Tamara Fernando


Histories of Sri Lanka have often concurred with nationalist sentiments which favour the majority ethno-linguistic group of the island, the Sinhalese Buddhists. The oft-cited A History of Sri Lanka (first published in 1981) by historian K M de Silva, for instance, begins by establishing “colonisers and settlers” of the island. Referencing the Mahavamsa – a fifth-century Pali chronicle which recounts a Buddhist monastic version of Sri Lankan history – the author concludes that existing sources “tend strongly to support the conclusion that Indo-Aryan settlement and colonisation preceded the arrival of Dravidian settlers by a few centuries”.


Uncritical adoption of such narrative has been used by some to position Sinhalese Buddhists as the protagonists and victims of history, projecting minority groups such as Tamils and Muslims as outsiders to the island. The country’s popular culture has also been used to further this discourse of division, as was seen during the three-decade long civil war, which was often misconstrued as the continuation of a primordial Sinhala-Tamil conflict. A new multi-author volume titled Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History, edited by historians Zoltan Biedermann and Alan Strathern, challenges this view by examining the island’s vast history of connections and disconnections.


In this context, Biedermann and Strathern warn of the “danger of Sri Lanka being idealised as a neatly delimited realm of organically grown, unbroken ethnic and religious identity coinciding with Sinhalaness and Therav?da Buddhism – a community that sees itself as having survived precisely because it has repelled the forces of the foreign.” However, Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History, is not a story of a ‘Sri Lanka of yore’, where tolerance and harmony reigned. The editors are careful to note that there is a danger of, “reinvent[ing] the premodern past as the perfect reverse of modern discontents: cosmopolitanism instead of nationalism, tolerance instead of bigotry, religious fluidity instead of boundary insistence.” They caution that cosmopolitanism was the same process which “brought the awful categories of race, ethnicity and nation, [but] also brought with it melting pots, global communications and expanded horizons.”


Pre-modern cosmopolitanism


A major theme in world history has been to point out how Asia was global and interconnected long before European incursions into the region. Following scholars such as K N Chaudhuri, whose seminal work Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean (1983) examined economic partnerships from China to the Persian Gulf before the arrival of the Portuguese, scholars have documented many more instances of global connections long before the age of colonial empires.


Responding partly to ethnic violence and partly to global trends of social constructivism, scholars of Sri Lanka have, since the 1970s, aimed to debunk and unpack categories like ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ by showing their historically-contingent, slippery nature, having meant different things to different persons at moments in time. Scholarship in this vein began with Leslie Gunawardana and has continued through the works of modern historians including John Rogers, Michael Roberts, Nira Wickramsinghe and Nirmal Dewasiri. The strength of this new volume in the context of past scholarship lies primarily in the new non-textual material and examination of histories beyond the popular focus on the elite. It uses archaeological and object-based histories, and draws together specialists across disparate disciplines including art history, Buddhist studies, archaeology and history to provide a compelling alternative narrative.


Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History begins by examining the popular claim that Sri Lanka was as an ancient Buddhist stronghold. Based on the extant physical ruins of pre-modern Sri Lanka, it argues that the island “was far more complex, diverse and fluid than recently constructed identities.” In the book’s opening chapter, archaeologists Robin Coningham, Mark Manuel, Christopher Davis and Prishanta Gunawardhana suggest that southern Indian influence was not unique to Polonnaruwa, which was once part of the Tamil-origin Chola dynasty that was prominent during the 10th century. Elsewhere, there are instances of Buddhist monarchs – such as Mahinda II (ruled from 777-797 CE) or Sena II (ruled from 853-887 CE) of Anuradhapura – who supported non-Buddhist institutions and are recorded to have patronised Brahmin rituals. The authors also cite a Hindu mercantile group from southern India, the Ainnurruvar, who built a Buddhist temple in Chola-era Polonnaruwa. The ‘Buddhist’ capital of Anuradhapura and ancient ‘Hindu’ centre of Polonnaruwa, therefore, may have both had a more cosmopolitan, multi-religious flavour than is assumed today.


There were other non-Buddhist elements in Sri Lanka’s past. Symbols such as the swastika and vajira/trisula, and architectural forms like stupas, could have been used in Hindu, Buddhist or Jain worship structures at different points in time. For instance, the authors draw attention to recent archaeological work around Anuradhapura which has revealed terracotta figurines of animals and human forms from around 900-1300 CE. These figurines and their associated cults and worship (of which there are no written traces, so we are left with physical fragments and historical imagination) are not Buddhist, but evince alternative and overlapping indigenous traditions of ritual, worship and belief.


The authors of this chapter make note of this mixing of traditions in modern history as well. For instance, they include the much-quoted fact that one of the most sanctified Buddhist sites of worship in the island, the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, was partly constructed by a member of the Nayaka dynasty, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha II (ruled from 1798-1815), who was a Tamil and Telegu speaker from a Hindu dynasty. This chapter also offers a searing indictment of the way in which government preservation, research and funding has been channelled towards an “alignment of state sponsored promotion of Buddhist heritage with the Mahavamsa narrative.”


Religion appears as another source of Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitan past in the book. Tilman Frasch, a specialist in Theravada studies, describes the link between the development of the Theravada literary canon in Sri Lanka – between 3rd and 5th century – and its impact outside the island. One vital aspect of this was the canonisation of scriptures, needed for the preservation of Buddha’s teachings, which were generally orally transmitted. Frasch writes that while the “Therav?da canon and, more importantly, the P?li language, both originated on the island,” it moved “across the Bay of Bengal to make Therav?da the mass religion of mainland Southeast Asia.” He details how communities at Sukhodaya in present-day India and Chiang Mai in Thailand turned to Sri Lanka as the centre for Theravada thought, particularly after the decline of Bagan (in contemporary Myanmar) after the Mongol conquest. Frasch concludes by saying that the Pali cosmopolis is best thought of as “an extended memory board, which provided back-ups in case of a loss of data.”


Cosmopolitanism from above and below


Kandy, located in the centre of Sri Lanka, is often seen as the core of Sinhala identity. The Kandyan Kingdom in the hill-ringed interior of the island was not colonised by the Portuguese or the Dutch, and outlasted early British incursions for two decades until their defeat in 1815. Due to this royal longevity and perceived resistance to foreign influence, Kandy is a metonym for authentic indigeneity. State-sponsored events mainly feature Kandyan dance and drumming, and touristic and commercial advertisements often feature stereotypical representations of Kandy as a shorthand for Sri Lankan cultural authenticity.


Gananath Obeyesekere’s chapter on the cosmopolitan nature of early Kandyan courts is thus an important challenge to this notion of authentic purity. King Vimaladharmasuriya, who ruled from 1590 to 1604, is one example of this hybrid fluidity. The king – whose name literally translates to ‘pious defender of the Buddha’s teachings’ – furnished his court with Spanish chairs and golden goblets, and was purportedly an avid consumer of wine and Western music. The 16th-century town he ruled over was also decidedly cosmopolitan in nature: foreign clothes were often worn by local elites, and Tamil and Portuguese served as the lingua franca; a later ruler, Rajasinha II, for instance, spoke fluent Portuguese.


Vimaladharmasuriya foreshadowed his descendant, the ruler Narendrasinha (reigned from 1707 to 1739). Known to many as the ‘last Sinhalese King’, Narendrasinha used to wear white wigs in the European fashion, and allowed the Dutch to take great pleasure, and diplomatic advantage, in providing him with the necessary powder and pomade for the upkeep of his wigs. The indigenous, it seems, was quite compatible with the languages, tastes and habits from abroad. Obeysekere observes that these qualitative features are deliberately elided in the Sinhala and Pali historical sources. Unfortunately, the nature of the sources of this chapter – Dutch travel records – restricts it to a study of elites, and so there is little to conclude about the dispersal of these tastes and fashions in the general population.


As an alternative to this elite focus, historians Kate Ekama and Alicia Schrikker turn to the little explored history of slavery in Colombo. They aim to rectify the idea that “slaves and slavery do not immediately surface in Sri Lankan memory, nor in colonial and indigenous texts,” which they note is especially shocking considering that, in the 18th century, at least half the population of Colombo consisted of slaves.


In 1660, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) transported more than 10,000 slaves from the Subcontinent to Ceylon and Batavia, and the slave trade was an incredibly lucrative side business for VOC officials. Slaves were used for construction work alongside prisoners, mostly as domestic workers for wealthy local and Dutch elites at a time when well-to-do families could have up to 20 slaves. Over time, these slaves were often absorbed into what the historians call the ‘urban underclass’. Accounting for this episode in history inverts the elite focus on the past, particularly the narratives of cosmopolitan elites, such as the royalty or monastic scholars, who were privileged with mobility.


But how does one write non-elite histories of people who have not left us memoirs, diaries or chronicles of their deeds? Ekama and Schrikker trawl through legal records in order to recover such voices, from the proceedings from the Dutch Council of Justice in Colombo, which preserve the lives and testimonies of many slaves. These cases were filed by the slaves for their manumission (freedom) or, more tragically, in the case of their murder, rape or abuse.


These documents capture tantalising micro-histories of the lives of these slaves. In one case file from 1781, for example, a slave woman named Deidamie, who was accused of killing her child, is holding on to a talisman which had been given to her by a Malay slave named Ontong. Ontong, in turn, claimed that he was in possession of the charm through a gift made by a Malay soldier from Java living in Colombo. Another case, from the 1790s, has a slave woman named Helena claiming her freedom against the wishes of her master. As is the case with many subaltern histories, we are left with fragments of lives, which must be filled in with historical context and, sometimes, imagination. Although we cannot be sure of these individuals’ geographical origins – many brought from the Subcontinent were trafficked to there from other continents – what little is preserved in the legal records is an important contribution to a historiography of Sri Lanka that breaks from the ‘deeds of great men’ model or stories of triumphant Sinhala Buddhism. The fabric of history is interwoven with many more threads.


The material turn


One significant development in history writing in the past three decades has been what historians call the ‘material turn’. Following scholars such as Arjun Apparadurai, historians have aimed to restore objects in the reading and telling of history. Moving beyond texts (treatises, diaries or administrative records), objects allow us to recover data about historical actors who did not leave behind traces in the written word. This challenges the tendency to privilege the written over material and visual culture is evident in any sample of publications on Sri Lankan history, which favour profiles of governors, plantation owners and political figures.


The art historian Sujatha Arundathi Meegama provides a fruitful example of how to do history with objects. In her chapter on 16th-century ivory caskets from Ceylon, Meegama accepts that the story of art and artists in Sri Lanka between 1400 and 1700 is difficult to piece together “because much of what is left consists of ruins, scattered pillars, doorways and basement mouldings, or monuments that underwent later reconstruction.” Despite this, she is able to recover much historical insight from a few objects – specifically, ivory cabinets.


Although there are no craftsmanship logs or memoirs from the carvers, the ivory caskets from Sri Lanka themselves survive in museums in London, Prague and New York. Meegama engages in careful “close reading” of several of these to show that objects can often carry multiple meanings and stories. The visual ornamentation of the remarkable Robinson Casket at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for instance, can be used to argue that craftsmen in the island had access to multiple visual traditions, both European and Southasian. Although European motifs such as coronation scenes or images of the Virgin and child were often used as templates, the same caskets often boast rows of lotus petals facing each other wrapped around the base, which closely resemble basement mouldings of temples such as those at Sitavaka and in Anuradhapura. The hybrid forms of the designs allow us to resurrect the visual and artistic worlds of these unnamed craftsmen which drew from multiple religious iconographies.


Limits of cosmopolitanism


Opting for a theme – cosmopolitanism – rather than a time period, Sri Lanka at the Crossroads pairs history from the 5th century with narratives from the 14th century, alongside episodes from the 19th. But cosmopolitanism is perhaps too loose a framework for a history of this kind. The dizzying breadth of the book – which brings together cosmopolitanism as experienced by Lankan political exiles under the Portuguese, medieval-era Pali literary theorists, British politicians and Colombo’s slaves – means that despite the strength of individual chapters, readers could be overwhelmed by the thematic and chronological directions of the essays, and unable to glean a consistent answer to the questions of cosmopolitanism.


As the tenth year since the end of the three-decade-long conflict approaches, some questions still remain unresolved: how can different communities in the country come together? How will existing social structures change? What will be the resistance to, or the boons of, today’s ‘development’? Although some authors of this volume make remarks grounded in the present political moment, the purpose of this volume is academic, not activist. However, works such as this could play a key role in thinking through those questions, and in framing debates on what direction Sri Lanka should take in the future.


‘Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History’, edited by Edited by Zoltan Biedermann and Alan Strathern, UCL Press, London, 2017, 354 pp, UKP 25.


Tamara Fernando is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on pearls and pearl diving in the Indian Ocean. Instagram: @lankanhistory, Twitter: TamaraFernando3.


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