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The great history cook-fest by R. A. L. H Gunawardana and the Social Scientists’ Association

by ratnawalli - June 4, 2014 at 11:49 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 23 March 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Its fans as well as critics agree that the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) of Sri Lanka was on a mission. According to Michael Roberts (2004[i], p7), this mission was born out of the carnage of 1983 July, which apparently “came as a rude shock to local Leftists and liberals. As the ethnic conflict took a turn for the worse, a number of liberals and Marxist radicals linked hands to develop arguments against the ideological constructs that were part of the heightened conflict”. As part of this enterprise, which according to Roberts was “as brave as necessary” Leslie Gunawardana’s 1979 essay “People of the Lion[ii]” was midwifed (it originated as a paper read at an SSA seminar[iii]) and reprinted (1984) by the SSA who also turned publisher to its sequel, his 1995 “Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict[iv]”.

Perhaps the best articulation of this “brave and necessary” enterprise was by S.J Tambiah (1992[v]) who called for a “new breed of imaginative, and liberated non-sectarian historians who will deconstruct the histories which legitimate the present conflict”. Despite the noble language, it was an exhortation to a certain ideological movement (classified as “good”) to hijack the history writing in Sri Lanka. This was already being done albeit inexpertly (see here) and dishonestly (see here) by Leslie Gunawardana, perhaps the best known ancient period historian at that time.

In my view, the most incisive comment to be directed against Gunawardana came from Michael Roberts[vi] (full text). Even though K.N.O Dharmadasa’s place as the most systematic critic of Gunawardana is unassailable, and Roberts’ comment was …

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R.A.L.H Gunawardana’s Separation from his Pali Dictionary at a crucial time

by ratnawalli - June 4, 2014 at 10:53 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation  (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 23 February 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.” “Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for”.

– Return of the King, Lord of the Ring, Book V, Chapter 9-

In 1967, as a young man of 30, R.A.L.H (Leslie) Gunawardana successfully challenged S. Paranavitana’s Ceylon-Malaysia fixation and won renown. This feat of reason and research was published as “Ceylon and Malaysia: A Study of Professor S. Paranavitana’s Research on the Relations Between the Two Regions” (full text here). Gunawardana’s achievement became almost a milestone along the memory lane of Paranavitana. Professor J. G. de Casparis memorializing Paranavitana wrote (1996); “As we all know Paranavitana devoted some his most penetrating studies to ‘Ceylon and Malaysia in ancient times’. The arguments used by Paranavitana in favour of his identifications are not as strong as they may have appeared at first. Thus, the main identifications on which the close relations between Sri Lanka and ‘Malaysia’ are based have been convincingly invalidated by RALH Gunawardana in…”

In 1995 (“Historiography In a Time of Ethnic Conflict[i]”,p1), a mature Leslie Gunawardana noticed that the ethnic conflict was blighting Sri Lanka’s intellectual activity and scholarly production, causing “a notable relaxation of intellectual rigour in research” and a “dismal intellectual climate”. Naturally he wasn’t referring to himself. However, between 1967 and 1995 interesting things had happened to Gunawardana too. In the derivation of the old Sinhala word “aya” in …

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A Language called Sinhala through R.A.L.H Gunawardana

by ratnawalli - June 3, 2014 at 10:26 am

A very dark glass darkly

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 09 February 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

My series on the history and development of the language called Sinhala (of which this is the third episode preceded by Episode 1 and Episode 2) would have been dry as dust if not for the fallible scholars of Sri Lanka.  If those worthies hadn’t gazed upon it through the glass darkly of their flawed comprehension, Sinhala wouldn’t have been half as interesting. Today, we have Leslie (R.A.L.H) Gunawardana with his glass darkly act.

In 1995[i], discussing the Vallipuram inscription he said “The identification (by Paranavitana in 1939 in Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol. IV, pp.229-237, parenthesis mine) of the language of the inscription as Sinhala runs counter to opinions which have remained dominant in the field of historical linguistics for more than half a century”. Then after giving a brief description of these opinions, Leslie Gunawardana concluded;

“It will have been evident from the preceding discussion that, according to the periodization of the evolution of the Sinhala language which came to gain general acceptance among scholars, the appearance of the Sinhala language as a clearly distinguishable linguistic form was dated in the eighth or the ninth century. It has also come to be accepted that the language of the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island should be classified as Prakrit. Since Paranavitana was not a scholar who limited his scholarly activities merely to epigraphy but had also studied the development of the language, it would be justified to expect that these views would come to bear a modifying influence on his original opinions on the identity of the language of the Vallipuram inscription several decades later. In the introduction …

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A language called Sinhala through a glass darkly.

by ratnawalli - June 3, 2014 at 10:11 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation (print edition here) and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 26 January 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“May you live in interesting times”- An obscure Chinese curse.

What makes certain social sciences scholars of Sri Lanka interesting is a strange fallibility in acquiring the basic text book information on subjects they write about. Even a cursory trawl through academic writings falling under Sri Lankan studies will flush out scholars, some of them quite high profile, who have left for posterity, evidence of this fallibility. Ranjini Obeyesekere, a medievalist scholar in Sinhalese literature wrote (A Survey of The Sinhala Literary tradition[i], 1979); “It can be claimed that the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the third century, B.C., resulted in the creation of the Sinhala language, literature, and nation.” What causes such sentences to be written is the erroneous belief that in the third century BC, missionary monks from the Mauryan Court arriving in Lanka in shiploads, brought with them a language which they taught to the inhabitants in order to enable them to use the new language to dedicate caves to the newly established monastic Buddhist Order; and that it was this new missionary language, which eventually spread to the masses and evolved into the present Sinhala language. What could have helped Ranjini Obeyesekere to avoid such an error is the information that by the time Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, the Sinhala language had already undergone several centuries of ‘creation’ within the shores of Lanka and the ‘creators’ were the pre-Buddhist teeth, palettes and the tongues of the island population. The easiest way to acquire this information would have been through a tete-a-tete with a friendly linguist or a competent ancient period historian. A more hard-working way would …

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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 …

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The Vanniyas of Sri Lanka Vs Vanniyas of South India

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 10:39 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 08 December 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I got a query from Tissa Devendra regarding my previous piece, “Memories of the Vanni, Vaddas and Vanniyas”. “Do you mean to say that the Vanni was peopled by a slow influx of Vanniyar caste infiltrators from South India?” he asked. I told him that it’s simplistic to imagine Sri Lanka as a setting where South Indian concepts and conditions get duplicated en mass as if traced by carbon paper. There were in-migrations orchestrated by the medieval central Sinhala states that claimed suzerainty or chakravarthihood over the whole country[i]. But these migrations were from diverse milieus in South India and also Bengal. The key word is “diverse cultural milieus” of South India.


None of the immigrant groups from South India given in the Sinhalese folk historical tradition as appointees to chieftaincies in the Wanni of Lanka can be identified as belonging to the group called Vanniyar mentioned in South Indian records from the 10th/11th century onwards[ii]. The Malavaras, lovingly mentioned in the relevant Hugh Nevill manuscript (Or 6606-182)[iii] as “the first possessors of the very own Wanni kingdom belonging to this Lanka”, are not of South Indian Vanniyar stock. Instead they are “chiefs of certain hill-tribes in the Karnata and Tamil areas of South India” whose warlike habits secured them many mentions in “the Pandya records of the thirteenth century in South India”( Indrapala 1965 thesis p296). The Malavara chieftains are also listed in the Sri Lankan Tamil tradition (in the “Vaiyapatal” and the “Vaiya”) among the more important colonists of Jaffna-(ibid).


Nor do the chieftains of Ariya Vamsa who are immortalized in the Vanni Puvata …

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Memories of the Wanni; the Vaddas and the Vanniyas

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 10:16 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 24 November 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I will call him Jayaseelan because I can’t recall his name (Preposterous but bear with me). Jayaseelan is a Tamil speaking Vadda who is an ex-LTTE fighter. Sometime after 2009, Sunday Divaina had done a story on Jayaseelan. It had captured a retrospective inner conflict going on within the man. Jayaseelan confessed to asking himself the question, “I am a Vadda. Why did I fight for a separate Tamil state?” However, that was not what made the story stick in my mind. Jayaseelan had a grandfather who, while recounting the history of their community in the area, had let drop, almost casually, that they were Bandara Vannia’s[i] people.

Sharing the Wanni like they did the Vaddas and Vanniyas intermingled in interesting ways. They married each other, transformed into each other, and became “ruler” and the “ruled over” to each other in unidirectional ways with the Vanniyas ruling over bands of Vaddas. They even came to resemble each other in ways that caused certain 19th century British administrators to suspect a relationship[ii] (S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887).

In Sinhala consciousness of living memory the term “wanniya” (closed vowel) is a geographic term inalienably bound-up with “wanaya” and “wanantharaya” (meaning forest). “Wanni wanantharaya”, “wanni mukalana”, “hadda wanniya”, “heethala wanniya” are colloquial Sinhalese usages carrying strong subliminal associations of the Vadda. The Vaddas are of course carriers of the name “wanniyalettho”, the present Vadi chieftain being “Uruwarige Wanniyalettho”.

For Sri Lanka, the period between the 13th and 17th centuries was a time of resurgence and recovery. In-migrations …

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Aleas, Kuruwe Vidanes and the Vanniyalettho The secret history of Jaffna and the Vanni

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 9:35 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 10 November 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The Vanni was the source of elephants to the Kingdom of Jaffna and elephants were Crown Property. By issuing a proclamation dated Lisbon, 3rd Jan., 1612, the King of Portugal had let the natives know that he had cottoned on to that and no one therefore should mess with Crown Property, which right now meant his property. ” Whereas I have learnt that the elephants in the Island of Ceilao are and always have been from ancient times the property of the Crown,…”-(The Kingdom Of Jafanapatam 1645 Being An Account Of Its Administrative Organisation As Derived From The Portuguese Archives, P. E. Pieris, 22-23)


While managing their newly acquired crown property, elephantine and otherwise, there accrued to the Portuguese, a wealth of information, which reveals to us, the modern observers, the threads of cohesion[i] between the centre and periphery of the pre-colonial Lankan state. We learn for example that one such thread had created synergy in the realms of Lanka with regards to elephants and bequeathed the office of Kuruwe Vidane to the Kingdom of Jaffna, a territory which by the 17th century was covered by a diaphanous Tamil garb, through which the Sinhalese inner garment showed much plainer than it does now.

In Jafanapatam, the officer who supervised the collection of the elephants due to the Crown was called Kuruwe Vidane. This information comes to us courtesy of the “Copy of the Foral of the Kingdom of Jafanapatam and the Vany” as well as of the “Island of Manar and of Mantota”, a manuscript in the archives of Portugal, which is the basis for P.E Pieris’s work op.cit. This Vidane do Curo or Kuruwe

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Deciphering the Vanniyas; a people out of the box

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 8:00 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 13 October 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

During the twilight of the Vanniyas, that is, the latter half of the 19th century, the last remaining representatives of that identity were found eking out a living in several villages of Nuvarakalaviya (North Central province) and Northern province (mainly around Vavuniya in Kurunthankulam and Nochcikulam or Chinna Cheddikulam). They were living, breathing fossils of a species of people that have entered case studies of modern historiography as exemplifiers of the incorporating drives of the pre-modern Lankan state. “Thus, in Sinhale on the one hand there existed an incorporative tolerance that a) permitted immigrant bodies to settle in the Vanni and the Eastern Province…”-(Michael Roberts, “Prejudice and Hate in Pluralist Settings: The Kingdom of Kandy”, 2000).

“The case presents a fascinating study of a people originating from different immigrant cultures who were compelled by circumstances and the office and responsibilities they accepted, to assimilate into another culture.”- (D. G. B de Silva, “New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection[i]”-Full Text)

To get back to these late 19th century representatives of the Vanniya twilight, certain signature features set them apart. They claimed themselves to be Sinhalese, but preserved a tradition of being “descendants of certain Tamils who came over from the continent in the time of Raja Sen, who granted to each extensive tracts of land[ii]”-(A. Brodie, J.R.A.S (C.B) Vol III, 1856). Theirs was a distinct caste the membership of which had dwindled in this twilight, to a few villages in the Northern and North Central provinces.  This was the “Wanni caste”, which was “not …

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Into the Vanni and Jaffna of the 17th Century

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 11:51 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 29 September 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

His name was Knox. Robert Knox. English. He was a prisoner in Lanka from 1660 to 1680. Finally he escaped from Kandy or more specifically from Rajasinha II, who claimed to be the sovereign overlord of the whole of Lanka and its people. The world-view Rajasinha II inherited as a ruler of Sinhalē (a perception of pan island Chakravartihood) comes across in his correspondence with the Dutch. He told them that “the black people of this island of Ceilao, wheresoever they might be, [are] my vassals by right”- (Roberts: 2004[i]:78). In the royal view, the Dutch were the “faithful Hollanders, the guardians of his coast” and earlier during his enterprise to oust the Portuguese, they were “his hired guns”. In Rajasinha II’s early letters to the Hollanders (written in Portuguese) he was “The most potent Emperor of Ceilao” while they were “My Hollanders” and the fortresses held by them were “my fortresses” as in “my fortress at Gale”. What with “my black folk”, “my vidanas,” “these lowland territories of mine” and “my said island”, Rajasinha II was asserting that he “did not recognize Dutch claims to sovereignty over the coastal areas”- (ibid and Dewaraja 1995:189). The Dutch kept up the appearance of concurring with this assertion in their diplomatic relations. “The governor, Pijil, referred to himself as the “king’s most faithful governor and humble servant”, called the king “His Majesty” and spoke of “the king’s castle at Colombo.” He even “declared that all the island belonged to the Sinhalese King.”- (Roberts: 2004:79).

In reality though, the Dutch were merely going through the motions of going along with the efforts to incorporate them into the …

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