By Bandu de Silva –
Robert Knox to McGilvray: Same old Trope: ‘Primitiveness of the native’
Denis B. McGilvrey’s defence of his article on Kuragala.
A paper written by Denis B McGilvray, Colorado University academic entitled ‘ Jailani: A Sufi Mosque in Sri Lanka‘ in “Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict” 2004, April, has raised much controversy in the internet recently. A Sri Lankan journalist, Darshani Ratnawalli, using a website version ( raised the issue of McGilvray interpreting the 2nd century Brahmi inscriptions at Kuaragala in Sri Lanka, appearing to him as [a case] “…. to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains” [of the time]. The critic accused McGilvray having been hired by Aboosally, the [former]Trustee of Kuragala Muslim shrine for a PR job for his own version of the Muslim connection with Kuragala. This critique entitled “Kuragala Lesson 2: Use of PR to Obliterate Heritage” was followed by a discussion which dragged it down to a discussion which was far from academic import. The critic’s intention may have been different. McGilvray answered the critic on June 4 at 3.52 A.M, in response to the critic’s first article.
The purpose of this article is to try to restore the equilibrium, a balance, and redirect the subject into an academic discussion. Mc Grilvray’s explanation (original article) of the meaning of the 2nd century BCE Brahmi cave inscriptions at Kuaragala to say they “appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains” is the main issue discussed here.
McGilvray’s statement, as it is quite obvious, is one made without a context reading the inscriptions at Kuragala only literally. Grammatically speaking, the words “Dataha lene” and “Sumanayaha lene” in the inscriptions at Kuragala could give the meaning of possession, as much as the Prakrit words “Dataha –pata” appearing in a fragment of a pre-Christian earthen bowl found in that Jaffna peninsula could give the meaning that it is “Dat[t]a’s bowl.” (Pensylvania Museum Project,1970. K. Indrapala explains the inscription as a Bhikku’s bowl. (Indrapala; 2007, pp. 332-334 &403 and Plate 3). That points to possession. The same analogy cannot explain the use of ‘Possesive’ grammatical construction (Declension) found in over 1200 cave inscriptions indidted in early Brahmi Prakrit inscriptions of the island.
There the use of the suffix ‘ha’ in these large number of inscriptions is generally taken as a ‘Possessive’ but with a different sense, i.e. the caves established by the donor whose name is given. The indication of the recipient as “Sagasa’ ( a Dative construction) in most cases supports this conclusion. There are several inscriptions where the name of the party (recipient) is not indicated but as all these inscriptions by the nature of the Brahmi script, almost uniformity of the Prakrit language used and their diffusion over a wide landscape are seen as belonging to one “genre’.
The meaning that McGrilvray has offered to the Kuragala inscriptions as indicating a possession claims
is one that anyone without any knowledge of the context or inclination for academic evaluation might offer. Here one has to empathise with McGrilvray because he does not consider himself an eminent scholar in the field of epigraphy. Yes his shown specialty is in ethnography and even generality. This is clear from his writings and more so, from the admission offered in response to the critic that he “chose not to discuss the epigraphical survey by Collins (JRASCB 1932) because [he] knew] (sic) “other scholars were much more qualified to interpret that kind of material.” (Response dated 4 June,2013, in C/T).This has to be taken as an admission of the author’s limitations, if not incompetence, to handle epigraphical material but he proceeds to dabble in the very epigraphy, a subject he wanted to leave to other [competent] persons in relation to Collin’s paper. (C/T, 4 June 2013).
One need not be puzzled over this seeming contradictory positions if one notes that the author gives his explanation of the epigraphy of Kuragala Brami-Prakrit inscriptions in relation to what Aboosally has written in his book that “there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha).” Here one can see a close relationship has developed between Aboosally’s position and McGilvray’s explanation of the inscriptions despite the author’s claim that apart from their kindness, members of the Aboosally family bear no responsibility for the publication of [his] article. The author quotes Aboosally only in preference to the vast literature which has grown over the subject of early Brahmi-Prakrit inscriptions.(See Malin Dias, 2001 for a list of authorities).
Aboosally uses the silence of the inscriptions [i.e. the absence of any recipient] as grist for his mill to advance his version that there is no evidence to show the caves were ever dedicated to the Sangha. McGilvray’s intervention here complements Aboosally’s position by moving the argument away in another direction but basically lending support to the position that the inscriptions have no relationship to the Sangha. Hence his “cave-dweller” formula for chieftains of the country around the 2nd century BCE.
Mc Grilvray has rejected the charge of being under obligation. That is natural. An academic with such credentials as he possesses, would wish to avoid any suggestion of a compromise in presenting his research. We can empathise with the scholar on this point. Unlike in the olden days when scholars in royal courts and others wrote eulogizing their patrons, today, scholarly undertakings are rarely undertaken under patronage though academicians need such support. There might be a brief acknowledgment.
The Aboosally’s were known for their generosity and as the late Mr. Aboosally became one of my own good friends I can vouch for this. What is worry-some, however, is that our scholar’s writing pointing to an unexplainable complementarity situation with that of his host in the explanation of the Kuragala inscriptions. That could have been accepted on academic grounds had the author’s explanation of the inscriptions been supported with arguments. But this is wanting.
This is not the only reason which gives an idea about a link between the author and his host. Elsewhere, the author quotes Aboosally at length on the Muslim claim to Kuragala. The author goes to cite ‘evidence’ of visitors from the Middle East in the past to support Aboosally’s point. His main source is Ibn Batuta, the 14th century Moroccan traveller.(Gibb’s English translation). He presents Ibn Battuta’s as stating that Adam’s Peak “attracted streams of pilgrims from Middle East seeking contact with their primeval ancestor, Adam. ”
I am constrained to contradict the author on this point as I find that no translation of Ibn Batuta’s work I am familiar with (I have read most English translations and was also privileged during my ten year stay in France, to look at early French translations based on Arabic text brought from Algiers by French soldiers) has anything in the texts to support the contention that Ibn Batuta states that Adam’s Peak “attracted streams of pilgrims from Middle East ….etc”. There is general awareness in the Middle East about the Adam’s Peak even today as I myself found during my conversations with Iranian religious leaders in different parts of Iran during my three year stay and travel there. (I was also a member of the UNESCO Silk Road Project, Iran section which traversed the country). The wish of even these present day religious personalities is to visit Adam’s Peak one day. But such general impressions cannot be interpreted as something that the 14th century traveller stated. The author has made a general assumption but to say that the text says so is over-stretching the text, if not an exaggeration. (I was invited by the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka have delivered a lecture on Ibn Batuta’s visit to Ceylon and later I published an article in The Island, Saturday Magazine, 15 January,2003, inquiring if Ibn Batuta’s visit to Adam’s Peak was fact or fiction).
To take the Ibn Batuta’s account a little further, there are many questions about the traveller’s account not only on Sri Lanka but also about other places. Besides, Rehla was not written by Ibn Batuta himself but by Ibn Jusia, Secretary to the Sultan of Fez in 1355, using the traveller’s notes and memory and perhaps, other travellers’ accounts. There are both positive and negative comments about the authenticity of his whole work, a few like Baron McGuiken de Slains accusing the traveller either of natural credulity or of inclination to deal in marvelous stories especially in some of his chapters on the Far East, and Kalptoth, another authority reviling him for “stupidity which induces him to cram his readers with rigmaroles about Mohammaden Saints and spirituals when details of the places he had seen would have been of extreme value”.
The relevance of this discussion is to show that McGilvray has over-stretched the inference which could be derived from the text, if not exaggerating it. That is in support of Aboosally’s contention of a long Muslim connection at Kuragala.
Moving away from the discussion on Kuragala, some of the author’s other articles on Sri Lanka also at times try to introduce a political element into the discourse including infusion in devious ways, of the idea presenting the government and other [mainline Muslim] groups in some unfavourable light in the treatment of the [Sufi] Muslims, and casting his die in favour of Sufi groups with whom he worked in the Eastern province in Kalmunai and Akkaraipattu. While the author is in his right to express his views, it points to a particular orientation in his writing even on academic issues. For example, his article entitled “Sri Lankan Muslims: between ethno-nationalism and the global Ummah” published in the “Nations and Nationalism” Vol.17, Issue 1, January 2011, pages 45-64, where he enters into such a political discussion seeming to project the ‘oppression of Muslims’ by the government and other groups and this has attracted Diaspora attention. (Republished in Tamil Diaspora website of Tamil Sangam and Transcurrents).
In the same paper, while pointing out that the Sufi groups were under oppressive pressure from mainline Muslims in the country, he seemed to cast his die on the side of Sufi organisations when he observed that despite all these pressures, Sufi groups could be seen to be capable of holding on for a long time. This was not based on any academic evaluation but acceptance of what the Sufi exponents in Kalmunai and Akkaraipattu say that they are enjoying the patronage (not much discussed aspect in the country) of local politicians who are eyeing the Sufi vote base. That is mere repetition of a ‘version’ and not a deep academic analysis. These point to the author’s objectives going beyond an academic ethnographic study at times.
Such orientation in writing leads me, as a former practicing diplomat, to make a passing observation though of no consequence to the issue under discussion but of significance in an overall context, that the studies on Sufism and of divisions in the Sri Lankan Muslim society and responses of “others”, though very informative, also constitute the type of research that any Foreign Office of big powers having stakes in a country and in Muslim affairs in general would want to assemble themselves through their own resources, in order to detect and identify fault lines in a given society. I am not suggesting that the author’s work was part of such a project but I could see its usefulness for a Foreign Office like that of America’s which has stakes in affairs of local society. No better illustration of such information gathering
was needed than the way the US Ambassador Sison in Colombo recently commenced a dialogue with Muslim representatives in Trincomalee and elsewhere after recent events which affected some Muslims interests.
Epigraphy of Kuragala Vs. Early Brahmi inscriptions
So the task before us is that, considering the credentials of the scholar, McGilvray, to examine if his idea of Kuragala inscriptions representing “territorial claims by chieftains” could be sustained. What has he himself offered to support in that direction? Nothing! So it is just an idea floated without an iota of academic reasoning to support it and ignoring two centuries of scholarly discourse on the subject but the effect of which is creating confusion rather than promoting academic inquiry.
Looking at it deeply, however, what it points to is his concept of a cave dwelling people in the island, their chieftains themselves claiming possession of caves, around in the 2nd century BCE. In one sense, this could be looked at as a fine retort to out –wit the former President of Sri Lanka, Mr. J.R. Jayewardene, who reminded his SAARC colleagues at the Heads of States Conference in New Delhi, not without reason, that the South Asians nations were at a very advance stage of civilization when people in Europe were still living in caves. The former President of Sri Lanka was not a dedicated scholar, but when a scholar with wide ranging credentials like McGrilvay says such a thing without substantiating it, about a people whose contribution to civilisation can be seen even today in the form of gigantic irrigation works (commenced in the 1st century BCE by King Vasabha on such scale) and great monuments, the author’s interpretation must be considered grim humour.
It could also be even seen as re-emergence of the latent 17th century view expressed by Robert Knox, the English prisoner in Kandy, whose writing presents the idea of ‘savagery and evilness of the native’ and gives the impression of his writing with a view to ‘civilizing the native.’ It could also be examined also against Harrington’s (17th century intellectual) analogy and of other 18th century English intellectuals calling the Irishman “a primitive people”; or Le Torsne’s remark that Negros [were] simply .… animals to be used for tilling the soil.” (UNESCO: Sociological Theories, 1982).
Let us not be so dismissive but examine the scholar’s idea less passionately. Can his idea be historically supported even if he did not argue the case? Even if one ignores the evidence of Sri Lankan Pali chronicles and other literature, the archaeological excavations carried out at the Citadel of Anuradhapura, the first Capital of the island point to a city superimposed from outside around as early as the 8th century BCE. (Deraniyagala,1992, Connigham,1996). The people had already commenced an elaborate irrigation system to control the nature(Needham, 1971, Nicholas, 1960).
Over 1200 such Brahmi Prakrit cave inscriptions belonging to the period 3rd Century BCE -2nd century AC which are parallel in script and circumstances of situation to those at Kuragala have been indited throughout the island and these have been the subject of much scholarly discussion for the last two centuries as seen from publications of the Dept. of Archaeology’s publications.(Early Brahmi Inscriptions, Vol.1, and Epigraphia Zeylanica vol. VIII and others) as well as by others. As a scholar with wide credentials, McGilvray could not have been oblivious to these other inscriptions or the copious scholarly literature on them. Or, Did he think these, like Collin’s article, were not relevant to his discussion of Kuragala epigraphy. (For a synopsis on literature published on inscriptions, see Malini Dias: The Growth of Monastic Institutions in Sri Lanka from Inscriptions, Epigaphia Zeylanica,(EZ) Vol VIII, 2001, p.5).
Even before that HCP Bell, the much respected and quoted British Civil Servant, who was Archaeological Commissioner, has discussed a number of cave inscriptions where only the donor’s name is inscribed without any mention of the recipient. In all these discussions the position taken by this observant archaeologist and others was to treat all these early Brahmi inscription as conforming to a “genre.” These were inscribed wherever there were outcrops of rock suitable for conversion into dwellings (Len or Caves ) for the Sangha. The length of the inscriptions depended on factors like space available and difficulty of working on the hanging rock.
Antiquity of use of caves in Buddhist meditation
‘Len’ or ‘caves’ were one of the five kinds of dwellings (Pancavasa) recommended in the Pali Vinaya and other canonical sources as residences of meditating Bhikkus (Sangha).(Bandaranayake, Prematilake, Roland Silva, Wijesuriya and Malini Dias). Senaka Bandaranayake, in his monumental work : “Monastic Architecture”, 1974, ” has observed that while some Bhikkus lived in the Capital and other townships, some preferred to live in the isolation of cave dwellings. As such, caves made suitable for dwellings with drip-ledges over them and walling and doors were a regular form of dwellings for ‘Arannavasi or Vanavasi’ (forest –dwelling bhikkus (Wijesuriya,1998,p.43; Malini Dias, 2003).
The Abhidamma texts, Visuddhimagga, in particular, even go to the extent of describing details of what a forest is (giving their distance in ‘bow-lengths’) where these cave dwellings (len) have been established. Buddhist literature highlighted the advantage of forest living, especially for those who wanted to follow a meditative life. Buddha himself preferred a forest life as reported in the Vinaya and other Buddhist literary sources. Early monasteries were built to maintain an atmosphere suitable for meditation. In Sri Lanka, the cave with its naked simplicity and solitude was generally regarded from the earliest times as an ideal abode for hermits who devoted to a life of meditation.(Rahula,1956). Some of the donors in Sri Lanka described in their inscriptions, the caves they donated as ‘manoramam’ or ‘dassaniyam’ (attractive or good looking).(Paranavitana). The archaeological remains show unequivocally that meditation monasteries were built in remote sites such as on mountain tops and slopes. (Wijesuriya, p.35).
Against the backdrop of these discussions, both canonical and latter day scholarship, McGrilvray’s assumption that the inscriptions at the caves at Kuragala (sic) “appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains” moves away from scholarly inquiry and appears to constitute even a mischievous distortion of the context. Can one permit a scholar to enter into a dilatory discourse just because such multiple discourses are now accepted as part of academic analysis? To be acceptable, any discourse or discussion, dilatory or not, should fit into a context. One cannot just float an idea and keep quiet as the author has done. That would be just throwing a spanner in the works with a simple demolition objective.
But while so admitting his own inadequacy on the subject, and contradicting himself, the author has gone to give an interpretation on a matter involving epigraphy of Kuragala inscriptions where, on his own admission, he is less qualified to speak. That has served another purpose nevertheless, namely, supporting his generous host, Aboosally’s position that “there is no evidence that the site was “ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha)”.
Now Aboosally too who not having any demonstrated qualification or quality as a scholar or a student of epigraphy of the island but was a deeply interested party in the Kuragala Muslim shrine as its [former] Trustee. He was expressing an opinion which would negate any claims to the caves as those assigned in general to the Buddhist Sangha around the 2nd century BCE in respect of practically all caves in the island around this time. Coming from an interested party then, it is understandable that Aboosally was using the silence of the Kuragala Brahmi inscriptions, i.e. any reference to Sangha as recipients of the caves to pronounce that there was no declared connection with the Sangha. That was to advantageously promote the idea of the later antiquity of the Muslim shrine. Aboosaly too does not refer to many other early Brahmi inscriptions elsewhere which were silent about the recipient. Such a comparative study was of not of interest to him as his concentration was exclusively on Kuragala. McGilvray’s position was identical. So one sees an identity of interest between both parties. This can be useful in deciding if McGilvray was under obligation or not to his host.
The author is entitled to his opinion but others can judge his writing from its discernible objectives and the way the presentation has taken. Even the views on great archaeological discoveries of the world have been changing but the points are argued sufficiently as done in the case of Stonehenge, Pyramids et al.(Sabloff: Archaeology :Myth and Reality, in Scientific American, 1982). McGilvray’s view on epigraphy of Kuragala is an ill-informed contribution to undertake which, on his own admission, he was less qualified. It is a facile and unsupported explanation against the mainstream scholarly opinion which exposes more of the pathetic ignorance of local perspective.
Such “roof –top vision” attitude of self-asserting is not an unfamiliar situation among some foreign scholars doing research in third world countries. I am reminded here of what the leading British archaeologist Bruce Trigger who passed away recently, observed and the fellow U.S. anthropologist, Jeremy Sabloff endorsed on the need for caution in drawing conclusions from archaeological data. Both of them saw the absence of such caution as the chief difference between scientific archaeology and pseudo-archaeology. (Trigger:1978, p.17; Sabloff: “Archaeology, Myth and Reality”; in Scientific American, 1982, p.7).
I do not try to identify the author’s interpretation of the inscriptions in terms of what Trigger/Sabloff spoke of because, as I said, he himself acknowledged that he “chose not to discuss the epigraphical survey by Collins (JRASCB 1932) because [he] knew] (sic) “other scholars were much more qualified to interpret that kind of [epigraphical] material,” though curiously, he went to discuss epigraphic material by offering a new interpretation of the epigraphic record at Kuragala. His explanation for not choosing observations like that of Collins is not convincing. He has contradicted his expressed position for that.
The author does not need any prompting to think that there has to be an admission even at this stage that an error has been committed and it needs to be corrected.
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*Bandu de Silva was a member of Sri Lanka Foreign Service for nearly four decades and served as Ambassador to France/ UNESCO, Switzerland, Spain, The Vatican and was the first resident Ambassador in Iran. He was in Sri Lanka’s pioneering diplomatic team in China in 1957, and has served also in Japan and Australia (Pacific circuit). He was on the University of Ceylon teaching staff in the History Department before joining the Foreign Service in 1956. He has been writing to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and to newspapers since his retirement from service in 1993.