From Oceania to East Africa

Ruminations on Sri Lanka’s Ancient Past – Part III

By Seneka Abeyratne

Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka had regular trading and cultural connections with the empire of Sri Vijaya in Palembang, South Sumatra. Legend has it that the Radala, noble families of Sri Lanka, and the Raden, noble families of Indonesia, frequently intermarried. It is something of a mystery that though the island’s location is subcontinental, its character is more Southeast-Asian. We can make sense of this paradox only if we accept the premise that in ancient times there were continual migrations from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka.

Periodic migrations from the opposite direction also occurred, notably southern Arabia and East Africa. According to Senake Bandaranayake (‘The Peopling of Sri Lanka: The National Question and Some Problems of History and Ethnicity’, 1987), our ethnic mix is so complex it even includes Mediterranean, Himalayan, East Asian and Oceanic strains, as revealed by various ethnological studies. It is worth noting that the term Oceania applies to the isles in the Pacific Ocean, including Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

Bandaranayake (‘Continuities and Transformations: Studies in Sri Lankan Archaeology and History’, 2012) is of the view that Southeast and East Asia have had a significant influence on Sri Lankan architecture, as per the multi-slope roofs. This pattern of construction is commonly found in Bali, northern Thailand, and Laos. But David Robson submits the following counter-argument: “His study of roofs suggests a process of diffusion across a huge region…A similar comparative study of plan-form might have shown that the courtyard typology, which is characteristic of many of traditional Sri Lankan houses, occurs in many parts of India but is not common in Southeast Asia, suggesting a different area of diffusion.” (Review of above paper, The Island, March 23, 2013).

Bandaranayake always maintained that our ethnic structure was no less distinctive than that of any other country on this planet. The key point he makes is that we cannot view this structure narrowly in terms of the colonisation of the island by migrant settlers from the Indian subcontinent. Rather, we should view it as the product of a dynamic process involving a series of migrations from the subcontinent as well as other regions during historic and prehistoric periods combined with internal developments that laid the foundation for rapid population expansion.

Vijaya myth

The traditional view, as we have seen, is that the history of Sri Lanka begins with the arrival of the Sinhalese from northern India sometime in the 6th Century BCE, as recorded in ‘The Mahavamsa, The Great Chronicle of Ceylon’ (Geiger, Wilhelm, 1912). The first Sinhalese to land in the island were Prince Vijaya and his band of seven hundred followers, somewhere on the north-west coast. To cut a long story short, the prince subsequently became the island’s first monarch. Although some modern historians doubt the authenticity of the Mahavamsa’s account of Vijaya, we should take the following viewpoint into consideration: “Beneath this charming exercise in myth-making lurks a kernel of truth – the colonisation of the island by Indo-Aryan tribes from northern India” (de Silva, K.M. ‘A History of Sri Lanka’, fifth edition, 2016). Whether the island experienced an ‘Aryan impulse’ of this nature in the Late Protohistoric-Early Historic Period is the subject of an ongoing debate. We should note that modern historians like Senake Bandaranayake avoid using the word ‘Aryan’ or ‘Indo-Aryan’ for reasons discussed above. The preferred word is ‘North-Indian’.

The notion prevalent among the Sinhalese, that their genes are ‘Indo-Aryan’, is firmly anchored in the Vijaya myth. Ironically, this myth has served not to unite but to divide the nation and fuel racist ideologies in the modern era. “Thus, in our own context, as elsewhere in the world, historical notions and the consequences of ethnic differentiation form a fundamental and highly visible aspect of the national question, the daily currency of communal tension and conflict. Historians, sociologists and all those working in relevant fields are thereby compelled, in one or another, to address themselves to these issues and have a special responsibility to lay bare some of the myths and distortions that lie at the heart of these ideas” (Bandaranayake, Senake, op cit, 1987).

Radical viewpoint

The radical view, presented by Bandaranayake (ibid), is that a relatively advanced civilisation existed in the island ‘prior’ to the arrival of the Sinhalese and that the evolution of Sri Lanka into a modern geo-political entity took place through a complex process of integration, differentiation and creative synthesis. This process was the result of an internal dynamism generated by the indigenous people. In other words, the prehistoric and protohistoric culture of the island was not ‘closed’ or ‘static’, rather it was ‘open’ and ‘dynamic’ and able to constantly evolve into higher and more sophisticated forms through a vigorous ‘dialectical’ process.

According to popular view, the first people to speak an advanced language, practice plough-based agriculture, introduce irrigation, and lead a settled village existence in Sri Lanka, were the so-called ‘Aryan’ migrants from the western or eastern parts of northern India.

This view implies that the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a civilised existence based on settled agriculture occurred only after the Sinhalese arrived on the island. It therefore does not recognise the possibility that prehistoric migrations to Sri Lanka, from both the South-Indian peninsula and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, may have occurred or that these migrants may have crystallised into a self-sufficient community, practising the rudiments of settled agriculture by the time the Sinhalese settlers arrived. Since Sri Lanka was strategically located on the ancient maritime trade and cultural routes linking east and west, it was constantly attracting traders and pilgrims. It is quite possible that many of these ‘visitors’ were so taken up with the pristine nature of the island that they couldn’t bear to leave, in other words they lost their hearts to Serendib!

The radical view of history hence presupposes that the island had attained a relatively high level of internal development prior to the 6th Century BCE which served as a base for later social, cultural and economic developments triggered by migrations from the subcontinent. It therefore rejects what might be called the ‘Indo-centric’ bias of almost all 19th and 20th century historical writing on Sri Lanka. What is meant by the Indo-centric bias is the conventional viewpoint that the subcontinent has played a dominant role in the evolution of Sri Lankan culture and society.

The radical viewpoint, by contrast, adopts a much wider Indian Ocean-Monsoon Asia perspective and takes into account the interaction between external factors and internal development from an early period, even though modern historians have yet to arrive at anything like a full understanding of the prehistoric situation. It gives considerable emphasis to the impact of this interplay between gradual change from within and sudden change from without on the island’s historical development, especially in the first millennium BCE (Bandaranayake, Senake, op cit, 2012).

Thank you

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