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A historian in focus The Dark Side of S Pathmanathan

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 10:57 am

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

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Cognitive problems and knowledge deficiencies of S. Pathmanathan, Professor Emeritus of History? Yes. First, a caveat. Although there is a school of thought that Sri Lanka shows a lack of discernment in the making of her professors emeritus (“X was made a professor emeritus after just one publication” remarked a senior academic grimly), they clearly do not mean S. Pathmanathan. In his chosen area (the middle or the medieval period of SL history), Professor Pathmanathan has enough publications (most of them downloadable here) and his peers mention him respectfully enough. “I stress that Pathmanathan, in his Kingdom Of Jaffna, does not indulge in such outrageous statements. In fact, note the paraphrase of his carefully circumscribed statements in fn.59 above”- (Michael Roberts: 2004).


There is an Other Side though. I first learnt of it from K.S. Sivakumaran in History of Lankan Thamilians revisited”. It contains a translation of statements from a Tamil newspaper article by Pathmanathan on Brahmi lithic inscriptions of Sri Lanka. Although the translator’s language does not inspire confidence, I will assume that it’s a faithful translation because the statements are bald, simple, without nuance and the least likely to have suffered in translation unless the translator made them up from scratch (unlikely).


“In Lanka the Brahmi inscriptions are written in Prakrit language…Paranavitana tried to convince that these inscriptions were written in Sinhala language…In Lankan Brahmi inscriptions Thamil Brahmi letters are found in many places. Arya Abeysingha and Saddamangala Karunaratne have explained this feature showing examples. But Paranavithana hides these findings. He has completely ignored the Thamil Brahmi letters. Three letters were differently written in Thamil Brahmi and Ashoka Brahmi. These two …

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No, you can’t have jam yet Professor Sitrampalam!

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 10:50 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 18 August 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Professor S.K Sitrampalam is the former professor of history in the University of Jaffna, a vice president of ITAK (euphemistically known as the Federal Party) and a specialist in South Asian history and Archaeology. He can be relied on… To take your breath away by bizarre displays of ignorance that is hard to explain away even with the excuse; ‘nationalist historian’. Unless ‘nationalist historian’ is a polite euphemism that really means ‘unsound operative’. Here is a demonstration from his Tamils of Sri Lanka: Historical Roots of Tamil identity (2003).

“At this juncture it is pertinent to quote Geiger who studied the Sinhala language in depth. He has divided its development into three phases. They are: Sinhalese Prakrit (3rd century B.C – 4th century AD), proto–Sinhalese (4th century AD – 8th century A.D) Sinhalese proper (after 8th century A.D). Elu, is the original language from which the later Sinhalese developed. However, data from the Brahmi inscriptions show that the Elu would have been either old Tamil or a dialect of Tamil. In the light of the evidence from the Brahmi inscriptions it is now evident that the proto–Sinhalese speakers, namely the Elu speakers came into contact with Prakrit, the language of Buddhism.”

The only appropriate way to respond to this is to imagine that one is a pre-school teacher and Professor Sitrampalam a tiny tot. “Oh honey” one would say “Come here. Sit. Wait let me wipe that jam off. You want to know what Elu is? You know ‘Dharma’?  It’s Sanskrit. ‘dhamma’ is the Pali form.  Dam and daham are the Elu forms. Shall we see what the Old Sinhala or Sinhalese Prakrit form is? Here, this is …

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Gordon Weiss and the dynamics of redemption.

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 10:25 am

Published in my Column in The Nation on  Sunday, 13 January, 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on 11, August, 2013 

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Not for personal gain is this exercise of mine but in pursuit of redemption. Redemption is a curious thing. To counter every wrong pattern that gets drawn on the canvas of existence, it draws some other pattern, next to which the wrong pattern looks so godawful and out of place that it soon gets erased by the collective forces of existence.

Gordon Weiss too has sat in front of his computer and drawn the following pattern;

“The hitherto relatively contiguous area that has formed the basis for a Tamil claim to a historic homeland will be broken up and interspersed with hundreds of army camps, staffed by Sinhalese soldiers…There is nothing new about the creeping erasure of Tamil territorial claims in the name of development…Archeologists and historians, sanctioned by the government, unleashed on to conquered territory and possibly funded by UNESCO, will supply the academic legitimacy for the ‘re-territorialisation’ of Sri Lanka. Eventually, postcards will be printed of newly minted Buddhist sites in formerly Tamil areas, and tour guides will regale sightseers with stories of their discovery and antiquity. Just two weeks after Prabhakaran’s death, the president’s wife unveiled a statue of Sanghamiththa…the woman who – two and a half thousand years before- is said to have brought a seedling of the holy Bo tree to Sri Lanka. The statue now sits in the middle of one of the HSZs, in the heart of Tamil Jaffna…”- (‘The Cage’, pp.255-256)

Even the sheer godawfulness of this passage generated by the ignorance of its 21st century Australian author is redeemable. A 17th century Dutch mapmaker redeems it by his cartographical representation of Jaffna[i]

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What Paranavitana said to McGilvray; “Do your homework son”

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 10:05 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 04 August 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“There are Brahmi inscriptions at Jailani dating to the second century BC, but they appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains. According to Aboosally (2002: 62-3) there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha.”- Dennis McGilvray, ‘Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka’

In Sri Lanka, inscriptions written in the Brahmi script “are found in an unbroken continuity from the last quarter of the third century B.C. to the end of the seventh century A. D”- (Epigraphia Zeylanica Volume VIII[i]/2001:p1). Palaeographically, these “may be divided into three periods”. – (ibid).


It’s the first period, ‘Early Brahmi (3rd century B.C.-1st century A.D.)’ that is interesting to us given our present fixation on McGilvray and Kuragala. “The early Brahmi cave inscriptions of Sri Lanka bear a stereotyped formula of the dedication of caves to the Buddhist monks. The language in them is the oldest example of the Sinhalese language showing an absence of long vowels and conjunct consonants” –(ibid).


These cave records of Sri Lanka show us “the prevalence of the custom (then in vogue in Buddhist India) of dedicating caves as places of shelter to the Buddhist monks as a body, irrespective of sectarian differences, if they had any at that early period”.- (Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol I[ii]/1904-1912:p18)


A critical way Sri Lankan cave donations differ from India is in the nature of recipients.  In India, caves were donated to “the recluses of various faiths”- (EZ :VIII:p15). “In the Barabar Hill cave inscriptions of Asoka, the Ajivakas (mendicants) were the donees”- (ibid).  Asoka’s grandson Dasalatha’s Nagarjuna Hill cave inscription specifically states “given to the mendicants” …

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Dennis McGilvray In the cozy darkness of a velvet blindfold

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 9:51 am

Published in my Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph  on Sunday, 21 July 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Stupidity is no stranger to academia. It lurks behind reputed and respected scholarly facades and waits for the owner of the façade to lower his or her guard. Then it comes out, so brazenly and without apology that one is struck speechless. Recently I had occasion to be entranced by the outing of (the stupidities of) Dennis MCGilvray and one other, who shall remain unnamed until it’s his turn for my attentions.

Though American, MCGilvray is no stranger to Sri Lankan studies, with which he has been associated since the late1960s. Michael Roberts, an anthropologist, though a historian by training, recalls how McGilvray was a participant in the Ceylon Studies Seminar organized by personnel from Peradeniya University in those halcyon days and how he (Mac not Mike) used to visit Peradeniya to meet Gananath Obeyesekere and was one of the many others who were drawn to that University by its global repute as a centre of excellence and the vibrant discourses centering around a happening sociology department. Roberts also has fond memories of staying at McGilvray’s place in Cambridge during a winter. All this connectedness with Sri Lanka and its academics could not save McGilvray from folly however.

From 1993 to 2002 Mac conducted (what he thought of as) independent ethnographic studies in Kuragala, the site of a Sufi shrine, while enjoying the hospitality of the main trustee M. L.M Aboosally. Now there are scholars who are capable of enjoying hospitality without compromising their independence. Dennis was not one of them. In the midst of his ethnographic survey he also made excursions into archaeology, willingly blindfolded and holding on to his host’s hand for guidance. Evidence of these forays, made …

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Kuragala Lessons 2 Using PR to obliterate heritage

by ratnawalli - March 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

Published in my Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 02 June 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I surmise that Dennis McGilvray came into the orbit of the Aboosally family through his researches into the matrilineality of the Tamil and Muslim communities of the east coast of Sri Lanka. M.L.M Aboosally’s wife came from the matrilineal east coast town of Kalmunai[i]. My hypothesis is that on the strength of these connections, this American scholar was hired by the Aboosally family to write a PR article on Dafther Jailany. What confirms this hypothesis is the fact that he wrote a PR article[ii] based on the client’s book; Aboosally M.L.M: 2002. Dafther Jailany: A Historical Account of the Dafther Jailani Rock Cave Mosque.


The client brief he received was to negate the fact that there ever was a Buddhist layer in the site. This he executed in 2004 saying “There are Brahmi inscriptions at Jailani dating to the second century aca, but they appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains. According to Aboosally (2002: 62-3) there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha.”


McGilvray makes this statement as a footnote to “The Archaeology Department nevertheless erected a permanent trilingual signboard near the Jailani mosque, also visible today, stating that the location, known as Kuragala was the site of a Buddhist monastery dating to the second century BCE.”


In 2013, a journalist called Latheef Farook would execute the same client brief by making a statement strikingly similar; “The 1971 version (of the inch map) depicts the area only as a Buddhist monastery of the 2nd century BC (the only evidence of which is a board placed by the Archaeological Department in 1972.)”. Note however that unlike McGilvray …

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Kuragala Lessons – Fighting with honour for a stake in a layered heritage

by ratnawalli - March 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Published in my Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 26 May, 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

In Archaeology there is a novel concept called “Public Participatory Interactive multi cultural Museum and Site Presentation applicable to sites with multiple heritages[i]. This involves being inclusive of all available heritage components in presenting the identity of a site[ii].

Kuragala presents the typical layered heritage pattern. Season 1- It is a pre-historic habitat of Homo sapiens balangodensis[iii]. Season 2- In 2/3rd century BC Lanka, adherents of a new religion make it a raging fashion to dedicate caves right and left to the cave dwelling Sangha (inscribing the donor names on the cave wall) and Kuragala does not escape[iv]. Season 3- Kuragala becomes an Islamic shrine and a retreat.

Nowadays, Kuragala is a very useful site. Trying to assess how much its presentation in Media measures up to the multiple stakeholders concept is a sure way to identify the less obvious faces of intolerance and chauvinism. (As we already know the obvious face, the BBS, the flavor of the season in villainy).

I am going to highlight two recent journalistic presentations that attempted through misinformation (which even a routine veracity check could have shown up), to obliterate one heritage component of Kuragala and up the stakes of another. These presentations were by Latheef Farook and Dharisha Bastians.

Let’s compare these with the presentation of Kuragala (in 1932) by Charles Collins, the British Civil Servant and GA for Ratnapura at the time. Collins’ presentation, “The Archaeology of Sabaragamuwa, Bintenna” (Journal R.A.S (Ceylon) Vol. XXXII, No 85 of 1932) is currently available in the RAS library, Sri Lanka. In the public interest, I have uploaded my scanned copy at http://ratnawalli.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Archaeology-of-the-Sabaragamuwa-Bintenna..pdf.

Collins’ paper …

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The BBS that my mother likes

by ratnawalli - March 19, 2014 at 11:42 am

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Published in my column in The Nation and in Colombo Telegraph on Sunday 5th May, 2013

I am the legitimate issue of a woman who unabashedly claims to admire the Bodu Bala Sena. This affords me a critical perspective into the issue, without which everyone is floundering like headless chickens. There may be other people, whose mothers etc. harbor soft spots for the BBS. But because they are not me, they would either try to keep these mothers in the closet or, in contradistinction, empathize with these soft spots; whereas I…Well you shall see.

My mother represents the Sri Lankan equivalent of Middle America and, as such, the demographic bloc that makes or breaks any movement dependent on mass support for its success. In Middle America (SL), one becomes a Buddhist by being a stakeholder of the Buddha Sāsana (deliberately called henceforth, the Buddhist Church of Lanka) and by emotionally aligning oneself with the age-old mission of fostering this Sāsana on this soil for the allocated five thousand years.  Once one has fulfilled this basic requirement adherence to Buddhism proper becomes peripheral and is largely left to personal discretion.

This is the context which empowers my mother to look pityingly at anyone who’d urge her to shift her alignment and allegiance from the Buddhist Church of Lanka, where the religion stands together with the State and the people forming the famous ‘Loka- Sāsana’ axis, to Buddhism (stand alone, nonaligned to any worldly axis). The pangs of allegiance towards the BBS felt by Middle America (SL) would be silenced only if and when voices genuinely identifying with the Buddhist Church and its Mission are raised against the BBS. Spokespersons for Buddhism not aligned with the Sāsana will not have the credibility and be dismissed as naive.

A …

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A historian who liked admiration too much

by ratnawalli - March 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Published in my column in The Nation on April 28, 2013 

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Leslie (R A L H) Gunawardana, (not to be confused with Vivien’s husband, Leslie Goonewardena) was a historian specializing in the ancient period (500 BC to 1232 AD) of Sri Lankan history. He was a historical revisionist who aspired for admiration from a certain school and got it. His 1979 essay, “The People of the Lion” was reprinted in the Social Scientists’ Association (1984) and became a guiding star in an enterprise, which sought to deconstruct Nationalist ideologies (almost exclusively on the Sinhala side). This admiration had a potential dark side that could distract its recipient into byways that had dishonesty, suppression and shoddy research as landmarks. And so it came to pass. That Leslie Gunawardana had entered these byways in pursuit of a certain fan base and made these landmarks his pit stops was noticed by his peers.

“Many, though not all, of these post-modern scholars are immersed in the modern…their knowledge of the pre-British period is limited. That is where Leslie Gunawardana’s article has been of critical significance as an empirical foundation for the claims of the post-Orientalists and why it has gone through two reprints and been praised as a ‘master text’ that is marked by its ‘brilliance’ and ‘extraordinary comprehensiveness’… Such unqualified praise only serves to highlight the glaring deficiencies of empirical knowledge among the eulogists and marks an inability to discern the serious flaws in the middle segment of Gunawardana’s essay.”

– (Michael Roberts: 2003:8).


Among these serious flaws in ‘The People of the Lion’ (1979, 1984, 1990) was what could be termed Gunawardana’s Watergate or his Waterloo. He contested the conventional opinion that the term Sihala was used from the outset to refer to the generality of …

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Tamil in Ancient Jaffna and Vallipuram Gold Plate By Dr. Alvappillai Veluppillai

by ratnawalli - September 8, 2013 at 3:34 am

Tamil in Ancient Jaffna and Vallipuram Gold Plate

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