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Brought to Sihaladipa and put into Sihalabhasa for the benefit of the dipavasin.

by ratnawalli - June 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 22 December 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The author of “The Numbers Game”, probably the most informed study of the death toll for the last stages of the Elam war was telling me, that once in 2008, he was so appalled by the ignorance displayed by H L Seneviratne in a newspaper article  that he immediately started digging for authoritative sources on the subjects HL was making fast and loose with and discovered James. W. Gair, K.R Norman and Richard Salomon[i]. When I read HL subsequently, I too was at first appalled. Then I thought what’s there to be appalled about, if the result of one man’s appalling display of ignorance was to motivate another to dig and unearth? So H.L’s was a bracing display of ignorance, and it went like this;


“In the broad perspective, one look at the ethno-demographic spread of peoples in the subcontinent makes it quite obvious that the Sinhalese are a variety of Tamils, as are

other ethnic and linguistic groups of South India. It is because of the twentieth century Sinhala-Tamil rivalries that this fact is forgotten or explicitly denied. In particular, it is striking that the Sinhala Buddhists have forgotten the fact that it is in South India that Buddhism survived centuries after its disappearance from the north. It is very likely that the great Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa was a Tamil monk, although Sinhala monastic tradition is keen to place him in North India…. And the Sinhala language, considered “Aryan”, is Tamil in its grammatical and syntactic structure, with a vocabulary of about twenty or more percent Tamil”.


To a questing person brought up in Britain in English and handicapped in Sinhalese (as the “N Game” author is) Gair was a flare that lit up the darkness that H.L Seneviratne wished to share. Let us switch on James W. Gair in “Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan Isolate”[ii] (Full text here);

“Indeed, Sinhala has retained its Indo-Aryan identity despite the constant contact with Dravidian languages, a persistence that I referred to in the same paper as “a minor miracle of linguistic and cultural history” (Gair 1976b:259). It has emerged as a language with a unique character within the south Asian linguistic area, a result of its Indo-Aryan origins, Dravidian influence, and independent internal changes. There were other influences as well, some of them from the languages of successive colonizers, but it is often overlooked in this regard that there was clearly some other, apparently non-Dravidian, language (or languages) spoken on the island before the advent of Sinhala. This is shown not only by the existence of the aboriginal Veddas (whose language is now essentially a dialect of Sinhala) but also by the existence of a number of items in the Sinhala vocabulary that cannot be traced to either Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages. (See Hettiaratchi 1959, 1974; De Silva 1979: 16). The role that some indigenous languages, or language, played in the formation of Sinhala has not really been investigated but it may well have been more than is generally recognized.”

The H.L conjured up by his newspaper article is an “Either-Or” man. Given two or more seemingly opposing concepts (‘Aryan character’ vs. ‘Dravidian influence’, ‘Existence in a Dravidian linguistic cultural region’ vs. ‘Being out of synch with the region’) he will try to make sense out of them by choosing one or the other. He is unable to synthesize the seemingly opposing concepts to form an illuminating total. To him an elephant must be either a wide flap like being or a long trunk like being. Never a being that incorporates both shapes in a harmonizing structure. Not so Gair. He touches the language at all its main points (vocabulary, morphology, phonology and syntax) to assess the influences and the final shape the language has assumed under them. Gair’s concluding sentences are;

“In 1935 Wilhelm Geiger and D.B Jayatilaka remarked; “It is, no doubt, a splendid proof of the proud national feeling of the Sinhalese people that they were able to preserve the Aryan character of their language in spite of their geographical isolation. And indeed, the structure of Sinhala itself appears to parallel the position of Sinhala culture and society within the South Asian Culture area. Clearly part of the region, and influenced in many ways by its South Indian neighbors, as well as by other nations and communities that have entered its history, but always retaining and developing its own special character throughout the over two millennia of its existence on the island of Sri Lanka.” Subsequent research has, I believe, shown that statement to have been insightful, indeed.”

Then there’s a footnote; “This final sentence was added in this reprinting, and it holds true for research right up to the present (1996), including the relevant papers in this volume.”

Probably the most prominent scholar to venture on to the topic of “Sinhalese”; the land, language and the people and display appalling gaps in his knowledge was R. A.L.H Gunawardana (“The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography”). Of all these gaps (highlighted by K.N.O Dharmadasa), what takes the cake for appallingness in my opinion, is Gunawardana’s failure to register Buddhaghosa’s revealing comments on the language, the land and the people. Dharmadasa: 1996[iii] (Full text here) accuses Gunawardana of not being aware of this vital information revealed by “The Indian monk Buddhaghosa who arrived in the island and worked in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura during the reign of Mahanama (406-428)”-(p155).

Consider Watson, a visiting scholar monk comes here from India in the 5th century AD. At the beginning of his various Pali commentaries (Sumangalavilasini, Papancasudani, Saratthappakasini) to the Buddhist cannon, he repeats the statement that his commentaries are based upon the commentaries that were brought to Sihaladipa by Maha Mahinda and put into Sihalabhasa for the benefit of the island-inhabitants: “Sīhaladīpam pana ābhatā’ tha vasinā Mahā-Mahindena thapitā Sīhalabhāsāya dīpavāsīnam atthāya”- (K. R Norman:1978[iv], p32- full text here and Dharmadasa: 1992[v], p40- full text here). Buddhaghosa also explains why he writes in Pali. Because “the monks outside the island cannot understand the meaning of it” (the commentaries that have been composed in Sihalabhasa of Sihaladipa), “I shall now begin this commentary in conformity with the style of the canonical texts (i.e. in Pāli)”. – (K. R Norman: 1978:p47).

A little short of 2000 years later, a man born in this island sets out to write on the antiquity of the entity called Sinhalese. He is not aware of what the earlier man said. It is appalling. Also bracing. It enables another man to highlight what was omitted. It leads yet another man (Michael Roberts:1993[vi]) to question “how it was that a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse, a language which was identified as Sinhala, and who lived in a land called Sinhala, were not seen as Sinhala; and did not see themselves as Sinhala”[vii].

@ http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/  and rathnawalli@gmail.com



[i] I have uploaded here the third chapter of Richard Salomon’s “Indian Epigraphy, A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages”. Read “Sinhalese Prakrit” under “Inscriptions in other MIA dialects” and “Sinhalese” under “The New Indo-Aryan Languages”.


[ii] James W. Gair in “Studies in South Asian Linguistics. Sinhala and Other South Asian Languages”. The PDF I have uploaded has three good articles; Sinhala, An Indo Aryan IsolateHow Dravidianized was Sinhala Phonology? Some Conclusions and Cautions” and Some Aspects of the Jaffna Tamil Verbal System”   


[vi] Michael Roberts, Review essay, Nationalism, the past and the present: the case of Sri Lanka, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 16, Number 1, January 1993.


[vii] Roberts says “Gunawardana’s argument is by no means accepted by all scholars in the field and K.N.O. Dharmadasa (1991) has recently challenged it in detail. It is constructed on an explicit, yet weakly demonstrated assumption that there was a gap between the aristocratic ruling class and the popular mass. It does not address the issue how it was that a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse, a language which was identified as Sinhala, and who lived in a land called Sinhala, were not seen as Sinhala; and did not see themselves as Sinhala”.



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