Wigneswaran’s claim Devanampiya Tissa was a Tamil king An academically naïve proposition Prof Raj Somadeva

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By 2017-11-19

BY Kavindya Chris Thomas

Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran recently made a startling comment that has incensed academic realms of the country. Ceylon Today interviewed Senior Professor of Archaeology Raj Somadeva of Kelaniya University to gauge the depth of this 'scholarly disturbance'.

Following are excerpts:

Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran's statement has 'stirred' the interest of many academics of the country. What exactly is going on?

A: Wigneswaran's statement on some issues on the history of Sri Lanka has created an inquisitive whispering response within the realm of the literate public in the country. Irrespective of Wigneswaran's academic credentials on history and archaeology to make a public statement of this nature, the article was receptive because on one hand, the people's concern on the ideas and views expressed by a responsible personality like Wigneswaran, not only due to his current position as the elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province, but also his professional legacy as a respectable public servant in the judiciary in the country. The view he has expressed on the country's history epitomizes his own political ideology. I see that the current political atmosphere has inspired the sensible citizens to be cautious on emerging contradictions, especially related to the history of the country.

Factual historical evidence is found in inscriptions and historical documents. What is the available evidence that supports the claim that King Devanampiya Tissa was a Tamil king who converted to Buddhism?

A: What he said was that referring to Devanampiya Tissa as a Sinhala king was historically wrong. 'There was no Sinhala language at the time he was alive. His name was 'Devanai Nampiya Theesan' – one who believed in God – his name was Tamil'.

This is not a historically valid argument. Wigneswaran has stated that the correct form of the name Devanampiya Tissa is 'Devai Nampiya Theesan' and thus, he was a Tamil king. This is an academically naïve proposition. The word Tissa in Pali is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Tishya'. The Sinhala Prakrit form of that word is 'Tisa'. According to the oriental astrology system, 'Tishya' is a name of an asterism. In canonical literature, there is a clarification on why the names of asterisms are used as the personal names during this period. In defining the name Pussadeva (Pushya is another asterism similar to Tishya) the Pali commentaries say, "He was born from the asterism Pushya, then he got the name of Pussadeva (after the asterism God Pushya)". So it is clear that the name Tissa originated from a similar etymological root. For Wigneswaran, the word Devanampiya is a misspelled term of the name Devanai in Tamil.

The original form of this name that appeared in the early Brahmi inscriptions in Sri Lanka (250 BCE) is Devanapiya and not Devānampiya. For example, one of the cave inscriptions found in Mihintale bears an epithet 'Devanapiya maharajaha Gamani Uti' meaning 'the great king Gāmini Uttiya, Friend of the Gods'. The term Devānampiya appeared for the first time in the Mahāvamsa.

Sri Lankan kings had used this title as a legacy of the Mauryan tradition that flourished in the Gangetic plains during Emperor Asoka's reign. He also bore this title; for instance in the inscription of the Asoka pillar erected in his 20th regnal year starts with the phrase 'Devāna piyena piyadasina lājina veesati vasabhisitena (when 20 years elapsed from his consecration, the king Priyadarshi).

The title Devanapiya has a long history. Inscriptions such as the ones engraved on the door-frames of the ruined palace of the Achaemenian king Darius I in Persepolis, Persia; Darayavaus xsayatiya vazaraka xsayatiya xsayatiyanam xsayatiya meaning 'Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of countries'. Emperor Asoka borrowed this title from his predecessor and adopted a Magadha Prakrit – language of his day – version of the term. Considering these factors, one could translate the name Devānampiyatissa as 'one who was born in the asterism Tishya, the friend of Gods'. So then what would be the linguistic genre of the phrase 'Devanai Nampiya Theesan' as Wigneswaran spelled out?

What are the actual historical evidences available with regard to this matter?

A: The Mahavamsa, the literary work compiled in the Fifth Century CE provides us a genealogy of the Sri Lankan kings. Inscriptional evidence validates it.

Two inscriptions dated 250 BCE in Mihintale have mentioned about a king as Devanapiya maharajha and Maharajha Gamini Tisa.

His brother was Uttiya has also been mentioned in the inscriptions found in the same location. His name was written as Devanapiya Uti maharajha. This shows that the use of the title Devanapiya was diachronic and passed from one to another successively. As mentioned before, the title had drifted southwards along the hegemonic expansion of the Mauryan Court.

Archaeologically, this is manifested by the existence of Silver Punch-marked coins in different places in Sri Lanka. Originally, this variety of coins was minted in North India in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries BCE. During the later periods, especially in the time of Maurya Asoka, Punch-marked coins circulated among the communities who inhabited areas further southwards via transoceanic trade.

The arrival of Buddhism is the most explicit indicator of the hegemonic alliances held between the Mauryan Court and Sri Lanka.

The visit by Arhant Mahinda was recorded in one of the inscriptions in Rajagala in Ampara. I agree that there were socio-economic relationships between South India and Sri Lanka during that period and were due to the geographical proximity of the two countries. Yet, there is no evidence to argue on South Indian political domination held beyond their own territories, because, all the nations South of the Vindyan Mountains more or less existed under the direct or indirect influence of the Mauryan court.

He comments on the arrival of the Sinhala language in the 6th Century CE. Can this be verified?

A: In the Fifth Century CE, Cosmos Indicopleustes, a Greek merchant described Sri Lanka known by Indians as Sieladiba. This word is a derivation of the word Sihaladipa in Pali language. It means the 'Island of Sinhala people'. A Brahmi inscription of 100 BCE found in Tinneveli, Tamil Nadu in South India bears a word Sihala to describe Sri Lanka. The contemporary literature was compiled in the Sinhala language; the most explicit example being the Sihala attakatha. It was referred to as dipa bhasha or the 'island language'. Dampiya Atuva Gätapadaya, a 10th Century literary work defines dipabhasha or hela bhasha as 'dipavasinam bhasa dipabhasa' (the language of the people of the island is called the island language).

According to the Mahavamsa, Arhant Mahinda preached his doctrine to the countrymen by dipa bhasha. Hela bhasha or Sihala bhasha occurred synonymously in different contexts to denote dipa bhasha. It was the dialect of the common people in the country and Pali became the scholarly language parallel to the expansion of Buddhism in the country. This was the reason why the Mahavamsa appeared in the Pali language.

Wigneswaran also refers to recent findings that the original inhabitants of the island were Dravidians, backed by DNA tests. Has this been verified?

A: The term Dravidian is not a racial connotation as Wigneswaran has contemplated. It is a name of a language family. The term 'Dravidian' was coined by Robert Cladwell in 1856. He refers to the 7th Century Indian literary work of Tantravārttika by Kumarilabhatta and has pointed out that it describes Dravida as a language. The origin of this language family is still subjected to a serious academic discussion. For instance Marek Zvelebil, a prehistoric archaeologist, suggests that the community who speaks Dravidian languages entered India from the North-West around 3500 BC. The Brahui language was the first split of Proto-Dravidian remained in the North-Western India and it still exists there. The Dravidian linguistic family has three sub-clusters; Northern and Central Dravidian groups, Austro-Asiatic speakers and the Munda. Tamil is a substrate dialect of the Munda sub-cluster and has a slightly later origin than other Dravidian languages. The people who speak any language which belongs to non-Indo-European substrate language could be designated as Dravidian. It is not a term that signifies only the Tamil speaking people at large.

Furthermore, there are three ways that help to reconstruct the population history of a given society; molecular genetics and physical anthropology, the linguistic studies and archaeology. In this case, history does not provide substantial weight to resolve the problems. The study of molecular genetics in relation to understanding the ancient population in Sri Lanka is still in its infancy.

In the field of Physical Anthropology, Dr. Kenneth R. Kennedy of Cornell University, Ithaca was the only authoritative scholar who dealt to a certain extent on that perspective. He started his studies on Anthropology of the prehistoric human skeletons found in Bellanbandipallassa in Balangoda in 1965. After a comprehensive analysis, he reached a conclusion describing a genetic inheritance between the prehistoric communities and the existing Veddah aborigines. He stated; 'At the dawn of the historic period in Ceylon, the Veddahs were in all probability distributed throughout the island, save perhaps along the Northern coastline.'

He has emphasized that there are several anthropometric characteristics remained among our prehistoric population and the Veddah community which could not be seen in the other Southern Asiatic populations. Irrespective of their common genetic inheritance, both those populations appear to have been subject to separate evolutionary pressure for a long period of time.

Wigneswaran's statement on archaeology and ethnicity is a delusion. Archaeology is a materialistic study. Materials are neutral entities. For instance, if you find an ancient potsherd, you cannot say which ethnic group produced or used it in the past. Instead, archaeologists are concerned with the study of the cultural traits it carries, i.e., technology, cognition etc. and also the changes and continuities of such characteristics. There are no Sinhala artefacts, Tamil artefacts and any other ethnic kind of artefacts for archaeologists.

If anybody attempts to use archaeology to boost ethnicity then it will create a series of detrimental effects in society. For example, there was a German archaeologist named Gustaf Kossinna. He preached the doctrine of Kulturkreis theory; defining cultural history for a given area which identified geographical regions with specific ethnic groups on the basis of material culture.

Kossinna's philosophy lent theoretical support to the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany. I do not think we all need to make another holocaust by abusing archaeology and history to express our narrow perceptions on ethnic identities.

In the interview with Ceylon Today, Wigneswaran refers to work carried out by several historians. Is this information used accurately?

A. Prof. Pathmanadan is an erudite scholar and a well respected historian in the country. He made a tremendous impact upon the studies of Hindu sculptures and Tamil epigraphy in Sri Lanka. This is the first time I heard that he has made such a false allegation on the country's history which he is well conversant with, as told by Wigneswaran. I do not believe that.

Prof. Kartigesu Indrapalan, another historian he mentioned, has an alternative view on some issues pertaining to the occupation of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka during the historical period. His publication 'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, the Tamils in Sri Lanka (c. 300 BCE to c. 1200 CE)' exemplifies his view and some of the opinions he made there have a serious relaxation of academic rigour. Prof. Indrapalan has quoted Prof. Leslie Gunawardena's statement saying, "...with the intensification of the ethnic conflict and the accompanying polarization within the academic community, scholars have been coming under increasing pressure to develop representations of the past which lend legitimacy to the claims of the ethnic group to which they belong. While they have been expected to challenge representations of the past in works of writers in rival ethnic groups, it has become difficult and in certain situations, even risky for them to challenge or to be critical of representations being utilized by their own ethnic groups".

My justification is in his book published in 2005, where Prof. Indrapalan has disoriented in the midst of a conceptual darkness, which Prof. Gunawardena has elucidated. Wigneswaran is attempting to hide in the shadows of those mighty personalities to achieve his own targets.

Wigneswaran has also made several comments about Tamil Buddhist archaeological remains in the North and East. What's your response?

A: Yes, there were Tamil speaking Buddhists in the country at least 2300 years ago. A Tamil Buddhist monk who resided in Anuradhapura is recorded in an inscription. It mentions about an Ilubarat damada saman which means the "Tamil monk of barata clan in Sinhala (dipa)".

Here, the word 'Ila' stands for the word Sihala: the Tamil form of that word. This inscription was published by Prof. S. Paranavitana in 1970. From that point onward Tamil speaking people had maintained a positive relationship with Buddhism. A 10th Century inscription reported from the Trincomalee District contains information pertaining to a grant made by Chola King Raja Raja I to a Buddhist monastery called Velgam Vehera situated in the same area. The king has changed the name of the monastery as Raja Raja Perumpalli and looked after it. King Vijayabahu I appointed a team of Velaikkaras (Tamil soldiers) to protect the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Polonnaruwa. There is more evidence to show the relationship between the Tamil speaking people and Buddhism during the historical period. I guess what Wigneswaran said on the Tamil speaking people and Buddhism is what he wanted to see in future in this country.

How does the academic community perceive Wigneswaran's statement, given the current political environment of the country?

A: I am not in a position to make a statement on behalf of the fellow academics in my orbit. But I have my own vision on the historic inheritance of the country developed on empirical evidence. Politicizing history is a common experience all over the world.

But it is for the sake of the goodwill of the society. That is why the use and the abuse of history are different. Our society is now experiencing a terrifying movement dominating a clash between social responsibilities and the 'perfect freedom' of liberal democracy. 'Perfect freedom' in liberal democracy is an illusion. In one of the Dostoyevsky's works titled Devil, character named Kirilov kills himself to demonstrate his perfect freedom. Dostoevsky tells us that suicide is the only perfect free act open to an individual to show his/ her wish to consume perfect freedom under any banner when living in a society. We do not wish to see any public figure in this country experiences such a miserable agony.

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