UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Sri Lanka - Historiography

"There are very few incidents of Sinhalese history worth recording. Nothing can be more dreary and uninteresting than the domestic annals of the island, as related in the native chronicles, presenting a monotonous succession of plots and crimes; more than twentysix kings having met an untimely end, children murdering parents, wives husbands, husbands wives and children, to clear their way to the blood-stained throne,—fourteen sovereigns were murdered or poisoned between the years A.d. 523 and 648, a period of little more than one hundred years, giving only an average reign of eight years to each. Pandukabhaya, who reigned 437 B.C., put to death nine of his maternal uncles.

"Not more than two-thirds of the whole Sinhalese kings retained their regal authority to their decease, or reached a funeral pile without a violent death." Except the instances in which a reign was distinguished by some invasion of the Malabars, there is not anything more interesting to relate than a vile conspiracy and murder which effected a change of sovereign; and there is hardly a king of whom anything more can be said but that he built a dagoba, a wihara, or made a tank. Twenty-two sovereigns were put to death by their successors, any aspirant to the throne usually obtaining the acquiescence of the people to his usurpation as soon as assassination had put him in possession of power." [Ceylon: a general description of the island, historical, physical, statistical. Containing the most recent information - By Horatio John Suckling, 1876]

Periodization of history is always a bit tricky. It was generally supposed by writers on Ceylon that the natives had no record of events or genuine history, their statements being only legendary tales and romances. This was the opinion of the Portuguese and Dutch. G.C. Mendis was himself so biased by his foreign training and outlook that he saw the 2500 year history of Sri Lanka as an extension of the histories of foreign countries. In his "The Early History of Ceylon, or, the Indian Period of Ceylon History" Mendis divided the island's history into, not periods of Sri Lanka History, but the North Indian Period (earliest times to 1017 AD), South Indian period (1017 AD to 1505 AD), Portuguese period, Dutch Period and British period. K.M. de Silva published (1981) a History of Sri Lanka, the text of which runs to 560 pages. The 20 centuries to the end of the 15th century are dismissed in 92 pages.

Rama's Invasion, as recorded in the "Ramayana," when Rama went in search of his wife Sita, who was stolen by RaVana, the giant king of the island, is stated to have occurred BC 1810, and after a bloody war of twelve years' duration the husband of this eastern Helen succeeded in recovering her from the castle of Lanka, at Sitta-wacca, where she was hid. The reef of rocks which partly connects the island with the continent is still called by the Hindus "Rama's Bridge."

There are several very ancient and extraordinary documents in Ceylon recording the events of Sinhalese history, written with a style on palm leaves which have been religiously preserved in the Wihares and other places by the Buddhist priests for ages. The chief of these venerable documents is the "Mahawanso," or chronicle of Sinhalese kings, written in Pali verse, commencing ostensibly from the year 543 BC, and continued to AD 1758, having been compiled by the orders of successive kings from original documents.

The "Tika," or commentary, comprised the period from the commencement of the annals in 543 BC to AD 310, the most interesting of the whole chronicles, compiled by Mahanamo between the years AD 459 to AD 477, from annals in the vernacular then extant. The term " Mahawanso," or more properly "Mahantaman-wanso," which means literally "genealogy of mighty men," applies, strictly speaking, only to the first part, from 543 BC to AD 310. The "Mahawanso," however, contains numerous and absurd fables; the truth being overlaid with the usual amount of fiction inseparable from all oriental histories: it is also a subject open to doubt if Mahanamo, who compiled the chronicle up to his time, faithfully transcribed the previous documents, recording events some of which may have been eight hundred years older than himself.

Turnour, in the introduction to his "Mahawanso," points out the extraordinary resemblance between the account of the landing of Wijayo in Ceylon and that of Ulysses in the island of Circe, adding that it would be difficult to defend Mahanamo from the imputation of plagiarism, had he lived in a country in which the works of Homer could by any possibility have been accessible to him; the whole story is almost identical. He also remarks, the " Tika" adds nothing to explain the fabulous origin of the Sihala dynasty; probably Wijayo's grandmother had connected herself with some obscure individual named Siho (or lion), and her progeny and followers were banished.

The Mahavamsa (written in the 6th Century AD) tells the story of Sinha-bahu, a North India who, along with a twin sister Sinhasivali, was born of the union between a lion and a maiden. He was not a Buddhist but a Vaisnava, and with his sister as queen, he fathered 32 sons, the eldest of whom was Vijaya. The Mahavamsa explains that “Vijaya was of evil conduct and his followers were even (like himself), and many intolerable deeds of violence were done by them.” Vijaya and 700 of his men were banished and sent away to sea, landing in Sri Lanka at the time, the chronicle claims, of the Buddha’s death. This is the mythological source of the Sinhalese people, those who came from a lion (sinha) and who established Sinhala “the country of the lion.”

The first chapter of the Mahavamsa relates that the Buddha himself did preparatory work during three trips to the island, converting “many koti of living beings” to Buddhism, founding stupas, and otherwise preparing the way for the Dharma, which historically did not come for another 300 years, when King Devanamtissa (247-207 BC) introduced Buddhism to the island.

The campaign of King Dutthagamani (161-137 BCE) led to the unification of the island under this Buddhist king. While the Dipavamsa contains only 13 stanzas about Dutthagamani, more than half the Mahavamsa is devoted to the famous king.

The Mahavansa says the island was a Sinhalese kingdom during the entire period referred to. It was ruled for most of the period on the "one sovereignty" (literally "one umbrella") principle. There was not one local Tamil ruler. Anuradhapura, the seat of government (5th century BC to 11th century AD) was seized just four times in the 16 centuries by invaders from South India who temporarily held north-central and northern parts (the Province of Rajarata) and driven out. The longest occupation was that of the Cholas from 993 to 1070 AD.

Buddhist chroniclers regularly invented scenarios in order to explain the presence of so many South Indians in their midst. The rajavaliya (Lineage of Kings) gives an account of a Sinhalese invasion of the Chola kingdom in South India in the 12th Century. The Buddhist chroniclers were responding to the national shame of one South Indian invasion (10th Century) and another from Kalinga (13th Century.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 05-05-2012 19:19:30 ZULU