Nationalism, the Past and The Present: The Case of Sri Lanka

Michael Roberts 

This review article was drafted in 1991 and should therefore be assessed in the light of the literature available then. In those days it took at least two years for an article to be refereed and published. The essay  discusses the following three books: Jonathan Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble.  Politics and Change in Rural Sri Lanka, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990, 285pp; Jonathan Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka.  History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge, 1990, 253pp; Manning Nash, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, 142pp. It was origianally printed in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1993, 16: 133-161.

P1 The ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has aroused interest in both the reasons for the breakdown of its polity and the roots of Tamil and Sinhala identities. The resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe will encourage studies in the broader implications of the Sri Lankan data for social science theory.

As a result of the excesses of the Nazi upsurge, Western scholars have tended to regard nationalism as retrograde and potentially patho­logical (e.g. Kedourie 1960) or reprehensibly atavistic.  In South Asia, in contrast, ever since the decolonization process got under way, nationalism has been viewed positively—as long as its goals were framed in terms of the existing (colonial) political boundaries. The recent upsurge of violence has encouraged Asian scholars to question this perspective.  Such questioning is sometimes embodied in the term ‘chauvinism’ (e.g. Coomaraswamy 1987: 74-81). This term is not a novel addition to the Asian English lexicon. It was used in British Ceylon in the 1920s and 1930s to describe those who pressed for Tamil and Sinhalese sectional interests: these spokesmen were reviled as “communalists”, “chauvinists” and “tribalists” by both the moderates and radicals who espoused a Ceylonese nationalism.[1]

Spencer’s study of A Sinhala Village enables one to come to grips with the forces of Sinhalese sectional nationalism in recent decades; while the essays in History and the Roots of Conflict (hereafter Roots) broaden the ethnographic sweep and explicitly engage the manner in which historiographical constructions shape identity and political claim.  Nash’s book reminds one of the needs to move beyond such specificities to seek some ’empirical generalizations’ relating to ethnicity in the twentieth-century world of nation-states.

However, the broader implications attached to the Sinhalese case material are already ingrained within Spencer’s village study.  His theoretical framework is derived from Ernest Gellner and his vocabu­lary draws on Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm.  ‘Print capital­ism’ and ‘the invention of tradition’ are writ large in his analysis.  Likewise, the article by Nissan and Stirrat in Roots seems to imply that it is not possible for ethnic consciousness to operate in significant ways in the dynastic states of the pre-capitalist era. Their essay is partly inspired by Gunawardana’s 1979 essay on ‘The People of the Lion’, now revised and reprinted in Roots. The latter essay is heralded as the flagbearer for a revisionist historiography.  In this self perception, then, Roots becomes part of a laudable effort to show how so many scholars have tended to read the identities of the twentieth century into the past.

My essay questions selective aspects of the work of Spencer, Nissan and Stirrat, and Gunawardana.  In keeping with their approach, it works through temporally specific ethnographic detail.  It argues that there was a Sinhala consciousness in the past, in the era of dynastic monarchies. On Gunawardana’s own evidence this dates from the eleventh-twelfth centuries, but could arguably (in opposition to Guna­wardana) be pushed back to the fifth-sixth centuries.

In deploying this detail it delineates some of the forces and mechan­isms which contributed to the reproduction of this consciousness (with­out, however, exhausting the subject). It lays special emphasis on the role of oral traditions and the interplay between the oral and the written traditions in reproducing Sinhala consciousness; and on the imprint of conflict between the Sinhalese (under their dynasts) and a series of Indian invaders from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, and the conflict with successive European powers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was this consciousness which informed the efforts of those Kandyan Sinhalese who participated in a massive rebellion against the British occupation in 1817-18 (P E Pieris 1950; Vimalananda 1970; Roberts 1972; Powell 1973).

In line with my previous writings on the subject (1979a), this, Sinhala identity is labeled a “patriotism” and treated as conceptually distinct from latter-day “nationalism.” A discontinuity is thereby marked. Sin­hala patriotism nevertheless provided some foundations for the sub­sequent development. A continuity can also be marked. As such, my essay raises the general issue of continuity and change in the Sri Lankan situation. It does not, however, grapple with that hard knot: how do we theorize continuity and change?

Through its case material, then, this article questions the weightage given to print capitalism by Benedict Anderson. The emphasis on the distinction between the educated and uneducated, and the concomitant appraisal of the educated through literacy, are a peculiar disease of modernism. This disease permeates Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) as well. This book is a reworking of an old thesis. As far back as 1953, Karl Deutsch, for instance, argued that nationalism is “associated with the mass mobilization of pre-commercial, pre-industrial peasant peoples” (p. 164). To be sure, Gellner does not fully share Deutsch’s cybernetic rationality. But, like Deutsch, he cleaves to a Eurocentric paradigm, not only in its lineaments, but also in the manner in which he denies the non-European people the capacity to generate their own history without the effect of the industrial capitalist intervention of the West (cf. Eric Wolf’s critique, 1982). In Deutsch’s work it is even anticipated that ‘the age of nationalism’ will spawn the end of diversity, moving people beyond the nation to “a more thoroughgoing world-wide unity” (1953, p 165). The emphasis is on a future global homogeneity of culture, just as nationalism is construed as homogeneous in content and pattern.

Thus, both Gellner and Deutsch have been accused of sociological universal­ism and sociological determinism (cf. Yapp 1979: 10ff; Chatterjee 1986: 4-6; 19, 21-2; Kapferer 1988: 3). This deterministic structural functionalism can also be discerned in Spencer’s analysis.

Spencer’s Tenna, Spencer’s place

Rural politics at the village level in the 1980s provide Jonathan Spencer with one of his domains of inquiry. He deploys his experience of the political culture in the village of Tenna as the basis for a movement beyond the locality, a movement that involves a survey of the inter­action between politics, religion and socioeconomic change on the one hand and an exploration of Sinhala nationalism on the other. The latter is explicitly linked to the triumph of populism under Bandara­naike at the general elections of 1956 (1990: 243).

Tenna lies in the intermediate climatic belt between the wet and dry zones. It was a relative backwater in British times (1815-1948) and depended largely on swidden agriculture (chena). By 1981, however, swidden had disappeared.  The villagers derived their income from a wide variety of sources.  On these grounds Spencer captures the sce­nario in one emphatic phrase: “the fragmentation of common experience” (p. 97), a vision that is supported by the fact that recent im­migrants outnumber the old villagers.

With the locality thus contextualized, two themes are pressed in A Sinhala Village: firstly, the articulation between the contemporary Buddhist rituals at Tenna and the sharp political animosities between the local United National Party [UNP] and Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] factions; and, secondly, this synchronic focus fits neatly with a more diachronic theme which outlines the transformation of Tenna from a localized community to a more fragmented order which has nevertheless become part of the homogenizing Sinhala Buddhist cul­ture of a nation-state. The second theme is an ethnographic illustration of Gellner’s thesis (1983) on the development of nationalism, which contrasts the social organization of ‘agro-literate polities’ with that of nations in the industrial era.  In his view, the former are marked by ‘laterally separate petty communities’ of agricultural producers who sustain little traditions and are subject to the overlordship of the ‘stratified, horizontally segregated layers’ making up various elements of the ruling class, a class which maintains a clear distinction from the peasant producers and which sustains a high culture (the great tradition) which may extend beyond the borders of their polity to other ruling classes. With ‘modernization’, one saw ‘the replacement of diversified, locality-tied low cultures by standardized, formalized and codified, literacy-carried high cultures.’ One of the critical facets in the development of nationalism was the universalization of a specific high culture so that it pervaded the mass of the people within a polity and sought to fuse polity and culture (Gellner 1983).

Thus framed, in detailing the specifics of the electoral and other struggles at Tenna, Spencer adopts the indigenous view that ‘Politics are not a good thing’ (1990: 73, a villager’s words). The series of contemporary Buddhist rituals at Tenna “were an attempt to represent Tenna to itself … as an unified community of Sinhala Buddhists” (p. 68). There was an intentionality in this activity and the rituals were ‘the symbolic making of a community from [its] socially heterogeneous elements’ (pp. 69, 128). Though the villagers believed they were pursu­ing tradition, to Spencer some of the religious rituals were no more than “a ragbag of ‘traditional’ elements” (p. 69). He concludes that this so-called “tradition” was not the oral culture of the villages in the past, but “the print culture of the schoolroom and the newspaper,” while “the rituals themselves were novel assemblages of local initiative and borrowed ideas” (p. 69).

Spencer’s second theme dovetails neatly with this picture. Both archival and oral sources are deployed to argue that Tenna in the past had been an isolated body of swidden agriculturalists, who worshipped a local deity named Mangara, smoked cannabis, hunted animals and whose contact with state authority was mediated by a feudal landlord.  One old man said: “We knew nothing of the dharma then” (p. 158). This statement captures the general retrospective sentiment that in times past they were not properly Buddhist, not true Sinhalese (pp. 158-59; 163).

This state of affairs was transformed as Tenna was brought within the aegis of the market economy and the state.  The critical agencies of transformation reached Tenna in the period 1935-45: a road, a school, a Buddhist temple.[2]  The arrival of more and more in-migrants and the growth of cash crop vegetables complemented the effects of these changes and put an end to swidden agriculture.

Though he does not use this vocabulary, there is a THEN:NOW contrast in Spencer’s study.  THEN covers the period 1820s-1920s and serves as his baseline. The history of Tenna, in these terms, is a case of an isolated community being absorbed, and actively absorbing itself, in the new Sinhala Buddhist nation. It becomes possible for the activists in Tenna to re-imagine the village in the image of the nation (pp. 68-69; 240-41). The story of Tenna, and the details of ritual practice, all this goes to show “that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a young creature” (p. 248).

These nationalist inventions and images also counteract the social disorganization produced by economic change and the bitter rivalries of electoral politics. The latter, the penetration of party rivalries into the village scene, was not solely an erogenous thrust. This was Robin­son’s argument (1975) in her study of village politics in Kotmale. Spencer provides an explicit corrective by revealing that the search for resources prompted villagers themselves to seek party affiliation (pp. 9-12; 159; 208-31).

This correction makes good sense as an island-wide generalization. What does not make sense is Spencer’s interpretation of the conscious­ness of Sinhala Buddhists over time, from the 1820s to the 1980s. His historical reconstruction in effect follows the standard interpretation of the growth of the nation-state and its nationalism in Europe in early modern times.  For both Tenna and Sinhala Lanka this thesis is quite misleading.

Since Spencer lays so much emphasis on the effect of the village temple, the village school and print culture in generating the new nationalism of the mid-twentieth century, it follows that their absence in the past becomes critical.  Concomitantly, this involves a stress on the isolation of Tenna in the past.  Here, through Spencer, one has a vivid example of the manner in which the facilities of the motorized present facilitate a misconstruction of the past. Then, in the past, the nearest temple “was a difficult journey of at least eight miles,” Spencer says (p. 157). Eight miles! Whether uphill or downhill, to villagers in the past, this would have been taken in their stride. In days when many people walked the seventy odd miles from Colombo to Kandy, when plantation labourers walked from Mannar to the hill country,[3] when… when … examples could be multiplied, to weight this eight-mile distance in the manner Spencerian is absurd.

Viewed in this light, Tenna lies within reach of the Saman dēvala at Ratnapura, the principal shrine to Skanda at Kataragama and, above all, the holy site of Adam’s Peak. It would have been remark­able if some inhabitants of Tenna THEN had not visited these places at some point in their life.  Obeyesekere has illustrated the manner in which the “obligatory pilgrimage” enlarges the compass of a local community and unifies it with the “larger community of Sinhala Bud­dhists.” In this view the pilgrimage functions as a mechanism which generates a sense of group consciousness. This is made possible because the pilgrims from discrete villages who assemble at regional centres of ritual worship (e.g. Ratnapura, Devinuwara, Mahiyangana) share a common language and “the common subscription to Buddh­ism,” that is, Buddhism in its syncretist Sinhala Buddhist praxis (Obeyesekere 1979: 290-91).

In Obeyesekere’s presentation this is not merely a contemporary phenomenon, but something which has operated for many centuries past (and, indeed, documentary sources and the Sigiriya graffiti attest to the practice of pilgrimage and travel from the late Anuradhapura period, if not earlier).  At the regional centres of ritual worship, the pilgrims “temporarily renounce the worship of their local parochial deities [and] worship the guardian god of [the central] shrine and the Buddha present in [that centre’s] relics.”[4] The difference in the implications of pilgrimages in medieval Europe provides an illuminat­ing contrast. There the pilgrimages cut across regions, languages and tongues and linked the Christians of Christendom. Once Buddhism disappeared from India by the tenth-eleventh centuries, the Buddhists of Lanka were linked as Sinhala Buddhists (though this did not prevent them from incorporating and domesticating Hindu gods and Hindu practices into their religion). There were intermittent links with Burma and Siam, but these did not fracture the sense of Sinhala Buddhistness or the conviction that they were a chosen people (see below: 141-45).

The local deity at Tenna is Mangara. Spencer provides us with no information on the villagers’ conceptions of Mangara’s place in the hierarchy of Sinhala Buddhist gods. Informed by Winslow’s (1984a) and Obeyesekere’s (1963; 1966) work in this field, I believe that such an explicit link existed THEN and exists NOW, though the linkage may not be quite the same now as it was then. The point is that Mangara receives his power by virtue of a higher god’s warrant (varam). What is more, Mangara’s presence is not confined to the locality of Tenna. Mangara is one of the several deities who constitute the Bandāra cult, a cult that is widely diffused in the former Kingdom of Kandy (Obeyesekere 1979b: 205-23). He is also an integral part of the yaktovil (healing exorcisms) practised in the Southern Province, while his principal shrine is near Negombo (Kapferer 1983 and personal communication from Kapferer).

Tenna in bygone days, therefore, was integrated with the wider Buddhist world of the Sinhalese.  This integration would have been specifically evident in the Tenna people’s efforts to cope with suffering, in their theories of causation and their analysis of physical disorders. This is where the interconnections of ayurveda (indigenous medicine), astrology and tovil would come into play (Kapferer 1983: chs 3, 4 and 6). Behind all this would be an emphasis on karma (the moral law of cause and effect which shapes one’s destiny). Since Spencer does not provide us with any data on this point, since he does not ask the octogenarians whether their peers in the past sought to accumulate merit (pin) so as to assist their karma,[5] we have no means of assessing whether the Tenna people of yesteryear were Buddhist or not.

Spencer underestimates Old Tenna’s links with the extra-local order on a number of other fronts.  Here one needs to recall Opler’s and Dumont’s warnings to anthropologists about the manner in which they constitute their village’s boundedness (Opler 1956; Dumont and Pocock 1957). Spencer is guilty of doing this for Tenna THEN, but not in his picture of Tenna NOW. The diachronic contrast in his book, therefore, is a product of his Gellnerian paradigm. For instance, it is likely that Tenna’s inhabitants were brought into direct contact with the Kandyan state in the era before 1815 by their obligations of rājakāriya,[6] whether through their feudal overlord or otherwise.

Again, Spencer’s oral history reveals that the villagers guarding their chena plots at night THEN used to keep themselves awake by shouting riddles across the fields (pp. 4; 112). This is part of the Sinhala tradition of tēravili (folk poems with riddles). Such riddles are replete with nature motifs drawn from local fauna and flora. The issue that demands specialist opinion is whether the tēravili intertwine with the rich repository of Sinhala folklore (jana katā) and the geographical infor­mation inscribed into the kadaim pot and vitti pot which were drawn up from about the sixteenth century onwards.[7] It should be noted that the folk etymology of village place names connects specific villages to royal figures, mythical or factual, in a significant proportion of cases.[8]

The oral culture of Tenna, in other words, was entwined with that of the wider Sinhala Buddhist order. There was an articulation, in the past, between the oral culture, the literary culture of palm-leaf manuscripts and the visual imagery of painting, icon and architectural form. While the force of print capitalism in modern times must be given weight, those scholars who neglect the force of these other media in days gone by are attaching blinkers to themselves. Just as selected messages from the Mahāvamsa and other erudite Pali and/or Sinhala works entered the ballads, lullabies and folklore of oral communication in Sinhala, some jana katā from the oral discourse flowed into written collections such as the Alakēsvara Yuddhaya and Rājāvaliya (Suraweera 1965; 1976).[9] Both Anderson (1983) and Gellner (1983) fatally underestimate the force of oral and visual com­munication and their capacity to sustain group solidarities. On this issue Spencer is their acolyte.

It is significant that Spencer’s extended commentary on Sinhala nationalism in recent times should include a quotation from James Joyce and be guided strongly by Ernest Gellner.”Look here, Cranly … I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can … [through] silence, exile, and cunning,” said Daedalus, the personification of Joyce, in 1915.[10] Gellner (1983), as I infer, is in recoil from the Nazi Holocaust. It may not be too far­fetched to suggest that Spencer himself is in recoil from the traumas of the Sinhala pogrom against the Tamils in July 1983, also referred to locally as “the holocaust’”(Manor 1984 and Piyadasa 1984).

The punchline in Spencer’s argument is provided by his approving paraphrase of Gellner: “Nationalism involves a process of cultural transformation in which local differences come up against the ideal of national similarity” (1990: 250). This line of argument is sup­plemented by Hobsbawm’s instrumental thesis on the invention of tradition and a mix of ideas drawn from Nairn (1981), Kedourie (1960) and Anderson (1983). None of these authors, however, has satisfactorily answered the question how specific nationalist sentiments evoke the passions. Kapferer (1988) has confronted this issue through Sinhala and Australian data, but Spencer bypasses his interpretation by affirming that there is “no need… to invoke sophisticated argu­ments about ‘hierarchy’ and ‘ontology’” (pp. 252-53).

Instead, according to Spencer, we can rely on Gellner’s formulation (quoted above) and we “merely need to see what it is that has been smashed and what it is that is being pieced back together.  Lying among the wreckage we can see the comfortable familiarities of place and family… the two governing figures in the language of the nation” (p. 253 citing Hobsbawm 1972: 392). In brief, in A Sinhala Village the outlines of modernization theory are blended with the familiar model of the growth of nation-ness in Western Europe. The former, modernization theory and its functionalism, is invoked in new Ander­sonian language. The market, electoral politics and print culture are the agencies of change.  These forces generate diversity and dislo­cation,[11] reflexivity and homogenization. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is an intentional effort to patch together some unity and to reassemble that which has been smashed.

In Spencer’s Tenna, therefore, we have a combination of moderniz­ation theory with a modified version of Redfield’s (1955) view of the village community in the past (stripped of its romantic pastoral ideal by an emphasis on the prevalence of disease and death in the past, but reaffirming its particularized communitarian-ness in the model pressed by Gellner for agro-literate societies). Structural functionalism is thereby regenerated by two currents. In the result, the overt political intent of the Tenna villagers’ religious activities (patching together unity) is overestimated, while the historical continuities are undervalued because Spencer is so comprehensively wrong in the baseline picture which he constructs.

Sinhala consciousness in pre-British times

To comprehend fully Spencer’s misdirections and to prepare the ground for a discussion of Roots, it is necessary for me to extend Spencer’s baseline into the centuries past and outline Sri Lanka’s history in ways which clarify the development of Sinhala consciousness in those regions (they varied) which constituted the Sinhala heartland.  No claim is made here that these Sinhala sentiments were ‘nationalist’ in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sense.

Contrary to popular views, there is no definitive evidence that the categories Sīhala (Sinhala) and Damila (Tamil) were of great relevance in the centuries B.C. The so-called “Sinhala hero”, Dutugämunu (161-37 B.C.), was a chieftain who appears to have conquered other chieftain­cies and ruled the island from Anuradhapura (Gunawardana 1978; 1990: 46). These early Anuradhapura dynasties developed irrigation technology to a point where they could support many non-producers, notably Buddhist monks, and nurture a blossoming civilization (known in historiography as the Rajarata civilization) in the northern and south-eastern parts of the island.

While the island was referred to as Tambapanni, Chinese and Indian sources from the second and fourth centuries A.D. indicate that it was also known as Saimhala or Sīhala. The Dīpavamsa, a Pali chronicle compiled in Sri Lanka in the fourth century, also refers to Sihaladīpa and begins to develop a myth to account for this name (Liyanagamage 1968: 24; Gunawardena 1990: 47-59; Mendis n.d., pp. 49-61). The Pali commentaries written by the Indian scholar-­visitor, Buddhagosa, in the early fifth century A.D., not only refer to Sīhaladvīpa, but also speak of the Buddhist doctrines being kept in the Sīhala bhāsa (Sinhala language) for “the benefit of the inhabitants of the island” (Dharmadasa 1991).

The fullest elaboration of the Sinhala mythology is in the epic poem and Pali chronicle known as the Mahāvamsa, compiled in the fifth or sixth century A.D. This mythology and the refashioning of Dutugämunu as a Sinhala culture hero are employed in support of a thesis to the effect that Lankā or Sihaladipa was preordained by the Buddha to be a land where the Buddhist Dhamma would be reserved in its pristine purity. The people of Sinhala, the Sinhala, therefore, are rendered into a chosen people and their king is invested with a sacred role, on a par with the four guardian deities: together they must maintain this ethical objective.[12]

Both the Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa are believed to have been partly based on an earlier work in Old Sinhala, the Sīhala Attakatā Mahāvamsa, now lost.  In any event a number of exegetical works in both Pali and Old Sinhala developed around these two famous scrip­tural texts in subsequent centuries (Paranavitana 1959: 393-95; C R de Silva 1987: 65-66). The latter are no longer extant, but the “large number of verses of folk poetry [in secular vein] inscribed on the gallery wall at Sigiriya by visitors of the [eighth to tenth] centuries testify to a high standard of poetical work in Sinhalese”, that is, Old Sinhala (C R de Silva 1987: 66). These poets were from all parts of the island and included soldiers, artisans and women (Paranavitana 1956, I, pp. cciiff and R Obeyesekere 1979: 267-68).

Influenced by the evidence of the Pali chronicles, until recently most historians assumed that a Sinhala consciousness was pervasive among the island peoples from at least the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., with many incautiously extending this to the centuries B.C. as well. Leslie Gunawardana questions this assumption (1990, passim). He argues that the label “Sinhala” applied only to the dynasty and its aristocratic supporters and that the service castes (and the aboriginal Veddas) were not encompassed by this term. He also infers that the label was extended from the dynasty to the kingdom. It was not until later, about the twelfth century, that it was extended further to identify the people as a whole.

Gunawardana’s argument is by no means accepted by all scholars in the field and K N O Dharmadasa (1991) has recently challenged it in detail.[13] It is constructed on an explicit, yet weakly demonstrated, assumption that there was a gap between the aristocratic ruling class and the popular mass.  It does not address the issue how it was that a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse, a language which was identified as Sinhala, and who lived in a land called Sinhala, were not seen as Sinhala; and did not see themselves as Sinhala.

For our purposes here [reviewing the books listed], however, the critical point is that Gunawardana notes that “the term Sinhala had come to acquire a wider connotation” by the year 1200 or so and ‘denoted the Sinhala-speaking population who were the preponderant element among the residents in the island’ (1990: 64; 78). By this time, indeed by the tenth century, a militant Hindu revival in southern India had led to the virtual extinction of Buddhism on the subcontinent. This stimulated a tendency towards the convergence of the Buddhist and the Sinhala identities’ (Gunawardana 1990: 62), though one should be cautious about concluding that all Sinhalese (Sinhalas) were necessarily Bud­dhist.

The solidarities among the Sinhalese would also have been promoted by the series of invasions by South Indian kingdoms from the ninth century onwards. Eventually, between 993 and 1017, the Cōla Empire secured control of the whole island. The Sinhala forces, however, liberated the island by 1070.  The new dynasty established itself at the Cōla capital of Polonnaruwa rather than Anuradhapura.  However, the Polonnaruwa kingdom went into sharp decline from the early thir­teenth century. One factor behind this decline appears to have been an invasion by a south Indian dynasty, Magha of Kalinga. As the Sinhala order withdrew towards the southwestern regions of the island, Magha’s forces—the “Kerala devils” (yakku) in one account appear to have coalesced with elements among the local population (Tamil speakers? and Sinhala speakers?) to constitute a principality in the north.

In the descriptions of some of the south Indian invaders from the ninth century onwards, it is significant that subsequent accounts in the Cūlavamsa describe the Tamils and Magha’s forces as “devils” or “bloodsucking demons”, and dwell on their wickedness and “false faith” (i.e. Hinduism).[14]  What is so striking about the ideological reconstruc­tions of these alien interventions in the Cūlavamsa, Pūjāvaliya and other Pali/Sinhala texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is the we: they opposition on which the accounts are built. There are explicit references to the “Sīhala army,” Sīhala warriors” and “the Sīhalas who opposed the various aliens and who were victimized as a result. Their resistance was on behalf of Lanka—“this superb island of Lanka” and “that fair lady, the island of Lanka” in the words put in the mouth of hero kings by one of the authors of the Cūlavamsa.[15]

Between the thirteenth and late fifteenth centuries there was inter­mittent warfare between the Tamil kingdom in the north and the successive Sinhala kingdoms located in the south-west.  Both sides seized each other’s capitals on the odd occasion. However, it appears that the Sinhala monarchs thought of themselves as rulers of the whole island.[16] The Dhammadīpa and Sīhaladīpa concepts of the Pali chronicles, it would seem, lived on.

Following Tambiah, it could be suggested that the Sinhala monarchy at this point of time was “a galactic polity” (1976: 102-31). The solidarities of this state were not based on the exclusive, either: or principles of Western epistemology and the modern nation-state. The group sentiments were hierarchically incorporative.  There was room for heterogeneity and syncretism, but they were valued on a hierarchical scale.[17]

This enabled the Sinhala monarchy to incorporate (rather than absorb in the manner of “a melting pot”) immigrant bodies of people as service castes; and to accept Brahmins and Tamils as ministers and kings during the centuries thirteen to eighteen.[18] The act of conse­cration[19] rendered all kings, including foreigner-kings, ideally speaking, into divine guardians of the Dhamma and kings of the Sinhala people.

The unstable political conditions in the period extending from the­ thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries did not prevent the efflorescence of Sinhala literature, both in prose and verse. Among these works were translations or adaptations from the jātaka stories,[20] such as the Pansiya-Jātakapota (early thirteenth century), the Saddharmālankāra (late fourteenth century) and the Guttila Kāvya (fifteenth century?).[21]  It would be a fatal mistake to conclude that the erudite Sinhala and Pali literature of ancient times was inaccessible to the mass of the people.  The Pūjāvaliya (written in 1266) served as “the model for Sinhalese writers during periods of literary revival”; and such a work as the Saddhamāratnāvaliya (also from the thirteenth century) is “writ­ten in easy prose” and “draw(s) heavily from the then current folklore and similes and parable intelligible to the unerudite readers.”[22]  This accessibility was furthered by the movement to simplify the literary language that was pressed in the fifteenth century by the scholar monks, Vättävē Thera and Vīdāgama Thera.[23]

For many centuries there have been abbreviated and simplified versions of the jātakas known as sähali (plural form). There have also been panegyrics about kings and great men, and religious ballads about gods and dēvatävas (godlings). Many of the latter are part of rites and propitiatory incantations with instrumental objectives. Like the folklore (jana katā) some of these incantations incorporate and adapt extracts from the Vijaya myth and the history of Lanka.[24]

The political implications of such activity cannot be assessed by confining one’s researches to the contents of these works examined in their context. One has to speculate on the interplay between events, literary text, oral communication and the imagery of icons, paintings and buildings. James Duncan (1990) has imaginatively illustrated how the latter can be utilized for the Kingdom of Kandy (1590s-1815). Obeyesekere has attempted to use folk tradition from the twentieth century to understand the historical evidence relating to two fifth-century kings associated with Sigiriya; while his work on the Pattini cult provides glimpses of the force of oral tradition—for although the Pattini myths may have been written down on palm-leaf manuscripts, they were also “sung in collective rituals” (1987: 22-36; 1989). The collections by Nevill (1954, 1955) and Barnett (1916), as well as Kapferer’s explorations of Sinhala myth (1983; 1988), indicate the rich imagery and the sedimentation of history in the oral traditions of the island peoples.

Techniques of metrical composition, such as vrttagandhi (Godakum­bura 1976: 17), enabled both the literati and interested villagers to memorize these oral traditions. These skills have to be experienced to be comprehended. Scholars who have been exposed to the popular creativity in improvising versions of the Rāmāyana and the Mahabhār­ata in India would confirm the force of these capacities in the world around India.[25]

The possibility of a Sinhala collective identity being nurtured and reproduced through these media was rendered all the easier by two ‘facts’: first, that most (all?) Sinhalese shared the “common salvation idiom” of Buddhism, (Obeyesekere 1979a: 290); and second, that, to assess the situation retrospectively from the twentieth century, dia­lectical differences between Sinhala speakers in different regions appear to be minimal in comparison with those in England, France, Italy and Germany.[26] This is a difference of considerable import. The evolving nation-states of Europe had to overcome this barrier in recent centuries and develop a national tongue through the hegemony of a specific dialect (Parisienne.  London, Tuscan) or a Hochsprache.

The intrusions of the imperial Western powers from the sixteenth century onwards provided further grist for the patriotic mill. The Portuguese used the sword quite freely in attacking Buddhists and Muslims; and in carving out a territory for themselves in the northern and southwestern lowlands. For this reason they are described in the Culavamsa (1953, II, p 231) as “Parangi, heretical evil-doers, cruel and brutal”. Ever since the sixteenth century, moreover, they have been credited (by the Sinhalese) with having introduced the scrofulous disease of yaws, a disease also identified as parangi in Sinhala (Roberts 1989, p 5). This was a powerful, compounded disparagement.

Pl 8 PinhaoThe Portuguese were resisted initially by the Kingdom of Sītāvaka (1521-1592). From the 1590s the mantle of resistance was taken up by the Kingdom of Kandy after Sītāvaka withered away.  In the result the Portuguese were engaged in more or less continuous warfare from the 1560s to 1656.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the hatana (war) poems of the seventeenth century were permeated by ‘a strong, anti-Portuguese and anti-Christian tinge’ (C R de Silva 1983: 15-17). From this sort of evidence, de Silva concludes that “the Sinhala Buddhist identity was used to mobilise the whole ethnic group against external threats” (1984: 4). What is especially significant is that the anti-Western sentiments in the hatana poems worked within a more embracing ideology which was anti-foreign—and therefore treated the Tamils and Hindus as enemies,[27] that is, to interpolate, as parasaturan (low and alien enemies).

The Kingdom of Kandy sustained its independence, in opposition to the Portuguese, Dutch and British in succession, until 1815. Remarkably, as in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, the rulers of this more or less landlocked state thought of themselves as rulers of Trisimhala or Sihale, despite its manifest contradiction by geopolitical facts. They constructed a fiction whereby the Dutch were considered ‘the guardians of the coast’ acting on their behalf—a fiction that the Dutch were happy to sustain.[28] In pressing such a claim they were adhering to the cakravarti model of kingship, an ideal of being Emperor of the Four Quarters which Sinhala kings before them, including the two kings of Sitawaka, had espoused (C R de Silva 1977: 7, 42 and Goonewardena 1977). In brief, to the rulers of Kandy, “the Sinhalese, wherever they lived, were the king’s people.”[29]

soldiers p188In overview, therefore, we can follow K M de Silva in noting that the series of conflicts with the Western powers gave the Sinhala ideology of the Pali chronicles “a cutting edge which it may not have otherwise developed” (1979: 134). The experience of successful resistance to foreign invasions of their territory also provided the Kandyan court with a faith in their invincibility. “One thing is certain, no foreign foe, be it English, Dutch, French or Kaffir, will conquer Lanka.  Through the protection of the four gods, the Guardians of its Religion and the Merits of the king, for five thousand years no foe will continue to reside here,” affirmed a letter from the court to the British in 1811.[30]

p436  p398

Within four years, however, the British secured control over the Kandyan territories by a combination of diplomatic and military means, the event being ratified by a number of Kandyan chieftains on 2 March 1815. The Kandyans had second thoughts, however, a powerful rebellion erupted in 1817-18.

It was this rebellion that provided the point of departure for my explorations of the character of Sinhala consciousness in essays I revised my initial inclination (1972: 21) to a describe the ideology of the Kandyan as a “traditional patriotism with a built-in national consciousness,”[31] I explicitly adopted an interpretation of nationalism that gave weight to the corpus of political thought surrounding the theory of popular sovereignty and the idea of self-determination which was developed in Western Europe in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  In these terms I concluded that the sentiments of the Kandyan people shout not be described as a ‘nationalism’ and fell back on the concept of ‘patriotism’ to describe their collective identity[32] (and thus that of the Sinhalese in the twelfth to eighteenth centuries).

In adopting this conceptual distinction, in effect 1 accepted the posi­tion that the ideological content of the Sinhala liberation movements in late British times was qualitatively different from that in 1817-18 and in pre-British times. In thus arguing that there was a significant discontinuity in the content and context of Sinhala nationalism in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, my position made it clear that the latter-day nationalism had a solid foundation of patriotism, as well as a historical consciousness nurtured by the Mahāvamsa, and other works, on which to build its contemporary expressions.[33]

In reiterating this argument here I would add several caveats. It is not claimed that the Sinhala consciousness as an unchanging, singular object throughout the sixth to eighteenth centuries. The position is not that of a primordialist or a perennialist (Anthony D Smith 1988, pp. 11-13). Secondly, the transformation wrought in the nineteenth century was not merely that of ideological content. The wider context was altered radically by the emerging world system of imperial and/or nation­-states, while the class structure within Sri Lanka was also transformed by the emergence of a species of colonial capitalism (Roberts 1979b and Roberts 1989).

The summary in this section, it should be evident, is a construction in the year 1991 tailored to answer Spencer and Gunawardana. It is also directed specifically against the essay by Nissan and Stirrat in Roots. It therefore assists the review that follows. Its location here, prior to this review, is deliberate. Though not quite as full, or as carefully hedged, elements of this argument were contained in my essay in Collective Identities (1979a, pp. 29-39; see also Roberts 1978). The decision by Nissan and Stirrat, as well as by Spencer,[34] to ignore the specificities of this argument must be deemed deliberate.

History and the roots of conflict

Instead, in a critical essay within these covers, Nissan and Stirrat have fastened on some overzealous statements by Bechert, Obeyesekere and K M de Silva[35] to sustain their contention that the previous historiography has read the ideologies prevailing in the twentieth century into events and settings in the past which cannot contain them. Their specific criticisms are well taken. That such scholars should blunder in this manner points to the significant contribution that Nissan and Stirrat in particular, and Roots in general, make by pinpointing the danger of imposing the present upon the past. But, along the way, Nissan and Stirrat indulge in some banality and throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is on their essay that 1 shall concentrate here.

But first to Roots as a whole: its intention is “to expose the inad­equacy of explaining [contemporary] conflicts like those in Sri Lanka as the inevitable working out of immanent—‘primordial’—cultural forces” (p. 3).  It argues that both the contemporary Tamil and Sinhala versions of past history are rationalizations which share common fea­tures, not least a reading of the past in terms of the present (pp. 3-5; 21). The various essays display “a broad account of the cultural politics of the ethnic crisis,” which in turn reveal ‘the making or remaking of modern ethnic identities’ (p 4) in modern times (1830s-1990s).

            Roots provides several detailed dissections of ways of seeing (Whi­taker, Daniel), of intellectual constructions (Rogers, Hellmann­-Rajanayagam, Gunawardana, Brow, Woost, Kemper, Tennekoon and Daniel) and political rituals (Brow) which are a considerable contri­bution to the ethnography of Sri Lanka. The essays by Rogers, Brow and Kemper are especially coherent in content and argument.  Tenne­koon supplies an invaluable analysis of nationalist discourse in the Sinhala newspapers during the 1980s in a manner which displays how her premature death was such a loss to academia.

Gunawardana’s “The People of the Lion” is as impressive as wide­-ranging. Among other things, it (i) reveals how the linguistic theory of the Aryan group of languages pressed by Max Muller was fused with the racialist theories of the day, both in Europe and Sri Lanka, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and promoted Sin­hala nationalism (pp. 70-78); (ii) outlines the processes of state forma­tion from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. and (iii) suggests that ‘the beginnings of the Sinhala consciousness arose as part of the ideology of the period of state formation’ (p. 48). It is on the latter basis that Gunawardana goes on to argue that the label “Sinhala” was a clan emblem of the ruling dynasty in Anuradhapura which was eventually extended to the kingdom (thus to Lanka as a whole) and thence to the people of the kingdom (pp. 48-65).

The latter step was not taken until the eleventh-twelfth centuries.  It is only then ‘that the Sinhala grouping could have been considered to be identical with the linguistic grouping’ (pp. 78; 64). I shall leave it to specialists to debate this controversial interpretation of the late Anuradhapura period. What is germane to our interests is Gunaward­ana’s admission that there was a “Sinhala consciousness” in existence by the twelfth century, sentiments which “persisted’ during the thir­teenth to eighteenth centuries, ‘particularly among certain sections of the literati” (p. 67).

This position effectively undermines the thesis presented by Nissan and Stirrat within the same covers, a thesis which suggests that one cannot speak of group identities in dynastic states in South Asia.  This contradiction, however, does not appear in sharp silhouette because Gunawardana qualifies his position and strains the evidence to argue that there was a considerable “cultural cosmopolitanism [which] would have contributed to the weakening of the Sinhala consciousness,” while “the feudal ethos’” would have had the same effect (p. 69).

Section II (pp 65-69) is the weakest segment of Gunawardana’s essay and is marked by unconvincing efforts to reduce the significance of C R de Silva’s data on the strength of Sinhala consciousness in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the inconvenient fact that a revolt against a northern (Tamil) usurper in the 1470s is referred to in Sinhala literature as a Sinhalaperaliya (the rebellion of the Sin­hala).[36] Gunawardana contends that there was a considerable infusion of immigrant Indian peoples and Hindu cultural practices into the Sinhala-majority areas (points I wholly endorse) and that individuals serving in the armies who combated foreign threats were motivated by the desire for reward rather than patriotic sentiments. This reasoning is implicitly mono-causal. It does not allow for the mixture of motives which energize patriots, whether instrumental personal or collective patriotic motives, or compounds thereof.

The most original and thought-provoking essay in Roots is Valentine Daniel’s post-face: “Sacred Places, Violent Spaces.” Daniel develops a distinction between myth and history, that is, the mythic and the historical, as a difference between a being in the world that is ontic and a way of seeing the world that is epistemic (pp. 227 ff). This theoretical excursus, alas rather brief, is then provided with flesh and blood through rich data which displays the value of skilled anthropo­logical explorations on the ground.  In the process Daniel brings to light an influential species of contemporary historian: the Sinhala-speaking tour guide who caters to the hordes of indigenous tourists surveying the ruined cities of the Rajarata civilization.

In passing Daniel notes that Spencer is correct when “he argues against the view that ideas about identity are primordial givens… But when thought sinks below the threshold of reflection, and ideas rise above the possibility of argument, then narrative history, as well as myth as narrative, become onticized bringing them in line with their essence” (pp. 231-32). The latter sentence can be read as a criticism of Spencer’s position which is as cryptic as sharply significant. It is also in opposition to the stance taken by Nissan and Stirrat.

Where Daniel is imaginative, Nissan and Stirrat are mechanical and error-prone, even as their broad thesis provides some insights. Their essay is a critique of both nationalist polemics and scholarly literature for their “unwarranted… imposition of the dominant political identi­ties of the present day on to the past’; and the frequency with which ‘kingdoms and nation-states are conflated in both popular and academic literature on the subject” (p. 19). This is a valid point. It is associated with the thesis that “different state forms depend upon, and in turn generate, different kinds of identity” (p. 22). This contention has relevance, but is driven to extreme, deterministic lengths in this essay—to the point where one can suggest an overdetermination of the political level. Its validity is further weakened by fundamental ethnographic errors.

On this foundation Nissan and Stirrat emphasize two major disconti­nuities in the history of the Sinhala Buddhist order: that produced in British times and that generated by the securing of independence in 1948. In this view, prior to the colonial experience which culminated in the British conquest of the whole island, what one found in Sri Lanka were dynastic states of the type described by Stein, Gellner, Anderson and Tambiah.  Overlordship here was in a ritual idiom and ­the categories “Tamil” and “Sinhala” “did not bear the nationalist conno­tations they now bear” (p. 26). This negative emphasis, quite pertinent in itself, is couched in such a way that readers are left with the further impression that the Sinhala and Tamil identities had no political sig­nificance whatsoever (and this is where Spencer parts company with Nissan and Stirrat for he is categorical in stating that it is “absurd” to claim that these categories are “colonial inventions” – p. 4).

One problem here is that Nissan and Stirrat steadfastly shut out of consideration the possibility that there can be collective identities other than those we conceptualize today as “nationalist” (a possibility which I argued in 1979a). Their contention that the dynastic states and pre-modern orders throughout the world were absolutely incompatible with the collective sentiments fostered by the “we: they’”(us: them) distinctions cannot be sustained against the ethnographic record for Sri Lanka (see above, 141-47) and the thesis assembled by Anthony D Smith in The Ethnic Origins of Nations (1988).  Their effort to sustain their position for Sri Lanka, by arguing that one cannot “cite chapter and verse from ancient chronicles or inscriptions” because that is what latter-day nationalists do (p. 40), is nothing short of banal. On this ground, most historical and anthropological soundings of the world-view of those studied would be ruled out. Consciousness and identities, be they nationalist or otherwise, are always in use in some implicit or explicit sense.

The second discontinuity which Nissan and Stirrat postulate, that between the Sinhala and Tamil identities after 1948 and those in the British period, has no foundation at all. This misreading is made possible by a selective understanding of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict and by a compound of ethnographic errors.

They use John Rogers’ excellent material (1987) to argue that “during the colonial period violent clashes erupted between groups defining themselves in terms of religious affiliation but not between groups defining themselves as Sinhala and Tamil” (p. 19, emphasis added; see also p. 31). For the Sinhala:Tamil equation (but not else­where), this is mostly correct,[37] but the emphasis on violence con­veniently sweeps under the carpet the sharp competition for govern­ment jobs between Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers from the late nineteenth century onwards, the jostling for political advantage from the 1910s as the British devolved power, and the animosities directed against the Indian Tamil plantation labourers and merchants in the Kandyan districts from the mid-nineteenth century. Much of this has been widely documented and is a standard part of Sri Lanka’s histori­ography.[38] Yet Nissan and Stirrat manage to convince themselves that “the developing Tamil and Sinhala identities were not in direct compe­tition; they were primarily directed against, and mediated by, the British” (p. 32). This is a gross error.

Equally remarkable is the manner in which they overweight the transformation in the form of the state in 1948 to the point that they lose sight of the considerable continuity in the content of Sinhala nationalist ideology from the 1880s to the 1950s,[39] a continuity that was all the stronger because of the series of generational and organizational overlaps between the personnel who espoused such sentiments (Roberts 1989b).  This too has been widely documented.

The expressions of hostility to foreign threats by Sinhala nationalists were not confined to barbs against the British, the kocci (Malayalam speakers) and the Coast Moors (hambaya). Every now and then the Tamils were brought within the ambit of the dangerous paradēsakkāra (low and vile aliens). In the Sinhala Jātiya of 1 June 1913 a poem referred rhetorically to the waves of ja (Malays), marakkala (Moors), kocci (Malayalis), hetti (Chettiyars) and parademala (low and vile Tamils) who had caused pain to the Sinhala people and predicted that the Sinhalese would be ruined (the idiom used referring to soil in their mouths) if these fellows were allowed to stay in “this our land.”[40] This was not an isolated expression; and was often part of didactic and polemical writings that castigated the Sinhalese themselves for their shortcomings, shortcomings which enabled such foreigners to prosper.[41]

In seeing violent disturbances in British Ceylon as essentially religious conflicts, Nissan and Stirrat as well as Spencer in effect pigeon-hole the traumatic clash between the Sinhalese and the Mohammedan Moors in 1915 as a religious affair between Muslims[42] and Buddhists. Religious friction arising out of procession disputes was undoubtedly a major factor which stimulated Sinhalese from a wide occupational spectrum to assault the marakkala (Mohammedan Moors) in the southwestern and central districts (Roberts 1990; 1991). The fact remains that the Mohammedan Moors are a community that is at once religious and ethnic; and that the attribution of meaning to the English term “Mohammedan” (or “Muslim”, the word used today) varies situationally. In 1915 the ja (Mohammedan Malays) were not attacked (Jayasekera 1970: 294). The mobilization was Sinhalese qua Sinhalese.  Church bells were rung in the northern environs of Colombo and defensive Catholic assemblages mostly Sinhala became attacking mobs—in the same pattern as that displayed by Sinhala Buddhists (Police Inquiry Commission 1916: 32; Jayasekera 1970: 267-8; 293; Roberts 1991). In short, the populist pogrom of 1915 was both an ethnic and religious conflict.

Anderson’s imagined communities

Anderson’s imagery and theory, as we have seen, underwrites the approach in Spencer’s Sinhala Village as well as some of the writing in Roots. The Sri Lankan data, therefore, encourage one to move outwards to relate their implications for Anderson’s oft-quoted work. Imagined Communities is an elegant inspiration that has etched its hermeneutic touches upon the canvas of studies in nationalism, while providing us with a wide-ranging and diachronic analysis of nationalism on a global scale. It is too well-known to require summary here. The numerous citations which the book has attracted pinpoint its specific strengths. It is adequate for me to concentrate on the shortcomings that are suggested by the historical sociology of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan material from the pre-British era suggests that oral transmission and oral exchanges as well as visual imagery were import­ant modalities in the reproduction of ethnic (and other) identities. One of the millstones which historians have heaped upon their shoulders has been the overwhelming emphasis on documentary sources. Gunawardana’s essay in Roots, as we have seen, bears this cross in so far as it excludes from consideration the influence of oral exchanges in the creation and reproduction of Sinhala consciousness. Quite independently, Anderson commits the same error in his reflec­tions, such as they are, on the pre-capitalist order. It follows, too, that oral exchanges continue to be of some significance in the capitalist era of globalized nation-states. As such, Anderson’s emphasis on print capitalism in modern times is overweighted.

The Sri Lankan and Sinhala material also indicates that Anderson has adopted a Eurocentric understanding of the origins of nationalism to the extent that he does not explore the significance of the group sentiments of the Sinhalese, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, Mons, Maya, Ashanti, Zulu, Somali and other appropriate examples from the pre-colonial, pre-capitalist past.[43]

The list is as instructive as arbitrary. Several are from Southeast Asia, Anderson’s specialist territory. That doyen of studies in this region, D. G. E. Hall, considered the conflicts in this region in the pre-­European and early European periods to be nationalist in character (1960: 690, 718). His position was unelaborated and far too facile.  Nevertheless, a point had been raised for debate: were the Thai, Khmers, etc., each of them, a people who saw themselves as distinct and sought to maintain this distinctiveness at some cost? Did not such patriotic sentiments fund primary resistance to Western imperialism at the same time that they seeded latter-day nationalist thinking? Given his expertise, it is a pity that Anderson does not address such issues.

When Anderson draws on his knowledge of this region, it is during his survey of nationalism in the twentieth century.The difficulty of making empirical generalizations becomes immediately apparent.  Several of the generalizations which he essays on the basis of his Southeast Asian case material simply cannot be extended to Sri Lanka or parts of India in the colonial or neo-colonial periods. In neither instance can it be said that the colonial intelligentsia of the twentieth century was young (Anderson 1983: 108-09) or that there was no indigenous bourgeoisie to speak of (Anderson 1983: 106, 127).[44] In neither place could it be contended that the nationalist movements did not attach significance to the indigenous language. In Sri Lanka ­from the 1850s onwards an emphasis was placed on the defence of the Oriental languages in general, and Sinhala in particular, in the face of the aggressive British conviction that they were destined for the dust-heap. Language nationalism was a powerful strand in latter-­day Sinhala nationalism, receiving different inflections at different moments (Gooneratne 1968: 132ff; Dharmadasa 1978; Dharmad­asa 1979: 48-121; Roberts et al 1989: 14; 79-81).

Indonesia may well be an exception in its failure to develop “an abusive argot” to describe the foreign imperialists (Anderson 1983, p 139). In Sinhala Sri Lanka, as in the Dutch East Indies, the word for Hollander provided an indigenized local word to describe the Dutch descendants: lansi from the phonetic expression of Holland­sche. This term was generally respectful, but could be given a disparag­ing twist by conversion into lansiya or para lansi. By the early twenti­eth century, moreover, the Dutch and other European descendants were also referred to as karapottās (cockroaches) or karapotu lansi (cockroach Burghers). These epithets were not unconnected to the longstanding disparagement of the Portuguese as parangi (foreigner, yaws). “The epithets shared a common cultural space. . . [They were] one part of the anti-colonial response.  As such, they [were] part of the armoury of liberation” (Roberts 1989:`14-21, especially pp. 13-14).

At a more theoretical level, it is instructive to ask oneself why Anderson opted for a tautology, an imagined community, as one of his key building blocks: “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined” (1983, p. 15, emphasis added). He has been birched on this count by Guha (1985).[45]

Guha fails to take this criticism further by reflecting on the assump­tions that produced such a tautology. Anderson’s parentheses notwith­standing, there is a fundamental contrast which underwrites Ander­son’s framework of analysis: the nation is an imagined community in contrast with the concrete community constituted by a “primordial village” with its network of multi-stranded relationships, or with the aristocratic classes of medieval and early modern Europe whose “cohesions as classes were as much concrete as imagined”, because of their relatively small size, “their fixed political bases, and the personal­ization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheri­tance” (Anderson 1983, p. 74 emphasis mine).

The genealogical pedigree behind Anderson’s founding dichotomy appears to be that pillar in the British tradition of social science: “social organization.” Concrete relations are those constituted by identifiable networks and institutions, by ‘real’ organizational forms.[46] The rest is “culture”, and, to some, ideological superstructure, less real, less substantial. Anderson, thankfully and perceptively, does not pursue the latter cul-de-sac. In attaching significance to ideas and modalities of discourse, he transcends the limitations of his tautological starting point.

Nash’s ethnic cauldron

Where Anderson essays a broad global sweep with some historical depth, Manning Nash’s book, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World, is self-consciously modest in its breadth and focuses largely on the twentieth century in the course of a slim volume of felicitous prose. Nash aims at “empirical generalizations lodged in a set of concepts that are diagnostic and hence more than local’ (p. 112). He does not propose to search for that which is universal, but rather to generate statements that are “general enough to cover more than one single instance”. For this purpose he has selected ‘three historically and structurally dissimilar ethnic-national situations’ which permit the com­prehension of each case “through the reflexivity of instance upon instance” (p. 112). Such instances enable ‘a form of polythetic compari­son in the spirit of Boas and Wittgenstein’ (p. 18). The three situations are selected from his life experience and anthropological training ground: the Malays of Malaysia, the Jews of USA and the Mayan Indians of Guatemala and its environs. The first two case-studies, given a chapter each, are presented in an illuminating manner with considerable attention to the play of symbol and meaning.

The situation of the Mayans in Central America is not dealt with as comprehensively as required. It would appear that those who remain as Mayan Indians today are organized as particularized communities in administrative units known as municipio, a particularisrn reproduced over centuries as a consequence of the administrative order of the Spanish Empire. As collectivities each of these municipio communities keep the Ladino ruling bodies at bay. They also retain their distinctiveness from adjacent and other Mayan Indian communities.

This is a truly remarkable situation of localized Mayan communities, each so corporate in its identity and boundary mechanisms that one has an overall pattern of a fragmented Mayan world—all the sharper because the speakers of Mayan dialects straddle (like the Kurds) several nation-states. As such, they “have not yet become an ‘ethnic’ group in the sense of a larger Indian solidarity vis-à-vis Ladinos” (p 110). One mark of this remarkable situation is that they do not seem to have responded to several centuries of Ladino racial prejudice and domination by constructing their local language equivalents of honkey, parangi, karapotu lansi and polkudu suddha.[47] Though each Indian community has been subject to similar forms of discrimination for several centuries, it would appear that being in such a field of discrimination has not united them in opposition to the Ladinos.

Though having no expertise in this field, I assert a profound disbelief in Nash’s description of the Mayan scene. If his position can be sustained, the Mayan situation would be a vital negative case in the study of ethnicity and nationalism. Nash’s brief chapter does not answer these questions however. The concept “Mayan” would seem to be a construct of scholars rather than an affective sentiment among the living body of three million Mayan Indians today. These scholars seem to be influenced by their knowledge of a former Mayan Empire in the era before the Spanish invasion and the fact that there is a “related family of languages grouped as Mayan” (p. 92). Nash, however, says little on the commonalities in the day-to-day language and does not explore fully the possibilities of a confederative unity among Mayans through their common situation in a field of disability (my phraseology) or through “inverse images” (that of Hawkins 1984).

Nash’s summary comparison of his case material in the last chapter is also disappointing—when set against the perceptiveness       of the first three chapters (for which see below: 156). The sensitive touch that Nash reveals in his clarification of the symbolic world and the interface of identities is not extended to his handling of the nitty-gritty of politics. The empirical generalizations which he seeks could have pro­fited, in this chapter, from the sort of analytical common sense displayed by Donald L Horowitz in his comparative survey of ethnic conflict in Malaya and Sri Lanka (1989).

The opening chapter, in contrast, is a major contribution to the study of ethnic relations.  “Ethnicity” is defined as “the self-conscious group within a nation-state” (p. 5). The “building blocks of ethnicity,” in Nash’s argument, have been the body, a language, a shared history and origins, religion and nationality (pp. 5-6). These building blocks have been “virtually the same over time” (p. 5), but there is a “mallea­bility [in] the combination of elements that go into the construction of ethnicity at different times and places” (pp. 6-7).

Nash proceeds to explore the cultural interface between ethnic groups. He focuses on the significance of a name as the ‘chief symbolic marker’ of an ethnic group and on the most common boundary mark­ers in any system of ethnic differentiation: kinship, commensality and a common cult.  This is Nash’s punchline:

These cultural markers of kinship, commensality (sic) and religious cult are, from the point of view of the analyst, a single recursive metaphor. This metaphor of blood, substance and deity symbolize the existence of the group at the same time they constitute the group (p. 11).

It is on this foundation that such “surface pointers” as “dress, language and (culturally denoted) physical features”, and a further layer of “subsidiary indices of separateness”, do their work as boundary mechanisms.

The precise linkage between Nash’s “building blocks” and the trinity making up the recursive metaphor of group-boundedness is not spelt out in this theoretical framework. Notwithstanding this question, his book is an original contribution which addresses a critical issue in the domain of ethnic studies: namely, the force of affectivity and emotion in the constitution and reproduction of ethnic identity. Because this issue has been inadequately addressed in most studies and because Nash’s conceptual scheme is fleshed out by his ethnographic review of the Malays and the American Jews, it gathers vivid force and renders his book an essential item in the reading list on ethnicity and nationalism.

One word of caution. Because of its definitional starting point The Cauldron of Ethnicity focuses on the twentieth century for the most part. This is a considered choice on the part of the author, and quite legitimate. Nevertheless, this means that it does not address the expressions of nationalism in single nationality states (nation-states), such as those associated with the Somalis, the Japanese and the Germans of Deutschland. It also has restricted relevance for the sort of questions addressed in the middle sections of this review: viz., the origins of nationalism and the character of the link between the “ethnie” (Anthony D Smith) and the “patriotisms” (Roberts) of the pre-1789 epoch and latter-day nationalisms.

The latter issue is not solely a historical question for analysts work­ing into the more distant past.  It is an ongoing twentieth-century question, in so far as some ethnic groups can ‘suddenly’ become nationalities, claiming the right of self-determination and pressing a liberation theology. A case in point is that of the Sri Lanka Tamils, whose forebears in the island go back to the twelfth century at the very least and who have made up the majority of the residents in the extreme north and the eastern littoral of Sri Lanka for centuries.

In the early twentieth century these Tamils were described in Cey­lonese English as a “community” (as were the Sinhalese, the Moham­medan Moors, the Burghers, the Malays, etc.). Their leading political spokesmen also referred to themselves as a community.[48]  As such, those who claimed to speak up for the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils were described in the dominant vocabulary of the 1920s to 1940s as “communalists”—as were the spokesmen for the Sinhala community, such as S W R D Bandaranaike and his Sinhala Maha Sabha. This was a pejorative label, gaining its inferior meaning from the superordination of the term “nationalism”—by which was meant an ecumenical multi-ethnic Ceylonese nationalism in opposition to the British. Accordingly, both the moderate reformist nationalists and the Marxists castigated the Sinhala Maha Sabha and the Tamil associations for their sectionalist activities. This placed the latter on the backfoot (Roberts 1977: clvi-vii and cxi; Roberts 1978).

It was not until 1948-49 that a splinter group of Sri Lanka Tamils adopted the concept of nationalism and its concomitant body of politi­cal theory. These politicians broke away from the Tamil Congress and established what is generally referred to in English as the Federal Party, though the Tamil words for the party could be rendered as ‘the Ceylon Tamil State party’ (Wilson 1966: 118; 135n).

In this strict sense, Tamil nationalism is a late phenomenon, though it clearly developed out of, and in direct linkage with, the body of sentiments, the recursive metaphors (Nash) and the political activities which had empowered a distinct Sri Lanka Tamil group identity in the decades before 1948-49, an identity recognized in Ceylonese English as a “community.”

It is a twist of irony that the Ceylon Communist Party conceived of the Sri Lanka Tamils as a nationality before the leading Tamil spokesmen did so themselves. This occurred in 1944. In an extension of Stalin’s famous pamphlet on Marxism and the National Question to the Sri Lankan situation, the Communist Party argued that the Sin­halese and the Tamils were ‘two distinct nations’, so that the Tamils too were a historically evolved nationality “with their own contiguous territory as their homeland, their own language, economic life, culture and psychological make-up.”[49] The extent to which this ideological exegesis presented by the Ceylon Communist Party influenced the founding fathers of the Federal Party has not been investigated.

The story of the Sinhalese, the story of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the story of Sinhala-Tamil conflict, past and present, all these demonstrate the manifold ways in which the ethnography of Sri Lanka can enrich the study of ethnicity and nationalism.


[1]    Roberts 1977: lxxxiii-v; and Documents, 1977, II, pp. 1294-5 & 1319ff.; Handbook CNC, 1928: 499-515, 654, 788, 800, & 804; and Roberts 1978: 357-61.

[2]       “The school and the pansala [temple] are the two key institutions which link Tenna with a wider national culture” (Spencer 1990: 158). Cf. Gellner: “Early industrialism means population explosion, rapid urbanization, labour migration, and also the economic and political penetration of previously more or less inward-turned communities, by a global economy and a centralizing polity” (1983: 42).

[3]       Mrs Griffith 1841-42 and Roberts 1966: 3.

[4]       Obeyesekere 1979a: 290.  Also see Pfaffenberger 1979 and Holt 1982; and cf. Turner and Turner 1978.

[5]       Spencer provides information on the contemporary practices of pin or merit (1990: 57; 60; 167), but does not explore its existence THEN. There is no reference to karma in his index.

[6]       Rājakāriya refers to forced labour. Adult males were liable to serve the state for a number of days according to their caste specialty. This was a generalized duty in addition to the rājakāriya (to state, local overlord, temple or dēvāla) attached to paddy land in which individuals had use rights, whether hereditary or temporary. Such rājakāriya could force individuals to move far afield to fight in the king’s army or to serve at state rituals in the capital (see Pieris 1956: 44-6; 95-102; Dewaraja 1988: 225-26).

[7]       Kadaim pot and vitti pot are palm leaf manuscripts which describe regional boundaries and villages. The geographical knowledge displayed in these works was of a high standard (personal communication from Leo Ljyanagamage).

[8]   Winslow 1984b: 80-1. In this analysis the popular concern with tying places to their founders, kings, and Buddhism is deemed to be a practice rooted in the pre-­British order and part of the discourse of legitimation. Naming, it should be stressed, is a critical aspect of Sinhala culture.  An individual’s name is astrologically guided by the time of birth. Honorifics, e.g. patabändigē names, are highly prized; while the naming of demons in healing rituals is of critical import (see Tambiah 1968; Kapferer 1983).

[9]   Personal communication from A V Suraweera. For some illustrations, see Roberts, 1989a, p. 2; Edmund Peiris 1978: 116, and Liyanagamage 1968: 176.

[10]             From Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, illus. edn. London: Jonathan Cape, 1956: 251. I am indebted to Andrew Taylor (Department of English, University of Adelaide) for this explicit reference to Joyce.

[11]                    “Differential experience” and “dizzying change” are among the phrases which Spencer employs (1990: 237; 239). Also see fn. 2 above.

[12]             Malalgoda 1970: 431-5 and Mahāvamsa, ed. by Guruge, 1989: 492ff. Also see the essays by Bechert, Greenwald and Gunawardana in Smith (1978). In effect, if one were to use Gellner’s vocabulary, through this sacred literature the power holders were ‘rendered coextensive with the state’, as in the case of the Chinese bureaucracy. In this latter instance, Gellner concedes, the mandarins “did display a certain kind of nationalism” (Gellner 1983: 16).

[13]                    At least one specialist, a colleague of Gunawardana’s, disagrees quite strongly with his interpretation of the late Anuradhapura period, but is not prepared to disturb their friendship by taking this up in print. Dharmadasa’s recent critique addresses the 1979 version of Gunawardana’s essay, rather than that in Roots. Like Gunawardana, Dharmadasa traverses several centuries. It would be confusing to introduce his detailed points into my text. Barring one instance, Dharmadasa, too, pays inadequate attention to the influence of oral traditions. Like Gunawardana he tends to assume a wide chasm between the literate elite and the mass of the Sinhalese. His attempts to challenge Gunawardana’s attentiveness to the presence of service castes are, it seems to me, misplaced.

[14]             Dharmadasa 1991; Liyanagamage 1968, pp. 70; 105; 110-14; and Cūlavamsa I, pp. 185; 224; and II, pp. 132-6; 145; 150. Though Geiger has translated micchaditthi as “false faith”, Liyanagamage notes that it could also be rendered as ‘wrong views’ (1968, pp. 119-20) and also remarks that “Magha is condemned in a language almost unique in the treatment of foreign invaders in the chronicles of Ceylon” (1968: 114, emphasis added).

[15]             Cūlavamsa I, pp. 283; 328-9; II, pp 11; 23; 31; 56; 133; 136; 139; 150-2. Likewise, Parākramabāhu II (1236-70) is said to have pronounced: “I will make the maiden of Lanka my own” (Liyanagamage 1968: 104). The cakravarti paradigm permeates the chronicles and is expressly attached to the idea of “unit(ing) Lanka under one umbrella”, with the umbrella symbolizing Buddhist kingship (e.g. Cūlavamsa, I, p. 283). These emphases should not be permitted to obscure the fact that Sinhalese and Tamils fought on both sides (e.g. Cūlavamsa II, p 24). The sort of considerations which promoted these activities may possibly be gleaned by considering the story of the Sri Lanka Tamils today (1991) and the active support being given to the present rulers of Sri Lanka by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front [EPRLF], the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam [PLOTE], etc.

[16]             Liyanagamage 1968: 172, 163 and personal communication from C R de Silva (November 1991) pointing to the Medawala inscription of 1355 where Vikrama­bāhu gives himself the full title of a sovereign ruler.

[17]             These are partly my own ideas, but I have been inspired by Tambiah (1976: 102-31) and Kapferer (1988: 10-13; 62-4). My abridged summary here, embodying ideas held for some time, reveals an area of agreement with Nissan and Stirrat in Roots (1990: 24-6).

[18]             Pieris 1956: 100; 180-81; Codrington 1909; Roberts 1982: 19-34; and Obeyesekere 1987: 360-80.

[19]             K W Goonewardena 1977, pp. 6ff. Cf. Beidelman 1966 on the transformative act of Swazi royal rites.

[20]             A jātaka is a story of a previous birth of the Buddha. There are approximately 550 stories so accounted (Reynolds 1970: 372).

[21]             C R de Silva, 1987: 104-6; Godakumbura 1955: 89-92; 100-01; 144-157. See also Reynolds 1970; and Liyanagamage 1968: 174-8.

[22]             Quotations from Godakumbura 1955: 66; Liyanagamage 1968: 176. See also Ranjini Obeyesekere 1979; Godakumbura 1955: 61-6; 81-8.

[23]             Personal communication from L S D Pieris. See also Edmund Peiris 1978: 54ff; Ranjini Obeyesekere

1979: 269.

[24]             Personal communication from A V Suraweera; and Godakumbura 1955: 101; 127-34; 137-40; 155-59; 277-311. See also “A Sinhalese Hunting Poem” in Edmund Peiris 1978: 113-27.

[25]             See, for instance, the literature on the epics and other Indian folk traditions published by such scholars as A K Ramanujan, Brenda Beck, Paula Richman and Philip Lutgendorf.

[26]             This is a question of different orders of magnitude in the intelligibility of speech. There are dialectical differences among the Sinhalese, patterned by region as well as caste. However, Sinhala speakers from the four corners of Anamaduwa, Polonnaruwa, Hambantota and Hikkaduwa would have no difficulty in understanding each other, either today or in the mid-twentieth century in living memory. The same could not be said for meetings between, say, Northumbrians and the folk of Dorset. My speculative impressions on this point have received refinement through personal communications from L Sumangala (an ex-monk and a linguist) and James Gair (whose expertise embraces England and Sri Lanka) at Cornell, 26 November 1991.

[27]                 C R de Silva 1983: 15-17. See also Roberts et al. 1989: 1-10.

[28]             Arasaratnam 1958: 111-12; 155; 119-20; K W Goonewardena, 1977: 13. Significantly, this terminology was sufficiently sedimented in the traditions of the Sinhala aristocracy for it to be used in 1832 in the British period as a weapon against the so-­called Dutch descendants (i.e. the Burghers): when an anonymous Sinhala headman attempted to put down the Burghers by referring to them as people “who calling themselves ‘the guardians of the seacoasts’ usurped the possession of our country” (Roberts et al. 1989: 143, emphasis added).

29 Paul E Pieris 1945: 114-115. Paul Pieris’s unequivocal statement, as well as the data in Arasaratnam (1958) and the Cūlavamsa (1953, II p 237), contradict Gunawardana’s attempt to infer from another of Pieris’s writings (1950: 1) that Sīhalē was ‘used primarily to denote the Kandyan kingdom’ (1990, p 68).

[30]             Quoted in Malalgoda 1970: 433. See also a poem drafted c. 1810, “The English War” in Nevill 1954, I, p. 254.

[31]             K M de Silva takes a similar position and argues that “many of the ingredients of modern nationalism were there in Kandyan times”—so that it befits the label “traditionalist nationalism” (1979: 134-5).  It follows that 1 now disagree with him on this issue.

[32]             Roberts 1979a: 30-9, especially pp. 33-4. Here, I bring into question the unreflective extension of the term “nationalist” into the past by Bechert and Obeyese­kere.

[33]             Ibid: 33. Gellner is ready to recognize this sort of link (1983: 55, 57). Contrast Nissan and Stirrat in Roots.

[34]             Gunawardana’s essay was originally published in 1979 and it may have been more difficult for him to take up my work in the revised version of his essay in Roots. Nissan and Stirrat, Spencer and Gunawardana refer to other essays in Collective Identi­ties in the course of their articles in Roots.

[35]             Bechert 1978: 7; Obeyesekere 1979: 282-3; K M de Silva 1981. While focusing on these three scholars in particular, Nissan and Stirrat refer to the works of several scholars as examples of this approach. Among these references is my book on the Karāva (1982). Since no page references are provided, I cannot ascertain where precisely I am supposed to have erred.  However, note my own criticisms of Bechert and Obeyesekere in a previous publication (see fn. 32 above).

[36]             See above, pp. 143-44; Somaratne 1975: 142-8; C R de Silva 1987: 96. Cf. Gunawardana in 1990: 67.

[37]             However, there was a serious clash (balavat kolahatayak) between Sinhalese and Tamils at Mahara, near Colombo, in August 1900 (Dinapata Pravurti, 22 August 1900) for reasons which I have not ascertained. There were also intermittent clashes between Hindu Tamils and Mohammedans in the Eastern Province during the British period which seem to have been as much ethnic as religious.

[38]             Mendis 1943; Russell 1982, pp. 25ff and passim; K M de Silva 1981: 369; 388ff; 43lff; Roberts 1979a: 53; 70; 72; Samaraweera 1981: 139; 142; 145-47.

[39]             Obeyesekere 1979: 294-5; 302-12; Wickremeratne 1969; Amunugama 1979: 334; Roberts 1977: lxxxv-viii; cxvii; clxii-vi.  Also cf. Dharmapala 1965 with D C Vijayavardhana 1953.

[40]             The poem was entitled “The Troubles in the Country, The Heat that Oppresses Us.” The editor of the Sinhala Jātiya (Sinhala race/nation) was Piyadasa Sirisena.

[41]             For other illustrations, see letter from W P Perera in the- Dinamina, 2 March 1915; Sinhala Jātiya 30 March 1913; Sinhala Bauddhayā, 14 January 1914.  See also Obeyesekere 1979a: 304; Roberts 1989: 10-21; Roberts 1991 and P Siris­ena’s Sucaritādarsaya, published originally in the 1920s.

[42]             In the early twentieth century those who are widely referred to today as “Muslims” in Sri Lankan English were called “Mohammedans”. The change was effected in Parlia­ment at the request of the Muslim community (i.e., Moors and Malays).

[43]             For other illustrations, see Anthony D Smith 1988 (a book I read after the initial draft of this essay).

[44]             For India, see Desai 1948, passim; Wolpert 1989: 25lff; 268ff; Kannangara 1968. For Sri Lanka, see Roberts 1979b and K M de Silva 1981: 329-33; 368-69; 389-96.

[45]             Guha 1985: 103. Guha also criticizes Anderson’s thesis on the emergence of nationalism in the Third World as being off the mark for India and as a work that perpetuates a colonialist view of this phenomenon—a view that has been decimated by the subaltern school of writing. As in India, in Eastern Europe too, the peasantry was an important bearer of nationalist activity and exercised initiatives independently of the liberal elites, in Guha’s view.

[46]             For one illustration of this line of thinking, see Raymond Firth 1954 and 1955, where “social organization” encompasses actions in opposition to norms (or ‘structure’ in the Radcliffe-Browne scheme of things). For an illustration among historians, see David Washbrook’s early work (such as 1975: 156ff, especially pp 179-80) on castes in southern India. For my criticism of the latter, see Roberts 1982: 200-06.

[47]             Karapotu lansi can be translated as “cockroach Burghers” and polkudu suddha as “coconut-refuse White” (an epithet occasionally directed at Burghers, say in school­yard taunts). The latter phrase is also directed sometimes against Sinhalese who are very fair.

[48]             K M de Silva 1981: 392-96; 439ff; Roberts 1977: lxxxvii-viii; Russell 1982: passim, but especially pp 104ff; and items 93-114 in Roberts, Documents, vol. III pp 2113-483. K M de Silva has revealed how, until about 1921, the Tamils were treated as a “majority community.” As political devolution appeared on the horizon, numbers began to count and they were then seen as a ‘minority community’ by the British, the Sinhalese and the Tamils themselves.

[49]             Roberts 1977: cxl and Documents 1977, vol.  III, pp. 2579-91. The words which I have quoted are taken verbatim (by the Ceylon Communist Party) from Stalin’s essay on “Marxism and the National Question” (see J Stalin, Works, vol. 2, 1974 and R Pipes, The formation of the Soviet Union. Communism and nationalism, 1917-1923, Harvard University Press, 1964: 37-40).











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Filed under authoritarian regimes, British colonialism, caste issues, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, literary achievements, nationalism, population, power politics, religiosity, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, violence of language, world events & processes

5 responses to “Nationalism, the Past and The Present: The Case of Sri Lanka

  1. Pingback: R.A.L.H Gunawardana’s Separation From His Pali Dictionary At A Crucial Time | Colombo Telegraph

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