The power and the glory of Mahavamsa- Part 11

by H. L. D. Mahindapala

Undoubtedly, Mahavamsa focuses essentially on the Sinhala-Buddhists. What else could historian Mahanama 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. Nor had they established a permanent settlement in the 6th century when he wrote his classic. 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 permanent base in Jaffna in the 12th – 13th centuries.

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 dominant migratory waves of S. Indians 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 permanent 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 – Mahavamasa, the Great Chronicale of Sri Lanka, Ananda W. P. Guruge – Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd, 1989).

The extant evidence points to the fact that the Tamils did not put down their roots as permanent dwellers before the 12th- – 13th centuries. 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, after Vellalas rebelled against the Dutch for appointing a member of the rival caste of Madapallis to the post of a Canakepulle in Jaffnapatnam. Poet Mylvaganam undertook the task of writing a history. He produced a sketchy account of Jaffna, Yalpana Vaipava Malai(circa 1736 to please the Dutch governor. Unlike the Mahavamsa, which is a household name, hardly any Tamils know the existence of this text. What is noteworthy is that this text came out of the needs of a Dutch Governor and not from a deep-rooted sense of history like the Mahavamsa. Even Ancient Jaffna was dedicated by Mudliyar Rasanayagam in the 20th century to please the British Governor, not the Tamil people.

Mahanama, on the contrary, records with reverence and sensitivity, the sacred moral, spiritual and historic forces he inherited. As he states repeatedly, he wrote it for the serene and emotional peace of the pious” and not as a racist tract. As an objective historian Mahanama documents the failures and the achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhists. Nevertheless, he is demonised as a racist historian who had deliberately downgraded the Tamils. But this is a politically motivated perversion of history:  if the Tamils of S. India had only settled down in and around the 12th – 13th centuries how could Mahanama write about the transitory and scattered Tamils, without a permanent abode, in the 6th century?

Besides, there were many sojourners, drifters and transit passengers in Sri Lanka from the year dot and Tamils were among them. Like all other histories the Mahavamsa dealt essentially with the permanent and constructive makers of history. The Tamils, by and large, played a 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 noteworthy contribution he would have recorded it dutifully and scrupulously as seen in the prominent place given to Elara’s bell of justice. Other than that the Tamils did not come into the picture until the 12th – 13th centuries. The details he mentions add colour and depth to his narrative. For instance, he did not fail to mention the titillating role played by Tamils as active partners in the bed of Queen Anula, the nymphomaniac. With his critical eye he would not miss a telling or a consequential event. And being a truthful witness, he could not write about Tamils who were not  there in the 6th century.

The anti-Sinhala-Buddhist lobby denigrates the Mahavamsa venomously because it does not substantiate their claim that the Tamils 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 and its hinterland. Like all foreign invaders, the Tamils acted as colonial masters exploiting the resources for their glory and interests. Dutugemunu was able to mobilise the national forces, and wage a war for 15 years, because he was leading a war of liberation against invading colonialists. Like the colonial Portuguese, Dutch and the British they came, they plundered, they aimed at destroying  the local culture and impose their foreign culture, and they went. History repeating itself ended the second war of liberation at Nandikadal.

Mahavamsa provides no evidence of the Demalas” (Tamils) playing any historical or significant role in laying or developing the solid foundations of Sri Lanka, or occupying the Northern and Eastern coastline and its hinterland exclusively. Giving what is due to the Tamils Mahanama mentioned their role even as gigolos in the court of Queen Anula.  He makes only few references to the Sihalas” but makes numerous references to the Demalas” describing the role they played as colonisers who were driven away by the Sihala” nation-builders.. But nowhere does he mention the Tamils as makers of a great new civilisation. The credit for making a new civilisation goes decisively, on historical evidence, to the Sihalas”.

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 Dutugemunu. The problem with the detractors of the Mahavamsa is that they are frustrated because Mahanama did not write a history glorifying 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 a 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 Mahanama has been very considerate and just in dealing with Elara, the leading Tamil coloniser, 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 Tamil Elara but because he overthrew an alien 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. 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.

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 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, 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 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 balance between the two competing factors 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 Mahanama’s commitment to revise the available narratives, which, according to him, had not been told with clarity and felicity, and 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). Detractors of 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 succeeded in coming anywhere near the fame, impact, power and the glory of  the Mahavamsa.

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