WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka



Sri Lankanness : do we have 'races' or, are we hybrid?

by Michael Roberts

“Sri Lankan” in today’s multi-ethnic and pluralistic context within the territory Sri Lanka
© Sunday Oberver

In addressing the issue associated with the idea "Sri Lankan" in today's multi-ethnic and pluralistic context within the territory Sri Lanka, I commence in a roundabout manner by focusing on "hybridity," a concept favoured by those disposed towards multi-culturalism. "Hybridity" usually refers to cultural practices drawing on numerous sources in syncretic ways. In this sense both "world music" and "baila" are hybrid cultural expressions, even though baila is so inscribed in Sri Lankan 'byways' that it may be seen as indigenous in form.

But "hybridity" also can refer to mixed ancestry and thus to "creole" populations, who at the same time may sustain a syncretic language style deemed "creole" as well. One's ancestry, however, is often obscured by time. If all those who deem themselves Tamil or Sinhala today could trace their ancestry with precision, then, surely we are all hybrid in bloodline.

It is part of Tamil folklore that the Koviyar are Sinhala-speakers of times past who became Tamil and were absorbed into Jaffna society as part of their caste formation. Likewise, a body of fragmentary data indicates that elements among the Durava, Karava and Salagama "communities" were immigrants from Kerala or elsewhere in India; while the genealogy of the Dias Bandaranaikes (I do have a copy) traces one line to an Indian migrant of high status.

However, such awareness seems to be rarely part of contemporary consciousness. Specific families in Sri Lanka tend to describe themselves according to their mother tongue and/or sets of cultural practices. The practices associated with the Islamic faith are a critical boundary marker for the Muslims who deem themselves to be of "Moor" origin, that is those whom the Sinhalese used to (and still) call "Yon". The latter attribution therefore marks these Muslims off from those who consider themselves Ja or Malay, thereby indicating the significance of supposed ancestral origin as well as religion in the social distinctions that operate.

Within the geo-politics of Sri Lanka, therefore, the category "Muslim" becomes an ethnic-cum-religious identity, with the ethnic dimension being rendered contextually pertinent once the word is used at the same moment in juxtaposition with "Tamil" and "Sinhalese". Cross-ethnic marriages have occurred over the last century, however, and both the descendants of these liaisons and those with local knowledge are aware of the mixed background of specific persons.

There is little doubt that even today there are many Sinhala-speaking people in the broad swathe of Vanni territory extending from the Mannar locality to the east towards Trincomalee and then southwards along the frontier areas of Tamankaduva, Bintanna and Wellassa to Panama who have Tamil and/or Vadda relatives.

There are several such villages in Nuvarakalaviya who pronounce that they are "Kuveni's children," while Gananath Obeyesekere's present research in Bintanna and Wellassa indicates that many Sinhalese openly speak of their Vadda origins.


Again, it is widely known that in the early-to-mid twentieth century there were a significant number of people in the coastal belt between Chilaw and Kotahena who regarded themselves as Sinhalese, but who spoke Tamil at home and had identifiable Tamil connections. It would seem that these linkages are being papered over today and that these families are emphasising their Sinhala identity, sometimes virulently. Within this littoral context one can insert the history of the Bharatha people and look at their marriages with Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher individuals over the past few generations, though I would also speculate that the last half-century has witnessed their Sinhalization.

In my own desultory researches among the shanty people of Kirulapona as well as traders at some urban markets in 1978-81 in Colombo I came across a number of individuals of Indian Tamil descent who had married Sinhalese and whose children were in the process of becoming Sinhalese. The marriage patterns of domestic servants over several generations would be a revealing case study in this regard. Again, on one occasion I discovered that the driver of my hire-car, a lad who was definitely Sinhala in orientation and patrilineal name, had a Tamil mother but knew little Tamil.

As significantly, he had been educated at Thurstan College and informed me that there were several boys in his class of similar mixed ethnic background.

At a higher social level one has only to follow the genealogies of those who were identifiably "Colombo Chetty" or "Malay" in the early twentieth century to note the incidence of mixed people today. Several Malays have lost their knowledge of the Malay language, become Westernised and married Burgher or Sinhalese.

From the nineteenth century onwards the minute community of Colombo Chetties has genealogically trodden five paths: some have become Burgherized, others have married Tamil and become Tamilicized, yet others have become Sinhalese by marriage and preference (even where they have retained their patrilineal name), others have intermarried with the Bharatha and a small stream has retained their explicit link with the category "Colombo Chetty". It is this last body that recently persuaded the government to rescind their previous classification within the label "Tamil" and to place them among the "Others" in all census-type operations.

For some time, too, Sri Lanka has profited from the entry of educated women from foreign countries who have married Sri Lankans and made the island their home. Most are from Western countries, but there are also a few Russians, Latin Americans and Africans in this category. Taken in sum, these people and their progeny may not yet add up to many. But once one adds those of mixed Tamil-Sinhalese or Sinhala-Vadda parentage to the numbers, the count of mixed or samkara individuals in Sri Lanka today could be quite significant.

However, we do not have any figures or proportions for the simple reason that bureaucratic categories and census operations do not have a box called "mixed or samkara". So it is bureaucratic reason and its passion for neat standardised categories, rather than purist sentiments, that have obscured the degree of hybridity in our midst.

Several of the illustrations of mixed genealogies that I have presented tend to be examples of people from urban sites, especially Colombo. As Colombo grew into a metropolis in the British era, the population of Low-Country Sinhalese in the strictly metropolitan area of the city council was always outnumbered by non-Sinhalese. For this reason it was a distasteful place for virulent Sinhala nationalists in the late British period, even as the latter made their living within its precincts.

Mixed genealogies

Take the case of Pedrick de Silva, better known as Piyadasa Sirisena, a journalist, political activist and perhaps Sri Lanka's leading novelist during the first quarter of the twentieth century. When he fashioned his romantic melodrama, Jayatissa saha Roslin, in 1904 and used the fictional novel-form for his didactic socio-political commentary, he describes how his hero Jayatissa (Romeo) was attracted to Roslin (Juliet) at their very first meeting. But, Jayatissa had to ascertain Juliet's suitability, which is to say, respectability, before pursuing his inclinations.

Reason and status had to control heart. So his critical first question was: numba rate da? thote da? Are you from the country (hinterland) or from the port/city? Metaphorically, the maritime areas stood for that which was disreputable, contaminated, and mixed in his specific version of the inside versus outside. In the same spirit M C F Perera, the editor of the Sihala Samaya, castigated those Sinhalese who married "Lansi, Demala, Ingrisi, German, aadhi parajatin" when he addressed the Sinhala Sahodara Samitiya in Colombo on 30 July 1910.

The question I raise today, then, is this: do such strands of thinking remain powerful today some hundred years later? It is a question that I am not in a position to answer. But I wonder whether contemporary globalizing trends have reduced the force of such chauvinist thinking?

Does the exposure to television from diverse parts of the world implant more open cosmopolitan modes of evaluation? Does the continuing movement of women to the Middle East, Singapore and elsewhere as migrant workers introduce greater tolerance of difference among personnel who will be among the mothers of both present and future? Does the interaction with tourists encourage an awareness of diversity and the significance of other languages? After all, the peddlers and beach-boys of Bentota and elsewhere gain a proficiency in German, English or French in a measure that puts to shame the teachers and students of English-as-a-Second Language at university level.

However much one would wish for such processes to broaden tolerance and cosmopolitanism, I must warn readers against such a facile conclusion. Among the most venomous nationalists in the world today are migrant nationalists of the diaspora, whether Serb, Croat, Sinhalese, Tamil, Palestinian or what-have-you. In brief, travel or interaction with tourists does not automatically engender amiable tolerance. So it is with these empirical questions that I end. These are issues for students, journalists and scholars to pursue studiously, intelligently, analytically. Unfortunately, the dilution of university education in Sri Lanka has 'progressed' so deeply that, on first impressions, it would appear that few home-spun personnel have the skills to mount such investigations.

Speaking broadly, it appears that their research capacities are watery weak. If one were to phrase this comment in Australian slang one would say "piss-weak." To inject such a metaphor, of course, would be a foreign intrusion. Quite tuppahi. But there must be some Sinhala or Tamil idiom that makes the same point as effectively, nail on head.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka