By Prof. W.I. Siriweera Presently there is enormous amount of interest in history due to several factors such as encouragement by the state apparatus, academic enthusiasm and greater attention by media. It was only a couple of weeks ago that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, displaying his far sighted vision, proclaimed publicly that history and literature should [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Rectifying imbalances in Sri Lankan historical writings


By Prof. W.I. Siriweera

Presently there is enormous amount of interest in history due to several factors such as encouragement by the state apparatus, academic enthusiasm and greater attention by media. It was only a couple of weeks ago that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, displaying his far sighted vision, proclaimed publicly that history and literature should be compulsorily taught in schools.

Immediately thereafter, newspapers reported that a programme to inspire patriotism is to be initiated, particularly among the advanced level students by the Central Cultural Fund. Academic enthusiasm is substantiated by a fair number of publications on different aspects of Sri Lankan history in the recent past. In this context, a special word needs to be mentioned on the five volume – History of Sri Lanka published in October 2012 by M.D. Gunasena and company and edited by Dr. W.M.K. Wijetunga, the only living historian who could bring together a vast array of scholars to contribute to such a task.

The invitation by Swarnavahini to the versatile Jackson Anthony to conduct the second series of the TV programme Maha Sinhale Vamsa Kathava, is the best example for the attention paid by the media to give an understanding of historical events to the general public. Here, I wish to completely exclude and ignore the writings and utterances by recognition seekers who try to establish authenticity and credibility to myths such as the Ravana story to glorify the past out of proportion.

Before coming to ‘imbalances’ or ‘misnomers’ or ‘distortions’ which is a stronger term a word is needed on the evolution of historical thought in the island. In the ancient era it evolved mainly around the ideology portrayed in the main chronicle, the Mahavamsa and also lesser chronicles and Buddhist literary works. The authors of these writings have perceived what could be called a “plausibility structure” for the social and psychic existence of the majority Buddhist community. This plausibility structure was to be found in an ideal Buddhist state, the “Dhammadipa” or the “land of righteousness”. I dare not categorise this ideology into any of the three categories mentioned above because realistically it portrays the thought process in the past upto the arrival of the colonial conquerors.
The colonial military pursuits, mercantile activity, missionary enterprise and associated cultural and educational influences ushered a new era in the thought process in writing history.The influence of British writers is much more intense in this context.

One of the earliest general histories of India, written by James Mill in 1817 divided Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. A large number of subsequent general histories of India followed a similar pattern until the middle of the twentieth century. Sri Lankan historians of the early twentieth century followed suit and the island’s history was divided in to “ancient”, “Portuguese”, “Dutch” and “British”periods. The “ancient period” had a heavy Indo-centric approach and even G.C. Mendis in his early writings such as the Early History of Ceylon divided it into two further categories “North Indian Era” and “South Indian Era”. This has led to a historiographical attitude to interpret Sri Lanka’s past very much in terms of a basic relationship with the Indian culture complex neglecting Sri Lanka’s distinct character and structure as an island civilisation which stood in contradiction to its close relationship with the South Asian mainland. The indigenous developments in the formation of early Sri Lankan civilisation have been totally ignored in these writings.

The earliest to demonstrate that the notions such as the Portuguese and the Dutch eras were Euro-centric, inaccurate and out of proportion was Professor K. W. Goonewardena who published his doctoral research in 1958, titled Foundations of Dutch Power in Ceylon. Subsequently Professor S. Arsarathnam followed the same line of thinking. As a result most recent writers on modern history of Sri Lanka avoid the terms such as the “Portuguese Period” and “Dutch Period” but some still continue to use these terminologies.
The evolution of various modern political and social structures as well as historical thought has often drawn great sustenance from racist – or to use a lesser aggressive term – ethnic ideas and Sri Lanka is no exception. They have had a positive role as well in history particularly in struggles against foreign conquest and domination. But in this context certain misconceptions have been perpetuated in historical thought.

One is the Aryan concept. 99% of the writings on early history, including The University of Ceylon: History of Ceylon are flooded with terms such as Aryan, Aryanisation and Aryan colonization. These have undertones of racial distinctiveness, biological and cultural exclusiveness or superiority. But it has to be emphasised that the idea of ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’ constitute different races is a fallacy and a modern misinterpretation projected into history. The racial ideas connected with Aryans and Dravidians have been strongly rejected by scholars over the last several decades in hundreds of writings in the West as well as in the East. Both terms in fact refer to a broad linguistic phenomenon. Nevertheless the terms are in continuous use in published writings as well as in most recent unpublished dissertations to indicate a racial category.

In passing it is worth citing a statement in President of the Janata Party – India, Dr. Subramaniam Swamy’s interview given to the monthly journal “Business Today” in September 2012. According to him, we the Indians as well as the Sri Lankans failed to rectify the distorted history which the British had forced on us. The idea of Aryans and Dravidians is actually a misnomer that has now been thrown out of the door.

In the evolution of modern Sri Lankan historical writings one could observe four categories of writings; descriptive, analytical, analytical + descriptive and theoretical. Unfortunately the writings on the last category are very few. Unlike in India not much debate has evolved in Sri Lanka on colonial historical tradition, nationalist historical tradition, people’s history, elitist history or history of the dominant groups etc. A large number of professional Sri Lankan historians have in fact, stayed away from wider theoretical debates about the nature of ancient regimes, social structures, colonialism, theories of resistance, identity formation and the like. On the contrary some still continue to be very narrowly focused with great efforts expended in determining the meaning of words, exact name of a ruler, his regnal years, genealogy etc. While not undermining the importance of such details, it has to be emphasised that there is a need for wider historical debates on objectivity.

In conclusion, it needs to be emphasised that the challenge for Sri Lankan historians today is to study, teach and write history, stripped of its myths, distortions, deformations and communal or religious bias. How they face up to this challenge depends on their recognition of the importance of social function of their discipline and the attitudes and the support given by the political system. Patriotism which the Cultural Triangle tries to protect should be instilled in all Sri Lankan communities to feel that “We are one people”. Patriotism should encourage living in harmony. In this exercise the majority community and its political leadership have to be magnanimous. It is a tough but noble task.

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