The greatness of the Great Chronicle, Mahavamsa

By H.L. D. Mahindapala


“And the soothsayers, when they saw the seats prepared, foretold: ‘The earth is occupied by these (bhikkus); they will be lords upon the island.’  – Mahavamsa XIV: 53.


In the opening paragraph Bhikku Mahanama, the Father of Sri Lankan history, makes it clear that he didn’t sit down to write the Mahavamsa because he had oodles of time hanging on his hands and did not know what to do with it. He declares in no uncertain terms that his mission was to write a new history from the available old histo ries (example: Atthakathas, Dipawamsa). The result was a classic text in historiography that gave meaning and purpose to the descendants of the Aryan First Settlers. Though there were pre-Aryans like the Nagas and the Yakkas the Aryan First Settlers were the pioneering makers of history in the island.  In time they came to be known as the Sinhala-Buddhists who steered their way triumphantly down the passage of time into the 21st century. The Mahavamsa says that “all those (followers of Vijaya) were (also) called Sihala.” (MV – VII: 42).  (Please note that all MV quotes in this article are from Wilhelm Geiger’s translation).

With or without the Mahavamsa, the epigraphical and archaeological evidence would confirm that the Sinhala-Buddhists were the primary and the dominant makers and guardians of history. The monumental legacies left behind by the Aryan-“Sihalas” confirm incontrovertibly that it was they who laid the foundations for a new civilisation. And the accepted tradition in  history is that territory belongs to those who made history with the  sole objective of making the land “a fit dwelling-place for men” – the ultimate goal of humanity who have been struggling to find their feet in recorded history. From the Ten Commandments to  the UN Charter the objective of the makers of  history  was to make the land a fit dwelling place for humanity. This principle is spelt out clearly in the Mahavamsa which states that the first mission was to make “our island a fit dwelling-place for men”. (MV-1:43).

In creating a new civilisation, new culture and new language the “Sihalas” were conscious of the role they were playing. They were driven by a deep sense of history, protecting and defending their identity and territory from S. Indian and Western invaders. The Mahavamsa shines today as the symbol and the transmitter of that deep sense of history. Though it dealt with the past it was meant for the future. It shaped the future of the evolving a nation. No other known text has had the ideological and political impact as Bhikku Mahanama’s 37 chapters. There are 17 universities and “4,500 faculties in Sri Lankan university system”. (The Island, 19/6/18 – Devenesan Nesiah).  Which university or faculty has produced anything comparable to that of the Mahavamsa? The laboured doctoral theses of current holders of chairs in academia are gathering dust in the dark corners of university libraries where the MA and PhD theses pile up like cadavers in a mortuary, unknown, unread, unsung and unwanted.

The Mahavamsa, on the contrary, remains as live force to this day, renewing its power with each passing century. Eminent scholars have been falling over each other to analyse its contents in minute detail. There are four main translations in English, starting from that of George Turnour (1837) of the Ceylon Civil Service. Before Turnour’s translation there was a French translation done by Eugene Burnouf  (1826). Scholars also have discovered Burmese and the Cambodian translations of the Mahavamsa. Dr. Hema Goonatilake, UN adviser to Cambodia, has documented in her essays on Buddhism in South East Asia that epic scenes from the Mahavamsa have been painted on the walls of the Myinkaba Kubyank-gyi temple by the Burmese King Kyanzitta in 1113 in  honour of his dying father. (Goonatilake, 12th century paintings of Mahavamsa in Burma, Sri Lanka Puravidya Samhita, Vol 2, Archaeological Society of Sri Lanka, 2006). The Mahavamsa advanced further into Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Dr. Goonatilake’s research has revealed the role of Sinhala monks as missionaries who had to first combat  legacies of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism in converting these nations to  Theravada Buddhism.  The best known translation is that of the Indologist Wilhelm Geiger. It became so popular that one of the most respected historian / archaeologist, Prof. S. Paranavitana, said: “Poor Mahanama! Everyone calls his book as Geiger’s Mahavamsa!” (p.21, Mahavamsa, The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, edited by Dr. Ananda Guruge, Lake House publications.)

Nevertheless, the Mahavamsa has come in for criticism, and even derision, by the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist lobby, particularly in  academia, because it had focused only on the history of the  “Sihala” people.  There is no doubt that the Mahavamsa has given the  “Sihalas” a pre-eminent place in contemporary politics – a factor which  is resented by the mono-ethnic extremists  of the  North. It is generally accepted that  those  who dominate history also dominates politics. So it becomes an inescapable political necessity for those demanding disproportionate share of power and privileges to undermine the overarching and dominant  history. Consequently, Sinhala-Buddhist history has been the common target of the federalists/separatists. G. G. Ponnambalam, who raised the communal cry of demanding 50 % of power for 11 % of Tamils, led the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist lobby in the late 1930s by attacking the Mahavamsa and the Sinhala-Buddhist history. The rest, of course, is  history. Financed by foreign-funded NGs, some hired academics too rushed subsequently to follow the anti-Mahavamsa line initiated by Ponnambalam. Their political objective was to belittle and deride Mahavamsa as a partisan document of the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Undoubtedly, Mahavamsa focuses essentially on the Sinhala-Buddhists. But as an  objective historian Bhikku Mahanama documents the failures and the achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhists. What else could he do writing in the 5th century? What else was there for  him to write about at the time? He couldn’t write about the Tamils because they were not a part of the evolving historical events. Historians can deal only with the available material. There were no other makers of history at the time he wrote his magnum opus. The Aryan-“Sihalas” were the primary makers of history until the first wave of Tamil settlers established a base in Jaffna in the 11th century. This “new colonizing wave (of S. Indian migrants) set forth from the Malabar coast and must have settled down before the 11th century,” wrote Heinz Bechert. “This group of  people are in the main the Mukkuvas……The second migratory wave – perhaps in the 13th and 14th centuries – brought mainly families of the Tamilian Vellala-caste, the high caste peasants (the so-called “high caste sudras” from the east Tamilian region to North Ceylon.” (p.30 – Heinz Bechert,  The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol 6, January – June 1963, No. 1.). Bechert, a leading Indologist, outlines the decisive migratory waves of S. Ind of ouians that came across the Palk Strait to settle down as permanent dwellers in Jaffna. Even Tamil historians like S. Arasaratnam and K. Indrapala agree that the first Tamil settlements were in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The role of Tamils in Sri Lankan  history is put more precisely by Dr. Ananda Guruge. He wrote: : “…..(L)inguistically and culturally, the Dravidian element in the Sri Lankan population had remained sporadic, intermittent and secondary. On the whole, the material evidence of its presence and impact dates from a much later period than the arrival and the entrenchment of Indo-Aryan Sinhala population in the entire island. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence, as well as the place names of proven antiquity, confirm the distribution in all parts of the Island without exception.” (p. 90 – Guruge). The extant evidence points to the fact that the Tamils did not put down their roots as permanent dwellers before the 11th century. They were all tied physically and mentally to S. India, their only homeland. Besides, they did not believe that they had a history of their own in Sri Lanka worth recording. If they did they would have certainly done so as they did in their original and only homeland in S. India.

In fact, they had no inclination to engage in such creative or scholarly endeavours as writing  history. It is the Dutch Governor, Jan Maccaras, who had to order the writing of a history of Jaffna for his guidance. This resulted in producing a sketchy account of Jaffna, Yalpana Vaipava Malai, (circa 1736 ) mixed with folk lore and legends. What is noteworthy is that this text came out of a Dutch order and not from a deep-rooted sense of history like the Mahavamsa. So, considering the  historical facts, there is no justification to blame Bhikku Mahanama for focusing only on the Sinhala-Buddhists. He is demonised as a racist historian who had deliberately downgraded the Tamils. But  this is a perverse view of  history :  if the Tamils of S. India had only settled down in and around the 11th century how could  Bhikku Mahanama write about the incidental and  inconsequential Tamils in the 6th century? Besides, there were many sojourners and  drifters in Sri Lanka from  the year dot and Tamils were among  them. Like all other  histories the Mahavamsa dealt only with  the  permanent and constructive makers of history. The Tamils played a temporary and destructive role and due place was given to the Tamil invaders and marauders. Historian Mahanama did not miss any significant details. As he stated in  his first line in he “will recite the Mahavamsa of  varied content and  lacking  nothing.” (MV – 1:1). If there was any significant contribution he  would have recorded it dutifully and scrupulously as seen in the emphatic place given to Elara’s bell of justice. Other than that the Tamils did not come into the  picture until the 11th century. So how could historian Bhikku Mahanama write about a non-existent factors in the 5th century?

The anti-Sinhala-Buddhist lobby denigrates the Mahavamsa venomously because it does not substantiate their claim that the Tamils, like the Sinhala-Buddhists, were “in possession” of divided Sri Lanka from “the dawn of time”. (Opening line  in the Vadukoddai Resolution). They need this  historical fiction desperately to substantiate their claim to the Northern and Eastern territories, which constitute 2/3rd  of the littoral strip. Mahavamsa provides no evidence of the “Demalas” (Tamils) playing any historical or significant role in laying the solid foundations of Sri Lanka, or occupying the Northern and Eastern coastline. In fact, Bhikku Mahanama makes references to the “Demalas” as invaders, marauders, traders, and even gigolos in the court of Queen Anula more than the “Sihalas”.  He makes only two references to the “Sihalas” but makes numerous references to the “Demalas” describing the destructive role they played as colonisers who were driven away by the “Sihala” nation-builders.. But nowhere does he mention the Tamils as makers of the great new civilisation. They are recognised as colonial invaders, marauders and gigolos who were driven out each time they tried to occupy Sri Lankan territory. The credit for making a new civilisation goes decisively, on  historical evidence, to the “Sihalas”.

But the By writing this history as objectively as possible, which is remarkable for a Buddhist monk and a historian of the time, he was being faithful to the events as they happened. The roles of the “Demalas” and the “Sihalas” are recorded without bias. If he was a partisan historian he would not have given Elara, the Tamil coloniser, the respectable place he occupies in the Mahavamsa. He does not demonise Elara the way our “hack-ademics” denigrate him. The problem with the detractors of the Mahavamsa is that they are frustrated because Bhikku Mahanama did not write a history giving the pride of place to the “Demalas” as makers of Sri Lankan history. In other words, they wanted him to write fiction and not history as it happened. They would have praised him to the skies if he wrote script that would help them to legitimise the mono-ethnic politics of glorifying Jaffna jingoism of the 20th century.

Historians and political scientists have been unsparingly critical of the Western imperialists who occupied Afro-Asia. But Bhikku Mahanama has been very considerate and just in dealing with Elara, the Tamil colonialist, whose primary objective would have been, like all colonial masters, to live off the Sinhala-Buddhist people. Dutugemunu is elevated to a central place in the Mahavamsa not because he defeated Elara, which was inevitable, but because he overthrew an unwanted colonial regime and restored the territorial integrity and the unity of the nation. Anti-colonial leaders who triumphed over imperialists are given a place of  honour in all histories. Bhikku Mahanama’s account  of Elara is  no  different from that of any other  historian who would reject colonialists and embrace the national leaders who fought against the foreign invaders.

Bhikku Mahanama’s stated ambition in writing the Mahavamsa, however, was humble and simple. He stated that his endeavours were to make his new text easy to read and understand unlike the “faulty” old texts. But he never dreamt that his classic would reverberate down the ages, inspiring generations to look back with pride about the achievements of their ancestors. It is a book that bound and held together the descendants of the Aryan First Settlers in a shared history. It made them feel that the Aryan First Settlers did not live in vain. They left their indelible mark on sand, rock, bo-tree and land. The overall design, the integrated structure, and the easy flowing narrative, placing the secular movement of history as the central drama, within the overarching ambience of Buddhism, had stood the test of time and proved to be an invaluable historical document throwing light into the dim distant past. In short, he had succeeded in achieving the mission he set out to fulfil: write a consolidated history of the people, or as he put it, “to recite the Mahavamsa, of varied content and lacking nothing.” (MV – Chapt 1: 1).

His masterpiece which bound the people together down the ages is yet to be matched by any other academic, some of whom had derided his efforts. His skill in editing the available material has proved that he had mastered the art of historiography of his  time . The interplay of Buddhist dynamics with the secular politics is handled deftly to maintain a convincing balance between the two competing forces in the evolving history.  The relevance and the accuracy of his text have been acknowledged by international scholars exploring South Asian historiography. For instance, the missing links in the history of Emperor Asoka were filled by the records in the Mahavamsa. George Turnour’s first translation into English (1837) helped the restoration of India history.

Besides Bhikku Mahanama’s commitment to revise the available narratives, which, according to him, had not been told with clarity and felicity, his ambition to take the available material and give it depth of meaning, confirm that he was imbued with a deep sense of history. His basic methodology, as stated by him, was to cut here and chop there and edit the available histories to give shape and meaning to the daring and creative journey of the “Sinhala-Buddhist, as the pioneering history-makers came to be known later. He wrote: “That (Mahavamsa) which was compiled by the ancient (sages) was here too long drawn out and there too closely knit; and contained many repetitions. Attend ye now to this (Mahavamsa) that is free from such faults, easy to understand and remember, arousing serene joy and emotion and handed down (to us) by tradition….” (MV 1: 2-4).

Having redacted the text expertly, he emerges in his narrative as a scholarly analyst determined to put the record straight for posterity. The Mahavamsa he produced stands, even today, as a guiding historical source that had directly influenced the course of history just not in Sri Lanka but in the Theravada movement that fanned out across the South East Asia as  well. In the forefront of this Theravada Movement were the Sinhala Buddhist monks, whom the Mahavamsa predicted would be “the lords of the island.” (MV – XIV : 53). None of the subsequent historiographers in academia and elsewhere had produced a book of that magnitude. Detractors of Bhikku Mahanama had made a living, and also advanced their careers, in academia and in NGO circles by distorting the text with their perverse interpretations. But none ever attained the broad influential and over-determining heights of the Mahavamsa.

For the moment, forget the murals  of Mahavamsa painted  on the sacred temples  of Burma. Which  chapters  of any of the academic  detractors of Mahavamsa,(e.g. Professori Carlo Fonseka), have been drawn even  in the streets of Slave  Island?

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