The clash of two histories in one nation
On January 30, 1908 Ponnambalam Arunachalam, M.A., Cantab, Ceylon Civil Service, Barrister-at-Law, Lincoln’s Inn, took the floor in the Legislative Council Chamber, the highest political forum of the day, to deliver a lecture on the Sketches of Ceylon History. His Excellency the Governor Sir. Henry A. Blake, G.C.M.G presided over this session in the Legislature as usual. The lecture was more than a generalised overview of Ceylon history. In essence it was an exposition of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture which was expressed for the first time in English at the highest forum of the English-speaking elite in colonial times. The discoveries of pioneering archaeologists, mostly British, digging into the past had brought out the best of the classical Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. There was nothing else to match their achievements in the history of other communities. And, mark you, it was also the time when the imperial sun of the British never set in any part of the globe.
In the first decades of the 20th century the history of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization was popular among the English-educated elite who were rediscovering the glories of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka that were buried under the jungle tide. Pioneering British archaeologists were surveying the land and documenting the new discoveries with a degree of professional pride. The translation of the Mahavamsa by George Turnour (1837) was a landmark event that opened up new vistas into a hidden past. John Still, the Assistant Archaeological Commission and the author of the literary work, Jungle Tide, also had published his index to the Mahavamsa by 1907. Based on the new historical findings Arunachalam told his elite audience: “..Perhaps no country in the world that has such a long continuous history and civilization.” The touch of pride with which he delivered his speech rings even today as his words echo in cold print, tracing the past filled with the majesty of the glorious achievements. Sir. Ponnambalam was aiming deliberately to pit the magnificent achievements recorded in Sinhala-Buddhist history against that of the British who were lording it over the natives.
The latter day revisionists, rewriting history to fit into their political agenda, labelled any return to the past with the objective reverence that it deserves as the “Mahavamsa mentality”. One of the main aim of the revisionists was to denigrate the Mahavamsa and all the values that came with it. But in the resonant words of Sir. Ponnambalam there was no such cynical connotation. His speech, in fact, laid the foundations for the school of history that looked upon the past as a guide for the future. The anti-Sinhala-Buddhist revisionists attacked Anagarika Dharmapala for reviving the past history in all its splendour. But long before him Sir. Arunachalam had seen the glory of it all and he was proud to share the greatness of the achievements of those who made history. The classical grandeur of the past was recalled and articulated with intellectual vigour by Sir. Ponnambalam to put the record straight, particularly for the white nabobs who were strutting in the colonial corridors of power, with their noses up in the air, projecting an image of being superior to the natives.
Though Sir. Ponnambalam was talking ostensibly about “Ceylon history” he was actually delivering a political message to the British rulers. The underlying message said, in short, that the power and the glory of the ancient and medieval Sinhala-Buddhist civilization was testimony to the capacity of the “Ceylonese” to govern on their own if the British could leave the island graciously, handing over power to those who made history and left behind “our island (as) a fit dwelling-place for men…” (Mahavamsa, Chapter 1 : 43. translated by Wilhelm Geiger).
The objective of history, as stated in the Mahavamsa, is to make the island “a fit dwelling-place for men”. What other use is there in history if the makers of history cannot make this earth – the only place available for man in this vast universe — a “fit dwelling-place for men”? It is this philosophy of history that makes Mahavamsa a humane and unique document. Mahavamsa did not purport to write recipes for unattainable utopias run by philosopher-kings at one end or the working class at the other. Mahanama Thera had no illusions of the state withering away under fallible human agencies or actions. Philosophers and workers in power can be as vicious, perverted and misguided as any other ruling class. Besides, the ideologically driven utopias invariably ended in frightful dystopias. The political objective in the Mahavamsa was unambiguous, simple and realistic. It was down-to-earth. It was to build a “fit dwelling-place for men”. It was attainable and that is what the Sinhala-Buddhists did in their history. It was tolerant, open and a “fit dwelling-place” for all those who came to make it their home and co-exist in peace.
Creating a place in history that is “a fit dwelling-place for men” is by far the most viable, attainable and desirable goal for humanity wandering in volatile history. The terminology of political theorists may vary, their analyses may come from different angles, and their utopian models to end the misery of history may be commendable, but the ultimate essence of all politics has been and will be to build “a fit dwelling-place for men.” In its narrow and literal sense it may be interpreted as providing domestic facilities for day-to-day living. But in its broader philosophic sense it goes beyond that to the creation of a cohesive and congenial community of men who can pursue their moral and mutually beneficial ideals freely to their satisfaction. It can be read as Mahanama Thera’s Buddhist ideal of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. It conforms to the primary aim of political philosophies which, in its basic essence, is to make the earth “a fit dwelling-place for men”. The Mahavamsa was the first to articulate this noble and pragmatic objective in explicit terms.
Along with this the Mahavamsa declared another profound political principle : kings are anointed “mindful of the good of all”. (Ibid – Chapter IV : 6). The state must be for “the good of all” and not to any particular sect, minority, majority or separatist group. These are fundamental principles which were embraced later by the West as the highest ideals of civilisation and parroted by our political WOGs (Westernised Oriental Gentlemen) who scoffed at the Mahavamsa. The second hand version that was recycled and exported by the West to the pin-heads in the Colombo University, for instance, was hailed as brilliant and insightful thinking whereas the original declarations of Mahanama Thera were dismissed as a product of a mentality that was deplorable. The failure is not that of Mahanama Thera. The failure is in the stupidity of peer-reviewed Ph.D(eviants), one-eyed theorists like H. L. Seneviratne, or other mytho-maniacs in academia who were reading their own minds filled with Ponnambalam’s rabid racism when they read the Mahavamsa without paying critical attention to the plain text that laid down some of the highest principles for those with eyes to see.
Sir. Ponnambalam, no doubt, would have been inspired by the spirit and the values embedded in the Mahavamsa. Incidentally, it must be noted that his assessments were made at a time before “the peninsularity of the mind”, particularly Tamil racism, had not gripped Jaffna politics and driven it astray. It is in this non-racist environment that he was able to deliver the other vital political message. He was emphatic in declaring that he was speaking on behalf of one nation. In his political vocabulary nationalism meant one nation derived essentially from the values of the Mahavamsa, particularly an island which was a “fit dwelling-place for all men”. In fact, in speaking on the theme of Our Political Needs, one of his analytical masterpieces delivered to Ceylon National Congress on April 2, 1917, he summed up the political aspirations of the time as follows: “…..(W)e in Ceylon desire that our Government shall be a Ceylonese Government, that our rulers shall identify themselves entirely with the Ceylonese interests and, in the striking words of the Mahavamsa, ‘be one with the people’ “. There were no vociferous calls for “separatism” or even “Tamil nationalism”. There were no calls for a disproportionate percentage of power. No divided sharing of power. Quoting the historic text he said that the goal was to “be one with the people”. That was the message he gave the nation, picked from the Mahavamsa.
Ever since Turnour translated the Mahavamsa it was held in high esteem by the distinguished elite of the nation, including the scholarly community of the British Raj who were the pioneers in resurrecting the buried past. Sir Ponnambalam’s speech in the Legislature was a defining moment : it defined the nation as it was structured in the past and as it ought to be structured in the future. He spoke as the representative of a united nation. Even when he spoke later on Our Political Need he spoke as a representative of one nation without dividing it into ethnic enclaves. It was the Sir Ponnambalam school of history that dominated the minds of the nation, from top to bottom at the time. He, in fact, became the symbol of national unity though, unfortunately, personal politics intervened and he parted company with the Ceylon National Congress — a grand multi-ethnic coalition — of which he was the president.
Politically, the newly discovered treasures of the hidden past were grasped with passion and commitment by the rising elite who used the new knowledge as a tool against imperialist masters. National leaders began to invoke the nation’s history as political evidence of their capacity to rule better than the colonial masters. Going back to the past was just not a political move to prove that the Sri Lankans were equal to the English masters but their superior. It was also the most effective political argument of the time. It was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who came out of Oxford saying that to be the equal of the colonial masters you have to be their superior. Whether in the Chamber of the Legislature, or the Royal Asiatic Society, or any other platform references to the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization had all the political undertones of emphasizing the superiority of the Orientals over that of the ruling Occidentals.
Sir Ponnambalam had earned the respect and admiration of his peers and the people as the leading light of the day guiding the nation not only to reclaim its lost past but also to create a future based on the cherished values of a history that shone in the eyes of those who knew their past. He was lifting the veil that hid the past for his contemporaries to appreciate its value. Urging the nation to explore the “rich treasures of history, ethnology, folklore, botany, geology, zoology (which) await the explorer in every part of the Island” Sir Ponnambalam said: “It would help also to recall to us and fix in our minds the great things done by our ancestors. Thus we may in time recover some of our lost originality and acquire that self-confidence which is indispensable to national progress and national success”.
His speech was aimed at reclaiming the forgotten past for the glory of the present. Deploring the cultural cringe of the WOGs Sir Ponnambalam reminded the legislators : “At a time when the now great nations of the West were sunk in barbarism, or had not yet come into existence, Ceylon was the seat of ancient kingdom and religion, the nursery of art, and the center of Eastern commerce. Her stupendous religious edifices more than 2,000 years old and, in extent and architectural interest, second only to the structure of Egypt, and her vast irrigation works, attest the greatness and antiquity of her civilisation. Her rich products of nature and art, the beauty of her scenery, her fame as the home of a pure Buddhism, have made her from remote times the object of interest and admiration to contemporary nations. Merchants, sailors, and pilgrims have in diverse tongues left records of their visits, which confirm in a striking manner the ancient native chronicle which Ceylon in almost singular among Asiatic lands ……” The presiding Governor could not have missed the political message hidden in this evocation of a civilization that was equal to any other.
It was, of course, a time when nationalism was expressed not in violent revolutions, or even in non-violent mass political movements, but in more subtle forms like reviving the memories of a monumental past that left its indelible legacy in the mind of a nation, waking up from nearly five centuries of colonialism. Sir. Ponnambalam was proud that “officers of a public department (had) formed themselves into a Society for the promotion of historic study and research. They used to read together and discuss the Mahawamsa, the ancient chronicle of Ceylon…..” He also remarked in this speech: “It is refreshing to read a Royal College boy protesting in the College Magazine against the exclusion of Ceylon history and geography from the curriculum of our leading schools”.
Sir Ponnambalam’s lecture was a paean sung in praise of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization. The tributes he paid to Dutugemunu and Sri Sangabo were effusive. When he came to the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna he spoke mainly of the military exploits of the Aryachakravartis. There were no tributes to the cultural achievements of the Tamils in his speech. Or even a reference to Yalpana Vaipava Malai — the first official history written by Mylvaganam Pulavar at the request of the Dutch Governor in……… Naturally, with his knowledge of Jaffna history and culture he had hardly anything to cite as great achievements of the Jaffna Tamils. His focus was on the richness of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation.
He regarded the Mahavamsa as a treasure trove dazzling with historical insights that illuminated not only the past of Sri Lanka but also that of neighbouring India. He said: “…Mahanama, a literary artist, who lived a generation after Buddhagosa, wrote the Mahawamsa, which is really an epic poem of remarkable merit… Excavations by General Cunningham in the Topes (brick burial mounds) of Sanchi in Central India have furnished striking and unexpected confirmation of the Mahawamsa.” Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great aesthetic savant, too paid his tribute the Sinhala art in his magisterial monograph, Medieval Sinhala Art.
What is also noticeable of this period is that history, art and culture of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation fired the imagination of the newly emerging elite of all communities. In the absence of mass politics the English-educated, propertied, semi-feudal, semi-capitalist class who were pitted against the British colonial masters, derived their power from the grandeur of the past with which they taunted their rulers. They were bonded together at the top by a common culture of their shared past. Though they had personal and political differences there were no irreconcilable ideological differences at the turn of the century. That came later, and, more markedly and venomously, in the thirties, after the other Ponnambalam.
The unmistakeable feature of Sir. Ponnambalam’s speech is that he claimed the glory of the past as a common heritage of all Ceylonese, as they were known at the time. The latter-day revisionists who have re-written politicized history to denigrate Sinhala-Buddhist civilization cannot dismiss the informed, accurate and balanced judgements passed by Sir Ponnambalam as a product of the “Mahavamsa mentality.” In praising the Sinhala-Buddhist culture he did not feel that it was anti-Tamil or politically incorrect. On the contrary, referring to the veneration of King Elara’s tomb “by silencing the music, whatever procession they may be heading” he says: “Well, may the Sinhalese be proud of chivalry so rare and unprecedented”. He viewed Sri Lankan history as one unbroken continuity. It was not segmented into Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, or Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic categories. It was a broad and humane approach in which he embraces all, with open arms, as “Ceylonese”.
He singled out the Mahawamsa as a unique document that belongs to the whole nation. And he ended his lecture with a plea to return to “the great ideals cherished by our ancestors” and “make ourselves worthy of our inheritance.” He said:: “Over the garden gate of my old college (Christ’s) at Cambridge — the college of Milton and Darwin — stands the motto of the noble founders, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.
The motto is Souvent me souvient: “often it come to my mind”. “often I am reminded.” It is a perpetual reminder to successive generation of the member of her family and of her college, of her ancestors’ loyalty to duty, to king and country, and to high ideals. Well would it be for us Ceylonese if we too kept fresh in our hearts the great deeds done and great ideal cherished by our ancestors, and strove to make ourselves worthy of our inheritance.”
This sign-posts how the two Ponnambalams diverged and took to two histories of one nation. Of course, Sir Ponnambalam was speaking with pride in the early days when the political energies were directed against the colonial masters. Besides, the Tamils were quite content with privileged position they held both in the Legislature and the Administration with British patronage. The North-South power struggle, based on racist lines, hadn’t surfaced then. In 1912 the Sinhalese had used their vote to elect Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan to the Legislative Council beating the other Sinhala candidate, Sir Marcus Fernando. And Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the president Ceylon National Congress modelled on the Indian National Congress. The inter-ethnic leaders shared a bond of common interests on practically all the key issues. Even though the first split came over acquiring an extra seat in the Sinhala-dominated Western Province for the Tamils in North, in addition to what the Tamils had been given in the North, the mood of Jaffna was against communalism and tribal representation.
In the twenties the English-educated Tamil youth played a key role in Jaffna fighting against casteism and communalism – the only two ideologies that came out of Jaffna which were also the two curses that spilled over from the peninsula and plagued the nation. The Tamil youth, imbued with Gandhism, were such a powerful force that not even G.G.Ponnambalam could get a toe-hold in the North in the twenties. He emerged into prominence in the thirties when the power of the Tamil youth had faded. The first and the second decades were calm days when the two communities were responding to each other with understanding and mutual respect.
This, no doubt, was the period when the elite ruled at the top without any formidable interventions from the masses at the bottom. It was comparatively easy for the English-speaking elite from all communities to cohabit pleasantly at personal and political levels. It was also the time when the Tamils were holding the leadership at the very top. The two Ponnambalam brothers were the acknowledged leaders of the nation by all communities. In Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915 the Sinhalese, who had elected Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, looked up to him and he dutifully defended the Sinhalese.
But the tsunamic change that came over from Jaffna and drowned the nation shattered the joys and peace of communal harmony. It came with the Machiavellian politics of G. G. Ponnambalam. His role deserves another chapter.
The next chapter, sadly, will have to begin with him again.