Michael Roberts, 6 March 2010
One’s academic trajectories and journeys are invariably subject to vagaries and contingencies. The events and researches leading to my interest in “communal violence” and “zealotry” in the 1990s, and thereafter to what I have called ‘sacrificial devotion” (embracing the topics of “terrorism,” suicide bombers and Tamil Tigers), were shaped by such contingencies. Since my web site will present some short essays on both these topics in the course of this month, let me detail some moments during my research work that resulted in the journeys that produced such outcomes.
The following short essays have been posted within this site. It is feasible for readers to pen comments, though this site lacks the vibrancy of such media outlets as transcurrents and groundviews.
Lanka without Vijaya by Michael Roberts
Writing History and Myth by Shanie’s Notebook of A Nobody
Sinhalaness and Sinhala Nationalism by Michael Roberts
Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhala Nationalism in Sri Lanka: Urumaya as Ur by Michael Roberts
Burden of History: Obstacles to Power Sharing In Sri Lanka by Michael Roberts
These pieces were penned several years back and did not have the benefit of a thoughtful article by ALAN STRATHERN entitled “The Vijaya Origin Myth and the Strangeness of Kingship,” Past & Present, 2009, No. 203(1): 3-28.
We hope to present a summary version of this article for the benefit of readers who do not have access to the journal on web at some point in the near-future.
A renovated stupa at Dakkshina Vehera a few miles south of Sigiriya — also dating from the latter part of the first millennium AD.
Photos by Michael Roberts, August 2008
Shanie — in Notebook of a Nobody
This essay appeared first in the Island, sometime back — alas, date misplaced
Many years ago, I remember reading Professor A F Pollard’s Tudor England. One statement by this eminent historian in his Preface to the book still remains etched in my memory. He stated that a Headmaster of a school had once made a statement to the effect that any classical scholar, with common sense, would be able to teach history. Pollard’s comment was that statement probably explained why history was taught so badly in schools and produced such poor results at public examinations. Professor Michael Roberts in an excellent essay in The Island this week (Mid-Week Review 16 April) makes the same point. He says that it is not only classical scholars but any Tom, Dick or Harry feels capable of writing history. He refers to nondescript charlatans, including academics, inventing history to suit a particular political agenda, and in today’s context, to re-write the history of the Sinhala and Tamil people. One academic, a teacher of Mathematics, finds no compunction in venturing into a discipline other than his own and making definitive historical assertions, without a shred of empirical evidence to support them.
The professional historian generally tends to confine his writing to that aspect of history where his academic training lies. But there is certainly a case for a scholar to write a more general history for the lay reader. Professor Lyn Ludowyk, a scholar but not in history, has written a book which narrates the story of two thousand years of our history. But he makes no pretence to it being a work of historical scholarship. His task in The Story of Ceylon, he says, was that of a humble narrator, depending on the work of the scientist for the facts.
This article was printed initially in the Lanka Monthly Digest, Special Millennium Issue, 27 January 2000.
In sending a letter to John D’Oyly as the British representative on 29 June 1812 on behalf of the King of Trisinhalaya (the Kingdom of Kandy) Pusvälla Rālahāmy began thus: “From the great King Vijaya born of noble exceeding pure race of the sun.” This was a conventional feature in several Kandyan letters of the time. That is several letters began with a reference to Vijaya. Conscious as he was of history, it was Junius Richard Jayewardene’s practice to refer to himself as the umpteenth head of state, the count including Vijaya as Number One in the line and, in effect, founding father. This was part of a manipulation of supposed history towards Jayewardene’s own ends. But such usages also raised the honour of the Sri Lankan state in general and the Sinhala people in particular. It placed a premium on antiquity. When Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking in South Africa referred to the Sinhala people as “the original inhabitants” of the island she was also placing a value on time and emphasizing the strengths of the Sinhala claims to the island in, say, roughly similar ways to the value that Jews place on Palestine.