Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka’s Pre-capitalist Past: Shanie, Darshanie and Roberts

Michael Roberts

When Darshanie Ratnawalli penned a blog comment on one of the articles reproduced in the thuppahi site, I jumped to the erroneous conclusion that it was a response to one of my articles on myth and history.[1] In fact it was a critical note directed at an essay in Shanie’s Notebook of a Nobody series in the Island, one entitled “Writing history and myth,” which I had borrowed for my own web site.

Photo from


Let me quote an extract from Darshanie’s note, with colours distinguishing Darshanie from Shanie:

Isn’t Shani, the writer of this article) actually displaying mediocre scholarship and a lamentable lack of intellectual rigor when she says: “Scholars like HL Seneviratne and Michael Roberts have in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities. HL Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 [sic —1815] Convention in Tamil.”

By placing the second sentence after the first hasn’t Shani made out the second assertion to be some kind proof of the first assertion? But signing the Convention in Tamil is not indicative of any lack of distinctiveness of ethnic identity no? it is actually more an elitist thing isn’t it? Tamil was made the current language of the ‘inner circle’ by the Royal family and their powerful contingent of Royal relations present at court no? It’s rather like the pre revolutionary Russian nobility speaking French isn’t it or the way people speak and write in English in Sri Lanka even when they are among their own with no need of a lingua franca?”

I am entirely in agreement with Darshanie’s reasoning in her second paragraph. Let me add that as far as I know the signatures deemed Tamil in the Kandyan Convention are in fact written in Grantha which is a script not a language. I leave it to scholars versed in that field to engage that issue.

In line with the thrust of the note by Darshanie – and congratulations to you for your perceptive outlook Darshanie – let me stress that a battery of scholars has commonly deployed the Nayakkar accession to the throne of the Kandyan Kingdom as proof of the absence of Tamil Sinhala hostility in the medieval past.[2] In counterpoint I assert that this is a misleading cul-de sac. As we all know, emphasis on a kshatriya lineage and rules of matrilineal succession together opened the door to the throne-room for the Nayakkar lineage. The crown prince then underwent an abhiseka, a consecration. This was a rite of transformation. After that he was no longer a Nayakkar, Tamil, Sinhala or Whatever, but a king of Sīhalē (or Sinhaladvīpa, Tunsinhalaya, Lakdiva, etc etc as the island was variously known). After the ceremony the person so consecrated was regarded as “our happy sublime ruler” and as “amhākam sīhalindo,” or “our Sinhala king.”[3]     

Yes, he was king of the whole island in terms of the political conceptions guiding the hegemonic elites of that day because Sīhalē referred usually to the whole island, though in some contexts it would denote the more limited terrain identified by us today as the “Kandyan Kingdom.”  In its narrower meaning Sīhalē was also referred to as kande uda pas rata or uda rata, where the central core stands for the whole. For a fuller understanding of this conceptual corpus and the evidence that highlights it, one will have to laboriously plough through Sinhala, Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1815 (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004).

Shanie and his Notebooks of a Nobody

The quotation taken by Darshanie is actually part of a longer paragraph by Shanie which runs thus

Scholars like H L Seneviratne and Michael Roberts have in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities. H L Seneviratne pointed out that many of the Kandyan chieftains signed the 1915 [sic —1815]  Convention in Tamil. Many communities have changed their ethnic identity within a space of two or three generations. All scholars will agree with Michael Roberts when he states: ‘There can be little doubt that the various ethnic categories residing in Sri Lanka today are all, every single category without exception, of mixed ‘racial’ genealogy.’

 There are four different statements here, linked together. Taking them in reverse order and bracketing out the second statement about the Kandyan Convention, let me stress that (a) I stand by my interpretation within the quotation in the last sentence; (b) call for modifications in the implications attached by Shanie to the process identified in the third sentence; and (c) wholly reject Shanie’s interpretation of my views in the first sentence — here assuming that Shanie means to say that “there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities [in the pre-British period].”

 Statement Three

“There can be little doubt that the various ethnic categories residing in Sri Lanka today are all, every single category without exception, of mixed ‘racial’ genealogy.” This contention on my part is not built on scientific testing of, say, a DNA sort in the manner essayed once by Dushy Ranetunge in a response to one exchange in Rather, it is an “educated surmise” based on what one can call “circumstantial empiricism.” Let me present these items of evidence in point-form because an integrated essay will demand a journal article (with maps).

  1. The proximity of the island of Sīhalē (or Īlam, Lakdiva, Heladiv, Tun Sinhalaya, etc) to the Indian subcontinent meant that over the last two millennia there was a constant migration of individuals, families and little communities to and fro, with perhaps, in wild guess, more ingress to the island than vice versa. This was augmented at times by invading armies, usually from India to the island.
  2. Well before the Western nations and peoples penetrated the Indian Ocean in their imperial ways, that vast ocean supported thriving networks of trade that brought seafarers and travellers from a wide variety of lands to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. All one has to do is to visit the museums at Malacca to realise how cosmopolitan that place was and how varied and multitudinous the shipping that visited that thriving place. A significant proportion of these ships, though not all, would have reached Malacca via some part of Sri Lanka.
  3. Consider too the import of Cheng Ho’s several naval expeditions in the early fifteenth century aided as he was by Arab navigators. The size of his ships and the scale of his fleet dwarfed everything associated with the ventures of Christopher Columbus. Do not forget that Cheng Ho’s fleet called at Galle (where there is an inscription at china kotuva) and his armies captured one of the Kotte royal dynasts.
  4. From the sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth of course, we had not only the Portuguese, Dutch and British forces, but all manner of peoples linked to their trading, missionary and military enterprises visiting the island and/or taking root within the place as part of the imperial baggage train. I refer not only to the Sindhis, Memons, Borahs, Chettiyars, Arabs and people from the Kerala and Coromandel coasts as well as other parts of India, but also to the Malays and all manner of Black Africans.
  5. The penetration of “Kaffirs” or “Blacks” from Africa is a relatively neglected dimension of our history because they did not reside in one cluster anywhere (except near Puttalam). But they were an element in all the imperial armies; while some Blacks became part of the Kandyan forces, so that British documents refer to “our blacks” and “Kandyan blacks” (note simple case). As part of the imperial forces they were feared by the Sinhalese — as evident in the Kappiri Hatana which is attributed to the late eighteenth century.[4]
  6. It is my common sense conjecture that some of the males who entered the island in the course of these enterprises, European, African, Malay, Arab and varied Indian, did not merely traverse territory, but indulged in embodied and penetrative activity – from formal marriage to informal liaison to rape.
  7. Though the coastal areas may have well been subject to greater diffusion of genetic blood in this manner, historical works indicate that the Portuguese and other armies engaged in protracted warfare in the interior Kandyan regions, while a few Europeans defected to the Kandyan region or were kept there as captives in Rajasinghe II’s menagerie (for e.g. Knox and his companions and one Lanerolle).

Throughout world history wars and raids have nurtured group identities, especially where groups A and B confronted each other regularly, albeit episodically. The period of warfare against the Portuguese dating from the mid-sixteenth century to the 1650s therefore left searing memories among the diverse indigenous peoples. Data from the north of Sri Lanka is limited, but Sinhala and Portuguese sources leave no doubt about the resistance ideology and group sentiment that was aroused among the Sinhalese as a result.

Background information as well as some specifics can be found in the books of Abeysinghe, CR de Silva, Karl Gunawardena, Arasaratnam and Dewaraja. Concrete evidence is available not only in the various palm-leaf documents, but also in the war poems beginning with the Sītāvaka Hatana in the late sixteenth century.[5] For an extended analysis of this material I refer readers not only to Sinhala Consciousness, but also to Alan Strathern’s book, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge University Press, 2008).[6]

Let me spice this summary tale with just one translated illustration from a war poem:

Those country-born Thuppahis who joined [the Portuguese] and ape the senors in their trousers – Kavisi, Kanandi, Parangis and men from many a land – all are struck down as when fishermen kill their prey at night (Parangi Hatana v. 395 in PE Pieris 1909).

 Significantly, some poems compare the triumphs of the Sinhala warriors — the sīhala sen as they are described in some instances — with the victory which Dutugämunu secured over the sädi demala, namely, the “vile-and-fierce Tamils” (see Rajasiha Hatana v. 26 & v. 130), an epithet that is also deployed earlier in the Sītāvaka Hatana).[7]

When I came across this analogy in the war poems, one that draws upon a famous/infamous trope from Sri Lanka’s ancient history as retailed in the vamsa literature, I was surprised. Surprise turned to amazement when the same disparaging epithet was brought into play in two letters from the Kandyan monarch to the British governor in Colombo in 1811-12.[8] The Tamils had not posed a physical danger for well nigh 3-4 centuries, but they still figured prominently in the political ideology of the Sinhala ruling class even in the early nineteenth century.

In analytical terms what transpires here can be seen as a form of “analogic thinking,” or “associational logic,” where different sets of enemies are equated with each other. Normally this sort of thinking works across space in the same temporal period; but here it is extended backwards to link enemies of the present with enemies of the ancient past.

I have borrowed the concept of “associational logic” from the work of Richard Young and GSB Senanayaka who translated and transliterated a disparate set of palm leaf manuscripts penned in the year 1762 (albeit incorporating earlier undated work). These prose works have nought to say about the Tamils, Kāberi and other ethnic categories. Though addressing different topics, each of these texts share a concern with issues of salvation from a Buddhist viewpoint and take an adversarial stance towards rival religions. A striking feature of this collection is the manner in which textual characters that are represented in one context under one name pop up in “another [context] under a different name without losing their identity in the roll-over from story to story.” One such character is the figure of Īsvara, that is, Sīva, who is presented in these texts as “the fount of all evil.” But Īsvara is also called “Ispittu,” that is, Spiritus or “Lord God” in the Indian world subject to Christian proselytization. As Young and Senanayaka clarify matters, then, it is the “mechanics of associational logic” that explains how the Christian god and the Saivite god were (are) merged “within an environment of intersecting and interacting elements of religion … and language” (1998: 21-22). In brackets I note here that it is equally remarkable that so few Lankans have consulted The Carpenter-Heretic. A Collection of Buddhist Stories about Christianity from 18th Century Sri Lanka, even though it was printed in Colombo by Karunaratne and Sons in 1998.

That there were collective sentiments that can be called “Sinhalaness” in the centuries sixteen to eighteen does not mean that this notion was the same as the Sinhala collective identity that we have experienced in recent times. The political economy was different and pre-capitalist. The class order was different. It follows that Sinhalaness was different. But, the evidence summarized here indicates that a significant body of people possessed a sense of being “We Sinhala” in opposition to named others, each a named “They,” with the ‘theys’ being different at different times and sometimes coexisting in differentiated ‘theyness’ at the same point of time.

 Statement Two

“Many communities have changed their ethnic identity within a space of two or three generations.” This assertion on Shanie’s part is, at best, partly correct, but quite misleading in the implications attributed to it within the broader context of Shanie’s whole essay and for pre-British times in general. The suggestion is that whole clusters of people bearing one caste or ethnic identity were changing colours willy-nilly over short periods of time; and that this was happening in every which direction or at least between those speaking Sinhalese and those speaking Tamil.

If indeed, between the centuries thirteen and eighteen Sinhalese and Tamil individuals, lineages and castes were (happily? and so rapidly?) switching identity and moving to and from between two categories, and doing so in many regions of Sri Lanka, then I would like to see proof of that sort of process. But if individual Brahmins (for e.g. Nilaperumal)[9] and fakirs from India were being absorbed into the Sinhala-speaking peoples, or some migrant lineages and named bodies of people, say fragments of some Indian caste group, were being incorporated into the Sinhala-caste dispensation as a separate caste or a segment of a pre-existing caste,[10] then, the analytical conclusion is quite to the contrary. This was a process which would have consolidated the pre-existing clout of a dominant ethnic group.

What one sees in such cases is the familiar process of immigrants being absorbed into the hegemonic body of peoples, that is, the category with demographic weight, economic dominance and the possession of state power. Such power has a spatial dimension which can be captured by the concepts “centre” and “periphery.”

Thus, what occurred in such spatial margins as Panama-Kumana or Tamankaduva or even Madampe-Chilaw during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was of lesser significance than events and process in the regions of the Kandy Plateau or the hinterland around Kotte. The limited significance of ethnic identity, the “hybridity” valued by modernist scholars, in outlying regions such as Panama where villagers eked out an existence, is of less significance than what was happening in districts such as Udapalata and localities around such sites as Dambulla, Lankātilaka and Saman Devale.

 Statement Three

From what has been said above readers will grasp that it would be a huge leap for anyone to assert that “Michael Roberts [has] in recent contributions to the Island pointed out that there is no evidence of any distinctiveness in our ethnic identities [in the pre-British period].” Shanie, clearly, has not read Sinhala Consciousness. He seems to have been guided by my essay in the Island on “History-Making in Sri Lanka – Problems.” But there is a huge misinterpretation on his part at this point. After granting that “over the last twenty-three centuries many Veddas have become Sinhalese and/or Tamil and a few Sinhalese and Tamils have become Veddas,” in that article I explicitly challenged the argument that “there was a state of categorical fluidity and confusion generated by continuous boundary crossing and intermarriage, a utopian scenario so prized by today’s post-modernists.” It concluded that processes enabling changes in ethnic identity “coexisted with attachment to their respective identities among significant bodies of each community, affiliations produced in part by numerical preponderance in specific regions and through a struggle for resources and control of existing states.”

History-Making” should be read in conjunction with a companion article “How does one become Sinhalese or Tamil in sentiment?” because this follow-up was explicitly devoted towards “emphasising the significance of a range of cultural practices — which obviously vary with area, climate and peoples — in moulding community sentiment of an ethnic kind in the global universe writ large.” The focus in this second article was upon the modern period.

However, let me stress that in its origins this article developed out of my work on the pre-British period when I was finalising Sinhala Consciousness. Taking up the cue raised by Charles Abeysekera I began to imagine how a person born somewhere in the interior of the Kandyan Kingdom in the seventeenth century could develop a sense of being Sinhalese and become attached to that identity. In doing so I was fully attentive to the overwhelming presence of hierarchical practices and caste divisions as well as the exactions of corvee labour (rājakāriya).

Strange as it may seem, I began this speculative exploration with a remarkable description by Robert Knox of the manner in which men in the locality were prone to foregather at some ambalama (wayside resting hut) and discuss local and state affairs[11]nikang inna kota katā kirīma and katā kīma as one might extrapolate. I began to imagine how a young Govigama male on the one hand, or a man of some service caste such as the washer people on the other, could move in the seventeenth century from the pervasive vitality of their caste identities at the local level and begin to see themselves at the same time as “Sinhala” in distinction from the marakkala, demala, vädda, parangi, landēsi, kāberi, kannadi, et cetera.

An ambalams in modern times, Photo by Dominic Sansoni

Well, that conjectural excursion is lying in some file somewhere – incomplete. Instead, I leap-frogged to the twentieth century, took up the cue provided so creatively by Charles Abeysekera and penned my ‘think-piece’ on “Becoming Sinhala or Tamil.” Anne Abayasekara, as we know, then took up this line of reflection in creative fashion (2008).

My exercise in this line of speculation-cum-reflection was informed by my sociological and historical training. In this regard I request those who wish to pursue this topic further to consult my article on “Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History,” which outlines my perspectives on the generation and reproduction of ethnic identity in a relational framework attentive to subjectivity. This article first appeared in print in 2001 and can be found most conveniently as chapter 12 in Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese LTTE and Others, (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009).

The attention to the force of Sinhala sentiments in the pre-British period does not preclude attention to the force of class differences, occupational and caste differences and gender differentiation. It is not an either/or issue. Identity is multiplex and complex. One cannot view the scenario by placing “caste’ versus “ethnicity” as concepts that cannot share the same space. Indeed, I contend that caste distinctions enabled and consolidated ethnic differentiation. Thus, one became Sinhalese through being Govigama, Wahumpura, Batgam et cetera just as one would have become a Tamil in the north through being Vellālar, Koviyar, Karaiyar, Civiyar and Ambättar et cetera, though mid-twentieth century evidence suggests that until recent times the Nalavar and Pallar were not considered quite Tamil, that is, not wholly authentic Tamils.[12]

Therefore, tales of caste faction fighting between, say, a Salāgama faction and a Govigama faction, would have little significance among Tamils in the island unless they were resident in the locality where this specific contretemps had flared up and were embroiled in its local politics. It was precisely because educated and wealthy Sinhalese and Tamils had been brought within the fold of a constituency demarcated by the British colonial authorities as “the Educated Ceylonese Seat” in 1911-12 that a body of Govigama gentlemen marshalled by Hector Jayewardene supported Ponnambalam Ramanathan because they wished to prevent the election of Dr. H. Marcus Fernando, a Karāva man.[13] Nor does it mean that everyone was guided by caste affinities. Kumari Jayawardena has shown that “many Sinhala conservatives preferred a Tamil conservative to a Sinhala reformist;” while a number of gentlemen from a range of castes supported Fernando.[14]

In brief one must be cautious about essaying generalisations from peculiar instances just as much as broad sustainable generalisations must sometimes be qualified by caveats. It is all too easy to find a peculiar empirical instance that suits one’s political leanings and to utilise the odd example in support of an argument that is as much directed by modern debate as it is by past histories.

Shanie’s political leanings in the present situation accord with mine. The general thrust of his article is in tune with many of my interventions in the public realm of newspapers (see fn. 1). Both of us have targeted a broad trend in the recent past wherein historical interpretations built upon flimsy evidence are deployed in support of contemporary power politics. Both have criticised the manner in which shoddy historical claims stoke ethnic extremism. It is therefore unfortunate that Shanie seems to have presented such a gross misreading of my position.

Partisan scholars have certainly been reading the past with the eyes of the present and imposing modern concepts into eras that cannot bear them. In combating this tendency and in attacking chauvinism such scholars as Jonathan Spencer (1990) and Nissan & Stirrat (1990) relied on a poorly-researched section of Leslie Gunawardana’s “People of the Lion” to contend that the Sinhala-Tamil distinction was of little political significance in the periods embraced by the Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandyan kingdoms. But I disclosed the shoddy and dishonest character of that segment of Gunawardana’s work in 1993: see “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” (Ethnic and Racial Studies 16: 141-50). This brief review has since been consolidated in the large body of material within Sinhala Consciousness.  

Without addressing that corpus of evidence and its arguments, there is no excuse for interventions in the public realm that espouse contrary arguments – however politically-correct these arguments are. This tendency is compounded by a modernist inclination to view “ethnic relations” in pre-capitalist time through rose-tinted glasses simply because some scholars are battling chauvinists who use past fights as justifications for present struggles.

It is to Darshanie’s credit that she deciphered this misdirection in Shanie’s reasoning. There is an ironic twist in a Darshanie addressing a Shanie. This irony is compounded by Darshanie’s understandable assumption that “Shanie” is a woman. By chance I know that Shanie is male and Tamil.

Neither Shanie’s gender nor his ethnicity is central to this discussion. One must take the content and foundations of any argument on its merits. One should, so to speak, play ball not woman or man. That stressed, ethnic subjectivity cannot be wholly discounted in reading any document or in presenting an argument. An author’s experiences are likely to be different if s/he is a Sinhalese nurtured in Hambantota and not a Tamil nourished in Point Pedro. So a careful reader will take note of a writer’s ethnic identity even while evaluating the contents rather than name-on-pen.

There are some Sri Lankans, such as Charles Sarvan (Ponnadurai) and Ranjan Abayasekara, who stand forth today as human beings and downplay, if not reject, their ethnic identity. I have no objection to this stance.

But that high-pedestal stance is not a position I cleave to. When I was growing up in the 1950s-70s it would be possible to say, retrospectively, that I saw myself as a Ceylonese and not as part of any of the named ethnic communities within the island. This was due to my peculiar patrilineal pedigree: other than the JCW Rock family there were no other Barbadian West Indians for our family to constitute a meaningful community. In any event the identity “West Indian” (käberi) was not a pronounced one in our familial life-world. Moreover, most people outside my home town of Galle treated me as a Burgher. So in sociological terms I was a demi-Burgher, even though I did not consider myself one.

The situation changed in the 1980s. There was, for one, the reverberations arising from the awful pogrom against Tamils in July 1983.[15] For another, I began writing the work that saw print in 1989 as People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, Ratmalana).

People Inbetween elaborates upon the rise of the middle class and the development of Colombo’s politico-economic hegemony during British times. But its first chapter is entitled “Pejorative Phrases: Sinhalese Perceptions of the Self- through Images of the Burghers.” It provides a background setting for the whole book. It led me to address the political meanings attached to ethnic epithets. The chapter is devoted towards establishing the contention that during the British period caste thinking opposed to mixtures of blood fused with imported Western theories pertaining to racial boundaries. This fusion sustained a sense of nativeness and authenticity among Sinhalese ideologues who wrote mostly in Sinhala. These intellectual strands sought to regenerate the Sinhala people from the inferior status imposed upon them under the colonial regime. These currents of thinking generated a whole battery of epithets that flowed into Ceylonese English.

Primed by this discovery, my perception of self developed a different edge. I became, and now remain, self-consciously a Sri Lankan of mixed descent; or, in shorthand, Mixed and Sri Lankan. In some circumstances at face to face level I describe myself as thuppahi Sri Lankan, a confrontational position of the same calibre as “nigger” when the latter term is deployed as self-description by Afro-Americans in the presence of Whites.[16]

The intent is to arouse political self-reflection through embarrassment among the Sinhalese who hear this term. Yet it can produce unanticipated outcomes. A good Sinhalese friend, one who happens to be one of the most benign and non-chauvinist persons I have ever met, finds the term so repulsive that he cannot bear to enter my web-site. This rejection is one of the crosses I bear as a result of this line of self-branding. C’est la vie. Amen.

[1] See “History-Making in Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese” (2008) and “Lanka without Vijaya” (Lanka Monthy Digest, Jan. 2000). Also see “History as Dynamite” in the Island, Millennium Issue, 1 Jan. 2000 and Roberts, “Burden of History,” 2001. The first two are also reproduced in this web site.

 [2] For e. g. Niassan & Stirrat 1990.

 [3] HL Seneviratne 1997: 10 and Culavamsa, 1953, vol. II: 292.  Also see Roberts, “Sinhala Consciousness,” 2004: 45-48 and HL Seneviratne 1978: 185-86.

 [4] Hugh Nevill 1955: 206. Also see  Siranee Gunawardana 1997: 181 and Roberts, Sinhala, 2004:  126-27.

 [5] Note Rohini Paranavitana’s edition in Sinhala (1999) of this palm-leaf manuscript, the first of the hatan kavi or war poems.

 [6] Also see Strathern 2009 and his The Royal We (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association 2005), a review article on Sinhala Consciousness.

 [7] For studies of the war poems see CR de Silva 1983 and Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004: chap.7.

 [8] See 132-34 and Roberts, “Manichean Demonisation,” 2009.

 [9] For Nilaperumal and his links to the Bandaranaike lineage, see /2010/ 06/Dissecting_Death_Story.php?uid=3969.    

 [10] See Roberts, “From Southern India to Lanka,” 1980; Roberts, Caste Conflict, 1982; DGB de Silva 1998 and Shukri 1986.

 [11] Robert Knox 1911: 159. See Roberts, ‘Manichean Demonisation,” 2009: 374-75. For modes of cultural transmission, see Roberts, Modernist Theory, 2002.

 [12] “In the early 1970s some Vellalars expressly denied that Nalavars and Pallars were Tamils” (Pfaffenberger 1994: 149).

 [13] See Table 3 in Roberts in History of Ceylon, 1973, p. 283. Also see Jayawardena 2001: 335-39. Ramanathan polled 1645 votes and secured a majority of 664.

 [14] Jayawardena 2001: 335-37.

 [15] Note the significance of the personal statement and literary piece entitled “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” (1994 and 2003). As the title foreshadows this is an emotionally-charged essay. It was drafted in a reflective mood in Charlottesville Virginia and was trialled at seminars there, at Perth, Colombo and Adelaide before seeing print in 1994. Note one amendment in the photographic caption in the 2003 reprint.

 [16] See “Why Thuppahi” in Note that the proper transliteration should be tuppahi.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY for Shanie, Darshnanie and Roberts


Abayasekara, Anne 2008 “Am I a Sinhalese first and a Sri Lankan afterwards: An honest attempt

    to answer the question,” Island, 30 June 2008.

Cūlavamsa 1953 Cūlavamsa, trans. by W. Geiger, Colombo: Govt Information Department. 

De Silva, C. R. 1983 “The Historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: A Survey of the Sinhala Writings,” Samskrti 17: pp.13-22.

De Silva, C. R. 1987 Sri Lanka. A History, Delhi: Vikas Publishing.

De Silva, D. G. B. 1998 “New Light on Vanni Chiefs, based on Historical Tradition, Palm-leaf Manuscripts and Official Records,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka, n.s. being the  Sesquicentennial Special Number, 1996, Vol. LXI: 153-204. Note that the 1996 issue appeared in 1998.     

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1988 The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1782, 2nd rev ed., Colombo: Lake House Investments.    

Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. 1990 “The People of the Lion: the Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography,” in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the Roots of Conflict,  London: Routledge, pp. 45-86.

Gunawardena, Siranee 1997 Palm leaf manuscripts of Sri Lanka, Ratmalana,: Sarvodaya.

Jayawardena, V. Kumari 2001 Nobodies to Somebodies. The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Leftword Book.

Knox, Robert 1911 A Historical Relation of Ceylon, Glasgow: James Maclehose and Co.

Nissan, Elizabeth and R. L. Stirrat 1990 “Generation of Communal Identities,” in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge, pp.19-44.

Hevill, Hugh 1955 Sinhala Verse (kavi), vol. 3, Colombo: Govt. Press.

Paranavitana, Rohini 1999 Sītāvaka Hatana, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Pieris, Paul E. 1909 ‘Parangi Hatanē’ [War with the Portuguese] in his Ribeiro’s History of Ceilāo,   Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries Co., 1909, pp. 244-270. This poem is the same as the Rajasīha Hatana edited by Somaratna (1968).

Pfaffenberger, Bryan 1994b “The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism,” in C. Manogaran & B. Pfaffenberger (eds.) The Sri Lankan Tamils, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 143-68.

Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.

Roberts, Michael 1980 “From Southern India to Lanka: The Traffic in Commodities, Bodies, and Myths from the Thirteenth Century Onwards,” South Asia, n.s. 3: 36-47.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: the Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1993 “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic

     and Racial Studies 16: 133-161.

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History,             Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History. Reading: Harwood, chap. 13 [also rep in Nēthra, April-Sept 2003, 6: 199-213].

Roberts, Michael 2000 “History as Dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no.?, pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan. 2000, pp. 43-44. 

Roberts, Michael 2001 “The Burden of History: Obstacles to Power Sharing in Sri Lanka,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.  

Roberts, Michael 2001 Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending

      the Kandyan Period of Lankan History,” Ethnic Studies Report 19: 69-98.

Roberts, Michael 2002 “The Collective Consciousness of the Sinhalese during the Kandyan Era:   

     Manichean Demonisation, Associational Logic,” Asian Ethnicity 3: 29-46.

Roberts, Michael 2002 Modernist Theory. Trimming the Printed Word: The Instance of Pre-

    Modern Sinhala Society, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.  

Roberts, Michael 2008 “History-Making in Sri Lanka – Problems: I,” Island, 16 April 2008. Also in, 16 April 2008.

Roberts, Michael 2008 “How does one become Sinhalese or Tamil in sentiment?” Island, 30 April 2008 and

Roberts, Michael 2009 Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Pubications.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “The Collective Consciousness of the Sinhalese during the Kandyan Era:   

     Manichean Demonisation, Associational Logic,” in Roberts, Confrontations, 2009:

Roberts, M., Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome 1989 People Inbetween. Vol. 1. The

     Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s,

     Colombo: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

Seneviratne, H. L. 1978 Rituals of the Kandyan State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seneviratne, H. L. 1997 “Identity and the Conflation of Past and Present,” in H. L Seneviratne

     (ed.) Identity, Consciousness and the Past, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-22.

Shanie 2008‘Writng History and Myth,” Island, 19 April 2008.   

Shukri, M. A. M. 1986 Muslims of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Aitken Spence for the Jamiah Naleemia Institute, Beruwala.

Spencer, Jonathan (ed.) 1990b Sri Lanka. History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge.

Strathern, Alan 2005 The Royal We, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.

Strathern, Alan 2009 “The Vijaya Origin Myth of Sri Lanka and the Strangeness of Kingship,”

    Past & Present No. 203: 3-28.

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    about Jesus,” Asian Folklore Studies 54: 50-66.

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Filed under cultural transmission, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

11 responses to “Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka’s Pre-capitalist Past: Shanie, Darshanie and Roberts

  1. Perinbanayagam

    This exchange leaves me convinced that the study of “history” should be banned and historians silenced for ever,Santayana notwithsatanding!After all,history doesn’t repeat itself,only historians do!Instead of history we must study and teach “futury” . For Lanka this means: take account of the facts on the ground now and devise a method and an ideology for constructing a modern nation-state that will work efficiently for all concerned– the descendants of those who came with Vijay and those who came later– in a spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity.

  2. Darshanie

    Futury instead of history! How progressive. But with this talk of banning and silencing aren’t we actually going backwards in time, to a less enlightened era, which saw knowledge as dangerous needing to be contained, restricted, and even suppressed? Aren’t we retracing our steps along a trail strewn with such dismal landmarks as the banning of the teaching of Evolutionary Biology in schools, only teaching it along with Intelligent Design, poisoning of Socrates, sentencing of Galileo, witch burnings and etc? Both the Vatican and the Church of England have gone forward now haven’t they, expressing regret about Galileo, apologizing to Darwin, decreeing that only human error created the impression of incompatibility.

    Everyone has gone forward everywhere in the world. Do you think we have?

    In 1919 Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes said
    “The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved the victory and my colleagues and I have brought that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted.”

    He said this in a spirit of achievement after successfully blocking at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, a move which would have threatened the White Australia Policy.

    In 1957 S J V Chelvanayakam said
    “State-aided Sinhalese colonization of the Northern and Eastern Provinces will be effectively stopped forthwith.”

    He too said this in a spirit of achievement and hope after negotiating and signing the Bandaranaike -Chelvanayakam pact.
    Prof Km de Silva in his ‘Separatist Ideology In Sri Lanka A Historical Appraisal’ says about this statement of Mr. Chelvanayakam,
    ‘This last was aimed at reassuring its adherents, and was at the same time an expression of hope at the possibility of achieving this objective through a pact which the then Prime Minister, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, had negotiated with the Federal Party leader, S J V Chelvanayakam, and signed only two days earlier. There
    “…It was agreed that in the matter of colonization schemes the powers of the regional councils shall include the power to select allotees to whom lands within their area of authority shall be alienated and also power to select personnel to be employed for work on such schemes. The position regarding the area at present administered by the Gal-Oya Board in this matter requires consideration.”

    This pact was not implemented, but in compelling the then government to confront this issue, and to do so on terms satisfactory to the FP the latter had won a major victory. A theory of dubious historicity had been elevated to the level of a fundamentally important principle that should guide relations between the two disputants in the ethnic conflicts of post-independence Sri Lanka. In less than a decade of its first enunciation this theory, now refined as “the traditional homeland of the Tamils” had become an indispensable and integral part of the political ideology of the Tamil advocates of regional autonomy and separatism.’

    Australia moved on from ‘White Australia’.

    “The policy was dismantled in stages by successive governments after the conclusion of World War II, with the encouragement of first non-British and later non-white immigration. From 1973 on, the White Australia policy was for all practical purposes defunct, and in 1975 the Australian government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which made racially-based selection criteria illegal.” – Wikipedia/White Australia Policy

    But have we moved on? No after the B/C pact came the D/C pact which contained the proviso that in distributing State land in the North and the East preference should be given first to people living inside the District, second to people living within the Province and third to people of the Tamil ethnicity living outside the Province.

    An International Crisis Group report SRI LANKA’S EASTERN PROVINCE: LAND, DEVELOPMENT, CONFLICT Asia Report N°159 – 15 October 2008 (that can be found at makes the following recommendation to the SL Government;

    “Ensure economic development in the East is equitable and inclusive and perceived as such by all communities by ….” Wait for it Perin “…making a public commitment not to allow development to alter significantly the existing ethnic balance of the province”.

    Now it’s next to impossible not to allow development to alter significantly the existing ethnic balance of anywhere. See what happened to Colombo, to London, France….unless one adopted measures as the International Crisis Group suggests. Just imagine this conversation Perin

    GOSL – “Oh measures?”

    International Crisis Group (says with decisive and grave finality) – “Yes measures”

    And in an ideal world someone would be smart enough to say

    “You mean measures like the USA Immigration Act of 1924, which introduced the National Origins Formula?

    (The National Origins Formula was an American system of immigration quotas, between 1921 and 1965, which restricted immigration on the basis of existing proportions of the population. The goal was to maintain the existing ethnic composition of the United States – Wikipedia)

    End of conversation. Because systems that sanctify the ethnic and religious status quo at a point of time most attractive to the proponents of the system and seek to preserve it are past their expiry date. That expiry date was officially reached on October 3, 1965 when USA President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation which eliminated National Origins as a consideration for immigration into law saying

    “This [old] system violates the basic principle of American democracy, the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”

    Do you think we have reached that level of human progression yet? Have we managed to outgrow the tendency to look at a human being and only see a statistic in the demography chart?

    History then Perin is not without its lessons. World history teaches us that sanctifying a demographic status quo at a point of time is ludicrous but it is to the HISTORY OF THIS COUNTRY we have to turn to learn exactly how monstrous such a concept would be when applied in our context.

    What’s also monstrous is to think that you have to have a racial or cultural link to a history of a land in a particular period to empathize, appreciate and feel proud of it.

    Even though you say that historians should be silenced I think our historians have done a good job in an atmosphere where reality has been hopelessly dislocated ever since the Goebbels’ big lie technique of propaganda was successfully introduced to Sri Lanka around 1949- 1951 by the Federal Party gentlemen.

    Big Lie- A propaganda technique, the expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, for a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

    Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels Third Reich propaganda minister perfected the “Big Lie” technique of propaganda, which is based on the principle that a lie, if audacious enough and repeated enough times, will be believed by the masses.

    Around 1984 Dr Gamini Iriyagolla said
    “K. M. de Silva, a professor of history is the chairman of a limited liability company styled “International Centre for Ethnic Studies”. It is a recipient of foreign funds and promotes the idea of regional autonomy for minorities.”

    Yet in ‘Separatist Ideology In Sri Lanka A Historical Appraisal’ first published in 1987 he was more effective than any ranting nationalist.

    Also in his essay ‘Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and Issues’ ( ) you can see even Dr. Michael Roberts acting like a text book illustration of Professor Leonard Thompson’s dictum that

    “‘Historians have a responsibility to discredit false and noxious myths and, with vigorous regard for the truth, to respond to the general public’s doubts about the utility of their specialized skills and knowledge”

    Of course historians can and do have agendas and visions and ideologies. But objective truth is like ideals or stars isn’t it? You may never attain but you have to keep reaching and there’s enough evidence that our historians have conscientiously kept on reaching, consistently gone on trying to proclaim objective truth to a hostile, indifferent and unappreciative world.

  3. Perinbanayagam

    My ironic comment about history and “history” and futury has, inexplicably drawn this rant about “Tamil homelands”.Nevertheless,it no doubt unwittingly,makes my point.
    Darsh assumes that I will defend the concept of “Tamil homelands”– perhaps because my name ends in a consonant rather than a vowel!Far from doing that I will point out that the the very concept of a “traditional Tamil homelans” is based on a “history” just as the conception of a primordial Sinhala homeland in which the Sinhala-speakers should have exclusive rights, is based on a conjectural “history”.
    Both of these conceptions should be irrelevant,Darsh,in constituting a modern nation state.They are both useful political slogans with which to win elections just as they are both potent agents for the destuction of a civil and civilized state.

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  6. The suggestion that the Tamil signatures in the treaty implies any ethnic connections a la HLS should not be rejected completely. However, some have argued that the original treaty document was doctored by O’Doyle and that some of the Adigars did not actually sign.
    Do we have the actual original document?
    So there is room for historians to go into it.
    However, HLS’ suggestion, based on Tamil signatures, if taken forward to 1948, would mean that ALL the signatories to the 1948 Independence, having signed in English, must be of Anglo-Saxon lineage. I think Even HLS would perhaps not claim that?

    • As far as i know the so-called Tamil signatures are in GRANTHA which is a script not a language (info from Director Archives way back). As for the actual document please check with the Archives. If readers look at the book edited by Seneviratne they will find thathe Nayakakar kings were referred to as AMHAKAM SIHALINDO namely “KINGS OF THE sINHALESE OR “OUR SINHALESE KING.” Again, the armies of the Sitavaka Kingdom in the 16th century are referred to as SIHALA SENAGA not sitavaka senega.
      Bits and pieces history of the type you are challenging [a favourite propagandist pastime] needs to read ALAN STRATHERN’s book on the Portuguse period and for that matter my SINHALA COSNCIOUSNESS IN THE KANDYAN PERIOD
      PS you are referring to JOHN D’OYLY not Doyle [minor error not of vital import]

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