Who are the Sinhalas?
by A. Denis N. Fernando
Fellow, National Academy of Science
Former President, Royal Asiatic Society
I refer to the letter by Tissa Devendra which appeared in The Island of 17th February 2006 on the subject "Where are the Sinhalas?" as a consequence of my articles on "Portuguese Encounter with the King of Kotte—1517" which appeared in The Island on February 11 and 13.
But before I do so, I noted that Devendra seems to have also been intrigued by a simple question posed by Goenese participants who attended that seminar on the Portuguese Encounter (which I did not attend). They asked why Buddhist participants have Portuguese surnames whereas in Goa it is only the Catholics who have Portuguese surnames. It appears that both the audience and Devendra were unable to answer and he has now posed the question to the public. I must mention that it is not my intention to be drawn into the Portuguese Encounter debate but only to answer that question posed to the public. This has been partly answered in my articles of February 11th and 13th. However it was an incomplete one as I had not mentioned that after the Dutch persecuted the Catholics and subjected them to fines and confiscated their property, they reverted to the Buddhist faith of their forefathers but continued to use Portuguese surnames. This answer is not to challenge the participants of the conference, but to only answer the question posed to the public by Devendra.
Now I shall attempt to answer the double barrelled questions he has posed on the question "Where are the Sinhalas?" which also refers to the Kauravas forces who are like the IPKF of the Indians, and even challenges the propriety of King Parakramabahu VI recruiting these mercenary forces when there were indigenous warriors who could have done the job. It was obvious to anybody that the local warriors were inadequate in getting rid of these inimical foreign usurpers and the King had no option but to recruit the mercenary Kaurawa forces. It would therefore be necessary for me to deal with these double barrelled questions in two parts, by dealing with "where are the Sinhalas?", and, in part 2, replying to the disparaging reference to the Mercenary Kaurawa Warriors who liberated the country from foreign usurpers and equate them to the recent IPKF of India.
As trained a scientist and technologist we are trained to first define words before we comment on them and restrict ourselves to the Semantics or meaning, as otherwise it would only lead to confusion and further misunderstanding that would in turn lead to unnecessary arguments.
As far as my knowledge goes Sri Lanka was known in ancient times as Sinhale before the advent of the colonial powers in 1517 and all its inhabitants who lived here were called Sinhala or Sinhalese in as much as when Sri Lanka was known later as Ceylon and its inhabitants as Ceylonese.
Thus the inhabitants known as Sinhalas or Sinhalese established themselves from north to south, east to west and the centre of the country before the advent of the colonial powers. Architect Deshamanya Vidyajothi Ashley de Vos in his address on "Other side of the Coin" at the 25th anniversary of the Numismatic Society held at the Department of Archives also included the inhabitants of the Kandyan Kingdom even in the time of the Nayakkar Kings. Therefore we have to include the "Radala" Chieftains like Pilimatalawa as well as the goldsmiths who came from South India with the Malabar kings at that time, like the Devendras were also called Sinhalas.
To start from the beginning in Sinhale in addition to the indigenous Veddhas who were a stone age people. Those who came here afterwards for trade and other purposes were also Sinhalas like the Yakkhas from the Persian Gulf who introduced their culture and technology to Sri Lanka. They were Soroastrian fire and Sun worshipers and had the Lotus as their Sacred Symbol. They were drawn by and mystified by the phenomenon of the rising Sun and the moving shadow at Adam’s Peak which was later called "Udispada" by Ptolemy and was considered as a Sacred Mountain from ancient times. They lived on the Mahaweli plain and celebrated their New Year festival at the mountain top of Dolapabbata. This celebration was also attended by our early kings like Panduvasdeva and is now also our New Year which we celebrate today, The river Mahaweli itself was called "Phasis fluvius" or the river of the Persians by Ptolemy.
The Nagas were also a trading community from the Red Sea who were Ethiopians and Naga or snake worshipers like the Egyptians. They also according to Herodotus had a colony on the right bank of the Indus called the Eastern Ethiopians and the Ocean between called the Erythraen Sea who were Masters of the Ocean. They like the Persians, settled in Eastern Ruhuna called by Ptolemy "Nagadipa" where we even today see the ruins of their surface water irrigation schemes and numerous stone inscriptions indicating their presence in ancient times. As a believer that maps convey to us what words cannot convey, I have indicated in the map at the bottom that illustrates the sources of the Yakkah Persians and the Naga Erythreans who came to settle in Sri Lanka.
I will now go on to proving logically that the Sinhalas occupied the whole island. The advent of Vijaya in the 6th century BC who landed in Sri Lanka with his entourage made contact with the Persian Soroastrian Yakkhas namely Kuveni and had children by her, called Pulindas. Vijaya was not satisfied by this arrangement and married into the Ksatriya Pandava clan from the North Indian subcontinent between the Indus and the Jamuna who were the victors of the Mahabaratha war. As Vijaya had no issue from this new marriage, the kingship devolved to Pandukabaya also of the same clan, who established himself at Anuradhapura. For the first time it is mentioned in a stone inscription in the 3rd century BC that a "Kaurava navigator from Demada sat on an elevated seat" when the king gave audience the other house holders with him also had Sanskrit names indicating clearly that they were not of Dravidian stock or Tamils and involved in trade.
Then we had the Chandanagama Ksatriyas who were relatives of the Buddha who were persecuted in India and sought refuge in Sri Lanka with her entourage and according to Ptolemy were identified as the Bochani who settled on the left bank of the Kumbukkan Oya and their city was called Bochana Civitas. This was followed by the forward troops of Alexander the Great of Allskanda who were called the Kataragama Ksatriyas and were called Bachies and settled between the Kumbukkan Oya and the Kirindi Oya. Their principal city was called Dioyani Seu Bachi Civitas according to Ptolemy which is today called Tissamaarama and a shrine at Kataragama dedicated to the war God Alexander the Great as he never lost a war. Then we had Mahanaga and his entourage settling on the left bank of the Walawe, possibly as a check on the further expansion of power by the Kataragama Ksatriyas.
This was the time that Mahinda Thera and Sangamitta introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka and brought the Sacred Bo tree as a plant by ship from Tamalitta to Jambukola the Talakori Emporium of Ptolemy which in our early topographical maps of the Survey Department is named "Palavakki", which means where the Sacred Bodhi plant was kept. It is presently in the bay below Tiriyaya which has a natural harbour with two natural piers about a mile long gutting into the sea with about a mile between them. The Sacred Bodhi Plant was kept here for three days and venerated by Devanampiyatissa, Mahanaga the Chandanagama Ksatriyas and the Kataragama Ksatriyas and taken to Anuradhapura in a procession that took five days and installed there where it stands today.
We note that the son of Mahanaga namely Yatala Tissa murdered the Dasa Bachies (ten Bachies) while Kelanitissa another son married into the Greek Bachi clan and had a daughter, Viharamaha Devi. She married Kavantissa and had two sons, namely Dutugemunu and Saddhatissa. They were of mixed parentage, of Naga and Greek descent. It is clear that the rivalry of the Persian and Greek prevailed even here. This was promoted by Viharamaha Devi but it appears that Kavantissa was neutral in this matter as it involved his Naga relations who were on the side of Elara, noted for his good governance.
If I be permitted to digress, who was Elara really? Evidence indicates that trade in Anuradhapura was controlled by a prominent trader. As it involved international trade he was elected by the guild of traders. All indications show that Elara was not a Dravidian or of Tamil origin but a trader of Persian stock. His name is purely Persian, meaning God and even Persian Governers at that time were regarded as minor Gods and hence the name Elara. He is well known as a good king and respected by all, both friend and foe, and followed the Persian custom of having a call bell at his bedstead to make any serious complaint by the citizens. Moreover the Tamils were not heard of as having been in Sri Lanka which also indicates that he could not have been a Tamil. It is unfortunate that though the Mahavamsa has several historical facts that cannot be challenged, it also has fables written for the "Joy and Emotion of the pious". Though the Mahawamsa is based on the previous chronicle, the Dipawamsa, that does not indicate the Elara/Dutugemunu encounter at all. It appears more as a historical novel introduced by Mahanama as a diversion for the "Joy and emotion of the pious". It is like some of our present day historians indulging in writing historical novels that are not entirely historical and therefore this episode cannot be taken in its entirety as a historical fact.
We also see in Ptolemy’s Taprobane reproduced on this page the presence of numerous tribes and traders not only in the Rajarata and Ruhuna, but also in coastal townships and harbours occupied by different communities like the pre-Islamic Arabs who also came here for purposes of trade in pearls, spices, gems and rice. There were specialised harbours in the pearl trade like the port of Mantota or Margana Civitas in present Mannar. Rizala Portus that specialized in the rice trade is today Arikkapattu. We also see in Ptolemy’s Traprobane the presence of several village settlements. What is also interesting to us is that in 115 AD, about the time Ptolemy’s Traprobane was compiled, the Mahawamsa records that King Gajabahu I in addition to bringing back our irrigation experts taken by force to build the irrigation systems in Arikkamadu to build the New City (Poduke) he also 12,000 Tamil slaves as compensation and settled then in the Dolosdahas Korale in Southern Ruhuna.
Then we have less than 100 Tamil stone inscriptions in the 7th century AD and particularly the 11th century AD (when the Chola invasions occured), as compared to over 3000 Brahmi and Sinhala stone inscriptions recorded in Sri Lanka. It must be remembered that within two or three generations the Cholan Tamils learnt Sinhala and were absorbed into the body politic of the Sinhala Nation.
Parakramabahu I constructed several irrigation works and restored the ancient irrigation works. However, in a short time, with the change of the river course of the Mahaweli Ganga in the 13th century the irrigation schemes fell into disuse as a result and Polonnaruva was virtually abandoned. The king and the greater part of the populace shifted to Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Gampola, Kotte and finally Kandy and the Western Province came to be densely populated. There were also foreign incursions during this period of instability. To secure the pearl trade we had the incursions of the Mukkuwas and the control of the Palk Straits by the Arya Chakravarti, who is described as a sea pirate who was a threat to the Kotte Kingdom.
It was Parakramabahu VI who engaged the services of the Mercenary Kaurava Warriors and their supporting staff of highly skilled specialists. Even today these specialists are represented as ancillary army regiments in any competent army. It was for the simple reason that the then existing army were unable to subdue the inimical forces that this army of Kaurava warriors with the supporting staff overcame both the Mukkuwas and the Ariya Chakravati and therefore it requires no repetition here as it can be read in my previous articles mentioned above.
What is required here is to answer the uncalled for disparaging reference to the Kaurava warriors who liberated the country from foreign usurpers. There has been a tendency of our historians and archaeologists who were not of Kaurava tribe, but of other tribes or castes to belittle these Kaurava warriors so that their own castes could be elevated as they had an inferiority complex. Certain families gained prestige by serving the colonial powers and these small groups practically monopolized office, especially under the Dutch and the British. There is nothing to indicate that they were anything but Govigama and other castes and using their position decried the Kauravas. This is quite different to what has been recorded by unbiased writers. One has only to read Taprobane by Hugh Nevill, who compiled in the face of opposition a mine of information not only with regard to castes but also information on other matters of culture that is missing in other publications. He also provides other sources in the Huge Nevill Collection in the British Museum. This is also followed by unbiased writers like the first Archaeological Commissioner H. C. P. Bell who has written the Report of the Kegalle District of the Sabaragamuwa Province where he mentions the "Parana Kuru Korale" in the four Korales. I would like to conclude this essay by referring to the Mukkara Hatana in the Hugh Nevill collection of ola manuscripts in the British Museum No or 6603 (139), on the "notes of the Janawamsa" in Taprobane of April 1886 and also in the Niti Nigandhuva, implying the Sudra origin of the cultivators.
Then we have the book The Karava of Ceylon by M. D. Ragavan, Emeritus Ethnologist of the National Museum of Ceylon under Chapter on the "Mukkara Hatana" on page 17 and 18 where reference is made to the composition of the Kaurava warrior force and from section four on pages 30 to 31 where it is stated in 1556 of the conversion of 7000 Kauravas took place from which I quoted and is not my invention. It is not my intention to repeat my research here for Tissa Devendra’s edification, he may refer to my references and read The Karava of Ceylon as he has obviously not read it and could draw his own conclusion from it.
Finally the people of Sinhala communicated in a language called Sinahalese, which evolved from the vocables of the different languages of the people who came to live here at different times. It must be remembered that new comers to Sri Lanka within two or three generations spoke that language Sinhalese, which included those who came here even in the Kandyan period in the time of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe.
In regard to the Jaffna Tamils with their ground water techniques of well and shadaff were mainly the Vellalas who were brought by the Dutch to grow tobacco, while the more recent Indian Tamils were brought here as indentured labour with their supervisors during British times. What I have death with are the main roots of the Sri Lankan tree, that subsequently by the natural process of intermarriage have produced a progeny like a well seasoned pickle, which can no longer be separated into its original constituents which would be both futile and impossible to achieve. We are all Sri Lankan now from wherever our source of origin is.
With this edification I would conclude this essay and if at all there are further queries there are many books published in this regard and would request Tissa Devendra to read them as "reading make a full man" and "Truth is sacred and comment is free". I have no intention whatsoever of further replying any further letters regarding this matter to the Editor by Devendra as these publications are self-explanatory.