tamils and Moslems, like that of the Sinhalese, is also the result of a complex non-linear process that began in the past and will surely continue into the future.
But one thing is for certain. The island is not, and has never been, despite its geographical location, a cultural extension of South India. Sri Lanka has borrowed a great deal from India, yet it is not quite India. There is something else that gives the island its distinctiveness and special charm. The discerning foreigner may call it, as Carl Gustav Jung did when he visited Sri Lanka in 1937, “a touch of the South Seas … and a touch of paradise …” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1989).
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