By Michael Roberts –
Darshani Ratnawalli has recently deployed one motif within my book Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815 in a perceptive and telling manner. The motif is the concept of “tributary overlordship.” Details from Robert Knox and Philippus Baldaeus are presented in useful ways by Ratnawalli to underline the weight of this concept in the political relations between “centre” and “periphery” in the 17th and 18th centuries. The notion of centre-versus-periphery, I stress, is an adjunct concept that serves to strengthen my argument about “tributary overlordship.
Ratnawalli tells her readers that tributary overlordship refers to a “political mechanism” that linked “satellite states” to the “superior Chakravarti figure” – thereby serving as a “form of allegiance and rule that accommodated localized dominion[s].” This is a succinct summary. However, one cannot be certain that the generality of readers will comprehend the import of this distillation because they do not have the benefit of the elaborations within Sinhala Consciousness that Ratnawalli has absorbed. These amplifications, I stress, include considerable detail and also use charts and illustrative photographs (examples of the latter will embellish this article). Central to the argument was the set of meanings attached to the rite of däkuma in its various forms, a practice that overlapped with the personalized exchange relations that were termed panduru pakkudam.
While a däkuma (plural is däkum) literally means “seeing” or “appearance,” it is an act of obeisance involving the flow of gifts from an inferior to a superior. These gifts could be of greater or lesser value and could amount to a “tribute.” Thus, in specific contexts a däkuma signified the lordship of the superordinate party and marked the latter’s political authority – thereby overlapping with the notion of panduru pakkudam. When a Dutch Governor in Colombo called the King of Sīhalē“His Majesty” and spoke of “the King’s Castle at Colombo” and even declared that “all the island belonged to the Sinhalese King” (see Roberts 2004: 79), the verbiage was not comprehended THEN as finery of little import. The language was politically significant. Such acts of self-subordination, after all, were bolstered by annual ambassadorial journeys to the capital at Mahanuvara where the Dutch governor paid obeisance to the cakravarti figure on the throne of island Sīhalē (or Sīhala, Sīhaladvīpa, or Heladiv as the island was variously referred to).
Partly because most readers lack this background knowledge but mainly because of the nature of the internet blog-beast Ratnawalli’s essay in Colombo Telegraph has drawn the usual plethora of virulent froth, some of it coloured by Tamil or Sinhala extremism and some of it laced with vicious male chauvinism. However, in my reading the more insidious force and central problem is the failure of most readers to comprehend the summary that she has provided – thereby failing to understand that “tributary overlordship” is a conceptual challenge to those who read modern ideas of statehood – that is, post-1789, notions of state formation – into contexts and historical periods where state forms and their “political mechanisms” were organised in radically different ways.
Thus, in Colombo Telegraph for instance, one “Ravi” contends that “the Tamil chieftains of Trincomalee such as Tirukkonmalai, Tampalakmam, Kottiyram and Kattukkulam and Batticaloa district such as Mattakkalappu, Palukmam, Pōrativu, Ntukatu, Panmai and Cammnturai …. nominally acknowledged, the over lordship of the Kandyan kingdom” (emphasis mine).”
Ravi does seem to be a specialist historian, but he has in fact reproduced chunks from an essay by Professor Sitrampalam without any citation. Sitrampalam himself is an archaeologist without any expertise in the medieval period. Be that as it may, both are replicating a cardinal error that has been committed by such reputed scholars as Sinnappah Arasaratnam, TBH Abeyasinghe and A. Liyanagamage. This is the error of being guided, sometimes implicitly and thus insidiously, by modern 20th and 21st century notions of state control through formal bureaucratic channels where codified juridical practices underline such relations.
In the result several historians have pointed to the absence of any “direct exercise of authority on local matters’ by the Sinhala kings of the medieval period and identified the “practical autonomy” of the Vanni chieftains in moving to the conclusion that the rights of the King of Sīhalē were “nominal” (Arasaratnam 1966: 103; Liyanagamage 1968: 170). On such reasoning Abeyasinghe talks of “the fiction of the king’s sovereignty over the company’s territories” and Arasaratnam sees the Kandyan King’s claims over the Dutch-ruled territories as “a legal fiction” and “legend” (1958: 117, 112; Abeyasinghe 1984: 40, 57).
Where such reasoning is underpinned by Marxist schemes of evaluation, as in Newton Gunasinghe’s Athusserian interpretation of the “Kandyan social formation” (his words – 1990), the conclusions suffer from the standard Marxist failing of over-determined system functionalism and economic determinism. In the result one finds a devaluation of the force of cosmological thinking and meaningful rituals because they are deemed “superstructural” (see Roberts 2004: 43)
The first scholar to move against this strand of thinking, as far as I know, was C. R. de Silva when he referred to “ritual sovereignty” (1983) in a short essay which did not elaborate upon the idea at length. He was in fact referring to what I have termed “tributary overlordship” because the rite of däkum and acts of homage involved the presentation of tribute from inferior to superior as an act of allegiance. In Sinhala Consciousness, one whole chapter is devoted to the clarification of this analytical concept, “tributary overlordship”. It is guided by the work of S. J. Tambiah on “galactic polities” – a thesis that, in its turn, is informed by the widespread prevalence of the mandala concept in Asian states and by such work as The Pivot of the Four Quarters by Paul Wheatley (1971). Tambiah’s studies emphasise the fact that many Asian states in the pre-modern era did not stress territorial boundaries (backed by cadastral surveys) to the same extent that has prevailed in the modern international arena. Rather, the capital as centre stood for the kingdom. Thus, the relations of “centre” and “periphery” (or “satellite”) were critical aspects in this scheme of things – a ‘system’ which gave scope for ambiguity and fluctuation in the power wielded by satellites and centre over time (Tambiah 1976, 1985).
The cakravarti concept, as understood by the people living in these states, was integral to the mandala model and the character of the “centre” in the analytical clarification pressed by this political scheme. That is why H.L. Seneviratne’s work (1978, 1997) on the constellation of rituals that constitute the Äsala Festival serves as a vital ingredient in my elaboration of “tributary overlordship.” While we today may focus on the magnificent pageant of drumming and dancing amidst the advance of a phalanx of elephants that constitute the Perahära phase of the Festival, a march whereby the Cakravarti King of Sīhalē symbolically conquers the whole kingdom, by itself such a focus is misleading. During the heyday of the Kingdom of Sīhalē (and even now) there were (are) a whole series of rituals making up the Äsala Festival. Together they were intended to regenerate the Sīhala king and his kingdom. Both aristocracy and people participated actively in this act of reproduction. They were calling upon the satara varan deiyyo to defend and regenerate the kingdom by making sure that the rains fell in time, the crops flourished and enemies of the realm were kept at bay. They all believed in their work. In those days of old they were cosmologically engaged true believers.
As Seneviratne clarifies matters, the institution of rājakāriya ensured that the chiefs and people of the provinces were drawn into this work of regeneration during the Äsala. In effect, the peripheral regions of the Kingdom of Sīhalē came to the centre at Mahānuvara (Kandy) to engage in the work of regeneration. The Väddas of Sīhalē were also encompassed, both symbolically and physically, in the Äsala. A critical ritual within the Äsala was (is) the Valiyak Nätuma “performed for seven successive nights at the Visnu Dēvāle” (Seneviratne 1978: 102ff.). In one of the moments within this ritual two men mimic a fight between the Sinhalese and the Väddas which ends with the Väddahs being taught the civilised ways of the Sinhalese and ending up participating in the threshing of rice (1978: 103).
Note, too, that the Väddas, who normally resided in the wild forested regions of Bintänna in the east, were an integral part of the Kingdom of Sīhalē. They served as archers in the king’s armies and were regarded as “guardians of the eastern margins;” while the Bintänna region sometimes served as a refuge for the king (Roberts 2004: 76, 86, 139, 148).
I emphasise that my elaborated summary here of the arguments and empirical details in Sinhala Consciousness is itself a brief expose that could be inadequate for a readership enmeshed in the ways of modern states and in the forms of thinking mired within the 21st century milieu. To override such prejudices it is advisable for those of scholarly bent to immerse themselves in such texts as Duncan’s The City as Text (1990), John Holt’s Buddha in the Crown (1991) and Holt’s more recent The Buddhist Visnu (2004) besides the other texts referred to above. This is a pre-requisite if one wishes overcome the pitfalls of reading modern relationships into the political forms prevalent during what I have termed “the middle period” of Sri Lankan history extending from 1232 to 1815/18.
This danger is pervasive. It extends to terminology. The English word “nation” is not context free. When Ravi of the Colombo Telegraph blog parrots Sitrampalam and quotes Hugh Cleghorn’s memorandum to the British Governor, Frederick North, in 1799, with its reference to “two different nations” having existed in Ceylon “from ancient times”, he is unaware that the etymology of the term “nation” in English speech was not fixed. This is not an innocent quotation in Colombo Telegraph or in the original Sitrampalam presentation within The Northeastern Herald as well as www.Tamilcanadian.com.
Hugh Cleghorn’s Minute has been a pillar in the agitation of the Tamil nationalists from the time of the Ilankai Thāmil Arasu Kadchi (widely and mistakenly known as the “Federal Party”). Thus, Murugar Gunasingham, a historian residing now in Sydney, asserts that “Cleghorn … points to the existence of a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern regions of the island at the beginning o British rule” (1999: 54). There is some dissimulation here because Cleghorn did not quite say that. But the critical shortcoming lies in two facts: (a) Cleghorn was a greenhorn administrator with limited knowledge of the island; and (b) simply lacked the expertise to make authoritative statements about the island’s history and settlement pattern.
Gunasingham is now a member of the Advisory Committee of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. Such clues are the tip of an iceberg. There is a long history of dissimulation by a chain of Tamil scholars seeking to sustain a maximalist claim to what has been set up as the “traditional homelands” of the Tamils in Sri Lanka – even though the geographical reach of this assertion has been comprehensively undermined by Gerald Peiris (1991, 1994 & 2013). When such a reputed scholar as A. Jeyaratnam Wilson indulges in a sleight of hand by acts of omission in his survey of Tamil history (Roberts 2005: 14-18), then surely, there is cause for alarm and a need for a careful re-examination of the material.
One facet of such a review has to be a scrutiny of the term “nation” and the manner in which Cleghorn, for one, deployed the term in 1799. In medieval times (i.e. pre-1500), after all, “nation” referred generically to “an extensive aggregate of people associated with each other” (Oxford English Dictionary 1993: 30). By Tudor times in the 16th century it was synonymous with “clan” and “tribe”. Thus, Kenneth Minogue tells us that for a long time it was synonymous with such terms as “tribe”, “people” and “race” (1968: 8-9). This form of catholic vagueness could extend into the 19th century even though the term began to secure a higher elevation, so to speak, as a result of intellectual currents and the world-wide implications of the French Revolution in 1789 and the consolidation of parliamentary forms of government in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thereafter, the term “nation” could also be implicitly or explicitly linked with “state” to constitute the idea of “nation state” as a legitimate form or a legitimate aspiration (see Roberts 1979a: 11-61 for a review).
The point is that because of these political developments the term “nation” secured a higher value and separated itself from the terms “tribe” and “clan” in the political vocabulary embodied within the English language. Thus, by way of an illustration from British Ceylon in the 1930s to 1950s, it was feasible for the Trotskyists of the 1930 to 1940s to lampoon those advocating the communal rights of the Sinhala and Tamil peoples as “tribalists.” This was a disparaging epithet that was comprehended by the English-speaking public of British Ceylon as such – namely, a demeaning characterization when set beside the concept of the Ceylonese “nation” as desirable goal.
Note, however, that against the grain of this evolution in its etymology the ‘ancient’ equivalence between “nation” and “tribe’ lingered on in some contexts. On occasions in Australia in the 19th century the term “nation” was used to refer to specific Aboriginal groups who were also depicted in synonymous manner as “tribes”. At that stage there were a large number of distinct, named Aboriginal groups. Though some have been rendered extinct, a considerable number remain as distinct entities today. The point is that loose European references to a named group, say the Yolngu, as a “nation” during the 19th century could be adopted by the Yolngu as a self-description that was seen as equivalent to “tribe” – with both usages referring to kinship-based communities without a necessary political notion of self-determination. In short, they would not have quite understood what Philip Gunawardena and other Leftists were getting at when they wielded “tribe” as weapon.
Therefore, our reading of statements by such visitors to Sri Lanka as Knox, Pybus and Cleghorn in the course of the middle period must be attentive to the contemporary inflections and confusions attached to such terms as “nation.” It is for this reason that my work on Sinhala Consciousness contained a sub-section entitled “The Vocabulary of ‘Nation’.” Indeed, this section is deemed so vital that I have since presented it in 2011 as a separate article in THUPPAHI.
My review bore an inherent shortcoming however. I have no competence in the Dutch and Portuguese languages. As I noted then (2004: 97), a fuller comprehension of the data on the Kingdom of Sīhalē called for a capacity to decipher the use of the term nacao in Portuguese and the term natie in Dutch. While the etymology of these terms in their respective arenas may have been parallel to that of the English term “nation,” one cannot be certain about this. This is, therefore, a gap that has yet to be addressed.
In brief, it is with considerable caution and an awareness of the minefield surrounding data from the past, as well as our ways of deciphering this evidence, that one must proceed today. The cyber world has a vast potential to enhance learning. Some bloggers will probably be too enmeshed in their extremist dungeons and their slash-and-burn operations to attend to these cautions. But where there is learned text there is also hope.
This is not to say that my presentation is the last word on the subject. Scholarship is not hidebound or time bound, though, hopefully, it will be free of the charlatans who thrash about and stir the pot in partisan propaganda organs or wide-open web sites. My thesis here will be subject to the Measure of Time, extending into times beyond the point when I go to my grave. That is as it should be.
EXTENDED REFERENCE LIST
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De Silva, C. R. 1983 ‘The historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: a survey of the Sinhala writings’, Samskrti 17: 13-22.
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 Ratnawalli is a writer and independent researcher.
 Baldeaus was a source I did not utilize because I had enough data for my thesis and the constraints of time precluded a reading of every which source.
 Panduru pakkkudam refers to a tribute from a subordinate and/or gifts associated with propitiations.
 The date 1789, of course, is a shorthand term that marks the outbreak of the French Revolution and all that it signifies in the evolution of popular sovereignty in its modern forms.
 Ravi, of course, could also be Sitrampalam in another guise.
 Sinnappah Arasaratnam was one of my revered teachers at Peradeniya University and a lovely person who subsequently became a friend and colleague in the university circuit abroad.
 Mistakenly renamed the Kingdom of Kandy in British times and thus into modern times.
 Thus they provided as a contingent in the Perahära.
 This is a challenge directed at the imposition of European terminology within Sri Lankan history-writing. Traditionally the period after the collapse of the Rajarata civilisation, that is from 1232 onwards, has been referred to as the “medieval period” which is framed as 1232-1796. My revision extends the endpoint to 1815/18 when the Kingdom of Sīhalē was subdued; and calls it the “middle period.”
 From personal knowledge as well as the contents of the essay which Ravi quoted wholesale, I conclude that Sitrampalam (2003) is an activist in the contemporary Tamil nationalist cause in ways that raise doubts about his evaluations and honesty of purpose. Please form your own opinion by reading the hyperlink reference. Maximalist and expansionist limits of the “traditional homelands” claimed by the LTTE and other Tamil nationalists in recent decades
 Amarasinghe 1974 35-41 and Roberts 1979b: 219.
 However the topic has been addressed in other pertinent and comprehensive ways by a scholar with a mastery of Portuguese, viz., see Alan Strathern 2007, 2006a, 2006b and 2004.