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Playing with history


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 The period in which the Sinhalese kingdom thrived in the Raja Rata can be described as the phase of greatest success and prosperity of Sinhalese civilisation

First of all, I was delighted to note a counter criticism ‘A reply to Victor Ivan’s ‘What went wrong with Sri Lanka?’ published in the Financial Times on 11 March in response to my article which appeared in the same newspaper on 22 February. I always welcome open debates and intellectual dialogues on academic issues. 

However, I was rather disappointed, and my satisfaction soon disappeared when I noticed that it had been written under the pseudonym ‘Avocado Collective,’ hiding the true identity of the author or the authors of the article. The articles published hiding the identity of the author/s are generally called vituperative literature. I am at a loss to understand why an important subject deserving academic dialogue has been turned into a guerrilla-type debate under a pseudonym. 

It seems that the way I interpret the history of Sri Lanka is not to their liking. I am not surprised about that. There are many Sri Lankan scholars who hold the view that the golden era of the history of the country was destroyed first by the South Indian Tamil invaders and later by the European invaders. This must be the way the so-called ‘Avocado Collective’ too perceives my interpretation of the history of Sri Lanka. But I have a different perspective and critical way of looking at many issues of importance.

Whenever a particular kingdom in the South India, the immediate neighbour of Sri Lanka, had become strong and powerful, it used to attack and overpower the neighbouring kingdoms, and in the process invade Sri Lanka as well. It had been a usual practice adopted at that time by the dominant South Indian kings. The conquest of neighbouring countries by a powerful monarch was considered not an offence but a sign of the power wielded by them. 

There had been instances in which even Sri Lanka had invaded South Indian kingdoms with the intent of capturing them when it was powerful. But the invasions launched at that time cannot be considered to have been initiated with the malicious motive of destroying the Sinhalese civilisation. Even amidst those invasions, there existed a racial harmony between Sinhalese and Tamils and religious tolerance between the Buddhist and the Hindus. 

 

The decline of Sinhalese civilisation 

The period in which the Sinhalese kingdom thrived in the Raja Rata can be described as the phase of greatest success and prosperity of Sinhalese civilisation. According to B.H. Farmer, with the South Indian invasions, anarchic situations prevailed from time to time and the malaria epidemic caused their decline.

The analysis made by Professor Senarath Paranavithana, in the University of Ceylon – History of Ceylon Vol. 2 in this respect is very important and worth our attention. Paranavithana has alleged that king Parakramabahu the Great also was responsible for the collapse of the Raja Rata civilisation. His analysis is produced below. 

“The seeds of decay which became manifest in the Dambadeniya period had been sown in a century or two earlier. During the Cola conquest early in the eleventh century, and in the many unsuccessful revolts as well as in the campaigns which restored Sinhalese sovereignty, many thousands of lives must have been lost. The long and generally peaceful reign of Vijayabahu 1 gave an opportunity for the nation to recuperate, but the forty-two years of civil war which followed was a period of disintegration. The irrigation system was neglected, and in the wars of rival factions many thriving villages are said to have been destroyed without leaving a trace. An era of development was inaugurated by Parakramabahu, but his way to the throne was strewn with the dead bodies of thousands of his countrymen. The several revolts in Rohana and the campaigns necessary to put them down resulted in the death of thousands of able-bodied men. Parakramabahu, it is true developed the resources of the island to a higher pitch than it had ever been raised before, but his prolonged foreign wars must have caused a great drain of manpower, and the high tempo of his administration left the country in a state of exhaustion at the end of his rule. The megalomania of Nissankamalla did not improve matters, and by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the healthiest and the more physically fit section of the population must have been sacrificed to satisfy the ambitions of these two monarchs. Rohana did not suffer from foreign invasions, but wars had been equally disastrous; this principality too, must have contributed its levies to the armies sent abroad by Parakramabahu. Thus, the manhood left to propagate the race must have been not the fittest and the most vigorous, and their progeny in the subsequent generations did not possess the necessary stamina of mind and body to cope with the difficult situations that they were faced with, both in struggling against adverse natural forces and in resisting the onslaughts of enemies from abroad.” (University of Ceylon – History of Ceylon Vol. 2 Pages 716-717)

According to B.H. Farmer, “The Portuguese caught Sinhalese civilisation when it was already fast disintegrating. Gone were the glories of ancient days in Raja Rata, abandoned to the jungle were many of the great shrines of former times. The process of decay and of fragmentation had been in train long before Don Lorenzo de Almeida’s accidental landing, and might well have gone much further had the Portuguese never come to Ceylon.” (B.H Farmer – ‘Ceylon – A Divided Nation,’ page17)

 

The British period 

By the time the Kandyan kingdom was captured by the British, the society of its domain remained at a primitive level beset by extreme poverty and ignorance. Infanticide or intentional killing of a considerable number of infants for various reasons had become a common characteristic of the life of the people. 

In my opinion, the book of Robert Knox, ‘An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon,’ is the best historical source that can be cited to illustrate the pathetic condition that prevailed in the country at that time. 

The critic or the team of critics while declining to accept my views had challenged the authenticity and the accuracy of Knox’s book as an important historical source and the numbers I had quoted about the infanticide practised, with the following sarcastic remark: “We wonder if Ivan has the superhuman ability to conjure up statistics that were simply never recorded in the 18th century? Ivan invokes Robert Knox, who was a prisoner after all with limited knowledge of the entire country, to show how poor the peasantry were in the Kandyan kingdom.” I hope to discuss this remark and point out the paucity of their knowledge on this subject elsewhere in this article. 

The British ruled Sri Lanka for 133 years since the capture of the Kandyan kingdom until independence. The relative development of the country during this period can be considered poles apart when compared to the period of rule by the ancient kings. Obviously, a country falling into foreign domination cannot be considered a beneficial thing to happen. Yet, the decay which became manifest after the fall of the Raja Rata civilisation might have become worse and Sri Lanka might have lagged in an unfortunate and miserable condition if the rule of ancient kings had continued any longer.

If it happened that way, the people of Sri Lanka would not have been able to live as independent citizens as they are today. The majority of them would still be living as serfs performing feudal services determined by the caste system. This should not be misconstrued to mean that the British rule was perfect and did not have bad features and a darker side. But, compared to the darkness that prevailed prior to British rule, it can be said that the results generated by the British rule had more beneficial and positive aspects. However, there can’t be an argument in regard to the object of the British that they captured Sri Lanka for their own advantage and not for our benefit.

It is a fact that they exploited and reaped benefits from Sri Lanka. The rebellions launched against their rule were suppressed ruthlessly. Especially the 1818 Uva Wellassa rebellion was suppressed brutally and pitilessly. Not only foreign rulers, even the local rulers would not allow rebellions to break out. Suppression of rebellions is a normal course of state rule whether the rulers were native or foreign. How did the native rulers suppress youth insurrections that broke out in the country after independence? Can one say the measures adopted by local rulers in combating them were not ruthless and cruel? 

At certain stages of British rule, oppressive taxes such as body tax and grain tax were in operation. Oppressive taxes had been in operation during the Kandyan kingdom as well as the reign of ancient kings. During the reign of king Parakramabahu the Great, more than one-sixth of the paddy crop had to be paid to the treasury, and of which 50% was paid in paddy and balance in cash. The Pujavaliya has a poignant account of the difficult life, the peasants led during the 13th century and how they suffered due to oppressive taxes. 

During the British period, by a Wastelands Ordinance, the forest lands were acquired by the government and were transferred at a very low price to European planters and to the indigenous capitalists who showed interest in plantation agriculture. Plantation agriculture, besides being a lucrative source of income for planters themselves, can be considered an avenue which had contributed to the overall development of the country. 

During the British period there emerged a modern system of rule coupled with a system of local administration and a new economic system based on trade. 

The ancient feudal system known as Rajakariya, the traditional system of land tenure based on caste system, was abolished by the British allowing the people to select a career of their choice. They abolished the trade monopoly of the government, creating a system of free trade. Legal privileges enjoyed by only a certain section of people were abolished and a system in which all were treated equal before the law was established. 

Besides that, a common system of judiciary and law was established. They granted universal franchise to the people, removed dictatorial powers of the Governor and set up a democratic system of governance consisting of executive and legislative councils. They introduced a modern system of education together with a modern system of schools. Consequently, a literate society that reads books and capable of debating on matters of importance came into being. 

 

Lessons of history 

It was the British civil servants who worked in Sri Lanka who took the lead to motivate us to study our ancient history and the grandeur of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms by exploring the ancient arts and crafts, irrigation systems, religious and literary achievements of our forefathers. 

Alexander Johnston, third Chief Justice of Ceylon, encouraged the translation of the ‘Mahavamsa’ and ‘Rajavaliya’ and published it in three volumes and also a book on indigenous laws and customs of Sri Lanka in two volumes. John D’Oyly collected the laws and traditions of Sinhalese regions and codified them into a book on Sinhalese administration. William Tolfrey, a British civil servant in Ceylon and translator of the Bible into Sinhalese, translated ‘Balawatharaya,’ a grammar book on Pali language, into English. Samuel Tolfrey translated ‘Sidathsangara,’ the Sinhalese grammar book into English. George Turnour published a book on the history of Ceylon based on the ‘Mahavamsa’ commentary and also a critical analysis of the ‘Mahavamsa’. Sir Emerson Tenant wrote a book on the history of Ceylon in two volumes. H.W. Codrington wrote two books on the history of Ceylon and a book on land tenure in Sri Lanka. Wilhelm Geiger published an edition of the ‘Mahavamsa’ and in addition a book on the historical development of the ‘Deepavamsa’ and ‘Mahavamsa’. Besides that he wrote a book on Sinhalese grammar. Though Geiger was not a British civil servant, the British Government of Sri Lanka bore all expenses.

The British Government employed James de Alwis to compile a bibliography of Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhalese literature. The cost of English translation of the ‘Sidathsangara’ made by James de Alwis in 1925 was also defrayed by the British Government. The Sinhalese translation of the ‘Mahavamsa’ in 1877 by Ven. Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Thero and scholar Batuvanthudave was initiated by the British Government. Sinhalese translation of the ‘Chulavamsa’ undertaken by L.C. Wijesingha in 1879 was also sponsored by the British Government. 

None of the Sinhalese kings had visited Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa at least on a pilgrimage for 500 years since the Raja Rata Kingdom had been abandoned by prince Vijayabahu, son of Parakramabahu 11, in 1262, and the kingdom was shifted to the wet zone. The Raja Rata had remained an abandoned region covered with jungle and devoid of people. 

The ruins of Polonnaruwa buried in the jungle were discovered by H.M. Fanon, a British Lieutenant Commander. The notes he had made on this discovery had been published in the Ceylon Gazette on 1 August 1860. The Sri Lanka branch of the Royal Asiatic Society founded in 1845 served as an organisation which encouraged the Government to explore into the ancient glamour of Sri Lanka. Sir William Jones, the founder of the Royal Asiatic Society, was a scholar of Oriental languages. 

The major ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were photographed and published in 1871. It was in 1873 that the necessary guidance was given to initiate archaeological research in Sri Lanka, on a decision by Governor Gregory. The Colombo Museum was established in 1876 and the pictures and plans of main ruins of Sri Lanka were published in 1877. 

P. Goldschmidt, a German Professor, was employed to compile a list of rock inscriptions of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Mihintale. He died, succumbing to a fever contracted while engaged in examining inscriptions at Tissamaharamaya and Kataragama. Thereafter, Dr. E. Muller was entrusted to pursue the task which he completed in 1877 and published a book titled ‘Ancient Inscriptions of Sri Lanka’ in 1881. 

H.C.P. Bell, British civil servant and the first Commissioner of Archaeology in Ceylon, should be credited for advancing the archaeological research into a formal level. The task he initiated in Thun Koralaya and Hathra Koralaya areas was later extended to other areas as well. It was he who persuaded the Government to establish a Department of Archaeology, which was set up in 1890. An Act to protect ruins of historical importance was passed in 1900. 

 

Ignorance or impudence 

The British helped us in the discovery of our hidden history. They did not distort it. They did not attempt to suppress the pride that we owe. 

The condition of Sri Lanka when the British captured it and the condition that prevailed when they left us were poles apart. It may be that they had exploited us. But, Sri Lanka had achieved its highest development in terms of human freedom, independence of thinking and orientating the country into the modern world during the British rule and not during the rule of ancient kings. It is a historical fact. We must not be ashamed to admit it.

There are many things in the article of my counter critic or the critics that can be negated. But it is of no use in replying most of them. However, in view of the space limitation, I choose to respond specifically to the following remark and the two questions raised therein, which I consider the main argument they had put forward in an attempt to refute my proposition.

“Life in the Kandyan kingdom must surely have been hard for the average peasant. But we wonder if Ivan has the superhuman ability to conjure up statistics that were simply never recorded in the 18th century? Ivan invokes Robert Knox, who was a prisoner after all, with limited knowledge of the entire country, to show how poor the peasantry were in the Kandyan kingdom.”

First of all, I wish to quote from Ralph Pieris, the first Sri Lankan Professor of Sociology of University of Ceylon, to substantiate the historical importance of the book of Robert Knox. 

“‘An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon’ (1681) written by Robert Knox is the first historical account written in English about Sri Lanka. His object of writing this book was to place before the English readers an account of diverse, strange and unique customs of the people of Sri Lanka. Whatever may be his intention, the author had been able to compile an anthropological research study…”

On account of the lengthy description he had made on this, I wish to produce here only the concluding remarks of his interpretation: “Therefore, the book of Knox had been acclaimed for a period of over two centuries as a source of correct and reliable information on the medieval society of Sri Lanka.” (‘A Note on Sources – Sinhalese Social Organisations’ by Ralph Pieris, page 267)

Now, I am coming to the subject of “superhuman ability” attributed to me by my critics. This remark tinged with a kind of sarcasm has been based on the observation I have made in my article that the rate of infant mortality at birth as well as the rate of infanticide remained high during the times of the Kandyan kingdom

I wish to draw your attention to the following observations made in the research publication of Ralph Pieris who had made an excellent research study on the social organisations in the Kandyan Kingdom. Please note that the instances quoted below constitute the footnotes (FNs) introduced by the author to prove the infanticide practised during that period. 

“Among the Sinhalese too, the persistence of (an uneven) sex ratio conducive to polyandry in certain areas, at any rate might be attributed to infanticide. Knox mentions that a child born under an inauspicious planet was killed either by starving it, letting it lye and die, or by drowning it putting it into a vessel of water or by burning alive.” (Page 206 FN 54)

“In 1812, Ahalapola Adhikarama published an order forbidding people to expose children, a very common practice after three or four children are born or in case of a child born under an unlucky nakatha or the parents are poor – and something that parents themselves put them to death by crushing them with a stone or drowning.” (Page 206 FN 56)

“The uneven sex ratio had been a matter of concern of the officers who compiled the census reports in 1820. Infanticide continued in early British times. They have described how a child is put to death in a manner it cannot be proved to be a culpable homicide.” (Page 206 FN 56) 

‘Doily’s Diary 13.1 1812 Infanticide continued in early British times’. It carries a note on an infanticide case: “Oedogodegedara Kiri Etana Vs Mohotigedera Ran Hamy (BJC25.1.1821- CGA 23/32). A witness described how a mother had thrown a child into a hole from which yam had been dug saying she had no father for it.” 

“The judicial commission sentenced a woman found guilty of burying alive her female child, to three years imprisonment at hard labour in the Gabadawa and to stand in the pillory three times in the public bazaar. (RCD27.11.27 Lawrie, MSS111)” (Page 206 FN 56)

A nation which had achieved a great progress at one time may sometimes fail to maintain it at a different time of its history. It need not to be a matter for shame. It is through understanding the truth and not concealing it, that it can gain critical wisdom and determination required for inaugurating a new era of development. 

To end this article, I wish to quote an assessment made by Rhys Davids, a scholar of Pāli language and the founder of the Pāli Text Society, about the value and the authenticity of Knox’s book as an important historical source document. 

“This most valuable work is thoroughly trustworthy. Knox and his companions were not confined in any prison, but in separate villages where they were allowed to go in and out among the people. Most of them acquired property and married Sinhalese women and became Sinhalese peasants. But Knox himself never gave up the hope of escape and ultimately effected his purpose. His mode of life in Kandy was the best possible for gaining sure knowledge of the habits of the people. The simple straightforward style of this book must convince every reader of his truthfulness and the more one knows of the state of society among the Sinhalese in the remote districts who are little acquainted with Europeans, the more one learns to value the accuracy of his intimate and careful observations.” (‘A Note on Sources – Sinhalese Social Organisations’ by Ralph Pieris, page 267)


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