Monday, March 02, 2009

Separatist myth vs. facts: “Sri Lanka was never under unified rule during the time of the Sinhala kings”

The Tamil separatist terrorist movement has put forward the tendentious argument that Sri Lanka was never under unified rule during the time of the Sinhala kings. The claim they have put forward is that the British unified the administration of Lanka for the first time and, upon granting independence to the inhabitants of the island, handed this unitary state to a Sinhalese controlled government in the year of 1948. For an example, Dharini Rajasingham-Senanayake has stated, quite incorrectly, that Sri Lanka was united for the first time in 1815(1).

The history of the ancient period of Sri Lanka is the history of monarchical rule. Here is historian S. Pathmanathan on the subject of the "Sinhalese monarchy."

An outstanding feature of the Sinhalese monarchy is its almost unbroken continuity lasting for nearly two thousand years and its close connections with Buddhist institutions. No dynastic state has ever had such a continuity and stability in the neighboring Indian subcontinent from where the culture and political ideas of the ancient Sinhalese were mostly derived. Nor could any of the kingdoms in some of the countries of South-East Asia-Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — where Buddhism exerted a profound influence, lay claim to such a long continuity and historical experience. The long and unbroken continuity and stability in the political and cultural tradition of the Sinhalese kingdom (s) was partly the result of the protection, provided by the island's insularity, the island's manageable territorial dimensions and the physiographic features which permitted control over a major part of it from a single dynastic centre before the thirteenth century. Another contributory factor was probably the absence of social classes able to challenge dynastic authority (2)

To examine this concept of territorial integrity and unified rule by Sinhalese monarchs we need to examine how the Sri Lankan state came to be formed during earliest period of its history, how it evolved, and the nature of it leading up to the arrival of European powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.

Early State Building
In the Mahavamsa, the irreplaceable literary source for the reconstruction of the early history of the island, the story of man in Sri Lanka begins with the arrival there, sometime in the 5th century BC, of Vijaya the legendary founder of the Sinhalese. Beneath this charming exercise in myth-making lurks a kernel of historical truth – the colonization of the island by Indo-Aryan tribes from northern India.(3) These settlements were established and developed in several parts of the island from about the fifth century BC. The earliest settlers were those on the west-central coast who pushed inland along the banks of Malvatu Oya and founded a number of riverbank settlements. Their seat of government was Upatissagama where the first ‘Kings’ of the Vijayan dynasty reigned. The settlers on the east coast would have moved inland along the Mahaveli River. Somewhat later, there was an independent band of immigrants who settled in Rohana in the south-east, on the mouth of Valave River. The settlers came in numerous clans or tribes. By 250 BC, there is evidence of a recognizably literate culture in the main areas of settlements – a contribution of early Indo-Aryan settlers – even though the outlaying communities may have remained pre-literate.(4)

According to historian K.M. DeSilva it is not possible to draw a firm conclusion on the process of political evolution that led to the emergence of a kingdom unifying the whole island under its sway. The inscriptional evidence points to a situation where Anuradhapura kingdom, which was founded by Pandukabaya, the third king of the Vijayan dynasty, as merely the strongest, among several in the northern plains and in the Malaya and Rohana regions. This structure had not changed substantially during the rule of Devanampiya Tissa, though he held a consecration ceremony, and assumed the title Devanampiya Tissa maharaja. In spite of this, other rulers on the island did not readily acknowledge his sovereignty. The influence he had in the southern kingdom of Rohana was minimal despite the establishment of the Kingdom at Mahagama by Mahanaga, his brother. This collateral branch of the royal house at Anuradhapura eventually unified Rohana and thereafter established control over the whole island as well. It took them a century and a half to achieve it. The key figure in the unification of the south was Kavantissa, during whose rule the authority of Mahagama began to be felt throughout Rohana. His son and successor Dutthagamani took the offensive against Elara, the Dravidian usurper of the northern kingdom, and established control over the whole island. It was, in fact, the first significant success of centripetalism over centrifugalism in the island history.(5)

The classical Sinhalese kingdom of Anuradhapura
The kingdom of Anuradhapura, the classical Sinhalese kingdom, lasted nearly 1,500 years and the city of Anuradhapura lasted as long as the capital city. It was the capital of the island kingdom since the time of King Dutthagamani (161-137 BC) to the end of the 10th century, longevity unmatched by any other capital city in south Asia. The political history of the kingdom can be divided into three distinct phases or periods.

The first phase is the early Anuradhapura period, the kingdom’s first seven centuries to the reign of Dhatusena in the 5th century, the principle feature of which was the rise and consolidation of power. The middle period saw considerable instability, particularly in the 7th century, and the regular entry of Tamil mercenaries brought to the island by Sinhalese kings to help prop up their power, or by the aspirants to the throne.(6) The late Anuradhapura kingdom saw two centuries of political stability, the 8th and 9th centuries, followed by century of increasing stress and instability as the Sinhalese kingdom struggled to cope with external threats from south Indian kingdoms. Those threats became more formidable in the 10th century and culminated in the absorption, if not the kingdom itself, of at least most of it, under the Chola empire(7), while the great city of Anuradhapura ceased to be the capital city.

The Polonnaruva Kingdom
The expulsion of the invading Cholas from the kingdom happened after a long war of liberation and the restoration of a Sinhalese dynasty on the throne of Sri Lanka under King Vijayabahu I. The return to order and authority became solidified under King Parakramabahu I, the remarkable king who achieved such a tremendous amount of constructive achievement in administration, economic rehabilitation(8), religion and culture. After him the only Polonnaruva king to rule over the whole island was Nissanka Malla, who gave the country a brief decade of order and stability before the speedy and catastrophic break-up of the hydraulic civilization of the dry zone. The collapse of the ancient Sinhalese kingdom of the dry zone is one of the major turning points of Sri Lankan history.(9) The Magha’s invasion and the orgy of destruction in which his cohorts indulged are regarded as the climacteric in the deracination of Sri Lanka’s hydraulic civilization.

The Fragmentation of the Sri Lankan Polity and Arrival of the Portuguese
In the quest for safety against invasion from south India, Polonnaruva was abandoned after Magha’s rule and the next three kings ruled from Dambadeniya. One ruler made Yapahuva his royal residence and another Kurunegala. Sinhalese power again shifted from Kurunegala to the central mountains further to the south, a region that has never in the past been a center of civilization. It was in the 14th century that a kingdom was set up in Gampola on the Mahaveli River as its capital. In the second half of the 14th century, the fortunes of the Sinhalese reached their nadir. The writ of the Gampola kings appears to have run in Rohana as well as the western sea board(10), but for a short period in the 14th century, Jaffna under the Aryacakravartis was the most powerful kingdom on the island. They seemed poised for establishment of Tamil supremacy over Sri Lanka, but were foiled in this by the defeat inflicted by the forces of the Gampola kings in 1380(11).

The Jaffna kingdoms’ expansion southwards had been checked, but the Sinhalese had no reason to believe that this had been halted for good. The capital of the Sinhalese kingdom was moved once more, this time from the mountains to the west coast near Colombo, to Kotte. In 1411, Parakramabahu VI began what was to be a very long reign of fifty-five years founded what came to be called the Kotte kingdom(12). His greatest achievement was to check what seemed to be a well-nigh irreversible trend – the break-up of Sri Lankan polity. He was the first Sinhalese king since the days of Parakramabahu I and Nissanka Malla to bring the whole island under his rule, the last ever to do so. Within forty years of his death, the Kotte kingdom, weakened by internal disputes, faced the formidable challenge of the Portuguese in the first phase of Sri Lanka’s long encounter with western colonialism, an encounter that lasted till the middle of the 20th century.

It is not possible to say that Sri Lanka was ruled as united country for a straight 2500 years. No country in the world can boast of such an achievement. However, neither was Sri Lanka always ruled as multiple polities by multiple sets of kings, as implied by the Tamil separatist movement. Certainly, the territory under the ancient Sinhala kings did not remain constant. Some kings gained territory, others lost parts of it. There were bouts of civil war. Subordinate rulers tried to take advantage of this. But Sri Lanka has been viewed as a unified whole during ancient times. That unity may have been in some cases conceptual more than territorial. It may have included only a formal recognition of the sole consecrated ruler, but this signifies an understanding of the concept of territorial unity.

1. Dharini Rajasingham-Senanayake, Pravada vol 5 (2) 1997 P-17
2. S. Pathmanathan, Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities Vol 8(1) 1982 p 122
3. Basham, ‘Prince Vijaya and the Aryanisation of Ceylon’, pp. 172-91 and Mendis, ‘Pali Chronicles’, pp. 56-71
4. K. M. DeSilva, A History of Sri Lanka, pp. 8-9
5. K. M. DeSilva, A History of Sri Lanka, pp. 14-17
6. Kiribammune, ‘Tamils in Ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka’, pp. 14-15
7. On the Cholas and Sri Lanka see Spencer, ‘The politics of expansion’
8. Nicholas, ‘The irrigation works of King Parakramabahu I’, pp. 52-68
9. See Indrapala, ‘The Collapse of the Rajarata Civilization'
10. On Gampola kings see Abeyasinghe, 'The History of the Kandyan Kingdom', pp. 429-47
11. Kulasuriya, 'Regional Independence', pp. 136-55
12. Somaratne, 'Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte'

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