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Rescuing Sri Lankan history: Reflections on the past

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By Uditha Devapriya

In his influential essay “The People of the Lion”, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana argues for a national historiography, devoid of Western ideology. He does not refute or call for the doing away of such ideology altogether, but suggests rather that it has intruded on studies of group identities to such an extent that the history we think we unearth is very different to the history that may actually have prevailed.

Thus, by imputing terms like “race” (a term originating in 16th century Europe) and “Aryan” (which gained prominence with attempts by Orientalist scholars to draw parallels between Indo-Lankan and European languages), we are, as he points out, “presenting a view of the past moulded by contemporary ideology.” If this is the case, which I personally think it must be, then what is the history we have and the history we must talk of?

What we know, from the inscriptions, the chronicles, and the reconstructed narratives, is that Sri Lankan society was never really rooted in the concept of race as it is today. Group ideology was determined by tribes that migrated from other societies. The first hunter-gatherers lacked iron implements, which is how they came to be assimilated by Indo-Aryan Iron Age settlers. While these hunter-gatherers are said to have approximated to Veddhas, the later Iron Age settlers are said to have approximated to Sinhala people.

The question of whether hunter-gatherers formed an agricultural group is debated: the Valahassa Jatakaya, for instance, tells us of she-yakkas devouring food from wrecked ships and enslaving, if not tormenting, the sailors aboard them, while the Mahavamsa relates an episode of Vijaya coming across these ships after his encounter with Kuveni. Fa-Hsien was, as K. M. de Silva observes, not being very helpful in these matters when he wrote that the country had been originally inhabited by yaksas and nagas who traded with merchants, simply because human settlements predated both those clans.

Such narratives divided not just scholars, but also littérateurs: Martin Wickramasinghe in Sinhala Sahithyaye Nageema argued that the existence of such ships showed the absence of an advanced pre-Vijayan agricultural society, while the pioneers of the Hela Havula stated that Kuveni having engaged herself with a spinning wheel at the time of Vijaya’s entrance showed that society had been advanced prior to Indo-Aryan colonisation.

The issue is that these texts were occupied more with idealising a religious or dynastic sect than with presenting a view of life as it was lived. If they presented such a view, which they occasionally did, they did so in a hazy, amorphous way. This requires us to turn to hard evidence, etched in stone and recorded for posterity.

The Brahmi inscriptions form arguably the most concrete evidence we have for the civilisation which developed, grew, and flourished after the Indo-Aryan migration. These inscriptions come to us from very early on, and they were made by the upper classes of their time. We have Yaksha, Naga, Vedic, and Puranic inscriptions, and they allude to the status of their authors, their families, and their occupations.

The Puranic inscriptions tell us of pre-Buddhist religious cults which revolved around the Mother Goddess, Vishnu, and Siva, a point that lends credence to G. P. Malalasekara’s view that Vijaya was tolerant of all faiths. Evidence from the inscriptions of Jain and Tamil settlements, as well as settlements by, inter alia, Kabojas (Kashmiris), Moriyas (Mauryas), and Baratas (merchants, or nobles according to Paranavitana) tells us that we were a multiracial country, at least in terms of “contemporary ideology.”

But these clans were so disparate that they found it hard to develop a cohesive identity. They identified themselves by a totem: Moriyas with the peacock, Lambakannas the hare, Kulingas the shrike, and Tarachchas the hyena. This continued into the evolution of group identities later, as evidenced by the use of the lion and the tiger: the former became the standard of the “Sinhala” people, whereas the latter was adopted by the Nayakkar kings of Kandy who ruled over those same “Sinhala” people.

Not surprisingly, in medieval Sri Lankan society the ideology of the ruling class became the identity of the State. What this meant was that there was no overriding racial consciousness of the sort we discern today, so much so that, for instance, when Dutugemunu went to war we had, not Sinhalas fighting Tamils, but one dynasty battling another.

“Sinhala Buddhism”

was probably not rooted in society the way it is now, and if it was, the needs of the sasana would have been considered more important than ethno-nationalist considerations: the author of the Mahavamsa, after all, has Dutugemunu say he’s fighting “not for the joy of sovereignty”, but for the preservation of the Order.

The vague position Buddhism occupied at this juncture can be gleaned from the fact that it was accorded a foremost status even by invading forces, at least in the case of Elara; the Mahavamsa valorises him as a just ruler, tainted only by his “false beliefs.” In contrast, after the 10th century we see a heightening of anti-Buddhist and anti-Jain sentiment among South Indian invaders, which in turn produces a backlash on Sri Lankan soil.

In an otherwise eloquent essay on the subject (“Buddhism, Identity, and Conflict”), H. L. Seneviratne contends that Sri Lankan society was never the ekeeya rajya it is touted as by ultra-nationalists. He is theoretically correct, yet there is an important caveat that must be inserted: that the Westphalian notion of sovereignty was alien to the rulers of the land and thus not totally applicable, at least not to the extent it is today.

To be sure, “particularism” persisted in Anuradhapura, and the absence of a proper central administration in Polonnaruwa contributed to the disintegration of the rajya, denuding it of any ekeeya pretensions. Yet, at the same time, group consciousness permeated society even at the level of a divided State. That is why regional polities tended to band together in the face of military incursions from India, and why the absorption of those polities into a central State in Polonnaruwa under Parakramabahu I deprived the Sinhala kingdom of a viable base from which it could strategise counter-campaigns against such incursions.

In the aftermath of Kalinga Magha’s military campaigns during the Polonnaruwa era, we see a strengthening of a local Buddhist identity in response to the threat of fragmentation of the State, ekeeya or otherwise. It was a classic case of hostility by an invading force giving rise to a group identity on the invaded terrain. Nissanka Malla’s decree that only a Buddhist could rule the land hence must be seen in the light of Magha’s later campaigns of destruction. The fact that this “Buddhist king” himself is said to have originated from the Kalinga line speaks volumes about the amorphous nature of group identity formation.

To be sure, there was opposition to an ethnic Other occupying the throne, but we must understand that it was never the kind of opposition ultra-nationalists project towards the prospect of an ethnic Other presiding over Sri Lanka today.

When Bhuvanekabahu VI faced an uprising in the south, for instance, it was later painted as an uprising against a ruler of Malayali blood; this did not stop chroniclers from celebrating him for his conquest of Jaffna. The case of Waththimi Kumaraya is also significant: while the records are unclear, what we have is an account of a Muslim pretender being killed by a group of nobles, only to be venerated later by Muslims and Buddhists – the latter of whom worship him as Gale Bandara Deviyo. The level of ignorance displayed by ultra-nationalists to such subtle nuances of history surfaced years ago when, after I noted that Gale Bandara Deviyo may have had Muslim origins, a young lad of 19 protested his origins and suggested to me that, because he was non-Buddhist, he should not be venerated!

We see such ambiguities in the Kandyan era as well. However, despite Gunawardana’s assertion that uprisings by the aristocracy against rulers were a common occurrence even prior to the advent of Nayakkar rule, we must admit that such uprisings became more and more common after the installation of the Nayakkar line on the throne.

The contrast between the Ingirisihatana and the Vadigahatana must be considered in this light: the former celebrated Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe for his victory over the British in 1803, while the latter was written by Kavisundara Mudali, a confidante of Eheliyapola Adikaram who was antagonistic towards the king, following the annexation of 1815.

If that sounds strange, consider that the writers of historical chronicles have always, since the time of the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, tilted in favour of one group over another. That is why we see a great deal of Dutugemunu, and so little of Mahasen, who Mahanama Thera seems to have mentioned, if at all, for his efforts at developing the irrigation system of the land. Curious as such paradoxes may be, they survived well into the British era, when the continuation of the Mahavamsa depicted the British as heroic, even though the author, Yagirala Pannananda, received no proper backing from the State.

In any case, it’s one of the biggest ironies of history that the Vadigahatana and the Kirala Sandeshaya called out on the wickedness of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe by identifying himself with an ethnic Other, when the Nayakkar line had been chosen after the death of Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe to head the country because there had been no Sinhalese of kshatriya blood (a sine qua non of kinship in the post-Nissanka Malla era) available; certain nobles had wanted Unamboowe, but he was not “pure”.

It is also ironic that each and every anti-British uprising after 1815 required a Nayakkar pretender; the exception, after which no Nayakkars reclaimed the fight, was 1848. Such facets have long been forgotten by those who insert contemporary ideology into the past: perhaps the most grievous error we can commit, not just to history, but to our history. To rescue that history thus requires a radical re-evaluation of our past.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Features

Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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