Sinhalese the result of a tidal wave of migration or long process of non-linear development
Posted on January 22nd, 2022

By Seneka Abeyratne Courtesy The Island

Brahmi inscription on a drip ledge at Vessagiriya, Anuradhapura. Pic courtesy: Preethi de Silva

Ruminations on Sri Lanka’s ancient past – Part X

By Seneka Abeyratne

A distinguishing feature of the Early Historic Period, between 500 BCE and 300 CE, is the dramatic appearance of lithic Brahmi inscriptions, which indicates a ‘leap’ from protohistory to history, a kind of ‘explosive’ transformation accompanied by the widespread use of the proto-Sinhala language. Brahmi inscriptions represent the earliest extensive writings on The Island. In the 3rd Century BCE, superior iron tools for engraving these inscriptions on hard rock surfaces were developed.

Brahmi inscriptions

The majority of Brahmi inscriptions were engraved on the drip-ledges of caves in various parts of the dry zone. Since they are mainly in the form of donative inscriptions offered to forest-dwelling monks, they are a key source of information on Sri Lanka’s early historic communities in respect of economic activity, social structure, religious conditions, and political organisation (Senanayake, A.M.P. A Study on Social Identity Based on the Brahmi Inscriptions of the Early Historic Period in the North Western Province, 2017). Brahmi inscriptions are also to be found on rocks, slabs and pillars widely scattered in the dry zone.

As noted by Siran Deraniyagala (The Prehistory and Protohistory of Sri Lanka, 2007), it is the first appearance of Brahmi inscriptions on pottery at Anuradhapura (almost identical to the Asokan script some 200 years later) at ca 600 to 500 BCE that heralds the commencement of the Early Historic Period in Sri Lanka. These ancient inscriptions are in North-Indian Prakrit.

Archaeological evidence also reveals the following: The settlement at Anuradhapura was over 10 ha in extent by ca 900 BCE and around 50 ha by ca 700-600 BCE. Thus it was already a ’town’. To date no other settlements of the Protohistoric Iron Age have been clearly identified in Sri Lanka though a rudimentary settlement may have existed in Aligala and another in Tissamaharama…In the time of Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE, the city of Anuradhapura was nearly 100 ha in extent…making it (on present estimates) the tenth largest city in India/Sri Lanka at that time and the largest south of Ujjain in northern India…” (Deraniyagala, S. 2007). It is, therefore, safe to assume that urban development in pre-modern Sri Lanka commenced in the Early Historic Period.

The scarcity of settlements in the Late Stone Age continued to persist in the Early Iron Age despite iron and farming technology. This scarcity ended with the Early Historic Period (500 BCE to 300 CE) when numerous settlements sprang up in the dry zone. The growth in the number of settlements seems to have accelerated during the Middle Historic Period (300 to 1200 CE). In addition to iron technology and farming, a third element appears to have entered the equation: increasing medium- and long-distance trade leading to a corresponding increase in wealth which acted as the catalyst for an exponential increase in the density of settlements” (Deraniyagala, S. Pre- and Protohistoric Settlement in Sri Lanka, 1998).

The contribution the research community has made to our knowledge and understanding of the island’s pre- and protohistory is immeasurable. But as Deraniyagala (Deraniyagala, S. 2007) admits, there is still a great deal we do not know about the transition from prehistory (corresponding to the Mesolithic Balangoda culture) to protohistory (corresponding to the Megalithic Early Iron Age culture) in Sri Lanka. There are others who have expressed the same view as per the following quote: Only in recent years have Sri Lankan archaeologists placed the investigation of the country’s relatively brief protohistoric period as an important item on the agenda of national research. This research, I must emphasise, is still at a very early and inconclusive stage. Unlike the subcontinent, we know almost nothing about the transitions and transformations of this period in Sri Lanka” (Bandaranayake, Senake. The Settlement Pattern of the Protohistoric-Early Historic Interface in Sri Lanka, 1989). Let us hope the present and future activities of the Archaeology Department and allied agencies (such as the universities and research institutes) will yield fruitful results in this regard.

The traditional view that in ancient times a tidal wave of migration of a linguistically homogeneous cultural group occurred in the island, is based largely on the fact that the language found in the early Brahmi inscriptions was remarkably homogeneous and that it was used extensively in areas where there were well-established agricultural settlements. A more radical interpretation offered by Bandaranayake views the emergence and widespread adoption of a proto-Sinhala language as the apex of several centuries of historical development which had its roots in the island’s protohistory.

We may note, in passing, that the proto-Sinhala language underwent local adaptation and eventually lost its Indian character and identity. Though a large number of dialects are spoken in India, none of them resemble the Sinhala language. The three main languages spoken in Sri Lanka today are Sinhala, Tamil, and English.

The current population of the island is 21.9 million of which around 74 percent are Sinhalese. To quote Samanti Kulatilake (The Peopling of Sri Lanka from Prehistoric to Historic Times: Biological and Archaeological Evidence, 2016): Sixteen million Sri Lankans speak Sinhala, or Sinhalese, as a first language. It is an Indo-European language (associated with the north Indian Prakrit branch) that evolved from the foundational Sinhala Prakrit (which was in use until the third century CE), to Proto-Sinhala (until the seventh century CE), medieval Sinhala (twelfth century CE), and modern Sinhala (twelfth century CE to the present).” We can assume therefore that the starting point for writing in modern Sinhala is the 12th century CE. All the ancient Brahmi inscriptions found on the island are in Prakrit. The earliest Brahmi cave inscriptions have been traced back to the 3rd century BCE.

Emergence of the Sinhalese

At what stage in our history did the Sinhala language assume a common Sinhala identity? We shall turn to Leslie Gunawardana (The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography, 1979) for an answer: It is only by about the 12 th century that the Sinhala grouping could have been considered identical with the linguistic grouping. The relationship between the Sinhala and the Buddhist identities was even more complex. There is a close association between the two identities, but at no period do they appear to have coincided exactly to denote the self-same group of people.” In his assessment, Anagarika Dharmapala was probably the first to use the term Sinhalese Buddhist” in the early twentieth century to define a distinct ethno-religious group on the island (Gunawardana, L. 1979).

The early Sinhalese did not consider themselves a distinct ethnic group as the concept of race to denote a group of people sharing a common identity in respect of physical features as well as biological or genetic characteristics did not exist in ancient times. Gunawardana cogently explains that the social group brought together by the Sinhala consciousness does not appear to have coincided with a linguistic grouping in the island or to have represented a single physical type, and that it is only after about the seventh century that it could have been linked with a religious grouping. It is the social and political criteria which clearly stand out in an examination of the factors that united the Sihalas.”

To return to the megalithic people of the dry zone, it seems very likely that their culture, which was locally adapted and ‘indigenised’, resulted from a creative synthesis of the indigenous culture with the South Indian megalithic culture. The distinctive features of this culture included burial sites, pottery, and iron technology. In the same way it could be reasoned that the emergence of a distinctive Sinhala culture and civilisation was the result of a similar creative synthesis that occurred during the early historic and later periods, a process initiated by the arrival of the northern Indian settlers on the island. But had not the indigenous population already attained a high level of internal development and dynamism, it is doubtful whether the island would have surged from protohistory into early history in the way it did.

Therefore, according to the radical view (pioneered by Senake Bandaranayake), the emergence of the Sinhalese as a distinctive ethnic group in The Island was the culmination of a long process of non-linear development dating back to our prehistory and not the product of a single, linear historical period associated with a sudden wave of migration. The evidence indicates that even in recent times this synthesis has played a significant role in shaping the evolving character of the Sinhala-speaking people and the culture associated with them.

What is true of the Sinhalese is also true of the two largest minority ethnic groups, the Tamils and Moslems. The distinctive culture and ethnos of each of these groups could also be viewed as the product of an exotic ‘blending’ of exogenous and endogenous elements. It is reasonable to assume that the ethnic composition of the Tamils and Moslems, like that of the Sinhalese, is also the result of a complex non-linear process that began in the past and will surely continue into the future.

But one thing is for certain. The island is not, and has never been, despite its geographical location, a cultural extension of South India. Sri Lanka has borrowed a great deal from India, yet it is not quite India. There is something else that gives the island its distinctiveness and special charm. The discerning foreigner may call it, as Carl Gustav Jung did when he visited Sri Lanka in 1937, a touch of the South Seas … and a touch of paradise …” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1989).

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