March 7, 2017, 7:36 pm
Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Doomed King: A Requiem for Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, Sailfish, Colombo, 2017.409 pages. SL Rs. 1500, US$20, £16, €20.
by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
This fascinating book opens with the anonymous quotation: “In order to survive as a nation people have to truthfully invent falsehoods.”
This reminded me of my own article from April 2013 on “Heritage Histories.” We create false histories to define who we are in superior light – our caste, race, religion, language, schools etc. – and when these are questioned, it is soul wrenching. This is such a book. It is gratifying to have a Sinhalese Emeritus Princeton University Professor laying bare the Sinhalese myths built around the last king of Kandy.
Lankan school texts unflinchingly claim that the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka as settlers and the Tamils as invaders. Tamils cry foul, but cannot see that we do the same to our minorities – claiming that Muslims are low caste Tamils, that the Tamil Bible was translated by the Hindu Leader Navalar, who taught Tamil at the age of 12 to the actual translator Peter Percival; and that C.W. Thamotharampillai, who discovered some of the oldest Tamil books and whose infant baptism is a matter of record, was a born-Hindu pretending to be a Christian for privileges. Worse, ancient roots are ascribed to the relatively new Sinhalese language by calling Brahmi inscriptions proto-Sinhalese – as absurd as giving English ancient vintage by calling British Roman inscriptions proto-English.
My wife had already read our daughter’s copy with all footnotes. When I got my copy she wanted to re-read it and we literally fought for our turns and finished it in a day. Such is the gripping nature of Gananath’s narrative.
Sri Vikrama Rajasingha (SVR)
Gananath terms the deposing of SVR as the most momentous event in Lankan history because it marked the end of independence. Nayaka rule begins with the death of the childless Narendrasingha (1707-1739) who had appointed his Nayaka brother-in-law Sri Vijaya Rajasinha as Yuva Raja (sub-king). The Nayakas were warriors from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, who had established their empire in Tamil country, especially Thanjavur and Madurai from where the Kandyan kings obtained their royal brides.
The Sinhalese saw the Nayakas as Tamil. SVR’s end is owed to the British demonizing him with a view to invading Kandy on the pretext of freeing the people from tyranny, and the Englishman John D’Oyly using numerous Buddhist monks as his spies to prepare for the invasion. To these Buddhists, the English King was preferred to this so-called Tamil king. The popular account from D’Oyly, “deliberate misinformation from [the traitor] Ahelepola’s Sabaragamuva loyalists,” is the stuff of school texts from my time.
SVR is made villainous in the execution narrative of the wife and children of Ahelepola, who was working with the British against SVR. He, his wife Kumarihami, children and his brother and wife were all sentenced to death. Ahelepola escaped. He could have saved his family by surrendering but failed them. The eldest, 11 years old, clung to his mother, terrified and crying. The second nine-year-old son, stepped forward showing his brother how to die. His head, severed by a sword was put in a rice mortar and the pestle given to the mother to pound it. The infant at the mother’s breast was decapitated. The milk he had drawn flowed mingled with blood. SVR is said to have watched all this with a crowd.
Gananath does not believe any of this, asking how it leaked out. He adds, “Surely not through the king’s executioner, very likely the only witness to the event.” The so-called assembled crowd, Gananath puts down to John Davy the British surgeon’s inventiveness, “from British practices where crowds gathered at executions in a carnival-like atmosphere.”Having passed by an LTTE execution of a “traitor” husband and wife couple at Urumpirai, where ice-cream and gram vendors were gathered and schoolchildren gleefully watched over these treats, I am not so certain the habit was not already introduced by the Dutch as seen from the gallows on the Jaffna Fort ramparts.
Accounts by Sinhalese like the Ahelepola Varnanava, in contrast, says Gananath, lambaste the king as a heretic Tamil while barely mentioning the execution of Ahelepola’s family. The “outrageously anti-Tamil text,” puts Ahelapola in the dynasty of the sun and the moon and says he is like the mystic eagle (Garuda) that destroyed the Tamil serpent. Rather strangely, the Ahelepola Varnanava makes out Ahelapola as the peacock, the vehicle of Muruhan, which made Tamils flee in fear. We see cultural appropriation, as when White people take over the weaker Black people’s symbols especially from Black music, and make Blacks feel they have no culture. Taking over Kadirgamam and calling it Kataragama and the Tamil Buddhist ruins of Kandarodai, renamed Kathurugoda seem similar.
The final capture of the king was guided by D’Oyly and Ahelepola. Molligoda, appointed Disava by the king, betrayed his lord. Several chiefs fled as the British approached. Ekneligoda (“who believed that his chief Ahelepola would soon be king”) and 500 of his supporters from Sabaragamuwa caught the king, reviled him and tied him up with wild creepers. The queens came out “reeling like fowls whose necks had been twisted and blood streaming from the lobes of their ears which had been lacerated in tearing away their earrings. However false, when such stories are internalised by a people, the repeat of similar incidents in successive race riots against Tamils becomes normative.
Interpreter Don William Dias took charge and entreated D’Oyly to come quickly, writing “the Sinhalese king” has fallen into our hands and is being “subject to ill-treatment and ignominy.” He asked for three palanquins (for the king and his two queens) and wearing apparel as the queens were almost naked.
(Is this what happened to Prabhakaran, his family and Isaipriya in Nandikadal?)
Gananath brings out the many positive views of the king, a man of composure and majesty who ruled according to the shastras with a deportment that “indicated considerable dignity and firmness of mind”that could discuss the causes of lightning. Says Gananath, “In my view all these cases of the executions or punishment of prominent chiefs and confiscation of lands [by SVR] were for treason and fully justified under the law.” For almost every matter on which British writers blamed the king, Gananath points to the same thing being the norm for British behaviour – drinking spirituous liquor, having many women, issuing savage punishments to traitors, etc.
Following up on the reference to SVR as “the Sinhalese king,” Gananath notes that the Nayaka kings (except Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782) “the great Nayaka-Buddhist king”) were born and raised in Kandy. Theywere practising Buddhists who “also believed, as most Sinhala Buddhists did [and do], in the great Hindu gods” such as Vishnu, Skanda and Pattini. Gananath says that some Nayaka queens, born and raised in Madurai, were more passionately Buddhist than most Buddhists, “which of course is true of recent converts.” “It is therefore no accident” that it was SVR who constructed the magnificent site in honour of the Dalada after much of it was burnt down by the British in 1803-4. I might add that if SVR was not the Sinhalese, nor was Vijaya, if at all, he existed. His queens from Madurai, too, were Sinhalese just as many Tamils who have chosen to change identity in recent years are Sinhalese. (It was Gananath who told me, just after 1983 that when a Sinhalese-English dictionary by the Government Press defined the Salagama caste of the Sinhalese as recent Tamil immigrants brought in as cinnamon peelers, a high ranking Buddhist prelate of that caste persuaded J. R. Jayewardene to burn the books and reprint them without the offending reference).
Gananath is an iconoclast who enjoys being that. He is critical of many established writers. He apologises for making the necessary references to caste and treason, and “to the descendants of the aristocrats who live and work in Sri Lanka today.” His defence of his explicit references to caste, I find redeeming because I, too, have found it necessary to identify people by their caste to make the argument that there is discrimination even today, and that oppressed people who rise in the system, once empowered, put down those lower than themselves. He salves the egos of those criticised saying that the good and the bad exist within us all although their behaviour towards their noble and enlightened king who lived by Kandyan Law and forgave many traitors, seems utterly selfish, brutal and venal.
Iconoclastic Gananath cannot resist pointing out that it is a mistake to say “the lion flag was the ‘national flag’ of the Tri Sinhala,” the term Tri Sinhala being “of thirteenth century origin.” He adds, “there was no flag, lion or otherwise, that expressed the collective unity of the three parts of the Tri Sinhala. Such national flags were invented, designed or reshaped only with the advent of the modern European nation state.”
This extremely valuable bookwill enlighten the many who were brought up on nonsensical history books and school texts. It will also bother many authors whose work is questioned, but in very polite and non-confrontational but inexorable arguments cutting to the core of texts from colonial times to now. Worse, it will expose the many families who go as noble Sinhalese but in reality were traitors for having betrayed a just and noble “Sinhalese king,” a Buddhist who like all Sinhalese today, if they trace their ancestry back however they choose, would find they end up in a Hindu somewhere – whether Vijaya the mythical ancestor of the Sinhalese; or Mootha Siva the father of the first Buddhist king of Lanka, Devanambiyatheesan; or the Tamil Buddhists of Kantharodai; or the thousands of Tamils on the western and southern coasts who became Sinhalese in the twentieth century; or the Nagas and Yakkas; or even Ravana.
It is academically and intellectually salutary that Gananath Obeyesekere is, going by the spelling of his name, from the same aristocratic families whose loyalty to the Sinhalese king and uprightness he questions. That adds to the book’s credibility.
This book will promote national unity and reconciliation through greater understanding among all Lankans and help form a truthful and realistic identity. It isa tribute to Gananath Obeyesekere’s wit, sharp mind, noble thoughtsand empathy for the weak. It is most enlightening of our prejudicesand abeautiful thing for any collector to own.
A final compliment to the new publisher, Sailfish:An excellently produced book at an affordable price with the commitment to delve into the controversial. I look forward to more.
The Island Newspaper
I’m not a writer in the traditional sense of the term. What I am is a storyteller. As some of you probably know, I am privileged to publish Sri Lanka’s finest fiction, and I’m quite good at being able to tell you which books will work and which books won’t work. We started PERERA-HUSSEIN about twelve years ago, and we’re fortunate to be still in business. But more than that, the fact that an increasing number of people know and recognise our books and actively look for them in bookshops or online, indicates that we’re either really very lucky in the selection of books and authors we chose to publish, or that we’re doing something right. I prefer to think it’s the latter, but whichever way we look at it, Publishing in these tough economic times has given us a good grasp of what people want or are willing to buy.
As I’ve often remarked, people are reading more than ever before, but their reading matter doesn’t necessarily come from books, magazines or newspapers. Rather, it comes from sms’s, e-mails, Twitter and that huge source of entertainment – Facebook. It has got to the point where if we have nothing else to do, whether we are waiting for a bus or for the doctor, we turn on the data connection on our smart-phone and then surf our Facebook account! There are people whom I know, who rely on Facebook not just to see what their friends are up-to, but also to get News of the World updates.
Children follow their parents’ example, and usually a child who reads has parents who read too. However, given that today’s adults are reading fewer books, children have begun to lose the reading habit and will only read subject related books that help them pass exams. No more reading for entertainment or leisure or pleasure, even though there are many things that can be learned from the most trivial of books. For me, this is a scary thought because it means we’re heading toward a limited world, full of people unable to think laterally. So yes, in an effort to change that mindset, we turned our attention towards young minds and started publishing books for a young adult as well as junior audience. Again, we were lucky. The Ministry of Education approved several of our Children’s books, for School Libraries, and some of these books are now taught in schools.
Although this progressed the way we expected, we adjusted our publishing strategy along the way. Rather than limit ourselves to only examining manuscripts for publication, we decided to commission artists to illustrate stories that we told them. The first artist we chose was an Englishman by the name of Alex Stewart. His paintings are like Persian miniatures and are marvellously whimsical. Alex did a series of three books for us. On one of his visits to Lanka, I invited him to coffee, took him to Barefoot, sat him down in their delightful garden café and told him stories. The first story that Alex decided to illustrate happened very naturally when, while having lunch, he turned to me and said “Sam, how come these Squirrels have stripes?” and this is the story I told him…
Of course, you already knew how squirrels helped Rama in his epic battle to liberate Sita. But Alex’s drawings really supplement the storyline and you will spend many pleasurable hours going over the artwork. Now, that story is based on what is termed Myth & Legend. The three stories that Alex Stewart illustrated for us are all based on Myth & Legend and while fascinating, we must remember that Myth & Legend has no substantiated hold on reality. These are popular stories made up by early peoples to describe or understand the world they lived in. As such, they have many variations and different narratives, told from different viewpoints.
Stories from our part of the world have a large grounding in Hindu mythology and are equal or superior in complexity to Greek Mythology which is studied extensively in our schools. It’s a little sad that we neglect our own culturally relevant stories to study European ones.
For our second story, we headed to Lanka’s deep south. Whether it is true or false, popular belief has it that the hero king Dutugemunu worshipped at lord Kataragama’s shrine, soliciting victory, before engaging in the war with king Elara who ruled over the Anuradhapura or Rajarata kingdom. The victorious Dutugemunu, as a final courtesy to his defeated enemy, decreed that everyone would dismount and walk while passing Elara’s final resting place. Today, people have forgotten where Elara fell and no one pays similar courtesies to fallen heroes or worthy adversaries. However, much like Dutugemunu, people still flock to Kataragama to ask the Kataragama Deviyo for favours. Of course, he is one of Lanka’s better known guardian deities, but who is lord Kataragama? From where did he come and what does he do in his remote jungle shrine? Very few people know, but if you’ve ever wondered, I will tell you…
You’ve probably figured out by now that the sophisticated artwork is what interested me more than anything else. In this loosely defined arena of culture, books are the most accessible and affordable entry point. Anything we define as cultural, whether it is a dance performances or theatre, if it’s performed live, is either expensive or difficult to attend due to our own time or money constraints. Once upon a time, Music used to be difficult to access because it was always a live performance. But today, thanks to Youtube it has become broad-based and contemporary music can be downloaded easily enough, provided that you have the accessories to receive it. Contrarily, the cinema experience, which until recently had affordable mass appeal, has now become quite expensive and leaves nothing tangible beyond a fading memory. Traditional art forms on the other hand have literally exploded. An increasing number of artists and consumers entering the field has made it difficult to keep abreast of what’s new or good. Everyone has heard of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, but hardly anyone knows of successful contemporary artists. Paradoxically, artwork has become more expensive and thereby less accessible to a wide public. Introducing art affordably to people was another goal in this illustrated book project. Alex Stewart’s paintings sell for large amounts of money but through these books you can have about 15 paintings for the ridiculously low price of Rs 250. A deal if there ever was one!
The legendary Ravana was a super-being who rocked antiquity. He prayed, fought or tricked his way to stardom. The undisputed lord of the glittering city of Lanka, he owned an aeroplane and had vast powers. Although the northern narratives make Ravana out to be a villain, in the southern narratives, he was a devout and honourable shiivite. There are many places in Lanka that have place names drawn from the Ravana legends, which are still alive in people’s minds. From Ussangoda near Tangalle where Ravana is supposed to have had an air-port, to the Ravan-ella water-falls, or Sita-eliya where Sita was held captive and numerous other places in the Matale district – legends of Ravana abound. I visited a village at the foot of the knuckles mountain range, close to the Vasgomuva national park and was told that during the epic Rama-Ravana battle, Rama struck his bow on the ground, drew an arrow and fired it into the knuckles range where Ravana had a palace. You can still see the broken cliff where the arrow hit and shattered the mountain. And on the place that Rama placed his bow, a lake sprung up that was named DunVila after the famous dunna or bow.
The third and final story that Alex Stewart illustrated for us, takes us to the north-eastern town of Trincomalee and happened a long time before Ravana’s alleged abduction of Sita. In fact, it describes the first Tsunami to devastate Lanka’s coast. If you’ve ever visited the Shiva kovil on Swami rock, you would have stepped over an unusual cleft in the rock and I’m sure you always wondered how that happened. Well, once again I will tell you in
We’re delighted that this particular unrelated trilogy is complete, and that people are able to enjoy the stories, but we are planning on bringing out a whole series of similar books which are both entertaining and educative. The next one, which is still in the works, will showcase a different artist, and is based on a story from our dry zone. The Mongoose and Snake are bitter enemies. When they meet, they fight ferociously, and often, to the end. But why do they fight? Keep in touch and I will tell you.