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

Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

Continued form last Sunday

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.íWith 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.