Mar 20, 2018

Sri Lanka: Learning To Deconstruct Modern Myths

By Maheshi B Weerakoon 
Maheshi Weerakoon
Not small are the tragedies Sri Lanka has witnessed because of the irrational beliefs of the masses. The modern myth we have created regarding the purity and the supremacy of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony has gained so strong a stance in the society that every logical proposition made against it through facts, scientific evidences, statistics, and simple common sense are proving to be unable to eradicate the perception from the social consciousness.
This myth has solidified the erroneous notion that the country solely belongs to the Sinhala Buddhist majority and that the minorities must learn to live in the periphery, in the shadow, for they cannot make legitimate claims to the constructive narrative of the country.
Isn’t it quite logical to assume that any person having an unbiased reading of history cannot express such ludicrous sentiments?
As yet another species subject to Evolution, Homosapiens carry the tendency to migrate from place to place in search of better living conditions. This tendency is written into our DNA as an essential requirement for surviving. We, humans, descendants of a common ancestor and now living scattered around the world, began our journey from the plains of Africa about 60,000 years ago. These ventures continued until we found healthy environments to live in different regions of the world. Even after settling in one place and building advanced civilizations, we could not escape from our natural yearning for migrating and, compelled by many reasons such as wars, climatic changes, sense of adventure, and hostile environments, we never stopped going further in search of Promised Lands. Sri Lanka was no exception from that history and that history tells us how it hosted many visitors arriving at its golden shores at different times, for many a reason.
The linguistic, literary, archeologically and genetic evidences pertain to the fact that we migrated from Indian subcontinent as an extension of Indo-Aryan migration that started its course from the Steppes. According to Mahavamsa we may infer that by the time of prince Vijaya’s first landing, there had been a developed civilization in Sri Lanka. Even if we disregard Mahavamsa’s account as of minor value for its questionable credibility, the archaeological and genetic evidences have proven that we have migrated from India. The finding of Balangoda Man and the genetic similarities the Veddah people share with African and Indigenous Indian people would suggest that they are the original settlers of the island. Hence, the Sinhala people themselves have acted the role of the “outsiders”, the “Other” on Sri Lankan soil at a certain point of history.
From then onwards, there had been constant migrations into the island from different parts of the world. The proximity of the Indian subcontinent naturally facilitated contacts with south Indian powers such as Chola, Pallawa and Pandya. In the beginning, people came here from these kingdoms either as invaders or royal affiliations. As early as the Polonnaruwa kingdoms, king Wijayabahu I married the Kalinga princess, Thilokasundari ( Kalinga was a vassel state of Chola Kingdom), while his sister was given in marriage to a Pandya prince. The matrimonial ties, which strengthened king’s powers against further Indian invasions was an advantageous political strategy. It also initiated innumerable similar events that involved royal marriages which subsequently interfered with and influenced Sri Lankan political scenario. The Indian element played a vital role in construing the socio-political and cultural realities of the country. Many of the Hindu elements were assimilated into Buddhism: Their myriad of gods, Hindu shrines, veneration of cows, to name a few. The removal of cow from the moonstone during the Polonnaruwa Era signifies how strong the cultural integration of the Hindus might have impacted the Sri Lankan consciousness. This association was so entrenched in the society that it culminated to the point where, during the Kandyan Era, the Kandyan kingdom was ruled by kings belonging to Nayakar dynasty. 
Muslims started coming to the island from Middle-Eastern region around the 7th Century. They were either traders or pilgrims  to visit the Adam’s peak. The study done by Dr. Lorna Devaraja (Muslims of Sri Lanka- One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony 900-1915) gives a broad insight to the dynamics of the relationship that existed between Sinhalese and Muslims, and its impact on the socio-political and cultural discourse of the country. The practice of secluding Muslim women would have inevitably compelled the males to travel alone so that once they came here they married local women, converted them to Islam, and settled down to a new life operating their trades from the Sri Lankan ports.
The attitude of the Sinhalese kings towards the Muslims was one that of amicability. It is shown in the study that the Muslims were even employed as delegates to Middle-Eastern powers such as Egypt mainly because of their religious loyalties and navigation skills. The trading skills of the Arab Muslims proved advantageous to the Sri Lankan monarchs as the former were instrumental in promoting Sri Lankan trades, and subsequently bringing a vast sum of revenue to the kings. The Muslims were even given grants for various services they rendered the kings. In later times, Indian Muslims too began to frequent the country mainly for the commercial purposes. Although there had been moments of mistrust and strain between Muslim and Buddhist communities, those trivialities were overshadowed by the rapport between the two ethnicities. The affinity was to be seen throughout the history of monarchical Sri Lanka up to the Kandyan Era.
The European arrivals opened a passage to an influx of outsiders from various localities. Europeans’ unions with local women resulted in Burgers and Eurasians. The political ventures and economic policies implemented by the Europeans attracted many Malays, Chettis and Farsis to the island. Some of the people were brought here by the colonizers as labour force. Subsequently, Salagama, Durava and karawa castes which were comprised of Indian people were introduced to the Sri Lankan socio-economic landscape. South Indian Tamils too were brought here as labourers to work in tea plantations.
All of these people blended with the Sinhala community via intermarriages. They contributed to the Sri Lankan socio-political economic and cultural text with their trades, beliefs, labours and knowledge. The merging manifested in every major and minor aspect of Sri Lankan life: Religion, cuisine, language, customs, values etc.
Thus, it is not only unethical but illogical as well to claim that Sri Lanka belongs to only one race when it has been nurtured by the contributions done by all.
No single race can uphold the placard of sole ownership of a country; except in the mind of a megalomaniac like Hitler, may be. The socio-political, economic and cultural realities of any land are written by many hands that belong to many ethnicities. Rome was built by the Romans, an entity constituted of Italians, Gauls, Germans and Africans who were recognized as Roman citizens. Athens enjoyed the wisdom of many a foreign mind. Pericles’ well-versed consort was Aspasia whose name itself meant “the woman from Asia”.
These people that the Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists want to push to the fringe have been living with the majority for centuries. All of us are interconnected down to our blood in this matrix that the notion of a pure race becomes a pure myth within the dialogue of history.
True, there are certain immaculate races in the world hidden in deep forests of Amazon and Africa, and according to the facts discussed in the article, why they remain at such a primitive stage is axiomatic.
The question to rise is where do we trace the line? The line that demarcate the moment of history when one group of outsiders became “us” and another became “them”? Can we, in fact, make such dichotomies on the tapestry of history which is woven with unfathomable intricacy and with zillions of narrations?
On the other hand, the minorities too must learn to live in consolidation with the majority. They should not forget that it is not with segregation but with integration that peace lies. It is not in secrecy of the community but in openness and transparency that understanding and trust can thrive.
The worst thing that can happen to an ethnicity is to be plagued with irrationality and hatred. The negativity would silently kill it from within and then, like a dying star, it would collapse upon itself and die. We are evolving beings and the chances are that in another 200-300 years not only the polity of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, but of the entire human race might shift to different dimensions.
Meanwhile, isn’t it better to contribute our best to the society and leave this a peaceful place for the future generations?
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