A piece of charcoal proves the ancient chronicle right
Posted on December 29th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

(Courtesy The Nation On Sunday, where this article originally appeared under a different title)

It was reported recently in the media that the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating laboratory in Miami in Florida, the largest professional radiocarbon dating facility in the world, has concluded that a piece of charcoal found embedded in the plaster base of the Sigiriya frescoes could belong to a period between 390 and 540 CE. This is a confirmation of the Mahavansa account of King Kashyapa and Sigiriya according to which the king built the rock fortress during his reign between 473 to 491 CE.

The traditionally accepted belief prevalent among the Sinhalese  that Sri Lanka’s history is the unbroken history of their changing fortunes in the whole of the island has been contested over the decades, as it should be in the interest of the truth being established as far as humanly possible. Those who cavil at the view of Lankan history that embodies this idea like to maintain that it is based on the so-called ‘historicist’ version of history constructed by the authors of our ancient chronicles and other historians of later generations who use their works as authoritative sources. The same critics don’t hesitate to label these ancient  Sinhalese writers as chauvinists, fanatics, racists, religious extremists, etc., forgetting that they wrote many centuries before modern ideas of historiography and religious politics or political religion evolved. Of course, conflicting views regarding this important subject should be tolerated with due respect for academic objectivity. However, irrespective of the degree of their commitment to the preservation of historical accuracy, these classic monuments of our ancient civilization should not be allowed to be vandalized and consigned to oblivion by political opportunists.

 The word historicist”, I think, is to be taken as implying one of the meanings of historicism”, this meaning being overdone respect for historical institutions as immutable laws and traditions”. Paradoxically, a recurrent motif in the chronicles written by Buddhist monks is the idea of the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena including the temporal power  and majesty of kings. The great restraint and equanimity with which these authors pass over particularly distressful periods of the country’s past are characteristic of highly disciplined Buddhist bhikkhus. These harrowing experiences are nevertheless seared into the collective historical memory of the Sinhalese people such as those caused by the diabolical ravages inflicted on a peaceful but vibrant civilization by Magha of Kalinga early in the 13th  and by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Those are excruciatingly traumatic chapters of our history which we have come to terms with.

 It is an inalienable human right to be able to assert your identity as a community, be it ethnic, religious, political, historical, linguistic or social. What we usually notice, however, is  a prevalent anti-majority complex among many writers, commentators, and opinion makers on the opposite camp that obstructs chances for that right to be asserted: the Sinhalese (particularly Sinhalese Buddhists) cannot assert themselves in speech or writing without being condemned as chauvinists, fanatics, fundamentalists, rabid ethno-nationalists, backward traditionalists, etc.

 Supposing that these allegations against the majority community are well supported by evidence (which, however, is not the case) then there cannot be any settlement of the problem unless and until they are subjected to a mass education programme to reform them. But, don’t others also consider it their inalienable right to have the freedom of asserting their group identities, be they racial, historical, religious, or social? Do Sinhalese Buddhists demand for anything more for themselves than this freedom? I know they don’t. ‘Then why a constitutionally guaranteed special status for Buddhism?’ one may ask. Though I personally believe that such a special status for Buddhism is not necessary, I can understand the historical and existential reasons that have led some Sinhalese Buddhist leaders to demand such protection for their religion.

 I don’t understand why the Si Lankan state should be disparaged as a non-secular state merely on account of this piece of legislation. For one thing, the clause might be deleted when its negative impact and implications are realised as happened in the case of the clumsy poya holiday” system of the 1970’s. Weren’t the much criticised 1956 language policy changes later modified? My layman’s view is that  problems and solutions have essential developmental histories. No headway can be made unless this fact is realised and accommodated in policy design and implementation.

 It is an existential reality that the Sinhalese form the majority of the Lankan population (just over 75% at present). They have a historical relationship to the country that is different from other communities. The Sinhalese have always been islanders. Robert McCrum writes in his book ‘Globish’ (Viking 2010), which is an interesting and informative account of how English evolved as the ‘World’s Language’: Islanders are not like other people; they have different psychic and physical horizons. It is no accident that the English were the first in Europe to produce a vernacular account of their exploits, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” (Ref. R. McCrum, p.21). The Sinhalese had their chronicles (Dipavansa, Mahavansa, Culavansa, etc) written, not in the vernacular Sinhala, but in Pali, the language of Buddhism. In the case of the English, the surrounding sea, its tides and climate affected the growth of their language in numerous ways. It also shaped their psychological make-up: separate, proud, watchful, and self-conscious”. The Sinhalese shared those same mental traits due to their relative geophysical isolation. But, like the English, they were a seafaring nation too in their own way, and enjoyed considerable global interactions with other nations (such as Burma, Thailand, China, Cambodia, and Japan, and even with Rome and Egypt).

 This island history (fairly well preserved in the chronicles, and in the abundance of epigraphic evidence scattered through the length and breadth of the country despite depredations by foreign invaders down the centuries) cannot be allowed to be written off just like that merely to bolster up separatist claims. If there is a case for separatism, let it be fought for on the basis of the existing domestic, regional, and international ground realities that cannot be disregarded, but not on the basis of the alleged lack of authenticity of what has come down to us as our history recorded by our patriotic ancestors. However, that history should not be desecrated either by being used as a bludgeon against the legitimate claims of others who joined us at various stages of our history to share the land in asserting their independent identities. In the same breath, it should be stated that the Sinhalese must be allowed to celebrate in freedom their unique historical connection with their motherland.

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