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George Turnour: The man who brought world fame to the Mahavamsa

Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa
T
he European maritime powers, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English, who conquered parts of "the Orient", as the Asian countries were commonly identified, were initially not interested in the cultural achievements of the natives who inhabited those areas. For these Westerners, the eastern dominions were primarily places for commercial exploitation and even plunder. As the Europeans gradually started settling down to enjoy the fruits of the empires they had built, some among them, especially those with scholarly interests, became curious about the indigenous cultures they found in these lands.

Among the three European powers who arrived in Sri Lanka, it is the English or rather the British, who evinced the greatest interest in our antiquities and the contribution of some British scholars to the study of our classical heritage has been of immense value and importance.

George Turnour (1799-1843) the famous tranlator of the Mahavamsa is one such pioneer scholar-administrator whose contribution to Oriental scholarship needs special recognition. Turnourís contribution is best summarized by T. W. Rhys Davids, another great British scholar-administrator, who in an address delivered in 1894 at New York, had this to say about his older compatriot and colleague:

"When in the thirties (1830ís) that most gifted and original of Indian archeologists, James Pinsep - clarumet venerable nomen - was wearing himself out in his enthusiastic efforts to decipher the coins and inscriptions of India whilst the very alphabets and dialects were as yet uncertain, he received constant help from George Turnour of the Ceylon Civil service. For, indeed there was a history, indeed several books of history (in Ceylon), whereas in Calcutta the Indian records were devoid of any reliable data to help in the identification of the new names Prinsep thought he could make out. It is not too much to say that without the help of the Ceylon books, the striking identification of the King Piyadassi of the inscriptions as the King Asoka of history, would never have been made. Once made, it rendered subsequent steps comparatively easy, and it gave Prinsep and his co-adjutors just that encouragement and the elements of certainty which were needed to keep their enthusiasm alive."

Prinsep and the Asokan Edicts.

James Prinsep (1799-1840) was Assay Master of the Calcutta Mint and being an intellectual with wider interests, became the Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal devoted to the study of Indian languages and antiquities. As a student of the coins of India, he was primarily concerned with deciphering the letters in the ancient coins in his custody. Also, in his excursions in North India, he and his colleagues like Alexander Cunningham, had come across many an inscription where the letters were clearly inscribed but the Indian scholars whom he and others before him had consulted had been unable to help as they had completely lost knowledge of the alphabet in which these inscriptions were written. It is said that during medieval times Firoz Shah Tugluk who shifted the Asokan pillars from Topra and Meerut to Delhi invited scholars to read them and none was able to do so. Later, attempts by Emperor Akbar to have them read also failed and the Edicts remained as unread inscriptions. What finally helped Prinsep to decipher the ancient Indian inscriptions were the coins which had both the Greek and Indian scripts. Working out the similarities, Prinsep found in 1835 the key to decipher the script known today as Brahmi. This breakthrough enabled him to read those inscriptions and find out what they meant.

By this time, scholars studying Indian antiquities had progressed a great deal in the study of Sanskrit, the great classical language of India, and understanding what the inscriptions had recorded did not pose much of a problem. It was clear to Prinsep that the authority who had got these inscriptions installed was a King (raja) calling himself Devanampiya, literally meaning " the beloved of the gods." But what was baffling Prinsep and his associates of the Bengal RAS was, who was this Devanampiya Raja?

Among Prinsepís soul mates was his compatriot George Turnour, serving the British empire in the island of Ceylon. While working as an administrative officer in "The Saffragam Province " during the period 1825-1827 Turnour, evincing an interest in Pali, the language of Buddhist scriptures, came across a Mahavamsa Tika, a corollary to the Mahavamsa whose value as a historical chronicle he was able to realize immediately. He faced a severe handicap, because the Buddhist monks who were his "tutors", had little or no knowledge of English, whereby they could bring to his notice the nuances of meaning embodied in these classical works. Also, Turnour had no recourse to a Dictionary of the Pali language. Against such heavy odds Turnour peristed in his endeavour and brought out in 1833 (by which time he had been transferred to Kandy) a paper titled "An Epitome of the History of Ceylon " which was published in The Ceylon Almanac of 1833.

From his readings of the Mahavamsa and its commentary, The Mahavamsa Tika, Turnour knew of a king named Davanampiya Tissa. This fact was intimated to Prinsep who, not knowing the details contained in the initially believed that the edicts in North India had been installed by the Sri Lankan king in his overwhelming devotion to the new faith. Not long afterwards Prinsep came across an inscription of a grandson of that Devanampiya Raja and realized that the personage in question was an Indian ruler. Turnor in the meantime having read the Buddhist mission to Lanka, communicated to primes that the Devanampiya Raja of the Indian inscriptions was none other than Dharmasoka, the "patron" of Devanampiya Tissa who had bestowed many gifts, including a second consecration on Mayuryan models and the title Devanampiya on his colleague, the ruler of the small island kingdom called Tambapanni off the southern tip of Jambudvipa.

No Indian classical work among the many which were being avidly studied by European scholars had come to Prinsepís rescue, and it was this unique chronicle the Mahavamsa composed around the 6th Century of the Christian Era by the scholar monks of this small Island, that helped in identifying the man who was ruling the first great empire in the Indian sub-continent. According to professor A. L. Basham (Reader, University of London) Asoka " towers above the other kings of ancient India.... a man of humanity and practical benevolence, a man far ahead of his times." Historians could thus obtain an intimate knowledge of thus ruler who lived over two thousand years ago through the edicts he had installed.

Historical Chronology

Having identified Asoka of the inscriptions, the next step of ascertaining his dates too followed, again thanks to the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa had recorded the date of the consecration of Asoka. It states in verse no. 21 of chapter 5: " After the Nirvana of the conqueror and before his (Asokaís) consecration there were 218 years." Using that as the base Turnour worked out the first historical chronology of Sri Lanka.

As professor Wilhelm Geiger, whose own translation of the Mahavamsa was published in 1912 states, this date " evidently forms the corner-stone of the whole system." We thus can work out the dates of Asokaís rule, as well as the dates of his predecessors, Bindusara and Chandragupta. Geiger has worked out a masterly chronology of events using evidence from the Dipavamsa (the slightly older Sri Lankan chronicle, translated into English by Herman Oldenberg in 1879) along with the dates available in the Mahavamsa as well as the later historical writings of Sri Lanka such as Samanthapasadika, Nikaya Sangrahaya and so on. In that study (published in 1912) Geiger made use of a large number of studies on Indian chronology by a host of scholars, British, German French and other as well as translation of ancient works by travellers such as Fa Hsian and Hiuen - Thsang. Giegerís study of Indian chronology goes back to the time of Bimbisara, the older contemporary of the Buddha. Since 1912, there have been many a study of historical chronology of India as well as Sri Lanka, and it needs mention that the forerunner of all these was Turnourís work of 1937. In fact Ananda Guruge has demonstrated how Geigerís indebtedness to Turnour is much more than what he has acknowledged. (See Gurugeís Mahavamsa - The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1989, pp. 29-30) We should not forget the fact that it was Turnour, who way back in 1833 worked out the first chronology of the long line Sinhala rulers. In his Epitome he set out "the succession and genealogy of one hundred and sixty five kings who filled the throne during 2341 years" from Vijaya in 543 BC to Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe in 1815 (Tennent,p. 270).

Let us return to the impact of Turnourís work in the study of Indian History. The ancient history of India, a dark and mysterious territory, as far as scholars of early 19th Century were concerned, received a powerful beam of light with the publication of Turnourís translation of the Mahavamsa in 1837. Thereafter, using the information on Asoka as a base, scholars could proceed step by step in unravelling the past history of this vast subcontinent.

Life of Turnour

George Turnour, the man who made all this possible was born in British Ceylon in 1799. His father was George Turnour Snr, the fourth son of the Earl of Winterton, who joined the Bengal Native Infantry as an ensign and arrived in Ceylon in 1783 with the 73rd Regiment. With the capture of Jaffna in 1795 he was appointed Fort Adjutant. He married Maria Emilie de Bousset, a French lady, again with aristocratic ancestry, at Pondicherry.

Turnour Snr. being transferred as commandant of Mannar, in 1797 the couple were blessed with a son, George Turnour Jr. on 11 March 1799. Subsequently, George Turnour Snr. joined his father- in-law in India in 1802 to launch a business venture, trading in paddy and tobacco. The circumstances which led to Turnour Snr. leaving the post he was holding in Mannar, are of interest in another way. We learn that Hugh Cleghorn, (who has become famous in Sri Lanka in recent times for providing the desperately needed " historical " justification for Tamil separatism) was Lieutenant Turnourís colleague along with one Andrews in the management of the Mannar Pearl Fishery, a highly valued source of income.

By 1799 reports of "heavy irregularities" prompted governor Fredrick North to institute an inquiry and it was revealed that there had been "gross and incalculable fraud". Andrews left the country and both Lieutenant Turnour and Hugh Cleghorn were dismissed. Lieutenant Turnourís subsequent venture, the trade in paddy and tobacco, was done between Cochin and Jaffna, with a godown in Jaffna Fort. Within five years his business venture had collapsed and Turnour Snr. returned insolvent to Jaffna in 1807. In spite of such failures, lieutenant Turnour was appointed Agent of Revenue of the Wanni and again in January 1813 as Assistant Collector of Jaffna as well as Sitting Magistrate and Fiscal, along with the post of Tobacco Agent. Most probably his aristocratic connections were too strong to be overlooked. Unfortunately however, he did not live long to prove himself in these new responsibilities. He died three months later in April 1813 in his 45th year. The Turnours had six children, two sons, George Jr. and Edward Archer and four daughters, Anne Emily, Frances, Elizabeth and Jane. (Elizabeth died in infancy) Obviously, the Turnours were not a long living family. George Turnour Jr.was only 44 years of age when he died. His younger brother Edward Archer died when he was 30 and the youngest sister Jane died in her 36th year.

Young George was sent to England for his education. Apparently Sir Thomas Maitland who was returning to England in 1811 after six years of service as Governor, became a patron to young George and took him along in the same ship. Having completed his studies, George returned to the island in 1820 and was appointed to the Civil Service as Assistant to the Commissioner of Revenue. One year later he was made Assistant to the Chief Secretaryís office and in 1822 he was appointed the Collector of Kalutara. He was made Govt. Agent of Saffragam in 1825 and held the post till he was transferred to Kandy in 1828, as Revenue Commissioner. With the creation of the post of Govt. Agent of the Central Province in 1833 he was the first appointee to the post and held it with distinction for 8 years. Significantly; the Colebrook commissioners, in 1832 singled him out among the colonyís administrators for commendation on his "talent and industry." In 1841 he returned to Colombo as Asst. Colonial Secretary and was made the Treasurer. Ill health forced his early retirement and return to England the next year. Turnour died at Naples on the 10th of April 1843 aged 44 years.

Sir James Emerson Tennent, writing a few years after the death of George Turnour, " the celebrated Oriental scholar," pays a glowing tribute to this public officer as a man " distinguished equally by his abilities and his modest display of them." Tennent, who had to leave the high post of Colonial Secretary in the aftermath of the 1848 rebellion, would have been intimately aware of the circumstances under which Turnour worked and accomplished the tasks he had set his mind upon. Continues Tennent, " No dictionaries then existed to assist in defining the meaning of Pali terms while no teacher could be found capable of rendering them into English, so that Mr. Turnour was entirely dependent on his knowledge of Singhalese as a means of translating them. To an ordinary mind such obstructions would have proved insurmountable, aggravated as they were by discouragements arising from the assumed barrenness of the field, and the absence of all sympathy with his pursuits, on the part of those around him, who reserved their applause and encouragement till success had rendered him indifferent to either." Tennent adds that " to this indifference of the government officers, Major Forbes, who was then resident at Matelle formed an honourable exception; and his Eleven Years in Ceylon, shows with what ardor and success he shared the tastes and cultivated the studies to which he had been directed by the genius and example of Turnour" (Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical and Topographical in 2 vole., London, 1859)

Turnour " discovered" the Mahavansa, the great chronicle of Lanka during the two years (1825 to 1827) he was stationed in Ratnapura. Working under severe handicaps he was able, firstly, to prepare " An Epitome of the History of Ceylon." This document published in 1833 in The Ceylon Almanac, we learn, was indeed prepared seven years earlier. Major Forbes had in a private letter, which Ternnent saw, pointed out the difficulty of "doing justice to the literary character of Turnour, and the ability, energy and perseverance which he exhibited in his historical investigations." Forbes has stated " the Epitome of the History of Ceylon was from the beginning correct. I saw it seven years before it was published, and it scarcely required an alteration afterwards."

Turnourís Predecessors

It needs mention that Turnourís translation of the Mahavansa was not the first attempt by an European to bring this Pali classic to the knowledge of scholars in Europe. Eugene Bernouf had translated the Mahavansa to French in 1826 but could not publish his work before Turnourís work came out. And there appeared in London in 1833 a work titled " The Mahavansi, The Rajaratnacari and the Raiavali, forming the Sacred and Historical Books of Ceylon: Also, A Collection of Tracts Illustrative of the Doctrine and Literature of Buddhism. This book in three volumes containing translations form Pali and Sinhala originals, accomplished with the help of Sinhala scholars was the work of Edward Upham. When Turnour saw Uphamís translation, he was appalled by the inaccuracies it contained and was determined to do justice to the Sri Lankan chronicles, by presenting what he believed was a more authentic translation. Apart from howlers such as stating in English that Devanapaetis (Pali: Devanampiyatissa = Tissa the Beloved of the Gods) was "Tissa the second," there were careless inclusions of material from later works into the text presented as that of the Mahavamsa. Turnour stated in the Introduction to his translation that his endeavour was to " account for one of the most extra-ordinary delusions perhaps, ever practiced on the literary world," and on the other, to prevent these erroneous representations of the " Sacred and Historical Books of Ceylon to be works of authority." Furthermore, Turnour was to state that he had a stronger reason to publish an authentic translation of the Mahavamsa. That was "to invite the attention of the Oriental scholars to the historical data contained in ancient Pali Buddhistical records, as exhibited in the Mahavamsa, contrasted with the results of their profound researches in the ancient Hindu records."

British scholars had been drawn into studying the ancient writings of India, chiefly those written in Sanskrit since the time of Sir William Jones (1746-94) " One of the most brilliant men of the 18th century" (Basham) who discovered the linguistic affinity of Sanskrit with Greek and Latin. The early researches were mainly literary and linguistic and the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal had been formed on Jonesí initiative in 1784. James Prinsep, functioning as its secretary in the 1830ís, was ably assisted by Alexander Cunningham, a young officer of the Royal Engineers who was later to be called " The father of Indian Archeology." Prinsep and Cunningham who pioneered the research into the material remains of the Indian past found a kindred spirit in the far off island of Ceylon in the form of George Turnour. As recorded by Tennent, Turnourís correspondence with Prinsep " which I had been permitted by his family to inspect, abounds with the evidence of inchoate inquiries in which their congenial spirits had a common interest." Tennent adds poignantly that the furtherance of the scholarly pursuits of these scholars "were abruptly ended by the premature decease of both." Prinsep died in 1840 aged 41 and Turnour was only 44 when he died three years later.

Emperor Dharmasoka

An important point made by Rhys-Davids in the lecture delivered in 1894 which we quoted above was that " without the help of the Ceylon books the striking identification of king Piyadassi of the inscriptions as the King Asoka of history would never have been made." The man who made this possible was Turnour. Interestingly, the mainstream Hindu tradition had relegated almost to oblivion the great monarch Asoka who was to be eulogized by H. G. Wells in 1922 in the following words: " Amidst tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousness and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Asoka shines and shines alone, a star." (A Short History of the World, London, ]922). Turnour, Prinsep and Cunningham share the credit for resurrecting this great monarch and fine human being from a purposely buried past and giving him the recognition due to him in the annals of world history. Cunningham published in 1879 a representative collection of Asokaís edicts whereby modern readers came to know of a man who genuinely repented for the sufferings he had inflicted in his military pursuits, who called his subjects his " children," who was tolerant of other religions, who adopted the principle of non-slaughter and who was available at all times of the day in the performance of royal duty.

As Ananda Guruge has pointed out " the most fertile source of historical information on Asoka are the Pali literature of Sri Lanka." For The Sri Lanakans, Asoka was a benefactor to be always remembered with gratitude, because it was he who bestowed the island people with Buddhism, which became the foundation of the unique culture and civilization which these immigrants from the mainland India developed during the subsequent centuries. Underlining the importance of the Mahavamsa as a crucial document in unravelling the history of ancient India, Guruge draws our attention to the importance of the identification of "Piyadassi" of the rock Edicts and Pillar inscriptions with Asoka, " whose full name was preserved in Sri Lankan records only." As we pointed out earlier, the authenticity of the information provided by the Mahavasa and other Sri Lankan chronicles such as Samantapasadika on Asoka has been proved in late 19th and early 20th centuries by the discovery form the Sanchi and Sonari Stupas of relic caskets enshrining relics of " Sapurisasa Mogaliputasa" (Moggaliputta Thero, the mentor of Asoka) and of the Theros Majjhjima, Kassapagotta and Dundhubhisara (who went in the missions to Himalaya region).

Also, the sculpture depicting the transplanting of a go-sapling, found in a panel of the Torana at the Eastern Gateway of the Sanchi stupa, along with the symbolic representation of peacocks and lions depicting Maurya, Sinhala solidarity, has to be taken as a further corrobaration of the Mahavamsa account of another episode in the introduction of Buddhism, which is the planting of the sacred Bo-Tree in Anuradhapura, again due to the munificence of Asoka (see Ananda Guruge, Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, pl24.)

Sense of History

European scholars who had came across the Puranas and other Indian writings which appeared to be historical records, were fully convinced that the Indians were totally devoid of any historical sense. No doubt that Lord Macaulay in his famous Minute on Education (1835) scoffed at what he found as a " history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long." Turnour, who was aware of these damning indictments of the "histories" found in the Indian tradition, was determined to prevent the Sri Lankan chronicles being relegated to the same category. How and why the sense of history of the Island people, who after all were immigrants from the mainland and had brought with them the basic features of their culture, language, means of livelihood and belief systems, developed in a totally different direction can only be conjectured. Guruge has gone deep into this problem and posed some possibilities in the form of questions: " Did the pride of new nationhood give them their extraordinary historical sense? Did the fact that they constituted an island nation contribute to it ? Did their isolation from their original stocks by an intervening mass of Dravidian and fast Dravidianizing states compel them to cling to the historical evidence of their identity?" But, above all, he suggests that the part played by Buddhism was a crucial factor in this regard. First and foremost, unlike the theistic religions, Buddhism was a religion based on a practical guide to wholesome life discovered through personal effort by a historical person, Gotama the Buddha. There was no dependence on a divine revelation which would have led to the suspension of rationality and recourse to myth-making. In contrast to the theistic religions, Buddhism encouraged an open mind and a rationalist approach. Questions could be raised and one could become a Buddhist only after conviction. The Sangha perpetrated by a system of pupilary succession and as the custodians of the teaching of the master, were encouraged to preserve the collective memory, which included not only records concerning the Sasana but also records about the Sasanaís benefactors. That is where political history as we know it today came to be included in the Buddhist commentaries. The Mahavamsa, and before it, the Dipavamsa, were based on these Buddhist commentaries, whose compilation in Lanka was initiated by Arahant Mahinda himself with the very introduction of Buddhism to the island. The Sinhala people thus acquired a remarkable sense of history which was in complete contrast to that of all their brethren in the Indian sub-continent. The uniqueness of the historiographical writings by the ancient Sinhalese was revealed to the Westerners and to the wider world only with the work of George Turnour.

While writing the present article, I came across a reference to Turnour in the 2003 November 7 issue of the Indian journal Frontline published in Chennai. In that article dealing with the Archeological Survey of Indiaís recent Report on the disputed site of Babri Masjid, Sushil Shrivatsava says: " The process of constructing a history of India started in the early 19th century. The Asiatic Society of Bengal was a pioneer in this venture. Its efforts were determined both by colonial considerations and a serious interest in understanding the antiquity of India. It brought together source material that included local traditions, legends and myths, along with inscriptions and coins. The textual source material had, in the words of Rajendralala Mitra Ďin the course of many centuries, accumulated in the great epic poems, the Puranic encyclopaedias and provincial chronicles, written for the most part in scholastic Sanskrit language by authors for whom history and fiction seemed not to have been antagonistic.í With such limitations, the history of the early period was bound to be focused on the ruling dynasties. Complications arose after 1830 on the issue of dating events related with Vickramaditya. Both George Turnour and James Pinsep had come across new historical discoveries. Turnour reported the Pali Buddhist Annals of Ceylon and it became necessary to introduce a break in the Brahmanical Record - a distinction was made between the Vickramaditya of the Mauryas and Vickramaditya of the Guptas. Cunningham carried forward the tradition introduced by Turnour and was able to demonstrate a strong Buddhist presence in early India."

Here we note the Indian point of view of the contribution made by Turnour. As Rajendralala Mitra points out, the first modern scholars of Indian history in the 19th century had a tremendously difficult task as all the written sources at hand were compiled amalgamating fact and fiction and there was no way of disentangling historical material from the mythical. With Turnourís intervention there was a dramatic breakthrough. When he made available the information provided by the more matter of fact recording in the Mahavamsa, scholars could distinguish between different rulers who often bore the same name and thereafter date them. Turnour also opened up a reality which was purposely covered up by Hindu zealotry. That was the strong Buddhist presence in early historical India, a vital historical factor of which no known Indian chronicle was providing evidence. Decades later Rhys Davids followed suit with his magnum opus, Buddhist India.

Unique Historical Document

We noted above the manner in which Sir James Emerson Tennent, author of the masterly work: Ceylon An Account of the Island, Physical, Historical and Topographical, having worked in Ceylon in the mid 19th century, and who was fully aware of the importance of Turnourís work, has paid him a glowing tribute. The opening sentence of Part III of Tennentís monumental work, which deals with the history of the island, is as follows: "It was long affirmed by Europeans that the Singhalese annals, like those of the Hindus, were devoid of interest or value as historical material, that as religious disquisitions, they were the ravings of fanaticism, and that myths and romances had been reduced to the semblance of national chronicles." Tennent then goes on to record how in "about the year 1826" (when Turnour was making public his "discovery" of the Mahavamsa) that news was " communicated to Europe that whilst the history of India was only to be conjectured from myths and elaborated from dates on copper grants, or fading inscriptions on rocks and columns, Ceylon was in possession of continuous written chronicles, rich in authentic facts and not only assigning a connected history of the island itself, but also yielding valuable materials for elucidating that of India."

Of the chronicles produced by the Sinhalese, Tennent states," the most important by far is the Mahavamsa and its Tikas or Commentaries. It stands at the head of the historical literature of the East, unrivalled by anything extant in Hindustan, the wildness of whose chronology it controls; and unsurpassed, if be equalled by the native annals of China or Kashmir." We need remember in this connection that the chronicle of Kashmir, the Rajatarangini, was compiled only in the 12th century, i.e. six hundred years after the Mahavamsa.

A striking aspect of the personality of Turnour which his contemporaries observed was his modesty. Tennent says that Turnour was " distinguished equally by his abilities and his modest display of them." So zealous and unobtrusive were the pursuits of Turnour that "even his immediate connections and relatives were unaware of the value and extent of his acquirements till apprised of their importance and profundity by the acclamation with which his discoveries and translations from Pali were received by the savants of Europe." (Tennent, p.313).

James Prinsep, who made history deciphering the Brahmi script wrote in a private letter to Turnour in 1836 that " had your Buddhist chronicles been accessible to sir W. Jones and Wilford they would have been greedily seized to correct anomalies at every step." Jones and Wilford were pioneers studying the antiquities of India in the 18th century and they were greatly handicapped by the lack of a historical framework to guide their researches. Turnourís discovery of the Mahavamsa facilitated the subsequent generations of antiquarians to base their studies on firmer foundations. Prinsep noted that the Mahavamsa served to "clear away the chief of the difficulties in Indian genealogies, which seem to have been intentionally falsified by the Brahmans and thrown back into remote antiquity, in order to confound their Buddhist rivals." (Quoted by Tennent, 438)

Tennent notes that George Turnour by his zealous endeavours to unravel the historical material found in the Mahavamsa "effectually demonstrated the misconceptions of those who previously believed the literature of Ceylon to be destitute of historic materials." Turnourís ĎEpitome of the History of Ceylon,í which was published in the Ceylon Almanac of 1833, set out the genealogy of one hundred an sixty five kings who filled the throne of Sri Lanka during 2341 years from the time of Vijaya to the conquest by the British. Tennent says that " In this work after infinite labour, he had succeeded in evidencing the events of each reign, commemorating the founders of the chief cities, and noting the erection of the great temples and Buddhist monuments, and the construction of some of those gigantic reservoirs and works of irrigation, which though in ruins arrest the traveller in astonishment at their stupendous dimension." (Tennent, p.270). Contemporary expatriates with scholarly interests acknowledged the great value of Turnourís findings. Major Forbes included Turnourís chronological listing of Sinhala rulers as an Appendix to his book Eleven years in Ceylon, published in London in 1840.

Nineteenth century European scholars who thus became acquainted with the Mahavamsa, were highly impressed with the fact that the information provided therein was corroborated by accounts found in foreign sources particularly those in Europe. Notes Tennent, " due allowance being made for that exaggeration of style which is apparently inseparable from Oriental recital," the coincidences found in Sanskrit and Latin sources afford "grounds for confidence in the faithfulness of the purely historic portion of the Singhalese chronicles" (p.270). He refers in particular to the Mahavamsa account of Chandragupta, the grandfather of Asoka. This personality found in Sanskrit records had been identified by Sir William Jones to be the same as Sandracottus or Sandracoptus, "to whose court,,.. Megasthenes was accredited as an ambassador from Seleucus Nicator about 323 years before Christ." Again as noted by Tennent, the "Mahavamsa provides a chronologically connected history of Buddhism in India from B.C. 590 to B.C. 307, a period signalized by the Indian expedition of Alexander the Great, and by the Embassy of Megasthenes to Palibotra. These he viewed as events which link the histories of the East and the West, "but which have been omitted or perverted in the scanty and perplexed annals of the Hindus, because they tended to the exaltation of Buddhism, a religion loathed by the Brahmans" (p.271)

National Chronicle

Being thus highly acclaimed by pioneer Orientalists, the Mahavamsa received its due recognition from scholars in Sri Lanka during subsequent decades. Bishop R. S. Copplestone, a British missionary, declared in an address to the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) in 1892:

"It is one of the peculiar distinctions of the Island, that from early times it has possessed historians. The Sinhalese stand alone, or almost alone, among Indian Peoples as having had an interest in history. Their chronicles are the oldest, I believe, and for centuries the only instances of histories in the world. The continent had its great epic poems; but in these, though they had no doubt some foundation in fact, the fiction was the chief part - the facts are not commemorated from the annalistís point of view, but from the poetís. The Sinhalese chronicles are distinctly historical in form, not epical"

Bishop Copplestone a Britisher who was aware of the historiography found in European countries as well as in many countries of the East, found in the Mahavamsa a singular achievement of the Sinhalese people. In his lecture, he further elaborated on the veracity of the historical material provided in the great chronicle.

Another scholar who hailed the Mahavamsa as an authentic historical document was S. J. Gnanasegaram. Writing to the journal "The Tamil" in 1955 he stated:

"Few peoples have had the good fortune to inherit such a comparatively reliable story of their hoary past as the Sinhalese. The people of Ceylon in general and particularly the Sinhalese are rightly proud of the ancient story of their long line of kings... It is the opinion of scholars that as a historical record, the Mahavamsa of Mahanama is superior both in style and in contents to the legendary chronicles - written several hundred years later - of some of the very European race who a few hundred years ago conquered this country and taught us to believe that they were a superior people... The Mahavamsa is a book that should be in the library of every educated Ceylonese..." (see Guruge, Mahavamsa, pp 400-404)

The merits of the Mahavamsa as a historical record and how it stands alone as a testimony to the " sense of history" possessed by the ancient Sinhalese has been proved beyond doubt. In recent times, however, here have been attempts to downplay such facts, particularly in view of the ethnic strife in post-independent Sri Lanka. While no one can deny the need for a rational attitude towards oneís "burden of history," it is also futile to expect a community to forget its past, and in particular, if that past contains features which are part of the great achievements of human civilization.

It should now be clear why George Turnour occupies a special place in Sri Lankan studies. He was the pioneer in the modrn study of Sri Lankan history. As he himself has stated in the Introduction to his Translation of the Mahavamsa in 1837, no Sinhalese scholar, monk or layman, had been aware of the value of the historical chronicles in their possession, until he embarked on his antiquarian studies. " I have never yet met a native", he wrote, "who had critically read through and compared their several historical works, or who had till lately seen a commentary of the Mahavamsa." Most probably, that "late" knowledge of those historical chronicles was a result of Turnourís endeavours and the publicity they received. Even after 170 years of the publication of Turnourís Epitome there is cause to wonder at his wider vision and meticulous scholarship which he gained mostly on his own. For the compilation of the chronology of the Sinhala kings, Tumour had consulted in addition to the Mahavamsa, the Pujavaliya, the Nikaya Sangrahaya, the Rajaratnakaraya, the Rajavaliya and Wilbagedera Mudiyanseís account on the Embassy to Siam. There is little to add to that vital list, even after the lapse of such a long time and the intervening research by so many others. Turnour was aware of the crucial role inscriptions could play in such historical study and he initiated work in that sphere as well. In his Epitome he included as an appendix, translations of four major inscriptions which were known at the time. They were, the Mihintale Tablets, Polonnaruva Tablet, Dambulla Rock and Polonnaruva Rock inscriptions. The translations were far from being perfect and meticulous scholar that he was, he would have pursued the work further. But he did not live to embark such a venture.

A Revolutionary Publication

While publishing the Epitome, Turnour was fully aware of the revolution in thinking he was initiating. In the covering letter to the editor of the Ceylon Almanac he referred to the fact that his "forerunners writing on the islandís history had come to hasty and unjust conclusions about the historical records and the sense of history in the native tradition" He gave some examples of such writings. Robert Percival, writing the book "An Account of the Island of Ceylon, Containing Its History, Geography, Natural History With the Manners and Customs of Its Various Inhabitants," in 1803 had said, "the wild stories current among the natives throw no light whatever on the ancient history of the island. The earliest period which we can look for any authentic information is the arrival of the Portuguese under Almeida in 1505." John Davy who was a doctor in the British army in the island during the period 1816 to 1821 wrote in his book "An Account of the Interior of Ceylon, And Of Its Inhabitants With Travels In That Island" published in 1821, that "the Singhalese posses no accurate record of events; are ignorant of genuine history, and are not sufficiently advanced to relish it." With such damning indictments on "the native" mind and its accomplishments, it needed indeed a fair deal of courage to claim "historicity" for the documents found in a remote "heathen" temple.

The encouragement to the study of Pali rendered by Turnourís work too has to be acknowledged. It is a truism that no serious scholarship on the ancient history of the island is possible without a good knowledge of Pali, in addition to Classical Sinhalese, and an acquaintance with Sanskrit. Turnour said in 1837, "in no part of the world perhaps, are greater facilities for acquiring a knowledge of Pali afforded than in Ceylon. Though the historical data contained in that language have hitherto been underrated, or imperfectly illustrated, the doctrinal and metaphysical works on Buddhism are extensively and critically studied by the native priesthood." The last remark is illustrative of Turnourís respect for the Buddhist and Pali scholarship of the erudite monks he met in Sabaragamuva and Kandy. In fact their impressive erudition was to manifest itself in no uncertain terms during the Adhikamasa and Sima Sankara controversies (during the 1830ís and the 1850ís) which occurred within the order of the monks, and more so during the Buddhist-Christian controversies beginning with the Baddegama Vadaya in 1865.

Soon after the death of Turnour his friends and admirers raised a fund to erect a suitable memorial for him. The tablet at St. Pauls Church in Kandy was thus put up, with the inscription: "He served under the government with distinguished ability for a period of 24 years and enabled by his researches in Oriental literature and his profound acquaintance with the ancient Pali Language to throw important light upon the early history and chronology of the island, the scene of his literary and valuable Public Service." The balance of this fund was utilized for instituting a prize at the Colombo Academy, The premier English educational institution in the island at the time, which was later re-named Royal College. The Turnour Prize was originally offered for excellence in disciplines such as Latin, Greek, English literature and English History, which were the accepted major areas of study at the time. Rules however changed subsequently, and it became a coveted prize offered to the best student. Finally, let us hope that at a time like this when a great deal of interest is shown on the national heritage, our national universities would think of commemorating this modest scholar, who was a pioneer of Sri Lankan Studies.


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