LIFE ABROAD – Part 58 SURFACING OF CEYLON HISTORY AFTER FIVE DECADES
Posted on December 21st, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Cdn-2010-tag---In-Focus---i.jpgContinuing from last week’s column (Revival of Sinhala in London), Prof. Lakshman Perera could be regarded as a ‘rare flower born to blush unseen’ (in the words of poet Thomas Grey) considering the fact that his thesis on The Institutions of Ancient Ceylon, which he produced for his PhD as a post graduate student, was allowed to gather dust for half a century.

Lakshman Susantha Perera gained admission at the University College in 1938 and opted to read History for his degree course. The University College by this time had elevated to University status under Sir Ivor Jennings as the first Vice Chancellor. Under the gracious influence of Dr. G. C Mendis and inspiration of Mr. S.A. Pakeman, Principal at the University (well-known author of Sri Lanka’s past and antiquities), young Perera’s yearning to go into an original research on the ancient history of Sri Lanka became a reality.Bullock CartProvidenceAs providence dictated, young Perera was selected for the Hilda Obeysekera Research Fellowship, the first award of its kind, to investigate into ‘The Institutions of Ceylon from Inscriptions of the Third Century BC to Tenth Century A.D.’

There were two options open after his first year degree course, (a) British and European History or (b) Indian History. Hardly any student took up the latter option because of the fact Dr. D.C. Mendis being the only lecturer to cover the subject. Dr. Mendis, however, persuaded Lakshman Perera to take up the second option to become the 3rd student in that year which precluded him from taking up the more popular choice which generally opened one’s pathway to gain entry to the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service.

A member of the academic committee (Professor of Sinhala) appointed to approve the title (the 3rd Century BC to the 5th Century AD) advised young Perera of the difficulties he would have to surmount in writing thirty pages on the subject. The Vice Chancellor, on the Professor’s recommendation later extended the date to 12 century AD, the end of the Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa kingdom.

Young Perera had the laborious task of learning the script and the ancient Sinhala language in order to arrange all the published inscriptions in chronological order and to analyse the contents under four headings – political, religious, economic and social institutions which took him almost up to two years. Prof. H. C. Ray and Dr D. C. Mendis were Lakshman Perera’s supervisors while the latter acted as the internal examiner and Professor L. D. Barnett and Cyril Philipps of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London) were external examiners.

Research

Perera referred to the illustrious Mahavamsa for research data, written in Pali language, which happened to be the only manuscript that had been written with much concentration on the lives of the kings and their activities after the 5th century AD, and started comparing this material.

All the inscriptions that Prof. Perera worked on were published in the Epigraphia Zelanica, a book edited by Dr. Paranavithana and published by the Archaeological Department containing pictures of inscriptions and their translations with a comment. However, in the Epigraphia Zelanica these inscriptions were not in chronological order except that they had been taken ‘as found’ and then edited without any sequence. Therefore, those could not be used for the study of history and back up with the data from the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.

Inscriptions

Mahavamsa, written in Pali language by monks after the 5th Century AD was the only text, which carried in written form as excerpts of some of the early Sinhala text. But on the other hand inscriptions of ancient Ceylon, dating from the 3rd Century BC and right down to the 12th Century BC series were found on rocks, pillars and sometimes on slabs.

These inscriptions dealt with the people, kings’ orders and their determination of the taxes (Bojakapati) and donations made to the Buddhist Viharas (temples) giving a glimpse of the day-to-day activities of a people during this era. It was an arduous task in an era especially where the teaching of Sinhala was not a priority under the Colonial rule, and to master the language of ancient Sinhala inscriptions and the Pali language he had to learn the Brahmi script.

In his next stage, he analysed the contents first, extracted the essence and arranged all published and unpublished inscriptions in chronological order over a period of six laborious years to complete his task. Lakshman Susantha Perera was awarded the PhD, first ever of its kind given by the University of Ceylon, which made him the Permanent lecturer in the Department of History. However, to get his work published (which ran to well over 1,500 pages) took over four decades.

Despite Professor Perera collecting material up to the 12th century AD, he had to limit the thesis to 10th Century A.D, so as not to exceed 14,000 pages. Finally in 1949 the essay containing 14,000 pages, bound into three volumes was completed.

The thesis was based on inscriptions that were published before 1948. Since that time many more inscriptions had been discovered and published and estampages were available in the Archaeological Department.

The thesis outlines the day-to-day way of life of kings, Bikkus (Buddhist order), merchants and common people not normally found in the chronicles.

The inscriptions used in this thesis, all of them in the ancient Sinhala language and script, are to be found in all parts of the country, in the centre of the kingdom as well as in the Northern and Eastern regions which at that time were part of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva kingdoms.

Vallipuram Gold Plate

It had been established during his research that a fair number of the institutions mentioned above were found in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Ceylon with a considerable number in the Central Province which gave the extent of the existed Kingdoms during these periods.

It is also mentioned that there were very many inscriptions in the Jaffna peninsula too among which was the Vallipuram Gold Plate discovered at Vallipuram on the orders given by the Sinhala Kings at the time.

Prof. Perera in his thesis has drawn attention to the Vallipuram Gold Plate which has been the subject of much controversy in recent times. The gold plate has been discovered in 1936 and found with other antiquities in Vallipuram in the Vadamarachchi Division of Jaffna Peninsula, beneath the foundation of an ancient structure on land belong to the Vishnu Temple.

Prof. Perera, in his work, shows the gradual process of centralisation of majestic power with the Maharaja at Anuradhapura, and the Rajas in the periphery, superseded by provincial administrators. The inscription records that in the region of Maharaja Vasaba (67-111 AD), Ameti Isigiriya as the Governor of Nakadiva or Nagadipa as Jaffna was then known. The author concludes that sovereign power had extended to the Jaffna Peninsula which was, therefore, a province under the Maharaja of Anuradhapura. The script and language of the inscription happen to be the same as those found in Vasabha’s inscription elsewhere in the island.

Tamil inscriptions

Though the Mahavamsa refers to many Tamil invasions and migrations, very little of their movements can be traced from the inscriptions. The Tamil Householders Terrace inscription is regarded as one of the very few which refers to Tamils in the period. These are the earliest documents in which the term Dameda (Pali Damila) has been met with. This inscription shows that they preferred to use the Sinhala language of the time and that their names did not differ from the names found in other inscriptions e.g. Sujat and Tissa. However, as the author concludes, they were conscious about being a separate people, for they called themselves Dameda (Pali Damila) which has been transformed into Tamil (English).

(The Institutions of ancient Ceylon from Inscriptions to be continued next week)

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– See more at: http://www.dailynews.lk/features/surfacing-ceylon-history-after-five-decades#sthash.qy0FqFcK.dpuf

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