By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Stability and drift: our history up to 1505
Senaka Bandaranayake identifies the period between 1000 – 500 BC as the time when the islanders moved ‘from stone age food gathering to the making of pottery, sedentary farming, irrigation, wet rice cultivation and iron technology.’ From 500 BC up to the beginning of the Common Era there is a period of remarkable growth in which there is ‘complex social and political systems, adoption of a higher religion, the formation of a (relatively) centralised state and an advanced literate civilization – the latter, centuries earlier than similar developments in mainland or insular Southeast Asia or Japan.
This growth phase coincided with several waves of migration from North Eastern India – also referred to as the Aryan migrations. The majority Sinhala population derive their identity from these migrations while the Tamils trace their ancestry to the Dravidians of South India. The North Indian migrants evolved a distinct agrarian culture and way of life centred around Buddhist values. According to Rambukwelle this ancient state consolidated a balance of power between the king, the Buddhist monastic order or Sangha and the self – sufficient village which was the key economic unit of production. Up to the final demise of Sinhalese monarchy in 1815 the village also provided men and materials for the defence of the country in times of war and the state was not unduly militarized.
This ancient state was blessed with continuity for a period of approximately 1500 years. The kingdoms of Anuradhapura (1300 years) and Polonnaruva (200 years) in the North Central plains maintained a robust spirit of self reliance, internal cohesion and economic sovereignty during this period notwithstanding a number of South Indian invasions – all of which were effectively repulsed or driven out after relatively short periods of foreign rule.
The irrigation civilization collapsed finally in 1215 with a devastating invasion from Kalinga in North India and the Sinhalese abandoned the North Central plains to begin a defensive phase known as the ‘drift to the South West.’ G.C. Mendis refers to 1215 as the first great dividing line in Ceylon History.
As the state was re-organized with emphasis on continuity of ancient institutions the foundational political and economic assumptions of the Sinhala state were undermined. The royal capital shifted 9 times within the period of 600 years from 1215 to 1815 – an indicator of the lack of security and stability. Regional centres of power emerged with kingdoms in Jaffna (Tamil-Hindu) and Kandy (Sinhala). The strength and power of the village diminished as political insecurity dictated greater centralization of royal power. Both within and outside the island the balance of power was shifting away from the village towards powerful urban centres. This was demonstrated by the failure of the warrior kings of Sitawaka Kingdom in the 16th century to dislodge the Portuguese from their foothold in Colombo. Hierarchies became less functional, more rigid and status oriented and the degree of foreign interference increased in local politics. This pattern rose to a new high with the advent of the first westerners – the Portuguese in 1505. Behind politics the natives were grappling with a profoundly disturbing cultural shift as a result of sustained western influence for over 500 years.
The essence of this cultural shift was to displace the islanders totally from their internal or spiritual dimension to be replaced by a set of externalized and empty cultural facades – both western and native. 500 years after the advent of the white man the Sri Lankans would become a duplicitous nation – closed books on the inside and open on the outside; superficial, bloated, ignoble and arrogant with some material acquisitions and totally ignorant of the power and beauty within themselves.
Post 1505: The shift from Indian to western culture
The military threat from the Portuguese, the conversion of both elites and marginalized to Roman Catholicism and the monopoly and dominance over external trade were all visible changes wrought in the first interface with the white man. What was not visible was the well spring of spiritual and intellectual energy that organized these restless Europeans into several great movements that would change the face of the earth.
Religion, tradition and history would bow out in the next 300 years to science and secularism; and capitalism would redefine the meaning of economics. By the end of the 20th century the globe would be transformed into a single economic unit as the IT revolution completed a process begun by the industrial revolution in England.
The people of Sri Lanka would be confined – until connected to these great movements by British colonization in 1815 – to the four corners of their little island well into the 20th century. The Sinhalese and Tamils of Lanka being essentially cultivators had to rely on the Muslim traders and the westerners who arrived in the island with greater frequency since the 16th century to learn about the momentous changes taking place in the rest of the world.
Unlike their ancestors in the North Central plains around 500 BC who received Indian and Buddhist culture as a free and truly open people this new cultural exchange with the west was completely unequal. In fact the Kandyans in 1815 would ultimately surrender to the British, hand over their king and resign themselves to a prolonged life of dependency and ‘relative freedom’ accorded at the grace of their British rulers. This gradual disappearance of a native tradition of freedom coincided with the arrival of private property and western style rights. In fact private property and rights would be a novel experience for the native peasantry as it struggled to ward off the greedy and grasping land grabbing hands of their former ‘natural superiors’ who would work assiduously to increase their wealth power and prestige under the British.
The series of top down imperial reforms which signaled the final demise of the native socio-economic system in 1833 is referred to as the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms. G.C. Mendis refers to this as the second great dividing line in Ceylon history. What is curious for a student of history is the obstinate denial of the significance of both the great dividing lines – in 1215 and 1833. Popular myth is an unbroken history and continuity with the disintegration of native values, culture and institutions being ignored.
Colonization of the weak by the strong would remain popular in the island long after the departure of the British in 1948. In fact politicians – as a class – would become the new colonials in independent Sri Lanka. They would shoulder the ‘white man’s burden’ of providing paternal governance to the natives whilst occasionally singing the ‘black man’s virtues’ when the spirit of nationalism was high and the occasion demanded it.
Social distance from the ‘hoi polloi’ would be the foundation of modern power for the new elites – both English and vernacular speaking. This produced a nation of social climbers who would never tire of climbing higher and higher and further away from the ‘nobodies’ and ‘losers.’ The rhetoric of formal equality would always be tempered by the fears and inhibitions of social distance to control all speech and behavior. Inequalities would be confirmed, reinforced and normalized by a multitude of functions and ceremonies in which all people – the powerful and powerless would revel in. Ordinary life would remain quite ordinary – pitiless and lacking in the noble thoughts and words that adorned their sermons and ceremonies.
Dependency would continue and Colombo would remain – not simply a native capital but the compliant agent of a globalized economic order serving the interests of an artificially created ‘first world’ within a third world society.
Let us now look at the most important legacies of colonization.
Complete loss of the internal dimension
‘Sri Lankans’ lack a common identity – and this is directly related to the absence of common values. Values disappeared into the material realm as the natives negotiated the loss of freedom and independence after 1815. What were discovered in these colonial forays were simply the symbols of power – the trappings minus the real thing. This would apply to many ‘authentic externals’ in the material realm like Parliament and Courts and in the spiritual realm like the Temple of the Tooth and Buddhagaya. A complete departure from the internal realm was compensated by a consolidation of total power in the material realm.
Legacy of total power
The conception of power is all or nothing. Sharing, negotiation or discussion is not required. What the British had in terms of a world empire would be stretched within the corners of this little island into something similar. This is why the Sri Lankan conception of power is now reduced to who should wield it only – not how.
Despite all pretences the circle has now turned fully and we are back in the age of hunters and gatherers. The most powerful in society and the most celebrated are essentially the best predators of the fruits of the labour of the poor. Our free education and free health services were paid with the labours of estate workers including Indian Tamils. Today our SUV’s and ‘super’ lifestyles are the fruits of the labour of hundreds and thousands of soldiers and working women including migrant workers in the Middle East. We have simply colonized them.
Legacies of displacement and dishonesty
The forced shift of royal capitals to 9 places within the 600 years from 1215 to 1815 is a legacy of displacement for the entire nation. What is critical about this period is the inexorable loss of sovereignty as the nature of political and economic power around the world went into a paradigm shift. “Business” became the new power and Lankans were simply frogs inside a well in their knowledge, ability and experience to deal with this new phenomenon. Once the issue of political stability was settled with the crowning of Colombo as the enduring centre of power the majority of people were going to be at the mercy of those who were quick on the uptake in learning the new ways of a white dominated world. Colombo has become the pragmatic expression of this loss of local sovereignty and its replacement by an agency house that would administer yet another “service area” in the third world for the power players who ply the global highways of power.
The journey that a colonized people, (educated in the new ways of the world by the British embarked upon) – ostensibly to become a ‘modern nation state’ has been abandoned with the ditching of secularism for ethnic politics as the true basis of political power through the traumatic crisis of the 1980’s. This regression was possible because the people have been consistently and effectively fed with the grand idea of historical continuity of a Sinhala Buddhist State. All the ills of our polity were laid at the doors of western imperialism ignoring the deep rooted internal causes of disintegration to which we were subject since the fatal centralization of power by Parakramabahu in the 12th century. This self deception to which most of our scholars and teachers have become keen subscribers has pre-empted and prevented the soul searching the Sinhalese must undertake. They must ask how a proud and self reliant people have been content to remain beggars of the world for the last 200 years. In truth and in fact the so called “republic of Sri Lanka” must be re-named the “dependency of Sri Lanka.” The masters have changed; the colonial mentality has not.
Importance of getting lost and recognizing false messiahs
It is a myth that Sri Lankans are religious. Most definitely the people and their leaders are superstitious and scared of the invisible forces they feel are external to them. Being religious is a different matter. While there are always religious individuals society itself is not being nourished by religious living and experiences. All these are consequences of moving the centre of our cultural gravity away from India towards the west. If we truly related to and made sense of European culture we would not have become lost and followed several false messiahs who led the island astray and into a state of conflict. The whole religion of India teaches us that getting lost is more important and of greater value in the long run than arriving too early and falsely.
This is our position. We think we have arrived when we have not and we work hard to erect the great lies of modernity, sovereignty and unity when the best in the world are more suspect about these grand conclusions. They have as much substance as a politician’s cut out and are hardly worth the colossal expense (both financial and social) we pay for their maintenance.
 Bandaranayake, Senaka (2012) Continuities and Transformations: Studies in Sri Lankan Archaeology and History, Social Scientists Association, Colombo pp 15/16
 Rambukwelle, P.B. (1993) Study of Sinhala Kingship from Vijaya to Kalinga Magha, Sridevi Dehiwala pp 38/39
 Mendis, G.C. (1957) Ceylon today and Yesterday: The Main Currents of Ceylon History, Colombo: Lake House