The Makers Of Sri Lankan History

By H.L.D Mahindapala

When the Buddha asked the Yakkahas a place to sit “(T)he yakkhas thus answered the Blessed One: “We all, O Lord, give you even the whole of our island. Give us release from our fear” – Mahavamsa – 1: 27-29.

The pioneering Indo-Aryan settlers, who came to be known as Sinhalese later, never stopped making history from the time they stepped ashore. Their uniqueness was in making monumental history which they left behind as their legacy for their successors to accept it with “serene joy and emotion of the  pious”, to  quote the memorable refrain in the Mahavamsa (MV). The task of making history came naturally to them from the moment they landed because each step they took added great meaning to their lives. Each step they took to explore and transform the land into fertile fields of culture and agriculture confirmed to them that their future depended on making their new found land their home. History was made by bonding with the land. They took to the land like duck to water. There was no formidable opposition to them when  they arrived. They were the kings of the land they surveyed. They also knew that there was no turning back. They had severed their umbilical cord with India. They did not have one foot in their new land and another in old India like most of the other settlers who came later, particularly those who came from the Dravidian culture of South India.

Above all the Indo-Aryan settlers knew that they had to take their destiny into their hands. And they did so in grand style by creating a new history that equalled any one of the ancient civilisations. Jetawanaramaya, for instance, is the second largest monument, next to the Pyramids, constructed in the ancient world. They gave the world a new civilisation. A new culture. A new language. A new way of life. The new settlers triumphed by establishing Indo-Aryan supremacy in every sphere. No other migrants who came later could match the exemplary standards set by the Indo-Aryans.  Each new step was a  decisive move to pave the way into their future which they were determined to create and defend, “mindful of the good of all”. (MVIV:7).

What happened in Sri Lankan history in the pioneering stages was the Aryanisation of the island-nation. It matured into a formidable force down the ages, resisting all other migrations, invasions, colonisation, and even integrations with the Dravidian itinerants in particular. The rise of the Dravidian civilization in S. India brought with it the inevitable culture wars. However, the everlasting character that dominated Sri Lankan history has been the triumph of the Indo-Aryan culture over the incursions of the Dravidian culture. The unshakeable foundations laid by Indo-Aryan pioneers stood the test of time. The founding fathers wrote their tryst with destiny in the very first chapters of the history they made on their arrival.

In essence, it is the clash between these two cultures that shaped the history of the nation. If by any chance the Aryan culture went under the power of the neighbouring Dravidians the history of Sri Lanka would have been written in Tamil. It is the successful resistance to the Dravidian and other invasive cultures that determined the unique identity of Sri Lankan history. In fact, the similarities between the pre-colonial and the post-colonial histories are remarkable: both phases were dominated by the clash of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian cultures on Sri Lankan soil. The Indo-Aryans established their supremacy from the time of their arrival. For instance, those who remember Chapter XXV of the Mahavamsa, where the central issues arising from the clash of Aryan-Dravidian forces are dramatised, will no doubt hear echoes of Vijithapura – the last of the victorious  battles in 13-year war against Elara — whistling in the cold winds sweeping across Nandikadal. Mahinda Rajapakse defeating Velupillai Prabhakaran is history repeating the clash  of these two cultures, with the Indo-Aryans triumphing once again over the Dravidians.

The dominant theme running through Sri Lankan  history has been the struggle of the pioneering Indo-Aryans and their descendants to overthrow the usurping late-comers – the Dravidians, the  Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. All the  invaders were temporary occupiers of the island — the territory which was handed over to the founding fathers as a gift in exchange “for the release from our fear”.  The  opening quote from the Mahavamsa summarises the mission handed over  to the founders of the Indo-Aryan civilisation. Each time the nation was regained from the alien occupiers by the rightful owners it was freed from fear.  Establishing a whole new culture and  civilisation as a protective frontier, guarding against invasive anti-Indo-Aryan values, has been to rid the nation of its fear. Resisting, defending, waging  wars against the enemies  of the  nation has  been another means of saving  the island  from fear. The best energies of the  nation throughout its history have been spent on releasing the island from worldly and other worldly fears. History was made from the  beginning by dispelling fears.

The common task of all contemporaries, living in the history bequeathed by their pioneering predecessors, has been to renew and defend the legacies inherited from the ancestral history-makers. Some do claim that  history is the dead hand that lies heavily on the backs of the living. Whether dependence on history is a good or bad legacy is debatable. But the  instinctive reaction of the living generations to take refuge in their past recurs regularly, partly because it is not possible to sever the umbilical cord and partly because it is in the genes to adhere to the inherited vision and values for survival.  After all, our ancestors, we are told, laboured to create a place  “lawful according to tradition” (MV – IV:54) and “mindful of the good of all”. With each new step the pioneering Sinhalese settlers knew that they were defining and strengthening their way forward to their destiny in their land of hope. The bonding power of the history they made each day kept them magnetically drawn to the realm which they filled with their collective and existential experiences. It gave them an indelible sense of history which they gathered in their journey to keep their tryst with destiny.

Their mission was to carve out new paths to enter the main stream of history with their own creative energies. Their rapid advancement makes it obvious that they arrived on the shores with all the Indo-Aryan tools, accoutrements, and experiences to construct a new home. But the greater historical truth is that they broke away from their past and set out on a brand new course to create a new civilisation. Naturally, their commitment and affinity to the land grew exponentially with their daring endeavours to find their way in unchartered territories guided by their own instincts and ingenuity. In other words, they made history with their bare hands and history, in turn, acclaimed their glorious attainments enshrined in the legacy left behind by the genius of the founding fathers.

Driven by their primary instincts and visions of the future the early settlers knew that they were here to stay and, in the process, they committed themselves to either do or die. They either had to make this their homeland or wither away into the margins of history like the very first settlers, the aboriginals,(Veddahs), whom they encountered on their arrival. They also knew that they had to do it themselves. There was no one else to do it for them, or guide them. There was no compass to show directions. Their affinity to the land grew with ever increasing commitment to their bit of earth they adopted and cultivated to make it their only home.

The legacy they left behind reveals that they were gifted with the creative capacity to make history on a grand scale. They were determined to leave behind a legacy that would make their descendants proud inheritors of a glorious past. With their creativity and the force of  history which they made with their blood, sweat and tears, they advanced incrementally into one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, defining on their way forward their identity, dignity and destiny with unquestionable certainty.

As time receded into the ever-expanding past they stood out as a unique force in human history, as stated earlier, creating a new language, new culture and a new civilisation on Sri Lankan soil. No other settler had the commitment, the inclination, the necessity and the capacity to break away from their past and carve out a new world which they could call their new and creative contribution to human history. Only the daring Sinhalese took on the overwhelming challenges of their times and transformed the land, opening up every inch of it for all those who want to call it their sacred home. Their pioneering mission was to make the land blossom with a new culture and civilisation and to preserve both in an open society for all settlers to share it as their homeland based on peaceful coexistence. Tolerant pluralism, embracing diversity, was the secret of their success throughout their journey in history. There were, of course, the inevitable aberrations which took its course, branching out briefly into billabongs and, eventually, returning to merge with the normalcy of the mainstream culture.

Guided by these organising principles they set out to undertake their biggest enterprise of minting a brand new history that could stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other histories of mankind.  Filled with hope, determination and courage they explored the virgin land and tamed wild nature to make it an island nation with a unique culture that was not found in any other recorded history. The founding fathers left their footprints on every micro-mini grain of sand in the land they occupied as they inched their way into the unknown future and peeled the darkness with their determined hands and minds to reveal all its glories to their successors. By the time the Dravidians, the Portuguese, Dutch and the British worked their way into Sri Lanka they discovered a flourishing, advanced civilisation  well established and well equipped to combat the challenges that came with them.  By the time the second wave of settlers, the Dravidians, decided to build permanent  homes in the North in the 13th century the Sinhalese had reached the peak of their great classical civilisation. The Dravidians, like the rest of the migrants, could not catch up with the unique achievements of the Sinhalese. Besides, like the other migrants, they remained as docile imitators of the culture from which they came.

The Sinhala settlers had no reason to look back, either in despair or nostalgia, because they took to the land as if it had been a gift promised to them by the hidden forces of history to fulfil their destiny. As they dug deep roots into the soil their ties to the land became inseparable and indivisible. Propelled by the fervour of pioneering adventurers the history they made together kept them together.

The instinctive urge among the Sinhalese to make history was irresistible. They paid their dues to the adopted land by constructing everlasting monuments as tributes to their time in history. The over-arching historical foundations, creations, inventions, achievements and glories were so overwhelming that those who came later were quite pleased and content to discover that all what they had to do was to share their lives in the shady shelters of history constructed by the founding fathers. The new-comers were like the creepers that twined round the old giant trees that towered over the landscape providing shelter to the undergrowth springing up at the roots of ancient and medieval foundations.

After abandoning the original homes in India, digging new roots in a new land was not an easy task, as any migrant would know. But that is what our ancestors, our founding fathers, had to do. Their pioneering task was to lay the foundations for their descendants to survive, prosper and bask in the historic legacy left behind  for the “good of all”, with justice for all settlers sharing the new civilisation and culture. The  bell  that hung over the bed head of Elara rings for justice right through the pages of the Mahavamsa for all.

The Sinhalese were not only obsessed with making history but were also imbued with almost a religious sense of history, a sense of being one with the land driving them forward perennially, irresistibly, towards “serene joy” and “emotions of the pious”. That driving force of history ran in their blood. As noted by leading historiographers, no other settlers possessed that sense of history. “Among the countries of South and South East Asia,” wrote Prof. S. Pathmanathan, the leading Tamil historian and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, “Sri Lanka is the only one where a tradition of historical writing was developed and maintained for nearly two thousand years.” (p.3 – Facets of Sri Lankan History and Culture, Kumaran Book House,  Colombo, 2015).

Bishop R. S. Copleston wrote: “It is one of the peculiar distinctions of the Island, that from early times it has possessed historians. The Sinhalese stand alone, or almost alone, among the Indian peoples as having had an interest in history. Their Chronicles are the oldest, I believe, and for centuries the only instances of histories in the Indian world…” (Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) JCBRAS XII, No.43, 1892, pp161-172)

Oddly enough,  the non-Aryan settlers had not shown a similar commitment to the land, or a deep sense of history. Nor do they possess historians of the calibre of Bhikku Mahanama, the  father of history in Sri Lanka, to keep them tied to a sacred past.  This may be partly because the hearts and souls of the non-Aryan migrants were tied to the land they left behind and partly because their main  interests were to live  off the land and exploit  its resources without any commitment to the land, or paying anything back in return. Using fashionable theories they opted to blame the pioneering Sinhalese who opened their arms and gave them refuge rather than coexist peacefully as good neighbours. After enjoying the benefits and the  generosity of the land –  most of which were denied to the oppressed Dravidian settlers by the ruling masters in their neck of the woods — they aggressively claimed ownership to one-third of the coastline and its hinterland based on dubious links to a mythical past.

So to whom does the land belong? Does it belong to those who made history from day one for all to share the historical terrain in common  with all other late-comers,  or to those who manufacture history as a latter-day political enterprise engaged in carving out racist enclaves based on the arrogance of myths? Since the Northern manufacturers of  history depend essentially on their questionable  history to  make exclusive claims on the land it is necessary to ask whether those who came as destroyers and temporary occupiers like the Portuguese, Dutch and the British have the right to occupy any part  of the land. Of course, fashionable political  theories can be used to justify self-determination which is also a contested notion.

Anyway, the history of the ownership of  land has flowed into post-independent politics as the central issue. It dominates politics even today. Understanding the making of history that flowed into the underlying currents of today’s politics is critical to finding a way forward. Distorted history  invariably leads to distorted politics. History has many uses and users. But it is the abuses/abusers of history that  had distorted the past to be bedevil the  present for the living.

(To be continued)

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