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 Post subject: History lessons for ethnic harmony
 Post Posted: Wed May 23, 2007 12:15 pm 
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History lessons for ethnic harmony

"If an ancient Indian of the time of the Upanishads or the Buddha or the later classical age were to be set down in modern India, he would see his race clinging to forms, shells and rags of the past and missing nine tenths of its nobler meaning …he would be amazed by the extent of the mental poverty, the immobility, the static repetition, the cessation of science, the long sterility of art, the comparative feebleness of the creative intuition." - Sri Aurobindo Ghose

By Sarath De Alwis
@ TML /Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Importance of assimilation

I thought it appropriate to begin this article on the subject of ‘assimilation’ as promised in my article last Wednesday titled Battle for federalism. In it I observed that the choice before the southern Sinhala majority is "assimilation, integration or separation;" the last option does not intimidate a minuscule minority, I hope, who suggest the elimination of the LTTE, with these words of the great Indian philosopher.

It has always been the trend in this country that a vociferous minority clad in saffron could lead us to irreversible debacles as most of our leaders believe, quite erroneously, that they could mould public opinion on the basis of presumed piety of our people through the maha sangha.

The Hela Urumaya has announced that they will support maximum devolution of power to grama rajyas under a unitary state. That the nation state will be a Sinhala state with Buddhism as the state religion. They demand Buddhism to be the state religion for very good reasons. That subject will be dealt with in another article that will follow.

Let us now revert to the Sinhala nation and how it has assimilated Indo Aryan and Dravidian immigrants long after the advent of our first King Vijaya and his 700 followers. In approaching this subject we need to be dispassionate, and rely on historical evidence. As the subject is assimilation, it is necessary to have a clear perception of the people with whom the assimilation occurred.

The Mahavamsa

Many scholars regard the Mahavamsa — the Great Chronicle of Ceylon, as the authentic history of the Sinhala people. Ven.Walpola Rahula in the introduction to his History Of Buddhism In Ceylon is more cautious. He writes, "Reluctance is expressed in some quarters to regard the Mahavamsa, as history. If the Mahavamsa is not the history of Ceylon, it is decidedly the history of Buddhism in Ceylon, and the history of Buddhism in Ceylon covers the major part of the island’s history." It is indeed an accurate assessment.

Dr.Raja de Silva, who is a former Archeological Commissioner, describes the Mahavamsa as "The book of the great lineage of kings in Sri Lanka; is about 1600 years old and forms a national chronicle, and was maintained by the monks of the Maha Vihara in Anuradhapura, the traditional centre of Theravada Buddhism." He writes, "The story of the introduction of Buddhism is related in the Mahavamsa garnished with miraculous happenings, not unusual in legendary accounts of several religions."

Lessons in history

Ven. Mahanama, the author, begins the narrative of the great chronicle with the visit of the Tathagata to Lanka. In the ninth month of his Buddhahood, on the full moon of Phussa, he himself set forth for the isle of Lanka, to win Lanka for the faith. For Lanka was known to the conqueror as a place where his doctrine should shine in glory; and he knew that from Lanka, filled with the yakkhas must first be driven forth. The compassionate teacher, he records visits to Mahiyangana, Nagadipa and Kalyani.

Professor Senarath Paranavithana is emphatic that there is no historical evidence to support this assertion of three visits by the Buddha to Lankadveepa.

According to the Mahavamsa, the guide of the world, having accomplished the salvation of the whole world, lying on the bed of his nibbana in the great assembly of gods, he, the great sage, the greatest of those who have speech, spoke to Sakka who stood there near him; "Vijaya , son of king Sinhabahu, is come to Lanka from the country of Lata, together with 700 followers. In Lanka O lord of gods will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him and his followers and Lanka."

Chosen race?

These embellished accounts, which in essence suggests a Judaic Buddhist claim of a promised land to a chosen race is in total contradiction of what the Buddha preached during his life.

Professor Paranavithana writes, "It is quite understandable that, in the stories relating to their origin, current among the Sinhalese themselves, their eponymous hero has become the scion of a Royal family. But the earliest Brahmi inscriptions contain indirect evidence that the founder of the royal family of ancient days had mercantile associations."

The Mahavamsa itself states that the "Yakkini" — Kuveni, fed Prince Vijaya and his men with rice and other food, and goods of every kind that had been in ships of those traders whom she had devoured. Whether Kuveni devoured those traders in the earlier ships or not is not of any particular importance. What is significant is that there were ships plying between the two countries by Indian traders of the Kshariya caste, as Brahmins were not allowed to trade.

There is evidence that Indo Aryan traders had established several trading posts in Lankadveepa before the advent of Prince Vijaya, who having failed to convince his brother to come to Sri Lanka as his successor, got down his youngest son Panduvasdeva, who reached the island at Gokanna (Trincomalee) and was subsequently enthroned at Upatissagama.

This assured the continuance of the Vijayan dynasty. The first assimilation was between the ndo Ariyans and original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. It may have been marginal but in that period of time, national frontiers existed to be breached by the more powerful enjoying a higher form of civilisation.

That the Sinhala nation flourished under this dynasty is beyond dispute. Professor Paranavithana writes "Unlike in the case of any other Indo Aryan languages we can trace the development of Sinhala from the pre Christian centuries…."

Buddhism comes to Sri Lanka

R.C.Majumdar, Professor of Ancient Indian History, University of Nagpur writes "…the great Emperor Asoka (273-236 BC) organised a network of missions to preach the gospel of Buddha. He sent his son Thera Mahendra, together with four others to Lanka, and they preached the teachings of Gauthama Buddha to King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 BC) and his attendants.

"The king and the people of Lanka were deeply impressed and accepted Buddhism. Its progress was phenomenal. As queen Anula and a number of other women desired to receive pabbajja ordination and enter the sangha, Theruni Sangamitta — sister of Thero Mahinda was sent to Lanka. The transplantation of a branch of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment was a (happy) idea of Asoka. The second important event was the bringing of the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha from India more than 500 years later."

The gradual shifting of the seat of power in the Buddhist nation state of Lanka from Anuradhapura to Kotte in the Southwest and Kandy, is not within the ambit of this article.

Under new rule

Shortly after the Kandyan Convention was signed and the cession of the Kandyan provinces to the English crown, the new rulers wanted a comprehensive account of the institutions, customs, prejudices and traditions of the Kandyan people to better administer the newly acquired territories. This document was prepared by some Kandyan chieftains and was later translated to English by C.J.R. Le Mercier of the Ceylon Civil Service and T.B.Panabokke, president of Dumbara, Kandy.

One of the important components of this account is the schedule of castes as was then recognised by the people or rather the ruling Sinhala Radala class. Tracing this system to the arrival of King Vijaya, the account states "The four great castes, the Brahamins, Kxestriyas, Waisyas and Goviwanse, migrated to Ceylon about the same time. After the reign of many kings, King Gajabahu marched to Soleerata and returned with 24,000 maidens in lieu of 12,000 that had been carried there from Lanka. Among them, persons of different castes were brought to the island."

The castes

Representatives of the Rajabamunu (Brahmin) and Welenda castes had from time to time come over to live here. They however did not preserve their castes intact, but inter married with the Goviya and it is for that reason that it is considered the chief caste in the kingdom.

The other inferior Goviya casts are:

1. Nilamakkarayo
2. Pattiwala aya
3. Wiramestaragolla
4. Porokara and Kunammadevegamaya
5. Etwalapannikkiyo
6. Malkaruvo
7. Kuttanwala etto
8. Balibatgamayo
9. Gattaru
10. Tibillo


There are 18 castes lower than the Goviya. They are:

1. Karavo
2. Nawandanna aya
3. Hannali
4. Embettayo
5. Badahelayo
6. Duravo
7. Radavu
8. Hanagarammu
9. Velludurayi
10. Pannaya & Hinnawo
11. Hunudurayi
12. Batgampaduvo
13. Palhorupaduvo
14. Battagamberavayo & Gahalaberavayo
15. Oliyo & Paliyo
16. Kinnaru
17. Radiyo

In addition to these, of those foreigners who have of later years migrated to this island, from countries where distinctions of caste are not observed, the Caffres, Malays, and Moormen are considered inferior to Mudaliperuva of the Goviya caste.

The three communities — Salagama, Durawa, and Karawa are people who arrived in Sri Lanka around the 15th century. According to some claims the Karawa clan arrived almost around the time of Vijaya.

In the Kandyan social structure they suffered the disadvantage of "being mostly made up of relatively recent Dravidian migrants," according to Dr.Michael Roberts, who had done an extensive study of the Karawa people in his work Cast Conflict And Ethnic Formation – The Rise Of The Karawa Elite 1500- 1931. However his study is mainly confined to the Karawa people.

New trade opportunities

According to Professor K.M. de Silva, in his exhaustive study A History Of Sri Lanka, the Kotte Kingdom in the late 14th century had to face some severe setbacks. While agriculture suffered a distinct decline, foreign trade offered new opportunities. This external trade was conducted through ports of the west coast — Kalpitiya, Puttalam, Chilaw, Kammala, Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara, Beruwala and Galle.

The increasing foreign trade mostly attracted the Arab traders while they also had to compete with the Chetties — the traditional bankers of South India. According to Dr. K.M. de Silva "…the accommodation of recent immigrants from South India and there absorption into the caste structure of the littoral saw the emergence of three new Sinhalese cast groups — the Salagama, the Durawa and the Karawa. They came to the island in successive waves of immigration. These communities were assimilated as they gave up their religion and language and adopted the language and the religion of the people of whom they became an integral part."

The Sinhalese inhabitants of Sri Lanka before the 13th century were ignorant of the art of weaving fine cloth. During the reign of King Buvenakabahu II Moorish traders brought weavers from South India who received proper recognition from the monarch including great rewards such as investiture with a gold chain and a state umbrella.

The descendants of those people became numerous and powerful, and provoked jealousy. They were subsequently banished to the south west coast and were used to peel and prepare cinnamon. The Dutch continued this system and they were rewarded with more privileges. These constituted the Salagama community. A picture of their flag together with a brief description is to be found in the book Flags Of Ceylon by E.W. Perera.

What needs to be recognised is that the Sinhala people themselves are so diverse in traditions, origins, beliefs, and this metamorphosis of the Sinhala people is a reality that cannot be distorted or interpreted by epics, myths or legends. It may give comfort to some to remain in the cocoon of ancient history. If one seeks solutions to the problems that confront us today we need to seek guidance from our modern history.


I wish to thank some scholars from our higher seats of learning who gave me advice and guidance in writing this article.


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