In November 2010 I wrote an article with the sensational heading; ‘Why did Dr. Jehan Perera lie to Dr. Michael Roberts – A Sri Lankan horror story’. It sought to straighten the kinks imposed on the historical record by Dr. Jehan Perera’s vested interest. One year later a historian named Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda; B.A Hons (Wales), M.A Medieval Studies (York), Ph. D History (Kings, College, London), sent me an email. He congratulated me on my historical awareness and urged me to concentrate it into a book or at least a regular column in a newspaper. I thought he made writing a book sound so easy.
“He wrote a book on Indian history while still a PhD student and it became a best seller!” remarked the expatriate historian whom I tapped for information about my sudden well-wisher. Sinharaja’s first book, A traveler’s history of India (UK, USA 1994), is now in its fifth worldwide edition and has been translated into Russian and Chinese. On its back cover blurb, the book promises to cover the whole scope of India’s past and present history, allowing the traveler to make sense of India in ways that go beyond a mere guide book.
From 1997 to 1998, Sinharaja was a visiting lecturer at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology, teaching a course on art, culture and architecture to members of the public. The course attracted a distinguished bunch of students including, Shehara De Silva, corporate queen, Chloe de Soysa, a granddaughter of Sir James Peiris, Kapila Ariyananda, gifted artist and Ninel Fernando, designer. They helped him when Sinharaja decided to curate and sponsor an exhibition of paintings by Stanley Kirinde, contemporary artist, aristocrat and old school friend of Lakshman Kadiragamar. They did it at Barefoot. Sinharaja collaborated with Kapila Ariyananda to produce a small booklet about the artist and his work while Shehara De Silva got it published. The booklet fascinated the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka who sent it to India. The Indian Government commissioned Stanley Kirinde to paint a portrait of President K. R. Narayanan. Hearing of it and becoming alive to the diplomatic potential of such an artist, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, commissioned Sinharaja to produce an extensive treatise on Stanley Kirinde and the world that shaped his work. Kadirgamar lived just long enough to see the post production work on the book completed and to congratulate Sinharaja on a job well done. The LTTE sniper took Kadirgamer before the book could be launched, but Suganthi Kadirgamar decided to go ahead with the launch.
On Kandyan Art
Sinharaja’s next book was a hefty – but so elegantly designed that many people mistake it for a coffee table book – scholarly treatise, Ridi Vihare. The Flowering of Kandyan Art (2007). In the author photograph Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda looks like a brooding, poignant fawn with features as fine drawn as in an 18th century Kandyan painting. In 1997, the author spent several months at Ridi Vihare, a cave temple complex in Ridigama, Kurunegala. Under the care of the Chief Incumbent Venerable Tibbotuwave Sri Siddhartha Sumangala, later Mahanayaka of Malwatte, Sinharaja absorbed what the Ridi Vihara fraternity had to teach about Buddhism, the Sinhalese and Sinhala. Even now Sinharaja can’t stay for more than a few days at a place without wanting to write about it or persuading another to write.
In the case of Ridi Vihare, the compulsion to write must have been irresistible. For, this temple is that rare thing in Sri Lanka; a built structure, populated and functioning to this day, with a historical provenance going back beyond second century BC, linked to the present day through a chain of continuity, broken by interludes of abandonment, but traceable through written receptacles of memory. In chasing the art and history of the temple from 200 BC to 1815, Sinharaja encountered a veritable treasure trove of paintings, architectural elements, sculpture, ivory and metal work. Much of it belonged to the era of Sri Lanka’s history termed the Kandyan period, between 1592 and 1815. Subjected to prolonged immersion in Kandyan art, learning at the feet of Kandyan priests, enjoying regular social intercourse with Kandyan villagers, a metamorphosis took place inside Sinharaja. Believing that Sigiriya frescoes and the grand stonework of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa alone qualified as Classical Art, he had hitherto looked down on Kandyan art as simple expressions of a folk tradition. Even Ananda Coomaraswamy, the most eminent commentator on Kandyan art felt towards it what a man feels towards a pretty woman whom he knows is not beautiful. Not a ‘great attainment in fine art’, Coomaraswamy concluded, just ‘a beautiful and dignified scheme of peasant decoration’. Siri Gunasinghe had echoed this. But the treasures of Ridi Vihare – an intricately ornamented Ola leaf book box, ivory carved with exquisite detail, rich and colourful murals that brought splendour to even such mundane surfaces as brick, clay and wood – talked to Sinharaja. And told him that this was no folk art; this was a tradition which only masqueraded as simple in the shadow light cast by unexplored centuries, to outsiders looking from a distance. Here was art, which would reveal itself to those taking the trouble to look closely, as belonging to a Great Tradition forced to go under-cover and reproduce itself in miniature and humble scale.
When Iskender Okyay, the outgoing Turkish ambassador left Sri Lanka last year, Sinharaja gifted him ‘Eloquence in Stone. The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka’ (2008), a collaboration between Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda and Nihal Fernando. The Ambassador’s first impression of this confluence of a historian and a celebrated photographer had to do with how useful the book would be to brain somebody with. It’s a hefty book. By 2008, with the publication of Eloquence, Sinharaja’s book count had risen to five, three of them of a size that could be useful for physical assault.
In 2009, while the last stages of the Elam War going on, it dawned on Sinharaja that war reportage was dominated by foreign narratives that demonized the Sri Lankan soldier without having seen him in action. The historian in him wanted to go to this war, where history demanding scientific recording was being made. Between 19 March and 27 April 2009, the advancing troops of the 55th Division of the Sri Lankan Army had an embedded historian among them. Armed with a text book and a camera, Sinharaja collected materials for his case study ‘Sri Lanka. The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudumattalan’, published as Manekshaw Paper No.13, 2009 by the Indian Army’s think-tank, the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. Seeming to achieve the transition from art historian to military historian seamlessly, he became the only Sri Lankan to speak on the Sri Lankan conflict at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2009.
The Tammita of Sinharaja’s double barreled surname comes from his mother whom he refers to in the preface and dedication of Ridi Vihare as Asokamala Tammita Kumarihamy without once using her proper title – ‘my mother’. “Asokamala Tammita Kumarihamy was the driving force behind this work”, the preface informs us, adding that she was the author’s constant companion and inspiration. Writing an introduction to Ridi Vihare , Siran Deraniyagala, the then Director General of Archaeology informs that “coming from one of the most ancient noble lineages in the seven Korales”, Sinharaj’s “depth of feeling for his subject is palpable”.
A powerful, 16th century ancestor of Sinharaja’s lineage, was Taniyavallabahu of Madampe. According to the Rajavaliya “Samudra Devi, the daughter of king Taniyavalla who was residing at Madampe had been married to a Soli king. Of the two prices she bore to this Soli king, namely prince Vidiye and prince Tammita, to Vidiye the elder, king Bhuvanekabahu had given in marriage one of his daughters.”- (p78, A.V Suraweera translation). Taniyavalla is prominently associated with horses. The shrine dedicated to his deified presence – the Tanivelle devale of Madampe – displays a huge effigy of a white horse. Whenever he travels northwards, Sinharaja dives into this devale. He wears different hats; historian, published poet, recognized authority on Indian Ocean strategic studies and riding instructor. On being asked “what are you writing now?” Sinharaja has been known to say “I’d rather ride than write”. He wears his fractured, now healed, lumbar vertebra, legacy of a fall from a horse, as a badge of honour, a topic to be introduced to any party conversation with pride.
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