“There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron and hats of iron; they rest not a minute in one place; they walk here and there; they eat hunks of stone and drink blood; they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime; the report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts on the rock of Yugandhara. Their cannon balls fly many a gavva and shatter fortresses of granite” – Report conveyed to Vira Parakrambahu Viii, King of Kotte when Don Lourenzo de Almeda arrived off Colombo; ‘Rajavaliya – Ceylon Under the British Occupation,’ Volume 1 – Colvin R. De Silva
When discussing a serious issue, it is amazing to note how often we Sri Lankans fall back on the wisdom of the ancients. The ancients knew better; if only we could begin to think and act like them, is the fervent wish of most Sri Lankans it seems.
It may be the prevalence of diseases like cancer or heart ailments often blamed on lifestyle changes , the shaky foreign policy of the Government or even the rapid depreciation of the rupee; the ancients knew what ought to be done, or better, did not do the things which bring about these problems.
What our ancestors ate protected them from disease. So life giving was the foods consumed that they worked like Trojans. Just look at the marvellous irrigation systems created in the arid north central plains of the island, we argue.
Often modern science confirms the wisdom of these elaborate schemes, especially in the selection of the sites for the tanks and their distributive methods, based on the gravity principle. Some even claim that our ancestors understood that disease is often waterborne and therefore evolved a method for purification, the cascading method. Treating or boiling the water was not yet thought of.
For a people with such a magnificent history, the indignities of the present surely rankle. Practically in every index reflecting development and standard of life, Sri Lanka is invariably placed in the lower middle range, in the company of countries with little to show. The only way for a Sri Lankan to enjoy a good life today is by making a career of politics, committing some sort of fraud or migrating to a Developed country. In our universal despair we seem to get much satisfaction in imputing greater insight to those who inhabited this land before, with an unquestioning certainty and a self-congratulatory satisfaction.
Universal education has now been national policy for decades in this country. We rank high in the literacy rankings, although the depth and quality of that education is debatable. A large percentage of Sri Lankans have travelled overseas and are conscious of other cultures and countries. In comparison with the times gone by, there are amazing career opportunities and social mobility now. Yet, we do not hesitate to declare ourselves inferior to those who lived hundreds of years ago; by and large illiterate, land bound, in fixed employment and hardly conscious of a world outside.
In nearly all ancient civilisations there are aspects that are admired even today. We gaze at the Pyramids, the Great Wall, creations of the Incas, Greece and Babylon to marvel at the engineering skills that produced these enduring monuments. These builders did not have the machinery and the equipment that we are familiar with. Their primary resource was labour, mainly slaves and draft animals. By trial and error, one laborious inch by inch, they built monuments that have not only stood the test of time, but to this day impress the technology savvy society of today.
Many of the monuments of the past; the Great Wall that did not protect the Chinese from the barbarians of the northern grasslands, Pyramids which were only to entomb the Pharaohs and the religious monuments which were of little economic utility, would have passed muster in the more democratic world of today, conscious of the return on the investment of public funds.
In terms of modern consciousness, the builders of these ancient monuments inhabited a small world, defined primarily by unquestioning loyalty to their monarch and unwavering devotion to their faith. Whatever political, social or even creative thoughts they may have had were circumscribed by these two certainties – there is always a king, and in their faith lay the path to salvation.
With all the research tools at our disposal now, we still have only a meagre idea of historical times, particularly of the life of an average man then. Things were then not put on “paper”, the way we do now. With only scanty records of basic human statistics and information to go by; population figures, life expectancy, staple diet, ambitions and aspirations; lifestyle, thoughts and concerns of the common folk of those times remain mainly a subject of conjecture.
It can hardly be said that the few “histories” available are dispassionate or objective records. Depending on the circumstances; bombastic, triumphant or even exculpatory, they are not material that the trained scholars of today will hold out as factual or objective. Yet, these can still give us some clues and insights to the times in which our ancestors lived, and the temper of their lives.
Were their lives rich, creative and satisfying or poor, nasty, brutish and short? Did they possess a broad outlook, minds knowledgeable and wise or were they oppressed and insular, given to superstition and occult practices?
We may speculate, finding answers to these questions based on our own biases and inclinations. However, the fact remains that with universal education and the freedom of rapid social mobility we are a lot more empowered now than our ancestors ever were. Unlike them, making the world in our own image, or at least creating something that goes towards meeting our aspirations is within our grasp. We have the education and the technology. Many countries, using modern ideas and methods have broken out of centuries of stagnation; and give their people a good life, often in a democratic setting.
That theatrical report to Vira Parakrambahu viii is distinguished by its dramatic quality than its factuality. In statecraft, as in military matters, a clear and factual understanding of a given situation is more valuable than several divisions. For dramatisation of reporting, the assessment of the Portuguese strength “cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts on the rock of Yugandhara” is hard to beat.
It also carries hints of rigidity of mind and attitude; after all, they were reporting an event happening only a few kilometres away. The befuddled spies had no qualms in dramatising the story, and it would occur to none in the King’s court to verify the version first-hand.
On receiving the report of the activities of the alien people on our shores, the warning bells should have rung loud and clear in the court of Vira Parakrambahu viii. The newcomers had crossed many seas, done many things and were capable of much. If we were to remain sovereign and compete on an equal footing, things had to change. That was not the path we chose, instead contriving to use the obvious strengths of the strangers in local intrigues and plots for short-term personal advantage.
The ancient Kingdom was now living on borrowed time, surviving only because the European powers, seeing no immediate gain, were not inclined to commit their resources to conquer the whole island. For the weak and divided Kingdom, the end came a few centuries later; not with a bang, but a whimper; with the connivance of many native leaders, almost imperceptibly, becoming a dominion of a far-away King.
Five hundred some years since that fateful day in 1505, is the situation any different in a real sense now? In 1948, after centuries of colonial dominance, the management of the country was handed back to its people. One cannot say that the progression thereon lacked drama; periodically new Constitutions are heralded, plush parliaments commissioned and built, after frenzied campaigns new governments elected with a lot of fanfare, ministers sworn in ceremoniously and all over the country there are grand openings and launches, all these strictly adhering to auspicious times.
Meanwhile, in the Corruption index, our rankings deteriorate yearly, in the Ease of Doing Business index we are among the countries lagging behind, in per capita GDP terms our performance is less than impressive; a nation unable to break out of its mediocrity.
Despite all the show and dramatisation, in political stability, economic strength and technological capabilities, in relative terms, the gap between the Developed world and us is perhaps even now wider than what was in 1505.
Is a nation which is convinced that its best years were in the past, capable of carving out a greater future? One time, all roads led to Rome. But the Italians of today will not want a Caesar back. The Chinese once had powerful kings and emperors. Today the Chinese policy is firmly Republican. The Egyptians will make tourist dollars from the Pyramids, but will certainly not have pharaohs ruling them again. Even the British, on whose empire the sun never set, now don’t want to go back there; no more mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun for them. The present is good, and the future even better.
It is different on this island. We want our past back, and more, the kings ruling us again.