Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History

Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History

by Zoltán Biedermann, Alan Strathern

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The peoples of Sri Lanka have participated in far-flung trading networks, religious formations, and Asian and European empires for millennia. This interdisciplinary volume sets out to draw Sri Lanka into the field of Asian and Global History by showing how the latest wave of scholarship has explored the island as a ‘crossroads’, a place defined by its openness to movement across the Indian Ocean.

Experts in the history, archaeology, literature and art of the island from c.500 BCE to c.1850 CE use Lankan material to explore a number of pressing scholarly debates. They address these matters from their varied disciplinary perspectives and diverse array of sources, critically assessing concepts such as ethnicity, cosmopolitanism and localisation, and elucidating the subtle ways in which the foreign may be resisted and embraced at the same time. The individual chapters, and the volume as a whole, are a welcome addition to the history and historiography of Sri Lanka, as well as studies of the Indian Ocean region, kingship, colonialism, imperialism, and early modernity.

Praise for Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History

‘[Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History] brings us views of well-published scholars, and the collection conforms to the highest standards of the historical enterprise. Historians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere will profit by it, and it should be in every major library.’
Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities

'[Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History] brings us views of well-published scholars, and the collection conforms to the highest standards of the historical enterprise. Historians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere will profit by it, and it should be in every major library.'
Thuppahi's Blog

'works such as this could play a key role in... framing debates on what direction Sri Lanka should take in the future'
Himal Southasian

‘This valuable volume, offering access to much recent research and thoughtful analysis, will rightly capture the attention of Sri Lanka and South Asia specialists. Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History has much to off er other readers and interlocutors also, especially scholars of world history and Indian Ocean studies, including those debating the comparative reach and value of “cosmopolitanism” as an analytical concept.’
Professor Anne M. Blackburn, Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University, USA

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781911307815
Publisher: U C L Press, Limited
Publication date: 06/07/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
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About the Author

Zoltán Biedermann is Senior Lecturer and Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at UCL. He is the author of The Portuguese in Sri Lanka and South India(2014) and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of European expansion and knowledge production in the Indian Ocean region. He is currently finishing his fourth book, a study of the Portuguese involvement in Sri Lanka before 1600.

Alan Strathern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College. He is the author of Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka (2007), and a number of journal articles and book chapters. He is currently writing a comparative history of ruler conversions to monotheism in world history.

Zoltán Biedermann is Senior Lecturer and Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at UCL. He is the author of The Portuguese in Sri Lanka and South India (2014) and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of European expansion and knowledge production in the Indian Ocean region. He is currently finishing his fourth book, a study of the Portuguese involvement in Sri Lanka before 1600.
Alan Strathern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College. He is the author of Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka (2007), and a number of journal articles and book chapters. He is currently writing a comparative history of ruler conversions to monotheism in world history.

Read an Excerpt

Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History

By Zoltán Biedermann, Alan Strathern

UCL Press

Copyright © 2017 Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-911307-81-5


Archaeology and cosmopolitanism in early historic and medieval Sri Lanka

Robin Coningham, Mark Manuel, Christopher Davis and Prishanta Gunawardhana


This chapter will examine the applicability of the concept of cosmopolitanism in Sri Lanka during the early historic and the medieval period across a timespan of between c. 500 bce and 1200 ce, utilizing archaeological evidence augmented by epigraphic and textual sources. It will focus on north central Sri Lanka and Anuradhapura but draw on wider references, comparisons and analogies where appropriate. Within an archaeological context, cosmopolitanism is a relatively underexplored phenomenon. While some volumes have addressed issues of identity and cosmopolitanism, they have been more concerned with how this may have been represented in the present (largely through cultural heritage), as opposed to exploring the nature of its ancient manifestations. Philosophically, cosmopolitanism may be taken to refer to the concept that all humans belong to a single community with shared moral codes and philosophies, and that such a concept should be nurtured. However, to a wider public, cosmopolitanism has often been used to reflect multiculturalism, sophistication and a general worldliness. In an archaeological context, the former definition is inherently problematic and challenging; however, the latter set of definitions is more achievable to identify, but to varying degrees as will become apparent.

How archaeologists commence the process of defining and identifying cosmopolitanism within archaeological communities is, in itself, a challenge although one may simply acknowledge the presence of multiple communities in the past. On a more ambitious level, archaeologists may investigate the relationships between such communities more deeply and the influences they may have had on each other. In such a way, the concept of cosmopolitanism may assist the development of a greater understanding of the complex and multifaceted identities of individuals and communities in the past. For instance, individuals may have had allegiances to multiple communities, may have spoken numerous languages and may have participated in various religious, ritual and belief systems. However positive an ambition, the inclusive and integrating nature of cosmopolitanism makes it difficult to define and even more difficult to identify within the ephemeral material remains with which archaeologists have to contend.

The focus of this discussion must also acknowledge the underlying and underpinning concepts of identity. Early archaeologists, such as Gustaf Kossinna (1858–1931), linked material archaeological remains with cultures, and variations within these cultural groups were attributed to ethnic diversity. Each clearly defined cultural province was thus correlated with an ethnic group and, simultaneously, also linked to contemporary nationalist concerns. Although in opposition to this political agenda, pioneering archaeologists, such as Vere Gordon Childe and Stuart Piggott, continued to identify and map cultural provinces across time and space in Europe and South Asia through differences and distributions of material culture, maintaining the assumption that cultural groups correlated with ethnic and linguistic groups. In Western Europe and, by imperial proxy, in South Asia, archaeologists utilized concepts of diffusion and migration to explain cultural and linguistic variations, for example in the debate over the development and spread of Indo-Aryan languages, linked with the ubiquitous Aryan invasion theory.

Sri Lanka may be perceived as representing a microcosm of this latter Aryan question. Indeed, Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic identities have been created and curated on the basis of relatively modern distributions of Indo-European and proto-Dravidian linguistic communities, combined with references to oral and literary traditions relating to the Vijayan colonization of the island. Despite this long scholarly tradition, there has been a more recent and rigorous examination of concepts of ethnicity within archaeology, leading some scholars to reject the notion that ethnic identity was ever concrete or could be traceable to a definable point. Jones has suggested that 'ethnic identity is based on shifting, situational, subjective identifications of self and others, which are rooted in ongoing daily practice and historical experience, but also subject to transformation and discontinuity'. Archaeologists have also focused on issues of identity within the archaeological record, challenging preconceptions relating to age, gender, ethnicity and religion, and recognizing that 'identity ... is not a static thing, but a continual process ... Identities are constructed through interaction between people and the process by which we acquire and maintain our identities requires choice and agency'.

Crucial within this quote is the recognition that identity is not singular but a plural concept. Individuals may hold many different identities simultaneously and this is something that becomes increasingly evident when examining the complex Sri Lankan past. This is equally true of the challenge of trying to discern religious identities from archaeological remains, individual objects or artefactual corpora. For instance, many monuments and motifs were commonly shared by a number of major religious traditions, making it difficult to offer firm affiliations. With regard to Sri Lanka, a number of deities, such as Ganesh, Vis nu and Kubera, continued to be venerated after the advent of Buddhism but their positions were reconstituted within a cosmography that placed the Buddha centrally.

The survival of old beliefs and the appropriation of new traditions can be traced throughout the island's archaeological sequence, ranging from the introduction of the Buddha image in the first half of the first millennium ce to the emergence of traditions associated with the terracotta artefacts of the so-called 'Tabbova-Maradanmaduva Culture' at the beginning of the second millennium ce. In order to investigate cosmopolitanism in ancient Sri Lanka and evaluate the appropriateness of the concept itself, this chapter will examine a series of case studies. These range from the role of pilgrimage, in particular Buddhist, to and from the island; local and global trade networks and the impact these have had on the island's inhabitants; patronage within the island and Sri Lankan patronage elsewhere in South Asia; and the religious and economic landscapes of Anuradhapura and its surrounding hinterland. This study will focus on archaeological data but will introduce textual and epigraphic evidence where appropriate, and will begin by examining these sources and critically discussing how modern ethnic constructs in Sri Lanka have been intrinsically linked to the island's past.

Textual narratives and the linking of archaeology to ethnicity

The precolonial history of Sri Lanka has been constructed from a variety of textual sources, in particular the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa. Wilhelm Geiger argued that the Dipavamsa's contents relied upon an earlier chronicle known as the Athakatha-Mahavamsa, and that while the Dipavamsa is viewed as a first attempt at collating Pali verses, the Mahavamsa can be seen as a younger, more elaborate, treatment of the same material. Geiger even went as far as to suggest that the Mahavamsa represents 'a conscious and intentional rearrangement of the Dipavamsa'. Although its authorship is unknown, the Dipavamsa is believed to have been compiled in the fourth century ce, while the Mahavamsa has been argued to have been written by various monks of the Mahavihara and compiled into a single document by the Buddhist monk Mahanama in the fifth to sixth century ce. It narrates the history of the island from its colonization by Prince Vijaya through to the reign of King Mahasena (r. 275–301 ce). The Culavamsa was a continuation of this narrative, detailing the island's history up to the eighteenth century ce. Initially scholars believed these narratives to be legends, but the rediscovery of palm leaf manuscripts by George Turnour at Mullgiri-galla near Tangalle led to the serious reconsideration of their contents as historical. Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary of Ceylon between 1845 and 1850 ce, stated that this 'long lost chronicle ... thus vindicated the claim of Ceylon to the possession of an authentic and unrivalled record of its national history'.

This rediscovery led to an increase in Western studies of the island's history, paralleled by significant research undertaken by members of the Sangha whose translations of Pali works into Sinhalese and correspondence with European academics facilitated the development of 'Oriental' scholarship. Unique across South Asia, the chronicles provided a historical framework for the island from before the Mauryan Empire through to British rule and, with colonial endorsement, the chronicles became the privileged source of evidence for scholars studying Sri Lanka's past. This focus has produced what has been termed by Seneviratne as the 'Mahavamsa view', reflecting the fact that ever since the rediscovery of the chronicles, the disciplines of Sri Lankan history and archaeology have been largely influenced by as the Mahavamsa's narrative. It has also been suggested that archaeological evidence from excavations in Anuradhapura, while often referring to 'popular' culture and history, has been used to reinforce academic narratives derived from the chronicles.

The narrative itself details, as is widely known, the arrival of Prince Vijaya, the exiled heir to a kingdom in northern India, with his 700 followers on the uninhabited island of Lanka in the middle of the first millennium bce. On arrival, Vijaya slays the demonic yakkhas who reside on the island, while at the same time having two children by the yakkhini, Kuveni. Descended from a lion, Vijaya refers to his followers as Sinhala, or 'people of the lion'. However, having borne his children, Prince Vijaya spurns Kuveni in favour of an Indian princess, and Kuveni and their children retreat to the jungle, forming the Pulinda people. After the conversion of the Sinhalese to Buddhism in the third century bce as a result of Asoka's proselytizing (see p. 29), the Mahavamsa makes its first reference to differentiated communities by mentioning Demalas, a term often associated with Tamils, although this is contested. With the exception of those Tamil-speakers brought across as indentured labour for the colonial tea plantations, the Tamil communities of present-day Sri Lanka have often been directly linked with the invading South Indian Pan dyas and Colas during the later phases of the Sinhalese rule from Anuradhapura. The chronicles thus seem to establish within their narratives three distinct communities that have often been perceived to have been at odds with one another, rather than recognizing a framework for a multicultural island with a shared history. Frequently, the underlying question here has been to do with who the rightful autochthons were.

This link of past to present has often been translated into the notion of the Sinhalese as rightful 'heirs' to the island, while Tamils were portrayed as latecomers or outsiders. The reasoning behind this partially originates from colonial interpretations of Sri Lankan history. As well as endorsing the Mahavamsa as history, Tennent equated the Pulinda with the modern communities of hunter-gatherers or väddas, often described as the aboriginal inhabitants of the island; the Sinhalese as the civilized creators of the architectural and engineering masterpieces of the northern plains or the Rajarata; and finally, the Tamils as the 'debased' destroyers of that civilization. These views became mainstream historical opinion, although other scholars sought to attribute a much deeper antiquity to the Tamil communities of the island, with some suggesting that sites such as Mantai were part of a separate early Tamil trading civilization, or that an early Dravidian population was already present on the island at the time of the Vijayan colonization. However, these latter views never garnered broader acceptance.

Central to colonial interpretation was the concept that Indo-European-speaking people had invaded South Asia from the north and west around the first millennium bce, bringing with them a cultural package that included writing, iron, horse-riding and advanced social institutions. Within South Asia, the Indo-Aryan invasion was portrayed as part of a long pageant of historical precedents that helped to legitimate British control of the region as the latest wave of conquest elites following Aryans, Greeks, Persians and Turks. The civil servant and historian, H. W. Codrington, pursued these legitimacies in his Short History of Ceylon, when he reminded readers that the British invasion of Kandy and exile of the last king, Sri Vikrama Rajasimha (r. 1798–1815 ce) was to deliver 'the Kandyans from their oppressors and the subversion of the Malabar dominion', Rajasimha being a South Indian Tamil by birth.

Episodes and events of oppression were also portrayed within the chronicles and they frequently referenced the destruction of Buddhist heritage by South Indian aggressors. For instance, during the reign of Mahinda V (r. 982–1029 ce) the chronicles recorded that Anuradhapura was abandoned, leaving the capital open to plunder by the South Indian Cola polity:

Thereupon they sent the Monarch and all the treasures which had fallen into their hands at once to the Cola Monarch. In the three fraternities and in all Lanka (breaking open) the relic chambers, (they carried away) many costly images of gold etc., and while they violently destroyed here and there all the monasteries, like blood-sucking yakkhas they took all the treasures of Lanka for themselves.

These descriptions were also used during the anti-colonial Buddhist revival by leaders of that movement, such as Angarika Dharmapala (1864–1933 ce), who identified modern Europeans and ancient Tamils as 'barbaric vandals' of Sinhalese culture. This fitted a framework promoting Sinhalese and Buddhist concerns while noting European interference. However, colonial archaeologists also laid the blame for the destruction of monuments in antiquity at the hands of Tamils, utilizing similar narratives. Early archaeological interpretations drew from such descriptions and H. C. P. Bell, the archaeological commissioner for Ceylon between 1890 and 1912, described the stone Buddhist railing at the Jetavana monastery of Anuradhapura as damaged by an aggressor:

The indescribable confusion in which the fragments were found heaped one upon another, and the almost entire wreck of the railing, leave little room for doubt that this unique relic of Ceylon Buddhist architecture must have perished under the ruthless destruction of those invaders from South India at whose door lies the mutilation and ruin of the best works of the sculptor's art in Anuradhapura.

Such interpretations were not rare, as illustrated by the discovery of fractured Buddha sculptures in Jaffna recorded by Sir Paul Pieris. He noted that earlier scholars, such as Sir William Twynam, the government agent for Jaffna, had suggested that Buddhist sculptures found in the north 'have been similarly mutilated – an undoubted sign, he thinks, of Dravidian invasion'. Such viewpoints were not restricted to the infancy of archaeological enquiry but continued through the twentieth century. For example, excavations at Abhayagiri in Anuradhapura in the 1980s revealed Buddha statues lying flat with their heads removed and this was cited as evidence of the Cola destruction as narrated in the Culavamsa. The latter findings were recovered from excavations conducted as part of Sri Lanka's major heritage programme, the UNESCO Central Cultural Fund, established by president J. R. Jayewardene in 1980. Tasked with excavating, conserving and presenting the ancient cities and Buddhist monuments of Sri Lanka, the sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1982, followed by Kandy in 1988 and Dambulla in 1991. Although colonial Galle was inscribed in 1988, the focus on Buddhist sites was pointed out by Tambiah, who stated that while there should be no barriers to the sponsorship of the restoration of Buddhist monuments, '[i]t would also behove a Sri Lankan government to recognize at the same time that there are monuments, archaeological remains, and literary and cultural treasures that are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhist as these labels are understood today'.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Querying the cosmopolitan in Sri Lankan and Indian Ocean history
Alan Strathern and Zoltán Biedermann

1 Archaeology and cosmopolitanism in early historic and medieval Sri Lanka
Robin Coningham, Mark Manuel, Christopher Davis and Prishanta Gunawardhana

2 ‘Implicit cosmopolitanism’ and the commercial role of ancient Lanka
Rebecca R. Darley

 3 A Pāli cosmopolis? Sri Lanka and the Theravāda Buddhist ecumene, c. 500–1500
Tilman Frasch

4 Beautifully moral: cosmopolitan issues in medieval Pāli literary theory
Alastair Gornall and Justin Henry

5 Sinhala sandēśa poetry in a cosmopolitan context
Stephen C. Berkwitz

6 The local and the global: the multiple visual worlds of ivory carvers in early modern Sri Lanka
Sujatha Arundathi Meegama

7 Cosmopolitan converts: the politics of Lankan exile in the Portuguese Empire
Zoltán Biedermann

8 Between the Portuguese and the Nāyakas: the many faces of the Kandyan Kingdom, 1591–1765 
Gananath Obeyesekere

9 Through the lens of slavery: Dutch Sri Lanka in the eighteenth century
Alicia Schrikker and Kate J. Ekama

10 Cosmopolitanism and indigeneity in four violent years: the fall of the kingdom of Kandy and the Great Rebellion revisited
Sujit Sivasundaram

11 The digestion of the foreign in Lankan history, c. 500–1818
Alan Strathern

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