Who are the Sinhalese?
Posted on March 11th, 2017
By Gamini Gunawardane Courtesy The Island
An interesting question arose at a recent Royal Asiatic Society’s Monthly Lecture, delivered by H. L. D. Mahindapala now resident Australia, on the topic: “The Last King of Jaffna was a Sinhalese Buddhist”. At the end of Mahindapala’s presentation, during the question time, a young member of the audience raised a question on the following lines: ‘Who are the Sinhalese? Was there a land called Sinhale in India from where they came? Did the olden day kings identify themselves as Sinhalese?
I think this is a very legitimate question to ask, especially at a time after 500 years of foreign domination when we are still groping to rediscover our identity. It is natural that younger generation among us raises the question: Who are we? For this reason I believe a fairly comprehensive explanation is called for. In the following paragraphs I shall attempt to do this for the benefit of the many.
Vijaya-Kuveni encounter as seen by an artist
The second limb of the question–– ‘Was there a land called Sinhale in India from where they came?––seem to flow from a presumption that the questioner entertained an idea that the Sinhalese may have, like the English colonizing New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the US, colonized this country some time down the history. Or, he may have been influenced by other examples of Spaniards and Portuguese colonizing South Americas or to a lesser degree the Indians and Chinese or even the Italians colonizing different countries outside their mother countries. This is mainly a phenomenon mostly of the 18th and 20th centuries. In the case of the Sinhalese, we are talking of what could have happened two millennia before. So, the picture is far more inscrutable today.
However, the situation is that there probably was no land in India or elsewhere, called Sinhale. Such a people or a land are found only in this country and nowhere else in the world. Let us now examine the other aspects of the question: ‘Where did they come from? etc.
It is fairly well settled among historiographers, I believe, that probably there were as many as four tribes living in this country at the time Vijaya and his followers are said to have arrived here by ship, expelled from his country probably known as Laata, may be a part of present day Odisha, Southern Bengal in India, believed to be in 5th century B.C. These tribes are known as Yakshas, Nagas, Devas, Raksahasas and a fifth tribe called Veddhas who were hunters. The Yakshas were known to have been builders, hydro engineers, while Nagas are believed to have been sea farers and Rakshasas probably were good at arts and crafts. It is not known as to what the Devas were good at.
Reading through the Vijaya legend available in Deepavansa and later in Mahavansa chronicles, one could darw a conclusion that Vijaya and his followers were probably a violent lot who were reported to have been banished from his home country, for that reason. If this notion could be given some credence, one could deduce as believable, the further information that Vijaya and his people overpowered the native tribes, with the assistance of Kuveni (probably a Yaksha girl), to grab control of their country. It is also possible to believe that Vijaya’s colleagues established villages under their respective names such as Anuradhagamaetc and took over power. However, over time, according to the chronicles, there appears to have been power struggles between the Vijaya group and the the native groups and the emergence of Pandukabhaya who was probably a mix of the Vijaya and the Yaksha tribes that seem to have led to a more settled community, with Pandukabhaya establishing formal control and administration with Anuradhapura as the capital. Neverthless the Vijaya strand of this compex grouping, appear to have maintained a dominant role equipped with their legend of the Lion origin myth, like the myth of the building the city of Rome attributed to Romulus and Remus, who were said to have been suckled by a she wolf. (In fact, some details of this myth reminds one of the similarities of the early days of Pandukabhaya’s life and his ultimate building of Anuradhapura as a city etc.) Reflecting on the Mahavansa version of this rather hazy history of the very early stages one could say, if the author of the Mahavansa recording those events that had happened over 1000 years before that could have whitewashed the now considered bad aspects of the Vijaya-Kuveni story and the violent history of Vijaya to give our history a more ‘respectable’ look, when he wrote the Mahavansa then. But he had not. He had faithfully recorded what came down to him by tradition and the Atthakathas of the time. This, perhaps, was the discipline of historiography prevailing at that time of scholarship. Therefore it may be a fruitless exercise to engage in passing judgment in today’s terms and values on the notions of the characteristics of the Sinhala people as seen today after 2000 over years.
Apart from these stories of the origins of the today’s Sinhala people, according to historians, there may have been several migrations of people at different time in this early era, from the North Western and North Eastern parts of India and also from Kerala (originally Chera). They appear to have landed and occupied different parts of the country’s North West, South West and North/South Eastern regions in those early times as reflected by the many stone inscriptions excavated in these regions today. All these communities over time probably mixed into one community, with rice growing being their main economic activity, they settled down along the river valleys in accordance with their old practice in the Gangetic Basin.
Some evidence confirming their original North Indian are seen in the legends, habits and food etc. of these different regions todate. Some examples that come to mind are the Beatle chewing habit of the Sinhalese said to be a common feature among the Bengalis, similarly in some parts of Bengal women are said to wear a dress somewhat similar to the Kandyan Osariya, while some foods and habits are similar to those found in Kerala and South India. There are some similarities between the Sinhala Vannams reflected in some aspects of Karnata music. Similarly there is said to be references to the Vijay legend both in Maharashtra and in Bangladesh.
However, the dominance of the Vijayan migrators probably led to this mixed group of peoples to be known as the Sinhala and the language that developed to communicate with each other which had significant features of Indo-Aryan linguistic characteristics. There is how ever a different interpretation on the probable origin of the Sinhala language. This originated form the theory that the aforementioned four tribes were known as Helas and that the language the four tribes spoke was (Siw)hela and that this land was called Hela Diva (Island of Helas), and in fact the name Siwhela became Sinhala. As far as I know, there is no linguistic and phonetic explanation as to how ‘Siw’ could become ‘Sin’. On the other hand, the lion symbol and the name derived from it would indicate the totemistic origin of a tribe.
Apart from the diversity and richness the four tribes that provided this new community, the arrival of the Buddha’s dispensation in this country, besides describing the international relations the Sinhala kings already developed by this time I the 3rd century B. C., added a further dimension to its cultural depth and identity. From that momentous event,followed the growth of a script (Brahmi), architecture, art, sculpture, literature and grammar, medicine, folk lore and many other related disciplines. However it must be remembered the reflection of the intellectual capacity of King Devanampiyatissa displayed, in answering the abstruse but simple questions of Ven. MahindaThero to satisfy himself of the mental capacity of the king to grasp his doctrine. It again shows the general intellectual background of his community for their king to possess such a level of clear thinking. Mahavansa also mentions that prominent people from different parts of the country including the Kahsatriyas of Kataragama attended the next sermon of Ven. MahindaThero. This shows how well established and well integrated the polity was in other areas of the country outside the Rajarata, at the end of 200 years since the arrival of Vijaya’s people, which may be a little less than the total age of history of the United State of America. The arrival of the Sri Maha Bodhi and subsequently the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha from Kalinga gave further cultural and Political dimension to this young nation. The other momentous event that defined the identity of this nation, which had been formally stabilized under King Pandukabhaya onwards is when the Doctrine of the of the Buddha which was till then brought down for over none thousand years, was committed to writing at the Aluwihare temple in the 8th century A.D. since when this country came to recognized among all other Buddhist countries as the repository of Theravada version of the Buddha’s Doctrine especially after this Doctrine virtually disappeared from India, then referred to as Jambudweepa.
The identity of most countries in the world, other than perhaps the countries lately colonized by the British and later others, such as the US, Canada, Australia which are now described as Multicultural, were defined by the language of the people who lived in those countries. People of France spoke French language and as such the country is known as, France, its people are known as French. Same with Germany, England, Norway, Italy or Malaysia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Burma, Laos, Kampuchea etc. etc.
Thus, the common language the people who peopled this country at least since the 6th Century B.C. that developed to communicate with each other came to be known as Sinhala and the people who spoke that language, as Sinhalas. Hence their country came to be known as Seehaladweepa in ancient times the world over, and as Seylan (Ceylon) in the early Western and Arab countries while in South India, as Seehalam (Eelaam) and as Sinhale within the country. Thus, there may not have been a need for the people to specially call themselves Sinhala because the entire population of the country would have been Sinhala, or been absorbed into the Sinhala nation. Similarly, those who became the kings had no need to announce that they were in fact Sinhalese because no one else could become king of the Sinhala unless he was one of them. Not only that he had to be Sinhala, after Devanampiyatissa, they had to be Buddhist too. This practice was continued up to the last King. In fact the right to be the king was enshrined in the notion that he was the custodian of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, for which reason the palace where the Tooth Relic was kept was erected closest to the King’s palace. Most Kings offered the first part of their meal to the Tooth Relic before they partook their royal meal daily. It will be seen therefore the King had necessarily to be a Sinhala Buddhist and the possession of the Tooth Relic gave him legitimacy. There were of course two dynasties of the Kshatriya clan that vied for kingship, the Lambakarnas and the Moriyas. But they necessarily had to be Sinhala Buddhist.
Thus it would be seen that the Sinhalese did not come to this country from anywhere but evolved here. Therefore they could be described as autochthonous. Another unique feature of this community is that any out sider could be absorbed into it without losing its essential character. Yet another factor that gave and preserved its unique identity is its ‘splendid isolation’ as an island that facilitated it to absorb different people, cultures and yet not be absorbed by any other country or cultures. Thus Le Mercier became Lamasuriya, Gascoigne became Daskon (adikaram), and cookies became Kokis etc. etc. Also ‘Kandyan’ Dance, folk dances and Kolam masks are unique cultural features which reflects deeper layers of original cultural absorption given a newer identity. The diversity of the people also were assimilated into the Sinhala community over time. This is confirmed by Dr. Susantha Goonathilake who mentioned at his meeting that a genetic analysis recently done by the SLASS had revealed that genetically the Sinhalese had diverse origins.
All this would go to show the Sinhalese are ‘homegrown’ people who live in this country for at least over two millennia absorbing so many strands of people and cultures into their own system. A curious feature is that they have been able to survive on this earth with an unbroken line of kings, a recorded history despite being one of the smallest nations in the world. They perhaps are the people who held out against Western colonials powers for over 300 years by themselves, which perhaps may be the longest resistance to Colonialism in this part of the world.
As a post script it may also be relevant here to deal with currently vexed idea of ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ in modern times. In my understanding this notion is a late development, probably as late as the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the Buddhist revivalist movement that emerged during that time. The need to identify a group called Sinhala Buddhists arose because by this time there had occurred a new development of, a community of Sinhala Christians, because by this time, as a a result of sustained effort of Christian evangelism with the backing of Colonial Governments some Sinhalese had been converted to Christianity. Before this development there would not have been such a necessity as almost 98% of the Sinhalese would have naturally been Buddhist.
Towards the Mid-20th century, Prof. J.B. Dissanayake who did some research work from an anthropological angle on the localization of orthodox Buddhism, identified features of the nature of Sinhala Buddhism which was an adaptation of the Buddhist thought and practices that again gave further character to the unique Sinhala culture.