Historians agree that there was no bitter division or explosive violence between the Tamils of the north and the Sinhalese of the south until the constitutional changes introduced by the British in the early twenties and thirties led to the rise of communalism in the north, particularly with Sir. Ponnambalam Arunachalam leaving the broad, multi-ethnic Ceylon National Congress to form the narrow communal organisation, the Tamil Mahajana Sabhai in 1921. 

Commenting on the rise of communalism in the 20th century, Prof. K. Indrapala, who had to run away from the Jaffna University for writing history that was not palatable to the Tamil separatists,  said: “There have been political and social conflicts among them (Sinhalese and Tamils) but the kind of ethnic consciousness and destructive prejudices that have surfaced in the twentieth century and continue to plague the island were not part of Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.” (p.ix — The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils in Sri Lanka C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE, South Asian Studies Centre, Sydney, 2005)


Dr. G. C. Mendis, the doyen of the early modern historians, was the first to point out the explosion of racist violence in the thirties. In his essays on Ceylon, as it was known at the time, he said that none of the chroniclers of the colonial times — from Portuguese Queroz to British Robert Knox who meticulously documented the social conditions – had recorded any communal tensions or violence. Looking back at the events that cascaded from the break up of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) with Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam leaving it to launch the first communal organisation in Sri Lankan politics,  Prof. K. M. de Silva, the foremost historian of Sri Lanka, traced in two brilliant essays (The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, July-December 1972 and January- June 1973) the north-south divisions and tensions emerging from the post-Arunachalam period with some covert and overt encouragement by Governor William (“divide and rule”) Manning.  While Prof. de Silva focused on the political and ideological origins of communal divisions and tensions in twenties Dr. Mendis focused on the first communal outbreak of violence in the thirties, referring, of course, to G.G. Ponnambalam (Snr) who unleashed a provocative barrage on the Sinhalese targeting in particular the Mahavamsa.

In contrast, the north is noted for its mono-ethnic extremism  of rejecting multi-ethnic and multi-religious pluralism as seen in the south. Mylvaganam Pulavar, who wrote the first official history of Jaffna at the request of the Dutch Governor, Maccra, in 1763, recorded “the insane fury” of the communal and religious tensions and violence that prevailed in Jaffna in the pre-Dutch era, starting from Sangkili, the mass murderer. The Hindu Saivite rulers had no compunction in slaughtering the Catholics, the Sinhala-Buddhists, the Muslims and the Malay minorities in repeated attempts to ethnically cleanse the peninsula. The intolerance, intransigence and violence that ruled the Jaffna political culture from its inception stands in stark contrast to the tolerant, flexible and Buddhist-tempered culture of the south. 

An intriguing question flows from this scenario — a question that is necessary to unravel the tangled strands of the north-south crisis: if there was communal harmony in the period prior to the last days of the British rule in the south why did communal divisions and tensions break out in the twenties and thirties until “the insane fury” of the north gathered momentum and ran all the way to Nandikadal via the Vadukoddai Resolution?  The ink that was spilt over this question could fill another lagoon the size of Nandikadal. Except for a few balanced academics who attempted to answer this question dispassionately the majority blamed only the Sinhala-Buddhist south, with S. J.Tambiah, the Harvard academic, giving the lead in his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist book,  Buddhism Betrayed? A whole new industry mushroomed in academia and NGOs to propagate this mono-causal theory.  They were pandering to the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideological bases located in NGOs – example: International Centre for Ethnic Studies — which were flushed with foreign funds. For instance, Tambiah was rewarded handsomely by Lal Jayewardena, who as the head of WIDER, a research unit of the UN located in Finland, deployed funds to produce anti-Sinhala-Buddhist tracts in the guise of research. Tambiah’s anti-Sinhala-Buddhist research stood out as the standard text to justify the violence of the north against the south. However, this issue should be left out for consideration on a another day.

For the moment it should be conceded that there has been no in-depth study of the internal imperatives that drove peninsular political leaders to the dead-end created by their own free will. They have no one else to  blame except themselves for dragging  their people  into Nandikadal. It as an ill-fated course of action which  confirmed their “insane fury” to go down the path of self-destruction. The fact that the Vellahla elite of the north — and there was no one else with a formidable political clout to create an alternative political culture in Jaffna — played a decisive and violent role in directing their political, financial and manpower resources to chase putative “political grievances and aspirations”  which could have been resolved non-violently has been generally brushed aside as an irrelevant or marginal factor. 

The  violent forces that came out of  the womb of Jaffna were neutralized and white-washed as justifiable reaction to the refusal to grant their extremist demands. They played up the alleged “Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination and oppression”  to the hilt to extract maximum political mileage. Victimology became the trump card of Jaffna Tamil politics. The pro-separatist Vadukoddians created the first impressions of the north-south crisis by defining the parameters, the vocabulary and the narrative of national politics within this framework of victimology. The under-reported and the under-researched darkness in which Jaffna was shrouded also helped the anti-Sinhala- Buddhist lobbies to demonize the open society of the south as the villains and to project the closed society of the north as the saintly victims of the south. . 

Ponnambalam was the first to give the critical mass to the divisive ideology on which communalism took off as an over-determining political force. He was the first to define in sharp outline and express stridently and venomously anti-Sinhala-Buddhist communalism that exacerbated the north-south relations. He targeted the mainstream history of the nation in his attempt to elevate the role of the Tamils as the founding fathers of the nation and deny the Sinhalese their rightful place. He calculated, quite accurately, that the cornerstone of mainstream  history was the Mahavamsa and he went at it with all his venom. In doing so Ponnambalam picked history as the battle ground on which the Jaffna Tamils chose to fight for power, territory and ownership of the land. Ever since then  historiography has been the most sensitive and contentious issue on both sides of the divide. 

Consequently, one of the key controversial issues has been the claim raised by both sides as to who came first to Sri Lanka. Both sides claim that they were the first arrivals meaning that they were the first owners of the land and the subsequent arrivals have a lesser, or no claim to the land at all. This is a non-issue. Of course, this kind of claim and counterclaim is a common bone of contention among  all nations where the ownership of land is contested by rival claimants. The historical fact, however, is that before the arrival of the Sinhalese and the Tamils as original settlers, or as distinct ethnic groups as they exist today, there were the aboriginals (Veddahs) who were the first settlers of Sri Lanka. This issue of who came first, therefore, stands as another example of where the contemporaries twist, interpret and rewrite the past to suit the present. History is manipulated and propagandized to serve the political agendas of the day.

But history, in the contemporary context, belongs to those who make it and not to the who claim it with one argument or the other. Take the case of the Aboriginals in Australia. To whom does the land belong in Australia? Under the legal fiction of terra nullis the British settlers declared that the land was unoccupied and, therefore, there were no owners. The British law then declared that the unoccupied land with no owners should be the legal property of the white man who created a new history of their own. With this legal fiction they disinherited the Aborigines who were the rightful owners of the land. The Aborigines were living in the fringes of white society as non-persons, deprived even of citizenship until 1967. Leaving political, legal and constitutional theories aside, the white settlers who occupied the land and transformed it into a civilized and productive society have claimed it to be their land with, of course, space allotted for those who accept their majority rule and their values. This principle, right or wrong, applies to the Americas, Canada, New Zealand and other dominions occupied by the superior force of the colonial masters.

In Sri Lanka the issue of who came first is lost in the mists of time. Irrespective of who came first, it is unarguable that it is the Sinhala-Buddhists who tamed the wilderness and created a new civilization, new culture, new language and opened up the land for whoever was prepared to share the land in common. They set about creatively giving the land a new shape, a new form, a new identity and a  new history. Like in any other nation where the majority governs it is “the Sinhala-Buddhists” who defined the land and gave the character and the flavour for everyone to savour. Their creativity and productivity stamped the nation with their indelible impressions. Just as much as the WASPish (Westernized, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) culture dominates democracies like England, America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, to mention only a few, the historical legacy in Sri Lanka makes it is natural and legitimate for the Sinhala-Buddhist culture to be the foremost, whether it is  accepted  or not as a legal or constitutional entity as such.

No doubt the cohabiting minorities did contribute their share to the growth of the nation. In the course of time, as it happens in history, rival segments in various regions rose from time to time. The Kandyans, for instance, considered themselves to be a different community from the  low-country Sinhalese and Gov. Manning exploited these differences to keep them apart. Each segment had some historical background to lay claim to a geography of their own. The Kandyans, the Vanniars, and the Jaffnaites  laid claims to separate territorial blocs. But none of them ever succeeding in superseding the Sinhala-Buddhists and their culture. Even after the centre fragmented and power shifted to micro-political units in the periphery the power and the influence of Sinhala language and Buddhist religion never lost their vitality to bond and retain the homogeneity of a common cultural  heritage. 

Demographically too it is the exponential growth the Sinhala-Buddhists that determined the politico-cultural identity which has left its mark overwhelmingly from  coast to coast. These are historical realities and not idle boasts made to belittle the other communities. The  Sinhala majority does not behave any differently in any significant way from the majorities in other democracies governed by principles of majority rule. There has been an accommodative and inclusive tradition that has given ample space for minorities to co-exist in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic plurality without extremist claims of territory, power, and ownership of enclaves to one particular community.

The Sinhala-Buddhist position, as laid down by its founding father,  missionary Mahinda, is that the land does not belong to any individual, group or state. It belongs to all those who are committed to act as trustees, sharing it in common, protecting each other and the environment, which includes birds, bees, and beasts.    

For instance, the avian geographies described in the Sandesha poetry — originating from Kalidasa’s Mega Dhuta  (Cloud Messenger) — present an aerial eye view of a borderless territory and history of the nation from coast to coast. The return of Prince Sapumal after his conquest of Jaffna echoes resoundingly in the classic Selalaihini Sandesaya. The lines in verse 29 informing the Selalihiniya to view the triumphant return of Prince Sapumal from Yapa Patuna (Jaffna) at the head of his army (“bala pirisen saha yapa patun gena / bala senanayake sapu kumaru ena”) is an unambiguous political statement confirming the territorial integrity of a nation that had vanquished spurious claims of homelands for any group or community.  The Mayura, Thisara, Gira , Hansa, Paravi , Kokila, Selalihini etc., are the legendary avians who flew freely and proudly viewing the political glory, natural splendour of the fauna and flora, the bustling cities, and the graceful beauties that walked the earth from Yapa Patuna to Dondra. In Mayura Sandesaya King Bhuvenaka Bahu, devoid of the political jargon of our political pundits, runs a state for the (1) protection and (2) prosperity of his citizens. He destroys enemies, increases wealth, obeys the teaching of the Buddha (dasa rajya dharma) and provides for all the needs of his citizens within a pure and fair administration. Aren’t these the foundational stones of a just state?

The avians  in the secular poetry went flying in all directions of the compass. The earlier religious poetry celebrating the Jathaka stories focused on gems like Guttila Kavya, written in earthy, salty idiom that  resonate to this day. The Hatan Kavi (war poetry) of the colonial periods glorified war and the heroism of the patriots who fought for the territorial integrity and protection of their historical homeland which had its roots in the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle. The Mahavamsa itself is the primary document that laid the concrete foundation to carve a distinct sense of identity, history and destiny of the Sinhala-Buddhist people. It brings together all the strands of the past to project a future.  It chronicles, with a clear vision  of the past and the future, the role played and the role to be played by the Sinhala-Buddhist people whose creative energies gave the world a new language, a new culture, a new civilisation and a new history. The ”Mahavamsa mentality” is the greatest gift handed down by the ancestors to successive generations to pursue and fulfil their historic duty to preserve and protect the sacred tradition. This rich mentality, filled with its own values, was the inevitable legacy of a proud people who had sacrificed their blood to create it. It was natural. And as human culture goes it is  also rational.

The “Mahavamsa mentality” is the sacred space in the minds of the Sinhala-Buddhists who owe everything to their pioneering, creative, inspiring and intrepid ancestors who gave all what they had to make Sri Lanka worth fighting for in any national or international field. It is  informed and inspired by the monumental achievements together with its tolerant, inclusive, liberal culture that give the Sinhala-Buddhists the historical mandate to claim this pearly plot in the  Indian Ocean, also known as Adam’s Eden, to be their land with the proviso that that it was to be held in common with all those who are willing and ready to share it with the others. The Sinhalese claimed it not as exclusive property for them alone, though they alone pioneered the path to the future and opened the land for all others to share it, but as trustees of a higher and humane culture that protected all beings — just not human beings but birds, bees and beasts who belonged to the land. The king was always the “protector of (this) tradition”. (Chapt 21 -line 21).  That is the Sinhala-Buddhist  gospel according  to missionary Mahinda. 

When Mahatera Mahanama sat down to write the Mahavamsa it was not written to an order dictated to him by a king or a governor. Mylvaganam admits in his foreword that  he wrote Yalapana Vaipava Malai, the first official history of Jaffna. at the request of the Dutch Governor Maccara (1736). Mahavamsa came from Mahanama’s sense of belonging to a past and a future. It was written to identify from where he came  and, simultaneously, to point the direction  in which history was heading, taking the rest of the nation with it. It was a spontaneous and a spiritual  commitment to the great ”tradition” honoured, respected and obeyed by kings and pioneers alike. It was, indeed, a spiritual journey to him. Though he was documenting worldly events he was aiming to achieve a higher goal. It was written, as he says repeatedly at the end of each chapter, for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious”.  

In Ch . IV (7) (W. Geiger) he states that Susanga, was anointed “mindful of the good of all” meaning, of course, not for any sect, clan, or community but “of all”. In a line that is relevant even today he indicates that “traitors and fools” ( Ch.7:3) are not wanted. As in any civilized legal tradition time-tested customary law was upheld. “All….. points unlawful, according to tradition,” (Ch.4: 54) are rejected. Heavy emphasis is laid on observing “tradition”. A line that rings loud in the Mahavamsa refers to Elara as a noble man who ruled “with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of dispute at law.” (Ch  XXI: 13 – 14). This, incidentally, is a line that should be inscribed indelibly in contemporary statute book as a reminder to our rulers. However, the line that refers to the “unbelievers” as “beasts” (Ch XXV : 110) doesn’t belong to the Mahavamsa. It is incongruous with the tenor, the thrust and the overall spirit of the Great Chronicle. It could have been acceptable in any other text, religious or secular, which accepted violence as a sacred cult. But in the Mahavamsa, written for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious”, it  is the only line that sticks out as a sore thumb. 

The Mahavamsa unlike Yalpana Vaipava Malai is very positive and predicts no evil end to the nation. In Yalpana Vaipava Malai Supathidda, the sage appears and declares the end of the kingdom  of Jaffna. The sage tell the king: “King! your kingdom will flourish but a short time more…….”  The prophecy ends with this line: “The sovereignty will never again come back to your descendants.” (pp. 27 – 29). But there is redemption in the Mahavamsa. Even if you are not a believer but if you free yourself from “the guilt of of walking  in the path of evil” you can attain your goals.(Ch XXI : 34). The rule of law too is observed. Thera Tissa is tried by a “just” minister and expelled from the order “according to right and law …..against the king’s wishes.” ( Ch. XXXVII : 39). Here the law is above the king. On “sovereignty” and power the Mahavamsa is quite clear. It sees “sovereignty” as a source  of great good and evil. In unambiguous terms it says “that sovereignty, being the source of manifold works of merit, is at the same time the source of many an injustice, a man of pious heart will never enjoy it as if it were sweet food mixed with poison.” (Ch XXXVI :133.) Ethics, rights, law, tradition, good and evil are common themes that run through the narrative in the Mahavamsa.

Though  the Sinhalese made their history in a small island their achievements are monumental comparable to that of any other ancient civilisation. Abayagiriya, second  in size only to the Giza pyramids, Sigiriya comparable to the Jewish Masada, the great dagobas, the engineering excellence of the  hydraulic civilization, the Sinhala-Buddhist culture have stand out as unique contributions unparalleled by any other community that came before or after the Sinhalese. Perhaps, they did not build something comparable to the Great Wall of China because they did not believe that any part of the island belonged exclusively to any group. But in every other respect they achieved towering heights. It is possible to argue that only those who have a great sense of belonging to the land could be inspired to create monumental legacies in their name and those to come.  

Besides, the earth on which they walked was fertilized by their blood in  creating and preserving their ancestral heritage. Other migrants have no such  cultural achievement which they can call their own except that which they brought with them from their original homelands overseas.  They were quite content to live in the shadow of the culture they brought with them. They were basically imitators not creators of a new home-made culture.If there is one community that made Sri Lanka their homeland in every sense of the word it is the Sinhalese. Of course, the other migrants contributed their mite from their peripheries. But the mainstream culture that flowed down the Sri Lankan history was constructed and shaped essentially by the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Tributes have been paid for their exceptional creativity in constructing their civilisation. In his authoritative study of the contribution of the East to Western civilisation Prof. Joseph Needham states “that the achievements of the Indian civil engineers in ancient and medieval times are quite worthy to be compared with those of their Chinese colleagues”. However, he concluded by making  it clear that “it was never in India that the fusion  of the Egyptian and Babylonian patterns achieved its most complete and subtlest form. This took place in Ceylon, the work of both cultures, Sinhalese and Tamil, but especially the former.” (p. 368, Science and Civilization in China, IV, Cambridge 1971 , cited in The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, K. Indrapala ).

It is common knowledge that North Indian and S. Indian strands flowed in successive waves into the mainstream culture of the Sinhala-Buddhists. All cultures that flowered borrowed from neighbouring or invading cultures. Communities that do not borrow and respond innovatively stagnate like the isolated aboriginal communities cut off from the rest of civilized cultures. The ultimate greatness, however, is in those who borrow from other cultures and turn it into  new dynamic force of their own, leaving their creative spirit and power stamped all over it.  Besides, people who do not belong to the land are incapable of responding creatively to construct a whole new culture, civilization, language, history or even a distinct identity. It is the intense sense of belonging to the land and the land belonging to them that must have been the primary source for the creative spirit of the Sinhala-Buddhists to blossom in Sri Lanka. In short, when the Sinhalese look back they see their ancestors as those who were

               Born of the sun, they travelled a short while towards the sun,

                    And left the vivid air honoured with their sign. — Stephen Spender.




August 4th, 2012

H. L. D. Mahindapala


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